OK, I know that here at TouringPlans we are the kings and queens of uber-planning, but I also know that isn’t everyone’s bag. Can you take a great trip to Disney World without a lot of advance prep, making most of your decisions on the spur of the moment? I think so.
I’m the first to admit that I’ve taken Disney vacations that I planned practically down to the minute. But I’ve done it the other way too: arrived with nothing but hotel reservations, tickets, and a plan for spontaneity. Today I’m going to put the numbers to work to show that you can have an awesome time without a plan. (Last updated November 26, 2023.)
What is “a plan”?
If I book tickets to Paris two weeks from now and make a hotel reservation, is that a plan? I don’t want to be accused of bait and switch click-baity trickery, so I’m going to be clear up front. When I say “without a plan”, I don’t mean without any arrangements at all and with zero knowledge. I’m just looking to keep the advance legwork in line with most other vacations that you might take.
Know Before You Go (At Least A Little)
In 2021, I went to Disney World in the summer. I rode the most popular rides, with no wait. I booked hard-to-get table service dining on the same day. The World was my oyster, even though I had planned almost nothing in advance.
I was the beneficiary of dumb luck. The vacation I booked 9 months in advance coincided with the height of Florida’s Delta wave, and the parks were ghost towns because of COVID.
Unless you happen to strike it lucky, choosing not to plan is a trade. You’re getting spontaneity. What you’re giving up is a bit of opportunity. It will take more effort to do some things (but not everything!) than if you had planned in advance, and in some cases you won’t be able to do them at all.
It’s fine if you’re not willing to make that trade, but even if you are a little knowledge will go a long way. A lot of vacation frustration comes from unrealistic expectations. A bit of time learning what’s out of your reach and how to maximize what’s within it will serve you well.
When Should You Visit?
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that part of the reason I was able to do so much on that trip was the lack of crowds. Supply and demand, baby, that’s where it’s at.
Maybe you have schedule constraints (those darn kids!), or the summer heat just isn’t for you. If you can’t go at a time when crowds are at their lowest, don’t fret. But make sure you know about Park Pass reservations if your ticket requires them. Especially at busy times this is planning you can’t escape.
Park Pass Reservations
If you just have a regular old ticket then good news, you won’t need a reservation after January 9, 2024. But for many types of promotional or special offer tickets (Military Salute tickets, for instance), having a ticket is not enough to get into the parks. You also need a Park Pass reservation. If you need a reservation then it’s always a good idea to make them in advance — but often when crowds are low they’re a formality; you can make them on the way to the park.
In a busier time you should definitely be on the ball about reserving in advance. What to know:
- Which days are the best to visit each park; you could do worse than to blindly follow these recommendations.
- A Park Hopper ticket lets you switch to another park beginning at 2 p.m., even if you weren’t able to get a reservation to start your day there. (After January 9, 2024 you won’t need to wait until 2 p.m.)
- EPCOT has the most capacity and is always the last one available if some parks start to run out.
How Long Should You Go For?
This is going to rely on your vacation vision, so I’m not going to give a number. But I’d like to highlight that building in some time to enjoy everything that’s outside of the parks can be a winning move.
Some examples are below, but depending on what you have in your mind’s eye, these or other approaches might add cost. It’s up to you: pay more, make trade-offs elsewhere to maintain your budget, or decide to forego strategies that increase the price.
Weekend days are the busiest, and you’ll get less done in the parks on these days. If your trip isn’t long enough to do most of your park activities on weekdays, you might think about adding a couple of extra days.
What can you do with that weekend time?
- Relax at your resort. If you want to plus it up, plan a split stay and switch to a Deluxe for Saturday night. Disney will move your stuff, and you can enjoy your upgraded resort amenities on both Saturday and Sunday.
- Visit the Water Parks. A Water Parks & Sports ticket upgrade is $70 – that’s the same as the price of a single water park ticket, but it gives you much more. If you’ve already chosen Park Hoppers, then this upgrade is only $20 more.
More ticket days
Not having to pay admission on days you’ve set aside for other activities might be a good choice. But lines at the parks tend to be lower at the beginning and end of the day, so breaking up your park time might actually be better. Of course, it costs more – but take a look at the chart below.
See how that curve flattens out after 4 days? After 5 days, the cost for each extra day averages only about $20. For most dates you can go from a 4-day ticket all the way to 10 days for less than 30% of the 4-day price.
Where Should You Stay?
Most of your decision can boil down to the same familiar things that you research on Yelp for other destinations. One decision that can have a big impact is whether you stay on or off-site, but there are pros and cons either way.
A key thing to know is that Disney Resort guests (including many hotels in Disney Springs) are allowed to enter the parks half an hour early. This is a good way to beat the lines on one or two popular rides. Guests staying at Deluxe resorts have access to Extended Evening Hours on select days, which is also a great way to ride without lines.
In general, your lodging dollar will go farther off-site, especially if extra space or access to a kitchen is important to you. But on-site stays can make it easier to get around, and that might matter more if your group won’t always travel together.
Where Can You Eat?
This one is a biggie. For Quick Service or your resort Food Court, of course no reservations are needed. But if you want Table Service, then everyone knows how you need to be on top of those reservations at 60 days out or you won’t be able to eat anywhere good, right? Wrong!
I spent 6 months in 2021 collecting data on reservation availability under a week out. Here’s what I found: except at the very busiest times, any search finds a table at over 50% of restaurants. And they’re not the same ones every time, either; all told I usually found spots at over 70-80% of restaurants within the week.
Sure, some are turkeys like Planet Hollywood. But there are plenty like Wine Bar George (ranked #6 based on reader surveys, with 95% thumbs up), Grand Floridian Cafe (#28, 90%), and Garden Grill in EPCOT (#18, 91%) that are often available on a couple of days’ notice. My personal favorite that showed up in almost every search? Jaleo (#10, 95%) — Chef Jose Andres not only makes fantastic tapas, but his humanitarian work makes him a national treasure in my eyes.
If your heart is set on the latest hot ticket like Space 220, or a perennial favorite like Cinderella’s Royal Table then yes, you need to reserve well in advance. (Our reservation finder can help with that). But if you just want a great meal, you’ll have plenty of options. And of course, don’t forget that there are restaurants in Orlando outside of Disney World.
What to know about last-minute availability:
- Disney Springs restaurants and those of nearby resorts are often available on Open Table – check there for specific restaurants if you don’t find anything through Disney’s search.
- Availability tends to be higher at the resorts and Disney Springs, so factor the locations into your expectations.
- You know that thing that everyone always says about checking the day before because people cancel? It’s true, and I’ve got the data to prove it!
What Can You Do?
I’m going to start by telling you what you can’t do. Unless you happen to be blessed with luck, you can’t go to Disney World and ride every headliner and super-headliner without waiting in some hefty lines unless you do some major planning. That’s just reality, it’s how it is.
Is that it, it’s hopeless? Not at all. I took our survey data from 2019 through the present and grouped attractions by rating. The takeaway is: Disney doesn’t build attractions that people don’t enjoy.
In every park, over 80% of the attractions receive ratings of 3.5 or higher. And in every park, even on days with crowd level 7 or 8 when the wait for super-headliners can be almost 2 hours, many of those attractions have average waits of 20-40 minutes or less. These attractions, and those that are meant to be taken at your own pace, might not be headliners. That does not mean they aren’t worth your time.
Will your vacation be ruined if you don’t ride Seven Dwarfs Mine Train? Fine! Wait in line for it, or figure out how to get Lightning Lane access. Pick a few super-popular rides that are important to you, and make them happen. Prioritize them for any strategies you might be using around being in the parks early or late when lines are shorter.
For the rest, maybe you have ways to make waiting in line more enjoyable or entertain your children in line and long lines aren’t a big deal. Or, if that’s not you, let go of rides with lines outside your comfort zone, in exchange for something more accessible. You will still be at Disney World, you will still be spending time with your family, you will still be doing things that are enjoyable and make you happy. These are the things that are important — what you did, and not what you didn’t do.
Yes, it really is about attitude. Disney World is huge; even with a ton of planning you won’t be able to do everything. Learn a little in advance, have realistic expectations about what’s achievable, and look for what’s accessible instead of what everyone else is trying to do. Be willing to measure your vacation by how much fun you had, not by what you missed.
Here’s a cheat sheet:
Before you arrive
- If you can, go at a time when crowds are lower. No matter what, make sure you know about Park Pass Reservations.
- Think about including time to relax outside the parks, even if it means spending a little extra dough.
- Choose your lodging to complement the style of trip you plan to take; on-site to leverage the perks or off-site to get more for your dollar.
If you’d like some help making the arrangements, find a travel agent who is an authorized Disney Vacation Planner. They’ll have the Disney-specific knowledge to help you make the right decisions for your trip.
On your vacation
- Have confidence that many great Disney World restaurants have last-minute availability.
- In the parks, don’t bypass the many attractions with lower waits to spend all your time in line for headliners.
Okay, let’s review: that is <checks list> … expectations, timing, how long, hotel, dining, activities, attitude … anything else? Oh yeah, have a great trip!
Originally published April 11, 2022.
What are your favorite tips for skipping the planning at Disney World? Let us know in the comments!