MyMagic+. Love it or hate it, it’s the reality of Walt Disney World vacations. Whether you are making dining reservations at 180 days or FastPass+ selections at 60 days, MyMagic+ is enough to make your average spontaneous vacation-goer break out in hives. Like me, I’m sure you’ve heard — an possibly participate it — talk of the good old days, where paper FASTPASSES were king and you could always find a walk-up reservation. Alas, we live in the now, and right now planning ahead is the name of the game. So, what is an impulsive tourist to do?
I’m going to preface my answer by first calling myself out as the type-A, uber planner that I am. I’m absolutely thrilled to have joined the Touring Plans team, in part because Touring Plans has fed my Walt Disney World planning obsession for years. It’s true, I think MyMagic+ is about as awesome as your average Disney cupcake, but I understand that I might be the minority on this one. (Don’t judge me!) But just because I am a planner, that doesn’t mean my traveling party is, so I’ve managed to develop a formula for leveraging MyMagic+ to its fullest advantage while leaving in room for those fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants types.
At this point I’m sure you’re asking, “What is this magical Disney secret?! Open those gates so I may unlock your secrets and exploit your riches!” (Humor me, people.) Are you ready for the big reveal? My huge secret to Disney happiness? This is it: I PLAN FOR SPONTANEITY. Before you start calling me crazy, follow my train of thought on this one. I know that if I want to eat at the restaurants I want, I have to make the reservations far in advance. I know that if I want to ride the rides I want, I have to book my FastPass+ selections as soon as the window opens. No matter what, these two things hold true. So if I want to have an unscheduled block of time to do whatever I decide in the moment, I have to plan for it.
Easier said than done, right? Not necessarily. I’ve spent the last couple of years improving my approach, and while it may not be perfect, it is pretty serviceable, if I do say so myself. I’ll walk you through my method step-by-step, and perhaps you’ll find some aspects that will work for your traveling party!
1) Get a basic idea of the restaurants where you would like to dine.
Do I really know where I want to eat 180 days out? No, but I can generally come up with a vague idea of the restaurants we’re interested in. I’ll usually start by polling the other members of my traveling party to see if they have any requests. And if that doesn’t work? I start picking places we’ve never visited or places we absolutely adore to pad my restaurant list. My goal with the first step is to come up with about 10-15 places (for a week-long trip) on the potential restaurant list. Don’t focus on where the restaurants are located or which days you want to visit them; this is about creating a serviceable list you can pull from (make sure you mark your must-dos). This can actually be turned into a fun activity that will help build anticipation for your trip! (Stick with me – I promise we’ll get to the spontaneous part.)
2) Check the Touring Plans Crowd Calendar.
The next step is where I start to whittle things down. No matter how many times I visit Disney World, I always let the Crowd Calendar do some of the planning for me. (My Touring Plans subscription is a lynchpin in my planning process.) Start with a basic idea of how many times you want to visit each park. For example, if I’m going for a week and I know that we want to visit the Magic Kingdom at least twice on the trip, I look for the two least crowded days on the Crowd Calendar. Then I check the Epcot days based on how many days we want to visit Epcot. And so on. Sometimes I go in with no preconceptions whatsoever and pick the parks based entirely on the predicted crowd levels. Regardless of how I choose, I need to make a rough list of which parks are my best bet for each day of my trip. (Seriously – the spontaneous part is coming!)
3) Park + Restaurant = Decision
At this point I have a list of restaurants and I have a list of which parks I’m visiting on which days. All I do now is crosscheck, pulling restaurants from the list that coordinate with the park I’ve chosen for the day. Some of the restaurants will be at resorts, so I match those up with parks based on vicinity. (A meal at Beaches & Cream, for example, will be paired up with an Epcot day.) If I have must-do restaurants, I place them first. Then I fill based on what’s left. Sometimes my lists don’t match up very well, and I might have to pick one or two new restaurants to make it work with the parks I’ve chosen. Or I’ll have to move a park day around based on the restaurants on my must-do list. I’ll always have to eliminate restaurants, as the list I made was meant to include more restaurants than we’d actually visit.
Now this is the point where I get strategic with planning for spontaneity. I almost always plan for only one table-service restaurant a day. That is my anchor for the day. If I am eating at Crystal Palace, my anchor is in the Magic Kingdom. That means that a portion of my day will most certainly be in Magic Kingdom. The goal is to place that reservation at a time that keeps my options open.
The easiest way to do this is by making either a breakfast or a dinner reservation. Breakfast means that I’m going to be in Magic Kingdom that morning, but with no other reservations that day, my evening is wide-open. I can park-hop, chill at the resort, shop at Disney Springs, or simply stay in the Magic Kingdom for a marathon day. Dinner is the reverse. I can sleep in and decide what I want to do that morning, with no obligation to be anywhere until my 7:00 PM dinner reservation. Lunch splits the difference, but it does hamper one’s schedule a bit more than breakfast or dinner, so that is something to keep in mind. By anchoring either the beginning or end of your day, you’re making it possible to have huge, unplanned sections of time to follow your whims.
4) Don’t forget those FastPass+ selections!
Hypothetically speaking, you made your restaurant reservations quite a while ago, but your FastPass+ selection window doesn’t open until 30-60 days before your vacation. I always lean on my anchor; I know for certain I will be in the Magic Kingdom in the morning on a specific day because I have a Crystal Palace breakfast reservation. So I will make my FastPass+ selections based on that fact. My goal with this step is to book FastPass+ times that don’t obligate me to stay in the Magic Kingdom for the entire day. I want a wide-open window to do whatever I want, and clustering my FastPass+ selections around my meal reservation is extremely helpful in providing that window.
5) Be spontaneous.
You’ve made your FastPass+ selections, based on your anchor restaurant, chosen in part by the crowd calendar… what do you do now? Relax! You’ve planned a small portion of each day of your trip, and you did it based on places you want to go and things you want to see anyway. Embrace the fact that all of the planning is done. Think about all of the time on your vacation that is wide-open. You clustered your activities together each day, and you can do ANYTHING YOU WANT for the rest of the trip. Why? Because you planned for spontaneity. You built it into the foundation of the trip.
6) Improvise, adapt, and overcome! (I knew I learned something in the Marine Corps!)
There is one thing you can’t forget, and that is that no matter how much or how little you plan, stuff happens and things change and you will inevitably find yourself facing the unexpected at some point during the trip. My mantra is always, “Improvise, adapt, and overcome!” It’s okay to have a beautifully thought out plan, but it is also okay to toss that plan out the window when you need to. MyMagic+ is not a prison sentence, and it is okay to say, “To heck with it! I WANT TO GO TO EPCOT!” (Keep in mind there can be penalties for cancelling restaurant reservations, so you have to decide if it is worth it to you.) FastPass+ selections can be changed as easily as moods, and just because you scored that Anna and Elsa selection at midnight 60 days out, that does not mean you have to use it.
The instant I start treating my Disney vacation like a checklist where I have to mark accomplishments off is the instant I’ve lost some of the magic. And if I decide that I want to buy 5 cupcakes from various locations in the Magic Kingdom and go back to my resort to gorge on them while watching Netflix instead of using my Wishes FastPass+ selection, that is okay! At the end of the day, I go on vacation because I want to be happy. So I plan what I can plan in the least obtrusive way possible, and I leave my options open. If circumstances dictate (like a strong desire to consume massive quantities of cupcakes), I’m willing to adapt. Yes, I schedule spontaneity for my trips to Disney. Scheduling spontaneity means that I’m less likely to go off-book at random times (like when I might get a penalty for cancelling a dinner reservation). But I also embrace the actually spontaneous spontaneity (yes, that’s a thing), by being willing to call an audible when circumstances change.
With that, you have my complete Disney World planning process. It has its flaws (like still being dependent on knowing 6 months in advance that you are taking a trip to Disney World), but I hope that it has provided you with some helpful nuggets that can be applied to your Disney adventures. (And don’t worry; last-minute trips are covered in my advanced course. Stay tuned!) Do you have your own methods for building spontaneity into your trips? Ways to improve upon my approach? Please share in the comments!