Planning for Disney World – without fail

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I may have a problem.

On our first trip as a family to Disney World in 2009, I bought a stack of books. I won’t even mention the amount I spent, but it was exorbitant. And crazy. And when I flipped through all of them, I just hungered for more information. So I flipped through websites, joined Disney posting boards, and generally dug through nearly every possible nugget I could find. I joined the touringplans.com site, and planned multitudes of options based on our plan. I may have also planned a back-up plan. Or five. And still, I felt ill-prepared.

A small assortment from my Disney World library
A small assortment from my Disney World library. Don’t worry. I have the 2013 version as an e-book.

I probably have a problem.

When I got to the end of it, I realized a few things. Frankly, planning can’t plan for every single unforeseen circumstance. But it did really help to negotiate my trip, and get real information from every place I could. Planning for Disney World can be overwhelming, but calming down, and making quick choices can make for a better vacation for everyone. While sorting through all of it caused me headaches – certainly you can learn from my advice.

First – visit the library. Yes, the library. It’s free! Grab as many of the outdated books you can, and flip through them. Certainly don’t dig through all of them with any vigor – but at least to get an idea of the parks, and a generalized set of information. Background helps.

Second – not everything on the internet is real. Do I have a few bookmarked sites, and people I follow on twitter? Most certainly. I love reading through message boards. I waste WAY too much time sifting through menus for my own good. I plan snack credits based on reviews from people I have never met. I read trip advisor, and follow multiple levels of reviews. But in the background of all of this mess, I know that all of this is background and assistance. Certainly nothing set iron-clad. I treat this as entertaining fun – nothing more. Especially including every line you read from me. If you agree? Great. If you don’t, let me know. I love arguing.

Third – even when you find a set of information to follow, it must be treated as a guide – and not  a master plan. I’ve learned to turn my head at many people who go without researching, or without a specific guideline for each day. for myself, I need constant reminder that even if my tour gets changed, it won’t wreck the day. Last year at Epcot, we turned over our day to our children, chasing characters that never arrived ( a piece of advice – lightning and rain cancels many outside character appearances). All of us were miserable. The kids, because the rains arrived, and characters did not. Us, because the remains of our day were lost to waiting in lines. At the end of the day, we all threw up our hands, danced in ponchos, and followed an Agent P mission in England’s pouring rain. Our smiles and laughter returned. Your deadlines and times aren’t a checklist. They are simply a best case scenario. When things go wrong – and they will – have a back-up plan. But even if that ends up in the garbage – you’re still on vacation.

Fourth – be prepared to read a lot of the same information. Over and over again. For our Christmas trip this year, I have already read one book, and have three more on pre-order. Even working for the Unofficial Guides website, I’m constantly looking for new takes on the same visit. It certainly sounds insane – but the immersion of information helps to solidify most of the decisions that we make as a family. The dissenting information, too, can really shed light on the places to really focus. When two sides disagree on the same sets of information – I know that’s a place to really dig. Unfortunately, it isn’t too often.

Next, admit you have a problem.

I have a problem.

Fifth – focus and consolidate. My first visit, I purchased a pile of resources. I joined websites. I even had four different touring plans printed and ready for one half-day visit to a park. Too much. Instead of destroying your sanity, pick and choose resources. While I still over-investigate, I now rely on a few places. I still look around often. It still rings to me that when my wife and I research while working in parallel – she on the computer, and me on the Ipad, she has her favorite website, and I have mine. But I return to the basic sets of information. While I still build personalized touring plans for each day, I still look around at other resources, too.

Finally – reflect. Not just after the vacation, but during, too. The best thing my wife and I did as a couple (that we never expected us to do) was record and evaluate. At the end of each day in the park, we tucked the kids into bed, and sat down, pen in hand. We wrote down the items that really worked, and honesty reflected on our day’s failures, as well. It gave the kids an opportunity to fall asleep, but more importantly, we recorded our visit while it was fresh in our minds. Then, when planning our next vacation, we returned first to our own reflections, and guided our next visits with that in mind.

Keeping a vacation planned and flexible has helped us immensely. While I examine every day- and when I’m done editing this, I will return to my personalized plan – I also remember to keep an idea on each moment. Of course, now that my 2015 Unofficial Guide has arrived, I will re-visit my spreadsheet yet again. Even though I won’t ever completely overcome my research, planning each vacation has helped me to be more spontaneous on each visit. That has been invaluable.

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Kevin Bastos

Kevin has taught high school since 1998, and loved Disney World since a 2009 visit with his wife and three daughters. He loves the planning stages of the vacation, and tends to focus on details (while his wife manages the big picture). He also collects comic books, and sometimes maintains a blog reading them. You can follow my twitter @kevin_m_bastos.

29 thoughts on “Planning for Disney World – without fail

  • August 22, 2014 at 1:13 pm
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    Having one day – or at least half of one – where you have nothing planned is awesome. It’s so nice to just take your time walking around the parks and deciding what to do on the fly. Spending time just to relax and take in the resort is a great idea too. I was so mad at myself on our last day at the Polynesian a few years ago. While my husband was packing the car so we could check out, I sat out on the balcony of our room. At that moment I wished I had put down the plans earlier in the week and just relaxed. A mid-vacation break or a cup of coffee in the morning out on that balcony would have been a great memory. You’ll never be able to do everything in the parks on one visit, so pick your favorites and take time to relax. It is supposed to be a vacation after all! 🙂

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    • August 22, 2014 at 5:39 pm
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      Planning a break is a fantastic idea. I don’t usually insert one – I generally plan every single minute – but then cut away through the day. Our next trip is a Christmas one – and we are officially inserting some wandering around time to see resort decorations, and a hotel we stayed at without the kids. Relaxation may be one of the best parts of the vacation.

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  • August 22, 2014 at 1:15 pm
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    Ha! You do have a problem, but isn’t a fun one?

    We go every three years and spend the 9 months ahead of time planning everything. Even our first time in 2005, we were fortunate enough to over-plan and it made all the difference.

    I look back at the plans we made the first time and chuckle at the detail and, of course, we didn’t follow the timing we laid out. But, boy did it make a huge difference to know where we were going next and when we might need to cut something out of our schedule. You are absolutely correct in saying that careful planning helps you be more spontaneous.

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    • August 22, 2014 at 5:40 pm
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      Years ago, we planned a spontaneous trip. Yes, I know! It made us into planners for spontaneity!

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  • August 22, 2014 at 1:21 pm
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    I love reading posts like this, because then I know I am not alone! 🙂

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    • August 22, 2014 at 5:41 pm
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      Welcome to the club. We’re crazy. But we also know how to have fun!

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  • August 22, 2014 at 1:23 pm
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    Love the idea of the daily retrospective! It is so Agile of you! For any of you who aren’t software nerds, the Agile Manifesto specifies that software is best developed by favoring:

    Individuals and interactions over processes and tools,
    Working software over comprehensive documentation,
    Customer collaboration over contract negotiation,
    Responding to change over following a plan.

    Rock on!

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    • August 22, 2014 at 5:43 pm
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      Love it. Not a software nerd – just the regular kind! It does sound like my kind of crazy group.

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  • August 22, 2014 at 2:37 pm
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    To me, planning is part of trip. Another way to take my mind away to Disney long before we get there. I’m currently planning our first trip to Disneyland, and I’m practically suffering from planning withdrawals! Not knowing the park hours until a few weeks before, or which attractions with be closed for refurbishment, easy to get ADRs, I don’t know what to do with my self. 🙂

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    • August 22, 2014 at 5:44 pm
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      For us, it helps fill the gap from 180 days to the 60 day one!

      I will call you in four years when we are planning our Disneyland trip. FYI – We are already planning the planning.

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      • August 22, 2014 at 6:45 pm
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        They just posted the park hours for our dates (only 30 days out!) and it was exciting because they weren’t what I thought so I had more packing to do. That’s the point I admit I have a problem, right?

        Another fun thing is when friend or family are going and I get to help them with planning as the resident WDW expert of the group. Planning based on their interests/priorites instead of mine helps give me a new perspective on things and gives me ideas.

      • August 23, 2014 at 8:10 am
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        A problem, but a fun one!

  • August 22, 2014 at 4:21 pm
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    I am a planner by nature and Disney really feeds my addiction. My friends already referred to this as APD (Ali Planning Disorder)before I discovered Disney. I already have my spreadsheet going for 2016. That being said, when I was there in May I kept repeating my mantra “You have to make time for spontaneous magic to happen.” I said to myself every time we were derailed from the plan because of an unexpected character, sprinkler or bird. Every time my kids clearly wanted to do something fun that wasn’t on the plan. I didn’t let it get out too out of hand and I ended up having to cut some things because of it, but those are really great memories. I also learned that I need to add a 15 minute break every 2 hours to all of my touring plans. People need to use the potty, grab a snack or check out something unexpected at least that often.

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    • August 22, 2014 at 5:46 pm
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      I tend to over-indulge my interest in many things. My past (and storage areas) are strewn with over-insanity on comic books, Star Wars, and now Disney. Disney seems to have struck the strongest chord – but the Universal and Harry Potter planning are a close second!

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  • August 22, 2014 at 4:52 pm
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    I love planning our Disney vacation. I love trying to figure out every tiny detail of every day. But, once we arrive we use our plan as a guide and don’t get too tied up in keeping things to the minute. It took me a long to figure out why I loved planning so much but then didn’t care much about it when we arrive. I finally realized that going through the websites, and books, and spreadsheets allows my vacation to last 6 months instead of just the one magical week that we’re all there as a family. Thanks so much for this site–it is by far the best one on the web.

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    • August 22, 2014 at 5:47 pm
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      Love the comment. Focuses my interests beautifully. The credit for the site doesn’t at all go to me. Too many fantastic people have been a part of assembling this together for years way before me. I will pass along compliments to them.

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  • August 22, 2014 at 5:01 pm
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    My name is Nancy, and I have a planning problem.

    OK, not really, because over 6 years or so of more-than-annual WDW trips (plus one to Disneyland), I’ve figured out most of the great tips in Kevin’s post. My Disney travel buddy and I have a shared spreadsheet in Dropbox (we don’t live in the same city) with a grid for the trip with flight info, 2 sets of crowd estimates, all ADRs, special events, FP+ times, and other notes, a separate sheet for the accounting which we’ll keep filling in during the actual trip, and a sheet of other possible activities mostly gleaned from blog posts.

    However, even as we fill out the spreadsheet, we remind ourselves that almost everything is flexible: we can punt the FP+ and wander off pin trading instead, settle down in a lounge for a drink and a rest for weary feet, decide the resort pool sounds better than watching the parade, or that we want to go in different directions and meet up later. I think I’ll suggest adopting the evening evaluation to see what we might learn, but as 2 adults traveling sans kids, we’ve pretty much found a balance between planning and spontaneity that suits us.

    On the other end of the spectrum was the relative who picked up his daughter and just went to WDW one weekend, no planning at all. He was very upset to find that they couldn’t get into most restaurants and had to face long lines at most attractions. Even if you are planning-averse, don’t be that guy! Just a little bit of advance work would have made his trip much better.

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    • August 22, 2014 at 5:55 pm
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      I echo your sentiments – and particularly the last paragraph. We love planning so we can see it all. Certainly, we’ve been weary on our feet a few times, waists at the gate an hour or more before opening – but then we can saunter to and from the places we want to see. From what I’ve seen, some people LOVE to plan this – and some don’t. I used to try to convince people – but it seems to be one of those things with a foregone conclusion. Now, I just try to help when asked.

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  • August 22, 2014 at 7:13 pm
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    Great article! I can relate to all of the comments too. Part of our planning is to prioritize our “must do” activities. I indicate who’s preference each attraction/show is so that when we’re in the park we can skip certain attractions to do something spontaneously while ensuring that an important activity isn’t accidentally eliminated. We always take a few minutes at the end of each day to say what we liked best, was the most disappointed in, and what we would do differently about the day’s plans. I always include our daughter in the discussion because kids’ viewpoints on what they liked best is always interesting (and sometimes unexpected).

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    • August 23, 2014 at 8:13 am
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      Humble thanks. I try to make certain that every person has at least one ‘must do’ attraction for each day. The review of the day is great. We try on the bus back to the hotel – or the bus the next morning. Kids’ planning needs to be a priority, as well. While their interests may seem strange – they are important. Certainly keep their plans in the agenda, but don’t do them first. Keep them as a carrot at the end of the day. We’ve spent a bad day or two chasing only child priorities, and it never went as well as it did in their minds. In addition, my wife and I have never rolled around on the ground crying over never getting to do anything!

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  • August 22, 2014 at 7:20 pm
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    I took over the planning from someone who had planned 21 years of disney trips( no pressure!) my boyfriend’s mom handed over the task. Our last trip ( jan 2014) we decided at the last minute so i only had a month to plan but got a couple books and planned the best i could. the three of us had a blast! We jumped on free dining for this fall and i have / had a solid 6 months to plan! I love to plan, so i got a binder and started to research as much as i could, of course on top of what i already had read in the 10 disney travel books i had. The day we booked the trip i was already booking ADR and asking my boyfriend where he wanted to eat 6 months from now, of course he doesn’t like to plan anything that far in advance so i have tons of pressure to plan the perfect trip for 5 other people! I send out emails asking what people think about different things so we don’t just show up and someone doesn’t want to do anything. I can defiantly be stressful but most of all its really fun buying disney books and planning a trip to see the mouse! And i live by the saying, you will not be able to see and do everything so take your time and there is always next time !!

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    • August 23, 2014 at 8:15 am
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      Don’t try to do everything. You won’t see anything at all. Think of Chevy Chase in Vacation at the Grand Canyon. See the things that you want, too. Be selfish.

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  • August 22, 2014 at 7:31 pm
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    Great article, Kevin! I, too, love to plan and plan for Disney. For me, part of the fun is talking about the planning (and Disney in general) with others! We have a big trip planned for next summer: a 5 night Disney cruise ( first cruise ever!) then 10 days at the parks. It is my ultimate Disney vacation. The cruise is a whole different beast, though. Eve though one might think that there is not much to plan with a cruise, I am finding out that is simply not true! It has been eye opening and a learning experience, but also a lot of fun discovering another aspect of Disney!

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    • August 23, 2014 at 8:09 am
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      A Disney Cruise is not yet on our planning radar – but will be. Friends of ours are attending their second this year, and I am certain that we will sit and plan with them. Enjoy your trip! Sounds like fun!

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  • August 22, 2014 at 9:21 pm
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    I have a 9-day trip planned for early Feb. I am a compulsive planner as well. It will have been 6 years since my last visit when we only had four days with toddlers. Despite my inclination to plan, we chose the length of this trip so we would have time to explore attractions I typically don’t make time for and be more spontaneous. Is it weird that even with nine days in the parks I feel anxiety about not planning much? My wife and daughter are late sleepers so it’s going to drive me crazy to not get to the parks until it’s already crowded. With nine days do I need to just chill?

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    • August 23, 2014 at 8:07 am
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      Don’t just chill. Take it from me. With nine days, I would plan some ‘chill’ time, but when we went our first time, we planned eight days. The only day that was ‘up in the air’ was the last one. But I had plans for each park on that day. I prefer my ‘stress’ when I am at home, and can move through it slowly. If I stressed in the parks, then I get more stressed because I’m losing park time. I would make time for the outside attractions, and some of them may turn out to be favorites. Our family loves a few ‘no stress’ attractions and less popular ones at Animal Kingdom, for example. And I find Kali River Rapids to be a tremendous bore. Nearly a waste of a fast pass! Plan. But plan to be spontaneous.

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  • August 30, 2014 at 5:38 pm
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    Reply
  • September 1, 2014 at 2:55 am
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    Love this post! 26 days until our trip and it is my first since the 90’s and my children’s first ever. Read the 2013 Unofficial Guide cover to cover, subscribed here, then planned away. Even though I was “done” planning, I got so excited when the 2015 Unofficial Guide came out that I bought it too! (She says at 2 in the morning.) Who needs sleep – I’ve got Disney adrenaline. ha ha

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