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Off to Neverland! The best ways to plan, prepare, and ultimately enjoy your vacation.
“We’re going to Disney World!“
Some of the most magical words ever uttered, and one of my favorite phrases to say.
However, deciding that you’re headed to the most magical place on Earth is the easy part.
There’s so much excitement and anticipation that goes along with the decision to take a Disney vacation, you might forget about all the other aspects of getting ready for departure day. However, once the initial yay! wears off, it’s time to start the prep process.
In the decades since the Magic Kingdom opened, a lot has changed and is constantly continuing to change. To get the most out of your vacation, you need to do the legwork ahead of time so that you can relax once you get there.
So yes, you absolutely have to plan ahead when you’re headed to Disney World, but we’ve got you covered!
Not only do we have the best ways to prepare for your Disney trip, no matter when you go, we also have plenty of ways to save you money, insuring that you get the best bang for your buck without breaking the bank.
From the day you decide to go to the night before you leave, we have all the tips you need to make sure you have the best Disney vacation possible!
Before you really get going with planning your Disney vacation, there a few steps you want to take. My first few tips help you with this early stage of prepping, which will in turn help make the rest of the process go much more smoothly.
#1 – Research
Wait, what? I have to do research before I go on vacation?
As Walt Disney World offers a multitude of experiences, you need to know what’s out there before your vacation begins to take shape.
Between special ticketed events like Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween party, opening of new lands like Galaxy’s Edge, and seasonal festivals at Epcot, there is a lot for you to decide.
Not to mention the daily events and experiences that you can have at the parks themselves, or the plethora of fantastic restaurants. With all of that in mind, you need to make sure you are building the best vacation for you and your traveling companions.
#2 – Consider the Possibilities
You want to take stock of several factors before you go on your trip:
- Who is going?
- What time of year do I want to go?
- What do I want to do while I am there?
- What do I want to do about food?
- Where do I want to stay?
- What is my budget?
While there are still other items to consider, these form the basic list. Once you have figured out these pieces, it becomes easier to do the research.
# 3 – Establish a Budget
That last piece, setting a budget, is extremely important. It is easy to get into the spare no expense mindset, but when all is said and done that thought process could have you spending $10,000 on a week vacation. If that sounds like a bit much, there are a lot of different ways to pull that budget under control.
Throughout this post, we will point out ways that you can cut costs and still have a fantastic time.
#4 – Get the App!
The My Disney Experience App is an essential part of any Disney vacation for several reasons. It is your one-stop shop for all your plans, including your resort reservation, park tickets, and dining reservations. Beyond that, you can use the app to look at your photos, find particular shopping items, and even check on your virtual queues!
One of the best features is Mobile Order, which allows you to grab and go from participating counter service restaurants, saving you time in lines. Let’s face it, I know you don’t want to stand in another line.
#5 – Know the Dates
This tip doesn’t just apply to the dates of your trip, but also to several important dates leading up to your vacation.
Anywhere between six months and the day before your trip, Disney has different times when you can reserve particular experiences, like dining, excursions, extra-cost activities, and FastPasses.
Be sure to check their website for the particular date ranges, as this has been subject to change.
#6 – Prioritize your Activities
With so much to do at Walt Disney World, you might be tempted to try to do it all.
Don’t. You can’t.
Now that you’ve accepted that hard truth, it’s time to think about what you do want to do. Big Star Wars fans? Galaxy’s Edge is the place for you. Young kids? You’re definitely going to the Magic Kingdom. Night owls? You’re going to love the night life over at the BoardWalk!
Basically, it boils down to doing the research, figuring out what sounds like the most fun to you, and then making sure that happens.
Know what you absolutely Must Do, and what other activities and events it won’t break your heart to miss. From here, many of your other decisions will fall into place.
#7 – Choosing a Resort
There are a few factors you might want to consider when choosing a resort.
However, it all comes back to your priorities. It may seem like a dream to stay at one of the resorts on the monorail loop, but if you’re spending most of your time at Hollywood Studios, then shelling out the big bucks for a Grand Floridian reservation is frankly a waste.
The BoardWalk Resort, Yacht and Beach Club, or the Swan and Dolphin all would be within walking distance and just an amazing of an experience.
If you need more space, consider a resort that offers larger villa accommodations or rooms with connecting options.
In the end, it all comes back to our first two tips – know your group, and do the research!
Making Your Plans
Once you’ve booked your resort, you’ve made the first major decision! From here, you can start nailing down the details and really begin building your vacation.
#8 – Saving Up
What’s great about going to Disney World is that you pay for the trip in stages, meaning that you can continue saving for your stay even when you’ve booked parts of it.
I highly recommend that you do save, because costs for a Disney vacation can pop up out of nowhere.
I have excellent tips for saving money and cutting our costs coming up!
#9 – Plan Your Week
You don’t need to have every second of your Disney trip planned (although no judgement if you do!), but you certainly want a general idea of what you’re going to do each day.
Particularly what parks will you visit when, where are you having your meals, and when will you have some down time.
All of this will help you with your advanced bookings, while still leaving room for flexibility.
#10 – Plan for Down Days
While I’m on the subject, you want to build in some of those down days.
It is a misconception that you have to go to a park every day of your trip or be constantly doing something.
That mindset is a surefire way to wear yourself, and everyone else with you, out.
To prevent “vacation burnout,” make sure you build in some down days where you hang out at your resort or wander around Disney Springs. You’ll get a little extra sleep, be more relaxed, and ready to hit the parks again the next day.
#11 – Book in Advance
Dying to eat at Chef Mickey’s? Are you looking forward to a spa day at Saratoga Springs?
Are you planning to play golf at one of Disney’s outstanding courses?
Make sure you book all these experiences in advance. There are definitely a few “walk-up” activity options, but if there is something on your “Must Do” list, booking in advance will insure you get to do it.
Most activities have flexible cancellation policies to roughly 24 hours in advance, so you’re always free to change your plans!
# 12 – Disney’s Magical Express
If you are flying into Orlando International Airport and staying on Disney property, you want to use Disney’s Magical Express.
Without a doubt, this free service is the easiest way to get you to your resort without any extra hassle or concern.
When you get off your airplane, head to the first floor of Terminal B (unless you have checked luggage, then get that first), and Magical Express will be to your right. Make sure you have your MagicBand or confirmation letter handy to help you check in, and you’ll be on your way!
I absolutely love this service, as it alleviates the stress of traveling to and from the airport and really makes me feel like my vacation has started.
You do need to book Magical Express in advance, but again, there’s no extra cost!
# 13 – Do You Know Where You’re Going?
On the other hand, if you’re driving, you really want to make sure you know where you’re going.
I know, I know, you have the GPS, but sometimes on Disney property the GPS can let you down.
Checking the map ahead of time will take away the stress of travel, especially if you’ve never been to Walt Disney World before. Add a rental car to the mix, along with the insanity that is the Disney road system, you’ll be glad you took advantage of this tip!
#14 – Choose your MagicBand
Once you’ve booked your trip, you can choose and customize your MagicBand!
While printed MagicBands do require an extra cost, they do vary, so you can make your choice based on both design and budget.
Not only are these designs just plain fun, but they do change seasonal and new prints premiere all the time. Personalizing your MagicBand makes it your first souvenir!
#15 – Be That Family
You’ve seen them – all wearing the same t-shirt, proclaiming that it’s Nana and Pop’s 50th wedding anniversary, crowding together to take the shot in front of the castle.
Yes, it’s cheesy, but you’ll be glad you did it.
You won’t believe how great those pictures look when you have the matching or coordinating outfits, and if it is a special trip, you’ll be even happier with the results.
If you’re crafty, you can always use a Cricut pattern to create your own designs!
#16 – Bring Straws
If you or your kids have to have a straw in your drink, you might want to consider bringing your own.
As part of their going green initiative, Disney decided to get rid of all plastic straws throughout all of their parks and Disney Springs.
You can still get a paper straw, but these don’t always hold up. Bringing your own reusable straws is a great fix for this issue!
#17 – Stay on top of the News
Disney World is almost like a living organism – always changing, adapting with the times, adding new attractions and events, and improving on old ones.
With all of that in mind, you want to keep up with the Disney news, especially if it might potentially impact your trip.
There are so many amazing blogs, YouTubers, and other resources out there to help you stay on top of the flood of information. My favorites are Disney Food Blog, Prince Charming Dev, and Disney Tourist Blog. Of course, we also have all the latest and greatest information for you here at Picture the Magic!
Ready to Go!
Yes! It’s the week of the vacation! Time to get excited…and do a couple of last minute preparations.
#18 – Make a Packing List
You will be so happy that you followed this tip!
Even though I’ve been many times (like, a truly embarrassing number of times), I still make a list to be sure I don’t forget anything.
From the essentials (like medication, sunscreen, and underwear) to your favorite swimsuit, by writing it down you’ll be sure that all those items make it into the suitcase.
You want to know when I’ve forgotten something? When I didn’t make a list.
#19 – Check the Weather
Florida might be the land of sunshine, but it isn’t always that way in reality. The week before your trip, while you’re making your list, be sure to check the weather. I’ve been on trips where only one day was sunny, when the temperature changed by thirty degrees once the sun went down, and when I needed my winter coat. Yup. Winter Coat. And gloves.
Especially if you’re planning to go in the fall or winter, the weather may not be what you would typically expect. Make sure you are prepared!
#20 – Plan for Rain
No matter what time of year you go, you can pretty much guarantee it will rain at least once while you’re in Disney World.
Be sure to pack accordingly, whether that means ponchos, extra clothes, rain gear, umbrellas – whatever you need to stay high and dry!
#21 – Have Kids? Use Ziploc.
Especially with younger kiddos, it can be hard to get them to keep track of all their clothes and make sure everything is packed.
Using the gallon zipper bags, pack an entire day’s outfit into the bag: shirt, shorts, underwear, socks, and whatever else.
Label each bag with a day of the week, and your Mouseketeer will know what outfit to wear on each day of your trip.
This is perfect if you have family outfits planned or particular shirts for specific parks. We even know teenagers and adults who use this tip to make organizing their suitcase easier!
#22 – Carry-on Bag – Not Just for your Laptop!
Even if you use some of the quick check-in services, sometimes you get to your resort before your room is ready.
If you’re not heading straight to the parks, make sure you pack your bathing suit, sunscreen, and a change of clothes in your carryon bag.
That way you will be able to go to the pool and get your vacation started while you wait for your room.
Also make sure your Magic Band is in your carry-on as you will need it for your Magical Express ride.
#23 – Binge Watch!
In the last few weeks and days before your trip, you might want to watch some of your family’s favorite Disney films to get excited for your vacation!
Make a theme out of it – if you’re going to Galaxy’s Edge, watch the Star Wars films.
# 24 – Do Your Nails
I know, this sounds strange, but if you are obsessed with nail art like me, you’ll be glad you thought about this.
The number of photos you take, the coordinated outfits you’re packing…give your nails the attention they deserve!
#25 – Pack the Car
If you’re driving to Florida, pack the car the night before you leave.
This will expedite your leaving process, and gives you a chance to check over everything when you’re not in that “time to go panic” that happens to all of us.
Even if you are flying, if you have an early flight, you might want to think about pre-packing.
#26 – Make a Playlist
Driving or flying, there’s nothing like a few hours (or several hours) of Disney music to put you in the mood for your vacation!
Make yourself a playlist to be the soundtrack of your flight or to turn on in the car and you’ll be off on your jolly holiday.
You don’t have to go broke to go on a Disney vacation! There are plenty of ways to cut the costs and save money without sacrificing on experience.
#27 – Do the Math!
It’s easy to fall into the spare no expense mentality, but that’s a good way to end up spending way more than you want to on your trip.
With that in mind, taking a few minutes to add up the costs and comparing them to the budget will save you (and your bank account) later.
#28 – Gift Cards – Built in Budget
It can be easy to overspend if you are swiping your MagicBand or credit card.
However, if you purchase gift cards for yourself ahead of time, the budget is already set!
Spend the money on the gift cards, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. You could divide the funds up between gift cards as well, having one specifically for dining, souvenirs, whatever you like.
When you’re getting down to the end of your pre-determined Disney dollars, it will help you to be more judicial with your spending!
#29 – Wholesale Market
Depending on your local wholesale location, you can sometimes get Disney gift cards at a lower rate by buying them at a place like BJ’s or Sam’s Club. If you want to use the gift card budget method, you might want to look into your local wholesale club!
#30 – Holidays to the Rescue
Every year, your mother, grandmother, and great aunt Francis all ask what you want for your birthday and Christmas. This year, you actually have something to tell them!
Asking for Disney gift cards can offset your costs without having to purchase them yourself, and now your family knows what to get you.
As an aside, a good way to thank your loving family members is to send them a postcard or purchase a photo to give them on your return. It helps Grandma to see how much fun you had!
#31 – Check for Work Perks
Plenty of businesses can get discounts or deals when it comes to Disney World tickets, Disney gift cards, or even resort deals. Look into what offers you might be able to use! For our upcoming trip, my husband was able to get over $200 in Disney gift cards…which is the approximate value of a lightsaber at Galaxy’s Edge.
#32 – Bundle isn’t Always Best
Don’t get me wrong, I love Disney. However, in addition to being the most magical place on Earth, it is also a business. Often, the ticket and resort offers are cheaper per day, but if the amount is over your budget that doesn’t matter. Going back to the math, be sure to figure out if a bundle will work out in your favor, or not so much.
#33 – Do the Dining Plan?
The Disney Dining Plan can be a great value, especially if you were already planning to do multiple table service meals while on your trip.
However, make sure you check out the dining plans ahead of time, and compare it to the potential costs of your meal. Again, do the math!
#34 – Disney Visa Reward Dollars
While it isn’t the best solution for everyone, the Disney Visa has been particularly good for me when looking for ways to cut Disney costs. Especially with the premier card, you can earn a lot more rewards, which definitely adds up. A reward point is equal to $1, and while they can only be spent on Disney items, that’s perfect if you’re headed on a Disney vacation!
#35 – Rent DVC Points
DVC, or Disney Vacation Club, is Disney’s timeshare program.
To book a reservation, DVC members use points based on the value of the resort.
Often, renting points can come out cheaper than booking at face value, so it’s definitely worth looking into renting!
#36 – Value Resorts v. Deluxe
If a resort is just a place to lay your head at night, you might want to go for a value resort instead of a more expensive option.
These resorts have just as many great amenities, including pool areas and food options, without incurring premium cost.
#37 – Staying Off Property
Unless you have your heart set on staying at Walt Disney World, there are excellent options, including Airbnb’s, at much lower costs.
You can even get an entire house for what you might pay for a resort room at Disney!
If you’re still looking for the overnight Disney experience, consider paying for one or two nights on property and the rest at an offsite location. I did this growing up, and it helped to balance the experience with the cost!
#38 – Split the Costs
If you’re planning to take your trip with another family, or multiple branches of your own, find ways to split the costs.
Divide the value of the room, split the meals, take turns paying for the Lyft – all of these can help lower the overall expenses.
For instance, you may find booking the larger room that will fit all of you and splitting the cost will be cheaper than getting two smaller rooms.
#39 – You Can Skip a Park. It’s Ok.
Even though you might want to go to every single park during your trip, that’s not always realistic.
Never mind the exhaustion level, all those park tickets add up!
If you have a limited budget, choose your park priority and go there. We promise, the others will still be there whenever you can come back!
#40 – Purchase Essentials at Home
Sunscreen, aloe, makeup, shampoo, conditioner…all of these essential items are most likely cheaper at home than on Disney property, or even in a Florida grocery store. Even if you are flying, you are better off buying the travel versions or just checking your bag to save the money on these necessities. You also guarantee you have the brands you want, and you can’t say the same about choices once you are there.
#41 – Bring Your Own Snacks
Whether you’re driving or flying, you can still take advantage of this tip! Bringing granola bars, protein snacks, and even simple items like pretzels can majorly cut down on the costs.
My entire life, we brought our own cereal and bought milk at the resort or a grocery store to take care of breakfast.
We then ate peanut butter crackers and snack cookies for lunch, saving our Disney meal for dinner. A huge money, time, and honestly stomach saver!
#42 – Check Shop Disney
Many of the t-shirts, toys, and even jewelry you might find in the parks is also on Shop Disney.
Make sure you know what is available online versus what is a park exclusive, as you might find it cheaper ahead of your trip.
Some parents even like to pre-purchase souvenirs so that their children have them upon arrival, which deters asking for more souvenirs later on.
#43 – Get Your Pins on Ebay
Are you a pin trader?
Do your kids want to start trading?
Instead of shelling out money for a starter lanyard or pin pack, get a cute, cheap lanyard and purchase inexpensive pins on Ebay.
Since the plan is to trade them anyway for pins you actually want, this is a great way to build your own starter pin kit without breaking the bank!
During the Vacation
#44 – Grocery Services
Even if you stay at a Walt Disney World resort, you can still get groceries. There are plenty of grocery delivery services that will bring fresh groceries to you! This will still cost less than purchasing individual Disney meals, and gives you a lot more control over what you eat.
#45 – Get the Refill Mug
If you are a resort guest and drink a fair amount of soda or other fountain drinks, you should get the refill mug.
These adorable and decorative mugs provide unlimited fountain beverages (which includes tea, coffee, and juice) at your resort for the duration of your stay.
No, they don’t work in the park, but you can fill up with coffee on your way there, and then you can use it for water or to keep a soda cold throughout the day.
#46 – Split Meals
If you do eat in the parks, you’ll find that many of the adult meals are easily split-able.
Cut a burger in half, share the fries and a drink, supplement with your own water, and that’s really all you need.
Trust me, you can overload on Disney food. Splitting a meal will leave you full, satisfied, and with money to spare.
#47 – Don’t Buy Water
While you definitely want to stay hydrated, it is an absolute waste to buy a Dasani water bottle in a Disney park.
Firstly, there are water fountains available throughout the park, making it easy to fill a water bottle, refill mug, or even an old soda cup.
Second, you can ask any counter service location for a cup of water, and they’ll give it to you.
They won’t fill your water bottle, but you can pour the cup of water into your bottle and you’re all set.
Finally, you can bring as much water as you want into the park, so if you are a bottled water person, bring what you need!
#48 – Set Expectations for Souvenirs
If you are travelling with kids (or shopaholics) set the expectations for souvenirs ahead of time.
I always knew what my parents would get for me (usually a t-shirt), and then after that I would have to use my own money.
My parents also did a great job of guiding my choices (“Do you really want that lollipop? Wouldn’t you rather this item you can use again?”), which made me feel like I could still decide but it kept me from making a bad decision.
Prevent the tantrum, set expectations, and everyone will be much happier.
#49 – Check your Charges
One key feature of the My Disney Experience app for resort guests is the ability to check your balance.
This is really important, because it helps you to know what you have spent and what specific charges have been made.
That includes any charges you make using your MagicBand, which can help you to keep your spending under control.
#50 – Find Free Activities
Yes, there are things you can do at Disney World that won’t cost you money!
Take a trip along the Skyliner, exploring the resorts and stops along the way. Ride the monorail on a loop around the Seven Seas Lagoon, checking out these resorts and their shops as well.
You can also check the front desk at your own resort to find out if there are any free activities available during your stay, like face painting for kids or a photo scavenger hunt.
#51 – Use Common Sense!
Don’t let the pixie dust invade your brain and influence your decision making.
No, you won’t wear that absurd Pluto hat at home.
Yes, that massive lollipop is prettier than it tastes.
No, you don’t need to buy both Frozen cupcakes, yes, you will hate yourself if you do.
You’ll find that, when you step back and evaluate for a second, you won’t spend unnecessary money. Look at your life, look at your choices, and your brain won’t steer you wrong!
Written by Grace Hoyos, Staff Writer
Grace is a life-long lover of all things Disney, particularly the parks at Walt Disney World. She is also an avid Disney Cruise Line enthusiast who regularly dreams of the white sands of Castaway Cay. Grace loves the fact that her Disney trips give her time to spend with her family, enjoy incredible food, and try new experiences.