Your Step-by-Step Planning Checklist for Disney World

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September 10, 2022

With all of the nuances of constantly evolving park updates, advanced reservation windows, and fluctuating resort and ticket pricing, planning a Disney trip can, at times, feel a liiiiiittle too high stakes to qualify as relaxing vacation planning.

Although, if you’re like us, is any vacation planning truly relaxing? 

We could write entire books (or more realistically, blogs) on each one of these sections. We’re going to try to resist that urge and instead give you the need-to-know breakdown to knock the stress out of your Disney vacation planning.

1) Decide When to Go 

The first decision is hardly the last one you’ll make, but it is one of the most important. When are you going to Disney? There are a whole lotta things to take into consideration, and each of those is really dependent on personal preference and priority. 

Here are the top three things to consider when picking the best time to go.

What will crowds look like? 

The most consistently asked question about visiting Disney is about the crowds. When are they the highest? The lowest? The least aggravating? The best way to answer those questions (except for maybe that last one) is to reference a data-driven crowd calendar, like the ones from WDW Prep School or Touring Plans.

How’s the weather?

While summer in Orlando gets a bad rap, each month has its share of pros and cons. For instance, the temps in March are finally warming up to comfortably enjoy the pool and water parks, but you have Spring Break crowds to contend with. 

Our advice? If you have the flexibility, pick the weather that’s going to be the most comfortable for you. We have plenty of tips that can be applied year-round for strategizing to avoid long lines and beat the heat, anyway, so you might as well do it in the weather you can tolerate! 

Are you interested in any seasonal/special events?

Hard ticket events like Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party are popular enough that people plan their trips around them. Similarly, planning your trip to see EPCOT’s Food & Wine or Flower & Garden festival (standard admission) is worth deliberating over.

Figment topiary holding a paintbrush and palette sitting behind a sign that reads “EPCOT International Festival of the Arts.”

2) Consider Using A Disney Travel Agent

If you’ve never used one before, we highly recommend using a travel agent to help book your Disney vacation

Regardless of how many people you’re traveling with, Disney TAs can help you handle all of the technical sides of booking, manage the finer points of your reservations, and organize your trip as little or as much as you’d like them to. They’re also totally free to use!

Note: While TAs don’t necessarily field the frontline data-driven “park strategy” we specialize in, they are an invaluable resource if you’re willing to take a little bit of extra time to find yourself an expert.

Don’t have time to find an expert? No worries, we have recs! We have personally worked with both Haley and Emily, and we know you’ll love them, too!

3) Pick Your Lodging

We could write chapters on this section alone, so for the purpose of this checklist, we’ll try to stick to the basics. To start, here are a few questions to ask yourself.

  • Are you staying on Disney property or off property? 
  • Are you looking to stay at a Value, Moderate, or Deluxe resort?
  • Will you be renting DVC points?

Onsite vs Offsite Lodging

This age-old question was most frequently debated in terms of budget and convenience. It isn’t so cut and dry anymore, since many onsite perks have changed (or gone away completely) in the last couple of years. So much so that we’d even say that staying off property has an increased appeal in the last couple of years

Pros to staying ON property

Location and proximity to parks, access to park perks like Early Entry and Extended Evening Hours (Deluxe resorts only), offers an immersive, thematic continuation of the Disney experience which, for some, may be very important. 

Pros to staying OFF property

Sometimes you get more bang for your buck which may give you the opportunity to “splurge” on other things (like Genie+ or snacks and souvenirs), freedom to find accomodation more suitable to your group (ex: larger vacation home rental with a pool), provides a “break” from Disney to those needing less of that experience. 

Our advice: Do the math! What works best for you? Finding a balance between your budget and what you want is key, but there is no right or wrong answer. 

Choosing the Best Disney Resort for You

The interior lobby of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge taken from the ground floor and showing multiple levels of hallways. Heavily accented with dark wood and African elements.
Animal Kingdom Lodge – our favorite!

Would You Rather…

Be able to walk to EPCOT or walk to Magic Kingdom?

Have access to a pool with a waterslide or skip the pool entirely and hit the parks instead?

Have a dedicated bus line or use the monorail?

Be close to signature dining or stick with a no-fuss food court?

Have the option to take the Skyliner or a ferry boat?

Each resort offers something for everyone. We’ve stayed at resorts in each tier, and we’re sorry to say that from a planning perspective, the decision isn’t as easy as more expensive = better.

Value Resorts

These resorts are usually more budget-friendly and heavier on the Disney theming. Primary dining option is the food court. Pools are on the more basic side.

Great for families with young kids and/or people who prioritize spending time at the park over the resort.

Note: Recent refurbs and access to the Skyliner from Pop Century and Art of Animation has totally changed the Value resort game as far as convenience and desirability goes.

Moderate Resorts

A step up in price and amenities from the Value resorts, the Moderate tier offers more in the way of individual room offerings, options of table-service restaurant along with a food court, and “quiet” pools.

Great for couples, families with older children, people planning on taking lots of park breaks or planning on a relaxing non-park day.

Deluxe Resorts

Offers some of the most expensive rooms on property, including swanky upgrades like club level and theme park views. A majority of the deluxe resorts are close in proximity to Magic Kingdom (with the exception of Animal Kingdom Lodge), have more dining and lounge/bar options, and upgraded pools (slides, water features, etc).  

Great for those looking to splurge, celebration trips (anniversary, honeymoon, graduation, etc.), people who want to spend a decent amount of time enjoying the resort.

Can’t pick just one?

If all of those options sound good, we feel you. If your budget and flexibility allows, you could always consider a split-stay and spend part of your trip in one resort before heading to a different one. 

Bonus tip: If you go this route, we recommend structuring your visit so you start at the “lower” tier resort and finish your trip at the “higher” level resort. 

Renting DVC (aka getting Deluxe accommodations for MUCH cheaper than rack rates)

This one was a lesser-known option as far as Disney lodging goes, but the secret might be out. If you’re planning your trip far enough out and want to upgrade your experience in a budget-conscious way, there are great third-party brokers like David’s that can help you rent Disney Vacation Club (DVC) points from timeshare owners so you can enjoy deluxe resorts for not-so-deluxe pricing. 

There can be a lot to research about this topic, but we break it down for you in our easy DVC Rental Pro Mini Course (also included in our All Access Pass)!

4) Book Tickets

Thankfully, this part isn’t as much of a science. Ya pick how many days you wanna go, and then you go for it. So, where do you purchase tickets from?

There IS something to be said about the convenience of booking your tickets as a package deal or directly from Disney. You can almost always find a better price, however, using a reputable third-party site like Undercover Tourist

Speaking of good prices, it’s generally good practice when researching your Disney trip to keep an eye out for the price fluctuations and discounts Disney rolls out every so often. This is something a Disney Travel Agent can automatically do on your behalf (another point for TAs!) or, if you’re more of the hands-on type, you could subscribe to a free newsletter such as Mouse Savers to keep tabs on price changes.

Park Pass Reservations

View of a full-ride vehicle coming out of the mountain and down the steepest drop on Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom. Initial sharp incline visible in background.

Not another reservation! Unfortunately, yes. All guests age 3 and up must have a valid theme park ticket AND a park reservation made in advance. If you have a multi-day ticket, you’ll need to make a park reservation for each day you have a ticket. 

The most important thing to do after booking your tickets is to create an account on My Disney Experience and link your tickets to your account

Now you’re primed to snag those Park Pass reservations ASAP.

There is a little bit of strategy involved in choosing which days you want to visit each park. Once you select your vacation dates, keep in mind that certain parks experience swells in crowd levels on certain days of the week. For example, avoiding Magic Kingdom on Mondays & Saturdays is a smart move.

5) Make Those Dining Reservations!

Screenshot of Raglan Road Reservations on
Our favorite way to book our favorite Disney Springs restaurants:

Possibly one of the more “intense” Disney planning experiences, most of you have probably already heard that advanced dining reservations (ADRs) go pretty quick, even when you’re on top of your game. 

While we dive further into many of these specifics and more to help you get every reservation you want in our (FREE!) 26/8 Method, here are a few of our favorite tips.

  • Triage your top picks. You don’t necessarily want to book your reservations in the order you’d visit them on your trip. Book them in order of personal importance or overall popularity.

  • An often forgotten tip is to check OpenTable, especially for restaurants at Disney Springs. Sometimes they show more availability than what’s on Disney’s page, it’s usually a lot less glitchy. And often, you don’t have to use a credit card to secure the reservation and can cancel last-minute if needed. WAY more flexible than Disney’s site!

  • If you miss out on a reservation, many of our readers have reported success with using our 26/8 method in addition to dining alerts software such as MouseDining, StakeOut (app), or Mousekepros. Simply put: when a res becomes available, you get a text alert. It’s convenient and it could potentially give you an edge, although a LOT of people use these services and hundreds our often vying for one reservation at a time. So if you’re not first to click the text alert, you usually won’t get it. It can get frustrating fast. This is why we HIGHLY recommend putting yourself in full control with the 26/8 Method.

6) (Highly) Consider Adding Genie+, and Make a Plan For It

Lightning Lane sign at Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

Genie+ is an optional paid service guests can choose to add to their ticket in order to “skip” the standby line and go straight into the Lightning Lane queue of select attractions at Disney. 

Is it absolutely necessary to spring for Genie+ to ride certain rides at Disney? No but yes. Read on. 

You can get by without using Genie+ if you have a seriously solid strategy in place. But you’d have to be comfortable with the possibility of not being able to ride everything you want, waiting in long lines in the middle of the day, and being to at the parks early in the mornings and later at night.

Long story short: Genie+ is pretty necessary for keeping wait times low, and it’s pretty much mandatory at Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios.

If you’re someone who has spent a lot of time at Disney and doesn’t mind missing out on certain things, then skipping out on Genie+ might work fine for you, especially at EPCOT and Animal Kingdom.

If this is your first visit or you want to get a lot done at the parks, then – in our opinion – Genie+ combined with a good strategy makes getting the most out of your vacation a heck of a whole lot easier. 

But don’t forget knowledge: if you’re going to buy Genie+, you need to know how to truly use it, otherwise, you’re basically lighting your money on fire.

Take it from Kaely, one of our community members: 

“I was surprised by how well Genie+ works… if you know how to work it!”

Navigating the technical aspects, creating easy-to-follow itineraries, and showing you exactly how to snag & bag those popular and hard-to-get Lightning Lanes (and Individual Lightning Lanes) is our thing, and we teach it in the quick and easy Genie+ Mastery Mini-Course. Don’t leave home without it!

7)  Book Any Extras

Boo To You parade sign at Disney

You could make an entire vacation just out of the add-ons that Disney offers. And for the record: you don’t have to do any of these to have an amazing trip at Disney World. And a lot of them actually distract from just enjoying the parks and attractions, especially if you’re a first-timer.

But if you’re looking for something…well, extra, here’s an inexhaustive list of some of the most popular ones (in no particular order)!

  • Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (seasonal hard ticket event).
  • Fireworks Viewing Parties. Kids can fill up on light snacks and treats while adults can sip on beer or wine and watch the fireworks show from an exclusive seating area. The Ferrytale Dessert & Fireworks Cruise is essentially a boat cruise version of this. 
  • “Behind the Scenes” tours. Wide variety of options at an equally wide range of price points, ranging from shorter group tours to all-day private VIP tours. Book directly through Disney.
  • Build a droid or lightsaber at Galaxy’s Edge. Pricey, but a unique opportunity for Star Wars fans and diehards. Reservation required, during slower times they may talk walk-ups.
  • Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, an entertaining dinner show with delicious BBQ and quirky, upbeat singing and dancing. Widely considered a must (hoop-dee) do!

8) Book Transportation 

As your trip gets closer, it’s time to consider how you’ll get from the airport to your resort. Unfortunately, free airport transportation to Disney is now just a Figment of our imaginations (see what we did there?). Regardless, there are still a few options.

Mears Connect

This is the paid charter bus service from MCO (Orlando International Airport) that replaced Disney’s previously free “Magic Express” in 2021. It’s convenient, but a little pricey (considering the alternatives) and not the quickest or most efficient mode of transport.

Renting a car

This is another option, and it gives you a level of freedom in getting around Disney and/or the Orlando area. When deciding, factor in daily resort parking fees and consider the fact that it is not always the fastest or most convenient method to arrive at the parks each day.

Renting a town car service 

This one can be a nice alternative, especially if you’re traveling with a larger group and can split the fee. Compare prices for a shuttle, bus, or a limo if you’re feelin’ fancy!

Rideshare (Uber/Lyft)

By far the most competitively priced, convenient, and efficient option in our experience. Check prices across both apps and remember to factor in surge pricing if arriving at a higher demand time.

9) The Final Countdown

You’ve done the heavy lifting. Your dining reservations are booked. Park Passes are secured. You will soon have a Dole Whip in one hand, and a churro in the other. Now, what do we do with all this excited energy as we wait for Departure Day?? 

  • If you have Disney +, watch The Imagineering Story, a documentary mini-series and an awesome way to gain a deeper appreciation for the parks and a lot of the rides and attractions. It’s trivia heaven for the park nerds, and both engaging and interesting for the newbies!
  • Watch any (or all) of your favorite Disney/Pixar movies. 
  • Watch park walkthroughs on YouTube or live park feeds on TikTok, if you’re okay with spoilers (one of our writers is very anti- this, so it has to be said 😂). There’s nothing quite like watching a live POV of Haunted Mansion while brushing your teeth from home.

Larger than-life structures of Jessie and Rex holding up colored lights over the track of Slinky Dog Dash in Toy Story Land.

Have we terrified you? Energized you? A little bit of both?? That’s normal. For us, it’s that little bit of adrenaline when trying to book breakfast at Topolino’s that keeps us coming back for more. We promise it’ll all be worth it. 

Now, if we had a penny for every time we wrote the word “reservation” in this post we’d have…a pretty impressive souvenir-pressed penny collection.

Next step: SNACK planning!

Download our FREE Snack Lookbook—since snack planning is *maybe* the best part of trip planning. It includes 10 Overlooked Disney Treats that need to be on your list!