Top 10 Disney Planning Tips

We’re coming up on our third visit to the “mice” in Orlando this summer and our children are so excited! We were definitely bitten by the Disney World “bug” and keep coming back for more magic. It truly is (one of) the happiest places on Earth, no matter how old you are.

Regular readers and followers know I am a planner. I start planning a trip to Disney World even earlier than I plan most other trips. Lately, I have found myself sharing some advice with friends who are going to Disney for the first time. I thought I would share my tips:

1. Download the My Disney Experience app on your phone. You’ll need it inside the park to check maps and wait times, update dining reservations, and most importantly, reserve FastPasses.

2. Pick a hotel based on location and amenities. I can’t imagine that you could go “wrong” at any Disney resort, but consider what your family is doing. If you’re spending most of your time at Magic Kingdom and/or Epcot, it’s worth it (in my opinion) to stay at one of the resorts on the monorail. The deluxe resorts are the priciest, but might save you hours of travel back and forth (you can walk to Epcot and Magic Kingdom from some of resorts). ls It’s also worth trying to arrive early on your arrival day, so you can maximize pool time or enjoying extra time exploring amenities at your resort.

3. Know your family’s schedule before you book stuff. I have trained my family to become morning people. I like to get to places right when they open. I make dining reservations for breakfast inside the parks before the parks open; that way I’m ahead of the crowd and get to a popular ride before a line forms. However, I was recently helping a friend plan her family’s trip. They’re night people. She preferred to sleep in and lounge by the pool in the morning and stay for Extra Magic hours (a perk given to people staying on Disney property) late at night.

4. Decide on a food plan ahead of time. You can read about some of my favorite restaurants at Disney here.  Disney offers a variety of meal plans which include snacks (like ice cream, popcorn, fruit, or non alcoholic drinks) quick service (you order, pick up your food at a counter, and find a table at a cafeteria-like space) and table service (full service with appetizer, entree, and dessert or a buffet with a reserved table) options. Consider your family’s routines and how much time you want to spend in the park. There are also dozens of options at the resorts, including themed shows and dining experiences, that are included in dining plans. Keep in mind that you are allowed to bring food and drinks into the parks (just no large coolers). Make reservations early: If you're staying at a Disney property, you can reserve up to 180 days ahead of time.

5. Reserve at least a couple of character meals. Don’t spend valuable time waiting in line to take a photo or get an autograph. Disney has character dining done perfectly. No matter where you sit or when you arrive, you are guaranteed that every character at the restaurant will come to your table, interact with you, and pose for photos. I love not having to wait in line or worry that we’ll miss someone. Bonus: some locations like Cinderella’s Royal Table have professional photographers who will take your photo and add it to your Memory Maker account. (see #6)

6. Order the Memory Maker photo pass. It is totally worth it, in my opinion. It’ll catch candid shots of your family on many  rides, and there are spots in every park where photographers can take the whole family's photo so YOU can be in the photo too. Photographers can also add graphics (called Magic Shots) to the photos. The best part? You can check the photos on your My Disney Experience account on your phone, and when you get home, you have 45 days to download every photo and then you own them. You can make all the reproductions you want, and use the photos for other keepsakes like memory books, cloth bags, magnets etc. (My go to? Shutterfly)

7. Let Disney know if you’re celebrating something. Disney loves to celebrate just about everything- first visits, birthdays, anniversaries, medical milestones. You’ll receive special pins to wear when you check in, and Disney staff will make an effort to add something special to your visit, like upgraded seating, special messages on your desserts, and even singing cast members.

8. Rent a stroller. I don’t care how old your child is (okay, maybe the cut off age is around 10 or 11), a stroller can be the greatest grace when it’s literally about 100 degrees, and your child is tired of walking (or more likely, standing in line). Schlepping a stroller on a plane or having it take up valuable trunk space in a car isn’t ideal, especially if your child doesn’t typically use a stroller but you want the security of one for the parks. There are several companies that will deliver a stroller to your hotel (literally to just about any on-property resort, or local hotel in the greater Orlando area) and then pick it up from your hotel. You can schedule dates online. We’ve used Kingdom Strollers both times and have been very happy with the service, stroller, and pricing. We’ve ordered the CityMini double stroller and found it SO easy to maneuver through crowds. It’s narrower than most strollers. It also has a generously sized sun visor that can actually cover most of your child’s body and shield them from sun rays. Plus it comes with a soft cooler for drinks and a rain protector.

9. Ask family for Disney gift cards for celebrations before you go. I am a firm believer in giving experiences instead of gifts (read about my suggestions here).  Have grandma and grandpa give your children a gift card to Disney (most grocery stores carry them or you can order online) and they’ll feel empowered to pick out something they really like. Plus, you can send the gifter a photo of your child with whatever he or she chose.

10. Shop ONE time.  Bring those gift cards and hard earned allowances and go shopping once. I’d suggest going towards the end of the trip so the kids get a chance to scope out everything and decide what they really want to buy.  Exceptions: the famous Mickey/Minnie ears are worth getting (or ordering ahead of time) on the first day to maximum their appearance in photos and purchasing a lanyard and starting the pin collection early in the trip so you trade pins throughout the trip). The World of Disney store in Disney Springs has every.single.thing that Disney Parks sell, so if you’re pressed for time, I’d suggest going there. And once everyone makes their purchases, leave everything in the hotel, so you don’t have to constantly worry about losing something. Plus, these presents will be a welcome distraction from the inevitable sadness you’ll be feeling when you leave.

Bonus: Things I always buy ahead of time and bring with me (we drive, so I’m not sure what’s allowed on planes):

  1. Spray fans (and it’s worth the $10 at Target to get each child his or her own)
  2. Dress up costumes (esp. for the princess meals and photo opts)
  3. Sunscreen (be prepared and apply and reapply every couple of hours)
  4. Rain ponchos (you can get them for $1 or so at Target, they weight nothing, and take up virtually no space). It usually downpours for a brief period of time every day in Orlando during the summer.
  5. Autograph books: have them with you from the start, so if you unexpectedly meet a character, you’ll be prepared. And bring a Sharpie or thick marker (not a thin pen!) for signatures and the characters will be grateful.
  6. I have not done this, but I know many people who have groceries delivered to the hotel. Plenty of local stores will make deliveries to your hotel if you want to pack a cooler for a meal or the day (info on what’s allowed to be brought in here) or just have your favorite snacks when you return to the hotel.