I was relatively excited when my husband decided that this was the year to take our daughter to Disney World. She was capable of staying awake later without full-on meltdowns (and often fighting bedtime just because). Given the circumstances, it seemed like a good opportunity to test our luck and plan a vacation at Walt Disney World.
Unfortunately, the magic of planning the vacation quickly dissipated in the actual planning phase. I couldn’t believe how much planning one had to do, just to wait on the actual vacation. We ran into a few problems too, and I thought I’d share some advice if you’re beginning to think about taking a family vacation to Walt Disney World in Orlando.
Plan WAY in advance!
We thought a couple months prior to our trip would be plenty of time to book our room, book dining reservations, and make arrangements for fast pass selections. We couldn’t have been more wrong. If you’re staying on site, Fast-Pass selections are available 60 days in advance and many selections are booked quickly. I believe dining reservations are available 180 days in advance. Our selections were very limited by the time we starting our booking process. That’s a real bummer when you’re thinking about the fact it’s your kiddo’s first visit to Disney World (at least that was our case).
If you want a dining plan, decide on it BEFORE booking your vacation
DO NOT let anyone tell you to purchase your vacation package first to later add your dining plan. For starters, you cannot place that order online. Secondly, you must select your dining package at the time of vacation booking as a package. We were still deciding on whether or not we wanted a package and were told that we could add it later. WRONG. The only way we could add it later was to cancel our plans and then re-do the booking in order to add the dining plan. Since we’d already made deposits, it wasn’t worth the hassle of cancelling and re-booking everything.
The only positive side to it, is that we decided to purchase snacks from the grocery story prior to our vacation and would carry in a few each day to save quite a bit of extra money.
Should I Make Reservations for Disney World Restaurants?
You’ll likely see choices for booking your dining reservations early. We booked a couple dining reservations in sit down restaurants for things that we really wanted and knew we wouldn’t want to eat at quick service stations all week. Again, going back to planning WAY in advance, because we didn’t plan early we had very few selections available at reasonable dining hours for our family.
Now, the kicker here is that I overheard that the restaurants only do 10% reservations. We figured out on the first night that you can pretty easily walk into a restaurant of your choice with relatively short wait times. Now, we normally arrive at restaurants around 5 p.m. before major crowds, but never did we experience anything longer than a 20 minute wait to be seated. One the first night, we went to our reserved restaurant about 1/2 hour earlier than our reservation and were seated right away because there was almost no one in the restaurant.
If you want to eat at peak hours or know somewhere you absolutely must eat at during your trip, I might still recommend reservations. Plus, if you’re dining will food allergies or intolerances, you can include this information on your reservation to make your service more efficient. I plan to write a post in the near future about dining at Disney World with allergies.
Can I bring my own food into the park?
According to Disney’s website, you can bring in your own food so long as it’s not food that requires heating. Imagine the savings if you’re not stopping for over-priced snacks throughout your stay. We purchased chips, waters, mini-muffins, cookies and some Paleo friendly snacks which will reduce time spent in lines waiting for food (save your time for the rides!) and money that could be better spent on real meals, special treats, or souvenirs.
We ran into zero issues with packing our own snacks. As an example, I purchased a large pack of waters on my last grocery run before the trip. Let’s say I spent $5.00 on a brand name package of bottled water. The parks were charging about $2.50/bottle. I took in about 3 bottles in per day, so I saved my family about $7.50 in water, plus the cost of chips, popcorn, grapes, etc. And, we ate our pre-purchased or pre-made breakfast on the run which saved even more time and money. We were then able to splurge on a more pricey dinner one night and not feel badly about it.
The Week Before Your Disney World Vacation
Spend the week cleaning house, washing laundry, and packing. I found it helpful to do one or two last loads of laundry the day before we left, which made things easier on me when we returned home from our vacation. To make the most of your efforts, make a packing list and check things off as you put them away. Save your last minute items that you need to use regularly (toiletries, etc) until the moments before you leave.
Be sure to go ahead and purchase your first aid kit (or make one up yourself) and travel sized items so that you’re not taking up space with large bottles of soap, shampoo, lotion, etc. A small un-themed pack of about 4 band aids will run you about $3 in the park (roughly what you’d spend on a box of band aids in your local store).
Place a Hold on Your Mail
If you’re going to be gone for any length of time, I might recommend requesting a mail-hold with the USPS. I can tell you, from experience, it’s not fun removing mail from an over-stuffed mailbox when you’ve been gone for a week. You can even have the mail carrier deliver held mail on the day you plan to return or plan to pick it up from the post off yourself. In my experience, the mail hold worked well, but the re-delivery part didn’t go without some sort of hiccup. Our mail re-delivery request was lost so we received our mail much later than requested.
Staying On-Site at a Disney World Resort?
Free parking and shuttles are great. If you read on the website that you would have to request an in-room fridge for medical reasons, I’ve been informed that they finally made in-room fridges standard. That would have been a nice fact listed on their website so that I didn’t have to make the extra phone call in our planning phase. Don’t forget that the additional benefit of staying on-site is that you can make your fast pass selections 60 days in advance (and you want to do this if you can!).
Disney Resort Shuttles at the value resorts ran about every 15 or 20 minutes between parks. The value resorts were a bit further from the parks.
Things to note about staying at a Disney value resort:
1) No in-room coffee maker
2) No microwave
3) You can purchase refillable mugs for your stay (prices range from $8.99 per day or about $19.99 for a 4 night stay – these prices are not exact as I did not purchase the refillable mugs). These mugs can be refilled all day (exclusions apply) with coffee or soda at the resorts only).
Disney World Parks: Passes and Tickets
We arrived at our Disney World Value Resort and tried to verify that our annual passes were linked to our Mickey Bands. We had issues with linking right after purchasing, so we wanted to skip any headaches entering the parks the next morning for our first time. The person at the desk said we were good to go. Unfortunately we waited in a ridiculous line to enter the Magic Kingdom only to find out our annual passes weren’t linked or hadn’t been activated. Then, we had to wait in another ridiculous line at customer service to have our passes activated. After all the waiting and frustration, we just made it to our first fast pass selection (we almost missed the kiddo’s first Mickey Meet!). Want to skip that hassle? Check in at Customer Service the evening before you plan to visit the park just to ensure that your passes or tickets are activated. Otherwise, if your fast passes begin later in the day, you may just want to arrive extra early at the park to give yourself time to clear up any issues.
If you have any other advice for Disney World Vacationers or questions, please be sure to comment here!