Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Disney Geek's 15 Step Guide to Walt Disney Planning

For a slight detour from our regular Snow White feed, this is a post I've been working on for a while...enjoy!

Ah, the life of a Disney fan... who lives in Southern California.  I love being asked all kinds of questions about Disneyland theme park planning from friends and acquaintances.  I can be counted on to pull up an app and help them decide which day to go to Disneyland, where to eat, and what are not to miss things.  Generally, I want to give them way more tips and advice than they are looking for!

I'm currently in the process of planning my sixth trip to Walt Disney World.  Even though I've been to Disneyland so many times I literally have no way to count, I find planning for Disney World a fantastically fun experience.  Planning a trip is a great build up to the actual trip.  How else is one to kill the time before day zero?  But I find planning for Disney World a much more complicated process (as Disneyland is just a drive, albeit sometimes a long one, down the freeway for me).  So here is my 15 step planning guide. (15 steps?!?)

Step One: Decide to go

You've looked on the website, talked about going, thought about going, dreamed about going...Well the first step is deciding to really go through with it and book a trip.  At this point, request a planning DVD.  I do this every time I go, partly because it's fun to get mail other than bills, and if Disney wants to mail me some discounts or offers, I want them to have my address!

Step Two: Set a budget

It is extremely easy to overspend on vacation.  Especially at Disney.  Especially if you have a collection.  I feel it is critical to set your budget before you even look into booking.  What can your family afford?  Be serious and realistic about it.  What total amount can you do?  How much can you save leading up to the trip?  What is a realistic cost per day you are willing to pay?
Figure your budget with all expenses.  Calculate room, tickets, air fare, food, souvenirs...try to include anything you know you will need during the trip.
Once you set the budget, you've got to stick to it!  I always determine my set cost but allow myself to "earn" additional spending money for the trip with things like garage sales, gift cards, and other unexpected cash.

Step Three: Buy a Book (or E-book)

There are soooo many books about Disney World.  (Disclaimer: Contrary to what my friends say, I have not read them all).  Disney, of course, has official guide books too.  Now, you may be thinking, why buy a book?  The Internet has so much information, aren't books obsolete?
Not in my opinion!  There are two that I need to have to help me plan.  One is the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World book by Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa.   This book is very user friendly and helps so much when planning, I've used it for all of my trips.  The reviews are honest and detailed.  I have highlighting, sticky notes, and dog ears all over mine.  The book is a great resources for people who have never been the Walt Disney World.  There is a wealth of information about every aspect of the World and even a chapter or two about off property (not that I'd ever do that!)

The second book I recommend is the new 102 Ways to Save Money For and At Walt Disney World by Lou Mongello.  I just downloaded the eBook, and it is fantastic.  It's written by a Disney World Podcast expert (see step 12 for more info about that ).  This book has many different tips for ways to save at Disney World - in fact, the author guarantees you'll save!  Even as a experienced fan, I found things to save and do in this book that I didn't know about.

Step Four:  Subscribe to touring plans

Remember that unofficial guide I mentioned above?  Well their website: is by far my favorite site!  It only costs about 12 dollars annually.  This website will be used in at least 5 more steps in your trip planning journey and the app can prove helpful during your trip.  And, if you have bought the book, you can save a few dollars too!  Subscriptions last a year, so you will want to do this no earlier than a year from your date of return home.  You can of course renew, as I do, so you can check the wait time for Soarin when you're waiting in line at the grocery store behind that lady who still uses checks...

Step Five: Decide when to go

This is a tough one, deciding when you are going.  Some people are pretty much locked into a time frame and this is really a negated step then.  However, if you are lucky enough to have flexibility in the time you can go, the books can help give you a feel for what to expect different times of year, but my favorite tool for this step is touring plans crowd calendar (the full calendar is only available to those who subscribe).  I've found the crowd rating system so helpful when choosing days to go. Each day is rated out of 10.  You can get a pretty accurate idea of what to expect and what times to avoid.
So now that you know when you are going, you need to decide how many days you want to go.  My preference is a week.  I like 2 days for Epcot, 1 for Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios, with an extra day to decided about later (I often split it between Epcot and Animal Kingdom).  I typically spend only one day in Magic Kingdom because I am a Disneyland gal, and go all the time.  However, if you are not like me, I advise taking your trip up to 8 days.  I always think of my travel days as good Downtown Disney or resort days.

Step Six: Decide which resort

Got your budget?  Now it's time to look at resorts.  I am a stay on property gal.  The benefits outweigh everything in my opinion: Disney Magical Express, Resort Transportation, and the extra magic hours are some of the perks to staying on property.  Disney Magical Express is a transport service that will take you from the airport and to the resort.  You do not need to rent a car if you are staying on property!  Disney World resort has a complex network transportation system.  This includes boats, monorails, and buses.  It is pretty easy to get to theme parks and other locations, but it takes a little more time and navigation to get from resort to resort.  Read the Disney Tourist's Blog info on resort transpiration.  Additionally, there are extra magic hours available only to resort guests where one of the parks will open early or stay open later.
On property there are three basic categories of resorts; value, moderate, or deluxe.  How do you decide which category do you fit in?  That is largely determined by budget.  If you can afford a deluxe, I say go for it!  The location close to a park and the slightly better transportation make it worth it.  However, it can be a big finical jump to deluxe.  I usually stay in a moderate resort as that is where my budget lies.
Once you determine your category, go back to the touring plans website and check out the resorts.  They have video that is helpful to give you a feel for the resort.  I also find the rating system helpful.  You can even use the room selector and look at the view from each room!  Amazing!  I find this website able to answer pretty much any question I have when it comes to resorts.
It's very tempting to want to move up a category, but stick with your budget.  I have stayed in Beach Club (Deluxe), Contemporary (Deluxe), French Quarter (Moderate), Pop Century (Value), and off property.  Each has its pluses and minuses, but also consider -  how much time will you stay in the room?

Step Seven: Book with a travel agent

You can certainly book with Disney directly, but I like booking with someone who can apply discounts and offers a little extra.  I've booked several past trips and a cruise with AAA.  I've always been happy with them, but this current trip, I booked with Mouse Fan Travel.
AAA offers some additional perks at times, and they usually offer a discount.  However, once you book with AAA, you are locked into a price.  So if you book really far in advance, you may miss some of the promotions.
I choose to book with Mouse Fan Travel after hearing about it over and over on the two podcasts I listen to (see step 12).  I have been very impressed and, in fact, check out my blog post just about them.

Step Eight: What style theme parker are you?
It may seem way to soon to begin to think about this, but it will really help you with some decisions you'll make in future steps.  While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are some common types of theme park touring styles:

The Commando
 These folks arrive with park opening and leave when security pushes them out.  They have the list of every attraction and go from line to line, possibly stopping for a quick service meal.  The goal is to do it all!  If you want to be able to go home saying you got on everything, you're a commando style theme park-er.  You may need a vacation to recover from your trip!

The Early Bird
These folks live for rope drop.  Each park has some sort of rope drop ceremony and then off you go, enjoying the morning in the park.  They ride everything thing they can and walk briskly (not running) from attraction to attraction.  By lunch time, these folks are dying down and leaving the park as the heat or crowds gets too much.

The Night Owl

Wake up early, on vacation?  Not you?  Then you are a night owl.  Arriving to the parks later, these folks are up all late and stay well after the fireworks exit rush.  They arrive at peak times, so they wait to do E-ticket attractions until the crowds head back to the hotels for the night.

The Napper

These folks enjoy the parks in the early morning, go back to the resort and relax when the crowds get to big, and then back into the parks to enjoy the evening.  It's a very civilized way to see the parks.  It's also much easier to do this if you are staying at one of the resorts nearby (think Deluxe)

The Park Hopper

Want to start your day riding Dumbo but end the night with some school bread in Norway?  You're a park hopper!  You can really be a park hopping commando, napper, early bird, or night owl.  To park hop will be an extra cost, but it is often low enough on a long stay for it to be a good option.  Especially if you want to enjoy just a few things in certain parks more than once.

Step Nine: Make dining reservations

If you are the commando style theme park-er, you probably will skip this step.  However, if you do want to sit down and enjoy a meal, you'll wan to do some planning.  I love the Disney Food Blog for ideas and review, and All Ears has a every menu posted online.  If you are not touring commando style, I do recommend going to one of the other resorts for a meal at least once.  The deluxe resorts have amazing themes and fantastic food.  Plus, getting out of the park for a meal really allows you to slow down and enjoy!
Once you have a list of restaurants you want to eat in, you're ready to start putting together what you want to do.
You can base the theme park of the day on the dinning reservations you make, or you can plan which parks to go to, then go for dinning reservations accordingly.  If you do the first, you'll want to go online at 180 days from the first day you're booked, and make your reservation.  If you're the latter, you will want to look at the touring plans crowd calendar and choose the lowest rated day to go to.
Either way, some dinning options fill up fast, remarkably fast.  If you choose to book with Mouse Fan Travel, you can fill out a request sheet of where you want to eat, and leave it up to them to book it for you!

Step Ten: Pick a Splurge

Almost every trip I've taken I've done what I consider a splurge: something extra that really enhances your trip.  The first trip, we did a Candlelight processional package (dinning reservation with reserved seating for the Epcot holiday tradition).  On my second trip, we did the character breakfast inside the castle (I ate inside a castle!!).  The third trip we went over the Grand Floridan for a character breakfast.  On trip five, it was the Hoop De Doo.  On this next trip there will be the Wild Africa Trek.
Consider having a character meal, taking in one of the dinner shows, taking a tour, going to a desert party or a fireworks cruise, attending a hard ticket event (Halloween party or Christmas Party).  There are a ton of options.  I try to book a new experience each trip even though it's been tempting to go back and re-experience some of the great memories, there is so much more to do at Disney World than just theme parks!
Once you've chosen what you want to do, be aware of booking times (dinning and tours are often 180 days out).  Talk to your travel agent about this one!

Step Eleven: Create a countdown calendar
Here is mine.  The jar to the left is my savings jar for spending money
 Once you're 179 days out from your trip, there isn't much to do for a few months for planning purposes.  I take up some of the time by making a countdown calendar!  Pinterest is your friend for inspiration.  It makes for some fun family time changing the countdown calendar every day.

Step Twelve: Research

So now you're at 176 days out, you made your countdown calendar, and while flipping the days is fun, it's not enough to keep you busy.  First, request personalized maps from Disney.  Second, I recommend a few podcasts and websites to fill that Disney need.  Third, subscribe to a Disney Magazine.

Now check out WDW Radio.  Lou has been doing this for something like seven years, and has so much great advice and tips.  It's a great listen in your car on the way to work, while cooking dinner, or at the gym. The podcast is available weekly for free downloads on iTunes.  He also has a blog, videos, and a live weekly show (Wednesday 7pm Eastern time).
Wedway Radio is a podcast by two brothers that spend lots of time delving into the history behind the parks.  They also produce a weekly news segment as well.  These guys spend lots of time researching and do a great job!  Definitely check them out.
There really aren't many Disney magazines anymore.  You can subscribe the the D23 by becoming a silver or gold member, but it is pricey.  There is also an unofficial, but amazing Disney World centric magazine: Celebrations.  This is a much lower price point than D23 and will focus on your upcoming destination!

Step Thirteen: Make FP+ Reservation
It's finally time!  As a Disneylander - the online fast pass experience is quite different.  There is lots of helpful information on the touring plan website here.

Step Fourteen: Create your touring plan
 Now that you have your fast pass plus reservations, it is time to go back to and actually make a touring plan!  I always choose the custom touring plans.  These allow you to select which rides you want to do, which shows you want to see, when you want to take breaks to eat, and to decide your start and end time.  Once you've done all that, the very smart computer software will give you the order to go on everything.  I used these in the past at Disneyland and it is so helpful!  You don't have to stick exactly to it, but using it as a guideline, will greatly help you avoid long lines and the big crowds.

Step Fifteen: Pack

What do I pack!?  There are lots of advice websites on this (try this list from WDW Prep school).  But there are a couple of things I won't leave without.  I bring a small power strip to recharge all the electronics at night.  I use hiking socks when theme park-ing, but other family members swear by the two thin sock rule.  Always bring a camera but decide what kind of shots you want: are you looking for professional shots that make lugging a big camera around worth it, or do you just need a pocket sized point and shoot.  Disney does offer a photopass where, for a pretty big fee, you can get all the pictures Disney photographers take of you on your trip on CD.  I will be doing this for the first time on this upcoming trip, and therefore am only taking a small point and shoot.  The other thing I don't leave home without is my booklet with reservation numbers and info.  I know that My Experience app wrangles all of that information for you on the app, but if your cell phone is like mine, it doesn't always make it through a full day.  (Note: the app does not include your tour information, the cast member informed me that isn't part of My Disney Experience yet, but they hope it may be...some day).  This is the new shirt I got:
From Look Human: Totally awesome, right?

So, there you are.  My 15 step trip planning guide! 

Clip art images from  All characters are copyright Walt Disney Company.

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