There’s an element of strategy to planning any vacation, even the simplest trip. Decisions about where to go, how long to stay, and what to do impact smaller daily moves. When it comes to preparing for a Disney World trip, those choices increase exponentially. The days of buying a ticket and then wandering the parks are long gone, if they ever existed. When you place this type of vacation into the hands of an obsessive planner like me, that pre-trip analysis gets extreme. Each move opens the door to many others, especially on longer trips. I love every minute of it.
To give a little background, my brain enjoys digging into all types of strategy. I’m an avid fantasy sports player, especially baseball and football. When I watch TV shows, I can’t help but try to predict what happens next. I play a lot of tennis, and my approach is mostly strategic. It’s no surprise that I’m engaged by the Disney World planning process. I enjoy trying to map out the best plan to maximize our time. This approach helps avoid confusion and meltdowns with the kids. It doesn’t always work, but I take my best shot and learn more each time.
I’m currently planning a family trip to Disney World during my daughters’ Spring Break in March. I’m a little nervous about the crowds, but we won’t be there during Easter Week at least. In this post, I’ll discuss my mindset as I set up the trip’s key parts. There are a lot of decisions at this early time, and I’m just getting started. If you have doubts about the complexities, here is just a sampling of the choices you make when planning a trip to Disney World:
- When should we go?
- How do we get there?
- Do we stay on-site?
- If so, what type of resort?
- How many days?
- Do we park hop?
- What parks should we visit?
- Which FastPasses should we choose?
- Which ADRs do we reserve?
- Do we purchase additional perks?
This list is just a small portion of the choices that planners make when prepping for a Disney trip. You could build a process map on a giant white board to outline the decisions. For every selection, a new group of options emerge. Many are second nature to avid fans, but we have the built-in knowledge. Anyone who’s tried to help a family member or friend understands the challenges. Explaining FastPass Plus and the ways to maximize the service are no picnic even with fairly knowledgeable people.
Choosing a Resort
When planning this trip, I’d actually considered a Disneyland visit for the summer. My youngest daughter turns four next spring, and I eventually decided that the longer plane flight could be too much. Waiting another year for a big California trip seemed like a better idea. Instead, I decided to book a Disney World trip this spring. Despite possibly lower crowds in early June, battling the heat didn’t seem enticing. Once that decision was made, the next choice was picking the resort. We’ve stayed off-site frequently but had a great experience last January at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. This made the choice to stay at a Disney resort an easier one.
I’m not the type of person that believes you must stay at a Disney resort to have the real experience. There are many benefits to staying outside the resort. You can find much larger rooms and condos for a fraction of the price. It’s easy to save money on meals (especially breakfast) through the grocery store. On the other hand, we live in Missouri and aren’t visiting multiple times a year. When we can afford it, I like the vibe of staying at a unique resort. I wouldn’t choose Pop Century over an off-site condo, but a deluxe resort is another matter.
My original thought was choosing a different place to have the chance to experience something new. We plan to spend a lot of time at The Magic Kingdom, so finding a resort closer to that park made sense. My initial choice was the Wilderness Lodge, which had similarities to the Animal Kingdom Lodge but an easier commute. The boat transport was a real draw. It’s a beautiful resort, but it is under construction right now. It eventually lost out to the allure of the animals. We only stayed for four quick nights in January, and the girls adored it. Why not choose a resort that all of us enjoyed?
Once I decided on the Animal Kingdom Lodge, the final choice was the room type. Disney had sent a pin code through the mail with an enticing discount, so we splurged for a savannah room. During our last trip, we had a standard room and lucked out with one near the savannah. We saw quite a few animals from our window. The only downside was a long hike to the lobby and the Mara. Once again using the Touring Plans room request tool, I’m hoping for another great spot. Finding one with a cool view and better access to the amenities is a prime goal.
How to Get There
I’ve jumped ahead by talking about the resort before a more basic choice. Eliminating locals or international visitors, most of us have two transportation options — plane or car? My original plan was flying to save time, but the ticket prices were too high. I followed them for quite a while and never saw anything less than $400 per ticket (not including baggage fees). For a family of four, that’s a hefty price. Even reliable Southwest Airlines had insane rates! I suspect the Spring Break time period is the real culprit. The hotel availability was good, so I’m not convinced it’s going to be insane crowds. St. Louis also is a source of cheap flights.
The decision to drive to Florida affected my choice of the savannah room. Even with decent airfares, the charges would add up fast. The only downside is time, but there are benefits to having a car. We may decide to drive to Epcot and the Animal Kingdom instead of using the buses. It also frees us to spend a day at a beach, which the girls will love. The only downside is the extra time on the road, but that trade-off was easier because of the exorbitant airfares.
Which Parks and How Many Days?
Driving also solidified the number of days we’d spend at the parks. Accounting for more than a day on each side gave only one choice. I booked our room for six nights, which will leave five days for the parks. We won’t rush there on the arrival day; I’ve learned my lesson in that realm. It’s better to settle into the room, go swimming, and eat a relaxing meal. The beach time also will cut into one day and leave us with four full days and one evening. That might seem short, but it’s about right with young kids. We also don’t need to see every single attraction since I know we’ll return down the road.
My first move was to eliminate the Hollywood Studios as an option. There aren’t enough attractions to make it worth a trip. I didn’t buy park hoppers, so I wasn’t going to waste a day. I will miss the Tower of Terror, but it’s not going anywhere (at least in Florida). Another easy choice was slotting two full days at The Magic Kingdom. My older daughter is seven and will ride everything there. There are also plenty of attractions for the whole family too. I still love Epcot, so at least a day there is required. The Animal Kingdom has also grown on me, and it’s really close to our resort. That just leaves the last evening at either Epcot or the Magic Kingdom. I’m leaning towards the former, but a lot depends on the crowds.
It feels a little crazy to dig into the minutiae of each day with the trip months away. This is the essence of modern Disney World trip planning. It forces you to think ahead or risk having limited options in the parks. You can still have a great day without ADRs or even FastPasses. They aren’t required. Given the money I’m spending, however, I prefer to play it safe. Plus, it’s a fun way to spend hours thinking about the upcoming trip. It’s that enjoyment that separates avid Disney fans from the average guest.
I’ve never been a huge ADR guy, especially since we’ve had kids. Character meals are too chaotic and don’t seem worth the price. I typically choose a few meals at interesting places and spend the rest at counter service. This trip is a little different. Given the Spring Break crowds, I’m interested in locking up some meals up front. It’s also effective to set up touring around a few specific points. For example, reserving a late lunch at Be Our Guest means I’ll arrange our day to reach that spot. It’s not an exact science but gives a framework for any plans.
Thus far, I’ve booked ADRs in the parks for lunches at Be Our Guest, Skipper Canteen, Yak & Yeti, and the San Angel Inn. The last choice may be a head-scratcher, but it still has a nice atmosphere. Plus, Epcot is tricky for kids that are picky eaters. The middle two choices will be first-time visits, and I’m really excited to finally check out Skipper Canteen. We’re also returning to Boma for breakfast, a highlight of our last trip.
Preparing for the FastPass Gauntlet
It’s too early to book FastPasses, but they’re already occupying a lot of mental space. I’ve discussed my feelings on FastPass Plus in the past. On the whole, it leads to longer lines at second-tier attractions. Park flow isn’t as smooth, and the tiering at Epcot and the Studios creates more challenges. On the other hand, there are ways to use the system effectively. Now that extra FastPasses are available on the app, even more opportunities exist. It’s not a perfect system, but it still can work if you plan well.
This will be my third trip using FastPass Plus, and the second with the 60-day window. That extra time makes lining up the day pretty easy. The one challenge is Epcot with its three headliners all stuck in Tier 1. If I’m able to grab a Frozen Ever After FastPass (which is no guarantee), the trick is avoiding long lines at Soarin’ and Test Track. Returning to Epcot on the second night will help, but it still might be possible in one day. So much depends on how crazy the crowds are during our visit.
The First Steps
I’ve written almost 2,000 words here on trip planning, and this is just an overview. I’ll spare you all the specifics on the different plans that fly through my head each day. I’m thrilled that we’re heading back to Disney World, and this is one way to build anticipation. It’s important not to go overboard, however. To quote an obvious cliché, it’s a marathon not a sprint. I’ll do the heavy lifting now and then relax during our vacation. It may sound weird yet can work if you take the right mindset. Vacations rarely go as planned, and the surprises are part of the fun.