You probably already know what kind of planner you are. You may be the person that has a binder with spreadsheets detailing every part of the day, or you may be the person that rolls in to try whatever strikes your fancy. No matter what kind of planner you happen to be, I would encourage everyone, especially first-time visitors to Walt Disney World, to take some time to prepare and have a plan in place before you arrive at the parks. For those who haven’t been, Disney World is bigger, more crowded, and more complicated than you think, but a little preparation goes a long way. Here are a few tips for planning a Disney itinerary.
Step 1: Start with how many days you plan to visit the parks, and decide how much time you want to spend in each park. If you want to see most of the major attractions at all four parks, you will want 5-6 days to do so at a comfortable pace. I would strongly recommend that you spend 2 days, or more, at the Magic Kingdom – it has the most rides and is a difficult park to accomplish in one day. Epcot is also easier to finish in 2 days, though all of its rides can be accomplished in 1 day with relative ease. It is pretty easy to see most of the major attractions at Hollywood Studios and the Animal Kingdom in 1 day with a good plan. For a 5-day trip, plan 2 days at the Magic Kingdom, and 1 at each of the other parks. If you have visited the parks already, you will have a good idea of where you want to spend the most time. If this is your first trip, I would try to visit each park at least once – each one has great attractions to offer. If you are planning to visit other destinations in Orlando, take those into account, as well – SeaWorld can usually be done in a day, and the two Universal parks probably need two days minimum.
Step 2: Once you have your dates nailed down, decide which day you want to visit each park. How you do this depends on a number of factors, so here is what to consider when you choose your days:
Park Hours – opening and closing hours can vary widely at the parks (particularly closing times at the Magic Kingdom), so if you want more time in the parks, know which day to go. You can check hours for each park at the Walt Disney World Website under Parks & Tickets.
Shows and Special Events – some shows or events only happen on certain days. In the off-season, Fantasmic at Hollywood Studios is sometimes not shown every night. Events like Star Wars Weekends or Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party are only on select dates, so check these dates as you plan your itinerary to make sure you can take them in (or avoid them if you are not attending). For events that happen every day during the event period, like the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, try to attend on a weekday – there will be fewer crowds.
Extra Magic Hours – if you are staying at a Disney resort hotel, you will have access to extra park hours where only resort guests are allowed in. These can occur in the morning or evening at different parks throughout the week. If you are not a Disney resort guest, avoid Extra Magic Hour parks – they will be more crowded. I have found Evening Extra Magic Hours to be the most useful – they often allow several extra hours for the crowds to go down so that you can enjoy more attractions.
Park Hopper – if you decide to purchase the Park Hopper option, you can visit more than one park in a single day. This offers a lot more flexibility when planning your itinerary. The standard way to use this option is to visit one park in the morning, eat lunch and take a break, then head to another park for the evening. Decide which different parks you want to visit in each day, and which ones you want to visit mornings and evenings.
Half Days – depending on how you travel to Walt Disney World, you will probably have a half-day at the beginning and end of your trip from arriving in the morning or leaving in the evening. Do you want to spend these half-days in the park? There are other things to do that do not require using a park ticket, like visiting Downtown Disney, touring other Disney resorts, or visiting the pool. We like hitting the parks as much as possible, so we spend these days in the parks – just know what you want to do with these days ahead of time.
Crowds – some days at the park are just more crowded than others. The Magic Kingdom tends to be more crowded on the weekends, so try to visit it on a Monday or Tuesday and go to the Animal Kingdom on Saturday instead. If a park had Evening Extra Magic Hours one night, then the next day it will be a lot less crowded because most resort guests will be visiting a different park or sleeping in.
Ride Closures – the parks occasionally close rides for refurbishment. Most of these happen during the off-season, but they still happen sometimes during busy periods. Sometimes these closures are for weeks, but other times they are only for a couple days. Check ride closures before you go to see if you need to plan around any to visit your must-do ride.
Step 3: Make those dining reservations! Advance Dining Reservations for table-service restaurants are highly recommended, and are sometimes the only way you can get in to certain popular restaurants (Cinderella’s Royal Table, Be Our Guest Restaurant, Chef Mickey’s, and Le Cellier are notoriously difficult to reserve). Reservations can be made 180 days out from your trip (if you are staying at a resort and you reach the 180-day mark, you can make reservations for the next ten days as well). It may seem strange to start planning your itinerary 6 months out from your trip, but when you make your dining reservations you will want to know where you plan to be on each day. Try not to plan an early lunch at an Animal Kingdom Lodge restaurant and then a morning at the Magic Kingdom – that’s a bit of a commute. If you don’t have a rough plan before selecting your dining, then be prepared to shape your itinerary to your dining plans. More info on dining reservations is available here.
Step 4: Decide what attractions you want to see. Once you have your days and dining planned, look at what rides and shows you want to experience during your day. Check out show schedules on the Disney World website (and remember to grab a Times Guide when you arrive at the parks, because showtimes can change). To see a list of the rides and shows Disney World has to offer, check out my attraction guides to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. Also be sure to check out ride closures. List which rides and shows you want to see on your itinerary for each day, and know which attractions will be the highest priority for your group. While you’re at it, find a map of the parks to peruse (you can order some free ones here). You don’t have to memorize the map, but knowing where the rides are will prevent a lot of zig-zagging across the park, and you can plan your itinerary based on rides located close to each other (if you’re going to ride Splash Mountain, go ahead and ride Big Thunder while you’re there). Also, you’ll save time if you already know where you’re going when you arrive. Note that doing EVERYTHING at the parks is very difficult, and I would not recommend it – there are so many rides and shows that even people who have visited a dozen times have not done everything, and trying to do it all in five days will likely be too much for your group.
Step 5: Plan how you want to use your FastPasses. Disney recently rolled out their new FastPass+ program. There is more detailed info on this here. A FastPass allows you to go to an attraction during a pre-selected 1-hour time slot and enter a separate line in order to ride the attraction with a much shorter wait. Under the new program, guests are able to reserve 3 FastPasses per park, per day, ahead of time. Once guests have used their 3 initial FastPass selections, they can make additional selections at in-park kiosks. Thus, you will want to know which attractions to FastPass ahead of time. Make sure to know the details of how FastPass+ works, because some details differ at each park. The attractions included in FastPass+ are also listed in my attraction guides linked above. For more concrete ideas of how to incorporate FastPass+ into your itinerary, look at my sample itineraries for the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom.
Step 6: Most of the major planning is done now, but there are a few other things to consider. Keep in mind how long it will take you to get between the parks and where you are staying. This can vary if you are staying off-site, but on-site transportation can sometimes take 15-45 minutes, depending on how crowded it is and how long you wait for the bus/boat/monorail to arrive. If you are staying off-site, also factor in the time it will take for you to visit a kiosk and make FastPass+ reservations. Plan some breaks into your itinerary, also – you don’t need (or want) to go like mad all day long. Look at some ideas for taking breaks here. If your trip is 5 days or longer, consider taking a day off from the parks to go swimming, do some other resort activities, dine at some of the Disney resorts’ fabulous restaurants, or shop at Downtown Disney.
Remember that planning your trip, and your itinerary, should be fun! Involve your group in the process and build excitement for your trip, and know that the planning will definitely pay off once you’re in the parks.
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