Our trip requires more than the average, I think. Most people like to fly directly to Orlando and rely on Disney's transportation the whole time. Some people stay off-site. Some have kids with car seats and baby gear needs, and some don't. Our trip? Well, it basically requires everything.
Our trip has a lot of boxes to check! That said, my list covers it all, so whether you've got a breezy direct trip, or something more complicated like ours - I've got you covered!
1. Decide what type of trip you're taking.
Our first Disney plan was a week+ long, fully loaded with both park trips and rest/pool days. It was a bit extravagant for the ages of our kids and the amount of money we had to spend. We ended up settling on a 4-night, 3 park day trip with everything scaled back just a little. We're calling this our "teaser/scouting" trip so we can determine what we love and don't for our splurgey trip in a few years. So going into it, know how many nights you want to stay, and how many parks you want to visit.
2. Pick a few date ranges.
Our Disney trip was really unexpected - we started out just pricing out the slower times to travel there, and ended up with a booked trip! Check out some calendars made by Disney gurus to find when the crowds and prices will be low. The ones that helped us decide when to go were THIS one from WDW Prep School and THIS one from Easy WDW.
3. Get your Disney quotes.
Don't book just yet - just get an idea of what your trip will cost. You can easily get your own quotes directly from Disney's website (<-- click there), and you shouldn't have too much trouble finding their current sales and promotions. OR, you can use a AAA Magic Maker, who not only gets you extra discounts on your quotes (ours saved us about $350 so far), they keep track of new discounts that are added and can apply them to your trip all the way until your travel date. They are also a wealth of information about anything Disney you can possibly think of. You can research the heck out of something, but sometimes it's nice to have someone to ask to know the answer without a doubt!
4. Book your flights.
If you've decided to fly (which is extremely preferable to our family, that lives about a 20 hour drive away), I would book your flights before booking your Disney stay. There won't be a vacation if you can't get there, right? And I'd hate to be tied into a date range that only has expensive flights available. I would shop flights and book those, and then adjust your Disney stay dates as necessary.
5. Book your lodging & park tickets.
NOW book your Disney stay. It's usually much more affordable to book a resort package that includes both your lodging and park tickets, and if you chose - a dining package. The dining package IS a bit pricey, but if you want to do character meals and sit down dinners, I think it's totally worth it. Plus, you can order whatever you want (even the priciest entree - just not alcoholic or novelty drinks), and I'd much rather sit down and order guilt-free than seeing a ton of debit card transactions adding up. Anyway - some people chose to stay off-site, or in a non-resort hotel, so I would book that now to make sure you have somewhere to stay when your plane lands, and then scoop up your park tickets.
6. Book your car rental.
Most people won't need this as they fly directly into Orlando, take the free Disney shuttle to their resort, and then ride the shuttles between their resort and the parks. We are flying into another part of Florida to spend a few days with Matt's parents, so we'll be renting a car big enough to carry our family of 5 (including 3 car seats), and driving it to our Disney resort. We may or may not use it to travel between all of the parks, but regardless - we need to get there! You can usually book through your airline, or through any major car rental service.
7. Book your stroller rental.
Having a stroller is crucial for little ones' feet, as well as storage for getting through park days. We have a City Mini Double that I LOVE (I actually fell in love with them while renting one for a trip to Universal), but I don't want to bring it along. I'm not only worried about it getting damaged or stolen (that thing was NOT cheap!), but we already have to travel with three car seats and check them at the gate, along with our carry ons and carting our check-in bags to and from our vehicles. We just can't swing that with 2 adults. I like using Orlando Rentals - they are so great. They drop whatever you rent off at your hotel and pick it up, too. We had a great experience last time, and we plan to use them again!
8. Reserve your dining.
Disney allows dining reservations within 180 days of booking your trip. Many of the popular character or sit-down dinner experiences will book up on that 180th day before you go, so either be prepared to book that day, or if you're traveling in less time than that, expect the most popular restaurants to be full. We missed out on dinner at Be Our Guest and Chef Mickey's since we were traveling 80 days after booking, but I think we've made up for it with what we did get. Reserving your dining asap will help you make the most of your dining plan, and also help direct the rest of your stay by determining where you'll be each day, and in what areas of the parks. You can do all of this on My Disney Experience online, or download the free app! I'm loving the app so far!
9. Make your "must do list"
Once you know where and when you'll be in each park, look at the lists of attractions for each one and decide what your family would really like to do. Our lists are different from many, I think - my kids are (obviously) not into princesses, are too small for the busy thrill rides, and will only want to go on the slow-moving and game-based rides. This actually really helped us fill our day with lots to do, without the threat of ultra-long lines and too much rushing. Regardless of your family's priorities, though, having a "must do" list will make sure there's no regrets afterwards.
10. Plot out a general idea of your park days.
Break out the park maps online, make note of where your dining reservations are, and then connect the dots between those and your "must do" list. Also check out those crowd calendars again to get an idea of how much time you'll be spending in lines without fast passes. Make a rough, over-estimated timeline of what and when you'll tackle. This doesn't mean you HAVE to stick to this, but if you have a general layout, you'll have a much better chance of having a full, enjoyable day. Chances are, you'll have time to stop into shops and snack areas, and re-ride things you loved that don't have long waits. Also - doing this helps you see what makes sense. We were originally going to spend two days at Magic Kingdom based on everyone's advice that we'd need at least 2 days there. Without all the princess stuff on our agenda, I had trouble coming up with enough stuff to do on the second day, so we decided to make that a Hollywood Studios days instead, and adjusted our dining reservations.
11. Prepare your list of FP+ wants.
Disney on-site resort guests with My Disney Experience can book THREE fast passes PER PARK day 60 days in advance! So cool! If you're staying off-site, but still have your trip linked to MDE, you can book them 30 days in advance. By doing steps 8-10, you'll have an idea of what three fast passes you want to utilize each day and what time of the day you want them. You have to book 3 at one time, or they'll pick random ones for you, so even if you have attractions on your "must do" list that have low wait times, you may want to grab one, anyway. On the day of your park visit, once you get through those 3 fast passes, you can add another at a kiosk, and every time you complete it, you can add another. So if you really organize your wants ahead of time, you can have a breezy park day!
12. Personalize your Magic Bands.
This is SUCH a simple thing to do through My Disney Experience. You have until 11 days before your trip to personalize them, but why wait? All you have to do is chose which color everyone would like, and what name you'd like printed on them. Chances are, you'll know everyone's name and favorite colors more than 11 days before your trip ;)
13. Book your FP+ selections.
Be ready to load up your fast pass selections when you hit the 60 or 30 day mark before your trip, and don't forget to do it now!
14. Make your packing lists.
There are SO many useful Disney packing lists out there! Google for them or check Pinterest - they're a great starting point, and many include a few items you might not think to bring (like clothes pins for hanging wet bathing suits, ponchos for sudden downpours, etc.) I also like to make shopping lists before we travel, because I know there are things I need to collect to make the trip more smooth. I'll post lost more about this soon!
15. Shop for packing necessities.
Every once in a while, squeeze in a stop between your daily errands. I find this makes things much easier to complete, and less daunting price-wise than dropping a bunch of money at once right before the trip. I have lists going for Dollar Tree, Target, the Disney Store Outlet, and the grocery store. We'll work these stops in here and there leading up to our trip.
16. Stay organized.
Disney trips require SO MUCH planning and preparation in order to make the most out of them. You're spending a good chunk of money, even if you took a value route, so it's important to maximize your investment in family memories. A little extra planning and tracking can eliminate stress, on-the-spot indecision, and missing things entirely. I like to keep spreadsheets on Google drive (so I can see them from my phone, computer, or iPad) to keep track of my shopping lists, packing progress, dining reservations and fast passes, and more.