Sitting down to start planning your Disney vacation can feel so overwhelming. Since fully embracing my Disney obsession, I feel like I’ve tailored my planning process to give me a vacation I can look forward to for months and that I can remember fondly for years. While my strategy may not be right for everybody (disclaimer: I don’t have children, and I’ve been told they change a thing or two when it comes to…oh, everything in life), hopefully I can share a tip or two that help you out!
It’s no secret that planning a Disney vacation can be an undertaking. I mean, just look at all of those acronyms!! (For help deciphering what they all mean, check out Jen’s post on Disney Lingo here!) Don’t worry, though! There are a lot of Disney nuts and plenty of tools out there to help you in this adventure.
Disney Planning Timeline
Depending on how much structure you like while in Disney, you might want to start planning your vacation early. If you’re not familiar with the “Disney” timeline, it’s going to seem like it’s too early, but trust me. It’s not. You can start booking your hotel reservation 499 days out! (Ok, that one is probably too early for most vacation needs, but if you’ve got a huge family reunion to coordinate, maybe that much lead time is great!)
For most vacations, and for all of my vacations to Disney so far, the important number to remember is “180.” 180 days before the first day of your hotel reservation you can start booking advanced dining reservations (or ADRs for those who checked out Jen’s Lingo post!). While some restaurants won’t fill up 180 days out, others are fully booked within seconds of those reservations opening up.
If you’re looking to snag one of those coveted reservations (think: Be Our Guest or Cinderella’s Royal Table), try to put those reservations toward the end of your trip. Think about it this way, if your trip is from the 6th through the 12th of a month, anybody whose trip comes before yours but includes your early days (like a trip from the 1st through the 7th of the same month) will have been able to make dining reservations for the 6th and 7th 180 days before the 1st — specifically, before you can even start accessing dining reservations.
The next important number is “60.” If you’re staying on Disney property, 60 days before the first day of your hotel reservation you can start booking your FastPasses for your whole trip. If you’re not staying on Disney property, you can book FastPasses 30 days before each day of your trip (but you will have to log in 30 days before each day of your vacation).
The last big number is “10.” If you want a customized Magic Band, you must make those customization selections at least 10 days before the start of your trip.
If all of these numbers are making your head spin, check out Nicole’s trip calculator here! Just type in the first day of your vacation and it’ll tell you all the dates you need to mark in your calendar!
Planning Your Disney Days
If you stay on property at Disney, you have access to what are called Extra Magic Hours (EMH — seriously. So many acronyms). This means that people who are staying on-site have access to a particular park either before it opens or after it’s closed to other guests. We’ve historically stayed in a Disney resort (though I acknowledge there are a ton of advantages to staying off-site), and we absolutely love to take advantage of EMH.
Disney parks attract enormous crowds — that’s no surprise to anybody (I hope). We love to take advantage of any opportunity to enjoy parks with lower crowd levels. EMH are great for that.
Because of the value we place on EHM, we often plan our park days around the EMH schedule. Unfortunately, Disney usually releases its park schedule for a day about 180 days out. That means that when you’re planning your ADRs, it’s possible you won’t yet know what the EMH schedule is for your whole trip. I’ve found that I can often use the prior week’s EMH schedule to at least generally guess what the EMH schedule will be for my visit. You can find daily schedules here.
I will plan my ADRs based on that prior week’s EMH schedule, and just check my vacation week’s schedule each day as a new day is released, and adjust if necessary. So far, there haven’t been any unfixable adjustments needed. Let me give a couple of quick examples — if Epcot has night EMH (let’s say from 9-11pm) on a particular night, I’ll probably plan an ADR for dinner in the World Showcase that night because I figure I’ll spend the rest of the evening hanging out in Epcot.
Alternatively, if I see that Magic Kingdom has morning EMH from 8-9AM before th park opens, I won’t book breakfast at the Crystal Palace for 8am because I’d be “wasting” the EMH time sitting down for a (admittedly delightful) breakfast with Pooh and friends. Instead, on that day, I might book a late breakfast around 9:30 or 10. Then, I can enjoy a lower-crowd hour from 8-9 and still grab one last attraction before rope drop at 9am before making it to that (still delightful) buffet.
Planning for Down Time
It can be really easy to get swept up in the parks at Disney. After all, park admission is expensive, so you want to make sure to get your money’s worth out of it! I have taken many trips that are GO! GO! GO! nonstop, and they can be a blast! But they are certainly not the type of vacation where you’ll get home feeling refreshed and relaxed. It’s also really hard for me to GO GO GO for 6 days straight. I’m getting old over here.
For this part of the planning process, it’s best to manage your expectations. Are you really able to go from, 5:30 am until midnight multiple days in a row, on your feet nonstop, walking over 12 miles a day? If so, God bless you — cherish it and rock those days!! If you can’t or maybe just don’t want to, plan some down time.
There are plenty of amazing ways to relax at Disney while still enjoying the Disney experience. You’re paying for your accommodations, whether at a Disney resort or elsewhere, so enjoy them a little! Spend family time playing a game in your room, or sit and people watch on the hotel property! Some hotels, and basically all of the Disney hotels, have incredible pool areas. Check them out!
If that doesn’t appeal to you, check out some of the other Disney spaces on property like the BoardWalk or Disney Springs. These are places where you can sit or stay moving, and just slow down the pace. There’s still tons to see, and so many snacks to be had… (ah, snacks). Eating is another way to take a load off. Plan for a slow-paced meal where you can soak up some air conditioning and let the pulsing in your ankles subside.
There’s no shame in taking a break. Oftentimes, they’ll make the rest of your vacation that much more enjoyable.
Planning Your Disney FastPasses
Picking FastPasses is a huge part of the Disney planning process, so it might seem odd for me to have left it for last. The reason I did is that there’s only so much advice I can give. The FastPasses you choose should really depend on what you and your vacation group want to do!
That brings me to my first piece of FastPass advice. If your group can’t agree on what to do for all days of your trip, consider scheduling some time where you split up to do different things. It’s ok if you don’t spend every single minute of a vacation with the whole vacation group. It doesn’t make you any less of a family or any worse friends. Figure out the balance that works best for you.
Next – please, PLEASE don’t schedule a FastPass for right at rope drop. You’re wasting your FastPass! If you get to the park before it opens and situate yourself appropriately in the crowd waiting to get in, you can always boogie your way to a ride you’re super excited for and hop on it with a wait significantly shorter than you’d see during the day. Give yourself some time after a park opens before you pick your first FastPass. I’ll usually book my first one (assuming I’m using my FastPasses in the morning) no earlier than an hour after rope drop.
Don’t think that you need to cram your FastPasses into the early part of the day. If you know you’re cool with having a chill morning where you ride some easy-to-get-on attractions and watch some shows, save your FastPasses for the afternoon, when parks are busier and lines are longer. If you do book your FastPasses in the AM, though, try to keep them close together, because once you check in for the third one, you can go ahead and book another FastPass on that day!
Know your FastPass preferences before your booking window opens up. You do not want to be guessing and flailing while other guests snatch up FastPasses you were hoping for. Also – have backups! It’s very possible that certain high-demand attractions won’t have FastPasses available when you go to book (I see you, Flight of Passage and Slinky Dog Dash). Don’t be disheartened. There are other opportunities to hop on those rides (these are good EMH or rope drop attractions).
Lastly, communicate with your crew (unless you’re taking a solo trip — which I cannot wait to do someday!). Try to have each person think of some must-dos that they’ve really got their heart set on and do what you can to make some happen for everybody.
Disney is magical and a great place to spend time with loved ones! Remember that and you’ll have a great vacation. I know this is just a quick overview and there are so many other details to consider when planning, so make sure to check out all the resources we have to offer (like packing lists and other printables!) and reach out with any questions! You can find me on Instagram at @castleboundkim.