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Disney World: How to Plan the Ultimate Family Vacation

As a California native, Disneyland will always hold a special place in my heart. Some of my happiest childhood memories are from family vacations and high school choir trips to Disneyland. But while Disneyland may be “The happiest place on Earth,” I have to agree that Disney World is truly “The most magical place on Earth.”

My first visit to Disney World was with my husband on our honeymoon. That week provided us with some of our most magical memories (and an awesome caricature portrait of us). Since then, we’ve been with our daughter a few times to share the magic with her, and her reactions never disappoint. If you’re planning a family vacation to Disney World, here’s my advice for what to consider during the planning process.

Planning your Disney World Vacation

{When To Go}

Disney World: How to Plan the Ultimate Family VacationMagic Kingdom park during Spring Break

This is a big one! It will determine the rest of the decisions you make while planning your Disney World vacation. If you’re going with younger kids who aren’t in school yet, you’re likely free to go whenever you want. If you’re planning your vacation with school-age kids in mind, you’re probably restricted to times when school’s out. Unfortunately, most of those times tend to be the busiest (especially Spring Break). Either way, take a look at this calendar to see the best and worst times to visit Disney World.

As a former teacher, I need to say this – if you’re planning to visit Disney World at a time when classes are being held, please make their homework completion a priority. Utilize travel time there to complete most of it. Allow for time each day to work on it. Use travel time home as material review time for your child. Verify they’ve completed all of their work. Your child’s teacher put a lot of time into compiling their assignments, so please make sure they complete them.

{Where To Stay}

Disney World: How to Plan the Ultimate Family VacationDisney’s BoardWalk Inn (walking distance from Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios)

When deciding where to stay, you have two options. You can either stay at a Disney World Resort (on property) or at one of many Orlando resorts/hotels (off property). No matter where you stay, both options have their own perks and benefits.

Benefits of staying at a Disney World Resort

  • Disney’s Magical Express – enjoy a complimentary motorcoach ride from Orlando International Airport to your Disney Resort. This also include free luggage retrieval and delivery to your room, as well as transportation back to the airport.
  • Resort-to-Park Transportation – take a bus ride from your resort directly to your desired Disney World park. These busses operate round-the-clock and can take you from resort to theme park, Disney Springs, water parks, and back again. Select resorts also offer transportation by monorail and/or boat.
  • Disney Dining Plans – guests of Disney World Resorts are able to purchase a dining plan to use at park and resort restaurants. While you pay an upfront cost for your food, you generally end up saving money on dining. We’ve used the dining plan a few times and we always end up paying less for food. And for guests 21 and over, the dining plans now include the ability to order a beer, wine, or cocktail with your entrée (up to a certain dollar limit). That’s pretty awesome!
  • Complimentary Magic Bands – wear your theme park ticket as a lightweight band on your wrist. Magic Bands also allow you to make charges within the parks, redeem your FastPass+ reservations, and more. If you’re staying off-property, you can purchase Magic Bands (starting at $12.99).
  • Extra Magic Hours – each day, at least one Disney park has Extra Magic Hours before or after normal operating hours for guests of select Disney World resorts. Stay late at Magic Kingdom to ride Space Mountain with minimal wait. Or arrive early at Hollywood Studios to experience the thrills of Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster.

Benefits of staying at an Orlando-area resort (off Disney property)

  • Save Money – room accommodations off-property tend to be cheaper than those on property. If you’re traveling with a large party, you can usually be less cramped in a larger room for less money.
  • Visit Multiple Orlando Attractions – most Orlando resorts are close to multiple theme parks. This way, you can spend a few days at Disney World, visit Harry Potter at Universal Studios, and end your vacation with a day at SeaWorld.
  • Transportation to Orlando Theme Parks – most Orlando guests visit for the theme parks. So, most Orlando resorts have complimentary transportation available to Disney World and other theme parks. Their transportation service may operate less frequently than at Disney World resorts, so check with the resort.
  • More Food Options – staying off-property means you have non-Disney restaurants available for meals and/or snacks. You can grab a quick breakfast at the drive thru before heading to the park. Or leave the park early to grab dinner near your hotel.

{Where To Eat}

Disney World: How to Plan the Ultimate Family VacationFlorida Reef dessert at Flying Fish

Once you purchase your tickets and create an account on the Disney World website, you can make dining reservations up to six months in advance. This is especially useful for restaurants that are booked out for months, like Be Our Guest and Cinderella’s Royal Table. I generally allow our restaurant reservations to dictate which parks we visit each day, especially at Magic Kingdom where many popular restaurants are located.

Here are seven of our favorite restaurants at Disney World:

  • Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper Canteen (Magic Kingdom) – enjoy the flavorful cuisine of Asia, Africa, and South America while being served by Jungle Cruise riverboat pilots. Ok, so maybe they’re not the actual riverboat pilots, but their sense of humor is just the same – puns and dad jokes.
  • Spice Road Table (EPCOT) – immerse yourself in Mediterranean flavors while you enjoy a waterfront view. This restaurant is the perfect spot to enjoy the fireworks show IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth.
  • The Hollywood Brown Derby (Disney’s Hollywood Studios) – I’m not gonna lie – this place is expensive. However, if you’re looking for an unforgettable setting for a family meal to remember, this is it. And their Charred Filet of Beef? Simply phenomenal!
  • Tusker House Restaurant (Disney’s Animal Kingdom) – skip the Rainforest Café and hit up this buffet of African and American cuisine instead. The variety is astounding, and you and your kids get to meet Safari-themed Donald Duck, Goofy, and other Disney characters while you eat.
  • Satu’li Canteen (Disney’s Animal Kingdom) – hands down, this is the best quick service restaurant we’ve eaten at. It’s located in Pandora – The World of Avatar, the newest addition to Animal Kingdom, and the food choices are full of wholesome vegetables, grains, and proteins to keep your energy up. Two big perks – you can order your food ahead with Mobile Order and you’re able to order a beer, wine, or sangria with your meal!
  • Narcoossee’s (Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort) – if your family appreciates superb seafood and steak, make a reservation here. It’s on the pricier side and they have a business casual dress code, but the menu options are worth it. And if you secure a reservation for later in the evening, it’s the best place to enjoy the evening fireworks at Magic Kingdom. They even pump the accompanying music into the restaurant!
  • Flying Fish (Disney’s BoardWalk Resort) – I know it’s another fish restaurant, but this is truly a hidden dining gem at Disney World. The flavors do not disappoint, the desserts are beautiful, and the children’s menu exceeds all expectations of “kid food.” 

{FastPass+}

Disney World: How to Plan the Ultimate Family VacationSpaceship Earth at Epcot, lit up at night

These are, to put it simply, crucial in the planning process. All of the rides at Disney World are popular, regardless of when you visit. And if you go during peak timeframes, you may find yourself waiting in line for two (or more) hours to ride Pirates of the Caribbean. So once you know which parks you’re visiting each day, go online and make your ride reservations.

You have three FastPass+ reservations to use each day (a valid park admission ticket is required). These can be used on select rides, character greetings, and certain shows/fireworks. If you’re staying on Disney property at a Disney World resort, you can make FastPass+ reservations up to 60 days before the start of your vacation. If you’re staying off-property, you can make FastPass+ reservations up to 30 days before the start of your vacation. Either way, make those FastPass+ reservations!

{Know Your Child(ren)’s Limitations}

Disney World: How to Plan the Ultimate Family VacationOur daughter’s leg sticking out while taking a power nap in her stroller

Disney World is for children of all ages! But your children will dictate your daily schedule, including rides and attractions, resting periods, and food. This is especially important to consider if you’re traveling with younger children. Here are some questions to ask yourself throughout the planning process:

  • How late am I comfortable with my child(ren) staying up until?
  • Do we need to work nap time into the day’s activities? 
  • Do we need to schedule regular bathroom breaks? If so, where are bathrooms located within the park/resort area?
  • Are there food allergies that we need to plan for while inside the parks?
  • Is my child tall enough to enjoy thrill rides, or do we need to stick to low-key rides?
  • Does my child enjoy loud music and/or fireworks? When and where do these events occur in each park so we can attend/avoid them?
  • Would I feel safer having a “toddler leash” for my little one(s) so that they can’t wander off?

{A Few Last Tips for You}

Disney World: How to Plan the Ultimate Family VacationBaby Care Centers are located inside each Disney World park

I’ve found these few tips to be extremely helpful in enjoying a Disney World vacation to the fullest. All of them may not apply to you, but I guarantee that some will come in handy.

  • There is a Baby Care Center located inside each Disney World park. Each is equipped with changing tables, bottle warmers, hot water for formula, private nursing rooms (with rocking chairs), a waiting area for families, and the ability to purchase diapers, wipes, sunscreen, and more.
  • If you’re on the dining plan, many breakfast pastries and coffees around the parks count as Snacks. So use up your Snack points on breakfast for the entire family and save your Meal points for lunch and dinner.
  • Bring some snacks for you and your family into the park, like protein bars, bags of chips/crackers, etc. When you’re in a long line and hunger strikes, you’ll be thankful you have them.
  • Disney World doesn’t sell gum anywhere on Disney property (parks or resorts). So if you’re like me and enjoy chewing gum, bring your own into the park. Just promise to throw it away when you’re finished, please.
  • If you’re in a long line, make it an experience rather than allowing it to become a frustration. Disney is notorious for incorporating entertaining details/aspects into their lines, so enjoy them.
  • If you can, ride the Kilimanjaro Safari at Animal Kingdom at night. We recently did, and not only were the lions awake (they’re always sleeping during the day), but we actually got to hear them roar. It was awesome!
  • Pack sunscreen and an umbrella. The sun can be unrelenting, and rain storms are not uncommon in Orlando. So be prepared to have a magical time, rain or shine.
  • Download the My Disney Experience app on your phone. From there, you can make/update Fastpass+ and dining reservations, look up wait times for rides, order food ahead from quick service restaurants, and much more.
  • Bring comfortable shoes! You’re going to be walking 10 – 15 miles each day, no joke. And if you or your children need new shoes, buy them a month before your trip so you have time to break them in.

Whether you’re going this year or in five years, I hope this guide helps you plan the most magical family vacation to Disney World. Drop a comment to let me know what you’re looking forward to most on your visit to Disney World!

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