The goal of our Disney World Planning guide is to give you helpful tips on how to save money, the best times to visit, avoiding crowds, where to eat, the best rides to go on and daily itineraries for Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Epcot theme park. Our advice can apply to everyone from AP Holders to first-time visitors. We regularly travel as a family so we have great advice for those traveling with younger kids all the way up to teenagers. This post is regularly updated so you can be confident in being up-to-date (Updated February 3rd, 2021).
COVID-19 & WALT DISNEY WORLD
Things are a bit different at Walt Disney World right now with the COVID pandemic. For several months, the parks were closed (march-July). They did reopen in July and have remained opened thus far. As far as we can tell, Disney will not be closing the resort again unless they are forced to do so by state officials.
One of the biggest impacts on 2021 is crowd capacity limits. Disney has been limiting the number of guests into the parks by using a Park Pass Reservations system. Essentially, any guest who wants to visit the parks has to make an advanced reservation first. By doing this, Disney can control the amount of people coming into the parks, thus allowing them to help maintain social distancing guidelines as well as other health measures.
Initially Disney was at 25% capacity when they reopened in July thru mid-September 2020. Currently in 2021 they are allowing somewhere around 35% with this number increasing slowly over the next several months. We anticipate summer 2021 being fairly normal with the possibility of Disney removing their Park Pass Reservation System.
Some services have changed including tickets and dining. Tickets for 2020 were limited to base tickets only, there was no park hopping allowed. Also, the water parks are not currently open though they are scheduled for sometime next year. As of January 1st, 2021, park hopping is back up and running for guests to use and will continue through the rest of this year. We don’t foresee Disney taking any steps back at this point. Most likely things will be back to “normal” around October 2021.
Dining locations are mostly open though several are still closed. The ones that are open have capacity limits due to distancing. For more details on what it’s like to visit the parks and dine, read my reopening journal series. Dining reservations are limited to 60 days in advance in 2021.
Lastly, some resort hotels are still closed but most are open. As Disney monitors COVID they will continue to open resort hotels. Almost all DVC resorts are open for members and their guests.
For more details on how COVID-19 is affecting Disney World consult our COVID-19 Disney World Planning Guide; a temporary guide that dives deeper into this topic.
WHEN TO VISIT DISNEY WORLD
While we can give you advice as to the best times to visit Disney World, usually this question has already been answered by you due to a promotion of sorts that has you researching a Disney vacation. These are typically the Free Disney Dining Plan promotion or a package that includes free days and big savings on resort hotel rooms. Whatever the reason is, you’re going to have to visit during the promotion period. If however you are open to choosing your vacation week we can give you a simple break down here. If you want something more be sure to read our Best and Worst Months to Visit Disney World guide.
As we mentioned above, a promotion may dictate when you vacation at the resort and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, discounts should be a reason to travel to Disney World so kudos to you for thinking in a savings way. This particular promotion runs at different times during the year and will lay out the weeks and months that it can be used.
Other discounts to look for include spring special offer tickets which pop-up occasionally. Right now Disney is running a Spring special where guests can get 2 free days at the parks when they book a package. This is a fantastic deal and should be used if you can. It starts January 5th, 2021.
January and February are great months to travel in. With the Holidays ending and school starting around Jan 5th of each year, the parks slow down significantly. We only caution you to avoid the Monday holidays including Martin Luther King and Presidents Day. These tend to bring out the weekend warriors and annual passholders for a quick 2-3 day vacation.
These months have also become home to the Festival of Arts at Epcot which is a lot of fun. Food, drink and art to say the least.
Spring is Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival. Like all their other festivals there’s food, drink and lots of fun activities like topiaries and workshops. Kids will find treasure hunts throughout the park and adults can enjoy live music at the American Adventure pavilion.
March and April are the months for spring breaks. They start earlier and earlier every year so most of these months are shot to bigger crowds and longer wait times. If you are going to be travelling during these months try the first week of March and the last week of April.
May is an interesting month because spring breaks have ended but grad nights are about to start. It’s best to watch a calendar for specific dates of grad nights and to avoid those days if possible. They tend to be mid-late May. If we were to travel during this month we would go within the first two weeks.
Summer time is the worst time to travel to Disney World because it’s hot, humid and busy. With school out and families taking vacations, this is exactly where they come. We’re not saying you shouldn’t go during these months but be prepared.
September and October are good months to travel in post Labor Day and pre-Halloween. Disney typically runs their Halloween Parties during late August thru October 31st if you want to catch one.
November and December at the Holidays months and there’s a lot to see and do. This is the busiest season of the year for Disney World but not necessarily the busiest weeks in a row. Early November is slower. Thanksgiving week is very busy. Early December is slower and then the last 2 weeks are very, very busy. We don’t travel to the parks during these weeks because it’s just too much with kids.
If you do want to make it during the Holiday celebrations be sure to catch Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party which is held at Magic Kingdom theme park.
HOW LONG TO VISIT
Most of the time your schedule will dictate how long you’ll be able to visit the parks. The average family visits for 1 entire week with 5 to 6 days in the parks. First time visitors should aim for 7 days in the parks in order to see and do it all.
We recommend visiting the parks for 3 to 4 days and then taking an entire day to relax at the pool, head to the beach or shop and Disney Springs. Whatever you choose, a break is really nice so you don’t get worn out.
A lot of guests who come from out of town also tend to visit other non-Disney theme parks like Universal Orlando. Factoring that in you’d probably be at 8 theme park days total. If you’ve never been to Universal we would recommend you take 1-2 days to experience it, particularly The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It’s split between 2 parks and depending on how busy it is can be done in 1 to 2 days.
Our very basic suggestion is if you’re going to be going to the parks for less than 5 days, try and visit all 4 parks. 5 or more days hit all 4 parks and then your favorites after this.
WHERE TO STAY
We’re big fans of staying on property because there are so many benefits. However, we also understand that this doesn’t always work for everyone. Having stayed at all property hotels and several off property, we have lots to recommend. Be sure to see our in-depth guide where we dig deep into each resort hotel, offering the pros and cons of staying there. We keep these regularly updated from our most recent stays so you can be in know.
Over the past several years Disney has raised their prices for staying on property. This means when you go to search for a price you may be startled. While Disney may offer discounts and promotions on hotel stays, it’s always going to be more expensive to stay on property than off.
Value Resorts are the best bet for anyone who is debating whether to stay on or off because of price. There are 4 of them and they start around $110 per night when they’re on promotion. Not all of them are created equal though so be sure to see our Value Resort Rankings guide to see which ones top our list.
Moderate Resorts are a nice step up from Value and tend to have better placement on property to the parks. You can read all about our Moderate Resort Rankings to help you decide which one would be the best for your stay. There are quite a few that are must-stays for us and we think you’d enjoy them as well. Overall though, Moderate Resorts are the most popular hotels for guests who need a step up from standard.
Deluxe Resorts are the crem dela crem, offering the best rooms, the best locations and the best resort dining. While these rooms may seem expensive we think they are worth the extra money. See out rankings for Deluxe Resorts and see which ones have climbed our chart and which ones have fallen over the years.
Deluxe Villas are Disney Vacation Club rooms at Deluxe Resorts and can be rented for quite a bit less with our preferred partner. Rooms with 1 bedrooms and up have full kitchens and are great for those who are wanting to have groceries delivered to them.
There are other reasons for staying on property that can mean more than location and transportation. First there’s the 60 day booking window for FastPass+ instead of the 30 day window for guests staying off property. This can be the difference of you being able to ride Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway or Flight of Passage or not. That’s because these tend to book up completely at 60 days out.
So rather than wait 100+ minutes to ride them, by staying on property and getting a FastPass+ for them can save you a bunch of time and ultimately help you get more done. If you end up booking 3 bigger attractions for the day, you could save up 6 hours of line time. This is something that should be considered when choosing where to stay.
Resort guests also get their pick of MagicBands before they arrive and get a special discount on them. While they used to be free for resort guests, beginning January 1st, 2021 they are now $5 for the basic colors. If you want to go beyond basic they do offer special character and park bands for $10, $15 or $20. This can save you up to $15 per band.
If you love buying things in the parks but hate carrying it around with you, resort hotel guests are able to have them delivered from the parks to their hotel room for free. We love this service and can’t wait for it to come back sometime in 2021.
We used to not be fans of vacation packages because we thought we could save a lot more by booking everything separate. While this may be true for people who are redeeming points for a hotel or have received free tickets as a gift, for everyone else, booking separately can be a pain. So for anyone out there who loves convenience, packages are probably for you.
First off, don’t be like everyone else who books their package right from Disneyworld.com. Even with a promotion, you’ll always pay what everyone else is paying or rack rate. You can find much better deals like booking through our preferred Travel Partner The Mouse Savers. Not only do they have a best price guarantee on their packages, for anyone who uses them from our website, they will take an additional $25 off your package price.
When it comes to booking a Disney World vacation package, you want to use someone who specializes in them, not someone who can do it because you asked. Companies like AAA and Costco can’t offer the expertise that companies like The Mouse Savers can. When searching for a company who did packages, we loved that they only book Disney and nothing else. Plus their agents visit the parks multiple times during the year so they are very experienced in all things with the resort.
Second, when you’re looking for a package, you’re probably going to be staying on property, especially if you want to take advantage of the Disney Dining Plan. This means your package will consist of a hotel room, tickets, dining and possibly airfare (though we recommend using a different tools online for this). If you’re staying off property, it probably will be cheaper to book separately.
Agencies like The Mouse Savers don’t charge a fee for booking your package. They are paid a commission from Disney and will not tac on anything or have hidden fees. Even better, your quote is always free so you can make sure it’s perfect before committing to anything.
Walt Disney World has one of the most complex systems for tickets since they moved to a date-based system a while back. Basically how this works is each day is priced differently based on many factors including time of year and how busy the parks will be. For example, a Monday-Friday in January will be cheaper than a Monday-Friday in July. This is because summer time is a busier season than January after the Holiday season.
Timing your vacation during the right season can help you save some decent money, so keep that in mind. You may want to look at our guide to the best time to visit Walt Disney World. It gives a more in-depth explanation of each month and how you can avoid large crowds. Buying your tickets from an authorized seller like Undercover Tourist can save you upwards to $79 per ticket which is highly recommended.
Along with date-based pricing, there are several options to choose from that you can add to your tickets. The most popular one is the park hopper option. This allows you to visit several parks in the same day if you so desire. We only recommend this option for guests who have been to the resort several times. Otherwise you may want to skip this option and just plan to visit 1 park per day.
Park Hopper Plus Tickets give you the Park Hopper “plus” some extra fun things to do. It can be confusing so pay attention. Here’s a list of fun things you can do when you purchase this ticket:
- 9 holes at Disney’s Oak Trail Golf Course
- Blizzard Beach Water Park
- Typhoon Lagoon Water Park
- Winter Summerland Miniature Golf
- Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf
- ESPN Wide World of Sport Complex
So those are the fun things you can do, now how can you use them? It’s based on however many days your ticket is. If you buy a 5 day Park Hopper Plus ticket you’ll receive 5 fun visits to do. And you can use them however you want in whatever order you want.
DINING AT DISNEY WORLD
Where to begin. Disney World is so much more than burgers, hot dogs and popcorn, so get that out of your head right now. With hundreds of offerings from around the world (and we’re not just talking Epcot) any foodie would find themselves in paradise here. There have been and will be times where we go to Disney World just for the food offerings and nothing more. The point we’re trying to make is that dining can and should be an important part of your planning and experience.
For anyone who wants to explore dining even deeper we do have a Disney World Dining Guide that can help you choose specific restaurants to visit and our rankings of them. We even have a guide for eating for 2 at the parks if you’re headed there for just a casual lunch or romantic dinner.
Disney has several categories for dining that are available at each of the parks, resort hotels, Disney Springs and entertainment areas like The Boardwalk. Your most basic food falls into Quick Service which offers meals like salads, chicken, burgers, wraps, pizza by the slice, fruit cups, vegetables and kids meals. They tend to operate as a counter order, get your food and then go sit somewhere. These are by far the most abundant food options.
Next you have sit-down dining which is what it sounds like. You’ll be waited on and your food will be made fresh from a kitchen and brought out. Sit-down dining usually requires advanced reservations but you can also try and do a walk-in. We recommend the reservation option, especially for a place you really want to try. Sit-downs can range from $12 per plate all the way up to $60+ for a restaurant like Victoria and Alberts. For more details on the best sit-downs at Walt Disney World consult our guide.
Ever wanted to dine with your favorite Disney characters (or at least your kids)? Character Dining is offered at all 4 parks and several resort hotels so you can live this dream. These are typically done in a buffet style with character interactions happening throughout. You want to make advanced reservations for these places. Be sure to read about each one as different restaurants have different characters available.
Bars and Lounges are a great place to relax, get a drink and just talk. After a long day at Disney, these are our go-to places. Having said that, there are some bars and lounges that we prefer to go to over Quick Service restaurants just because they offer some amazing food. Take a look at Disney World’s Top Rated Bars & Lounges to see what we’re talking about. Every park and most resort hotels have lounges to enjoy.
Lastly, there are snack carts at all the parks, everywhere you turn, offering delicious smells of popcorn, pretzels, pastries, crepes, and so much more. There’s an endless amount of them and you never have to worry about finding one. Snacks are a great way to tied you over until a meal. Be sure to read about our top snacks at Disney World which is sure to get your mouth watering and stomach rumbling.
To cap things offer, guests are in no way expected to dine in the parks at Disney’s restaurants. In fact, a lot of the time we pack our own meals, mostly snacks, for each day. The best way to do this is to have groceries delivered to your hotel. There are several options for this service out there. The one we recommend the most is Walmart+. You get to purchase groceries at Walmart pricing and have them delivered to your hotel for free. Not a Walmart+ member? You can do a free trial while you’re travelling! It’s really a win-win and can help you save a lot of money vs. eating in the parks.
ATTRACTIONS AND ENTERTAINMENT
It’s always a good idea to have a plan in place before heading to Disney World. Unlike 10 years ago where you could just show up and go on rides, dine and not worry about anything, Disney World is anything but that now. You do need to have a plan but it doesn’t need to be anything crazy, so put away those digital planners and notebooks.
When planning attractions and entertainment, we always start with FastPass+. We’re not going to dive deep into this here but we highly recommend you read our FastPass+ Planning Guide for some good pointers and to help you make the most of them. We even have our top 6 tips for planning FastPass+ to help you avoid common mistakes and keep your wait times to a minimum.
Not having a plan, particularly for first time visitors can ruin a vacation. It means standing in long lines and dealing with longer wait times than you needed to. Some guests will even skip an attraction just because the wait time is too long. This is unnecessary and completely avoidable.
Our first plan of attack for attractions is looking at park hours and entertainment. You’re going to want to know which parks are open latest and which nights you can catch certain firework shows. They don’t run every night so look at these first and plan accordingly.
Next is scheduling FastPass+. Assuming you’re staying on property you can do this 60 days in advance of your first day in the parks. It’s all done on Disneyworld.com or through the My Disney Experience Mobile App. First, create an account if you don’t already have one. Then add guests to your account. Third, add your tickets assuming you already have them. Next is your resort hotel (or your package). At 60 days out you’ll want to be on your computer at 7am EST to start booking.
You get 3 FastPass+ bookings per day, at one park. Once you use these up you can get another one and so on whether it’s at the same park or a different one. Point is, use them and keep them scheduled. It’s the best way to get on attractions and avoid long wait times.
For guests who have smaller children you’re going to want to consult each attraction to see if there is a height limit or not. If there is, plan accordingly. Disney provides parents with a swap pass if one must remain behind to watch a child who does not meet the height requirement. This swap allows the first parent to go and then when they’re done, the other parent can go on the ride via the FastPass+ line.
TRANSPORTATION AND AIRFARE
As we’re sure you’ve figured out by now, Walt Disney World is massive, and getting around it is an important part of planning. Disney themselves offer many options for guests including airport transportation and resort hotel to parks and Disney Springs. These are free options to guests staying on property. While these seem convenient not everyone finds them useful. Some prefer to drive themselves to the parks while others take use services like Uber or LYFT.
For anyone who’s planning to stay on property and is flying in to Orlando Intl. Airport, we highly recommend using Disney’s Magical Express service. It’s free, very easy to use and will get you right to your hotel after you’ve arrived. Some of the services included are luggage delivery for checked bags and comfortable seats with entertainment on the way to your hotel. This service is also offered when your vacation is over and you’re headed back home.
If you’re not staying on property but need a ride to your hotel from the airport, we recommend getting an Uber, LYFT, using Mears Shuttle Service or renting a car. Uber and LYFT are readily available and can be requested once you’ve gathered all your luggage. They typically run about $40 for a group of 5 from the airport to the Walt Disney World area.
For anyone looking to rent a car just be aware of the parking costs at the resorts and or theme parks. Currently Disney is charging $25 for a car to park at one of their theme parks. This is a per day cost and is valid for all visited theme parks that day. If you’re staying at a property hotel your overnight charge includes theme park parking. Value resorts are $15 per night. Moderate resorts are $20 per night and Deluxe resorts are $25 per night. Guests can choose preferred parking for for an additional cost.
Rentals typically run between $12 and $30 per day depending on the size of vehicle you get. If you’re planning on day tripping away from Disney World and heading to the beach or another local attraction, you may want to rent a car. If you only need a rental car for a day Disney does offer a on-site rental station for this. Prices are a bit higher than if you rented from the airport but if you only need it for one day it’s worth the extra cost. Disney provides a free shuttle from your hotel to the rental station and back.
Disney’s internal bus system is extensive and for property hotel guests, can get you almost anywhere you want to go; if you have the time. It’s really a double edged sword. On one side, the transportation is free and will eventually get you to where you want to be including the theme parks, Disney Springs and other resort hotels. On the other side is time and it’s not your friend. Nothing is calculated when it comes to using this busing system. If you really need to be somewhere at a specific time you either need to leave really early or use a different method of transportation.
Guests who aren’t staying on property can still use the bus system for free. The only thing it won’t do is take you to your off-property hotel.
For the most part however, the bus system is great when you have the right attitude. Going into with the mindset that you’re not in a huge hurry, you don’t have to pay and you’ll eventually get to where you want to go is key to enjoying it.
Also available to use at the Walt Disney World Resort is Uber and LYFT. This is our favorite way to get around. They’re readily available and are much faster than taking a bus typically. They can pick you up and drop you off at any theme park, Disney Springs, and resort hotel. They’ll run you between $5-$15 per ride. For more details on using Uber and LYFT be sure to read our featured guide which can help you score some free rides.
Walt Disney World has 4 massive theme parks. Getting around can be tiring. Many people need strollers or mobility scooters to make the trip more manageable. However, transporting mobility scooters or strollers while on vacation can be incredibly difficult. We have found that renting is definitely the way to go in this area!
Having your rental items delivered directly to you, and then picked up when you’re done makes it so you can just focus on enjoying your vacation. We highly recommend Amusement Park Rentals for your next vacation! The quality, reliability, and service can’t be beat. They are our choice for rentals when we visit Orlando.
Did we miss something that you feel is important? Do you have some expert advice to share with us? Please do! We put these guide together with you in mind so if there’s something we didn’t answer please let us know. We’re happy to respond to your questions and suggestions. If you want to keep up to date with theme park news, guides and discounts be sure to join our Free Monthly Newsletter below.
Dean has been writing and blogging for over 10 years. He specializes in Disney theme park news including updates, openings, special events and general advice for travelers. He doesn’t shy away from the good, the bad and the ugly. His previous work includes being a Cast Member at Disneyland and working as a travel agent.