The goal of our Disney World Planning Guide is to give you helpful tips on how to save money and avoid crowds, the best times to visit and rides to go on and where to eat and stay. We’ll also recommend some daily itineraries for Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Epcot theme parks, so you can make the most of your trip wherever and whenever you go.
Our recommendations can apply to everyone from first-time visitors to annual passholders. Plus, since we regularly travel as a family, we have great advice for those traveling with younger kids up to teenagers. (Updated January 2, 2022).
COVID-19 & WALT DISNEY WORLD
As you can imagine, things are a bit different at Walt Disney World right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Starting in March 2020, the parks were closed for several months, ultimately reopening in July and remaining open ever since. And as far as we can tell, Disney will not be closing the massive Central Florida resort again – unless they are forced to do so by state officials, anyway.
One of the most significant impacts on the guest experience in 2022 is crowd capacity limits. Disney has been limiting the number of guests allowed into the parks by using a Park Pass Reservations System. Essentially, any guest who wants to visit the parks has to make a reservation in advance. By doing this, Disney can control the number of people entering the parks, thus allowing them to help maintain social distancing guidelines and other recommended health measures.
Initially, Disney was at 25% capacity when they reopened in July and remained at that level through mid-September 2020. Towards the beginning of 2021, park capacity was restricted to 35%, with numbers slowly increasing as the year has moved on. Disney has also indicated that the increase in capacity will continue – no surprise with Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration in full swing.
Inside the parks, you can also expect some changes, particularly in terms of entertainment. Fan-favorite character experiences like parades and meet-and-greets were initially cut altogether, as were the nightly fireworks displays. Since then, Disney fireworks have come back to the parks, including the new shows, Disney Enchantment at Magic Kingdom and Harmonious at Epcot. While you can only catch a parade at the Disney Very Merriest After Hours, random character cavalcades, motorcades and flotillas are bite-sized pieces of Disney character fun. Not to mention, character meet-and-greets have finally made their return to the parks – socially distanced, of course. Instead of hugs and autographs, guests can take selfies and wave at their favorites from afar at Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios.
Some services have also changed, namely tickets and dining. In 2020, tickets were restricted to one park per day, with no park hopping being allowed. Thankfully, as of January 1st, 2021, park hopping is back up and running for guests to take advantage of, with no signs of stopping anytime soon. Additionally, while both Disney World water parks remained closed throughout the beginning of the pandemic, Blizzard Beach Water Parkhas since opened its doors to eager swimmers. However, no reopening date has yet been announced for Typhoon Lagoon Water Park.
Dining locations are largely open, though several are still temporarily unavailable, including Disney World’s dinner shows. Keep in mind that the open ones typically have capacity limits in place due to social distancing restrictions, so you may find it trickier than usual to make an advance reservation.
As for Disney character dining, a modified experience starring guests’ favorite Disney characters is provided at many locations. Having said that, some restaurants that typically offer character meals are serving, but no characters are present, while other typical character dining locations remain shuttered altogether. Read my reopening journal series for more details on what it’s like to visit the parks and dine. Dining reservations are limited to 60 days in advance in 2022.
Lastly, Disney resort hotels are almost fully open. The only exception is Disney’s All-Star Sports Resort which reopens to guests on December 9, 2021. All DVC resorts are also open and available for members and their guests.
While we can give you advice as to the best times to visit Walt Disney World, oftentimes, a promotion has already answered this question for you. These are typically the Free Disney Dining Plan promo or a package that includes free days and big savings on rooms at Disney World hotels. If that’s the case, whatever the reason, you’re going to have to visit during the promotional period.
That’s right, a promotion may dictate when you vacation at the resort, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, we think discounts should be a reason to travel to Disney World, so kudos to you for thinking in a savings-savvy way. These promos run at different times during the year and lay out the weeks and months guests can visit.
Other discounts to look for include spring special-offer tickets which pop up occasionally. For example, Disney has offered a spring special where guests receive two free days at the parks when they book a package. Offers like this are fantastic deals and should be used if available.
January and February are great months to travel to Disney World. With the winter holidays ending and school starting around January 5th each year, the parks slow down significantly. The only exceptions are 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 Epcot Festival of the Arts. This celebration of creativity is a ton of fun, with plenty of food, beverages and art. In other words, expect lots of eating and drinking around the world and a fair few locals.
Spring is Epcot’s Flower & Garden Festival. Like all other festivals at Epcot, food, drink and fun activities like topiary displays and workshops abound. Kids will find treasure hunts throughout the park, while adults can enjoy live music at the American Adventure Pavilion.
March and April mean spring break time. This well-deserved break starts earlier each year, so most of these months are suffer from bigger crowds and longer wait times. So, if you will be traveling during these months, try the first week of March or the last week of April. May is also a pretty good time to travel now that Walt Disney World has stopped hosting Grad Nites.
Summertime is the absolute worst time to travel to Walt Disney World. Why? Because it’s hot, humid and busy. School is out, and families are taking vacations, with Disney World as their destination of choice. We’re not saying you shouldn’t go during these months, but be prepared.
September and October are good months to travel, specifically post-Labor Day and pre-Halloween. Disney World typically runs their Halloween parties from late August through October 31st, making for a treat-filled addition to any fall trip to Orlando.
In November and December, the resort shines with festive spirit, 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 time to visit. Early November is slower, while Thanksgiving week is hectic. Early December is quiet again, and then the last two weeks are downright insane. Personally, we don’t travel to the parks over these weeks because it’s just too much with kids.
Most of the time, your schedule will dictate how long you’ll be able to visit the parks. The average family typically stays for one entire week, with five to six days in the parks. First-time visitors should aim for seven days in the theme parks to see and do it all.
We recommend visiting the parks for three to four days and then taking an entire day to relax at the pool, head to the beach, take a stroll down Disney’s BoardWalk or shop at Disney Springs. Whatever you choose, a break is highly recommended so you don’t risk getting worn out.
Many guests who come from out of town also tend to visit other non-Disney theme parks like Universal Orlando. Factoring that in, you should probably plan for eight theme-park days total. If you’ve never been to Universal, we recommend you take some time to experience it, particularly The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. It’s split between two parks and can be done in one to two days, depending on how busy it is.
For Disney World, we suggest that if you’re going to be in the parks for less than five days, try and visit all four parks. If you have five or more days to spend, hit up all four parks and then revisit your favorites afterward.
WHERE TO STAY
We’re big fans of staying on property because there are just 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 too, we have lots to recommend. Be sure to see our in-depth guides 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 the know.
Over the past several years, Disney has raised their prices for staying on property. This means that when you go to search for a rate, you may get sticker shock. While Disney may offer discounts and promotions on hotel stays, keep in mind that it’s always going to be more expensive to stay on-property than off.
Value resorts are the best bet for anyone debating whether to stay on or off Disney property because of price. There are four 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 for which ones top our list.
Moderate resorts are a nice step up from the value hotels and tend to have better placement near the parks. 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 looking for a step up from standard.
Deluxe resorts are the creme de la creme, offering the best rooms, locations and resort dining. While these rooms may seem expensive, we think they are worth the extra money.
Likewise, deluxe villas are Disney Vacation Club rooms at deluxe resorts and can be rented for quite a bit less, thanks to our preferred partner. Rooms with one bedroom and up have full kitchens and are great for those wanting to have groceries delivered to them.
There are other reasons for staying on property that aren’t just location and transportation. For example, all resort guests have access to Early Theme Park Entry, while those with rooms at deluxe resorts can also use Extending Evening Theme Park Hours. Additionally, guests staying at Walt Disney World resorts can also book Individual Lightning Lane Selection reservations (around $7-15 per ride) before other theme park guests, starting at 7 AM rather than once the park opens.
Finally, if you love buying things in the parks but hate carrying it around with you, resort hotel guests can 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 2022.
We used to not be fans of vacation packages because we thought we could save a lot more money by booking everything separately. While this may be true for people who are redeeming points from a hotel rewards program or have received free tickets as a gift, booking separately can be a pain for everyone else. So, for anyone out there who appreciates convenience and loves being thrifty, 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 what is known as rack rate. In fact, you can find much better deals by booking directly through the fine folks at Park Savers. Not only do we have some of the best ticket prices out there, but our travel agents are Disney experts who are excited to share their tips and tricks with you. Connect with one of the Park Savers travel agents today to get started.
When it comes to booking a Disney World vacation package, you want to use someone who specializes in them, not just someone who can do it because you asked. Unfortunately, companies like AAA and Costco can’t offer the expertise that we can. Plus, just like us, our travel agents visit the parks multiple times during the year, so they are up-to-date on any happenings or changes.
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 tool online for this). If you’re staying off property, it probably will be cheaper to book separately.
Finally, remember that Park Savers doesn’t charge a fee for booking your package. Our travel agents are paid a commission from Disney, so you’ll never need to worry about any hidden fees or surprises.
Walt Disney World has one of the most complex systems for tickets since they moved to a date-based system a while back. Basically, each day is priced differently based on various factors, including time of year and how busy the parks will be. So, for example, staying from Monday to Friday in January will be cheaper than a Monday-to-Friday trip in July. This is because summertime is busier than January, while, of course, the busiest season of all is during the winter holidays.
Timing your vacation during the right season can help you save some decent cash, 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 is highly recommended.
Along with date-based pricing, you can choose from a few different add-ons to upgrade your ticket. The most popular is the Park Hopper option. A Park Hopper ticket allows you to visit several parks on the same day if you so desire.
Park Hopper Plus tickets give you the same Park Hopper access “plus” some extra fun things to do. It can be confusing, so read carefully and make sure this is something you’ll have time to utilize fully. Here’s a list of things you can do when you purchase this ticket:
Nine holes of traditional golf at Disney’s Oak Trail Golf Course
FootGolf 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? Park Hopper Plus or the Water Parks & Sports option are based on however many days your ticket is. For example, if you buy a 5-Day Park Hopper Plus ticket, you’ll also receive five visits to use however you’d like from the list of attractions above. Best of all, you can use your visits however you’d like. A different activity each day, five trips to the same attraction – it’s all up to you.
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 at Epcot), any foodie would find themselves in paradise here. But, believe it or not, there have been and will be times when we’ve gone 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 essential part of your planning and experience.
For anyone who wants to dig into dining even more, we have a Disney World Dining Guide that can help you choose specific restaurants to visit and our rankings. We even have a guide on the best places to eat at the parks for couples 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 and entertainment areas like Disney Springs and the BoardWalk. Your most basic food option is quick service, which offers meals like salads, chicken, burgers, wraps, pizza by the slice, fruit cups, vegetables and kids meals. Typically, you place your order at a counter, get your food and then sit somewhere. This is by far the most abundant kind of restaurant.
Next, there is table service dining, which is what it sounds like. You’ll have a server, and your food will be made fresh from a kitchen and brought out to your table. 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. Table-service restaurants can range from $12 per plate all the way up to $60+ for a signature restaurant like Victoria & Albert’s. For more details on the best restaurants at Walt Disney World, consult our guide.
Have you (or at least your kids) ever wanted to dine with your favorite Disney characters? Character dining is offered at all four parks and several resort hotels, so you can live out your Disney dream. These are typically done in a buffet style, with character interactions happening throughout. Once again, you want to make advanced reservations for these places. Be sure to read about each meal as different restaurants offer different character sightings.
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 to unwind for the night. Having said that, there are some bars and lounges that we prefer to go to over regular quick-service or table-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, so keep this in mind as you’re visiting the parks or doing some resort hopping.
Lastly, there are snack carts at all the parks, everywhere you turn, serving up the delicious smells of popcorn, pretzels, pastries, crepes, and so much more. There’s a seemingly endless amount of options, and you never have to worry about finding something to munch on. Snacks are a great way to tide you over until mealtime. Be sure to read about our top snacks at Disney World, which will surely get your mouth watering and stomach rumbling.
To cap things off, 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 traveling! It’s really a win-win and can help you save a lot of money versus 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 ten years ago when you could just show up and go on rides, dine and not worry about anything, Disney World is anything but like that now. You need to have a plan, but it doesn’t need to be anything crazy, so put away those digital planners and notebooks. Not having a plan, particularly for first-time visitors, can ruin a vacation. It means unnecessarily standing in long lines and dealing with crazy wait times. Some guests will even skip an attraction just because the wait time is too long. This is entirely 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 setting up Disney Genie or, if you’d like, upgrading to Disney Genie+ and making Individual Lightning Lane Selections. When planning attractions and entertainment. Genie allows you to take advantage of short wait times and your location in the park to make the most of your time *for free*. Alternatively, you also have the option to skip the lines by paying for Disney Genie+ ($15 per person per day) or Individual Lightning Lane Selections (between $7-15 per ride).
We’re not going to dive deep into this here, as the new program is a little complicated, so we highly recommend you look at our Disney Genie and Lightning Lane guides to decide whether buying the service is right for you. Whatever you choose to do, be sure to have My Disney Experience downloaded onto your phone so you can make ride reservations or check out your virtual itinerary as you navigate the parks.
Finally, for guests who have smaller children, remember that you’ll need to look if an attraction has a height restriction. If there is, plan accordingly. Disney gives parents the option of doing a rider swap, where one guardian must remain behind to watch the child who does not meet the height requirement. This swap allows the first parent to go on, and then, when they’re done, the other parent can go on the ride via the Lightning Lane.
TRANSPORTATION AND AIRFARE
As we’re sure you’ve figured out by now, Walt Disney World is massive, and deciding how to get around it is an essential part of planning. Disney themselves offers many options for guests, including bus and boat transportation to the parks and Disney Springs. These are free options for guests staying on property. While these seem convenient, not everyone finds them useful. Some prefer to drive themselves to the parks, while others use services like Uber or LYFT.
These rideshare services are invaluable for those needing to travel between the resort and airport or even just between attractions. Uber and LYFT are readily available and can be requested once you’ve gathered all your luggage. From the airport, a trip typically runs about $40 for a group of five to the Walt Disney World area, while rides around Disney World generally cost between $5-15.
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 vehicle 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 Disney World 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 also opt to upgrade to preferred parking 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 for a day, Disney does offer an 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 also provides a free shuttle from your hotel to the rental station and back.
As for bus transportation, Disney’s internal bus system is extensive and 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 with the Disney bus system, time is 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, the bus system is excellent when you have the right attitude. Just going into it 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.
Walt Disney World has four massive theme parks. Getting around can be tiring, and 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. Therefore, 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 as their quality, reliability, and service can’t be beaten.
Did we miss something that you feel is important? Do you have some expert advice to share with us? Please do! We put these guides 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.