How much should you plan your family's Disney World Trip?
Epcot Center, Disney World, Orlando
It's the quintessential trip for a young family, almost a writ of passage. For us, it was one of those things before we had kids that we'd sworn we'd never do. Kind of like our plans to feed our child an organic unprocessed diet, provide her with only educational toys, and of course, no screen time. But here we were, driving down to Florida, our child staring at her tablet and munching on a fruit bar as we headed down I-95 to the happiest place on earth.
The planning had begun a few months earlier. We were invited to join some extended family in Orlando for a week long Disney vacation. Accommodation was taken care of and our daughter was just under three, so she could enter the park for free (a hefty savings when you look at the Disney price tag). We purchased our park passes about four months in advance and were ready to go.
It was about a week or two later that I found the Disney posts on a parenting Facebook group that I belong to. The questions, the panic, the planning that I didn't realize I needed to be doing. Fastpasses? Dinner reservations? Character Meals? It led me down the rabbit hole of Disney websites and advice boards. I saw spreadsheets where parents had planned their days down to fifteen minute increments detailing when they would go on each ride, eat meals, or laugh on cue. I was told to download the Disney App well in advance, so I'd know which rides had the longest rides, and when. At some point I had to step away. This wasn't our travel style and it just wouldn't work for us. But can you really do Disney World with a toddler and minimal planning? We were about to find out.
First - The Details
We visited Disney in February. It happened to be the same week that most of New England had a break from school. So, it was busier than most winter weeks, but still better than peak times such as summer. We also had accommodation lined up in advance and we scheduled our Fastpasses about three weeks before our trip. What's a fast pass you ask? Google it, but don't fall into the rabbit hole that I did.
What We Didn't Plan
We had no meal reservations and we didn't purchase a Disney meal plan. We also had no plans to do any "character meals". Because we had our Fastpasses, we knew which days we'd be at each park, but we didn't know much else about the parks. We had our car, so we could drive everywhere but we didn't research where to park.
What we learned - the pros and cons of not planning
The Cons of Not PlanningDinners
- Meals (particularly dinner) became a real struggle. Many of the best restaurants on Disney grounds had booked up months earlier. Patient and smiling Disney employees looked at their schedules for us, but their efforts were futile. Unless we were willing to pay $60 a head for a fine dining experience with our toddler, eating within the Disney complex was pretty much a lost cause. This includes restaurants within the parks and also in the nearby Disney resorts. The restaurants at Disney Springs, while not rejecting us completely, did have significant wait times.
Deals and Discounts
- We purchased our park passes through the Disney website. We didn't use a Disney travel agent and we didn't buy any packages that would include meal plans or accommodation. Perhaps, had we researched more, we would have found some discounts and saved a bit of money. Or perhaps not.
The Pros of Not Planning Cheaper Dinners Off-site
- Ultimately, we gave up on eating dinner within the Disney complex. We did eat lunch most days within the parks with minimal wait times. We had sit down meals at the Moroccan restaurant in Epcot Center and an interesting African/Asian fusion restaurant in Magic Kingdom (The Skipper Canteen). We also had several counter-service lunches of varying quality. For lunch, make sure you eat as early as possible, because lines get longer as the day progresses.
For dinners, we had a wide variety of experiences. We enjoyed an all-you-can-eat buffet in an off-site hotel (The Gaylord Palms) that was a fraction of the price of those on the Disney grounds. We also ordered pizza one night, and made a meal in our condo, all cheaper options than anything we found within Disney World.
- Our limited planning allowed us the flexibility to change our plans based on weather or our child's temperament. We switched two days we were in parks because of the weather. If we needed to slow down, we could spend some time at a relaxing activity or just linger on a bench. If it rained, we could find indoor activities and not feel like we were missing the park's "must-see" activities.
So, in the end, do you really need to plan your Disney World vacation?
Magic Kingdom, Disney World, Orlando
There are benefits to planning. If you want to dine at specific restaurants or enjoy a "character meal" you'll need to make reservations well in advance. If you are adamant about going on every ride or meeting specific Disney characters, then scheduling those activities with Fastpasses can help. There may also be some cost savings if you research various packages that include accommodation, admission, and meal plans.
But when it comes to your daily activities, Fastpasses, and rides, we personally saw little benefit to extensive planning. We changed several of our Fastpasses at the last minute and didn't even use some passes because the lines were shorter than we expected. At least one of our Fastpasses was changed for us because the ride (It's a Small World) was broken on our chosen day. We even changed which days we visited two of the parks because of the weather, and this had little impact on our experience.
Ultimately, this is Disney World, and even if you've meticulously planned your entire day, things will change. Rides will break, it will rain, or your kids will meltdown. Lines will be longer or shorter than expected. Whether you choose to plan everything in great detail, or just wing it, there will likely be at least one instance where you're running through the park and weaving through crowds with a screaming child to make your Fastpass time for a ride. It's just how it goes and it's part of the Disney experience.