Instead of telling you how you should plan your Disney World trip, I'll let the experts tell you themselves. There are so many awesome blogs out there, written by people who've been to Disney more than a hundred times and examined the experience from hundreds of angles. The most useful thing I can contribute is a master list of the best resources for planning, so you don't have to waste your time sifting through the myriad of sites out there. So if you're planning a trip to Disney World, here's where you should start.
Warning: Get ready to give up a few hours (or days) of your life diving into the rabbit hole that is Disney vacation planning!
What to Do
Start your planning by figuring out when to go. This detailed crowd calendar predicts the crowd levels for every day of the coming year. It also includes park hours and average weather conditions for the day.
Before you book anything, check Disney’s site for their current deals – sometimes they’re pretty good. The best deals involve free dining for your entire trip or 30 percent off lodging.
Once you've secured your hotel and plane tickets, the next step is to plan out your days at the parks. You could just show up and wander around aimlessly, but remember that you'll likely be mingling with more than 50,000 other guests, many of whom have researched the heck out of the rides, shows and restaurants, beating you to the head of every line. Start by reading about the rides your kids might be interested in going on and making a list.
Next, map out your plan of attack. With the crowds, it can be quite daunting to move around the park, so it's best to group the rides you want to go on by the different sections within each park.
If you'd rather just have someone tell you how to plan your days, the experts have written some excellent one-day itineraries for each park.
A huge component of Disney planning is the Fast Pass, which are free reservations that you can make for each ride – so instead of waiting on line, you just reserve a certain time slot and show up for the ride at that time. Here's a detailed primer on Fast Pass and how it works.
Just before you go, make sure you check the Disney calendar for their hours of operation on the days of your visit – they may have shifted since you first started planning, which can be a game changer.
And finally, here's a pretty great list of what to pack – it's where I learned about chilly towels and rain suits. The weather will play a huge part in your vacation, and it really helps to be prepared for extreme humidity or sudden downpours.
Where to Stay
On or off premises? That is the question. If your kids are very young and one day at the Magic Kingdom is enough, maybe you want to consider staying off the premises to explore other parts of Orlando (some suggestions below). We've had great experiences staying at the ridiculously affordable Caribe Cove Resort and the more upscale Marriott's Lakeshore Reserve.
But if Disney World is the be all, end all of your vacation, then on premises is probably the way to go. Included are a free shuttle to the parks and airport, extra hours at the parks, magic bands that keep track of everything, and first pick at Fast Pass times. Here are reviews for all the Disney hotels, and here they are sorted by price.
Where to Eat
Disney offers two kinds of places to dine, table service restaurants and quick service (self-serve) restaurants. My preference is to make reservations for table service for both lunch and dinner so you don't have to deal with crowds and lines, but the drawback is that you're bound to your reservation – if you don't show up, you'll still be charged. Here's a list of the restaurants in each park and their menus, plus the pros and cons of each. Or, you can just have someone tell you where to eat.
Disney World may be Orlando's biggest attraction by far, but it offers plenty of other things to do, like orange picking, airboat rides and gator parks. The dining scene is surprisingly excellent as well. Here's my kid-friendly itinerary for Orlando.