Edited to add: Disney World is offering the Dining Plan deal again starting in August 2012! I definitely recommend this as a great deal for families! Book now through May 18. Some of the best tips you can receive for planning your Disney vacation are from friends who’ve just returned!
It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve never been to the Magic Kingdom. I saw a bit of Disney magic last February during a TravelingMom.com writer’s retreat (mostly Epcot) and when I came home I was all the more determined to save for a family vacation to Disney World before Miss C turned 10 this summer. Will she be too cool or too grown up for the magic of Disney once she hits 10? I doubt it, but there’s just something about now with the girls being 6 and 9 that seems like the perfect time. We’re headed to Disney World next month and I am just as excited as the girls (just ask my husband!)
By December I had $2,000 saved and with that budget in mind for a package for our family of four that included hotel accommodations, food, and theme park tickets (but not airfare), I set out to book a vacation.
Planning your first Disney vacation can be overwhelming and expensive but it doesn’t have to be. Before you head to Disney World you need to decide three things as they will dictate much of your vacation experience:
When do you want to go? Will you drive or fly? Will you stay on site or off site?
Here are some things I learned along the way.
Disney moms and dads know best. Some of the best tips I’ve received have been from other parents. I’d heard from a few people that booking a Disney package when the free dining special is offered was the best bargain and I went ahead and planned our trip around that time frame BUT my girls will be missing three days of school. The cutoff for booking was Dec. 17 and I booked our package Dec. 16! I’ve read that Disney is offering this package again in late summer for Canadian residents only right now but even it does become available for U.S. tourists in late summer I personally can’t imagine going to Orlando in the heat of August.
Off site vs. onsite. Because this is my girls’ first Disney World experience I wanted to stay onsite to experience all the subtle character details and magic that only a Disney property can provide but there are lots of fantastic hotel deals in the area, especially in Downtown Disney. We are flying, however, and once I added in the cost of a rental car it cancelled out any savings we might have at staying offsite and taking advantage of hotel points (such as our Marriott Rewards account.) Disney offers three basic tiers of accommodations: value, moderate, and deluxe. We’re staying the All Star Movies value resort. Yes it’s going to be a glorified Mickey motel and very no frills (not even a coffee maker God help me), but I don’t think we’re going to be in our room much at all. If we return in a couple of years, and I really want to, then we may stay at a moderate hotel. Staying on Disney property means perqs, such as free transportation via the Magical Express bus from the Orlando airport to your hotel, free transportation to and from all the parks, and you can take advantage of extra magic hours when select theme parks are open earlier, or later, than usual.
Timing is everything. I priced out a 4-night, 5-day vacation during several different spring weekends and came up with different rates each time. February would have been even just a bit cheaper than early March, while rates go up in late March and April during busy spring break season. I also priced out our package through Southwest Airlines’ vacation website but ultimately booked through Disney. One advantage of booking through Disney is that you can make a down payment on your package.
Look for specials. Getting the free quick service dining plan with our package (a savings of almost $100 a day) was a big plus as was booking during a lower rate time of year rather than waiting for our spring break in April. Are you a Triple A member? You can get discounted theme park tickets. Disney offers special packages throughout the year, so be sure to check out the official offers page. Remember, the “best” times to go on your calendar, such as spring break and summer break, aren’t necessarily the “best” times to go budget wise as prices go up during the peak season.
To park hop or not to park hop? I didn’t buy the park hopper option since we will be at Disney World for 4 nights and 5 days. Plus we can add it at any time during our vacation. With 5 days I felt like this was an added expense we could pass on and the savings would pay for us to board our dog Jack (Miss Zoey will be staying with her former owners).
Resist the temptation to add on, and add on, and add on. I had a set budget in mind but once I started pricing things out it was OH SO TEMPTING to book a moderate hotel. I was looking at Port Orleans Riverside and realized that for a “little more” we could have cool pirate theme rooms. For each little extra touch, however, came a small fee and I ultimately decided to keep things simple for this trip and under the $2,000 price range (not including our airfare which I booked via Southwest).
There’s an app for that. I’m definitely downloading this free Disney World Lines app and I know there are a ton of apps out there designed for Disney vacationers. Edited to add: On February 24 Disney announced that their Disney Mobile Magic app was available for free download!
Disney’s Dining Plan, yea or nay? Our value accommodation vacation package included the Quick Service Dining plan for free and I upgraded us to the Dining Plan for a small fee. This still ended up being a better deal than had we booked a moderate resort (which included the Dining Plan as part of the special rate package.) Because we’re doing a couple of character dining buffet meals this will end up paying for itself, although one thing to note is that these dining plans do NOT include gratuity.
Reservations, reservations, reservations. I naively assumed that booking our March vacation in December gave us plenty of time to book character dinners but I was wrong! I started checking out available times and the Chef Mickey breakfast buffet at the Contemporary was already booked, minus some very early breakfast times. The popular character meals fill up quickly. We are starting our first full day at Disney at the Animal Kingdom and a safari breakfast with Mickey, Donald, and the whole gang at Tusker House and ending our vacation with a character buffet dinner at the Grand Floridian. Because my girls are older and not into all things princess any more, I didn’t even try to book the very sought after Cinderella’s Castle character meal, which books months in advance. My older daughter’s teacher gave me rave reviews about dinner at Ohana at the Polynesian but it’s already booked.
Random tidbits for 2012 planning. Disney World will be open for 24 hours on Leap Day, February 29. The new Art of Animation value resort opens in May and the Fantasyland Magic Kingdom expansion opens in early 2013 and will nearly double the size of Fantasyland!
Here are some helpful websites that feature great Disney World tips (and these are just the tip of the mouse ear):
Orlando Sentinel’s The Daily Disney
Sami Cone, my friend and Nashville blogger, has a great Disney section with savings tips
My friend Amy Allen Clark at Mom Advice just went to Disney and has great Disney World tips
Another Disney World tips site recently launched by blog friend Colleen Padilla is Disneyed
Have any Disney World tips or helpful resources (books, apps, etc.) when it comes to planning your first Disney experience? Please share!