Disney World Planning Guide: The Basics for First-Timers
There is so much to know when you are planning your first trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando Florida and admittedly it can be quite overwhelming! In this post, you’ll find a guide to planning your Disney World vacation. The basics, a lay of the land and everything you need to help you get started planning your Disney World vacation.
Walt Disney World is located in Lake Buena Vista, (Orlando) Florida. With millions of visitors planning a visit per year, Disney operates a complex of 30+ resorts, an entertainment center, four theme parks and, to the surprise of many, two amazing water parks.
The Parks at Disney World
There are four theme parks at Walt Disney World, 2 water parks and a shopping and entertainment district once known as Downtown Disney and reimagined in 2015 as Disney Springs. Let’s have a look at what each of them has to offer.
The original of the four theme parks and arguably the most popular. Outsiders will recognize it as the park with Cinderella’s Castle and somewhat of a copy of Disneyland in California. It opened in October 1971 and has welcomed millions of happy guests since. It’s a place I truly never get tired of!
When you enter the Magic Kingdom you’ll walk down Main Street USA towards Cinderellas Castle, a nod to Walt’s childhood home town. The remainder of the park consists of different lands, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Liberty Square, Frontierland, and Adventureland all with their own unique story.
As the original park, it encaptures Walt’s dream of guests of all ages being able to share the magic of fantasy no matter your age. When you enter you will truly be transported to a place of happiness. “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.”
Magic Kingdom is a must for all first-time visitors and at the top of list for planning a Disney World vacation.
The second park at Walt Disney World opened in 1982 and was originally a project for Walt Disney himself to study innovations for the city of tomorrow, Epcot is divided into two large lands, World Showcase and Futureworld.
Future World is home to attractions related to space and science, aquariums and innovation. This area of Epcot is currently evolving and undergoing a major transformation with so many new things to come in the near future.
The World Showcase shares multiple pavilions where you will find a miniature version of different countries showing not only their architecture but also each countries food and customs.
It’s a great place to get off the beaten path, walk deep into the shops and really get a taste for what they have to offer. Each pavilion also has dining options sharing foods from that country.
Each year the World Showcase is home to four festivals:
- Epcot International Festival of the Arts (January-February)
- Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival (March-May)
- Epcot International Food and Wine Festival (August – November)
- Epcot Festival of the Holidays (November – December).
These festivals include food kiosks, live music, and entertainment including nightly concerts in the American Garden Theater.
There is truly something for everyone including the little kids. My personal favorite festivals are the Festival of the Arts and the Flower and Garden Festival but the Festival of the Holidays ranks pretty high as well with the nightly Candlelight Processional. It has all the holiday feels.
At Hollywood Studios, Disney takes us into the movies. This park opened in 1989 as Disney’s MGM Studios and was renamed Hollywood Studios in 2008.
Guests can experience some of the newest lands and attractions at Disney World here, including Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story Land. But the park is still home to some notable old favorites like Rockin’ Rollercoaster and Hollywood Tower of Terror.
To some, this park has become the Star Wars Park as guests flock to see the all-new Galaxies Edge, home to the popular new attractions Rise of the Resistance and Millenium Falcon: Smugglers Run. Slated to open in 2021 guests will also be able to stay at a new Star Wars Hotel, a two night fully immersive experience that will also include access to Galaxies Edge at Hollywood Studios.
And finally, the fourth park at Walt Disney World is Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Animal Kingdom opened in 1997 and is more than “just a zoo” and shouldn’t be skipped.
Themed after the animal realm, this park displays exotic places such as Africa, Asia, Discovery Island, Dinoland, The Oasis and even lands out of this world like Pandora, the World of Avatar. Music, dance, food, and decorations embed the culture of these magnificent places inside the park.
In fact, I find Animal Kingdom to be one of the most relaxing parks at Disney World and hope that you’ll soon be able to enjoy it too!
Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach – Disney Worlds Water Parks
In addition to the four dry parks, Disney World has two water parks for guests to enjoy year-round. The two water parks often get overlooked when guests are planning their Disney World vacation.
Both water parks are packed with slides for kids and adults. There is a thrill for all ages. Typhoon Lagoon is themed after a paradise beach that has been hit by a tropical storm. Whereas, Blizzard Beach tells the story of a ski resort that started melting in the hot temperatures of Florida.
My personal favorite is Typhoon Lagoon but truly you can’t go wrong with a day spent at either location. Often times guests with smaller children enjoy Blizzard Beach over Typhoon Lagoon claiming that the kids’ area at Blizzard Beach is a bit more fun. But really, I think they’re both great water parks.
Typhoon Lagoon also hosts a fun late-night water park experience each summer on select nights. H2O Glow is fun for all ages but does have an adults-only area. If you’re interested in a themed water park experience with some of your favorite characters I suggest looking into this.
Disney Springs is home to free entertainment, shopping, and dining complex open to the public daily. Meaning park admission/tickets are NOT required to visit here.
Here you will find Disney themed stores including the World of Disney and Disney Style as well as popular mainstream shopping options like Mac, Lily Pulitzer, and Uniqlo.
There are also endless food options for snacks, quick service, and table service restaurants. Outdoor music and live entertainment, bowling, a movie theater and so much more.
You could easily spend a long afternoon and evening taking in everything they have to offer. It’s a place we visit often for a quick bite and even Friday night and weekend fun that’s a little more casual than a park day. When planning your Disney World vacation I often guide my clients to visit her on the night of arrival when they’re itching to experience Disney but don’t want to use an entire day’s park ticket or on the afternoon/evening of their rest day.
How to choose your Disney World Resort.
Disney World offers a variety of resort options for every budget. All Disney Resort hotels on property offer complimentary transportation from Orlando International Airport to your hotel as well as free transportation to the parks, Disney Springs and the water parks. Choosing your resort is often the very first step (ok second next to choosing dates) in planning your Disney World vacation. Where you stay directly impacts how your Disney World vacation is planned.
Transportation, ie how you’re getting around Disney World is a huge component when planning where to stay. There is no right or wrong answer for which resort to pick but there can and should be a lot of thought that goes into what you’re ideal Disney World vacation looks like and what you want to see and do. The resort transportation options you choose can really help change the experience you have while visiting.
Disney World transportation includes:
- The popular and iconic Monorail
- Minnie Vans (think Uber – comes with an additional cost)
- New Disney Skyliner.
Let’s talk lingo and specifics.
- On Property = When we say “on-property” this means one of Disney Worlds 30+ resort options broken down into four categories. Deluxe Villa accommodations, Deluxe Resorts, Moderate Resorts, and Value Resorts. Each of these different categories differentiates what guests will experience and have available to them at the various resorts. They also describe price points for your stay. The more convenient and amenity-filled a resort is, the more expensive the price point will be.
- Good Neighbor Hotels = local hotels not owned by Disney that have a partnership agreement with Disney to include some additional perks related to your Disney World stay.
- Off property = hotels nearby with no affiliation or partnership with Disney.
I’ve stayed at many of Disney’s on-property resorts and do my best to update my reviews on the blog, Facebook and Instagram. You’ll find those reviews on the blog linked below and in my saved photo albums on Facebook and Story Highlights on Instagram.
If I haven’t stayed at a particular resort I have toured it a number of times and often have pictures of those as well in the same locations as above. I have literally seen then all!
If you have questions about a particular resort and can’t find what you’re looking for, please email me or message me on social media. I am always happy to share what I know and have the privilege of experiencing. Helping guests plan their Disney World vacation is what I love to do!
Deluxe resorts at Disney World offer the highest levels of amenities guests can experience while staying at Disney World.
These items typically include:
- Better views oftentimes with balconies
- Easier and more convenient resort transportation
- Mini-water park-style resort pools with slides and splash pads
- Transportation that extends beyond buses to the parks
- Closer access to the parks
In fact, the two best resort pools on property are at Disney’s Polynesian Resort and Disney’s Beach and Yacht Club Resort, both deluxe resorts.
Deluxe resorts also have a concierge level room option that includes:
- Concierges lounge with daily complimentary food, beer, and wine.
- Concierge amenities extend beyond food and beverage, like additional daily Fast Pass options (for purchase), but that’s for another post!
One very clear difference between Deluxe Resorts and their counterparts is entering the room via interior doors and the joy of an outside balcony. My favorite place to relax after a long day in the park.
Deluxe resorts are also home to many of Disney’s signature dining and character dining experiences, spas, and water recreation activities. This does not mean you have to be staying at a Deluxe Resort to experience these things, it simply means they’re a little more convenient.
Disney’s Deluxe Resort options:
- Contemporary Resort
- Polynesian Village Resort
- Grand Floridian Resort and Spa
- Wilderness Lodge
- Boardwalk Inn
- Beach Club Resort
- Yacht Club Resort
- Animal Kingdom Lodge
Deluxe Villa Resorts
Villa resorts are tied to most of Disney’s Deluxe Resorts but are differentiated in that they’re part of the Disney Vacation Club brand and offer guests a room that includes kitchens or kitchenettes, laundry facilities (oftentimes in the room), larger spaces with multiple rooms and really more of a time-share or condo type stay.
Many confuse this accommodation type to be less expensive for larger families or groups but this is, in fact, quite the opposite. Villa Resorts can be some of the most expensive accommodations on property.
Guests who aren’t part of Disney’s Vacation Club can opt to stay at a Villa Resort. Reservations are typically available 7 months prior to arrival via your travel agent or Disney directly.
Disney’s Deluxe Villa Resort options:
- Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort
- Polynesian Villas & Bungalows
- The Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa
- Copper Creek Villas and Cabins
- Boardwalk Villas
- Beach Club Villas
- Yacht Club Resort
- Animal Kingdom Villas
- Old Key West Resort
- Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa
- Treehouse Villas at Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa
- Rivera Resort
Moderate Resorts offer guests a themed resort experience while not being over the top in thematics.
Each moderate resort has:
- a feature pool with slide
- onsite table service
- quick-service restaurants
These resorts mostly offer bus transportation with the exception of Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort which recently was connected to Epcot and Hollywood Studios via the new Disney Skyliner. This was a major upgrade in my opinion and makes the Caribbean Beach Resort a fantastic option for families wanting to stay at a moderate level resort.
All moderate rooms are accessed via an outside door and typically offer guests two queen beds and sometimes a pull-down 5th sleeper option. Moderate resorts are great for families that are looking for a somewhat upgraded resort experience from a value option yet don’t want the pricepoint of a Deluxe Resort.
Disney’s Moderate Resort options:
- Caribbean Beach
- Coronado Springs
- Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground
- Port Orleans Riverside
- Port Orleans French Quarter
Disney’s Value Resorts are the most economic of resort offerings at Disney World in terms of staying on property. They are great options for guests who are planning their Disney World vacation planned around full park days or their budget doesn’t allow for a moderate or deluxe level resort.
These resorts are heavily themed with oversized icons celebrating its theme. The pools at value resorts are large in size however they don’t have slides or additional water play structures.
All rooms are entered via an outside door and somewhat “motel” in feel by the shape and layout of the buildings. If you’re an “open to close” park-goer or a value resort is what fits your travel budget I would definitely consider a few of the value resort options over Disney’s Good Neighbor Hotels for a number of reasons including but not limited to the perks Disney offers for guests staying at one of their resort hotels. More on these perks below.
Disney’s Value Resort options:
- All Star Music
- All Star Movies
- All Star Sports
- Art of Animation Resort
- Pop Century Resort
While it appears that Disney offers more accommodations in the Deluxe or Deluxe Villa options the reality is that there are more value rooms on Disney property that anywhere else.
While there are fewer resorts to choose from these resorts are large in size and have over 10,000 rooms to offer guests. Of these value resort offerings, my personal favorites are the Pop Century and Art of Animation.
Good Neighbor Hotels
Guests can choose to say at one of Disney’s Good Neighbor Hotels or what we refer to as “off-property” meaning a hotel nearby that is not owned and operated by Disney.
In the last few years, Disney did add some amenities to these hotels including being able to choose Fast Passes at 60 days prior which makes these hotels an ok option when planning your Disney World vacation.
However, I personally don’t think it is a better choice than a value resort. When you stay at an on-property resort the Disney experience you have is very different than when staying off property and often times these Good Neighbor Hotels are not less expensive than a value and even sometimes a moderate resort.
The one exception to this rule is the Four Seasons Resort which offers an upscale experience while visiting Disney World. The Four Seasons Resort is in the Golden Oaks neighborhood which is an exclusive on property multimillion-dollar single-family home community. In other words, you CAN actually live AT Disney World! Life goals right here!
My Favorite Resort Options by Category:
- Deluxe – Beach/Yacht Club for their pool, Polynesian for their pool and views of Magic Kingdom, the Animal Kingdom for their views of the Savanna from your balcony after long park days.
- Deluxe Villa – Rivera Resort as a whole, the vibe here is distinct from all other resorts. Polynesian over-the-water bungalows, need I say more? Cooper Creek Cabins for their stunning interior design, nestled cozy setting in the trees and on Bay Lake including a private plunge pool on the patio.
- Moderate – Caribbean Beach with it’s a newly refreshed design and use of Disney’s Skyliner to both Epcot and Hollywood Studios.
- Value – Pop Century and Art of Animation because of their access to the Disney Skyliner. But really more so than that, I don’t love the All-Star Resorts. The theme isn’t really specific to Disney as much as it is specific to its namesake and it tends to be where large school and tour groups stay. I personally prefer a more family type of atmosphere while on vacation.
- Good Neighbor – Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin, Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace and the Four Seasons Resort Orlando Walt Disney World
Included Amenities when you stay On-Property:
- Magical Express Motorcoach transportation to and from Orlando International Airport
- Dining Reservations can be made at 180 days prior to arrival for the length of your stay
- Fast Pass Reservations can be made 60 days prior to arrival for the length of your stay
- Complimentary transportation to all 4 of Disney Worlds theme parks, the 2 water parks, and Disney Springs
- Extra Magic Hours
- The option to purchase one of three Disney Dining Plans for a more inclusive style vacation
It is always recommended when planning your Disney World vacation for tickets to be purchased in advance. Do not wait until you arrive at the parks to buy them! Not purchasing tickets before arriving at Disney World is one of the biggest first-timer mistakes that can have a direct impact on how your vacation plays out, causing longer than necessary wait times and unneeded stress.
Remember, the parks are huge! Aim to explore and enjoy as much as you can and avoid wait lines. Prepurchasing your tickets in advance with a Disney World Vacation Package and strategically selecting Fast Passes 60 days prior to arrival will maximize what you can get done in a day and therefore be a more satisfying experience.
Disney World has multiple types of tickets but really think of them as ticket tiers, each tier offering a less restrictive experience.
- Base Ticket
- Hopper Option
- Water Park and Sports Option
- Park Hopper Plus Option
- Flexible Dates Option
- Special Event Tickets
The base day ticket is valid for one park per day. Meaning you can only go to one park on the same day and can not visit a second park the same day, even if you have additional days left on your ticket package.
For example, say you’re visiting Magic Kingdom on Monday morning. You CAN NOT go to Epcot in the afternoon EVEN if you still have three days left on your ticket package. To visit multiple parks in one day you MUST have the Park Hopper option.
Park Hopper Option
The park hopper option will let you visit more than one park per day. It is an add on item to your Base Ticket making your tickets more flexible.
In the same scenario above, if you were visiting Magic Kingdom on a Monday morning and wanted to visit Epcot in the afternoon with the Park Hopper Option added to your Base Ticket you could do so. And it would only use one day of your ticket package.
Adding the Park Hopper Option to your Base Ticket is the ONLY way to visit multiple parks in one day. And in fact, if you’d like to visit all four parks in one day, you can do this with the Hopper Option.
- When you add the Hopper Option to your Base Ticket package it’s good for the duration of your tickets. You can not add the Hopper Option to only one day of your ticket package.
- If you do not use the Hopper Portion of your ticket, Disney will not refund the unused portion of any type of ticket. So make sure you plan accordingly.
Water Park and Sports Option
This is a new ticket option for 2020 and offers guests access to the water parks and sports facilities with their base ticket. Guests would purchase this ticket option if they wanted to include water parks and sports but did not want to add the hopper option. The number of times you can visit these various options is based on the number of ticket days you have.
For example – if you have a 4-day ticket you can also visit the water parks or sports options four times. So, in theory, you could have 8 different days of park fun.
Included in this ticket option:
- 1 park per day of your choosing – Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios or Animal Kingdom
- Typhoon Lagoon
- Blizzard Beach
- ESPN’s Wide World of Sports
- Oak Trail Golf Course – FootGolf (so fun I might add)
- Oak Trail Golf Course – Greens Fees Only
- Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf – before 4 pm
- Winter Summerland Miniature Golf – before 4 pm
Note: To truly get the value of this ticket option you should be planning to visit the water parks or sports options more than once during your stay, or at least half the length of your ticket option.
For example, if you have a 4-day ticket, you should be visiting one of the water parks or sports options a minimum of 2 times. Otherwise, it may be less expensive to purchase a ticket to the water park or sports option at the ticket window.
Adding the Water Park and Sports Option is NOT the only way to visit one of the above options.
BUT don’t let that confuse you, you SHOULD always pre-purchase regular park tickets (MK, Epcot, HS, AK) prior to arrival so that you are able to plan your Fast Passes at 60/30 days prior to arrival.
Park Hopper Plus Option
The Park Hopper Plus option includes everything that is included with the Water Park and Sports option PLUS the ability to “hop” or visit multiple parks per day ie. Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Epcot.
Flexible Dates Option
When you purchase any one of the ticket options above they are “date based”. Meaning you will select the first date you will use the ticket if you are purchasing stand-alone tickets or tickets not included in a Disney World vacation package. That ticket will be good for the number of days purchased plus a few days, depending on the ticket length. Specific examples of how this works can be found here.
If you purchase tickets with a Disney World vacation package, the tickets will be valid on your check-in day and for an additional few days, again depending on how many ticket days you purchased. This date-based ticket option was introduced in 2019 and additional details on how it works, including examples, can be found here.
If you prefer the old school way of how tickets worked, this is where the Flexible Dates option comes in. By adding this option to your ticket, the date you first use your tickets is not restricted.
However, once you use the first day, all additional days must be used within 14 days of first use.
Consecutive use dates are not necessary with any of the ticket options but they do have varying expiration dates based on the type of ticket you purchase. Gone are the days of tickets that do not have expiration dates! And yes those really once existed and I’ve had clients use tickets for the day from nearly 20 years ago! Crazy right??
Special Events Tickets
Planning your Disney World vacation when special occasions are taking place can add fun to your trip. Special Occasions that happen in the Magic Kingdom such as Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party are individually ticketed events. They require a separate ticket that is not directly linked to your standard day ticket. The same applies to After-Hours events which are held in various theme parks.
Don’t ignore these Special Ticket Events as something above and beyond that you don’t consider. These late-night party events are some of my favorite experiences at Walt Disney World! They often include entry into the event park hours prior to the actual event starting and can be a great option for your arrival day or rest day during your Disney World vacation.
These events include but are not limited to:
- Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party
- Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party
- After Hours – Magic Kingdom
- Villains After Hours – Magic Kingdom
- After Hours – Animal Kingdom
- H2O Glow Nights – Typhoon Lagoon
This perk makes your wait times for rides and attractions shorter. With your day ticket, you will be able to book three Fast Passes in advance, at one park only per day, which equates preplanning to skipping the line for a minimum of three rides per day.
When you have used the three FastPasses that you booked in advance, you will be able to book an additional Fastpass from the remaining available attractions either on your phone in the My Disney Experience app or at an in-park kiosk.
Once you used this one you will be able to book an additional one, and so forth until Fastpasess are no longer being distributed for the day.
These passes can be booked:
- 30 days in advance if you’re not staying in Disney Resort or Good Neighbor Hotel
- Up to 60 days if you’re staying on property.
All Fast Passes are not created equally and there is quite a bit of strategy that goes into selecting Fast Passes that will maximize the number of things you get done in one park day.
Guests should not just select the Fast Pass that is their top of the list attraction if that ride doesn’t typically have a long wait time. In fact some Fast Passes you can choose don’t have a wait time at all which means you’ve wasted one of your precious Fast Passes.
Guests should plan to choose from the most popular attractions with the longest wait time to get the best value from this included amenity!
Some parks have Fast Pass Tiers:
- Meaning you can select one attraction form the top tier and the remaining two Fast Passes from the second tier.
- Yes, this does mean the most popular attractions are in tier one.
While it can be stressful to not choose all the “best” Fast Passes, it is nice to know that all of the “good ones” won’t be distributed to only a handful of guests. The system works well and with great park touring plans, you can really cover a lot of ground on your days at Disney World.
For a complete list of Fast Pass options and the best ones to choose for your family check out my post, Disney World Fast Pass Tiers, and Ride Heights.
Can additional Fast Passes be purchased?
Yes and no. Of course, the answer is never simple when planning your Disney World vacation!
Guests can not purchase additional Fast Passes UNLESS they are staying Club Level at one of Disney Worlds Deluxe Resorts. If you’re planning your Disney World vacation and only three Fast Passes doesn’t seem sufficient for you and your budget allows, this is a great option and about the closest you can get to a VIP Tour experience without that cost!
Guests who are staying Club Level can:
- Purchase 3 additional Fast Passes per day
- For a minimum of 3 days
- At $50 per person per day. (price as of writing and subject to change).
- So at a minimum, each guest will spend an additional $150 for more Fast Passes.
When you purchase these additional Fast Passes a few things happen:
- Each guest now has 6 Fast Passes to preplan per day.
- Tiers are lifted. Meaning you can have all of the best attraction Fast Passes you’d like!
- Fast Passes can be selected 90 days prior to arrival.
- Fast Passes can be selected in more than one park per day.
How many days should I plan to spend at Disney World?
- I always recommend a minimum of 1 day per park, plus a travel day on each end. So 6 days minimum. However, you could easily spend 2 days at Magic Kingdom, add on a water park day, a rest day, etc and quickly grow your Disney World vacation into 10 days, which would be great! But keep in mind, you can’t do EVERYTHING at Disney World on one trip. Disney World is made up of so many layers that keep us all returning time and time again!
Is a Deluxe Resort worth the price?
- Yes! IF you plan to enjoy time at the resort or easy transportation is a priority for you. I love the Deluxe Resorts at Disney World. They give me all the Disney feels! But if you are going to go to the parks open to close and literally hit the bed the minute you walk in the door, then a Deluxe Resort might not be worth the money, unless easy transportation is a priority. However, if you plan to enjoy the resort’s amenities, possibly return to the resort during the day for naps or pool time, then I do highly recommend one of Disney’s Deluxe Resort options.
What resort is right for my family?
- There is no one size fits all answer to this question. Of course, budget comes into play but so does your vacation priorities, likes and dislikes and must-haves to make your particular stay at Disney World extra special. I am more than happy to help you figure this question out but it would be better if we had a conversation specific to you! You can do so via email firstname.lastname@example.org, social media Facebook or Instagram or by phone. Shoot me an email to set up a time!
When it the least crowded time to plan my visit to Disney World?
- The general rule of thumb is if the kids are in school it’s less crowded. But crowds are relative and our slowest times at Disney World have become increasingly more crowded and the crowded times even more crowded than that. You can still manage a fun vacation at Disney World in the crowds but it does take some strategic upfront planning. To see the crowd levels visit my Crowd Calendar page.
What is the average price of a Disney World vacation?
- This is a somewhat complicated question to answer because there are so many variables in Disney World vacations. A 5 day Disney World vacation for a family of four averages around $5k for a week in a moderate resort. This can vary widely and greatly increase when staying at a Deluxe resort or be reduced when staying at a value resort with a Disney dining plan.
Is Disney World only for families?
- Absolutely NOT! I spend a great deal of time at Disney World without my kids and playing in the parks and at the pools with my adult friends. There are great date night spots, adults-only areas and fun for all ages! Don’t wait to have kids to visit!
I want to see Harry Potter Land. Which park is that in?
- Hogwarts Castle and Diagon Alley aka Harry Potter Land are at Universal Studios which is about 20 minutes from Disney World and a great add on to your Disney vacation. Tickets to Disney World do not work at Universal Studios.