Planning a Disney World trip can be really overwhelming, especially if you’ve never been. It’s a unique experience because it is more than just a single park, there’s actually 4 parks – and 2 water parks! And inside each of those parks are many, many rides, shows, restaurants, and experiences. It’s easy to get lost and takes some research to really become acquainted with it all! On my family’s first day on our first trip to Disney World, we walked into Epcot with no idea what was there. We’d all been to Disneyland more time than we can count, so we figured it be about the same. Boy! Were we wrong! We didn’t even know what rides were in the park, let alone which was going to have a long line or what we needed FastPasses for. We quickly sat down and started to outline our game plan.
I know it might sound silly to some of you, to strategically plan what is supposed to be a relaxing vacation. It doesn’t feel like it will be a vacation, but trust me you’ll be happy you did it! I’m not saying you need to schedule out bathroom breaks, but a loose idea of your path around the parks and notation of any reservations is going to help.
How Having an Itinerary will Help you Relax
It seems counter-intuitive that having a schedule to adhere to could be relaxing. So, just imagine this: you and your family are walking into the Magic Kingdom. MK is the most universal park, it’s a near replica of Disneyland and several other properties around the globe. You know the big rides; Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Matterhorn. Oh! Except there isn’t a Matterhorn, actually there’s a unique ride called Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. It’s a short ride but it is a mountain, so you expect it to have a line. Did you expect it to have a 3 hour wait? Because it usually does. Even still, let’s say you and your group have managed to knock out those big E-Ticket attractions, now you’re standing in the walkway looking at the map trying to decide what next.
Do you go for lunch? Where should you go, which restaurants are the best? Did you make your reservation 90 days in advance? And let’s be real, how many times in your life has everyone in your family agreed on something? Now instead of this anxiety inducing image, imagine that it’s lunch time and you are sitting in the most popular restaurant having already ordered after knocking out half the rides and a clear guide for the afternoon. No more arguments about where to eat, about what to ride, about where to walk. (Well you’ll likely still have these, but in the comfort of your home beforehand).
What Should My Itinerary Look Like?
If you’re not sure where to start, you’re not alone!! It’s easy to come to the conclusion that you might need a plan – but it’s harder to actually make that plan. There are definitely some essential components you’ll need to include. Of course you want to notate any reservations, for both FastPass and dining. You also want to have a handy reminder of the bucket list items you wanted to do. You can grab my itinerary template here. This is a generic template, but if you’re looking for something with a bit more style be sure to check out my shop.
Now that you have your template in front of you, lets take a look at what’s included. On the left hand side you’ll see an hour by hour planner, where you’ll right in your estimated plan of attack. On the right hand side is an area to house your FastPass+ Reservations, your Advanced Dining Reservations, and any to-do items. Along the bottom is a section for notes about anything you might need to write down. Lastly, across the top you can fill in the date, the name of the park you are visiting, and the hours of operation.
How Do I Fill This Thing Out?!
First thing first, complete the top portion with the park details for the day. Next, you want to pencil in any existing reservations. If you’re not sure which FastPasses to book or which Dining fills up fastest, be sure to check out these related articles.
Fill these appointments in both the designated area on the right side, and the appropriate hour slot on the left. Now write down any rides, shows, restaurants, etc that you want to partake in at that park that you do not have a reservation for. You’ll fill this in under the Bucket List section. If you’re not sure what to do in the parks, be sure to check out the FP+ articles above.
Now we get to the tricky part, strategy. You’ll need to work with your group to figure this out. Are you a rope drop family or do you like to shut the parks down? Do you need a break in the middle of the day, or can you go, go, go? Everyone has their own way of doing things, but here are some of the more popular strategies,
If you’re not familiar with rope drop, it just means park opening. Most of the parks open around 10am, but you’ll want to plan on arriving at least 30 minutes prior. Keep in mind the transit time from your room to the park, the time it takes your group to get ready, and how long it takes to get through security and into the parks. For my family that means are alarms are set to 6:30am. Not everyone can make it, and that’s okay. The fact that there are so many ways to plan your day is part of what makes each plan effective.
I will say though, that we’ve found rope drop to be the most effective means of getting on rides. Most people do not want to wake up that early on their vacation, so it’s pretty easy to get in and knock out most of the big rides early on. You can get a solid 90-120 minutes inside the park before it starts to get crowded.
Since it is a vacation, a big number of guests prefer to sleep in and stay until closing. The last hour or so in the park is considerably less crowded than most of the day. In our experience there are still more people than first thing in the morning, but it is a good runner up. You will want to be strategic with your FastPass selections if you are planning to go this route as even close to closing the most popular rides will still have fairly long lines.
Extra Magic Hours
One perk of staying on property at Disney World is Magic Hours. Generally there are 2 parks hosting magic hours each day, 1 will open an hour early for resort guests and 1 stays open 2-3 hours late for resort guests. Again, different strategies work for different people. My family and I think the magic hours are great and offer a lot of value for the cost of the resort. But there are also people who think EMH is too crowded. I personally know a few people that plan their days with the intent of avoiding the parks with EMH, and that works for them. Each guest, or group of guests, is going to have a unique way of conquering Disney. If you’re early risers anyway, maybe take advantage of the AM hours or the PM hours if you are night owls.
Honestly, this is how I do Disney with my family and it is not for the faint of heart. Spending an entire day at a Disney park can be frustrating for a lot of people. Having a plan and a well stocked park bag helps alleviate some of that, but you have to really love Disney and really love your family. When I say all day, I mean rope drop to close and extra magic hours on one or both ends. One way to revitalize your group is to have a no-park, or half park day.
Half-Days and Mid-Day Breaks
Not all of the Disney parks require a full day, I said it. They’re starting to grow though, so that is likely to change. As it stands Epcot and Hollywood Studios are usually seen as half day parks, and sometimes even Animal Kingdom is included on that list. If you are planning to take it a little slower on your vacation and really relax, half-days in the parks may be more your speed. I still recommend having a plan, and taking advantage of at least one of the aforementioned strategies, but this is one way to do Disney.
If you are doing a full day in the parks take a break into consideration. Florida gets really hot, especially in the early afternoon. If you can get up and out to the parks early you’ll be ready for a break by the time most people are meandering in. This is a great strategy to avoid crowds and keep you and your group wanting to go back for more. Just take a break from the parks and go eat at Disney Springs, or go resort hopping, or even go back to your hotel for a nap. It’s a great way to keep everyone rested, and interested, then pop back into a park in the late afternoon when the crowds are headed out for dinner.
Filling in the Blanks
With everything you’ve filled out thus far you should have a rough outline of your day, and that might be enough. We at SoCal Style like to take it a bit further though, by pulling up park maps. If you know you have a FastPass reservation for Kilimanjaro Safaris at 10:30am and another for Flight of Passage at 2:00pm, look up the map for Animal Kingdom and find out which rides are along that route. While there are certainly some standby waits you’ll want to avoid, there are also some quick walk on rides or shows that you’ll have plenty of time for. Maybe use a chunk of that time in between to endure one of the longer standby lines. However you decide to do it, writing it down will keep you aware of what rides your close to throughout the day and what attractions you can’t remember the name of but really want to do after watching that one video youtube.
Make it a Game
And lastly, make sure to just have fun and enjoy the experience. If you are with little kids, they LOVE to think that they’re in charge. Let them be navigator for the day and read off the itinerary between rides. They will get a kick out of crossing things off the list and getting to tell the grown-ups what they’re supposed to do. If you can get them involved in the planning, by watching ride videos or discussing characters they want to meet, it will be even more satisfying for them to see their plan in action.
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