Disney World Planning Tips

Our family just returned home from a trip to Disney World, where we shared the news with our foster Kiddo that we were adopting them. You can read the recap here. This was our family’s second time going to Disney, and quite expensive. I knew I wanted to make the most of this trip so I planned, a lot. Since it can feel confusing (and quite expensive), I’m sharing my Disney World Planning Tips to help you feel prepared, too!

NOTE: we fully paid for our trip and are in no way affiliated with Walt Disney World. 

First Things First: Where You Stay

Before anything else, this is the decision that will drive everything around your planning. While staying off the Disney campus is more affordable, there are many advantages and cost saving elements when you stay on campus. After researching available options it was clear that staying on resort was both best for financial and convenience reasons.

I know that may be surprising, so here’s a list of benefits that were included when staying on resort:

  • Early access to the parks – meaning, your chance to skip the 140 min line for the few rides Genie+ Lightning Lane (previously FastPass) does not apply. Saved us $300 from Lightning Lane passes to excluded rides.
  • Free parking – including at any Disney resort. This means you can drive to another resort, explore, eat, and use their Monorail or Skyliner into parks. Saved us $125 and a lot of time walking to the parks from far away parking.
  • Free transportation to any Disney Park or Resort. This is HUGE and so convenient.
  • Disney is fantastic with allergen-friendly food, found easily around all resorts. Saved time finding food.
  • Genie+ Lightning Lane (previously FastPass) was included in our tickets (for perspective, individual ride Lightning Lane purchases average $10 per person) or the upgrade to Genie+ is $15/day per person – saved us $450.

When I factored in these cost savings and the convenience, it was a no-brainer.

Why Genie+ Matters

There are a lot of benefits to Genie+, but the one that mattered to us was Lightning Lane. I cannot imagine trying to do the park without it – lines were consistently over half an hour and at nearly all rides in all parks and an hour wait was very common. But Genie+ allowed us to plan our day and get to all the rides we wanted without significant wait times. Other benefits outlined on the Disney Food Blog:

Genie service, which is offered through the My Disney Experience app, will help guests plan their days at Disney World in a way that hasn’t been possible through the app before. But it also offers a new paid service, Disney Genie+.

Guests who purchase Disney Genie+ will have the opportunity to book a return time to skip the standby line and go through a ride’s Lightning Lane (a.k.a. the FastPass+ lane).

Honestly this element was the one that stressed me out the most, but turns out it’s super simple. I put Matt in charge of the App on the day-of and he and the kids were all able to request rides throughout the day. Unlike Lightning Pass where we had to plan it far in advance, this worked out much better for us. Not to mention the other features included!

Choosing the right Resort

Since traveling is hard for Kiddo, we knew we wanted to take our dogs which provide emotional support. We are a family of 6, so our options are limited. However, Disney offers several pet-friendly options, the two most affordable are Camp Wilderness and Art of Animation Resort – both with options for families of 6. Honestly I think it’s a coin flip depending on what is most important to you. But, here are the trade-offs of each:

Camp Wilderness Resort – Cabins

This is where we stayed for our 2022 trip.

The benefits:

  1. You’re in nature, which feels like a reprieve from the crowds and intensity of parks. The resort campus was lovely and not at all crowded.
  2. Our family of 6 could stay in one cabin all together. Ultimately this was the deciding factor for us.
  3. We could let the dogs outside really easily.
  4. If the dogs barked we didn’t feel like we were bothering people.
  5. Was super close to Best Friends Pet Care, the dog boarding day camp our pups went to.
  6. Parking was super easy – spot right in front of the cabin, so loading/unloading the car was easy.
  7. There was a boat that took you to MK, and because you’re so close you could watch the fireworks from that area of the resort.
  8. The were ample bus shuttles to all areas of the parks and resort – including “internal” shuttles to bring you near a bus stop by your cabin.
  9. Full kitchen – includes a range, microwave, and full size refrigerator so if you want to bring and cook your own food you can do so and save a lot of money. In fact, they now offer you to be able to pre-order a pantry full of fresh groceries—ready to enjoy the moment you arrive!
  10. You’re outside and in a private space, so with Covid this felt safer for us.
  11. Offered more amenities not available anywhere else, like horse-drawn carriages, pony rides, archery, campfire sing-a-long, motorized boat, kayak and canoe rental, bike rental, basketball courts, trails, arcades, and more.

The downside:

  1. Only one bathroom. When you’re at the park you get sweaty and dirty and no one wants to poop in public – it was mayhem every time we came back to the cabin on who got the bathroom first. Admittedly, the boy(s) may have gone in our yard at one point.
  2. Everything in the resort is pretty far apart – we could walk to the pool but for other cabins that would have been too far.
  3. While Golf Carts were originally part of the appeal for this resort, the rules didn’t allow my older kids to drive them. At $60 a day, we just drove everywhere within the resort since we had our car.

Disney World Planning Tip: use this map to request your location at early online check-in through My Disney Experience. Our cabin was walking distance to a pool and internal shuttle which was incredibly helpful.

Art of Animation Resort – Family Suite

When we originally planned our trip last year (that we postponed), this is where we planned to stay. Our first trip was in a similar resort and this one is pet-friendly and more affordable.

The benefits:

  1. Older kids can leave the hotel room to explore the campus.
  2. Most affordable suite, which accommodates 6 (wasn’t available when we went). Family Suite includes a bedroom with one queen-size bed; one double-size convertible TableBed; one double-size sleeper sofa; living room; 2 bathrooms and a kitchenette.
  3. Two bathrooms.
  4. HUGE pool, food, and other amenities are walking distance.
  5. Feels more like Disney with cartoon-themes.
  6. Skyliner transportation from the hotel, as well as shuttle buses.

The downside:

  1. Family Suites are few and far between, they weren’t available when I tried to book 4 months ahead. You can book two adjoining rooms to still have eyes on your family with two bathrooms though.
  2. More crowded and shared spaces, we would have wanted to wear masks inside.
  3. Parking and carrying all of our stuff from a parking lot would have been annoying.
  4. Taking the dogs to go out would have been a big ordeal.
  5. If the dogs barked it would have annoyed people in neighboring rooms.

Booking Your Theme Park Tickets & Resort

With new Covid protocols, you MUST have a reservation to the theme park to enter – even season pass holders can’t just decide to go without one. This gives you two options:

  1. Individual Day Pass: one park only per day
  2. Park Hopper: can move from park-to-park on the same day

The price difference on a random day I just looked up was $149 for Individual Day Pass and $214 for Hopper. Because we were going for Spring Break prices were much higher; but, we had time on our side. I knew Kiddo might get overwhelmed and need some time back at our cabin. This meant for us, there was no way we could do more than one park per day. So, the Individual Day Pass was best.

However, if your family is smaller or doesn’t get overwhelmed or tired easily, then the park hopper options will save you money.

Cost of Single Day vs. Park Hopper

Single Park Day Pass Park Hopper
Day 1 $109 $174
Day 2 $107 $144
Day 3 $106 $131
Day 4 $106 $127
Day 5 $91 $108
Total $519 $684
Family of 6 $3114 $4104
2 days only $1296 $1908
You can see how our family benefitted from staying longer and saving with reduced individual park pass rates. However, if you feel you can see what you want from each park in half a day vs. a whole day, then you’d cut your cost with Park Hopper.  The prices continue to significantly drop for Single Park after 5 days, down to $55 on day 10 – but our personal experience was that we were done after 5 days.
Personally, unless you’re going to frequently go to Disney, you’ll want more than half a day in each park. But, the other benefit to Park Hopper is that you can go back to Magic Kingdom (MK) for fireworks each night. Or, use that as your “go back” park on the 5th day, that’s what we did.

Choosing Parks for Each Day

I lucked into this timing, but want you to benefit like I did and have some Disney World planning tips for you here. You can use this Traffic Calendar to help you choose best days to go. When the date gets closer, you cam use This Park Calendar to see how crowded each park is. Our Spring Break fell a week early, so while this chart says “green and yellow” vs. the “red” for Easter crowds, let me assure you: it was packed.
The more crowded the parks are, the longer it will take you to do anything. I mean, 20 min to get a snack, an hour to use a Lightning Pass, etc. This was all the more reason for us to stick to single day pass vs. hopper tickets.

Our favorite parks:

  • Stacy: Animal Kingdom, I love the lush surroundings and so much to see that’s not on rides
  • Matt: Animal Kingdom, he’s obsessed and loves everything here
  • Cole: Hollywood Studios, he loved the rides here the most (Rock-n-Roller Coaster & Tower of Terror)
  • Kiddo: Magic Kingdom, they love the classic Disney Fairy Tales
  • Finn: Hollywood Studios, he loved the new immersive Star Wars world
  • Wes: Epcot, he and Matt stayed at the park in the afternoon when the rest of us left and he loved the 1:1 time

Few Other Things

When you book your resort you need to make sure your park selections are available on those days. With limits on crowds things fill up fast, so you don’t want to get stuck with anything less than your ideal. You’re spending too much money to not have it be exactly what you want!
I highly recommend opting into Magic Bands when you check-out, too. These serve as your tools for everything Disney. They let us on all the transportation, into the park, paid for things, enter our room, you name it. And, they’re a GPS for any wandering children that may get lost!

This was our exact plan

I know this may seem overkill, but my kids (with smartphones) LOVED that I had created a Google doc I shared with them. They knew our schedule, and didn’t need to constantly ask simple questions. And, I also had put all the dining options in there, so they also could see those options. You will want to make dining reservations at the same time as you book the park – these fill up fast and waiting to eat will take up precious park time!

SCHEDULE

Driving to Disney, Mar 31

  • Drive from DC area to Charleston, SC – stay in hotel overnight just to sleep, this was more than half-way so it felt like the next day was much shorter.

Disney Springs, Apr 1

  • Drive to Disney, FL – this allowed us to get up at a decent hour without rushing and arrive just in time to check-in to our cabin
  • Dinner at Disney Springs
  • Gluten-Free Food options
    • The Landing Raglan Road™ Irish Pub and Restaurant (we had reservations, the GF fish & chips is a MUST)
    • Erin McKenna’s Bakery NYC is a dedicated GF bakery with vegan options, too
    • Disney’s Candy Cauldron
    • Rainforest Cafe, the kids really wanted to go here and though there is one in Animal Kingdom we had other plans that day

Magic Kingdom Park, Apr 2

  • Hours: 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM, Early Theme Park Entry – 8:30 AM – 9:00 AM
  • Drop off dogs at Best Friends Pet Care (0pen: 1 hour before parks, closed: 1 hour after parks)
  • Gluten-Free Food options:
    • Jungle Navigation Co. Skipper Canteen – GF fried chicken
    • Tony’s Town Square – Italian with good view
    • The Plaza Restaurant – sundaes, milkshakes and GF bread (we had reservations)
    • Pinocchio Village Haus (GF chicken breast strips)
    • Aloha Isle – Pineapple Whip
    • Most burgers or pizza in parks will have GF options
  • Use early park access for Seven Dwarfs Ride Train not available with Lightning Lane.

Hollywood Studios Park, Apr 3

  • Hours: 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM, Early Theme Park Entry – 8:30 AM – 9:00 AM
  • Drop off dogs at Best Friends Pet Care (0pen: 1 hour before parks, closed: 1 hour after parks)
  • Gluten-Free Food options:
    • Docking Bay 7 (highly recommend, nourishing bowls with protein, veg and carb)
    • Backlot Express (burger, salad, GF chicken breast strips)
    • Woody’s Lunchbox (grilled cheese, totchos for breakfast)
    • 50’s Prime Time Cafe (s’mores, off menu: GF fried chicken, meatloaf, salad)
  • Use early park access for Star Wars Rise of the Resistance ride, not available with Lightning Lane.

Animal Kingdom Park, Apr 4

  •  Hours: 9:00 AM – 7:00 PM, Early Theme Park Entry – 8:30 AM – 9:00 AM
  • Drop off dogs at Best Friends Pet Care (0pen: 1 hour before parks, closed: 1 hour after parks)
  • Gluten-Free Food options:
    • Sanaa Lunch, Animal Kingdom Villas – Kidani Village (we had reservations, highly recommend)
    • Satu’li Canteen (nourishing bowls with protein, veg and carb)
    • Nomad Lounge – GF Churros (highly recommend)
    • Tamu Tamu – Africa, Dole Whip (highly recommend)
    • Rainforest Cafe
  • Use early park access for Avatar Flight of Passage ride, not available with Lightning Lane.
  • Disney World Planning Tip: People always say to get there early for the morning feedings with animals, but we went at dusk and saw every single animal a LOT – was magical!

Epcot Park, Apr 5

  • Hours: 10:00 AM – 9:00 PM, Early Theme Park Entry – 9:30 AM – 10:00 AM
  • Drop off dogs at Best Friends Pet Care (0pen: 1 hour before parks, closed: 1 hour after parks)
  • Gluten-Free Food options (were sadly meh given this is the food park):
    • Coral Reef Restaurant
    • Reagle Eagle BBQ (texas toast GF)
    • Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie
  • Use early park access for Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure ride, not available with Lightning Lane.

Last Day at Disney, Apr 6 – Checkout 11am

  • Magic Kingdom Park Hours: 9:00 AM – 11:00 PM, Early Theme Park Entry – 8:30 AM – 9:00 AM
  • Drop off dogs at Best Friends Pet Care (0pen: 1 hour before parks, closed: 1 hour after parks)
  • Drive to Polynesian Resort, eat at Kona Cafe, take Monorail into MK
  • Disney World Planning Tip: on our last day, after we checked out from the cabin, we returned to Magic Kingdom without being in a hurry since we’d been once before. We drove to and parked at the Polynesian Resort (after dropping off the dogs).  Lunch was fantastic and getting to the park was so easy!

Other Gluten-Free Food Options:

  • Port Orleans Resort – GF Beignets
  • Trattoria al Forno (The Boardwalk)
  • The Wave (Contemporary Resort)
  • ‘Ohana (Polynesian Resort) GF Waffles (breakfast)
  • Pineapple Lanai (Polynesian Village Resort) Dole Whip
  • Kona Cafe (Polynesian Resort) accessible via monorail, GF poke, sushi, and bread

Checkout my Gluten-Free Walt Disney World Dining Guide for our thoughts on each restaurant, what we recommend, and more.

Checkout my Be Prepared: What to Bring to Disney Guide for what we recommend bringing!

 

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