Top 5 Tips for Planning the Best Disney World Vacation

Late last year, Grant and I took our third trip together to Disney World, and it may have been our best visit yet! In a previous post, we talked about our tips for saving big money on your trip (read how we saved over $1,000 here!), and now we’re going to share some of our best Disney planning tips. It may be a bit cheesy, but the planning of a Disney trip and the anticipation is one of my favorite parts besides the vacation itself! My Monday-Friday job is in market research/consumer insights, so researching and organizing are some of my strongest skills – and ones that are put to good use when planning our Disney vacations! Here are some of the tips and tricks I use when we start our planning process:

  1. Decide when you want to go: Everyone has their own opinion on when to visit Disney World, and now with their variable ticket pricing, it’s more important than ever to decide what works best for your vacation and budget. The past two visits, we’ve decided to go right after Thanksgiving to take advantage of a free dining promotion and experience Disney World during the early part of the Christmas season. The weather is typically great and crowds are definitely thinner than the peak times of year, so it’s been one of our favorite times to visit. If you are undecided or just overwhelmed with when to visit, I have a few great resources that I use (especially in other aspects of planning). Mousesavers has a great collection of the different Disney room rates and tracks promotional offers if you are searching for the best deal. If you are more concerned with visiting when it’s not as busy, I love the crowd calendars at WDW Prep School – they are especially helpful when you get to the point of planning your FastPass+ selections. One of the best parts of booking a Disney vacation is being able to spread out the payments. They only require a $200 deposit upon booking, and trips must be paid in full 30 days prior to your trip. If you plan a year in advance for a $3000 trip, you spend only about $250 a month to pay for your trip. TLB tip: If at all possible, try to plan your Disney World trip at least 180 days out to take full advantage of all of the planning resources. If you are making a room only reservation, you can do that up to 499 days in advance!
  2. Research dining options and be ready to make reservations: Coming from the wife and husband that can barely decide where to eat dinner on the weekend, it seems crazy that we pick where to eat at Disney 6 months in advance! There are over 130 restaurants around Disney World, Disney Springs, and the resorts, and many don’t take walk-ups during the busy season. If you have your heart set on popular favorites like Cinderella’s Royal Table, O’hana, or Be Our Guest, you better be ready at that 180 day mark! TLB Tip: When you book a vacation package with Disney, you are able to make your dining reservations for your entire stay (up to 10 days) on the 180 mark. Basically, this gives you the flexibility to book all of your reservations at one time, rather than having to book each day of your vacation separately on the 180 day mark. TLB Tip: Reservations open online at 6 AM EST, so be ready with your list ahead of time! If you can’t get the times or restaurants you want right away, don’t give up hope! MouseDining’s dining reservation tracker will alert you when a reservation frees up for your specified time.
  3. Plan for FastPass+: This can make or break a Disney vacation, especially during peak crowd times! Each day that you have a park ticket, you are allotted 3 FastPass selections at one park. Guests staying on property can select rides or attractions that they’d like to visit 60 days in advance (those off property have 30 days advance) starting at 7 AM EST. FastPass+ will give you a designated time to visit and bypass the main line – almost like a reservation! For popular rides like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Avatar Flight of Passage, this is a huge time-saver! Be forewarned, all parks except for Magic Kingdom have a tiered FastPass selection process, so you won’t be able to select FastPasses for all the big ticket attractions (for example, Soarin’ and Test Track are both Tier 1, so you’d have to choose between those two). Disney’s website has additional details about FastPass+ here. TLB Tip: Once you have used your first 3 Fastpasses, you are able to add another Fastpass one at a time for the remainder of the day! As soon as you scan into your third attraction, go ahead and open up your My Disney Experience app to see what is available – you never know, you may find an ellusive Slinky Dog Coaster Fastpass!
  4. Consider special ticketed events: There are two big special, ticketed events that happen at Disney each year – Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party (August – October) and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (November – December). While we’ve only been to the Christmas party, we’ve heard great things about the Halloween celebration too! The parties can be a little pricey, but you have access to Magic Kingdom beginning at 4 PM on the day of the party (no other park ticket required). By 7 PM when the party officially begins, crowds will start to clear out and you get to enjoy significantly shorter wait times for all of your favorite rides! Plus, there are some great snacks and character meet and greets included with the party, and it’s a great way to get excited about the holiday season.
  5. Double check park hours and confirmations: Once you get about 2 weeks out from your trip, it’s time to double check all of your information! I like to keep an Excel spreadsheet with everything we need (FastPass selections, park hours, dining reservations). A few weeks before your vacation, Disney will finalize park hours on the app and website. I like to check these especially when we have early breakfast reservations to see when parks officially open. I also typically call the dining reservation line to make sure that any allergies or celebrations have been noted on our reservations before we get there. TLB Tip: If you have a dietary restriction or allergy, Disney is incredible at accommodating and providing options! Just let your waiter know when you sit down, and most restaurants have an allergy friendly menu guide which makes it so simple, even for buffets!
Planning spreadsheet example with our dining plan allotments, reservations, and FastPass+

So there you go – our top 5 tips to planning the best Disney World vacation! We are already counting down to our next visit, which is TBD! Any other tips that you recommend for our next trip? Keep up with us on Instagram at www.Instagram.com/TheLocalBells

We Saved Over $1,000 on Our Disney World Vacation – And So Can You!

Back in November, Grant and I celebrated our first anniversary at the happiest place on Earth – Disney World! We’ve had the opportunity to go three times together (2015, 2016, and 2018), and each time it gets even better! This was our second time with the “Free Dining” promotion, and this time, we tracked all of our spending to see if it actually saved us money. And after tallying every dollar spent on our resort, tickets, and food, the grand total was over $1,000 in savings compared to if we had paid for every thing at full cost! And if you include our flights that we paid for with points and a gift card, that total goes up to nearly $1,400 that we saved!

So, how did we do it? Unlike grocery shopping or online shopping where you can use a myriad of coupons or promo codes to get some great deals, Disney itself really only has a few ways for you to save on a vacation: a room discount, package discount/special offer, or by using your Disney Visa card rewards. But there are a few other tips and tricks to save and stretch every dollar for your next Disney vacation!

Here are the steps we took to build up these amazing savings:

  • Free Dining” Promotion – The first time we took advantage of the “Free Dining” promotion was in 2016, and we stayed at the Caribbean Beach Resort. We stumbled upon the promotion when were were planning our trip and were lucky enough to snag a reservation with the offer. This time, we knew to be on the lookout for it, especially since it’s historically been offered for the same time of year (promo becomes available in late April for bookings in the fall/early winter; I like to keep track of historical promos here). We managed to book at Coronado Springs this time for a few days after Thanksgiving, the best time in my opinion to get in the Christmas spirit and go during a cooler time of year. TLB Tip – there are rumors that “Free Dining” will be going away after Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge opens. BUT if you are looking to plan a Disney vacation this summer, they have “Free Dining” available July-September, so book while you can! The promotion nearly always sells out, but make sure it’s the right choice for you and your family:
    • Ticket Requirements – There are ticket requirements (Park Hopper and typically at least 4 days) and you aren’t able to bundle with other offers, so sometimes a room only discount can be better (deluxe resorts sometimes have discounts up to 35%!). For us, we knew we wanted the Park Hopper option and planned to be there 5 days and 4 nights, so the promotion fit perfectly for our vacation. When looking at the room only discount for the same time period, a 20% discount at Coronado Springs would only save us about $200, so we opted for the free dining package instead.
    • Different Meal Plans Included – Only the Deluxe resorts get the full Disney Dining Plan (1 quick service, 1 table service, 2 snacks per person per night); Values and Moderates get the Quick Service Plan (2 quick service, 2 snacks per person per night). With this trip being an anniversary trip, we definitely wanted to make sure we had some table service options. Although we were staying at a Moderate resort, Disney allows you to upgrade your meal plan for the difference in cost, which was well worth it to us! This way, it basically feels like an all-inclusive vacation (aside from tips). If we hadn’t had free dining this trip, it still would have been worth it for us – we would have saved a couple hundred dollars by purchasing the meal plan this trip.
    • Make Dining Reservations Early! I cannot emphasize this one enough, especially for the Disney Dining Plan with table service restaurants. Disney opens the booking window 180 days out for dining reservations, and if you are staying on property, you can make reservations for all days of your vacation at that 180 day mark. And if you want to eat at some of the most popular restaurants like Be Our Guest, you’ll want to be on the computer right at 6 AM EST to book those! Keep in mind that the cost of the Disney Dining Plan is $75.49 per person per night, so if you really want to maximize the benefits of “free dining,” you’ll want to look at menus and plan to try to spend over $5 per snack, $18 per quick service meal, and $41 per table service meal (the break even amounts if you paid for the plan out of pocket). We highly recommend Cape May Cafe at the Beach Club (all you can eat crab legs!) and Boma at the Animal Kingdom Lodge for some of our favorite table service meals. And Be Our Guest is the only quick service location that requires reservations for breakfast and lunch, so we love being able to plan for a great meal for less time than a typical table service meal.
    • So. Much. Food. So would we really eat this much food if we weren’t on the dining plan? Probably not. The two snacks per person each day was a bit aggressive, and we ended up using quite a few on our last day with the Goofy candy to take home. But it was great to be able to try some new restaurants and food that we wouldn’t normally order. TLB Tip – Starbucks drinks count as a snack credit, so go ahead and order that $7 Venti Frappuccino that you know you can’t resist! And new to the 2018 (and still for 2019) dining plan was the addition of a specialty beverage with each meal. It made every meal feel like a special treat, and definitely not what we would have done if we were paying a la carte!
  • Sam’s Club Gift Cards – One of our top travel hacks for planning and paying for this trip was purchasing discounted Disney gift cards from Sam’s Club. When you make your initial reservation, Disney only requires a $200 deposit that is refundable up until 30 days from your check-in date, which gives you a ton of time to save along the way and pay as you go. Sam’s Club currently offers discounted gift cards that save you about $7 every $150 in gift cards you purchase. When we paid with our Discover card, there was a 5% cash back bonus for purchases at club stores, so we were able to save even more! We booked our trip in April, so we had about 7 months to save and purchase gift cards along the way. Disney’s website makes it very easy to use gift cards and make payments along the way, with only a $20 minimum on payments.
  • Disney Chase Visa Card – While definitely not the best card in terms of the cash back (1% on all purchases), cardholders sometimes get access to longer promotion windows or other perks. We put some of our work and personal expenses on this card and pay it off every month, so over the past few years it accumulated to a nice amount for our souvenir and extra expense bucket. Cardholders also enjoy 0% APR on Disney vacations booked with your Disney Visa for 6 months.
  • Airline Points – Orlando is a fairly easy drive from Atlanta, but still would take up a good bit of our vacation just in traveling back and forth. With some of our work travel over the past year, we were able to accumulate enough points to book Southwest flights for our trip – about $400 if we had paid out of pocket. With just an hour flight between the cities and having access to Disney’s Magical Express, transportation was a breeze and at no additional cost to us!

Interested in seeing our cost breakdown? We would have spent a whopping $3,400 if we paid out of pocket for everything included in our last trip (resort, tickets, food costs)! Here’s how things broke out if we were to pay completely out of pocket with a meal plan and no discounts versus a room only discount versus what we actually paid:

Cost completely out of pocket$3,433
Cost with no discounts & Disney Dining Plan$2,969
Cost with 25% room only discount & Disney Dining Plan$2,708
Actual costs (with “free dining” & all savings)$2,263

So what are your favorite ways to save for your Disney vacation? Comment below for any other ones we should consider for our next trip!  

Thanks for reading more tips and tricks from our Disney trip to come! Be sure to check out our Instagram for more: www.Instagram.com/TheLocalBells.

Where To Next?

Back in January, we shared our goals for 2018. So far, we’ve been staying on track with exercising and eating at home, and we are making progress on our financial goals after officially combining our accounts (not as hard as we expected!). However, the one area we want to start planning more is our travel and vacation plans for the year. With both of us working traditional 9 to 5 jobs, we have a finite amount of time to escape the work grind and want to use this first year of marriage to visit new places. So where to next?

That appears to be the million dollar question.

Between the two of us, Grant tends to be more spontaneous and ready to try new things while Meagan prefers to plan every last detail and stick with the tried and true. We started brainstorming some ideas for this year and ended up with with too many options and no decisions! So what’s stopping us?

  • Do we take one big vacation or several smaller ones? In 2017, our honeymoon was our big trip of the year (and definitely worth it – see our full review here!). Now that we aren’t planning a wedding, we have more vacation time to spread out throughout the course of the year. In a study cited by the New York Times, research has found that several smaller vacation per year rather than one big one boosts overall happiness more than when taking one long vacation. And even more than that, the actual planning and anticipation of a vacation boosts happiness for up to 8 weeks! With that in mind, we lean more towards planning several smaller trips this year. Ideally, we’d like to plan a few long weekend trips, a short summer trip, an anniversary trip in November, and take some time off around Christmas and New Years. South Africa, Europe, and somewhere in the South Pacific are still on the bucket list for some of those longer trip options in the future though!
  • How much should we budget for our vacation fund? There are mixed options about how much to spend on travel each year. Forbes reports that Americans spend 10% of their annual incomes on vacations. While we aren’t paying for a wedding this year, we are working hard to pay down student and car loans as well as saving for a down payment for a house. Planning domestic trips and ones that are driving distances instead of flying will help us keep our vacation costs lower. For our trip this week, we are staying at a condo through Airbnb, which was over 50% less than staying at a hotel resort. (If you are new to Airbnb, use this link to save $40 on your first stay) We also plan to utilize any of our credit card perks or cash back this year to help with some vacation costs. With Meagan being a planner, we have time to research, save, and hopefully get the best deals!
  • Where should we go? We are all over the place on this one and could definitely use some inspiration and suggestions! We’ve talked about Hilton Head or Destin for a beach trip, as they’re both about 6 hours away driving distance. There are some great Airbnb rental options and we both could use a good dose of “vitamin sea!” We’ve never been to Savannah or Asheville together and would love to explore the historic sites along the river or experience the Biltmore Estate. For our anniversary, we’ve looked into New York City, the Florida Keys, or Disney World – planning to splurge the most on this trip this year. We loved our relaxing honeymoon in paradise, but are looking for adventure in our first anniversary trip. Ultimately, we are looking to plan 4-5 smaller trips this year within the domestic U.S., ideally spending around $1,000-$1,500 per trip.

We are off to Park City, Utah for our first trip of the year this week – stay tuned for our post next week! In the meantime, we welcome any and all suggestions on other places to go this year, as well as any tips for planning and saving money along the way. Be sure to follow along with our Instagram at www.instagram.com/thelocalbells