Just how much planning do you need to do to have a great time at the Walt Disney World theme parks? Well, that really depends on your expectations and what you want to see and do in the parks. My family and I spent a week at Disney this November and I heavily planned certain days and left other days wide open. I was curious to see how much this would impact our days at the parks. Here is the bottom line: planning REALLY does affect your experience at the parks! In this post I’ll compare what to expect if you plan your days at the theme parks in some detail, versus having few plans and “winging it” at the parks. You will have a different experience depending on the amount of planning you do, so it is helpful to know what to expect, however you decide to tour the parks!
Planning Your Park Days: What To Expect
Planning your theme park days will start WELL before your trip. The first element in planning your park days is actually deciding where you want to eat! The reason is this… If you want to eat at any of the most popular table service restaurant at Disney World, you need to make a reservation 180 days in advance. I don’t know many other places in the world where you need to make your dining plans this far in advance, but this is just how it is at Disney World.
The best and most popular restaurants at Disney require a reservation, or Advance Dining Reservations (ADR) in Disney-speak. I often use the full list of Disney menus over at AllEars.net to help me decide where to eat. I also check out reviews over at the Disney Food Blog. We eat at a table service restaurant on most days, so I make a list of where I most want to eat before I plan anything else for our trip, usually 6 months+ before we leave. Then I use a crowd calendar to decide which parks to visit on which day of our trip. Some wonderful folks have studied crowd patterns at the theme parks and determined which parks are the least crowded each day. Josh over at EasyWDW used to produce the best crowd calendars, but it seems he has taken a break for that for now. Currently I’m using the free calendars from Undercover Tourist and WDW Prep School. I try to plan visit to the MOST recommended parks only each day to dodge crowds and have the best experience at the parks.
So after I’ve decided which parks to visit on which days I coordinate my dining reservations to match my touring plan. When I book my dining reservations 180 days before my trip, I look for the restaurants I want in the parks on the day I will be there. Hopefully I can get everything I want, though I often have a backup in mind just in case the reservations are already gone for what I want (this has happened many times). The last thing I’ll do is make a rough plan of what we will do in the parks each day. This is to facilitate making FastPass reservations. If you aren’t familiar, FastPass+ allows you to essentially make a reservation for riding an attraction in advance. If you are staying at a Disney-owned resort, you can reserve FastPasses for attractions up to 60 days before your visit. If you don’t have a Disney resort reservation, you can begin booking FastPasses 30 days before your visit.
The FastPass+ system has certainly changed how much advance planning is required in order to ride certain attractions at Disney World. I know it might sound crazy to have to decide what attractions you want to ride on what day 60 days before your trip. But there are certain attractions that are so popular that you either have to have a FastPass, ride FIRST thing when the park opens, or be prepared to wait in a very long line. On this recent trip, I wasn’t able to get us a FastPass to ride Frozen Ever After, the hot ticket attraction in Epcot’s Norway pavilion. When I went to book them the day our FastPass window opened, they were already gone for the day were wanted to visit Epcot. Since we really wanted to ride the attraction, we got to Epcot 20 minutes before the park opened (8:40 am) and headed straight to Frozen Ever After. We only waited about 5 minutes to ride and then met Anna & Elsa right afterwards, so that worked out great!
Here are the attractions that are the highest priority for a FastPass:
- Frozen Ever After (Epcot)
- Seven Dwarves Mine Train (Magic Kingdom)
- Space Mountain (Magic Kingdom)
- Soarin’ (Epcot)
- Enchanted Tales with Belle (Magic Kingdom)
- Toy Story Mania (Hollywood Studios)
- Rockin’ Roller Coaster (Hollywood Studios)
- Kilimanjaro Safaris (Animal Kingdom)
I’ve shared more about using FastPass+ and avoiding long waits in general in this post. I usually make a list of other attractions that are high on my list to work into the day, and make a rough plan for when to visit them. This is to avoid walking back and forth across the park too many times, which definitely decreases the amount of fun you’ll have! I plan to visit the most popular attractions right after park opens, then use FastPasses later in the morning or in the afternoon. When you are on vacation and have planned out your days, expect to see and do A LOT in one day! With planning, you can experience many attractions and eat at some of the best table service restaurants. You will also be checking your watch/phone frequently throughout the day and may feel rushed to fit everything in. I was exhausted after our jam-packed planned days at the parks, but we experienced a bunch of new things and ate at some amazing restaurants. If you don’t mind sticking to a schedule and being pretty worn out at the end of each day, you can have a great vacation with lots of planning.
Winging It: What To Expect
I think you can also have a great time at the parks with little planning, though you will have a different experience. You may not see and do as much in terms of attractions, but you’ll tour the parks at a more leisurely pace. You’ll get more time to people watch, notice the amazing details in the parks, and soak up the atmosphere. Since these are some of my favorite things to do, I particularly enjoy unplanned days at the theme parks! I also think your experience with unplanned park days will vary greatly on how crowded the parks are. If you head to the Magic Kingdom on Christmas Day without a plan, you will likely not be able to experience many attractions at all due to the HUGE crowds. But you can head there on a recommended day during the low season without a plan and still see and do lots of things. You can read about my favorite times of year to visit Disney World in this post, all of which have overall low crowd levels.
You will also have a different dining experience when you visit the parks without much planning. You likely won’t be able to dine at any of the popular table service restaurants. Occasionally reservations will open up at the last minute when folks cancel 24 hours prior to their reservation to avoid being charged a $10-$15 per person no-show fee. So it is worth checking a day before you visit to see if anything has opened up. Just because you can’t eat at the “hot ticket” restaurants doesn’t mean you can’t eat excellent food. First, many of my favorite restaurants at Disney are actually counter service, aka quick service locations. You don’t need a reservation for these, except for Be Our Guest, a quick service location for breakfast and lunch that does require reservations. I’ve had incredible food from quick service locations, and I prefer them when I’m winging it in the parks.
You’ll find excellent food, generous portions and good value at my favorite quick service locations:
- Flame Tree Barbeque (Animal Kingdom)
- Columbia Harbor House (Magic Kingdom)
- Sunshine Seasons (Epcot)
- Katsura Grill (Epcot)
- Captain Cooks (Polynesian Resort)
- Contempo Cafe (Contemporary Resort)
- The Mara (Animal Kingdom Lodge)
Next, there are lots of great dining locations at the Disney resorts, many of which have day-of availability. Here are some of my favorite table service restaurants at Disney resorts at which you may be able to score a walk-up reservation:
- Kona Cafe (Polynesian Resort)
- BlueZoo (Dolphin Resort)
- Il Mulino (Swan Resort)
- Kimonos (Swan Resort)
- The Wave (Contemporary Resort)
- Jiko (Animal Kingdom Lodge – depending on the season)
On this recent trip, we visited the parks at a moderately busy time of year. The last few days of our visit were the days I left open in our schedule, and those happened to be the busiest of our trip since it was the weekend before Thanksgiving.
On Saturday, we decided to visit Animal Kingdom and arrived there around 9:30 am. When I went into the My Disney Experience app on my phone around 10 am, ALL of the FastPasses for the major attractions were gone. The only options for FastPasses were a few minor attractions that usually have no wait anyway (Primeval Whirl, It’s Tough To Be a Bug, etc.) We met Flik from A Bug’s Life, saw It’s Tough To Be a Bug again (can you tell my daughter is into bugs?), then checked out some animals in the Africa section. We arrived at the Festival of the Lion King 15 minutes early for the 11 am show and got in with no problem. We even ended up with great seats for the show. Then we headed over to Asia and ate lunch at Yak & Yeti Local Foods, a quick service location. We left the park for a nap afterwards, but if we had we stayed we could have visited the other animal viewing area, saw another show, and rode the train over to Conservation Station to visit the petting farm and animal exhibits there.
We had a great time during our totally unplanned day at Animal Kingdom. If we had arrived before park opening in the morning, we could have likely rode Expedition Everest and Kilimanjaro Safaris with short wait times as well. This approach does require thorough knowledge of what is there and how to find it, though. You could easily wander around the park and miss out on a lot of great stuff if you don’t do your homework! In summary, you can have a great time at the Disney parks whether you plan extensively or not. You will see and do more if you plan well ahead of time, but you may feel rushed and have less time to soak up the atmosphere of the parks. If you decide to wing it, you’ll likely experience fewer attractions and eat at more quick service locations, but you’ll have a more leisurely pace to your vacation and will feel more relaxed. Please share your ideas and experiences with touring the parks in a comment below!