I started planning the moment I booked my trip to Disney World. This would be my fourth trip to the most magical place on Earth and — at a whopping seven days, complete with on-property accommodations and a week of activities for my partner Braxton, my cousin Emma and myself — my most ambitious to date.
I pored over maps, dining reviews, guidebooks, YouTube videos and any other resource I could get my hands on, carefully crafting my vision for the perfect Disney World vacation. It wasn't my first time at the planning rodeo; I had taken part in the planning of two other trips to Disney World before this one. But this time I was the sole planner. And I was ready.
You might even say I had been in training to plan this trip since my last one ended. Longing for the magic of Disney again after only a few short weeks away, Braxton and I came across a video on YouTube. We had been discussing where we would like to stay on our next trip, and this video focused on the resort that was at the top of our list: the Grand Floridian, a classy resort that's within eyesight of the Magic Kingdom.
Adam Hattan, a British cultural representative who vlogged his experiences working and playing at Disney World, took us along as he stayed at the resort. In just over 52 minutes, he answered every question we had about the Victorian-style compound. Hearing from an experienced Disney park-goer and seeing what he went through in real time struck just the right chord to keep us entranced by the Disney magic.
After that video, we were hooked. If we had any downtime, chances are we were watching him or another Disney World vlogger.
Braxton and I probably consumed hundreds of hours of Disney World content on YouTube over the year that followed. We learned all the little insider secrets, like how the water fountain behind Cinderella's castle is positioned in front of a statue of Cinderella so that you bow to her as you take a drink, and how the mosaic behind the statue was designed to give the illusion of Cinderella wearing a crown from certain angles.
In short, we became Disney junkies. So when it came time to plan, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted, even before I started poring over all of my guidebooks and other resources.
I'm glad I did a lot of work on the front end. It was great to have an idea of what each of my seven days in Orlando was going to look like.
What wasn't great was the fact that those plans didn't include sharing my trip with thousands of other park-goers, attractions being closed for refurbishment, or the ill effects of having a disengaged teenager in tow.
Don't get me wrong, I had a wonderful time. But my trip could've been much better had I gone into it with more realistic expectations.
So, in an effort to spare you, dear reader, some of the heartache I experienced, I bring you my learned-the-hard way suggestions.
Everything started well enough. We landed in Orlando ahead of schedule and took an Uber to Port Orleans Riverside Resort.
Why not the Grand Floridian? That's more of an adult resort, we realized. Its sober theming doesn't exactly scream Disney — it whispers it. And Braxton and I wanted to stay somewhere 12-year-old Emma could experience more of the Disney magic.
Port Orleans Riverside was the perfect choice for that. We stayed in one of the resort's Royal Guest Rooms and every inch of that place had theming from "The Princess and the Frog," "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast." With a magic carpet built into the flooring and bathroom faucets modeled after magic lamps, it yells "Disney" at the top of its lungs!
This is where things started to run off the rails. Taking the advice of many guidebooks and my aforementioned Disney World vloggers, I planned my trip within a magical window of time in January and February that's affectionately referred to as "the slow season."
This is the time of year when Disney handles refurbishments and other construction projects.
Imagine my surprise when Braxton, Emma and I arrived for rope drop at Magic Kingdom the next day to find the place packed to the hilt.
Unknown to me at the time of planning, it's also the time of year when the company offers significantly reduced rates and hosts various camps, competitions and other gatherings in an effort to give its numbers a, shall we say, bippity-boppity-boost.
In short, there is no such thing as a slow season at Disney World anymore. There's a busy season and a busier season.
So that's my first if-I-had-it-to-do-over tip: Prepare to be surrounded by tens of thousands of people every day. Chances are you will not be able to walk onto high-demand rides — Millennium Falcon, Flight of Passage, Navi River Journey and the like — at any point throughout the year unless you arrive at the park extremely early (we're talking two or three hours before rope drop) and probably get physical with a few kids and their parents to keep your place in line.
This goes without saying, but take advantage of the park's free FastPass option. Book them as early as you can and check back as often as you can if your preferred attraction isn't available.
Since we were staying at a Disney resort, I was able to book FastPasses for our party 60 days before the beginning of our trip. Guests staying off-site can book starting 30 days before the beginning of their trip.
Read that carefully. I was able to book FastPasses for our entire seven-day vacation 60 days before the first day of our trip. It's not a day-by-day thing.
Knowing this, I made arrangements for the last day of our trip first and worked my way backward. This tactic seemed to pay off, as I was able to get FastPasses for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in Magic Kingdom, Flight of Passage in Animal Kingdom and Frozen Ever After in Epcot. Slinky Dog Dash in Hollywood Studios was the only desired FastPass that eluded my grasp.
Using this scheduled-time entry system, Braxton, Emma and I were able to experience 45 attractions over the course of our vacation. To put that in perspective, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train had a standby wait time of 120 minutes the entire week we were in Orlando. Using FastPass, we were able to get on the ride in 10 minutes or less.
I'm very satisfied with my FastPass planning. I think it was one of my most successful areas this trip. Because of that, I don't really have an if-I-had-it-to-do-over tip for attractions.
Actually, I do: Don't cram three full-grown adults into a ride vehicle that isn't equipped for that.
Braxton, Emma and I did this two times, once at the Mad Tea Party and again at the Haunted Mansion. The Mad Tea Party didn't end up being extremely uncomfortable, but there was a serious lack of leg room and it affected our ability to out-perform the other "spinners."
The Haunted Mansion, however, was ridiculous. I was the first into the "doom-buggy" and, as a result, caught the brunt of the squeeze when the other two crammed in. It was so bad we thought a cast member was going to force one of us to get out and ride separately.
That didn't happen. In fact, when we rode the Haunted Mansion a second time later that night, the same cast member told three people in front of us that they could take two buggies or, if they really wanted to, squeeze into one. Yes, she looked back at us when she said that.
You'll also want to handle dining reservations in advance, at least if you are hoping to get into Be Our Guest or Cinderella's Royal Table. The system allows park-goers, both those staying at a Disney resort and those staying off-site, to book dining reservations starting 180 days before the desired reservation date. Disney resort guests receive the added incentive of being able to plan dining reservations for the length of their stays (with a maximum of 10 days) 180 days out from the start of their vacations.
Like with FastPass, I made reservations for the last day of our trip and worked backward. And that process seemed to pay off again, at least for the most part. I was able to get a reservation for our most desired restaurant — Be Our Guest — but was unable to make a reservation for Cinderella's Royal Table.
The big mistake I made in the way of dining was booking too many sit-down reservations. I booked two table service dining experiences for our group every day. While it was nice to be able to duck out of the craziness and be attended to, it ate up a lot of our time and money. On average, it accounted for three hours and cost us about $325 a day to feed our party of three.
My if-I-had-it-to-do-over tip for dining reservations is to think about the people in your party. Do they eat three times a day or do they like to have one large meal and one small? Do they want to sit down for table service or would they rather run into a quick-service restaurant, wolf something down and get right back out there? How much time should there be between meals? Are they going to try the somewhat more adventurous options on some of the table service menus or are they — like Emma — just going to order baked or fried chicken everywhere they go? And perhaps most importantly, is there a budget your party would like to stick to?
Our party didn't need two table service reservations every day. We ended up eating too much and making ourselves uncomfortable. If I could go back, I would plan one table service, probably around dinnertime, and one quick service per day. That would have given us the option to eat a smaller meal at the quick service and have a more robust meal later in the evening. It would also have reduced dining costs considerably.
Braxton and I didn't go into the trip with a dining budget in mind. So, we just kept spending. If we thought something sounded particularly delicious, we got it. By the end of our trip, including some of our larger meals, we'd spent right at $2,400 on dining.
That figure includes about $700 spent exclusively on chicken dishes for Emma, who later told me she would have been more satisfied had the table service restaurants offered chicken nuggets. Sigh.
After everything was said and done, our trip to Disney World cost us about $7,000. About $3,600 of that went toward resort and park ticket costs, $600 toward airfare, $2,400 toward dining and $400 toward merchandise and souvenirs.
I learned a great deal from planning and executing this trip. I learned that setting realistic expectations is the only way to set oneself up for an enjoyable trip. I also learned that vacations planned in a bubble — without the input of all involved parties — is a trip set up for at least partial disappointment.
For future trips, I will not only pore over guidebooks and seek out "expert" testimony, I will ask those in my party what they want to do, eat and see. Because a trip to Disney World is supposed to be a magical and personal experience, not a greatest hits list curated by experts.