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Visitors gather in front of Cinderella's castle to watch Mickey and Minnie Mouse during the Christmas parade at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. If you're planning a multi-day trip to Disney World, you should start at least six months out, experts say.

Josh Peardon has been to Disney World around 20 times. In fact, he and his wife got married in the Orlando park.

"When my wife, Bridgett, and I were still dating, we thought it would be fun to take a trip over to Disney while on a beach vacation," the 38-year-old Ooltewah resident says. "We absolutely fell in love with the place in a different way than how we loved it as children.

"We couldn't stay away — so much so that we decided to have our wedding at Walt Disney World — greatest wedding in the history of weddings, by the way," says Peardon, a product client specialist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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Making the magic happen

Tips from travel experts

Natalie Floyd has been booking Disney World vacations for about two years, “but I have been planning my own as well as for friends for even longer,” she says.

Q. What makes the booking process to Walt Disney World so complicated to a novice?

A. A trip to Disney World has lots of details to plan, especially with the addition of planning FastPass 60 days in advance of your trip. From choosing the right resort to making dining reservations and scheduling FastPass, most details of your Disney World trip are planned before you set foot on Disney property. With dining reservations and FastPass being scheduled before you leave home, it is even more important to plan these details to make sure timeframes do not overlap or that you are not walking from one end of the park to the other. These details can be overwhelming when planning the trip on your own.

Q. Why would you suggest booking through an agent?

A. To help with all the details that can be easily overlooked and overwhelming. Even if you are a seasoned Disney traveler, Disney changes frequently, and your travel agent is going to keep up with the frequent changes. Your travel agent will help you from beginning to end including helping you find the right resort for your family to sending you their best tips and tricks. When discounts are released, most travel agents will apply any applicable discounts to your reservation automatically.

Q. Is there a fee?

A. Most travel agents do not charge a fee, so the cost of your trip to Disney is the same whether you book with Disney directly or through a travel agent. I recommend confirming this with your agent before you book.

Q. How far in advance would you advise booking reservations?

A. I typically recommend booking at least six months in advance since dining reservations can be made 180 days out. The most popular dining reservations, for example character meals, book up quickly, so to have the best dining options available, it is best to book before then. If you are traveling during a busy time of year and/or have a specific resort and room type you want, then I recommend booking as soon as possible. If a discount is released after you book, it can still be applied to your trip,so you booking early is recommended.

But Peardon acknowledges that planning a trip to Disney World can be as big an adventure as a day in the park itself. It's not as simple as handing over some cash for a ticket at the gate, especially if you plan to stay more than a day. Disney World is a maze of price points, reservations scheduling, meal-plan buying, ride-time organizing and hotel booking so, even if you're doing it yourself, the number of people you need to contact is voluminous and the number of choices near-infinite. Because of the complexity, many travel agencies now have authorized Disney vacation planners to help walk you through. Or you can talk to a seasoned Disney traveler since they're not hard to find.

And it's not cheap. According to disneyworld.disney.go.com, vacation packages can range from a six-night, seven-day stay at one of the select All-Star Resorts with tickets to all four parks — the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom — for $81 per person per day for a family of four, total cost around $2,241. Add a dining plan to the package and the cost is about $3,093.

Peardon says he is the vacation planner in the family, which now includes a daughter, 4-year-old Avalon. Once you educate yourself about what all is offered, planning your Disney vacation doesn't have to be complicated, he says. But understanding all the ins and outs does take time and he recommends that you start planning your trip several months out.

"With the information that is out there via the Internet and social media, almost anyone can educate themselves on a Disney vacation rather quickly if they are willing to put in the effort," he says. "You also have to know what is important to your family very early in the planning process. Because reservations for signature restaurants and top attractions are like gold, you must book these early to avoid long waits and disappointed family members.

"You can obviously book closer to time, but you have missed out on prime restaurant reservations and attraction ride times," he says.

Difficulties

Rebecca Pobieglo can attest to some of the difficulties in trying to set up various elements of a Disney World trip. She hasn't been able to book a reservation for dinner at Cinderella's Royal Table — the restaurant inside Cinderella Castle — despite starting six months in advance. For little girls, the restaurant is magical, straight out of a Disney movie.

"Cinderella makes your acquaintance in the majestic Grand Hall, before you ascend a spiral staircase to the banquet hall above," according to the Disney World website. "A gilded elevator is also available to transport you to the festivities. Then, dine in a storybook setting surrounded by soaring stone archways, majestic medieval flags and spectacular stained-glass windows overlooking Fantasyland. During your time inside the castle, visit with classic Disney princesses."

Or maybe not.

"Advance reservations are highly recommended and can be made up to 180 days prior to your visit," the website notes.

Translation: Good luck getting in.

Pobieglo, of Ringgold, Ga., says she's never been able to make reservations for her family of five, including husband Matt and children ages 5, 3 and 2, at the castle restaurant.

Peardon, though, lucked up and got a reservation by starting early. Cinderella's Royal Table is, by far, his daughter's favorite place to eat in Disney World, he says. It's also expensive; dinner for three was close to $200. Still, he says, it was worth the cost, both the food and the production.

"The experience aside, it was one of the best meals my wife and I have had in years. The food was excellent — worth every penny and then some," he says.

"When my daughter was personally visited at her table by Sleeping Beauty, you could literally see her floating on Cloud 9. We would have paid three times what we paid — a memory that you absolutely can't duplicate anywhere in the world."

Kevin Lusk, 39, of Chattanooga, who's been to the park nearly 30 times, says he was able to make reservations at the castle restaurant just once.

"Even if (the only available reservation at the castle restaurant) is at midnight, make the reservation," says Lusk, the father of 7-year-old Aleah. "Also just checking randomly to see if a reservation is available is encouraged. People cancel all the time and reservations open up. You may be lucky."

Yes, there are other restaurants in the park where Disney characters will make appearances and visit with children. However, they, too, are sometimes hard to book. Peardon recommends booking reservations at the park, including hotel, restaurants and FastPass (which gives you quicker access to rides) at least three months in advance; Lusk says he books his reservations at least six months out.

Like Peardon and Lusk, Pobieglo and her husband plan their own Disney vacations.

"We book everything ourselves, though we have used a travel agent in the past to take advantage of a special promotional deal," she says.

For the novice, she suggests searching for off-season, on-property hotel deals by using www.mydisneyexperience.com. Off season is basically two periods — late January to late March and late August to the end of October. Pobieglo says to avoid major holidays if crowds are an issue to you.

Peardon usually goes in the off-season.

"Nothing beats January. The reason? No one thinks about vacationing in January. The weather is obviously very mild and the parks have some of the lowest attendance of the year during that time," he says.

Disney also offers promotional deals for some last-minute trips, so don't forget to check.

Eating

Disney dining plans allow families to eat at many of the restaurants located throughout the park. Again, reservations are highly recommended. And if you wait to book at the last minute, it may even be impossible to make reservations at any of the popular eateries.

Once you make a reservation, you'd better keep it. You are required to cancel a reservation at least 24 hours before the date or a cancellation charge may be incurred (usually about $10 per person) despite the fact that you've already paid for your meal in the dining plan.

And don't expect that those dinner reservations are going to be right at 5 or 6 p.m. Good times fill up instantly so your dinner reservation may be at 3 p.m. or 10 p.m. If you've got small children — and most Disney visitors do — you know that a haphazard feeding schedule may lead to crankiness and crying, so plan accordingly.

Peardon says there are pros and cons to the dining plans, which vary in cost according to the plan.

"Pro? Knowing that your meals are already paid for before you leave. Con? Having to structure your day around specific reservations in order to try and get the value out of the plan. Normally, we opt to not use the meal plan."

But Pobieglo says her family likes the plans, especially is you're staying in a Disney World hotel or visiting the park for several days.

"We purchase the basic meal plan that includes one snack, one quick-service meal and one table-service meal," she says. "We typically eat breakfast in our room, eat a snack mid-morning, use the quick-service for lunch and do a really nice meal for dinner."

Again, reservations are highly recommended for all table-service meals and, for the best options, make reservations 180 days prior to your visit.

High-tech

In recent years, Disney has gone high tech — namely through the MagicBand, a colorful wristband for all guests ages 3 and up that allows one to stay digitally connected to everything Disney. It's a waterproof bracelet that enables you to enter your Disney Resort hotel room, buy food and merchandise (your credit/debit card information is stored on the band), enter any of the four theme parks and access FastPass attractions, among other advantages. If you're staying at a Disney Resort hotel, it's part of your package, but you can buy one with park admission; the cost is an extra $13.

"We personally love them," Peardon says. "I am not a private person so the fact that Disney knows exactly where we are, when we eat, when we step on a ride doesn't bother me. This is 2015, we have given up our privacy years ago.

"The MagicBand has always enhanced our trips by removing some of the stress that comes with vacationing — keeping up with room keys, holding on to tickets, ensuring you have plenty of cash, etc.

"And I'm excited about the things that you know Disney will do with this technology in the future, such as Mickey Mouse greeting my daughter by name when she approaches," he says.

Lodgings

There are plenty of options for where to stay on the Disney property — there are 11 resorts — if you book in advance, of course. Otherwise, the most popular resorts are usually booked.

Both Peardon and Pobieglo prefer to stay in one of Disney's on-site resorts. Pobieglo explains that the convenience, as well as extended park hours to guests, are major pluses.

"We do change the places we stay to experience different hotel themes and price points," she says. "We have stayed at the value resorts all the way up to the Grand Floridian, the Polynesian and the Contemporary. If your budget allows, hotels on the (park) monorail are extremely convenient."

At first, Peardon says, he and his family stayed in hotels off the Disney property because of the cost (before Disney offered value resorts that run about $100 to $130 per night) but they've since changed their minds.

"We didn't want to pay a premium price for a room that we hardly used," he says. "However, once Disney began to add more of their value resorts, we did start staying on site. Now with the perks that are included (early park access, earlier access to FastPass bookings, etc.), we wouldn't think about staying at an off-site hotel — plenty of bang for your buck."

And the bottom line, Lusk says, is that dreams do come true at Disney.

"Disney World simply brings so many fond memories for me. It is my happy place," he says. "It is hard to not be in a good mood when you are with family and friends having the times of their lives.

"I have so many fun memories of going with my parents and cousins as a child. Now I am passing on those traditions and making new ones with my daughter."

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

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