I’ve never met a mom who didn’t hope to take her child to Disneyland or Disney World at least once. I’m sure they exist—and I’d love to high five them for refusing to cave to the pressure—but in my experience, this is the family vacation most parents have on their to-do list from the moment their child is born.
For us, that trip is happening in February. My daughter will be turning 5, which to me feels like the perfect age for a Disney vacation: young enough to still get fully wrapped up in the magic, but also old enough to enjoy the rides and hopefully retain a few memories. The two of us will be flying out from Alaska to Florida with one of my best friends and her son. It’s possible the adults are just as excited as the kids.
What I wasn’t prepared for when we first started planning this trip a little over a year ago was just how intense that planning would get. I have done a ton of traveling in my life, and I know all about booking and scheduling the perfect trip, but Disney is next-level.
Just in case you haven’t started planning your own trip just yet, here’s what you should prepare yourself for:
1. This Will Be the Most Expensive Vacation You Will Ever Take
Now, obviously this depends on where you live and how long you plan on being at Disney. For those who live in or nearby Florida or California, quick trips can probably be done to Disney on the fly. But we’ll be spending 12+ hours just getting there, so we are planning on staying at a Disney Resort for a total of 8 nights, with 6 days spent at the parks. I am spending more money on this vacation than I did on weeks of backpacking around Australia.
2. You Need a Travel Agent
Sure, you could handle most of this on your own, but why would you want to? A Disney-approved travel agent is free to you, and a key tool to helping you get the best deals and making sure you don’t miss any of the big deadlines.
3. Because, Yes, There Will Be Deadlines
And you need to be ready to hop on them. Meal reservations open up 180 days before your trip at 6 a.m. Eastern time. If you have your sights set on character meals or dining at Cinderella’s castle, you had better plan on being at your computer right when they open. For me, that meant being up at 2 a.m. Alaska time. I had multiple browsers open on my computer and a pre-planned schedule mapped out on a spreadsheet so I knew exactly when and where to make reservations, based on those that would likely fill up the quickest. I got every reservation I hoped for, but none of them during the times I'd planned for. By mid-morning, all the places I wanted us to dine during our trip were completely booked. This is no joke—Disney dining reservations are about as competitive as it gets.
Our trip is just a few months away, and I still have a list a mile long of things I need to do.
4. You Need a Plan
I’m a planner by nature. My life is ruled by spreadsheets and lists. Which I know makes me sound super nerdy, but it’s an aspect of my personality that has come in extremely handy while planning this vacation. Yes, you could just show up to Disney World and wing it. But everything from dining reservations to Fast Passes are booked well in advance. Which means that without loads of advanced planning, you probably won’t get to do or see everything you want while there. Even choosing a hotel required days of research on my end. Setting those dining reservations and Fast Passes up meant knowing which parks we were going to be on which days—so I devoured everything I could read about where to eat and which rides to book first.
5. Plan for Meltdowns
This is one thing everyone I’ve talked to has mentioned: Plan "down days," where you don’t go to any of the parks at all. Leave some flexibility in your days, in case the kids need to head back to the hotel to rest midday. Get a stroller, even for kids who are 5, 6 or 7 years old. Because you know what? Disney World and Disneyland may be the most magical places on earth, but they're also the most crowded and days can be long, hot and overstimulating. Giving yourself some buffers is the best way to ensure everyone has a good time.
6. Oh, The Extras!
Spend any time on a Disney planning forum or reading Disney blogs, and you’re bound to see mentions of the extras you should bring along. Kids who dress up get attention showered on them by Disney cast members, for example. You can get those costumes for much cheaper online than you will ever find them in a Disney park. Lanyards can also be purchased online, with special trading pins that kids can then trade with their favorite characters. Also, a good autograph book can go a long way. I’ve even gotten suckered into buying a pressed penny book that we can house our pennies and quarters in, so my kiddo can build her own collection throughout the parks. And, oh yeah, I bought myself a fanny pack. I don’t want to talk about it.
Our trip is just a few months away and I still have a list a mile long of things I need to do. So, my advice to anyone planning a Disney vacation is this: Start early and read everything you can get your hands on. Because I guarantee this will be the most intense vacation you ever plan.
Fingers crossed, it will also be the most magical.