5 Cardinal Rules of Disney Itinerary Planning

disney itinerary planning

When planning your next Disney vacation, make sure you follow the 5 cardinal rules of Disney itinerary planning to ensure a stress free trip (or as stress free as it can be)!

1.  Get with the Program!

Some of us are still adjusting to the new “World” of advanced planning now required for a Disney trip.  You have to decide when and where you’re eating, six months before you dine.  And you have to decide what attractions and at what time, two months before you ride.  While last minute changes can sometimes be successfully made, they can also be very tricky – or impossible.  (A table for four at Cinderella’s Royal Table tonight?  Uh … no.)  So your daily itineraries are set in stone months before the trip.  This can feel a little stifling.  But the advantage is that your coveted table at Chef Mickey’s or Be Our Guest is guaranteed.  And you can avoid waiting in lines of epic proportion at Splash Mountain or Frozen Ever After.

2.  Know the Price of Spontaneity

Marking all of the Walt Disney World booking windows in your dayplanner (in bright red ink), hovering furtively over your computer keyboard, getting up at 4:00 AM Pacific Time to make a booking – all this can make Disney planning take on an aura of an intense strategy session.  Whatever happened to spontaneity?  It pretty much went out the window.

Of course, it would be physically possible to dismiss all expectations – and walk into the Magic Kingdom without a single Advanced Dining Reservation or FastPass assignment.  You would have to be willing to eat only at counter service locations.  And to avoid long lines, you’d have to choose less popular rides and attractions.  But even then – you’d have a much better day if you planned ahead at least a little.  For instance, arriving at Columbia Harbour House or Pecos Bills at 12:00 PM, you’ll most likely be met with lines spilling out the front door, and you’ll have to balance a tottering tray of food as you elbow your way through crowded seating areas, jostling all the other nice people who also wanted to eat at noon.  If you had a light breakfast, you could plan for an early lunch at 11:00 AM when the counter service locations begin serving the mid-day meal and lines are virtually non-existent.  No indigestion!  So the lesson is, even a Disney day designed for spontaneity can be vastly improved with a little advanced planning.  And of course the reality is that most Disney World guests have a long wish list of meals, resort stays, attractions, and rides.  And there’s no way to achieve them without a lot of advance planning.  If you want spontaneity, you’ll probably have to trade away your favorite meals and rides.

3.  Embrace Extra Magic Hours

Most Disney guests agree that you should plan your day around park opening.  Opinion is divided, however, on the subject of Extra Magic Hours.  Disney resort guests are given an extra hour in a specific park (consult disneyworld.com for the current schedule), either morning or evening.  So rope drop will be at 8:00 a.m. on some days, for resort guests only.  Sounds good, right?  Mostly, it is.  However, the Extra Magic Hours location will be a very crowded park that day.  The majority of resort guests head, by default, to whatever park is having EMH.

So you have a sizeable group of people showing up for the 8:00 a.m. opening – but that’s only the beginning.  Many guests end up oversleeping (Disney World is a highly delightful but also an exhausting place, after all).  Even if they’ve missed the actual EMH, those guests still head for the EMH park.  Since they had scheduled the Animal Kingdom that day (for instance), that’s what they do (though a few hours later than planned).  (This is also where their dining reservations are – so there are good reasons to stick to the planned park, despite missing the EMH.)  Between 10:00 and 11:00 AM, you’ll see a river of humanity coming off the resort buses or other transportation – as the latecomers flood in.  (We won’t call them “late guests” since that would presumably consign them to the Haunted Mansion!)

Therefore, if you plan to attend EMH, be at the park entrance at 7:45 a.m.  Is this a reasonable expectation for your family?  Are you generally early risers?  Organized?  Or will you be dealing with jetlag?  Are the kids (or spouse) cranky when you get them up early?  Is running late what generally happens wherever you go?  Know thyself!  If you’re not early risers, plan to skip EMH.

4.  Alternatively – Avoid Extra Magic Hours

Skipping EMH is actually an approved strategy adopted by many experienced Disney World guests.  Knowing that the EMH park is only “quiet” (this might mean 20 minute lines after you enjoy a few walk-ons right after rope drop) for the first couple of hours — and the rest of the day will be a madhouse, some guests routinely avoid EMH parks.  Perhaps they shrewdly plan to visit the park that had EMH the previous day.  The trouble is, you still have to get the family up and at ’em promptly.  Rope Drop is the golden hour in every park.  And if you’re in a non-EMH park, the following few hours may also be relatively uncrowded.

5.  Think Twice about Park Hopping

For most of us, “time” at WDW is almost as important a currency as money. That’s the only unavoidable issue with park hopping – it’s going to cost you a chunk of time. The walk from Fantasyland to the Magic Kingdom bus stop alone is 20 minutes – since you may well be going against the current of arriving guests.  Your wait for the desired bus will probably be 20 minutes in the heat (at least you won’t be out in the sun), but anyone who’s been to WDW enough times has waited 45 minutes for a bus, from time to time. Then you have the day’s second set of bag check, turnstiles, and the walk (probably navigating through crowds) to the interior of the next park.  Not only does all that require time, it drains your physical and mental energy – which is also at a premium. For the cherry on top, add small children and a stroller? If it works for you, it’s the way to go.  But the word “hopping” doesn’t really express the amount of time and energy that schlepping from park to park most often requires.

If you are going to hop, make sure that you spring for the Express Bus, because 12 minutes direct from Rock-n-Roller to Kilimanjaro Safaris is a “hop.”  That won’t require a chunk of time – but it will cost a chunk of change!  ($15 per person for a day, $29 per person for seven consecutive days – though those prices are sure to rise.)

What tip do you have that may help others with their Disney itinerary planning?

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