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Planning your first Disney trip can be overwhelming. If you never visited the parks as a kid, you may feel like you’re at a disadvantage to those who did visit during their childhood. If you ask me however, a Disney vacation is so much better as an adult, and even if you’ve been as a kid chances are you’ll end up planning your own trips entirely different than how your family did.
To help plan your first Disney trip, I’ve put together the following guide with everything you need to know from where to stay and which tickets to purchase, and more! Of course, if you’re still wondering about something I didn’t cover send me an email or leave a comment and I’d love to include it or get back to you with an answer. Now on to the guide!
Start saving now
Even if you’re not planning your vacation for another year or so, start putting money aside now. In terms of budget planning, Disney makes it a little bit easier than some other vacations because all of the largest expenses (hotel, park tickets, and sometimes dining) can be paid for upfront. You’re still better off saving extra though so you have a comfortable amount of spending money and you don’t have to skimp on anything else you want to do during the trip.
One way I like to save for Disney vacations is by stocking up on Disney gift cards. You can order them online, or pick them up from your local Disney Store, Wal-Mart, Target, CVS, or anywhere else that sells gift cards. Sometimes I purchase a certain amount in gift cards each week, but more often than not I just throw some extra cash on one when I’m in the checkout line at CVS and have the extra money in my budget for the week.
Since I’m usually buying separate gift cards from CVS rather than adding to the balance at the Disney Store, I go online to disneygiftcard.com to combine the balances into one card. Even though I move all of the balances to one card, I still hold onto a couple of the extra cards. In the off chance that you lose the card with all of the money on it, you can login to your account and transfer the balance to one of the other cards.
You can use Disney gift cards for almost anything in relation to your trip, including hotel stays, tickets, dining costs, shopping, backstage tour experiences, and more. I prefer to save money for my trips this way because it keeps my Disney trip fund completely separate from anything else I may be saving for (and worse, my checking account).
Stay at a Disney resort
One of the biggest mistakes (in my opinion) I see with first-time Disney guests who are adults is that they don’t tend to stay at Disney resorts. I know we live in an age where we’re all pretty budget-savvy and AirBnB is basically calling our names, but even with the higher price point I believe staying at a Disney resort is worth it, especially if it’s your first visit. Disney resort guests are entitled to certain benefits that non-Disney guests simply aren’t able to take advantage of, and I’m outlining them all below:
Complimentary transportation: If you stay at a Disney resort, you are able to use complimentary transportation throughout your trip (and this includes rides from your resort to the parks, waterparks, Disney Springs, and even the airport via Disney’s Magical Express).
The Orlando International Airport is about 40 minutes away from the Walt Disney World Resort, and without complimentary transportation you’re looking at $25 one way for a Mears Shuttle Van (that in my experience takes longer than Disney’s transportation and can sometimes make more stops), or about $30-40 one way for an Uber.
The transportation between your resort, the parks, and Disney Springs, includes buses, and depending on where you stay boats and monorails, and these rides come every 20 minutes. Some non-Disney resorts provide transportation to the parks, but only in the form of shuttle services with less than desirable schedules. (The last time I stayed at a non-Disney resort, I took an Uber every time I visited a park because the shuttle bus picked up at 10:00 am at the resort and returned at 6:00 pm, but I preferred to either get to the park earlier and I certainly leave later than 6:00 pm most of the time).
Early access to FastPass: Disney resort guests are also able to make FastPass selections (which basically holds your spot in line so you can ride attractions with little or no wait) up to 60 days in advance. This may sound a little excessive, but if a new ride just opened or if you really want to make sure you get onto a popular attraction without waiting, it’s really helpful to have this added edge over non-resort guests.
Extra Magic Hours: During Extra Magic Hours certain parks either open an hour earlier or stay open a couple of hours later for resort guests only. Not only does this let you get on rides with shorter wait times since non-resort guests aren’t able to get on, but this helps extend the value of your park ticket, ie: your ticket costs the same as it does for everyone else, but you can use it to stay in the parks longer.
Disney Dining Plan: If you are interested in using the Disney Dining Plan (I’ll get to what that’s all about soon), this perk is also only available to Disney resort guests. While I haven’t used the dining plan in a couple of years (because I have annual passholder discounts now), a lot of first time guests find the plan helpful simply because you can pre-pay for the cost of your dining.
And more!: There are plenty of smaller perks that I think really add to the value of staying at a Disney resort too. For first time visitors especially I think having 24/7 access to Disney cast members is extremely helpful. Some non-Disney resorts do have Disney cast members staffing an information center, but they usually aren’t there around the clock, and they are the only official Disney cast members you’ll find. If you stay at a Disney resort however and have a question at midnight about what you can do with your park ticket the following day, any front desk cast member will be able to help.
Complimentary package pick-up is another perk I always take advantage of. This service allows you to have any purchases you make in the parks, Disney Springs, or other resorts, shipped back to your resort free of charge. While some guests save their shopping for the end of their trip, I like to shop as I go so I can spend my last couple of hours on vacation just having a good time, and this service really makes shopping throughout the trip a breeze.
When you stay at a Disney resort, you also receive a free MagicBand that you can use throughout your trip to enter the theme parks, your resort room, take and download Disney PhotoPass pictures, and charge purchases to your room anywhere on property. (The charging feature is really convenient for me, because I can charge meals and shopping with my band throughout my trip and pay off the balance with my gift cards when I check out).
Lastly, Disney resorts are all located right on the Walt Disney World Resort property and they are only minutes from the theme parks and everything else you’ll be doing during your trip. You won’t find yourself stuck in traffic waiting to get onto Disney property, and you also won’t have to deal with paying to park each time you visit one of the theme parks (as Disney resort guests park for free).
Which resort should you book?
I plan a lot of last-minute trips to the Walt Disney World Resort, and since these trips are sometimes planned only about a week or two in advance, I’m not looking to spend tons of money. But I still want all of those benefits that only Disney resort guests have access to. For this reason, my go-to budget friendly Disney resort is All Star Sports.
As a value resort it isn’t my ‘style’ necessarily, but more often than not this is the most affordable resort on Disney property, and since I hardly spend anytime in my hotel room this is the way I usually go. Although the theme isn’t really my first choice, All Star Sports (and any of Disney’s value resorts) come with all of those perks I mentioned earlier, as well as a quick service restaurant, pool, bar, and gift shop, which is really all I need considering I spend most of my time away from the resort.
You can find deals at Disney’s value resorts for about $120/night in the slower seasons to just under $200/night for the busier seasons. If you’re working with a bit more of a spending budget, the next level up for a Disney resort is the moderate category which starts at around just over $200/night and can go as high as $270/night depending on the time of year. From there you have deluxe resorts that start at $350/night and go up from there.
There are a couple of loopholes to consider with the Disney resort/non-Disney resort debate before you book though: Some non-Disney resorts that are located on Disney property have access to the same benefits, and others may have some good deals for you that make the trade-off worth it depending on if you are part of the military or certain rewards programs.
The Disney Springs Resorts for instance, are located right on Disney property (in walking distance to Disney Springs), and they have their own complimentary bus service that comes on a set schedule, along with those other benefits for Disney resort guests. You can’t use the dining plan here or Disney’s Magical Express, or MagicBands (except for theme park admission), but these resorts are very budget-friendly so the differences may be worth it to you.
If you are looking for a deluxe resort experience on a moderate budget, or if you are a member of Starwood Rewards, I would highly recommend looking into the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. While not owned and operated by Disney, this Starwood Resort is in walking distance to Epcot and is closer in price to Disney’s moderate resorts for what is essentially a deluxe experience. You lose the airport transportation, dining plan, and MagicBand convenience, but if the price is right this can be an excellent deal for a memorable resort experience.
For the best military deal, check out Shades of Green before booking your trip. This resort is located within walking distance of Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort (which is on the monorail!) and room rates can be as low as Disney’s value resorts depending on the individual rate assigned to you. You would again lose the MagicBands, airport transportation, and dining plan, but the price is a total steal for the location and the resort is really beautiful. Double check their website for eligibility terms to see if you qualify.
Disney Dining Plan
Now that you have your resort taken care of let’s figure out if the Disney Dining Plan is right for you. This is one part of your trip that is going to require some extra research if you’re looking to make sure you have the best deal. (If you’re looking for pure convenience, the dining plan is a great way to go because your meals are paid for ahead of time).
There are a couple of different versions of the plan, including a new option that includes alcoholic beverages with select meals, but the best way to figure out if the plan is for you is to browse menus for where you think you’d like to eat on Disney’s official website and compare what you would spend paying out of pocket with the cost of the plan.
Remember that each version of the dining plan comes with set amounts of food, so if you have a smaller appetite, or are vegan/vegetarian and therefore typically order the less expensive items like pasta and salad, you may not get a great value for the plan. If you would eat all of what the dining plan comes with or you often order steaks and seafood, the plan can really work out to be a good deal.
You can learn more about the dining plan here, and you can always reach out to Disney directly or book your trip using an authorized Disney travel agent if you need additional insight about the plans. (Remember that if you do use a dining plan, only the cost of the actual meal is covered– you will still need to budget for gratuities throughout the trip).
Advanced Dining Reservations
With or without the Disney Dining Plan, one part of planning your trip that is crucial to how your dining experiences will turn out is making reservations in advance. Some of the most popular Disney restaurants fill up months in advance, so making reservations as soon as you know you’d like to dine there is a must. You can make reservations six months ahead of time, and you may want to do so for popular locations like Be Our Guest Restaurant and ‘Ohana.
For a first-time visit, I suggest getting Magic Your Way Base Tickets for the length of your stay minus one day. The base tickets allow you to visit one park per day (you can leave and re-enter the same park). For a first visit, this is probably all you’ll need to do as it will be easier than trying to switch parks or squeeze in extras like the waterparks. I also recommend getting one day less than the length of your trip in case you want time to explore the resorts, spend a day at the pool, or visit Disney Springs (which does not require a park ticket).
If you do decide you want to visit more than one park per day, you can always upgrade your tickets to Park Hoppers by visiting a vacation planning kiosk located outside any of the parks. You would only pay the difference in what you owe for the upgrade, and you can add that additional day or two if you like as well.
There are really not too many deals out there when it comes to Disney tickets, and unfortunately you would really be taking a chance if you purchase them on sites like eBay or Craigslist or at some of the ‘tourist info centers’ around Orlando. (Alternatively Visit Orlando, the city’s official tourism marketing office can sell you legit tickets, sometimes at a discounted rate).
For legit ticket discounts, check with Disney about military rates if you can, use Undercover Tourist, or visit your local AAA office, but note that each of these discounts typically only saves about 10% (with the exception of military rates that offer various promos throughout the year). You can also find a legit “buy 4 days get the 5th day free” discount on Magic Your Way base tickets through Best of Orlando.
My Disney Experience
With all of these logistics taken care of, be sure you download the My Disney Experience app. This allows you to manage your entire trip right from your smartphone and it’s where you’ll be making FastPass selections, checking wait times for attractions, dinner reservations, viewing photos, and more. You can find everything you need to know right from this app, from park hours and show times to how to get from point A to point B while on Disney property. It’s so easy to use and it makes a world of difference when navigating your first Disney trip.
Pro-tip: Be sure to bring portable phone chargers to the parks with you because between using your phone for photos and checking wait times on the app you’re going to need them!
If your trip is all booked, its time for the fun part of planning! Read up on all that the Walt Disney World Resort has to offer, check out some dining reviews, and get excited! I always have an idea of which parks I’ll be in on which days of my trip (I usually plan around Extra Magic Hours), but other than that I don’t over-plan too much.
And even if it’s your first trip, I wouldn’t plan too much either– it’s more fun to walk around and explore the parks just to take everything in without rushing around too much. Take it all in and read up on all there is to do so you have an idea of how you’d like to spend your time, but don’t over-plan each day to the point where you’re running around without enough time to enjoy everything.
Where to next? For more ‘intro to Disney’ sort of planning tips, you may want to check out 10 FREE Things to Do at the Walt Disney World Resort for all of my favorite things to do around the parks and resorts that are truly free, Tips for Viewing Happily Ever After: Disney’s Latest Fireworks Spectacular because these fireworks are a must-see, or get a head start on packing with our FREE Printable Packing List & Guide to Packing Light.
If you have any first-time planning questions that weren’t covered in this post, leave a comment below or contact us here and I’m happy to help get you some more information! P.S. let me know in the comments what part of your Disney vacation you’re most excited for!
P.S. We hate spam too! We’ll only send you one monthly email with the latest news and info you need to know for planning your next trip, along with the occasional deal or promotion.