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We recently pulled off a big surprise trip to Disney for our daughter’s 9th birthday that took about five months to plan.  While there are many qualified travel agents that specialize in helping to plan all details for a Disney trip, I chose to manage it all myself.

I checked the official Walt Disney World website as well as popular blog sites for any special events to understand crowds and extra budget needs.  We chose to travel in a week where Magic Kingdom was celebrating Halloween with the Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween party (requires an extra admission ticket above park entrance) and Epcot was hosting the annual International Food & Wine Festival. 

Planning

The first key for us was to determine when we wanted to visit and how long we planned to stay.  Despite many leading Disney blog suggestions to book all reservations at least six months in advance, we were able to reserve most reservations/experiences.  We did find certain times or days to be a bit more difficult with my starting the process in the 4.5./5-month range. 

I also researched each theme park on the official Disney website to decide if there were activities or rides we wanted to experience as that would drive what park tickets we would purchase.  Because of the additional of special events, we did splurge on extra tickets to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween party and the Party for the Senses at Epcot.

Our family loves roller coasters and new experiences so we chose to purchase park hopper tickets that worked at all four Disney theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios.  For our hotel, a friend with extensive Disney vacation experience suggested we get a princess themed hotel room as an additional treat.  These are available at the Port Orleans Riverside resort, which is where we stayed.

Disney Port Orleans Riverside – princess room

Tip: For our family, it worked best to book directly through Walt Disney World.  This allowed us to use their user-friendly site to purchase a vacation package that included hotel, airport transfers, a dining plan, photo memory maker pass, and park tickets. 

Reservations

Dining reservations can be booked up to six months in advance.  To help with reservation selections, I created a quick list for each Disney park with a list of character dining options, preferred rides, and shows we really wanted to experience.

Final touches with fairy dust
Reveal and princess announcement

One of the hardest reservations to get is an appointment at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique which we knew would be at the top of our list to experience.  Because we were working on our vacation details less than six months before travel, I searched both the Magic Kingdom and Disney Springs boutique locations for an appointment that worked best for us.  We were able to get a morning appointment at the Disney Springs location so our dear daughter could get a full day’s wear out of her make-up and hair.  I also chose to purchase a costume and pack it ahead of time to reduce overall costs.

Dining reservations with characters are really popular.  I chose to search for meal opportunities that combined our ability to redeem dining plan meals with key characters we wanted to meet.  Also, per many travel site suggestions, I searched for off-peak dining times like a late lunch or early dinner.

The dining experience at Cinderella’s Royal Table, Magic Kingdom, with many princess encounters and lunch with Mickey at Tusker House in Animal Kingdom both were highlights for us.  Each character spent ample time with each table for autographs and pictures.  Dear daughter felt special with each meet-n-greet.

We also tried many different foods at the International Food & Wine Festival booths stationed throughout Epcot.  Each station has a menu of items that can be purchased using dining plan snack credits.  And, you can exchange one dining meal credit for three snack credits at most booths.  That allowed us to stretch our dining plan credits to try many things.  We did learn though that drinks at the festival booths were not included in the dining plan.  We adjusted our vacation budget to accommodate a few different flights of drinks at these booths to sample different flavors but not break the bank.

When using a deluxe dining plan meal credit, know that most meals are very filling so we had plenty of snack credits to use at the festival and throughout the day.  And, while a bottle of water is good for the hotel room don’t waste your vacation budget or dining credits on bottled water.  Most quick service counters in each park have ice water and cups available for free.  With tips like this, we ended up with extra credits that our resort converted to snack credits.  We were able to use them to bring home bag of snacks/goodies safe for our carry-on luggage.

Overall, the deluxe dining plan was a great deal for us since we typically eat breakfast every day and we had planned to visit different booths at the food festival.  I suggest you research each dining plan prior to booking your vacation to determine what works best for your family.

FastPass+

FastPass+ ride and character meeting reservations can be made up to 60 days in advance if you are staying at a Disney resort property and up to 30 days in advance otherwise.  This is a free system Disney has implemented so be sure to take full advantage.  While the longest line for the most popular rides without a fast pass was about 75 minutes, we were glad to have a fast pass for them. 

We followed many suggestions to book specific rides at each park each day as early as possible in the day like Slinky Dog in Hollywood Studios and Avatar Flight of Passage in Animal Kingdom.  Once you have used your maximum of three pre-booked fast passes, you can then book a new fast pass while in the park using available kiosks or using the mobile app.  Also, because of our meet-n-greet experiences with most princesses and characters, we did not use our initial fast passes for character meetings but focused on the rides.

Millennium Falcon – inside

Note:  At the time of our visit, the new Star Wars park was open inside Hollywood Studios but did not allow for any ride to be booked on a FastPass+.  However, the line for the new Millennium Falcon ride was only about 30 minutes.  There is much to see while waiting in line, so the wait was very tolerable.

Quick hello in passing in front of Slinky Dog ride at Hollywood Studios

Overall Impressions

The hotel room and dining was good.  We took advantage of the free transportation available to/from the parks and resort hotels which saved on transportation costs.  However, we had to build in quite a bit of time for waiting on the bus schedule and manage many crowded buses with standing room only at park closing times.  Now that we have experienced the special princess room, I think we would likely stay at a resort that is much closer to one of the parks and possibly connected to the monorail in hopes of alleviating some of our frustration.

Each park was extremely clean with employees well-trained in how to ensure each guest felt special and had a great experience.  We had a great time at the special events we attended like the Party for the Senses and felt like it was worth the extra spend.  We likely would attend it again as it truly was a highlight of the trip. 

Party for the Senses at Epcot

We managed to walk 54 miles across 5 ½ days, spent time in each of the four Disney parks and managed to experience everything we had on our to-do and to-see list.  Dear daughter did great with managing tired legs and staying up past normal bedtime every night.  However, in hindsight, I would have heeded the suggestions from seasoned Disney travelers and would have built in down time to rest and relax at the resort.  Now, when we return, we can focus on the areas we want to see and experience again rather than trying to fit everything in to one visit.

What was your first trip to Disney like?  Any highlights you suggest for others to experience?

Dell Adventures Travel Agency
PO Box 3651, Grapevine, TX 76051

817-291-7841

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