Tips, tricks and how to’s that will save you time, money and stress!
For those who enjoy planning, getting ready for a trip to Disney World is a great way to get excited for the fun you’re sure to have in the happiest place on Earth. But, the whole process can also seem quite daunting, especially for large groups.
Spanning over 40 miles across 4 parks, Disney World is the place for families and friends to enjoy fun rides, amazing food and an overall magical atmosphere. To get the most out of your Disney trip, there are a lot of decisions to be made — from buying tickets and securing park, ride and food reservations, to coordinating accommodations, planning for meals, and choosing from a long list of exciting activities and events at the parks.
So where do you start?
Dig in with…research!
Since opening its doors in 1971, millions of people have visited the parks each year. Some of the parks best enthusiasts have created entire businesses revolving around planning for Disney trips.
The first place to check out is the Disney Website. Here you can find information on tickets, accommodations, things to do, and even purchase merchandise from the online store.
Download the MyDisney Experience App — which is a phenomenal tool for planning for your trip, as well as interacting with Disney during your trip. This app helps with:
- Managing your park tickets and reservations
- Managing the members of your party
- Enabling your MagicBands
- Booking and managing dining and tour reservations
- Viewing park maps and ride wait times
- Reserving and modifying Genie+ reservations
- Showcasing tips to optimize your day from Genie+
- Mobile ordering food
- Managing photos
- Contacting Disney customer service — via chat!
- Interacting with the parks — including in park games and statue interactions
DisneyFoodBlog, which covers way more than just the delicious Disney cuisine, is the one of the most trusted and comprehensive sources of Disney knowledge available. They have a newsletter, a website, and a ton of great videos detailing everything you’d ever want to know about Disney. Be sure to subscribe to their content and watch videos that appeal to you. The overview of Genie+ is a great one!
Be sure to check out content on the parks, what they offer for rides, dining and shows. Google around to see if the parks are running any festivals, or if there are any other events like road races scheduled around the time you are thinking of visiting. Disney also has a host of fun events around holidays to check out if you are interested.
Getting Input from the Group
Whether you’re planning for a small group of friends or a large group of extended family, checking in with those attending is a good place to start. This ensures you are aware of preferences so you can take them into consideration during your planning. This can range from a few quick chats, to a single Zoom meeting, to a few in-person group planning meetings — whatever works best for you and your group to put your heads together and make some decisions about the trip! This information could include:
- Deciding on a rough budget for accommodations (per family, couple, etc). If travel is also being booked as a group, be sure to review that too. Include in this conversation an understanding of whether or not folks have daily budgets, food budgets, budgets for experiences or extras, etc.
- Discussing price ranges for various options — for example, staying off property for large groups can drastically reduce the spend on lodging, as well as food with inclusions of kitchens.
- Reviewing any “must dos” that people have on their lists.
- Deciding on timelines for the major decisions — travel dates, travel logistics, accommodations, number of park days, ticket types, etc.
Create the Plan
Four to six months before your trip (at least)
Since park reservations can be made as soon as tickets are purchased, and guests can make their dining reservations 60 days in advance of their first park day, overall planning should begin at least four months in advance to ensure you have time to secure everything. In busy months, accommodations can fill up quickly so it is best to secure lodging as soon as possible.
Consider these steps for the early stages of planning:
- Pick your travel dates. There are many calendars showcasing the best weeks of the year to travel to Disney, but you should also take into consideration the group you are traveling with for things like school vacations and the amount of time they have to spend on the trip. Additionally, the summer months in Florida can see temperatures well into the 90s, as well as hurricane season June-November so weather is an item to consider as well.
- Buy your park tickets. Though tickets are available on the Disney Website, a lot of companies offer discounted tickets, including benefits providers at large corporations (such as, AAA, Costco, Lifemart) who offer discounted tickets as perks to employees. There are also discounts for members of the military and Florida residents. Be sure to check the programs that you subscribe to for deals. Park reservations are required to use tickets, so when booking, check out the calendar on the Disney website ticket booking section to ensure the parks are available on the days you want them (even if you are not buying tickets directly from the Disney website).
Tickets are bought for a specific number of park days. Ticket options include:
- One Park per Day
- Water Park and Sports Option — ability to visit Disney water parks and sports complexes.
- Park Hopper — guests can visit multiple parks per day, as long as entry into the second park is after 2pm.
- Park Hopper Plus — Park Hopper plus the Water Park and Sports Option
- Annual pass — the only annual pass available currently is for Florida residents.
3. Book your flight to Orlando (or plan your drive if you are close enough!). Setting up a Google Alert for your flight can help ensure you get the best price. The Orlando Airport (MCO) is 25 miles from Disney World — which is about a 32 minute trip by car. There are also busses, hotel shuttles, and Ubers that can get you to your destination when you land. The Disney Magical Express is a free shuttle that will take you straight to the parks to begin your Disney enjoyment right away.
4. Choose your accommodations. The big decision here is around whether to stay on or off property. Staying on property offers many perks, including:
- Special park hours — early park admission 30 mins before opening and extended evening hours at the parks when staying at certain resorts
- Complimentary transportation — to from and between the parks, hotels and airport
- Close proximity to the parks for breaks, forgotten items, etc
- Advanced dining reservations — 60 days in advance of your check-in day. On property guests can reserve dining for the entire duration of their stay for up to 10 days, starting on the first hotel reservation check in day. Offsite guests can only book 60 days in advance of their first park ticket reservations, meaning that they have to log in each day of their trip 60 days out to make dining reservations. For example, if your trip is Sept 10–15, Disney property guests can book the entire week’s worth of dining reservations on July 10 (60 days in advance), while guests staying off property need to book July 10 reservations on Sept 10, then on July 11 for reservations on Sept 11, etc. This can be quite an advantage from Disney property guests, as dining reservations are typically very booked up, especially during the high seasons at Disney.
- Secure Lightening Lane (formerly FastPass) reservations early — at 7am EST for Disney property guests vs at park opening for off property guests. This can be a big advantage as these rides fill up extremely fast!
- Resort amenities (spas, restaurants, pools, etc)
- Some onsite laundry/kitchen options
- Ability to use points for payments
- The Disney property touches you find within the “Disney bubble” — such as room decor, hotel perks, and cast members dedicated to making your trip extra magical
Staying off property offers many perks as well, including:
- Large cost savings compared to hotel rates
- Full kitchen for cooking meals to save money in the parks
- Bigger space for large groups including bedrooms and shared spaces during downtime
- More pet friendly options
- More options for dining (not limited to on property dining)
- Free parking and room for multiple cars
- Onsite laundry more readily available
- Private pools, if included in the unit or community
Off property lodgings are often located in large neighborhoods full of rentals and AirBnBs such as Story Lake, or in nearby hotels that offer cheaper rooms.
5. Select a transportation method. The close proximity to the parks and free transportation of the Disney property option will also influence whether or not you’d like to secure a rental car for the duration of the trip, or budget for Uber to and from the parks daily. With large groups, renting a large van is a good option, and you will see them all around Disney. Ubers are also very common — picking up all over the Disney area and dropping directly in the parks or other attractions such as Disney Springs.
6. Choose which parks to visit and when. Park reservations are required and can be made 60 days in advance of your first ticket reservation day regardless of where you are staying. As soon as you make your ticket purchase, you can book your park reservations through Disney website.
If you purchased your tickets from a third party or discount site, you will need to associate your ticket to your MyDisneyExperience account. Make sure each adult attending has created an account on the app and successfully added all members of their party to their account (they should show up in the Family & Friends List of My Account), and associated all tickets to members of their party.
As the planner for large groups, you’ll want to be able to manage park reservations and plans for the entire group. Ensure each person in your party shares their permissions in the app so you can manage their reservations for them — make sure that every member of your party has a park reservation for the same day is key!
The business of the parks varies per day and there are a lot of articles on which days are best to visit certain parks. Whatever days you pick to visit the four parks, a good rule of thumb is to remember to work in some break days where you and your party can relax by the pool, have some downtime or enjoy other parts of Florida like Disney Springs or downtown Orlando.
If you are the type of person who wants to see and do it all, it is feasible to do all of the parks in one trip over 5–7 days. Others may consider only visiting only a few of the parks. This is up to the preference of you and your family!
Here are just a few of the highlights of the parks. Be sure to check out the comprehensive park analysis from sources like Disney Food Blog, and note the park opening and closing times for the duration of your visit.
- Magic Kingdom — The first Disney Park to open, this park is the home of Cinderella’s Castle, Main Street USA and many themed parks including Fantasyland, Liberty Square, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, and Frontierland. It boasts some of Disney’s most iconic rides like Splash Mountain and It’s a Small World. This park has fun for the whole family and includes Disney’s premier fireworks show cascading above the Cinderella’s Castle each night. The food offerings range from delicious snack carts to casual dining and themed dining such as Be Our Guest.
- Hollywood Studios — As“the Hollywood that never was and always will be”, this park has a diverse set attractions including Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard, Echo Lake, Toy Story Land, Grand Adventure, Animation Courtyard and the new Star Wars Galaxy’s edge. Guests can experience everything from Muppets shows to high-tech space rides, to behind the scenes tours and roller coasters. Dining here is just as varied and exciting, including throw back drive-in movie dining, to a bar in space, to fine dining and grab and go bites.
- Epcot — Epcot, which stands for the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow”, is an exciting mash up of four distinct areas: World Celebration, World Discovery, World Nature and World Showcase. Epcot is a blend of the past and future, including iconic rides like Spaceship Earth and Space Mountain, while undergoing a major transformation that has so far brought high-tech rides like Guardians of the Galaxy Cosmic Rewind and TRON. The World Showcase features the cultures and culinary delights of 11 countries. There is a wide array of shows (including fireworks) and delicious dining that is sure to please!
- Animal Kingdom — This park is home to a safari with over 2000 animals (including over 300 species, some of which are endangered), great entertainment including animal experiences, and dozens of attractions that are sure to please. The major park sections include Africa, Discovery Island, Asia, DinoLand, Rafiki’s Planet Watch and Pandora — World of Avatar. There is a combination of thrill rides like Everest and interactive rides like Pandora’s Flight of Passage. Dining includes safari-themed bars to escape the crowds, and delicious table service and counter service stops.
When planning your park days, you’ll need to decide whether or not you want to purchase Genie+. Disney Genie is a free component of the MyDisneyExperience app that gives you suggestions on how to optimize your day based on inputted preferences. The paid version, Genie+, allows you to reserve. Be sure to check out the detailed content on the Genie+ reservation process — as it takes some getting used to and changes often! For large groups, it does help ensure you can ride all the rides you’d like, but it does come at an additional cost per day.
60–90 days out
You’ve booked your travel and accommodations, bought your tickets and set your park reservations — now you’re a few months away from your trip. Here are the most important things to do 90 days before you leave.
- Educate yourself on the MyDisneyExperience app and Genie+, including the differences between Genie+ rides with and the pay-per-ride Individual Attraction Selections, which will get you entry into the shorter queue Lightening Lanes.
- Book your dining reservations. The MyDisneyExperience app will allow you to search, filter and select dining across all of the parks. The main dining categories include: signature dining, table service (at a variety of price points), character dining, buffet dining, quick service, snacks. Disney Food Blog, and their incredible park-specific guides, will be your one stop shop for deciding which dining spots to choose and keep you up to date on the can’t miss dishes at each. As dining fills up fast (especially given the pre-booking for on property guests) booking a single dining reservation for a party of 5 or more can be tough. Consider breaking up your party into smaller groups across multiple accounts in the app. Be sure to overlap the times so you can all check in at the same time and ask to be seated together — if you chat in to Disney Customer Service they will often note that the parties are together in their internal reservation system for you.
- Book tours. Disney offers a wide range of tours within all of the parks. They include options like animal care tours, tours of the secret underground tunnels, and VIP packages to visit parks like a pro and skip ride lines.
- Have everyone in the group buy Magic Bands and associate them to your tickets in the MyDisneyExperience app. An alternative to this is to scan your ticket via your mobile phone in the app, or add your ticket to your digital wallet on your phone. You can also use a smart device like an Apple Watch to scan your ticket in the parks. If you prefer a physical card, you can get one at the ticket window at each park. Park entry requires a valid ticket, a valid park reservation and a biometric scan in with your finger at the park entrance.
- Get familiar with the MyDisneyExperience app “Chat With Us” customer service chat. With this live chat, cast members are standing by to answer any questions you may have before arriving or in the parks.
- Decide what rides you want to prioritize out in each park (ensure height requirements are met).
- Double check that all adults have the MyDisneyExperience app and can see their park, dining, and tour reservations. This includes double checking that whoever needs it can see and manage plans for their whole party in the app. If you need assistance, use that helpful chat feature in the app!
- Research ways to save in the parks, such as with BJs gift cards, or branded Disney Gift Cards. There are always new deals and special coming out around Disney, so be sure to check the blogs every once in a while for new ways to save.
Within 30 days
So close, yet so far! Once the trip is all booked and set, meet with your group or point people once more to review the plan and answer any open questions. If staying off property with a kitchen, create a grocery list with your party (Google Docs is a simple tool for this).
The Week Before
Pack your bags! The week before your trip begins, you’ll need to spend time finalizing those last minute, time-sensitive details. If staying off property, order groceries via Instacart to be delivered for the afternoon of your arrival and if bringing a pet, secure a dog sitter or walker if needed via apps like Wag or Rover. Be sure to double check all travel, lodging, park and dining reservations this week as well. Additionally, check back on experience and dining reservations that may have been full when you tried to book — slots sometimes open up closer to the booking due to last minute changes.
The Night Before the First Park Day
You made it! You’re in Orlando with your family and friends, ready to crush your Disney World vacation. Some important things to remember the night before include:
- Ensure all adults know how to use the MyDisneyExperience app to access the park maps, see ride wait times, mobile order food, etc
- Review the itinerary for the first day (I recommend doing this each evening of the trip to ensure everyone knows the plan!)
- Decide as a group which Individual Attraction Selections (IAS) your party would like to pay for (if at all) for the next day so you are ready to reserve when you wake up. These pay-per-rides range from $5–15 per person.
- Buy GeniePlus (at midnight or when you wake up, before 7am EST), which costs between $15 and $22 per person per day.
The Morning Of
The fun begins!
- Buy Genie+ (if you want it and haven’t already).
- Secure your IAS spots — right at 7am for Disney property guests, and right at park open for off property guests (open time varies per park).
- Book your first ride using Genie+ at 7am, regardless of whether you are staying off property, or on property.
- Throughout the day — if you have Genie+, each reserved ride will have a time window for you to check in for. Pro tip: Disney will let you check in to the ride up to 5 mins before the time window opens. Be sure to pay attention to the time windows for when your next Genie+ booking slot opens up. This will occur either two hours after you booked your last ride, or immediately after you have checked in for your current Genie+ booked ride, whichever comes first (guidelines as of March 2023).
The list of items to ensure you bring with you to the parks can be long for some, especially with large parties and children in the group.
For those traveling with children, you can either bring a stroller or rent a stroller in the park. The park strollers are great because they have drink holders and big pockets to carry bags and other items throughout the day. The rides have dedicated stroller parking areas. Pro tip — keep that stroller receipt! If you’ve rented a stroller in one park and hop to another, you can show your receipt and get your next stroller free.
On the topic of food, you will likely have a set of dining reservations made in advance to experience. Disney allows you to check in 5 minutes before your dining reservation at the host stand, or you can check in to your reservation at the traditional time via the app. If you spot a restaurant you’d like to eat at that you couldn’t or didn’t reserve in advance, check out the waitlist feature in the app, or talk to a cast member at the front to get in the queue if one is open.
There are snacks galore in Disney, all of which are highlighted in the DFB daily content and guides! One top snack and money saver is the Disney popcorn bucket, which will cost you anywhere from $10–38 to purchase at the start (depending on the design), but refills at only $5 a pop and can keep a large group’s snack needs satiated throughout the day.
Days in the Disney parks can be long and exhausting, especially in the hot sun and with large groups of people to lead throughout the crowds. Consider taking breaks throughout the day in hidden spots like Tom Sawyer Island, or splitting up the group at certain points in the day to have a break from the coordination and spend time with smaller, more intimate groups doing specific activities.
A last fun tip is that while you are enjoying everything the wonderful parks have to offer and having a fabulous time interacting with cast members, you can also pay it forward and give cast member kudos at certain areas in the parks or in the MyDisneyExperience app to share the love with the “Cast Compliment” feature.
Phew! Feel like you ran a marathon just reading about the planning? Try not to stress. Being in Disney is magical, even if everything doesn’t go as smoothly as you planned. It will rain. A kiddo will have a meltdown and you’ll miss a ride reservation. A ride will go down and you won’t get to ride it before park close, etc. You can’t plan for these things, but you feel accomplished with your preparation, and have the attitude while on the trip that being together and enjoying each others company is the most important part!
And lastly, planning for large groups like this takes a lot of time, energy and attention, and your trip will be all the better for it, but as the planner of this epic adventure, don’t forget to…treat yourself! Take time to visit one of the Disney spas, splurge on that fine dining reservation, or buy that special piece of Disney merchandise you’ve had your eye on. Give yourself a pat on the back for helping to create great memories for yourself and your group.