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Planning Your First Disney Vacation
An old friend of mine went to Disneyland a few years back with her granddaughter, son and daughter-in-law. The overnight trip was planned on a whim and they had one day to spend inside the Park. They’d done no research ahead of time and sadly, it turned out to be an unfortunate visit.
The Park was busy and crowded and they didn’t arrive until afternoon. The trip was a surprise for the 4-yr old, who ended up terrified of every character and ride because she wasn’t familiar with anything. The family (who were on a special diet) didn’t know what to eat. They ended up staying only a few hours in the Park and returned home, disappointed that things hadn’t worked out as they’d envisioned.
Certainly this story broke my heart because it didn’t have to end that way at all! With a bit of preparation and planning they could have made the most of their visit. Here are my tips on what you need to do before your first Disney vacation.
1. Do Your Pre-Disney Vacation Research
Planning for a trip to Disney World should begin months in advance. These are the things to know before a trip to Disney World. You’ll need to decide which Parks you’re visiting on which days. From there you should book Advance Dining Reservations (ADR) for the full-service and character meals you want to eat. FastPass+ reservations can be booked in advance as well.
Disneyland, having a smaller footprint than Walt Disney World, requires less upfront planning. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to think ahead of your trip. Read more as to why Advanced Dining Reservations at Disneyland are generally unnecessary. However you should still decide what and where to eat. You’ll schedule FastPass tickets throughout the day (instead of upfront like at Walt Disney World). Your Disneyland day can therefore be more spur-of-the-moment. But that doesn’t mean you should just show up at the gates without a plan.
These are just a few questions you should ask yourself:
Before your visit, you should have a general idea of the rides, attractions and shows you want to see. Ask each family member what they want to accomplish and write it down. Take a look at the Park maps online to get an idea of location so you’re familiar with the “lay of the Lands”.
What time of year is optimal for your visit? Know that certain times of year (when kids are on school break, holidays and even weekends) are going to be much more crowded than a visit in the “off season”. Check out my post about the best times of year for Disneyland.
The Disneyland Resort offers two theme Parks – Disneyland and Disney California Adventure park. At Walt Disney World you have your choice of four parks – Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and Magic Kingdom. Are you going to stay in one Park for the entire day or purchase a ParkHopper that allows you access to both Parks on the same day?
At Disneyland, are you going to purchase MaxPass. MaxPass can be purchased on top of your Park ticket. It permits you to schedule FastPass on your smart phone and download unlimited PhotoPass images. Yes, it’s an additional cost to budget but I’ve used it many times and find it to be well worth the extra charge.
I recommend my partner Get Away Today for discounted tickets that can be purchased upfront.
Want to maximize your time in the Parks? Plan on arriving at “rope drop” bright and early when the gates open and stay until the Park closes. Early morning and late night hours tend to be the least busy and allow you quicker line access to your favorite rides.
Do you have someone in your group with special needs? Disneyland offers a Disability Assistance Service (DAS) so either City Hall or one of the Guest Relations kiosks should be your first stop of the day.
What will you eat? Do you want to pack in snacks, enjoy sit-down full-service dining for every meal or eat counter-service all day? Certain dining locations will require reservation and others you’ll be able to walk right up to and get a seat. At Disney World you’ll want to book Advance Dining Reservations for all character meals and full-service dining.
Best Ways to Research
Your first Disney vacation research stop should be the official Disneyland website. You’ll be able to access an entertainment schedule, see which rides and attractions will be closed for refurbishment during your visit as well as view complete dining menus and prices for all restaurants.
I highly recommend these FREE Disney Parks vacation planning videos. You can watch them together as a family to find out more about the resorts. It’s also an awesome way to build excitement for the trip! CLICK THIS IMAGE TO RECEIVE YOUR FREE DISNEYLAND & DISNEY WORLD VACATION PLANNING VIDEO:
Next, pick up a book that will help you and your family with your research. I recommend The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland 2018 and the The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2018 as books that I use when planning my own trips. Keep reading for more ways to research and plan your first Disney trip.
2. Make Decisions as a Family Before You Get There
If you are making the first Disney vacation alone, then it’s no sweat to make decisions on the fly. But if you’re traveling with your family, it’s best to have a game plan in place and get decisions made before the trip. Know that everyone will have expectations about what they want to see and do on their first Disney visit. You’ll want to make sure that those dreams are fulfilled!
Ask each person in your family what their top three things are and make sure those happen. Consider purchasing a PassPorter Disneyland Resort Organizer to keep track of all your travel plans as you make them. For Disney World, see The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World Planner: A Complete Organizer, Journal, and Keepsake for Your Unforgettable Vacation.
As the resident “Disney fan”, I am guilty of having a plan in my head about how our Disney day is going to play out…without letting my husband know! Oops. This can lead to major disappointment if the adults aren’t on the same page. I like dining in the Parks and my husband prefers to pack food in. I like to stay in the Parks way after dark and he’s ready to leave after sunset. If you don’t discuss these things upfront before your trip you might run into some big frustrations.
Decide where and what you’re going to eat to save time. We like to plan what restaurants and meals we eat upfront so the decision is already made when hunger strikes. Make sure to plan those Advance Dining Reservations if certain dining locations are a “must-do”.
3. Get Everyone Familiar with the Disney Parks
I’m not big on surprising kids with a first Disney vacation because I think half of the fun is in the anticipation. Letting kids know about your vacation and having them help you in the planning stages is especially important if your children are nervous or have special needs. There are lots of ideas on Pinterest for “countdown calendars”.
No need to watch every Disney movie ever made before your first Disney vacation, but a general familiarity with some of the Characters can be helpful, especially for young children. Many of the Fantasyland rides are based on Disney movies so watching a few before your trip will give them a bit of a background. Here is a post about what movies I recommend before your trip. If my child is on the fence about a particular ride, I’ll even pull up a video of it on YouTube for them to watch and that gets them excited about riding it on their visit.
Order the free Disney vacation planning DVD and watch it several times beforehand. CLICK THIS IMAGE TO RECEIVE YOUR FREE DISNEYLAND & DISNEY WORLD VACATION PLANNING VIDEO:
4. Ask Someone Who Knows About Disney Vacations
Naturally, as someone who has been visiting Disneyland regularly since she was just a baby, I consider myself quite knowledgeable on the subject. That’s why I was disheartened that my coworker hadn’t asked for my advice up before the trip. Knowing her family dynamic, I’d have been happy to offer her customized tips that would have maximize their Disney day. Chances are you know someone who has been to Disney and who can verse you a bit with their “story” and sage advice for your visit.
5. Find Help Online
If you aren’t able to chat Disney with anyone on your personal circle, you can search online for just about anything you need to plan the best vacation.
I must highly recommend TravelingMom first, as we have dozens of writers who are familiar with the ins and outs of Disney Parks around the world. There are thousands of blogs and websites dedicated to Disney travel so a quick Google search should help you find what you need. And finally, if you can’t find an answer to your Disney question, ask on the Disney Parks Moms Panel and they’ll be able to offer you a personalized response.
Planning your first Disney vacation? Please check out my other Disney planning posts under the menu, “Tips and Tricks”.