I can’t quite believe it was a whole year ago that we were on our way to Walt Disney World Florida in October 2017. The build up to our holiday-of-a-lifetime seemed monumental, even more so because we kept it a secret from the girls for nine whole months, only telling them about our surprise four weeks before we flew. Here’s a little video of the moment we told the girls where we were going:
There’s so much to think about when planning a trip to Walt Disney World Florida and I’ll freely admit that I found it really quite overwhelming when I first started looking into it all. I thought it might be useful to put together a list of things to consider and tips that worked for us (as well as useful stuff I really wish I’d known beforehand) to help anyone who’s heading out there for their very first Walt Disney World Florida adventure.
This post covers all the different things to think about when booking your holiday and how to plan your trip in advance. Part two (coming soon) will be all about making the most of the parks themselves plus a list of our top tips & things I wish I’d known before we went.
These posts are pretty detailed as I’ve tried to include everything I can think of that I learned before we travelled and whilst we were at Walt Disney World Florida that helped us have the magical experience that we did, in the hopes that maybe it helps you have the holiday-of-a-lifetime too.
Booking Your Holiday At Walt Disney World Florida
Even at the initial stage of simply booking a Walt Disney World Florida holiday there are so many things to think about. Which airline? Which airport? What time of year? Villa or hotel? Private pool or resort? All inclusive, Disney dining or self catering? Disney or Universal or both? Hire a car or not?! How long to go for – a week? Ten days? Two weeks? Longer?!
We started by mapping out what our top priorities were:
~ We knew we wanted to stay in a villa (preferably with a pool) and be self catering.
~ We knew we wanted to fly from either Birmingham or Manchester rather than having to travel down to London from where we live in Staffordshire.
~ We knew that we would need longer than a week.
~ We were limited to going during the school holidays (though we did take the girls out of school for a week so we could have a bit longer – more about that later).
~ We knew we only wanted to do Walt Disney World Florida this time and that we’d go back to do Universal Studios in a separate trip one day.
~ We weren’t too fussed about which airline to fly with.
~ We were ok with being a little further away (half an hour or so) from the Disney Parks because we knew we wanted to hire a car in case we decided to explore what else Florida had to offer beyond Orlando.
This all helped enormously with narrowing down our options when booking everything.
Hotel or Villa?
We ALWAYS choose self catering in a villa when we go on holiday. Mostly because there are six of us and hotel rooms rarely cater for a family of our size. And even if they did, trying to squeeze six people into one family suite (no matter how spacious and luxurious), as well as attempting to get everyone to stick to hotel schedules with regards to mealtimes, would be near on impossible.
Hotels have their advantages of course, especially the (quite frankly) enormous variety of hotels at Walt Disney World Florida – definitely keep it in mind as an option for your trip as it would be an amazing experience to have. These benefits include:
~ Themed hotels, which are hugely fun for little ones.
~ You’re right on the doorstep of the parks and therefore probably don’t need to hire a car as there is a transportation system within the parks.
~ You get the added extras that come with staying in a resort eg: multiple swimming pools and plenty of choices for food and drinks.
~ Magic Bands that you can actually wear (as opposed to a debit card style one that you have to try not to lose!) which hold your electronic park tickets that you scan in order to enter the parks.
~ The chance to book Fast Passes and Disney dining in advance of those who choose not to stay at a Disney hotel (trust me, that extra booking time makes a big difference)
~ AND the opportunity to take advantage of Magic Hours which allow you to enter certain parks on particular days an hour before standard opening times or stay an hour later than the usual closing time – which I imagine is well worth it to escape the crowds.
Ultimately though, a villa works best for our family and probably always will (until our girls are all teenagers and old enough to have a hotel room to themselves unsupervised, anyway!).
Villas give us space to spread out which we most definitely need. Different ages (when we went to Walt Disney World Florida our youngest girl was seven and the eldest was almost sixteen), different sleeping habits (some early-risers – me! – and some late-sleepers), different requirements for time on their own or being with other people… and as we’d be spending literally all day together at the parks we knew we wouldn’t want to be on top of each other where we were staying too, especially on the occasional in-between days where we gave the parks a miss.
Villas also allow us to self-cater. Firstly it means we can budget so much better than if we’re eating out all the time (which is important on a trip as expensive as Disney) and secondly, again, it caters for everyone’s very different tastes and requirements in food – everyone can have what they want, we can eat together or separately and even though it means I still have to cook, at least I know that we’re getting some healthy food into us.
Staying in a villa gives that ‘home-from-home’ feeling that I love on holiday. Whenever I stay in a hotel (even a budget one!) I’m always a little bit on edge, feeling like I need to keep everything neat and tidy and almost like I’m staying in someone else’s (very fancy) house. Whereas a villa feels like it’s completely ours for the time we’re there – we can make noise, we can make mess and it just feels a lot more comfortable and relaxed. Plus, most of the villas in Florida seem to be in ‘gated communities’ which give that extra level of security.
Which Airline To Fly With To Walt Disney World Florida?
I looked at a LOT of different companies in the run up to deciding who to book with and in the end opted for Virgin Holidays – they just seemed to have the most comprehensive, easy to navigate website with a lot more choice for villas at Walt Disney World Florida than other companies. Plus we could book everything (flights, accommodation, car hire and park tickets) all in one go which made the whole process so much simpler than trying to do it all separately. I made a shortlist of villas we liked the look of and played around online with dates to try and get the best price. I tend to follow my instincts as much as possible (with holidays as well as life in general!) and I kept on coming back to one villa in particular – Balmoral Resort in Haines City.
I had a long chat on the phone with a lovely, honest, super friendly Virgin Holidays representative who helped me find an even better price by shifting our travel days one day earlier and then I went online later that night and booked it. A couple of days later I noticed a discrepancy in the price I’d been promised for the Walt Disney World Florida park tickets versus what I’d been actually been charged. I phoned Virgin Holidays and they were incredibly helpful, even price-matching some tickets I’d found on offer on another website elsewhere online that were cheaper than what I’d paid. We ended up saving about £175 which, in the grand scheme of the total cost of our holiday wasn’t very much but it certainly paid for quite a few ice creams! (In the interests of transparency, it was roughly £10,000 for all six of us in total, including flights, accommodation, car hire, park tickets, food & drinks and spending money whilst we were out there).
When we went to Walt Disney World Florida, Balmoral Resort was newly built and had only been open for a few months, so everything was absolutely pristine. It’s a community of luxury villas (each with a private pool) in a residential-style location that also had a ‘resort’ feel to it with it’s gorgeous communal pool, fantastic water play area, a central clubhouse, an extensive calendar of daytime and evening events plus an awesome games room which boasts the largest game of Pacman in the world – a huge hit with the girls.
Balmoral is in Haines City, about 30-40 minutes drive south-west of the parks themselves. It’s an easy road into Walt Disney World Florida along a well signposted main road and although it was busy traffic-wise and we did hit some jams, it didn’t bother us too much and I think having that flexibility regarding distance from the parks helped us find accomodation that really worked for us as a family.
When To Go To Walt Disney World Florida?
It was January 2017 when we booked our trip and, being limited to having to take holidays according to the school rule of ‘no holidays during term time’, it meant that we ended up with four options of when to go to Walt Disney World Florida. February half term was ruled out – it was just too soon for us to be able to afford it (we’d already saved up a lot over the years but not quite enough by that point) and the Christmas holidays were a no-go too because it’s the husband’s busiest time of year at work and he simply couldn’t take the time out. That left the Easter holidays, May half term, the six week Summer break or October half term.
We’d already booked to go to Cornwall during the Easter holidays and I knew that the Summer holidays would be far too hot for the girls. That left the two half terms to choose from. May seemed a bit too close to our Cornish getaway and, as I usually really struggle with my mood and the cold weather through the Winter months in the UK, the chance to soak up some heat and sunshine in late October was incredibly appealing, especially with the added bonus of all the fun Halloween celebrations that Disney is famous for. Whilst it was mostly a process of elimination that helped us decide, it was definitely the right choice for us with regards to when to go to Walt Disney World Florida.
However, half term is only one week long and we knew that it simply wouldn’t be long enough to justify the expense, the distance travelled and the jet lag, to say nothing of actually trying to fit in all the stuff we wanted to do whilst we were out there! So we opted to take the girls out of school in the week leading up to half term and go for ten days altogether, giving us a few days after we got home to the UK to recover from jet lag before going back to school and work. It worked out brilliantly and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. We requested homework for all three girls to do whilst they were away, which they diligently completed (mostly during the flight on the way over, plus a little bit on each of the days we weren’t in the Walt Disney World Florida parks) and we didn’t get fined. I honestly believe that their learning or education has in no way been compromised from missing those five days of lessons. The experiences we had as a family far outweighed anything they would have learned at school and for me that makes it one hundred percent worth it.
It was still incredibly hot, even in October – I don’t think I’d be able to cope with going in the height of summer (and I love the heat and sunshine!). Whilst we were there it was about 28-30 degrees every day and the sun was pretty fierce – you definitely need a good suncream. We were very glad of the air conditioning in our villa. It was the humidity (97% most days) that the husband and girls struggled with most I think, though it didn’t bother me too much – I relished actually being warm for once! We were surprised by the sudden torrential downpours that we experienced – a Floridian cloud burst is quite something to see. They end as quickly as they start though and you soon dry out in the heat that follows.
Planning Your Walt Disney World Florida Experience In Advance: Before You Go
Now that your Walt Disney World Florida holiday is booked, it’s time to start planning what to do and how to make the most of your time whilst you’re there! If you’re going for longer than a week I recommend that you try and snag one of the 14-days-for-the-price-of-7 park ticket deals that often pop up – it means you can spread out your days at the parks rather than having to do them consecutively. The parks are exhausting and everyone (even the grown-ups) will need a day off in between all the fun sometimes. That extra flexibility made such a difference to us and I didn’t feel like we were ‘wasting’ a day if we chose to spend a day hanging out by the pool or visiting somewhere else.
Fast Passes at Walt Disney World Florida
There are a number of different ways to approach how you ‘do’ Disney. You can plan everything down to the minute, stick to a strict schedule of getting to the parks when they open and staying until they close, and you will probably see about as much as is possible in the time that you have by doing this. At the opposite end of the scale, you can decide to be completely spontaneous and take each day as it comes – after all, it’s supposed to be a holiday not a military operation. You risk missing out on some of the things you most want to experience with this option though – queues for rides often exceed two hours, popular restaurants get fully booked, the best views for evening entertainment shows get reserved well in advance and character meet & greets run out of time. Maybe the best choice is to be somewhere in the middle, planning some things on some days and leaving the rest of your time there fairly open and flexible.
Everyone who has ever been to Walt Disney World Florida will tell you to choose the first option and book your Fast Passes and special meals as soon as possible. If you’re staying in a Disney hotel, you can book everything 60 days before your check-in date. If you’re staying elsewhere (like we were) you only get 30 days.
Fast Passes are essentially time slots that you can book in advance (via the My Disney Experience App – see below for how to do this) for certain rides, attractions and characters which allow you to bypass the long queues and give you a bit of structure for the day. The amount of things there are to do in the parks is quite mind-blowing so I would suggest that if you do want to use them you do your research, make a list of what your priorities are in each park and try and book them with your Fast Passes. You are allowed to book three Fast Passes per day in advance and once you’re in the park and have used them all you can book more.
I’m normally an incredibly organised person but I wasn’t so sure I wanted to take my usual super-structured approach to our time in Walt Disney World Florida. Of course I wanted to make the most of our time there and see as much as possible but I also had no idea in advance how little/much we would all be affected by jet lag, which park we would want to go to on which day (very much dependent on weather, mood and energy levels) and I knew we would want some ‘chill-out’ days and spontaneous fun too – booking everything in advance and having a schedule wouldn’t allow for any of that.
As it happened, there was a slight issue with our Walt Disney World Florida park ticket documentation and we couldn’t download anything until a week before we flew out to Orlando, significantly reducing our chance to book fast passes for the rides/attractions we most wanted to experience. By the time the documents were released I was deep into making sure we had everything else we needed packing-wise, finishing up essentials for work as I was going to be off for two weeks, plus keeping on top of all the usual school/home routines and schedules – I simply didn’t have time to go online and book everything. As a result, we had a probably slightly different experience to what would have been our* (*my) ideal Walt Disney World Florida holiday but it worked out for the best in the end and that’s all that matters.
Memory Maker at Walt Disney World Florida
Whereas Fast Passes ended up not being as vital as we’d thought they would be for our Walt Disney World Florida holiday, one thing I would absolutely recommend you definitely do is to add Memory Maker to your park ticket package. I think we had it included for free as part of the deal we booked. It’s fairly common in most families for there to be one person who is always behind the camera snapping photos rather than being in the photos themselves – in our family that person is me. There are very few photos of all six of us together and the best we usually manage is a squinty-eyed, cheesy-smiled, squashed-together selfie. I love those kinds of photos and some of them are my utter favourites, it’s just that sometimes I’d like a bit more variety. And with somewhere like Disney I promise that you are going to want evidence that you were there too.
All around the Walt Disney World Florida parks are staff members with cameras. They’re usually stationed at locations that have an iconic backdrop and there is also one at every single character spot too. They snap a photo of everyone, scan your Magic Band (if you’re staying in a Disney hotel) or your park ticket card (if your accommodation is off-site like ours was) and voila, the images are instantly uploaded to your Disney account in the My Disney Experience App (and also the My Disney Experience section of the Walt Disney World Florida website). You can view them immediately and you have about six weeks (if memory serves me correctly) to download and save them.
They’re not the best or most professional photos in the world by any means but I treasure every single one of them – partly because of the memories they hold and partly because I’m actually in them.
Using The ‘My Disney Experience’ App At Walt Disney World Florida
The My Disney Experience App was utterly invaluable throughout our entire trip. We used it every morning without fail to plan our time, accessed it throughout the day whilst we were in the parks themselves (all Walt Disney World Florida parks have free wifi) and scrolled through it in the evenings to view our Memory Maker photos as well. It’s completely free to download and set up an account. You link it to your park tickets so each member of your party (age 13+ who has a mobile device) is connected to one single account, meaning that everyone has access and things are kept much more simple and streamlined rather than everyone needing a separate account.
As well as being the way you view your Memory Maker photos, the My Disney Experience App is essentially an encyclopaedia for all things Disney. There is an interactive map of each of the main parks which shows detailed information such as live queue waiting times for rides and meet-and-greets; the real-time locations of each of the characters; where the restaurants are (some with full menus that you can view); nearest toilet facilities and more.
You can access the schedule of all your booked Fast Passes and restaurant reservations via the App as well so you know where you need to be and when. Plus you can use the App itself to actually make dining reservations and book extra Fast Passes.
The My Disney Experience App is absolutely essential if you really want to make the most out of your time at Walt Disney World Florida – I honestly don’t know how we would have managed without it.
Suggested Reading for Walt Disney World Florida
I enjoy researching and planning a trip as much as I love being on the trip itself! Lonely Planet are my go-to travel guides and I’m very loyal to them – I bought my first one when I went off to spend a year in Australia at the tender age of 19 and I’ve used them ever since. I’m building up quite a good little library of them now and have a secret goal of collecting them all!
As soon as we booked our holiday-of-a-lifetime to Walt Disney World Florida I rushed out and bought the ‘Florida’ guide and the ‘Pocket Guide to Orlando and Walt Disney Resort’. The Florida guide was useful because it gave me lots of ideas for things to do outside of the Disney parks in case we decided to do any daytrips – I read it on the plane on the way over to Orlando. And the Pocket Guide was brilliant because it was small enough for me to pop into the backpack that went everywhere with us and it had lots of bite-sized snippets of information that were easy to see at a glance.
I also made sure I got hold of ‘The Little Big Book Of Magic’ – a free Disney planning booklet that you can either download here from the Walt Disney World Florida website or request that they send it to you through the post. I much prefer having an actual tangible item to look through rather than a digital version so I had it sent through the post. It’s safe to say it was soon filled with notes and scribbles in the margins; underlined and circled sections; and the corners of pages turned down. It literally tells you everything you need to know – which rides are where, which characters you can find in which park, how Fast Passes, the My Disney Experience App and Memory Maker all work and a whole host of other things too.
The Dibb is a website that has an enormous amount of information, tips, suggestions, news and guides about Walt Disney World Florida. I found it really helpful if I had a specific question that I wanted an answer to quite quickly and there are also forums jam-packed full of threads on varying topics.
Finally, of course, I read lots of different family travel blogs for insider tips and hints on how to get the best out of our time at Walt Disney World Florida. My two favourites were ‘Mummy Daddy Me’ and ‘Mini Travellers’, though there are plenty of others too of course.
‘Mummy Daddy Me’ was the first blog I ever came across (it was what first inspired me to start my blog) and I just love Katie’s approach to motherhood, travel and life in general. She and her family have been to Walt Disney World Florida several times (they work regularly with Visit Orlando) and there are plenty of posts all about the various different visits they’ve had over the years with their three children at differing ages. You can find them here.
Karen at Mini Travellers also has a vast number of articles about anything and everything to do with Disney covering everything from tips on the best shoes to wear for all the walking you’ll be doing; to reviews of the most popular attractions; to ideas for how to see Disney on a budget; to a full guide on how to ‘do’ Disney with under-5’s and everything in between. It was a super resource to read through before we went and I picked up several tips that I used whilst we were there.
I hope that this Walt Disney World Florida tips guide has been useful in helping you plan your holiday-of-a-lifetime. There are plenty more things I could have added but it would have turned into an even more epically long post and so I’m saving them for Part Two (coming soon). If you’ve been to Walt Disney World Florida and have anything to add, please feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments so that readers can see them and use them too.
Below is a video of our time in Walt Disney World Florida. I get emotional every time I watch it – it really was such an incredible experience and we made memories together that will last us a lifetime.
Please note: I have not been asked or paid to write this post. All thoughts, feelings, opinions, ideas, words and photographs are my own.