Planning a trip to Disney World can feel like a monumental task. The vacation kingdom has four theme parks, Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and countless other activities. To help you plan, we’ve created an all-encompassing guide to Disney World. Our planning guide will include our favorite times to go to Disney World, places to stay, park tickets, FastPass and attraction guides, itineraries, dining, and more. Most sections will include links to read further on a given topic. The goal of the post is to give you a quick summary of each subject and ways to learn more about it. We also have a Disneyland travel guide and Tokyo Disney Resort travel guide if you are interested in visiting those resorts.
Near the end of the post I will discuss whether 2021 is a good year to visit Walt Disney World. I realize that people vacation when they can and sometimes that portion of trip planning isn’t all that flexible. If you can’t be flexible on what year you go, don’t fret. Disney World is fun anytime, regardless of the year. Sure, some are better than others, as we will discuss below, but if you are already planning then this guide will try to help you have an even better time. Needless to say 2021 is a strange year for travel in general and that includes Disney World. While the resort has remained open since July of 2020 through the pandemic, restrictions including masks and limited capacity are ever changing. We’ll talk about this a little more in-depth at the bottom of this guide.
As always, if there is something we didn’t cover and you have a question about then please leave a comment. I guess the place to get started, before we get to the categories, is a rough timeline of the steps it takes to plan a Disney World vacation. Here is our post on that subject. On to the categories!
When to visit Disney World?
When you choose to visit Disney World will likely depend on what your priorities and schedule are. We do have an in-depth post ranking the months to go but here’s a brief synopsis. Let’s start with the summer months as that is generally the time of year that is easiest for people to visit. July is the busiest of those months, especially around the 4th of July. If you must go in the summer I would recommend early June or later in August. Neither are ideal times but both have their advantages. June is slightly less busy than July and a little cooler typically. August is very hot and humid but as people start to go back to school the parks get less and less crowded. Schools on the east coast seem to go back to school fairly early so the parks start to empty out in mid-August. Melissa and I have gone around Labor Day before and that actually proves to be a good time as many people don’t want to go on a trip right after school starts. Having said all of this, the crowd calendar has ebbed and flowed over the last few years with summers being a slightly better time to go. It’s a trend to keep an eye on but we still don’t recommend it, especially considering the heat. If you can go at another time then that’s probably for the best.
If you can avoid the summer months then there are plenty of other great options. Disney World is generally the slowest in late January or early February. That’s also a good time to get a break from the weather. You can also enjoy Epcot’s Festival of Arts at that time which is our favorite of the Epcot festivals.
Late February through early April enters into fairly high crowd season because of school breaks. While the weather is nice, this isn’t much better than the summer months as far as crowds go. Later in the spring is much nicer with fewer crowds and a chance to see the flowers bloom.
September is one of the lowest crowd seasons and the weather starts to cool down. Epcot begins Food & Wine Festival and Halloween Parties start at Magic Kingdom. All things considered, September is one of our favorite times to go although the weather can still be very hot. Early October fits that bill too, before the crowds start to descend on to the parks later that month.
The holiday season is a great time to visit, especially if you enjoy Christmas. If you can fit in a trip that doesn’t revolve around one of the holiday weeks then the crowds won’t be so high. Going at this time is a bit of trade-off as you get the beautiful holiday decorations but likely won’t fit in as many attractions with higher crowds.
For an in-depth look at the pros and cons of visiting Disney World each month, check out this post. If it turns out that you do need to visit Disney World on a holiday, here are my pros and cons that go along with each one.
Airfare & Transportation
We have a few thoughts on airfare in our post about what a Disney World vacation costs. Disney World is just outside of Orlando, making Orlando International (MCO) the most convenient airport to fly into. There are other options, namely Kissimmee, Orlando Melbourne International, Tampa and Daytona Beach, within a short drive of Disney World. While we don’t like Orlando International, this is where we generally fly in because Disney provides transportation to and from the airport (called the Magical Express) and that saves on rental car costs. We have flown into Tampa several times and made the drive from there. It’s not a tough drive unless you hit it at rush hour.
When looking for a flight, we generally use Matrix ITA Software to find the best fare. That site includes all major airlines outside of Southwest and doesn’t involve additional windows or pop-up ads. While you can’t book directly on that site, it will show the cheapest option.
Once at the airport, there are a few options in getting to Disney World. One is the previously mentioned Magical Express which will no longer be available starting in January 2022. If only going to Disney World then this is the most cost-effective option (it’s complimentary!) and one we frequently use. You can only use that service if you are staying at an official Disney World hotel. In the case that you aren’t staying there or are going other places while in Orlando then renting a car is easy. Prices are usually fairly low around that area but parking costs are not.
If you are doing something outside of Disney World (like Universal Orlando) then renting a car for the first new days of your trip and then returning it once you get to Disney World is a good option, as there are Alamo and National rental car locations on property. Uber is also a decent option at Disney World, whether you are going a few other places or not.
Ultimately, we recommend using Magical Express to and from Disney World. If going to another theme park for a day or two then use an Uber or Lyft. After those options then we’d recommend renting a car.
How Many Days?
Walt Disney World has 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, an outdoor shopping and dining area, and many other recreational areas. Guests could stay here for a month and still not experience everything the resort has to offer. Obviously, staying for a month probably isn’t a reality for many travelers and we wouldn’t really recommend this anyway. Typically, we try to do a week at Disney World, give or take a day. A week gives enough time to experience all the parks, go back and do a few favorites, while leaving time for some special dining or shopping. For first timers, we’d say at least 5 days at Disney World but preferably a week.
Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom are especially strong parks at the moment and ones that we recommend spending multiple days in. Epcot and Hollywood Studios are undergoing some large projects currently but are still worth visiting. Epcot, specifically, is a wonderful idea for a theme park and World Showcase is one of the more appealing parts of Disney World. Here is our guide to how many days we recommend at each Disney Park.
With Disney World being in Orlando, you may have other places on your itinerary. Universal Orlando is home to the incredible Wizarding World of Harry Potter and worth a visit if you are a Harry Potter fan or love theme parks. There are many beach towns within a couple of hours drive as well as cruises that you could tack on to a trip to Florida. These interests will differ for each family but there is certainly no shortage of things to do outside of Disney World. With that said, we have not experienced anything in that state that we enjoy more than the actual resort.
Where to Stay?
Disney World has an incredible amount of lodging options for your stay, starting with the on-site, official Disney hotels. There are currently 25 different Disney resorts to stay at, all with varied themes and at different prices. The resorts are broken into categories – value, moderate, and deluxe. Each category has several resorts included in them all with varied themes. Staying on-site does come with perks as all transportation to and from the parks and Disney Springs (the outdoor shopping and dining center) is complimentary. There are also extra hours in a theme park offered to on-site guests called Extra Magic Hours.
When booking official Disney World hotels, be on the lookout for special offers. These are almost always offered regardless of the time of year and at least give a percentage off of hotel rooms. There’s also other offers generally, including the very popular Free Dining offer in the fall which includes the dining plan along with the room rate. Another option includes sites that let you rent points from Disney Vacation Club owners to stay at nicer hotels at a cheaper rate. We have used this site several times with relative ease. We have reviewed many of the resorts on-site, here is our ranking of the ones we’ve stayed at. There is also this post that gives a brief overview of the theme of each resort and here’s one that ranks all of the Disney World Resort pools. If you can’t decide on just one resort then a split-stay may be right for you. You can also try out a vacation package from certified travel agents to simplify things!
We prefer these resorts as the transportation is superior to staying off-site and that offsets any cost difference. There are some good options near Disney Springs that are cheaper. The last option is to stay off-site in a hotel or vacation rental. If you have a bigger group then a vacation rental may be a good option but we definitely prefer staying on-site.
Disney World tickets will be one of the most expensive aspects of your trip. As mentioned above, we recommend at least 5 days in the park. 5 days or more is when guests ultimately see the most value, as the cost per day of the tickets go down. We also recommend the park hopper option if you are there for more than 4 days because it adds some flexibility to your vacation. If you are penny-pinching at this point then dropping the park hopper is an option but we prefer cutting costs elsewhere as the park hopper makes the trip more enjoyable.
While you can buy tickets once at Disney World, I definitely recommend buying them online ahead of time. This can be done while booking your hotel, as a package booking.
Buying from the official Disney World site is the easiest route but it isn’t the cheapest. Park Prodigy offers discount tickets to Walt Disney World along with great customer service and planning help along the way!
Getting discounted tickets is an easy way to save money on your trip, even if the savings are somewhat minimal. Many people think that there will be big savings on some secret site. While that isn’t true, saving around $50 a ticket is well worth it.
Over the last few years, Disney has annually increased the price of tickets. With that in mind, if you have the means then I’d encourage you to get Disney World tickets sooner rather than later. Of course, there may be some packages (like Free Dining that will be offered later) where you need to purchase tickets from Disney. Still, if you aren’t trying for Free Dining then get your tickets as soon as possible.
Attractions, Entertainment and Itineraries Guides
With Walt Disney World doing away with FastPasses in favor of Genie+ (which debuts in September 2021), there is slightly less strategy involved pre-planning involved. Just prioritize attractions that you’re sure you want to go on. We have ranked all of the attractions at each park, which you can find here:
- Magic Kingdom Attraction Rankings
- Epcot Attraction Rankings
- Hollywood Studios Attraction Rankings
- Animal Kingdom Attraction Rankings
Doing every attraction in all four parks is nearly impossible and probably wouldn’t be all that enjoyable, honestly. Still attractions are an integral parts of theme parks and these rankings should help prioritize which attractions to do.
Along with attractions, both parks have quality entertainment that is worth seeing. Here are the ratings for each park:
- Magic Kingdom Entertainment Ratings
- Epcot Entertainment Ratings
- Hollywood Studios Entertainment Ratings
- Animal Kingdom Entertainment Ratings
- Best Street entertainment in Disney World
For a more ideal day in the theme parks we’ve made 1-day itineraries for each of the four Disney World parks. If your trip is longer than 4 days in the park (we hope it is) obviously this can be spread out as each of these itineraries are packed to the brim.
- Magic Kingdom 1-Day Itinerary
- Epcot 1-Day Itinerary
- Hollywood Studios 1-Day Itinerary
- Animal Kingdom 1-Day Itinerary
While we tried to incorporate this into our itineraries, make sure to give yourself time to relax and wander the park. Part of the charm of these parks is some of the beautiful lands inside of them. Make sure to spend ample time in Galaxy’s Edge and Echo Lake in Hollywood Studios, anywhere outside of DinoLand in Animal Kingdom, World Showcase in Epcot, and Frontierland and Liberty Square in Magic Kingdom.
Disney World has an overwhelming dining scene with restaurants and atmospheres for every guest. The parks all have interesting restaurants, as do the hotels and Disney Springs. There’s both counter-service and table-service restaurants, depending on what style of dining you want. Here are a few posts to help on the subject:
- Ranking the Disney World Table-Service Restaurants We’ve Eaten At
- Ranking the Disney World Counter-Service Restaurants We’ve Eaten At
We have plenty of reviews linked inside of the above posts if you are looking for specific advice on each restaurant. Disney World also offers a dining plan that is fairly divisive among fans. While it adds convenience to a vacation, the dining plan may not actually save money. There are cheaper options for food outside of the Disney World property but we recommend staying on-site for food as traveling outside of the park takes too much time and ends up costing you valuable park time. There is plenty of good food to be had for around $10/meal, although bringing some snacks or doing an online grocery order is a smart option for breakfasts.
Outside of the Parks
As we’ve already mentioned, there is plenty to do outside of the parks. A few years ago, we wouldn’t have recommended much time in Disney Springs but now the area has become worthy of an afternoon or evening with interesting shopping and some great dining options. There’s also bowling, a movie theater and a few other entertainment options. If you enjoy late nights, Disney Springs is typically open after the parks close.
Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, Disney World’s water parks, are really well themed and are fun to spend a day in if you want a break from the theme parks. We prefer Typhoon Lagoon between the two of them as it has an incredible wave pool and the theme is top-notch. Some resorts have outstanding pools and if you are staying at a deluxe then a water park might not be worth your time, but it is a fun additional option for your Disney World vacation.
The resorts, specifically the Deluxe resorts, are all fun to walk around and have great pools if you are staying there. Most resorts have some quality dining options, as well. Animal Kingdom Lodge, the Boardwalk, and Wilderness Lodge are my favorite resorts to walk around.
Along with all of these options, Disney World also offers golf, miniature golf, outdoor activities, sporting events, spas, afternoon teas, and basically any other recreation you can think of.
Stretching our reach even further, Orlando is home to a number of theme parks and entertainment options. The biggest of these Universal Orlando which has two theme parks and a water park. Over the last decade, Universal has made gains on Disney thanks to Harry Potter and a number of other additions. While we still prefer Walt Disney World, Universal is well worth checking out! If you need tickets or vacation packages then follow the corresponding link.
Should you visit Walt Disney World in 2021?
After making it through a tumultuous 2020, Walt Disney World has returned to a slightly more normal 2021. As of late-August, WDW has dropped the mask mandate and only requires guests to wear them inside. The parks have been open for over a year despite the virus and have done relatively well in maintaining their safety precautions. With capacity going up in the parks, it will be interesting to see if and how WDW stays safe.
Whether you should go despite the virus is ultimately a question for you and your traveling party. Everyone has different levels of comfort. Entertainment is slowly being phased back in and meet & greets shouldn’t be too far behind that. We expect all of that to slowly progress through the duration of 2021. With that return to normalcy, crowd levels will likely rise.
From a more simple perspective, 2021 has a few interesting things happening. Epcot will likely see two additions in Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure and their new nighttime spectacular, Harmonious. I can’t say I’m extremely excited about either addition but they should make Epcot a more interesting park than the current iteration. Both will debut on October 1st.
In October, Magic Kingdom, and WDW as a whole, will celebrate its 50th anniversary. At one point, this seemed like it would be a massive celebration with many new offerings. Due to the pandemic, many of those new offerings have been delayed or canceled. While I think the 50th anniversary will still be a fun time to visit, albeit crowded, it doesn’t seem quite like the party it was going to be. We have started to see just a sliver of the announcements for the 50th.
Overall, I think 2021 is a fine time to visit Disney World but likely no better than the next year. September should be extremely quiet on the crowd front if you don’t care about the anniversary. Once the celebration does roll around, you could see crowd levels jump exponentially but much of that does depend on the current health crisis.
Disney World is fun no matter what year you ultimately decide to go. The resort continues to grow and there is plenty of interesting projects being added to the already exciting vacation kingdom.
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Categories: Trip Planning Guides