Vacation Planning Orlando 101

Planning a Walt Disney World trip might seem overwhelming if you've never been to Orlando before, but it's really not so bad if you break it down into steps. The four steps in this primer will help you put together your family's Orlando vacation with minimal headaches and maximum efficiency:

Choose the best vacation time

"Best" means different things to different people, based on your children's ages, whether you send them to school or homeschool if you're interested in a particularly special event, and whether you need to stick to a tight budget.

Mickey Mouse Disney WorldThe best times for low crowds and discounts are when most kids are in school. This is especially true right after the school year begins, in late August/early September, and right before it ends, in late May/early June. Parents don't like to pull their children out of school when they're just settling in or cramming for finals. If you homeschool or your children are preschoolers, take advantage of these low crowd times. If your kids are older and you can't take them out of school to travel, you may be stuck with summer or holiday travel. Expect to pay peak season rates and to work around bigger crowds

The Walt Disney World parks have special events at certain times of the year, like the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival in spring, the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival and Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party in the fall, and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party in winter. You may want to align your trip dates with one of the events.

It's also wise to check ride closures before you finalize your Orlando vacation. Disney rides and attractions close periodically for refurbishment. Disney posts date on their official website, so if you kids have favorite do-not-miss rides or shows, check the closures before you choose dates.

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Choose your accommodations

You have many lodging options in the Walt Disney World area to fit your family's needs and budget. Disney has on-site hotels that offer convenience at a premium price. There are many other hotels in the surrounding area that cost less and are very family-friendly.

The Lake Buena Vista area has many reasonably priced hotels on Disney property near Downtown Disney. The Orlando/Kissimmee area is packed with off-site options, from full-blown resorts to more modest budget hotels.

Vacation homes are another popular choice, especially if your family is large. You stay in a spacious home instead of cramming into a small space or paying for multiple hotel rooms.

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Decide on the trip length

Are you visiting Orlando for a weekend or staying for a week or more? Opt for the longest possible trip because Walt Disney World itself has four theme parks, two water parks, two miniature golf courses, and a shopping and entertainment district. You can barely see it all in a week, and that doesn't include non-Disney attractions.

If you're limited to a short trip, you'll have to narrow down your must-do Disney parks. Park Hopper tickets let you visit multiple parks in one day to maximize your time. A longer trip might allow you to venture beyond Walt Disney World to other parks like Universal Studios and SeaWorld and even to smaller or more unusual attractions, like go-karts, horseback riding, dinner shows, and indoor surfing.

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Book your trip early

Early booking is especially important if you're traveling in a peak season, like summer and holidays. Orlando hotels and vacation homes book up at the busiest time of year, so you might find yourself shut out if you wait too long. You'll probably be able to find some accommodations, but they might be more expensive or not in the area where you hoped to stay.

If you're doing something special, like the Halloween or Christmas party at the Magic Kingdom, book those tickets as early as possible, too. The parties often sell out, so buying your tickets as soon as they go on sale ensures that your family won't be disappointed. Some restaurants at Walt Disney World, like Cinderella's Royal Table and Chef Mickey's, are wildly popular, so reserve dining as soon as you can. Dining reservations open up 180 days before your trip.