Disney Trip Planner + Universal Orlando & more
By Helen Wright
A trip to Orlando, Florida will probably be the most exciting, rewarding and memorable holiday you’ll ever have. With so much pressure to get it right, it’s totally understandable if you haven’t a clue where to start! Based on my years of experience working and playing at the Florida theme parks, I have put together this Orlando and Disney Trip Planner to help you set up your perfect trip!
(Header image: Jeff Krause_)
Disney Trip Planner: What to expect from this guide
Across our site, we have a series of helpful posts answering questions and sharing top tips for planning a holiday to Florida and experiencing Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort and all the other amazing Orlando attractions nearby. If you have a query or question in mind, you may be able to jump to it on the links below, which feature some of our most commonly asked questions. If not, read on to start putting together your Orlando and Disney trip planner and make the magic happen.
Disney trip planner: Quick links
What is the cheapest way to book a Florida holiday from the UK? Orlando package deal or book everything independently?
Where to find the best theme park ticket deals from the UK
How much does a trip to Walt Disney World Florida really cost?
Everything you need to know about renting a car and driving in the USA
Do you need to rent a car in Orlando?
Planning a two week trip? Start with our suggested Orlando itinerary.
Where to stay in Orlando: Are Disney Resort hotels worth the money?
Where to stay in Orlando: Which is best, Hotel or Villa?
HOW CAN I HELP?
With this site and through my work as a travel and lifestyle journalist and presenter, I am lucky enough to visit Orlando multiple times every year and have picked up many tips, tricks and insider secrets along the way. My last visit, pre-Covid-19, marked my 28th visit to Orlando and I can confirm, it never gets boring. I actually started working with Disney just after leaving college, as the Walt Disney World rep for The Disney Store, giving advice to guests planning their dream trip. I spoke to hundreds of families about their dreams and aspirations for a Walt Disney World holiday and I know how special it is, how confusing it can be to organise and that, for many, it really is that once-in-a-lifetime trip. On a personal note, my first ever overseas holiday was to Orlando when I was eight years old, so I feel like I’ve grown up alongside the theme parks.
Of all the destinations we have featured, a Disney trip planner and tips for booking an Orlando holiday are by far the most common requests. Trying to find out the best information on how to plan a holiday to Florida can take you deeper down a rabbit hole than Alice in Wonderland. Despite the fact that most people save up for years to go, they still say they felt discombobulated, confused about the options and disorganised as they prepare to fly out.
Based on common questions and requests from our followers on social media and my own experience, plus tips from Disney superfans, here are 12 things to think about before you plan a trip to Orlando. A note for our readers: this post contains affiliate links which means I may receive a small commission if you purchase products after clicking a link from this site, at no cost to yourself. This is how I maintain my award-winning site and continue to provide up-to-date and trusted information.
Disney trip planner: 12 things to know when planning a trip to Disney World
1. Disney trip planner: Have a budget in mind
The price of a trip to Orlando, Florida from the UK can vary dramatically depending on whether you want to stick to a tight budget or splash out on the holiday of a lifetime. There are plenty of ways to spend money in Orlando but also some clever ways to save too.
As well as your hotel and flight costs, I also recommend purchasing other essentials in advance. Spreading out the costs of meals and attractions in the months before you travel helps to soften the blow of how much everything costs. Plus, buying Theme Park and attraction tickets in advance from the UK, always work out cheaper than on the gate.
2. Decide if you want to do Disney-only or explore the other parks and attractions, like Universal Orlando and SeaWorld
For some, heading to Florida and staying within the Walt Disney World bubble for the entire trip is the dream holiday. Others, especially those flying long distance to get there, want to explore Orlando and take in other major attractions such as Universal Orlando, SeaWorld and the (huge) area around the Disney resort. Before you start putting together your Disney trip planner, it’s worth doing a little research into what else you can do in the destination and trust me, there is something for everyone.
Of course, alongside Disney, there is another major theme park resort in town, Universal Orlando, which has three theme parks (including The Wizarding World of Harry Potter) and a lively entertainment area. This resort also has on-site hotels, guest perks and some great deals that are worth checking out.
You can also learn about marine life and ride some of the best rollercoasters in town at SeaWorld, swim with dolphins at Discovery Cove and have a lot of fun at the non-theme park attractions, some of our favourites we have listed here.
For advice on how to find the best theme park tickets for your trip, click here
If you’re set on a 100% Disney experience, stay with our Disney trip planner to get started on the best deals, find expert advice and start creating the magic.
3. Keep your eye out for promotional Disney deals
Once you have decided which parks and attractions you want to visit, use the time before you fly to be on the lookout for ticket deals. Companies like attractiontickets.com and Ocean Florida have regular promotions, including free days, limited edition MagicBands and hotel+theme park packages. Plus, there is the famous Disney Dining Plan – this includes free meals with your entry tickets if you buy between certain dates.
UPDATE: Disney Free Dine is not currently valid during the Covid-19 pandemic.
4. Get Appy
The first thing to do is download the My Disney Experience and Universal Orlando apps. Then, once you have purchased your hotel and tickets, you can link them to the app, and connect your account to other members of your family or group and have all the resort information in one place. This includes hotel reservations, dining reservations, Memory Maker (at Walt Disney World) and FastPass+ bookings. If you are staying at a Walt Disney World resort hotel, the app can also act as your room key!
Having the apps in place also gives you a chance to look at the current queue times for the main attractions, and this will help you put together a plan for your days at the parks. The apps also have vital information about Covid-19 rules and restrictions and any park/ride closures and important live updates from the resort. WiFi is free at all the theme parks, so you will come to rely on the app like a best friend.
5. Book your FastPass+ attractions at Walt Disney World
UPDATE: Some FastPass+ privileges are not in operation during the Covid-19 pandemic.
One of the best perks of staying on-property at the Walt Disney World resort is the ability to reserve FastPasses for the popular attractions and book restaurants up to 90 days in advance of your trip. This gives you a major advantage in securing a place on the popular rides with the longest wait times, such as Avatar: Flight of Passage, Frozen: Ever After, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Slinky Dog Dash and Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway.
You can do this for your whole party at once (as long as the guests are linked) on your My Disney Experience account. Be organised and be online at 7am Florida time to get the slots you want.
6. Book your Disney restaurants
The 90-day on-site hotel guest perk also applies to all bookable restaurants within the Walt Disney World resort. If you want to secure a reservation (especially for large parties) at a specific time in one of the ‘cult’ restaurants, this will help you get a seat at the table. Note, this also includes Disney hotels within the resort, and these often get booked up booked up first.
There are so many options for dining at Disney. From themed restaurants such as ‘Be Our Guest’ to fine dining like ‘Ohana at the Polynesian Resort, there will be a breakfast, lunch or dinner experience to suit your tastes. The most popular choices are often character dining experiences, where the Disney Characters drop by to say hi. Favourites include Cinderella’s Royal Table, Chef Mickey’s and Crystal Palace at Magic Kingdom.
Unless you’re happy to grab a quick bite at one of the quick service (fast food) diners around the parks, you need to take your Disney dining seriously. The most popular restaurants and experiences will get booked up, so it pays to do your research and get your reservations in as soon as you can.
Find out the restaurants everyone wants to dine at here.
7. Check out the height restrictions and plan your must-rides
Before putting together your Disney Trip planner (or, in fact, booking your holiday altogether), take some time to look into height restrictions for the attractions your party will probably want to ride. If you are travelling with children or anyone who is small in height, it’s wise to manage expectations in advance to avoid disappointment during your trip.
Some of the major attractions do have a minimum height requirement so you don’t want to book up FastPasses or get excited if you aren’t able to ride. One example is Avatar: Flight of Passage, which has a minimum height restriction of 44 inches, and also Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which has a minimum height of 40 inches.
At Universal, Harry Potter: Forbidden Journey and Hagrid’s Magical Motorbike Adventure both have a 48 inch minimum height requirement.
If someone in your party isn’t tall enough to ride the big attractions, they won’t be left disappointed. The majority of both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando parks are designed as an immersive experience for the whole family, so white knuckles aside, they won’t miss out on all the magic.
First time flying with your little ones? You may find my flying with babies and toddlers post helpful. Plus, we also have the top six essential travel items you need when travelling with a baby to toddler.
8. Disney trip planner top tip: Put in your MagicBand order in advance
MagicBands are an exclusive Disney wristband device that keeps all the essentials of your visit in one place. This includes hotel reservations, entry tickets, FastPass+ bookings, restaurant reservations, Memory Maker and more. The data is linked to your My Disney Experience app and you can also link all the MagicBands for everyone in your party together.
If you are staying at a Walt Disney World resort hotel, your MagicBand even opens your hotel room door! Plus, look out for limited-edition MagicBands, some trigger surprises at points around the park, such as light and sound effects. Pretty cool eh?
You can purchase MagicBands in advance and have them linked to your my Disney Experience account and set up ready for you when you check in to your Walt Disney World Resort hotel. This saves so much time and allows you to choose the colour and even have them personalised. *Guests arriving before 31st December 2021 will still receive complimentary MagicBands (a previously included perk). However, from 2022 MagicBands will no longer be provided as complimentary for hotel guests.
9. Reserve your car rental
If you plan on renting a car for your whole trip or for a small part of it (perhaps to take a drive out to the beach for the weekend or travel around greater Orlando), always book your car hire in advance. We have a detailed post on driving in the USA and everything you need to know about renting a car, but it’s worth taking some time to consider whether or not you actually need one.
You might find this post helpful in making a decision about car hire: Do you need a car in Orlando?
There are lots of things to consider when deciding on renting a car in Orlando, including car seats if you have younger children, whether you plan on drinking during the day or evening, as well as parking charges, especially at theme park resort hotels. If you only plan on leaving the resort a handful of times, it might work out cheaper to take a taxi (Uber and Lyft are the popular, and cheapest options). Transfers to the airport and to alternate theme parks are available and both Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World resort have free in-resort transportation.
10. Check for special events or festivals during your visit
Special events and festivals at the theme parks can affect your experience in both positive and negative ways. If there is an event happening at the parks during the day (such as Universal Orlando’s Mardi Gras or The Epcot Food and Wine or Flower Festival), you should expect the parks to be more crowded. The advantage, of course, is that you also get to enjoy the fun. If you are not interested in a particular themed event, it might be best to avoid visiting when that celebration is taking place, so look at the events calendar for all the parks you want to visit before you start putting together your Disney trip planner.
There might also be periods where some exciting things are happening at the parks after hours, so you might want to plan your trip to coincide with them. Popular events such as Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando and Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party require a separate ticket from your day admission and these must be booked in advance.
11. Book VIP tours and experiences in advance
As if Disney isn’t magical enough, did you know you can book extra special, exclusive experiences too? There is actually a wide choice of VIP experiences for all ages and interests, but all must be booked in advance. NOTE: During the Covid-19 pandemic, some of these services have paused operation.
For the full-on Princess (or Prince) experience, book your little one into the famous Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in the Magic Kingdom. At this mini salon, children aged 3 -12 can get a magical makeover, complete with hair and make-up fit for the ball. The hair package for girls starts at $75 per child; the knight package (aimed at boys) starts at $20 and can be booked up to 180 days in advance.
If you enjoyed the Disney Imagineer documentaries on Disney+, take it a step further and have dinner with a Disney Imagineer. These exclusive dining experiences, of up to 12 people, can be booked from 180 days in advance. Choose from a four-course lunch in the private Bamboo Room at the Hollywood Brown Derby at Disney’s Hollywood Studios or dinner at Citricos in the Grand Floridian Resort.
You can also book private VIP tours at both Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World resort, with a private guide (and park expert) who will customise your tour to suit your party and take you behind the scenes, allow you to queue jump at most attractions and secure exclusive dining options. Again, these can be booked up to 180 days in advance, but they don’t come cheap. Prices range from $425 to $750 per hour for 10 people maximum and must be booked for a minimum of seven hours. Call for reservations on +01 (407) 560-4033 to book.
12. Write a wish list
Some guests want the perfect selfie in front of Cinderella Castle or on Diagon Alley. Others are hell bent on picking up limited edition merchandise or meeting their favourite character. The thrill rider’s main priority is getting on the best and most exciting rides but some just want to make sure they see every show and parade that is operating.
Before you plan your Orlando or Disney trip, find out the wish list for all the members of your party so you can try to keep everyone happy when you start planning your itinerary. The parks are big, the weather is hot (usually) and you should expect that you won’t see and do everything, so having a wish list of deal-breakers will help you get the most from your visit.
JUST FOR FUN: Think you’re a real Disney fan? Play our experts-ONLY Disney QUIZ
MORE QUICK LINKS TO HELP WITH YOUR Orlando TRIP PLANNER
Not sure how to plan your holiday in Orlando? Check out our suggested two-week itinerary
How much does a Disney Florida holiday REALLY cost?
Where to get the best Disney ticket deals in the UK and an easy guide to buying them
The cheapest way to book a Disney holiday from the UK
Top reasons to go to Disney and Orlando in 2021 and 2022
Waly Disney World have told us EXACTLY how they plan to celebrate Disney’s 50th Anniversary this year
The top 16 books about Walt Disney World
What you should know before renting a villa in Orlando
Insiders guide to Orlando – find out what six experts recommend to do in Orlando
What is there to do in Orlando outside the theme parks?
What to wear to Walt Disney World and what to pack for your whole trip
Staying off-property? This villa is five minutes from Disney
How to get to Disney World from the airport
Read some frequently asked questions about Orlando