For many people, the planning portion of a Walt Disney World vacation is a part of the fun. And for others, the idea that they “need to know” where they want to eat each day of their vacation 6 months before the trip is just plain ridiculous.
I'm here today to tell you that you only need to plan your Disney trip in advance to the extent that you enjoy it. For me, and for many others, thinking about where we'd be dining during our vacation 180 days beforehand was a fun thing that sort of extended the trip in my mind. And the same thing applied to FastPasses 60 days out. But the process of planning your Disney vacation should be fun – not stressful. And if you're not a planner, that's just fine.
So here are some tips to doing what you want on your trip – whether you're a hardcore planner or prefer to wing it.
1. Know what's hardest to get – and whether you care about it
Not surprisingly, typically the most difficult things to get are the things that are new and/or particularly amazing. For attractions, that means that the first Fast Passes to go are usually the attractions at Toy Story Land in Hollywood Studios (especially Slinky Dog Dash), anything in Pandora at Animal Kingdom (especially Flight of Passage), Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in Magic Kingdom, and, still to some extent, Frozen Ever After – and at times Test Track and Soarin' – at Epcot. For these you'll of course want to know if you're interested in riding the attraction at all – but you'll also want to think about what you'll miss by skipping the queue. For example, you won't be missing much by skipping the queue for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. But the queue for Flight of Passage – while typically the longest line in any park – is spectacular in its own right. That's not to say that you shouldn't grab a Flight of Passage FastPass if you can – but keep in mind that there are benefits to waiting in line and seeing that gorgeous queue building that you won't get with the time saving FastPass.
For restaurants, the hardest things to get are generally new spots and character meals like Be Our Guest, Cinderella's Royal Table, Chef Mickey, and ‘Ohana. Often the demand for spots at these restaurants is self perpetuating. Everyone knows they're hard to get so everyone grabs them early on…which makes them continue to be hard to get. This isn't to say that you won't have a blast at each of them – and if you have a little girl that's dead set on dinner at Cinderella's Royal Table or children that want nothing more than to hug Stitch at ‘Ohana, book away. But keep in mind that if you're a true foodie, these really aren't the spots with the best food. Amazing restaurants like Boathouse, Homecomin', Bluezoo, Sanaa, Morimoto, Narcoossee's, California Grill, and on and on and on, generally don't book up six months out – in fact many of them can be gotten the day of.
2. Be online when you can first register
If you're staying on property at a Disney resort (or certain good neighbor hotels), you can start making your FastPass selections 60 days before arrival, beginning at 7:00 a.m. Eastern. If you're not staying at a Disney resort, you can start making your FastPass selections 30 days before arrival, again beginning at 7:00 a.m.
Advanced dining reservations (or ADRs) can be made 180 days out beginning at 7:00 a.m. Eastern. If you are staying on property at a Disney resort (or certain good neighbor hotels), you can make reservations for your entire trip beginning 180 days before your arrival day, again beginning at 7:00 a.m. Eastern.
3. Start from the last date of your trip and work backwards
For both of these, keep in mind that other people can also book for their entire Disney resort trip 180 days before their arrival day – so, to some extent, the first day of your trip is generally more likely to be fully booked than the last day of your trip. For this reason, it's sometimes easier to grab the hardest to get ADRs and FastPasses for the end of your trip and work backwards from there.
And keep in mind that FastPasses can always be changed and ADRs can be cancelled without penalty up to 24 hours beforehand – so there's no reason not to grab them early if you're so inclined. You can always change them later if you change your mind.
4. Check back as your trip gets closer
For the very reason that FastPasses can always be changed and ADRs can be cancelled up to 24 hours before the actual reservation time without penalty, people tend to overbook, or just grab whatever they can of the hardest to get reservations 6 months out and then cancel and rearrange things as the trip gets closer and they figure out their plans. For this reason, it's often very easy to grab hard to get meal reservations and FastPasses as your trip gets closer, or even during your stay. The day before is often an ideal time to grab hard to get ADRs as people wait until the last minute to cancel. The day before or even the morning of is often an ideal time to grab hard to get FastPasses, as people often change things up the night before or that morning since, as we all know, what we plan to do at Disney often isn't what we *actually* end up doing once the trip starts.
5. Refresh, refresh, refresh
As your trip gets closer and you're trying to grab those last minute ADRs and FastPasses, refresh refresh refresh the search on the website or your My Disney Experience app until what you want pops up. Keep in mind that the odds of seeing what you want pop up if you look once are pretty low – but the odds of someone canceling and it popping up as available get higher if you keep looking. While you're doing something like relaxing with your family, pull up the app and spend 10 or so minutes refreshing your search. The odds are often high that *someone* will cancel during that time and you'll be able to grab what you want.
Also keep in mind during these searches that for FastPasses, if the time you search is unavailable it will still show you what else is available at any time that day. For example, if you search for Flight of Passage at 9 a.m., it will still show you if the only Flight of Passage FastPass available for that day is later that night.
However, for ADRs, the app will only search the range from 1 1/2 hours before your chosen time to 1 1/3 hours after your chosen time. For example, if you search for Chef Mickey at 7 p.m., it will generally show you if anything from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. is available – so search a time that covers the full range of when you'd be willing to go.
6. Keep your priorities straight
Once again – just keep in mind that the hardest things to get aren't always the best things. Is fighting for a Flight of Passage FastPass worth it? Absolutely. But so is standing in a 3 hour queue to see it. It's that good. Not to mention that the queue itself is an experience. The queue for Peter Pan in Magic Kingdom is also amazing and, when it's reasonable, very much worth taking the time to see.
There are other times when a FastPass is just hard to get because the ride is new. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Alien Swirling Saucers are both lots of fun – but their FastPasses are harder to get because they're new attractions. Not necessarily because they're the best attractions. Don't feel like not scoring them will make or break your trip.
Photo credit to Disney's PhotoPass
Similarly, again, the hardest ADRs to get often aren't the best restaurants on property. Chef Mickey can be tough to book – but in my humble opinion it's far from the best character meal on property. And the very best food on property is often found at restaurants that aren't hard to score at all – Bluezoo and Morimoto and Sanaa and Homecomin' and Boathouse and Narcoosse's and Flying Fish and Shula's (I could go on for awhile here) are not hard reservations to get. And if you think Chef Mickey's has better food than any restaurant on that list, then we have some talking to do.
All in all, just keep in mind that you only need to plan far ahead for your Walt Disney World trip if you enjoy the planning part of the process. Don't feel overwhelmed by thinking that you need to know every detail of your trip 6 months before it happens. Just jump in and enjoy the process and daydream about all of those upcoming meals and attractions!!