Disney Planning Skills in the Real World

Whether you are visiting Epcot's China Pavilion, San Francisco's Chinatown, or anywhere in actual China, WDW-style planning can help!

If you’ve ever planned a trip–or six–to Walt Disney World, you likely have your own personal planning work flow.  Some people plan around dining, some around crowd predictions, and some even have traditions they must follow–say, visiting The Magic Kingdom on day one.  But there are some basic facets of this planning process that everyone has to take into account.  Basically, when planning a trip to Walt Disney World, one has to decide how to get there, how long to stay for, where to stay, what to do on each day, where to eat, and how much they would like to spend.  And, basically, when planning a trip anywhere, one has to take those same factors into account.

Does this sound like a lot of work?  Well, in the beginning it may seem that way.  But here’s the good news–after your first WDW trip or two, not only will you be better at planning a Disney vacation, but you’ll be better at planning any vacation. 

Case and point:  I’m going to Bermuda in two weeks.  Today at lunch, my husband and I were trying to figure out which day was best for which activity; we will only be there for three days on a cruise and we want to make the most of our time without running ourselves ragged.  Sound familiar?  It should–because that’s a planning concern many WDW guests have.  And so, I approached it from a Disney planning angle and looked up how many cruise ships would be in port on each day.  When I plan a Disney trip, I begin with crowd levels.  So why wouldn’t I do the same for any other trip?

Every facet of a WDW vacation is present in every other type of trip, yet for some reason my Disney visits are always so much more organized.  And so, from now on I shall plan each trip as though it were a Disney trip.  Here’s what that would look like:

From Kilimanjaro Safari to actual Mount Kilimanjaro, travel is travel.

I prefer to arrive in WDW as early in the day as possible.  After all, this gives me almost a whole bonus day to use however I’d like–typically relaxing and enjoying a good meal.  However, I don’t particularly enjoy late night flights home.  There’s just something about walking around a park in the sun all day and then having to get on a plane that grosses me out.  Because I know this about myself, I typically leave on the first flight of the day when I’m about to head home.  So when I travel anywhere else, I need to take this into account.  Which is something I failed to do on my last trip and deeply regretted–my 10:30 pm flight from San Francisco back to New York City was definitely the lowlight of my most recent non-Disney trip.
Trip Length
On a three-week long research trip to Disney World in September, I learned that I can spend exactly ten days in the parks before I need to be somewhere else–anywhere else.  Not surprisingly, this applies to all other destinations as well.  Particularly if I’m traveling solo, after a week and a half I’m ready to come home.  And so, no matter where I’m going, I try to keep it under ten days.  Sometimes I succeed.
My favorite Walt Disney World resort is the Beach Club.  Why?  That most important concept in all real estate–location.  I love being able to walk to Epcot every night.  I can’t think of a better way to end my day than with a walk around World Showcase, adult beverage in my hand, enjoying the food and the people watching and the entertainment.  If they would let me live at the Beach Club full time, I’d be perfectly content.  Thus, when I travel to other locations, I select my lodging not based on how hip it is or how fancy it may be, but solely on location.  I want to be near the things I want to do–or, when the things I want to do are spread out, I want to be in a location with great bars and restaurants to enjoy in the evenings.  You know–like World Showcase!

Whether you are in DHS or downtown Hollywood, you're going to have to eat sometime!

Itinerary Planning
As I’ve said above, the first thing I look at when planning a Disney trip is the crowd calendar over on Touring Plans.  I won’t even buy my plane ticket until I’ve consulted it.  And while, sadly, there’s no crowd calendar for the rest of the world (though I think there really should be) there are best and worst times to visit certain places.  For example, this past weekend was Memorial Day.  Was I at the beach?  Heck no!  I can’t think of anything worse.  I spent the Fourth of July last summer in…Canada.  Do you know who doesn’t celebrate the Fourth of July?  Canada!  And yes, that was planned.  Even on a shorter, closer trip–say, to New York City for the weekend–I’d plan to visit the Met on a Friday if possible, as opposed to a Saturday.
Dining Reservations
The best part about the Disney dining system is that it is the most difficult system you will ever encounter.  I realize this doesn’t sound like a ‘best part’, but what I’m telling you is this:  Unless you are trying to get a reservations at The French Laundry in Napa (which, by the way, I’ve tried to do–no dice), you will find all other destinations infinitely less stressful when it comes to planning your meals.  First, no where else in the world requires you to make reservations six months in advance (the French Laundry only does it two months out, which I also find excessive.)  And second, no where else in the world requires an admission ticket to the area around certain restaurants; when in London, you can dine in any neighborhood you choose.  When in Disney World, if you don’t have a park hopper pass and you’re spending the day in Animal Kingdom, you’re not eating at the Hollywood Brown Derby that night.

But say what you will about the annoyance-factor of Disney meal planning, it’s a necessary evil.  If I don’t eat one meal per day in a proper restaurant, I’m an unhappy traveler.  Thus, in Disney, it is extremely important for me to make dining reservations as far in advance as possible.  Which also means that when I’m traveling anywhere else, I’d better know of some good places to dine and, if possible, snag a reservation a bit in advance.  I went to Paris for two weeks a couple of years ago and did zero restaurant research; the best meals I had were the ones  I cooked in my own tiny apartment kitchen.  Such a shame in a city filled with food!

Budgeting--a necessary evil. Though Melissa Sue looks quite happy about saving her pennies!

I saved this one for last because it is the least fun but the most important.  It is also likely the thing that drives all of the other concerns listed above; well-timed flights are often more expensive, as are well-located hotel rooms and quality restaurants.  But in Disney as in life, one simply must pay attention to budget–unless one is independently wealthy. (If that describes any of you, please feel free to send me cash, checks, or elaborate gifts.  I like plane tickets a lot!)

To me, budgeting is a balancing act.  For example, I can stay at The Beach Club for far less time than I could stay at, say, Pop Century.  So if I’m most concerned about trip length, I need to make that a priority.  I can book a more expensive, better-timed flight, but that might eat into my food budget.  So whether I’m planning a Disney trip or a trip to Boston or Montreal, I have to prioritize.  That’s the key to all successful travel planning.

Of course, not everyone plans their WDW trip by crowd calendar, selects their lodging based on location, or has super-picky dining needs.  Everyone has a different most-important-thing in each of these categories above.  But I urge you to think about your Disney World most-important-thing for each category before planning a trip anywhere else.  Trust me–if planning around your child’s nap time is important in WDW, it will be important in Chicago, New York, London, or Paris.  I promise!

If you travel to non-Disney locations, do you use Disney planning techniques to plan those trips?  Or do you have any other planning tips or tricks to share with us?  Please comment below!  


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