Planning a Disney trip is a right of passage for most parents, am I right? If you have kids, there is a 95% chance you will wind up in matching mouse tees, navigating a sea of people in Florida, and thousands of dollars poorer in the most magical place on planet Earth - mostly for the sake of your kids.
Admittedly, it happened to me. But my first Disney trip (as a parent) was not matching. It was not coordinated. It certainly was not planned. And ironically, it was pretty much free. Rhett (our oldest) had turned three and Vance (our second born) was one. We were visiting family in sunny Newport Beach, California (my hometown) when we got the brilliant (last minute) idea to visit Disneyland. My childhood best friend's family owned a retail store in Disney's California Adventure and at times they had free access to park entry. He offered, and with two small kids, we jumped at the chance.
I’m a stay-at-home mama to a million boys, who bootstrapped her way to creating a dream-worthy life by breaking some rules along the way.
I help high-achieving women optimize their life with systems and strategies that prioritize both family and career.
Fast forward three years and another child later, and our experience with Disneyland had become a blip on our parenting radar. A memory that we had - almost - altogether forgotten about (yes, it was that immemorable). That is, until our good friends / old neighbors brought up the idea of visiting Disney World for a post school-getting-out / start-of-summer vacation. I was immediately reminded of that waste-of-a day when we had given Disney the ol' college try. I couldn't imagine going back to Disney and if we did, I couldn't fathom how we would make the trip more appetizing than our past experience.
Gina followed up and gave me the details. They would be staying at the Four Seasons Orlando and would be visiting three of the four parks: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. Who knew they even had names? And that there were four? She begged me to consider. The trip wouldn't be the same without us.
Thoughts gurgled up in my mind. Like, how in the heck could we afford to stay at the Four Seasons Orlando? How would I convince Ryan to hop on board? And, did we really want to spend our precious summer days (and money) alongside five zillion people repeating the disaster from year's past?
I toyed with the idea in my mind and because I wanted to see our friends and didn't want to entirely deprive my kids of a Disney trip. So, I decided to get creative. I had spent the last six years building my Instagram business and one of the perks of being an "influencer" (ugh, I hate that word) is having the ability to utilize my platform in exchange for exposure. Momentarily, I thought, Maybe I could reach out to the Four Seasons and create a partnership opportunity. Maybe I could also reach out to Disney! I mean, I was a "mom influencer" after all, which meant that Disney content was in high demand. A partnership would be an incredibly symbiotic relationship.
Like all good (and persistent) business women do, I unabashedly started looking for a media contact, began drafting emails, contacting both Disney and the Four Seasons, and realized that the worst they could say is, "no."
Disney got back to me with a hard, "No". Whether it was because I wasn't the right kind of influencer or because they simply don't take on those kinds of partnerships, Disney shattered our Disney dreams in one un-Disneylike email. But there was still hope. I had found a PR contact at the Four Seasons. I drafted my email and awaited an answer.
It was the height of Covid, which probably meant they would want some exposure (and occupancy) due to reduced travel. I knew that my Instagram audience would find the content interesting and engaging. But sometimes, it's a crapshoot.
My inbox pinged with an unread message from the PR contact at the Four Seasons. I quickly selected the email, hoping for a positive response. Alas! She let us know that the Four Seasons WOULD like to move forward with a partnership. HOORAY!
Now, let me be clear when I share this information so that people understand more about the backend of what it's like to be an influencer....
When I started the journey of Instagramming and blogging, I had worked the first three years creating content daily without getting paid a dime. And also, without a guarantee that my work would ever yield an ROI - real money and/or brand deals.
My platform then grew on year three (like wild fire) and I started getting paid by brands and such. I work every, single day creating free content (even like this blog post!) in hopes that my audience will like what I share and will keep them engaged. If I stop creating quality content and/or my audience stops engaging with my content, my money (and relationships) can go Ka-Poof. But because my high quality audience (you all!), big brands (that are aligned) get value out of working with me. But at the end of the day, it is work. Work *sometimes* that is more fun than other kinds - all with a list of pros and cons.
But when influencers get these types of relationships with major brands, it's not something they feel like they don't deserve. It is very much a mutual relationship. And it is work - and contracted work, at that.
The Four Seasons realized the size of my platform, realized that my audience was highly aligned and engaged, knew this meant exposure to a predominantly family audience. But, YES, this was and is one of the most fun (and bougie!) brand partnerships I have ever had. It was not free. It came with years, days and minutes of hard work, a contract, and strings attached - just a heads up.
Nonetheless, I patted myself on the back (as if I couldn't believe my six years of work and quarter of a million followers didn't mean I deserved this). I did! And boy, was I off to the races to tell Ryan that we pretty much HAD to go. I mean, you don't get a partnership with the FOUR SEASONS and not take advantage of it.
I called Ryan immediately and told him the news. "WE ARE GOING TO DISNEY. The Four Seasons agreed to a partnership in exchange for a series of posts and stories about the resort!! We have to go. I mean IT'S THE FOUR SEASONS. And we will be with our friends! It's going to be SO FUN." Ryan had no choice, but to lean into my unrelenting plan.
And just like that, Disney got a little more fun.
Now that the Four Seasons was booked, I felt like I could (somewhat) kick my feet up and at least be able to enjoy a lounge chair by the pool in between the sweltering heat and blisters that accompanied the theme parks. But as I announced the trip on social media, my IG fam started revealing tidbits of information and advice, leading me into the magical Disney planning forest.
One common piece of information was to purchase and read the 700-page book, The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. My girlfriend DMed me, "Hey! I took the kids when they were little and this book really helped. I didn't believe it at first, but it totally helped plan our trip."
I love her dearly, but internally rolled my eyes at the idea of buying a $20 book and reading it. Planning Disney? What? Like, planning how "to beat the crowds" and "eat expensive food"? It was the stupidest idea ever. Couldn't I just figure it out on my own?
But as the tips kept rolling in, I kept googling and reading. And pretty soon, I started to pick up on this hush hush Disney "World" (no pun intended) full of expert strategies. It was like there was an entire underground playbook that gave you step by step information on how to beat the system.
Reduced wait times. Early park entry. Hidden Mickey's. On-site Disney Resorts. My eyes lit up and my Type A planning heart caught fire.
I became enthralled (and obsessed). I Primed the book immediately. And heck, threw in a few Mickey Ears while I was at it. I was going to dominate Disney.
That day, we woke up normal hours. Hopped in the car. Parked like normal civilians and joined the masses to start the Disney day. We stepped into the most magical place on earth only to realize that...
California is much hotter than we remembered.
Crowds are not fun with two small children.
Disney rides are not worth waiting hours in line for.
And we couldn't believe our parents suffered this bad taking us here when we were younger.
I think we went on two rides (the lines were horrendous), ate a subpar meal, waved at Lightning McQueen, and left as soon as the first person gave the slightest hint that Disney "just wasn't for us."
Photo by Kitera Dent
1. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World Book.
I would start with the book! I know. Who even reads books anymore when all of the information is available online? The great thing about having The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World is that all of the information is housed in one place. You can start building a foundation, understanding not only what it takes to do Disney right, but also how to do it.
The book familiarizes you with Disney practices, the different parks and rides and what to expect. It offers timelines and budgets and ratings for EVERYTHING. Not only did I enjoy reading it, but the boys and I started making a nightly habit of reading about each of the parks and all the rides. We were then able to narrow the list of rides we wanted to prioritize riding, which is super important (more on this later).
My favorites are the Disney Food Blog, AllEars.Net and the Disney Tourist Blog. Sure, I popped around to other, but these were my go-to's, namely the Disney Tourist Blog. Ultimately, I didn't take every, single park itinerary of theirs to heart. But all in all, this is a solid blog with all of the facts. To start, read their "1-Day Park Itineraries." This will familiarize you with the rides that Disney bloggers and experts recommend, and how to go about maximizing your day at each park. Also, sign up for their email list. Usually, I wouldn't sign myself up for emails lists because #ihatespam, but in this case, the emails have been incredibly valuable.
3. Instagram or Facebook Pages.
This avenue I've used the least because when I plan, I want to be very focused. Having a random page popup on my Instagram in a random moment isn't the most helpful. But, I have gained some useful tidbits from these pages. Simply google best pages for your personal preferences. My favorite is @disneyfoodblog and @brbgoingtodisney. I believe they have a YouTube, as well!
I used this method the least because I was usually looking for very targeted information, and I didn't like any of the "small talk" some of the hosts partook in. But, if you want to fill in the gaps on car rides, there are Disney podcasts you can tune into.
You don't have to do anything you don't want to do. It's yo life. But. I will say - if you want a Disney experience similar to my first story, don't plan. Alternatively, if you want a Disney experience similar to my second experience (we will get there soon), plan.
But sure, this is very popular question and I'd certainly say it depends on your personality. Are you go with the flow? Don't care that you go on many rides? Simply, want to savor the (crowded, long line, uber expensive) experience? Or... does not getting the most out of your Disney vacation stress you out? Do you want to maximize every, single moment and have a go-to schedule so that you know what to do and when to do it? Do you THRIVE when you have everything locked down and planned?
There is a third option, as well: Hire a Disney Travel Agent. These agents are FREE. They collect commission off of what you book - at no increased cost to you. They plan your entire trip strategically (yes, there is strategy). Everything from where to stay (likely an on-site Disney resort), how to book standby queues for rides, dining reservations, general planning and more.
I thought about hiring a Disney agent and actually went forward with a few calls. But after talking to these experts I realized I had done such extensive research (and actually enjoyed the process!) that I didn't need a guide.
Since I didn't go much into detail figuring out where to stay, I am certainly not an expert on Disney World Resorts. What I want to point out is that staying "on property", which means at a "Disney" resort, is important. Why? Because Disney Resorts offer perks that off-site properties do not. Proximity, Disney character meetups, special Disney touches, and the biggest of all, in my opinion, being early park entry.
I haven't stayed at any of the Disney Resorts and after talking to many people, pinpoint where to stay depends on what you are after. BUT...
If you ARE interested in The Four Seasons Orlando, this is where I'm going to give my plug. And boy, is it good. After staying at the Four Seasons Orlando once, and anticipating going back again (in just a few short weeks), here are the deats...
Yes, it is expensive. But as the old adage goes, "You get what you pay for." (or in my case, you get what you work for). And that is certainly the case when it comes to staying at the Four Seasons Orlando. What I love most about the resort (besides the luxury rooms, lazy river, resort-sized pool, character dining, and impeccable food), is the notion that when we exit the theme parks, we get to step back into an incredible adult vacation at a luxury resort.
Four Seasons Orlando gives our kids the full Disney World experience, but would also allow the adults to partake in a more relaxing adult-type vacation. Quite honestly, I had heard that Disney World can be a bit of an overload (and now after going, it certainly can be), so to come back to a resort that was more Disney World in my face, wasn't something I necessarily wanted to do (even if other places were an option). Four Seasons offers that nice balance.
While Four Seasons Orlando is not a Disney World resort, it is an affiliated resort and is also on-site Disney World, which means that it is in close proximity to the parks. Because Four Seasons is technically on-site, it is in close proximity to the parks. You can get to the parks in about 10-20 minutes max and they provide complimentary shuttle service. On top of it, Four Seasons is a renowned resort and top notch. The room quality is incredible, they have a Disney concierge to help with any Disney planning and questions, and the resort restaurants are incredible with high quality food.
Additionally, Four Seasons offers a character breakfast. We are doing this with the kids and are able to skip the character dining at the parks. This makes for a more controlled environment, much better food, and we don't have to stress about missing rides in order for the kids to see Goofy. Again, we wanted Disney, but not too too much Disney, and this was the perfect balance.
Other perks? Four Seasons also offers a kids club (for free!), which is great for our older boys. This means that mom and dad can have a little private time, while the kids go hang with their friends. In addition to the Disney perks, Four Seasons has many other events for kids such as movie nights at the pool and princess/pirate salon experiences.
The resort itself is both an oasis and basically a full-on waterpark. You get the best of both worlds. So while we will have an amazing time at the Disney Parks on the three days we are going, we can come back and still look forward to an amazing time at the resort. Massive pools, splash areas and waterslides. Heck! I'm looking forward to the resort as much as I am looking forward to the parks!! This was a huge win for us because I didn't want the trip to be so solely focused on the parks, as fun as they are.
Other great perks for the adults? The Four Seasons ambiance and food! Did I say the rooms are amazing? Yay! We got two adjoining rooms. The restaurants are top-rated. Because they are so nice, we are not going out of our way to places like Disney Springs. Instead, we are staying at the resort and maximizing our ability to walk to the dining Four Seasons has to offer, such as Ravello (amazing Italian), PB&G (poolside dining) and CAPA Steakhouse (ranked amongst the 100 best in the US by Wine Enthusiast).
Needless to say, Four Seasons Orlando hit ALL of the marks.
After you purchase the Unofficial Guide to Disney World, start reading it. ASAP. I recommend purchasing the book six months (4 months at the latest) before your trip. This will give you ample time to start perusing and planning. The book will give you a glimpse into resorts, what to bring, budgeting, etc. Simultaneously, cross reference what you learn with what the blogs say. While I'm not going to get into everything in this post, I did want to talk about how I started and where I got my info from!
This is totally personal preference. But I will say that you will gather the information you need to make this decision best in the book, Unofficial Guide to Disney. Here, you will read about all of the parks, get to know the rides and understand what each has to offer.
You'll need to take into consideration the ages of your kids and also their preferences. We are going with another family, who was dying to attend Animal Kingdom. This gave us good insight, but on the flip side, I knew my boys were dying to ride all things Star Wars (which is located in the Hollywood Studios Park). My friend had originally mentioned they may skip that park all together. What I'm trying to point out is that the more familiar you are with the rides in each park, the vibes and what each park has to offer, the better you will be at deciding which ones to attend.
The first year, we attended Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom, and Animal Kingdom.
Based on the research I did and the information I gathered, attending three parks felt like plenty. Again, we were equally as excited to spend time at Four Seasons Orlando and didn't want to overdo it at the parks. We decided not to do park-hoppers since our kids were so young. I figured the effort and time it took to go between parks would be exhausting. Better for us to stick to one park per day and get the most out of each one than to be moving around.
While I was right about the park hopper situation, I ended up being wrong about which parks to attend. This year (our second time back), we are now going to ALL FOUR parks. Reason being, we desperately wished we had organized to go to all four parks last time. I tried to organize Epcot at the last minute, but park capacity was reached (it was Covid), so we couldn't attend. Boo.
Again, we aren't doing any park hoppers. It was the right decision the first year, and we are sticking to it. We did early park entry and ended up staying at each of the parks until seven at night or so. No need for us to bounce around, and quite honestly, I couldn't imagine doing it that way.
This information can best be found in the book! You can check "crowd levels" to determine when crowd levels will be lowest at each of the parks easily online, as well. Just Google "crowd level by day at Disney." At the end of the day, I suggest considering crowd level, but I also believe you should go with the momentum of your crew. The first year, we determined we wanted to see our most desired park first being Hollywood Studios, do it big with Magic Kingdom and then end on a lighter note with Animal Kingdom. We have a day-off break in between Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom, and then scheduled Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom on back-to-back days since we wanted our last day to be a pool day at Four Seasons and that is what our vacation time permitted.
Year two, we are doing something similar. Starting with a bang at Hollywood Studios (which happened to be our favorite), skipping a day, then going to Animal Kingdom (it is slower paced), then going to Epcot (which we have never been to), skipping a day, and ending big with Magic Kingdom.
I highly recommend having days off in between the parks. If you have to go back to back, try and schedule the less intense parks together. Like, I wouldn't put Magic Kingdom back to back with any of them since it is such a large park and you will likely be pooped and need a day to rest.
Counter service dining is more casual dining where you order at a counter and find a table (first come, first serve) to eat at. Table service is the type of dining where you are served. You usually have a reservation ahead of time, or can sometimes (luckily) walk up and wait for a table to open up. Table service will either have characters or not - this is restaurant specific.
You'll want to decide how you are going to dine ahead of attending the parks. Some families MUST eat at table service. The perks? Getting out of the heat into an air conditioned building, being served, getting a moment to rest away from the parks, a fun experience, decent food. The cons? Expensive, takes away from ride time, if you have a toddler, will the toddler sit still? Is the cost worth the food and experience?
Counter service pros and cons. Pros: quick and easy, relatively less expensive than table service, less time eating and more time riding, great for active kids who won't sit long at tables. Cons: still expensive. May have trouble finding a table due to crowds. Food quality. Eating in the heat.
After considering ALL of this and the fact that we were staying at the Four Seasons (where the food is incredible), our family decided on counter service. And we are executing the exact same strategy this year when going back. The reason? Ryan and I would rather spend our time and energy on rides and shows rather than table service food / experiences. Because we get our character dining fix at the Four Seasons, this also helps.
Our strategy? Order Instacart groceries to the Four Seasons and make as many home meals as possible! Our park strategy includes bringing loads of these groceries into the park. We pack our lunches (turkey and avocado sandwiches) and the kids' lunches (PB+J) since our boys tend to be rather simple when it comes to food. We pack plenty of gatorade, powdered drink mixes (True Lemon or Waterdrops), water bottles for the kids. Disney has water fountains, so we will refill the drinks and add drink powders to it.
If we are "still* hungry and counter service looks easy and appetizing, Ryan and I will order our food there (I have selected my top counter service restaurants based on my research and have built them into the schedule). Again, the boys could case less about "good food", so PB+J's were the winning ticket! If they demand something else, there were plenty of quick options.
The main takeaway here is this: know your kids! We knew our boys would want to ride the rides more than they would want a $$$$ meal in Cinderella's Castle. Ryan and I aren't huge foodies and don't drink alcohol during the day. We didn't want to be weighed down by big meals. We wanted as much energy to ride the rides and walk the mileage it takes to do Disney the way we wanted to.
After you choose the parks you will attend, you'll want to familiarize yourself with all of the rides. It sounds like a lot of work, but once you narrow down your kids' heights and preferences, it's actually not as much as it seems. This is how we did it. The boys and I would gather together nightly and read about each of the rides in the Unofficial Guide to Disney World, then we would watch some YouTube videos that would show us the rides. Some may think this could spoil the rides, but I felt it better to know that my kids would actually like certain rides than to weight 45 minutes only to approach boarding and one of the kids to have a meltdown about not wanting to ride.
After we had all of the information about rides and shows of preference, I would then go to the WDW Lines App and organize my schedule. The beauty of this app is that it is based on algorithms and wait times. It will allow you to select all of the rides you want to go on and then it organizes your schedule FOR YOU based on shortest wait times and proximity of rides to one another. Now that the Disney App has this with Genie, you may also want to try compiling a sample schedule even if it's present day information. I then used this schedule and cross-referenced it with the blog, Disney Tourist Blog, I recommended. They have 1-Day Itineraries that are very helpful.
Will you follow your itinerary EXACTLY? No. But the beauty of having an itinerary is that is forces you to familiarize yourself with the rides and the different lands. Disney is hard to navigate, and if you want to take advantage of early entry (and don't have a plan), you are sure to fail (or pay for it with long wait times).
For the fun part! Below are our actual 1-day park itineraries for Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, EPCOT, and Magic Kingdom. Again, these will be different for everyone because not everyone prioritizes and prefers the same rides. My best advice is to arrive at the parks an hour and thirty minutes prior to opening time and choose the highest priority rides and most highly demanded rides first-thing in the morning. Another good time to ride those in-demand rides is closer to park closing. Enjoy!
Hotel Pool Day
Hollywood Studios Day
Hotel Pool Day
Animal Kingdom Day
I believe the shirts in this shot aren't available any longer. You may be able to message her still! Click HERE.
Arguably, THE most important piece of information!! Arriving to the park early will make or break your Disney experience. If you get to each of the parks an hour and a half before park opening time, it will benefit you in more ways than one. First, Disney allow "Disney Resort" guests to enter the park anywhere from an hour and a half to an hour before the actual park opening time. You will line up and wait until they signal "rope drop," and allow you to enter. Disney, then, allows you to start riding the rides before "normal" guests get there. So, before the park even opens. Make sure you prioritize your MUST-HAVE rides during this time. Ryan and I are obsessed with getting to the park early. It makes us feel like we are in control of our day, and ensures that we get at least our favorites rides in, guaranteed.
Animal Kingdom - matching shirts. Click HERE.
Click HERE .
We will be using Genie+! Genie+ is $15 per person per park. We figure if we are going to haul everyone to Disney World and spend the money, might as well spend $240 more for the trip to ensure we don't have to wait in long lines. When it comes to IAS, which is the individual pay per ride system that Disney has in place (always for the top two rides per park), this is my strategy. Since we take advantage of early entry, I will probably prioritize our top IAS ride during early entry (rather than relying on paying for it). Then, the number two IAS ride, I will setup payment for when we enter the park. This ensures that we get on both of the top rides.