How to Plan a Florida Vacation! – 6 Months To Go – ADR Time

So, as some of you may know, my family is somewhat obsessed with going to Florida. We went when the Munchkin was a toddler and the Bean was a baby. We went again a few years later, and we are planning another trip next year!

I absolutely LOVE planning these holidays. I love the magic of Walt Disney World and the epic fun of Universal Orlando. I spend hours and hours in between vacations browsing Pinterest, reading Disney blogs, watching vlogs and everything. It brings me so much joy! But it is also extremely practical because this kind of vacation takes an enormous amount of planning and if it’s your first time, it can get overwhelming.

So, I decided to share the obsessive planning magic, and write a blog series to guide other families through this process, from start to finish, in real time.

 

Walt Disney World WDW planning a Florida vacation holiday

One year is really the ideal time-frame in which to plan a holiday of this magnitude, especially if you are travelling to Florida from outside the United States, like we are. About twelve months out from travelling is when many of the offers are announced and the most popular accommodation can book up this far in advance too.

It is possible to grab a late bargain, of course, and if this is how your family rolls, then that’s terrific, go for it! But this series probably won’t be for you. This is one for the planners, the organisers, the folks who want or need to get their travel plans firmed up well in advance.

You can catch up with this series here:

  1. 12 Months – Initial Planning
  2. 11 Months – Accommodation
  3. 10 Months – Dining Plan
  4. 9 Months – Saving Up & Booking Flights
  5. 8 Months – Fit for Florida
  6. 7 Months – It’s Not All About Disney

A Quick Note:

The observant among you may notice that it’s been nearly 2 years since I last posted. Life took me away from blogging, but I’ve always wanted to come back and finish this series. It’s even in my 101 in 1001 goals! I’ll blog on this separately.

The trip to Orlando that we were planning back when I started these posts in 2017 went ahead and all the planning really paid off. I’ll do a full write up on that shortly. For now, I’ve come back to this series because today marks the 180-days-to-go mark of our next trip to Walt Disney World! These trips come around so fast.

So, without further ado, let’s crack on with how to go about booking your ADRs!

6 Months to go: Advanced Dining Reservations

If you’re staying at a Walt Disney World resort, one of the magic days to note in your diary is 180 days before you check-in. This is the day you’ll be able to make your advanced dining reservations (ADRs).

You’ll want to spend some time leading up to this date researching the options because there are literally hundreds of places to eat on property. I won’t even try to list them all here! But here are a few essentials to consider.

Quick Service & Table Service

Quick service restaurants are your bread and butter of dining at WDW. You don’t need a reservation. You rock up, order at the counter (or use mobile ordering if it’s available), collect your food and go find a table. Simples.

Table service, however, this is what you’re booking on ADR day. These restaurants offer a sit-down service, with either a buffet or a la carte menu. Some of these options are also character dining experiences, where characters work their way around the dining area and interact with the guests.

There are table service restaurants at all of the theme parks and many of the resorts. They all offer something different – atmosphere, cuisine, characters, proximity to other attractions – so devour all the info you can and create a shortlist of options. One place to start is Disney Food Blog or their YouTube channel.

booking your Walt Disney WOrld Advanced Dining Reservations, ADRs. Here are my top tips.

Plan Your Bookings

Once you’ve researched the options and come up with a shortlist, you’ll want to start thinking about your touring plan. Have a look at what you want to do each day and slot your table service meals in where it makes sense.

What’s going to work for your party? Maybe you want to load up on a big breakfast and coast through most of the day before needing to eat again. So pick a character dining buffet breakfast in or near to the park you want to visit on a given day.

For example, one of our absolute favourites is Tusker House at Animal Kingdom. We eat here at least once on every trip. It’s an African-inspired buffet with something to suit every palette and you’re joined by Goofy, Donald, Daisy and the Mouse himself. There is even a fun parade, where children are encouraged to get up and move around the dining area with the characters.

Perhaps your family prefers to eat light in the morning and then indulge in a bigger meal in the evening, taking in a night show afterwards. In which case, Epcot has a wealth of options around the lake in World Showcase from which you can watch the fireworks and lights show on the lake (formerly Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, soon to be replaced with a new show).

Do you want to hit the parks with Extra Magic Hours? Or do you want to avoid them? You can usually reserve dining in the parks before they open, getting in there early and being done and ready to head for popular attractions as the park opens and be slightly ahead of the crowds.

One trick we like to use is to make our Tusker House breakfast for around 9am on a day with EMH. We get to Animal Kingdom for rope drop at 8am and head straight for the safari. The animals are more active first thing in the morning before it gets too hot and you can walk straight onto the ride. Then we head back through the park as the crowds arrive and get out of the craziness for breakfast.

So make a rough plan and pick the times you’d like to book for each table service meal of your trip.

Making Your Bookings

On ADR day (you can work out when that is using this calculator), you’ll want to be armed with your timetable and ready to book!

Booking opens at 6am EST, you’ll want to convert that to your own timezone in advance. For us, today, it was 11am.

Using the website, the My Disney Experience app, or by calling the booking line, you can make the bookings for your party for up to 10 days of your vacation. We went for 3 weeks last time and are going for 2 weeks this time, so we couldn’t make all of our bookings in one go. If you’re there for less than 10 days though you can do it all in one sitting.

Whether you’re using the dining plan or not, you’ll need to provide a debit or credit card number when you book. This won’t be charged on booking but will be charged if you don’t show up for your reservation without cancelling it more than 24 hours in advance. There are just a couple of restaurants that do take payment upfront, such as Cinderella’s Royal Table. We had a mishap when booking this one last time. They charged hubby’s card when he booked it and we had to call up and get it refunded and switched to dining plan credits (this is also one of the few that uses 2 table service credits per person).

Hard-To-Get Reservations

Some reservations are harder to get than others. This may change over time, but the long-standing sell-out restaurants are Le Cellier at Epcot and Cinderella’s Royal Table at Magic Kingdom.

Le Cellier is renowned for its steak and is a tiny restaurant, so demand is sky-high. It books out 6 months in advance and stays that way. If this is at the top of your bucket list, this is the one you should go for first on ADR day.

Pro tip: Plan it for day 10 of your stay (or the last day if staying for less than this) and make it the first one you book. Most people will be starting from day one of their vacation and working their way through their list chronologically. So this may mean that you beat your competition who are booking on the same day as you.

If you don’t manage to snag this reservation, some alternatives to consider are Yachtsman Steakhouse at the Yacht Club resort; Shula’s Steak House at the Dolphin Hotel; and The Boathouse at Disney Springs.

The aforementioned Cinderella’s Royal Table is a tricky one due to its location – inside the castle at Magic Kingdom! It’s also one of only a few ways to meet Cinderella herself. We managed to get this booking for our last trip using the pro tip above. Booking kerfuffle aside, it was a great way to maximise character-meet efficiency!

You meet Cinderella in the entrance lobby in a sort of holding area for diners. Then you’re granted entrance to the dining area and if you’re lucky, get a window table and get to peek out at the park. Cinderella doesn’t come around the tables, but several of her princess friends do; Snow White, Ariel, Jasmine, and Aurora were the characters who put in an appearance on our visit.

If you can’t get this one, or if you have concerns about using two dining credits or paying upfront for this one, the alternative is Akershus Royal Banquet Hall at Epcot. This is in the Norway Pavillion, next to Frozen Ever After. So one efficiency trick is to book breakfast here and then dash straight to the ride before the crowds pick up, saving you a valuable fastpass for something else.

If you miss out on any reservations that you were coveting on ADR day, then keep checking in case a spot opens up with a cancellation. A lot of people over-book their ADRs in order to keep their options open, so cancellations happen all the time.

Enjoy!

That wraps up my ADR tips.

Catch up with the rest of the series here:

  1. 12 Months – Initial Planning
  2. 11 Months – Accommodation
  3. 10 Months – Dining Plan
  4. 9 Months – Saving Up & Booking Flights
  5. 8 Months – Fit for Florida
  6. 7 Months – It’s Not All About Disney

Next month: Countdown!

Planning a Florida Vacation! – 7 Months To Go – It’s Not All About Disney!

So, as some of you may know, my family is somewhat obsessed with going to Florida. We went when the Munchkin was a toddler and the Bean was a baby. We went again a few years later, and we are planning another trip next year!

I absolutely LOVE planning these holidays. I love the magic of Walt Disney World and the epic fun of Universal Orlando. I spend hours and hours in between vacations browsing Pinterest, reading Disney blogs, watching vlogs and everything. It brings me so much joy! But it is also extremely practical because this kind of vacation takes an enormous amount of planning and if it’s your first time, it can get overwhelming.

So, I decided to share the obsessive planning magic, and write a blog series to guide other families through this process, from start to finish, in real time.

 

Walt Disney World WDW planning a Florida vacation holiday

One year is really the ideal time-frame in which to plan a holiday of this magnitude, especially if you are travelling to Florida from outside the United States, like we are. About twelve months out from travelling is when many of the offers are announced and the most popular accommodation can book up this far in advance too.

It is possible to grab a late bargain, of course, and if this is how your family rolls, then that’s terrific, go for it! But this series probably won’t be for you. This is one for the planners, the organisers, the folks who want or need to get their travel plans firmed up well in advance.

You can catch up with this series here:

  1. 12 Months – Initial Planning
  2. 11 Months – Accommodation
  3. 10 Months – Dining Plan
  4. 9 Months – Saving Up & Booking Flights
  5. 8 Months – Fit for Florida!

7 Months To Go: Must-Do Attractions – It’s Not All About Disney!

I’m going to cover touring plans next month when I’ll also be guiding you through making your advanced dining reservations. But for this month, the focus is on narrowing down the things we want to do on this trip.

I started by quickly assessing what had worked and what didn’t work on our previous Florida vacations.

We’ve been twice and still not been to the Kennedy Space Centre, for example, despite it being something we’d talked about both times. We had even scheduled a day for it last time but ended up changing our plans due to the weather. We’re determined to make it this time.

We’ve still yet to get all the way around Epcot World Showcase and have tended to eat at the same restaurants each time too. So we want to get some more variety into this trip. I have already researched all of the dining options around all of Walt Disney World and created a shortlist (which is still really long – haha!) of places to eat. I made sure to do this nice and early due to the aforementioned Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs), which guests staying on-site can book 180 days prior to arrival. For us, that’s next month!

We’ve also not been to SeaWorld on previous trips because we were boycotting them due to their unethical orca program. I was pleased to learn about SeaWorld ending the breeding program and orca shows, in favour of a “natural encounter”. However, the majestic animals are dying in rather disturbing numbers at the San Diego centre, so I think we’ll still need to give this park, and those owned by them, a miss this time. This includes Busch Gardens, Aquatica and Discovery Cove. One day, when SeaWorld has cleaned up its act, we will choose to spend our money there.

Universal

Universal Studios Orlando, main gate

(c) H.B. Lyne 2015

I have to confess, despite my love of Disney, and us choosing to stay at a WDW resort, my favourite theme park in Orlando, is actually Universal Islands of Adventure! Parts of Universal also rank in the top 2 or 3 attractions for our kids.

This is in no small part down to the epic scope and detail of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Split into two areas; one at Universal Studios, the other at IOA, connected via a ride on the Hogwarts Express, this amazing experience is an absolute must for any fan of the books or movies. The detail is exquisite, the rides are epic, the shops are amazing and the whole experience is worth the huge park ticket fee on its own.

On our first trip in 2012, the Munchkin spent one delighted, if wet afternoon going on the Flight of the Hippogriff ride over and over again while there was no queue!

In 2015, the highlight was the the Jurassic Park area, in particular, the River Adventure ride. I also have a massive sweet spot for the Suess Landing area of IOA, which is packed with lovely references to the books and has some of the most fun rides for the whole family of any theme park in the area. When in a silly mood, our family will still sometimes burst into spontaneous singing of the song from the One Fish, Two Fish ride!

Universal Islands of Adventure, Florida, Seuss Landing

We’ll be allowing 4 days for Universal, as they also have a water park now, Volcano Bay. With the Park-to-Park ticket, you can move between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure as much as you like throughout the day. This is definitely worth doing, as it gives you access to the Hogwarts Express and then you can assess queue times and adjust your touring plan based on crowd levels across the two parks, travelling back and forth to find the shortest lines.

Universal doesn’t offer guests any free Express Passes. You have to pay extra for these and the price is extremely steep, which is a major gripe I have with the parks. The price is simply going to be out of reach for a significant proportion of families, giving the wealthy a very different park experience to everyone else.

Disney gives every guest 3 FastPasses, with guests staying on site able to book them 60 days in advance. If you’re staying at some of Universal’s resorts you do also get the Express Pass included. So if Universal is your primary destination, rather than Walt Disney World, and you can afford one of the more luxurious resorts, then this perk is going to add heaps of value to your stay. It’s probably worth booking the better resort rather than one of the cheaper ones just for this, to be honest.

Universal is absolutely doable without the Express Pass, but you will have to be prepared to give some rides a miss or wait in 60-90 minute lines for a few of them. But with the app on your phone, you can keep an eye on wait times and dash about the park to jump into the shorter lines.

With young children, I’m not prepared to wait in a line longer than 30 minutes. It’s a waste of our valuable time in the parks.

Some other options for families trying to fit in as many rides as possible include:

  • Single Rider lines: these are usually much shorter than the main queue. So if you don’t mind splitting up for some rides, this can be an effective way to save time.
  • Parent Swap: for the bigger rides that your kids are too small for, parents can take advantage of the opportunity to wait in a special area near the exit with the kids while one parent rides, then when they exit the ride, the other parent can go straight on without having to stand in line.

Plan Your Top Picks

Now is a good time to look at park maps online and research things like height limits so you can start putting together a bucket list of individual attractions and dining experiences.

Disney announces park opening hours around 7 months ahead (any day now for us) so you can see which days the parks have Extra Magic Hours.

There is some debate over what to do about EMH in the WDW planning world! Some bloggers recommend avoiding the parks with EMH as the crowds are typically higher. While others suggest taking advantage of these longer hours in order to get the most value out of your park tickets.

I’m somewhere in the middle. What we found worked really well was booking a character breakfast inside a park with early opening. That way we get in well ahead of the queues and can get on a (gentle!) ride or two early before the crowds arrive after we’ve filled up on a good meal. Then we leave the park to chill out at the hotel or head to a different park for a while.

Likewise, the evening EMHs mean you can stay away during the heat of the day, then head back for the evening and enjoy the different atmosphere, watch the nighttime shows and events and ride some rides in the dark!

Once you know which parks have EMH on which days, and whether you want to attend or avoid the parks during these times, then you can make a rough plan for which parks to attend on which days. That way, when your ADRs become available you already know which restaurants you want to secure bookings for on which days and for which meals.

I plan our entire trip around these reservations because some of them are hard to come by! Cinderella’s Royal Table, for example, notoriously books out very quickly. So come countdown day 180, I will be at my computer with my list, ready to book as soon as the bookings open up for day 1 of our trip!!

On that note, I’m now going to give you a sneak peek at my Trello board for planning this vacation.

Trello board for planning a Florida vacation

This is my board. I have a column on the left for key dates to remember in our planning schedule.

Then a list for each park (not all pictured above). I’ve assigned coloured labels for each park to help see at a glance which park is detailed in which list. These labels will then come in useful in later lists for planning which park/s to do on which days.

In each list, I have cards for rides, attractions, dining and character meets for each park; both for old favourites and new things we want to prioritise this time.

Trello board for Orlando holiday planning

This is what a card looks like. A quick description of what’s on the card, followed by a checklist of rides we want to try.

Trello board for planning an Orlando vacation at Walt Disney World and Universal

On a Trello board, you create as many lists as you need, scrolling to the right to see more. This is the next section over. You can see the rest of our destinations here.

Trello planning board for our Florida holiday

Scrolling further over to the right, I have created lists for each day of our vacation and listed a preliminary destination on each card, although these are almost certain to change once we know the park opening hours.

As we add dining reservations and fast passes to our schedule, new cards will go into each list detailing our touring plans.

That about wraps up the planning for this month! Thanks for reading. I hope this post has been useful. Next month I’ll be going into greater depth on booking those Advanced Dining Reservations, and my top picks for places to eat.

Next Month: Advanced Dining Reservations

Planning a Florida vacation - It's not all about Disney! Universal, other Orlando attractions, planning your top things to do

Planning A Florida Vacation – 10 Months To Go – Dining Plan

So, as some of you may know, my family is somewhat obsessed with going to Florida. We went when the Munchkin was a toddler and the Bean was a baby. We went again a few years later, and we are planning another trip next year!

I absolutely LOVE planning these holidays. I love the magic of Walt Disney World and the epic fun of Universal Orlando. I spend hours and hours in between vacations browsing Pinterest, reading Disney blogs, watching vlogs and everything. It brings me so much joy! But it is also extremely practical because this kind of vacation takes an enormous amount of planning and if it’s your first time, it can get overwhelming.

So, I decided to share the obsessive planning magic, and write a blog series to guide other families through this process, from start to finish, in real time.

Walt Disney World WDW planning a Florida vacation holiday

One year is really the ideal time-frame in which to plan a holiday of this magnitude, especially if you are travelling to Florida from outside the United States, like we are. About twelve months out from travelling is when many of the offers are announced and the most popular accommodation can book up this far in advance too.

It is possible to grab a late bargain, of course, and if this is how your family rolls, then that’s terrific, go for it! But this series probably won’t be for you. This is one for the planners, the organisers, the folks who want or need to get their travel plans firmed up well in advance.

You can catch up with this series here:

  1. 12 Months Out – Initial Planning
  2. 11 Months Out – Accommodation

10 Months To Go: Dining Plan

So, you’ve decided to stay at a Walt Disney World Resort and either created a short list, or already picked out the exact one. It’s time to book and time to decide about the Dining Plan. Is it right for you, or can you manage without?

For me, personally, this is the number one perk of staying at a Disney property. The Extra Magic Hours and complimentary transportation are nice, but nothing adds more value to a vacation than the Dining Plan.

3 Options

There are 3 basic tiers of Dining Plan. As you might expect, they increase in cost and value:

  • Quick-Service Dining Plan
  • Disney Dining Plan
  • Deluxe Dining Plan

I haven’t included prices in this post, as they are subject to change without notice. For up-to-date Dining Plan prices, check with Disney directly.

All three options work basically the same way. At the start of your vacation, your meal and snack credits are pre-loaded onto your Magic Band; a wristband that each guest can wear throughout their stay, which acts as room key, Fast Pass, park ticket and credit card (kids’ bands can’t be used to charge purchases to your credit card, don’t worry!) When you opt to pay for a meal or snack with your dining plan credits, you tap your Magic Band to a reader that the cast member has and the credit is deducted from the total.

It’s ridiculously simple and convenient!

Also, you don’t have to use your credits on a given day. Although you are allocated a certain number of credits “per night of stay”, you can use them whenever you like. If you really wanted, you could use them all on the first day or save them all until the last! But I don’t fancy eating that much food in one day. But if you venture off property for a couple of days, to check out Universal, for example, you don’t “lose” your Dining Plan credits for those days if you don’t eat at WDW. You can use them another day.

Snack credits can go a long way. A number of times on our last vacation, we got the kids their breakfast using just their snack credits. This left us two meal credits to use elsewhere. There are a number of tricks you can use to maximise the value you get from the dining plan. More on that later.

Quick-Service Dining Plan

The Quick-Service Dining Plan does what it says on the tin; each guest gets 2 quick-service meals per day, plus a drink (non-alcoholic) with each meal, 2 snacks per day, and a refillable mug. There are over 50 locations around the whole of WDW that you can redeem these foods and beverages at.

This is the cheapest option and really good value, especially if you aren’t that bothered about having table service meals. The moderate resorts often offer this tier of the dining plan for free when booking during promotions.

Disney Dining Plan

The middle tier is the one we had last time. With this plan each guest gets for each night of their stay:

  • 1 table service meal
  • 1 quick-service meal
  • 1 non-alcoholic/alcoholic drink per meal
  • 2 snacks
  • Refillable mug

You can redeem these credits at over 100 locations, and character dining experiences are included in the table/waiter service credits. Some dining experiences cost 2 table-service credits, but this often works out cheaper than booking without the dining plan.

This dining plan is the one included with deluxe resorts during promotions. We got it for free when we stayed at Saratoga Springs in 2015. We didn’t quite use all our credits. Just before boarding the coach to the airport at the end of the two weeks, we were rushing around the resort quick service dining area loading up on snacks that we could take on the plane!

Deluxe Dining Plan

I honestly can’t imagine ever needing this much food. Given that we left with credits to spare last time, and that the quick-service meals and snacks can still be substantial enough for the average person to only require one table service meal a day, this plan seems excessive to me! But if you really want to eat three huge meals at the best restaurants Walt Dinsey World has to offer every single day of your trip, then go for it!! Each guest, for each night of their stay, gets:

  • 3 table or quick-service meals
  • 1 non-alcoholic/alcoholic drink per meal
  • 2 snacks
  • Refillable mug

You probably get the best value out of this plan by booking a deluxe resort with a promotion on the Disney Dining Plan and upgrading to this plan for a reduced cost.

When looking at your budget, make sure you check for Dining Plan promotions, because it may well be worth upgrading resort in order to get free dining. Without the Dining Plan, you’ll want to budget for food. Obviously, all families are different, but most will want to allow about $60-$100 per person per day. You can eat for less, especially if you buy groceries off-property and take hand-made lunches into the parks. But if you want convenience and sit-down meals more often than not, then the dining plan needs serious consideration. If a free dining plan is on offer when you book, and the difference in accommodation cost is less than your food budget, then don’t hesitate!

Dining Plan Hacks!

Walt Disney World Dining Plan Hacks to save money and get great value

On the surface of it, all three tiers of the Dining Plan look costly. But make sure you run the numbers and be realistic about how much food you eat and what it might cost without the Dining Plan. Then be sure to factor in these hacks in order to assess the full value of the dining plan.

  1. Turkey legs only use a snack credit, but they are HUGE! They could easily serve as a lunch on the go for one adult or two children!
  2. Be Our Guest offers a unique experience: you order from a monitor on entering, then take a seat and your food is brought to you. It’s a sort of quick/table service hybrid. But it counts as a quick service credit on the dining plan.
  3. Breakfast can easily be acquired using just snack credits. Muffins, croissants, fruit and drinks all use snack credits. Don’t be afraid to use snack credits for drinks throughout the day either!
  4. Epcot World Showcase offers delicacies from around the world as snacks. Strolling from one stall to another sampling these can make for a full meal.
  5. Some quick service meal options are much larger than others. For example, the breakfast bounty platters offer exceptional value for one quick service credit. Whereas the Mickey-shaped Waffles cost the same credit but are a much smaller portion. Without the dining plan, the bounty platter costs $11.49, whereas the croissant sandwich is $6.99, both use one quick service credit. Maximise the value you get by picking the more expensive options (or not! Your choice.)
  6. Character dining experiences give you the chance to load up and have a huge meal, as well as getting to meet your favourite Disney characters.
  7. Table service credits include dessert for lunch and dinner, but not breakfast. So only use a table service credit for breakfast if it’s a buffet, as you can eat as much as you like and maximise the value of the credit.
  8. The system doesn’t differentiate between adults and children’s credits, so if your child eats little and often, you can use spare adult snack credits to keep them going.
  9. You can use a quick service credit to purchase 3 snacks.
  10. For kids who are big eaters, they can get adult portions with their meal credits.

I hope this post has given you some insight and helps you decide whether to purchase the Dining Plan or not. What are your thoughts? Any questions or comments very welcome below. I try to reply to everyone.

Next Month: Saving Up & Booking Flights