Once you have a general idea of how long you want to be there, where you’d like to stay and what you want to do while you’re there, it’s time to actually book the trip. There are several ways to do it, from online reservations direct from Disney, to calling Disney Travel to AAA and to simply winging it.
First, a note about budgets. As with any large purchase, a Disney trip should come with a budget. You should have an idea of the maximum amount of money you want to spend and then work backwards from that to maximize your experience. Weekend trips with your spouse using leftover ticket days can be done for less than a few hundred dollars (airfare + hotel + food). Week-long trips for your family of four with everything are a few thousand (airfare + hotel + food + tickets + souvenirs + extras). My general rule of thumb is $1000/week/person. But then again, I like a little comfort and I always buy a souvenir or ten.
Disney has made booking a trip online fairly painless. Starting at http://disneyparks.disney.go.com, you can find the link for Pricing Your Vacation (that’s what it says today, tomorrow it could be something else). Simply enter in the basics about dates, number of guests, etcetera and it’ll lead you through all of the options. Also, make sure you ALWAYS check the current Special Offers.
Generally speaking, I like using the Online system for two things: 1) getting initial pricing for a trip when I know exactly what I want and exactly when I’m going to be there and, 2) holding a quick reservation especially when I know I’m booking at a typically busier time of year.
On the flip-side, the online system has some drawbacks, the most notable is that you can’t really ask the reservation agent for any advice on timing, pricing, or anything else. Granted, the reservations folks aren’t actually AT a Disney Park. But they are, for the most part, extremely knowledgeable. So having that extra layer of help can be valuable.
To finish an online reservation, Disney will ask you if you want to add in airfare (and of course, try to upsell you on a Cruise as well). Buying airfare through Disney is almost always the most expensive way to do it. So I never do. Just open another internet browser window and book your airfare on your preferred airline. Just remember, sometimes the airfare can be more expensive than you were expecting and moving THAT around by a day or so in either direction can save you hundreds of dollars per person (adding a Saturday night stay still works wonders on your flight costs). Lastly, you will create an online account with Disney. Use the e-mail address you normally would use for them so that they can keep track of the total number of visits you’ve made to the Parks. As you rack them up over time, they’ll offer more customized recommendations to you (sorta’ like Amazon).
After I’ve researched base costs online (and sometimes even held a reservation because I don’t want to miss out on what I perceive as a good deal), I typically like to finish the reservation over the phone with the Disney sales agents at 407-WDISNEY (407-934-7639). While some liken the telephone experience to torture, I actually enjoy this part of the process. I know I’m going to sit on hold for a little while and the on-hold music is ALWAYS music from the parks. So it gets me into the spirit of things just a little more when I hear the “Yo ho, Yo ho, a pirate’s life for me” playing in the background.
The agents are, as I said, pretty knowledgeable. They have event schedules, they can rapidly look things up (like room layouts for the new family suites available at most Value Resorts), and they can simultaneously have a few different options going at once to see what’s most cost effective. Of course, you can do most of this via the online system, but you can’t simply ask the online system to find you a better deal by adjusting things a little on their own.
The phone reservations folks will also try to upsell you on your trip. But perhaps more effective is that they’ll also offer to book tours and/or dining reservations that will all be tied to your reservation.
The biggest downside to the phone reservation center is that they’re only open so many hours of the day (usually open at 8am and closed at 10pm ET). So here’s the pro tip: If you want to book a reservation at a particular resort for a particular date and the phone reservation center is closed, book the closest thing you can find at your chosen resort online. Then, call the next day to make any changes or to cancel your reservation. You can cancel up to 24-72 hours (depending on the resort and the time of year) before your first night without any penalties.
AAA or other Travel Agencies
I have a few friends that absolutely swear by AAA. And, honestly, I’ve seen a few deals come through their quarterly magazine that are pretty good. But just remember this: the part of AAA that’s offering this is a travel agency, just like any other. They make money from kickbacks from Disney or by charging you a little more for overhead. So it’s relatively unlikely that you’re going to be able to find a better deal through AAA than you would direct from Disney. Not that it can’t happen, but rare that it will. But if you love working through AAA or your favorite travel agency, that’s fine. Just make sure that they’re Disney-certified so as to get you the best deal – and to make sure that they’re selling you real park tickets – as Disney has no problem turning you away if you’ve got fake tickets when you arrive.
If you live in an area with a Disney Store, you may have noticed that the Disney company bought them back from the Children’s Place company a few years ago. As a result, the merchandise at the stores is the same as what you’ll find in the Parks. And also, you can buy vouchers for Park tickets. This can be both a blessing and a curse.
On the blessing side: a voucher sells for exactly the same price as a similar number of days directly from the Parks or from the Disney travel folks. So if you already have airfare and you don’t want or need a package with hotel, you can buy the tickets at the Disney Store when it’s convenient for you. This also means that if Disney increases their prices between the point when you purchase the voucher and actually show up at the Park, you are good to go at the voucher’s price (you don’t have to pay for the increase). In other words, a voucher is virtually a ticket.
On the curse side: vouchers are only good for 12 months and must be redeemed before then (though this policy could change). Vouchers are also the same as cash, to a point. When you buy the voucher, you’ll also get a receipt from the Disney Store that tells you the price paid, the voucher type and the voucher’s ID number. MAKE A COPY OF THIS RECEIPT and keep it in a safe place, separate from the voucher and separate from the original receipt. In the event you lose/misplace the voucher and/or the original receipt, a copy of the receipt can be used to get your tickets at the Guest Services window at any Disney Park.
But if the voucher is stolen and redeemed before you know it and can do something about it, the voucher is like cash in that it’s now tied to someone else.
While not recommended for the Disney novice, simply showing up at a Park and negotiating all of the things you want is certainly possible. My wife and I typically have unused park days on old no-expire option tickets – so we check for a great hotel deal and airfare and just go. But we also know the Parks like the backs of our hands. So we don’t plan what we’re going to do any farther in advance than the morning of the visit. The key is that we don’t care if we miss something – we know we’ll be back and can catch whatever we missed the next time around. Heck, we’ve even been known to hit all four parks in a single day – only doing our favorite attractions at each park 2 or 3 times before moving to the next park (actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that, read below about Fast Passes).
But this obviously doesn’t work if you’re a first time visitor or if you have a particular expectation that you’re going to do/see everything on your trip. For that, planning is absolutely required. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.