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Friday, September 21, 2018

how i planned our thanksgiving break trip to walt disney world

The 60-day mark for my family's Walt Disney World Resort vacation was this past Wednesday, which means one thing: our Thanksgiving break trip is pretty much set in stone.

Today's post is going to be a little wordy, so finish any homework due tomorrow, grab something to drink, and come back to me-- today we're going to talk all about how I planned a trip to Walt Disney World Resort during Thanksgiving week for my family of four.

For context...

Every trip you plan starts with the context of your travel party.  In this case, it's my family-- my mom, my dad, my sister (17) and I.  We're the ultimate Disney World fans, but we each have different touring styles.

  • Mom: Does not want to wake up early enough for rope drop.  Which is completely fair-- she's a hard worker, so why shouldn't she sleep in during her vacation time?  She prefers to relax in the morning, spend an afternoon by the pool, and visit the parks at night.  Her favorite ride is the Haunted Mansion, she loves Winnie the Pooh, and of course: she loves Epcot.
  • Dad: Magic Kingdom's number one fan.  He loves Main St. USA, his dream is to hang out with Chief Smokey Miller all day long.  He also loves roller coasters!  His favorite ride is Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, but he's also partial Test Track.  He's pretty go-with-the-flow, but he hates running around the park, so I try to condense everything into an easy tour plan for his sake.
  • Grace: Has her set-in-stone favorites, but she always gets excited for anything that's new.  She's totally psyched for Toy Story Land!  Ultimately, mom and dad stick together, and Grace does whatever they're doing.  She's probably the most laid-back of the group.
  • Me: The rogue one!  I'm in the parks all day from rope drop until I get tired.  When my family enters the park, I'll go join them, but when they're not around, I'm perfectly content exploring WDW by myself.

As a family, we have always had a specific order that dictates which park we visit when.  The first day is always Magic Kingdom, followed by Epcot, followed by Hollywood Studios, then finally Animal Kingdom.  I don't know when we started touring like this, but it's just based on our personal preference.  There wasn't ever any rhyme or reason to it.

Oh.  And we've only ever vacationed as a family in the summer.  With no special events or holidays in the mix, crowds at Walt Disney World Resort are relatively more relaxed in mid-July and August, when we typically visit.

So how did all of this context come into play when I was planning our first Thanksgiving trip?

The Planning

FRI NOV 24 2017 -- Picking our dates/resort:  We picked our dates over Thanksgiving break 2017.  That was over a full year before our check-in date for Thanksgiving 2018.  We normally love to plan summer trips, but there wasn't a date over the summer that worked for everyone, so our best bet was Thanksgiving. 

Picking our resort was a no-brainer.  We would book at the Polynesian Village Resort, our DVC home.  DVC members can use their points to book a vacation at their home resort starting 11 months before their check-in date, so we knew that we would have the largest success rate if we booked at our home resort as soon as our 11-month window opened.

MON DEC 18 2017 -- Booking our resort:  At 8:00 AM on Monday, December 18, a very sleepy Kaitlyn booked her very family's very first DVC stay for November 18-24, 2018.  I consulted DISboards to see if anyone thought I'd have trouble getting exactly what I wanted as soon as my window opened, and everybody said that they thought I'd be fine.  They were correct!  We were able to book the exact room we wanted for the exact dates we wanted.

DEC-MAY 2018 -- Planning our touring strategy: After I booked in December, I had until May to decide what parks we would be visiting on what days.  Remember how I told you earlier that we had a park touring plan we have been using since the dawn of time?  Well, for this trip, I had to toss that plan and come up with a new one.  Being that this is a trip that encompasses a Holiday break, I wanted to consult park experts to see which days of the week would be the best to visit each park.  I used online crowd prediction calendars to help me determine our schedule for the week.  By our ADR date, I had this touring plan for our vacation:

Sunday, Nov 18: Check In, Magic Kingdom/Disney Springs
Monday, Nov 19: Epcot
Tuesday, Nov 20: Disney's Hollywood Studios
Wednesday: Nov 21: Disney's Animal Kingdom
Thursday, Nov 22: Magic Kingdom
Friday, Nov 23: Free
Saturday, Nov 24: Check Out

I mostly followed the crowd prediction calendars, choosing days that each park would be the least busy.  Being someone who worked at Magic Kingdom on Thanksgiving in 2016, I was a little apprehensive to plan our Thanksgiving day there, but the touring calendar told me it'd be the least crowded park that day.  We also really wanted a Thanksgiving dinner on the monorail, so it was the most convenient park for our situation.

At first, I buffered in a "free" day on Friday so that we could go back and revisit any park we wanted to spend more time in.  Having a flexible "free" day turned out to be our best idea so far, and I'll explain why a little further down.

TUES MAY 22 -- Booking our Advanced Dining Reservations.  Tuesday, May 22 was our 180 day mark.  Your 180 day mark is very important, because it's the day your window for making ADRs opens up!  If you're staying on property, you can book your dining reservations starting 180 days from your check-in date, and book them for up to 10 days past that day.  So if you're staying more than 10 days on property, you'll have to book your 11th day ADRs on the 181-day mark, your 12th day ADRs on the 182-day mark, and so forth.  I digress.

I woke up an hour past our window had opened up, and was able to successfully book mostly everything we wanted.

Sunday, Nov 18: Check In, Magic Kingdom/Disney Springs
Chef Art Smith's Homecomin' dinner -- 8 PM
Monday, Nov 19: Epcot
La Hacienda de San Angel dinner -- 6 PM
Tuesday, Nov 20: Disney's Hollywood Studios
50's Prime Time Cafe dinner -- 4:15 PM
Wednesday: Nov 21: Disney's Animal Kingdom
Yak & Yeti Restaurant lunch -- 12:30 PM
Thursday, Nov 22: Magic Kingdom
California Grill Thanksgiving dinner -- 5:20 PM
Friday, Nov 23: Free
The Wave breakfast -- 10:00 AM
Saturday, Nov 24: Check Out

A few notes on what we booked:

  • We booked our dinner at California Grill first.  We want Thanksgiving Dinner to be special, so I recommended a nice dinner at California Grill, even though I knew it would be a hard-to-get ADR.  5:20 wasn't ideal, but it was the last time slot they had for dinner that evening, so I was happy to snag it.
  • 50's Prime Time Cafe was not our first choice of dinner for Hollywood Studios.  We really wanted to do the Sci-Fi Dine-In, since we always do 50sPTC.  There was nothing available for SFDI that day, which frankly shocked me.  I've been looking for SFDI ADRs ever since with no luck.

AUGUST -- Purchasing our Park Tickets.  We bought our Annual Passes in August to make sure we'd have enough time to link them up to MDE and make our FP+ selections when our 60 day window opened.

WED SEPT 19 -- Making our FP+ selections.  On the 60 day mark, you can start making your three daily FP+ selections for our WDW vacation.  Out of every single aspect of Disney vacation planning, FP+ makes me the most anxious.  Something is always bound to go wrong, and we really want to get on Slinky Dog Dash this year, so being awake at 6:50 to make FP+ choices at 7 AM sharp was imperative.  

How did we do?

Sunday, Nov 18: Check In, Magic Kingdom/Disney Springs
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad -- 12:55-1:55 PM
Meet Mickey Mouse at Town Square Theater -- 2:50-3:50 PM
Pirates of the Caribbean -- 4:00-5:00 PM
Chef Art Smith's Homecomin' dinner -- 8 PM

Monday, Nov 19: Epcot
Spaceship Earth -- 1:00-2:00 PM
The Seas with Nemo and Friends -- 2:05-3:05 PM
Test Track -- 3:40-4:40 PM
La Hacienda de San Angel dinner -- 6 PM

Tuesday, Nov 20: Disney's Hollywood Studios
Alien Swirling Saucers -- 1:10-2:10 PM
Star Tours - The Adventure Continues -- 2:25-3:25 PM
50's Prime Time Cafe dinner -- 4:15 PM
Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith -- 6:50-7:50 PM

Wednesday: Nov 21: Disney's Animal Kingdom
Yak & Yeti Restaurant lunch -- 12:30 PM
Expedition Everest - Legend of the Forbidden Mountain -- 2:10-3:10 PM
Na'vi River Journey -- 3:25-4:25 PM
Kilimanjaro Safaris -- 4:25-5:25 PM

Thursday, Nov 22: Magic Kingdom
Peter Pan's Flight -- 11:50-12:50 PM
Haunted Mansion -- 1:05-2:05 PM
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train -- 2:50-3:50 PM
California Grill Thanksgiving dinner -- 5:20 PM

Friday, Nov 23: Free
The Wave breakfast -- 10:00 AM
Slinky Dog Dash -- 4:10-5:10 PM

Saturday, Nov 24: Check Out

We did great!  We got almost everything we wanted, with a few exceptions...

  • We were only able to book Slinky Dog Dash for Friday, but honestly, I was elated that we were able to have a FP+ at all!  It helps that we were able to book in on a day that we buffered in just in case something like this happened where we'd want to revisit a park.
  • We tried to book Mine Train for check-in day, but there were no times available.
  • There were no Flight of Passage FP+ times available at all on our Animal Kingdom day.  It wasn't important enough that we'd want to revisit it any other day, so I just booked Na'vi for us.

The Bottom Line

Phew!  Didn't I tell you that would be a long update?  Here's what I want you to take away from today's post. 

When you're booking a holiday trip to Walt Disney World, consider these points:

  • Book your trip as far out as possible.  I recommend starting to plan your trip 12-14 months before you want to check-in.  Holiday resort availability at Walt Disney World dwindles rapidly, plan as far out as possible.  If you are booking a DVC reservation, you definitely will want to book your trip as soon as your 11 month window opens up.  If having very specific dates are imperative to your trip, the farther out you plan, the better your life will be.
  • Research everything.  Even if you think you know everything about Disney World, check crowd calendars for your trip.  Most calendars are based off of empirical data collected by knowledgeable annual passholders, and change from year to year.
  • Know your windows, book as soon as they open.  Get a good coffee maker, because you'll want to wake up as soon as your 180-day and 60-day window opens if you want the best success with ADRs and FP+ choices.  Learn your dates, write them down in your planner.
  • Be flexible and keep an open mind.  Even if you plan everything out months in advance, holidays are tricky.  There will always be a chance that you can't book everything you want for exactly when you want it.  If there is something you desperately want, like a Slinky Dog Dash FP+ or a reservation at Be Our Guest, there's a possibility you may have to book it for a different day of your trip, which may conflict with other plans.  Just keep your priorities in order and go from there.

And finally... remember that planning these trips are a labor of love!  I know that the extra money I spent on coffee during those days where I had to wake up at 6:50 to book a FP+ or resort reservation will be so worth it when we finally get to sit down at California Grill on Thanksgiving after a great day at Magic Kingdom.  And we are so, so, so excited for Slinky Dog Dash.  :)


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