Preparation guide for Walt Disney World from ESTA to Flights AND Packing
As a family, my ultimate destination has to be a trip to Florida to take in all the amazing parks and attractions (not to mention beautiful beaches and balmy weather). Of course the most famous of them all is Walt Disney World Resort, which comprises of the epic Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, Blizzard Beach Water Park and Typhoon Lagoon Water Park. If you’re taking a trip to Disney World then you’re going to want to get some planning, and so I’m sharing my ultimate list of preparation for Walt Disney World, taking you from your ESTA application (that’s your mandatory travel visa) all the way to packing, buying flights and park tickets.
So let’s get started with some Disney World preparation!
The ESTA Visa
ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization. You need this authorization to travel to the USA if you are not an American citizen. You can apply for your ESTA online and your authorization will be approved electronically if you’re eligible to travel. Once granted your ESTA will be valid for up to two years – you don’t need specific travel dates and you can travel multiple times in those two years, but it’s worth noting you will need to get an ESTA for everyone traveling, including underage children. This is step one of your preparation process, as you to need to be sure you have permission to enter the country!
Even though my husband and son are American I still need to get an ESTA visa before traveling to the USA as I am British, but it’s a very painless process and well worth doing early so you know you’re covered.
Choosing what time of year to travel to Disney World Florida
After the ESTA, the first consideration would be what time of year to travel – school holidays or not school holidays. This will be dependent on the age of your children and the terms of their schooling. For most families with older children, there won’t be a ton of options and you will find yourself traveling to Florida in the school holidays, but this could be the winter (Christmas) holidays, half term in May or October, the April Easter holidays or over the summer in July and August. This still gives a wide range of seasons that you could visit Disney World Florida.
In my opinion, it’s always a good time to visit Disney World. There is never a situation when it’s a bad time, but there are times when it’s naturally quieter or busier and there are special events that run throughout the year that you may want to take advantage of (or avoid).
To choose what time of year to travel to Disney World Florida you can:
- Check the Undercover Tourist Orlando Crowd Calendar
- Identify if there are any special events or themes you want to see or avoid, such as Halloween or Christmas.
- Search for any new openings. For example in 2019 Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opened, with a new ride being added in December 2019 as well. This can affect crowds as new attractions will be very busy – but you also might want to brave the crowds in order to experience the newest attractions.
Generally speaking, if you don’t have to be back in school then September is historically the quietest time of year, but this is the rainy season and you might experience regular thunderstorms and heavy showers. For school holidays, the second half of August is the quietest. If you want a winter visit, then visiting in early January is often quiet as people recover from Christmas. It’s not usually raining by then, but it can be very cold!
Personally my family chooses the last week in August to travel to Florida.
Getting to Florida
Once you’ve got your ESTA visa and have decided what time of year you want to travel, then you’ll want to start figuring out how you’re going to get the family to Florida. Technically speaking you have two options; flying or cruising. You can book a transatlantic cruise from Southampton to the USA, but this is an expensive and time consuming option, so in the vast majority of cases you’re going to be flying. If flying you have two options – book a package holiday of flights and accommodation together, or book flights separately yourself.
Booking a package holiday to Florida can be very helpful if it’s your first trip or you want minimal amounts of packing. You can use a trusted travel expert, or you can book your own package online or in a travel agents. Booking a package trip can unlock exclusive deals and give higher protection in terms of insurance. Booking a package holiday is definitely the easiest and most convenient way to travel.
However, if you’re a bargain hunter than you can often find cheaper deals by booking flights and accommodation separately. This adds a lot more flexibility when it comes to your booking and may give you the option of accommodation that isn’t available through a travel agency, such as private rentals (covered later). Personally I prefer to book my flights and accommodation separate as I like to pick every aspect of my booking and to search around for what best suits me, but it’s important to book travel insurance this way at the same time to cover you in case of cancellations or problems.
If you do buy flights you will need to make sure you have both outgoing and return flights and have evidence of both on arrival. As part of qualification for the ESTA visa you need to be able to show that you are leaving the country within 90 days.
I would highly recommend that you get car hire if you’re going to Florida with the family. It can be really daunting to think about driving on the wrong side of the road, but you’ll find that it’s actually quite easy to get around in Florida. Rental cars in the USA in my experience are automatics, which are easier to drive. You might be a bit slower and need to think a bit more carefully with directions, but having a car offers great flexibility which will massively widen your horizon for where you stay, where you can visit and of course helps a lot with all the luggage that a family trip entails.
Choosing where to stay near Disney World Florida
Disney official accommodation
Walt Disney World is as big as a city. It has twenty two different resorts, each with various pros and cons including location, amenities, themes and price. Staying at Disney official accommodation can be the most expensive option, but with so many different places to stay there should be something to suit every budget. One of the massive attractions of staying on the Disney resort is how close you are to the parks, cutting down on frustrating travel time (and ideal for those who aren’t hiring a car). It also adds that extra special spark of magic to the stay, with decorations and themes that will excite the whole family. It’s also very convenient for dining, as you have plenty of restaurants on site and you can get food packages included in your accommodation.
Hotels and Motels
Outside Disney World Resort there are an absolute ton of hotels and motels within an easy drive. Many hotels will have shuttle buses to and from Disney World Resort throughout the day, taking care of transportation issues. On our first trip to Orlando, long before my son was born we stayed in a small motel on International Drive which had shuttles every hour and was an easy walk of many restaurants, bars, shops and attractions like mini golf for the evening entertainment and it still had great rooms and a swimming pool despite being a quarter of the price of the cheapest Disney resort! It definitely didn’t have any Disney magic, but I think that external hotels can be a great option for those wanting to see more of Orlando and be in a different location, and for those looking for something more budget.
Private rentals are great too. There are a lot of large holiday homes in Florida that come complete with private pools and games rooms. I personally love using AirBnB to find family accommodation, and the privacy, space and freedom of a large private rental house are massive pluses for our family. If you have a large family that would need two or more rooms, renting a private house is often very cost effective. You’ll have a full kitchen, but maybe cooking when you’re on holiday isn’t your thing. The big downside is there won’t be shuttle buses and they might not be within easy access of public transport. You’ll most likely need to hire a car and be willing to spend a bit more time traveling to Disney World Resort.
My personal take is that whilst our first stay was in an off-site motel and I’d recommend that to couples or families looking for a budget break, with a young child I’d go for the convenience and the extra magic of the on-site resorts – depending on how much budget we have for the trip would be the defining choice as to which one! But once he is older and wants a private pool and the grandparents start joining us, a private rental will tick more of our boxes.
Buying Disney World Tickets
Disney World tickets are expensive, there’s really no way getting around it – but are they worth the money? Yes, I think so. There’s an unprecedented amount of entertainment available in Disney World Resort and there are some ways of getting cheaper tickets, which all require you to research and book in advance! I have an alert set on HotUKDeals for Disney World, which sends me a notification whenever a bargain deal is posted. This is a great resource for bargain hunters.
Discount Ticket Agents have small margins and don’t do massive sales, but you may be able to find something saving a small amount when you’re going for 7 or 14 day tickets. I recommend trying Attraction Tickets Direct UK which offer some good savings. Look out for deals such as adults go at kids prices and free gifts. In the past I’ve seen offers like free parking, free autograph books, free memory maker packages, free fast pass, free drinks cards and more. You might not see a significant drop in purchase price, but those incentives can save you a ton of cash on the day.
If you’re booking a package or booking Disney World Resort accommodation, then you should also see if there are any bundle deals which include tickets in the price and whether that works out cheaper than buying separate.
Packing for Disney World Florida
Spread the Purchases Out
Packing for a big trip can be expensive if you don’t have everything you need. That’s why I personally prefer to spread necessary purchases out over at least a few months beforehand. Things you might need that you don’t already own could be a new suitcase, packing bags to help keep things organized and a travel adapter so you can use your electrical items in the USA.
Make a List
Make a simple list of things you want to pack on your phone or printed out and then you can mark things off as you need them. This will keep the packing anxiety low and decrease chances of forgetting something. But if you do forget something, don’t freak, there’s lots of shops there that will have everything you need.
Here’s a packing list that doesn’t list every individual item you need to pack, but should give you a good starting point and act as a reminder. How much clothing and toiletries you pack will very much depend on your family, so I’d recommend making a personalised packing list because you know what you’ll use for the duration of your trip.
Tips for Packing Light
My main tip for people traveling to the USA is to remember that pretty much everything (with the exception of prescription medication) can easily be obtained in the USA. I’ve seen parents hauling two weeks worth of nappies in their luggage when you can go to any supermarket there and buy them cheaper than they are here. This is especially true if you’re renting a car, as you’ll be able to stop at any large supermarket and stock up on the way to your accommodation, but even if not, there are shops in all the resort accommodation and across all the parks which sell family essentials. Launderette’s are also very common in the USA and it’s very easy to do laundry. So don’t be tempted to over pack as luggage is a pain to haul around and if you go over your weight limit, it can be very expensive.
Preparing the Family for a Big Trip
Involve the whole family in the planning
It’s important to involve the whole family in the planning. I’m the planner myself, with my husband having zero interest in any sort of preparation. That works great for him, but not for everyone. For children especially, not knowing what’s going to happen can induce anxiety even if they don’t realize it’s making them nervous. By involving them in the planning, such as helping to decide on a hotel or room, picking their seats on a flight or choosing their in-flight meal, talking about what rides they want to go on first, you can not only dispel anxiety over the unknown, but build up a lot of excitement. So I would involve the whole family in the planning process!
Get used to long walks
Visiting Disney World Resort is a lot of walking. Taking lots of family walks will get them used to the idea of walking a lot in the day. If you’ve been to a UK theme park like Chessington World of Adventures or Drayton Manor then you’ll know how much walking there is in a day – now triple it for Disney World! Making sure everyone is fit is a long-term preparation and maybe “preparing for Disney” will get the kids off the couch more easily for you!
I hope this guide has helped you get started with your preparation all the way from your ESTA visa to packing your suitcase ready for your flight! Please share it on social media if you’ve found helpful, or leave your own tips in the comments!