From planning to scanning - Does it pay to prepare?
We're not fresh off the churro cart. We've done this a few times and we've heard every concern, apprehension, skepticism, and outright shock. We've seen perfectly well meaning tourists advise other tourists to "wing it" at Disney because it's more fun. Spontaneity does, afterall, add spice to life, right? Well, maybe in the kitchen but not so much at Disney World. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that it's impossible to enjoy a visit without mapping out your every move. Quite to the contrary. However, I would suggest that you'll feel a lot less frustrated, perhaps a bit less stressed or discombobulated, and generally more accomplished if you take advantage of the time advantages Disney offers for free to its guests. In order to appreciate the current state of time savers, it's worthwhile to take a short trip back in time to recall the haphazard pain in the tush it used to be...
I remember it well but not so fondly. It went something like this ... Arrive at Hollywood Studios before park opening. With map in hand, possibly using advanced cartography skills to determine the absolute fastest and best route, speed walk just to the edge of shin splints directly to the Toy Story Midway Mania attraction at rope drop. The scene resembled Black Friday at Toys 'R' Us back in the day, only to find that the return time was already 5pm. Seriously? With the park open literally a few minutes and the line already long, it seemed impossible to fathom a fastpass during daylight. Okay, so 5pm isn't the end of the world. But wait, what about that hard-won 5pm dinner reservation at 50s Prime Time Cafe? Time for plan B. Let one person at a time in front of you in line until the return time gets beyond 6pm. That's a great use of time, no? Oh and you wanted a fastpass for Tower of Terror? Bummer. You get one fastpass at a time and your first one is at 6. Not gonna happen. But wait, you could just totally wing it. I mean, the standby line for Toy Story is only 120 minutes. <cringe>. Have I jogged your memory? Perhaps with a chuckle or a grimace. If you've been to Disney World pre-fastpass+, you know what I'm talking about. It was a rolling fastpass system like it is today but you could get just one paper ticket at a time, and you had to go TO the attraction to get it. That could mean walking across the entire park only to retreat to where you actually wanted to start your day. And if you miss your one-hour window? Out of luck.
Now what about dining? Do you really need to know what you're going to eat 180 days in advance? Heck, I can't even remember to defrost chicken the day before I want to eat it. In a word, yes. Well, at least a first crack at it. Here's a super important thing to remember: Nothing is written in stone. So when guests ask me if they should schedule dining or fastpasses when they're not "positive" what park they'll be in, my answer is always yes. The sky will not fall if you miss a fastpass. Disney will not ban you if you have to change a dining reservation. But if 40 days prior to your trip you decide you really want to dine at Cinderella's Royal Table and ride Flight of Passage at Animal Kingdom ... well best of luck to ya! Nothing is impossible but it sure gets a lot more improbable as time passes.
I get it. You don't want to micromanage your vacation. You don't want to rush from one thing to the next and have a drill sergeant giving you marching orders throughout the day. But I suspect you likewise don't want to look like a deer in headlights when Ohana tells you, "sorry, we're not accepting walk-ups." The solution: good planning. Good planning is seamless, fluid, almost stealthy. When we plan itineraries, the plan is always to structure an itinerary to feel unstructured. Plan with the knowledge of the geography of the parks, clustering rides within the same area and allowing sufficient time to explore before moving on, to ensure no zig zagging. Know parade times and the natural direction changes those afford, and get those initial three fastpasses out of the way as early as possible within this framework. Plan dining not only around where you'll be but your family's interests and avoid mid-day reservations during particularly hot months. Sound easy? It is when you do this every single day. ;) Whether you work with a professional to plan out the basics of your Disney trip (and believe me, you can likewise over-plan so don't do that either) or hash it out on your own, A plan is better than NO plan because you'll at least have things to fall back on when you're hit squarely in the face with a wait time in hours rather than minutes or you just can't stand to wait in another character line (character meals are a big shortcut!).