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The evolution of Disney World vacation planning

When I was last at Walt Disney World in the early 2000's, it was a completely different experience than today. If it's been a decade since you were there and you're a parent planning a first visit with the kids, you're going to want to pay attention. Gone are the days when you could walk up to a favorite restaurant without a dining reservation and hope for an open table. Leaving aside third parties even (those have exploded), Disney's own online experience has changed your day in the parks due to the ability to reserve Fastpass for rides in advance. (Or even switch them on the fly depending on lines.) Recent promotions like Free Dining in the fall have created Black Friday type frenzy where vacationers are on hold for hours with travel agents hoping to score a free food plan. And, frankly, there's a lot more to do...partly due to those Fastpasses. More entertainment, more character interaction, more opportunities to book special tours or extras like dessert while watching the fireworks.

It's overwhelming.

But the flip side of that is a huge industry of "helpers" ready to guide you through the process. From Disney-authorized trip planners who will, literally, make your air, hotel, dining, and other reservations for you to comprehensive fan websites that let you see hotel rooms ahead of time. The rides are all on YouTube. You can get authorized discount tickets on the web. Disney's own official website even has breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus online for every restaurant. Planning websites can help you predict seasonal crowd sizes or even point you to the best day of the week for each park during your stay. There are elaborate, philosophical touring plans that help you fully utilize Fastpass, park hop, ride Disney transportation, or help you pick which resort is best for you based entirely on pool quality.

All that said, I thought I'd offer a few of my favorite web tools I'm currently either A) really into or B) check regularly because of the quality of the advice or information. Some are more useful than others and these are in no particular order.

David's Vacation Club Rentals--
This one is pretty cool. It links Disney Vacation Club owners with vacationers wishing to rent timeshare points. The downsides are that many of the popular rooms need to be booked a year in advance, payment is upfront and non-refundable, and you're taking a small risk by doing a private transaction that is outside the Disney system. You have to be careful to link your tickets the correct way. But it can save you a ton of money on larger, more upscale hotel space. They do a great job explaining the process and are a trusted resource for this in Disney circles. There are other ways to go about this DVC point rental process, but if I were to do it I'd go this way for the organization of it alone.

WDW Prep School--
Probably my favorite of this whole bunch. She doesn't just spit out raw numbers and explains everything really well, the site is beautifully designed, and she has thoughtful opinions on a range of topics. That said, it's light on photos and can be difficult to find archived material...the search function works just fine. Her graphics for seasonal crowds and her daily park guides are top notch.

Fly or Drive? --
This handy tool let's you input the airfare price, cost of a taxi to the airport, price of gas, your MPG, cost of tolls, etc. and spits out a score to compare whether you're better off driving or flying. Hence the name. It displays results both in terms of "cheap" but also the cost of your time and impact on the environment or wear on your vehicle.

Disney Dining Plan Calculator--
This one is a bit outdated, but still super fun to play with as a rough guide. The prices per night of your stay have gone up so don't trust the "break even" point and make sure to check a more accurate cost for your party. But you put in the number of adults and kids, how long you're staying, and then choose your restaurants and it will compute the food prices for your visit. It's helpful to know going in that you get a refillable mug for each person and a snack per day (per person). Those two things alone are worth about $100 if you're trying to decide. (Note that there are several other websites out there who analyze menus to give you what dollar amount you need to spend in each restaurant to get your money's worth on the Dining Plan.)

easy WDW &
I'm lumping these two together because I think they do similar things. They're great for trying to get really in-depth information on resorts. With photo after photo of rooms, lobbies, waiting areas, grounds. If you find one you like, see if it has a fan club because those can go REALLY down the wormhole regarding transportation and what room you should request to be nearest the pool. Wilderness Lodge, Polynesian, and Port Orleans are resorts with fan sites I can think of off the top of my head. But the websites I have listed here are good at ranking according to different criteria...cost, convenience, noise level, food court quality, appeal to children, or what to do if you have an unsual amount of people in your family.