1. Figure out when I can take a vacation and check out crowd levels.
Typically, the slowest time of the year is in September when kids go back to school. Since we don't have kids yet, we use this to our advantage and reference this site's crowd calendar to pick the least crowded week in Sept.
2. Look at special offers.
The most obvious thing to do is check the Disney Special Offers site to see if there are discounted rooms or free dining. As a Disney VISA cardholder, we are lucky to receive email offers with discounts or free dining which haven't been released to the public yet. The offers are eventually released, but this advance notice gives us an edge to book the resort we want before it fills up.
3. Book the trip!
Book online or call in person. (I like to call just to hear the cast member wish me a magical day!) If you book a package, there is a $200 deposit due upon booking, with the remaining balance owed 45 days prior to check in. Another advantage of the Disney VISA is there is no interest on booking packages for 6 months. If you book far enough in advance, you can effectively spread out the payments across more than that, provided you pay in installments.
For example, let's say I book a $2,200 vacation in January for an October arrival. For the sake of this example, let's say I can afford to pay off $200 per month.
1. I pay off the deposit right away in January. The remaining balance is $2,000.
2. In February, I decide to charge half the remaining balance ($1000) to my Disney Visa. It takes me 5 months to pay this off.
3. In August, the 45 day mark will arrive, and I can charge the remaining $1000 and pay if off over the next 5 months - ALL INTEREST FREE*
Keep in mind that you may not need/want a park ticket for each day of your trip. Although park tickets become remarkably cheaper per day the more days you spend, it's worth it to make sure you will actually use them all. We never have time for parks on arrival and departure day, so we shave off a few dollars by not paying for tickets for those days.
4. Pick park days based on crowd levels, special events, EMH.
Now that I know how many days we will be there, I return to Touring Plans to look at the individual dates and related information. Based on our touring style (arrive at the parks before opening, mid-day break, stay at the parks late), I look for parks that have Extra Magic Hours. I also look for any special events that might cause a park to get crowded or close to the general public early.
5. Make ADRs (Advanced Dining Reservations)
Once I know which parks I am visiting on each day, I think about which sit-down restaurants I'd like to visit. Reservations can be made 180 days prior to your arrival, and I recommend calling on the 180 day mark to ensure you get the times and restaurants you really want. Some of the restaurants fill up fast!
6. Book special experiences
Some experiences cannot be booked 180 days in advance, such as tours or hard-ticket events. I research when these tickets can be purchased and call to order the day they are available.
7. (optional) Pick a Touring Plan for each park visit
We have gotten the hang of how to maximize our touring in the past few years, so we don't follow these religiously. That being said, we usually get to the parks at least 30-45 minutes before opening each morning and use the Lines app to help plan out the first 3-6 attractions we want to make sure we do that day.
8. Count down, obsess, rearrange plans to heart's content.
Lastly, the OCD Project Manager in me tracks all the details in a spreadsheet. I love to make notes of special things to do or taste, questions to ask characters, and special experiences. I make lists of Disney movies I want to watch before I go, what to pack, and use a countdown app on my phone. I also help the countdown go faster by staying up to date with tips, news, podcasts, and opinions from other Disney-lovers. Of course, I research and learn as much as humanly possible.
To me, life is always better with a countdown!
**I am not advocating for or against using credit cards. In our household, we pay any interest-accruing balance off each month. This is merely an example of how we stretch out our vacation payments to manage paying for trips without using interest.