Disney World Planning Guidebooks: A Curated list

It might not seem like you need a guidebook for planning your vacation to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. But it’s about the size of San Francisco. On WDW’s 40 square miles sit over thirty-four hotels, four theme parks, two water parks, a ginormous shopping/dining/entertainment complex (Downtown Disney), six golf courses, two mini golf courses, and the Wide World of Sports Complex.

A Disney vacation is not generally a rest and recharge type of trip. Most people who go want to experience the rides, shows, attractions, meet the characters, dine in different restaurants, and maybe have a little resort pool time. When tens of thousands of other people are also trying to do those things, it helps a lot if you have a plan. Can you wing it? Yes, absolutely. But if you want to spend less money, have fewer headaches, and avoid long lines, you need a plan. And if you have kids in tow, you also need a backup plan (and maybe a backup for your backup).

There are a lot of helpful websites about Walt Disney World (sadly, I don’t think the official Disney site is one of them), but there’s no substitute for a good guidebook. Digital books are still hard to flip through, annotate, or toss in your backpack. Having spent at least a week in WDW every year for over a decade, here are the five I recommend:

  1. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2015. This one is the behemoth. 864 pages covering not just WDW but off site hotels and shopping, the Disney Cruise Line, Universal Orlando, and non-Disney water parks. It has special sections on traveling with kids, with elders, with special needs, and even “for people with bad attitudes.” Very detailed hotel reviews onsite and off, restaurant reviews, and descriptions and ratings of every single attraction and ride. Its claim to fame is the touring plans designed for every park and just about every conceivable touring group (toddlers, tweens, couples). You can use the book to get a discount on their accompanying website which offers custom touring plans and predicted crowd levels in each park for each day. The Unofficial Guide is Disney-positive but not cultish: they recognize that Disney is a company trying to separate you from your money, and they’re very consumer focused. If something stinks, they’ll tell you.
  2. Birnbaum’s 2015 Walt Disney World: The Official Guide. This one is a lovely advertisement with gorgeous full color pictures and breathless descriptions. You aren’t going to find a chapter on Universal Studios or off site hotels here. The Official Guide has become more comprehensive over the years but is still less than half the size of The Unofficial Guide. This one gives you the basics on Disney World hotels, restaurants, and rides. When my kids were little, we enjoyed looking through the pages of The Official Guide together. And when we got home we cut out the pictures for our scrapbook (yep, I’m occasionally a book destroyer). It’s good for travelers who don’t want to be overwhelmed with information, who want to get pumped for their trip, and who prefer some sugar on their sugarcoating.
  3. PassPorter’s Walt Disney World 2015. This one is best for scrapbookers, and for travelers who like to keep everything in one place. Spiral bound with tabs, pockets and places to record important information, it works as a planner, trip journal and organizer. The paper version gives you access to the digital version for on-the-go viewing, something I wish more publishers would do. The PassPorter guide has lots of color photos and fold out maps. The presentation is more whimsical and artistic than The Unofficial Guide, but is more substantial than The Official Guide. It’s a uniquely interactive guidebook.
  4. The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World. This isn’t a guidebook but a list of interesting tidbits about Walt Disney World. It asks you to use all your senses to appreciate the details that make Disney feel more immersive than, say, Six Flags. In the Magic Kingdom, for example, Main Street is a particular shade of red because it makes photos look better, the lamps along the street change from gas lamps to electric lamps as you walk to give a sense of history, and the smell of fresh baked cookies coming from seemingly nowhere is meant to make you feel nostalgic. This is a great book to pass the time while waiting in lines, and it can entice an unwilling guest to get a little more interested in the practicalities behind the razzle-dazzle. It also helps the increasingly distracted traveler to be in the moment and fully experience and appreciate the details and history that make the parks so interesting.
  5. DFB guide to Walt Disney World Dining. I generally don’t recommend narrowly focused Disney guidebooks (for kids, for couples, for rich people, etc.). But this is an exception, especially if you’re a foodie. Most people focus on the hotel and attractions but everyone has to eat, and Disney has a very large and diverse food scene, from the AAA Diamond rated Victoria and Albert’s to the kitsch of the Sci Fi Dine-in Theater restaurant, where you sit in convertible cars and watch black and white horror movies under a (fake) night sky. Unfortunately, if you don’t make advance dining reservations it can be hard to get a table where you want, when you want. Written by the folks at the Disney Food Blog, this mammoth book has color photos and comprehensive descriptions of every possible edible item in the World. Menus, prices, and reviews for not just full service restaurants, but counter service, bars, lounges, and even kiosks. Good tips for how to save money, and opinionated “best” lists if you don’t feel like wading through it all. This one is also handy if you’re thinking of buying the Disney Dining Plan for your trip, which can be a little Byzantine.

If you’re looking forward to your Disney trip, any of of these books will prepare you to have the trip you want. If you’re being kidnapped by your family or guilted by your kids into going, they will help you find the least stressful, lowest cost, and most relaxing way to do it. You don’t have to feel bound by your plans (What’s that saying? “Plans are nothing, planning is everything.”), but having them offers peace of mind. And you won’t be that group stopping traffic in the middle of Main Street U.S.A., gathered around a park map, arguing about which way to go.

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