The steps you take in the early planning stage are really very minimal, but they get you one step closer to your goal: Disney World. Here's a few of the biggest ones you'll want to keep in mind.
1. Picking a room. If you're staying on site, you'll want to book early to get your resort of choice. You may book up to 500 days in advance (Disney cancellation policies are fairly lenient, but you'll want to familiarize yourself with them), but giving yourself a good six months (except for holiday travel) should give you enough time. I could stay anywhere on property and have a great time, but Disney resorts are so beautifully themed they can really add to your experience, so choose your resort carefully. Do you want a casual fun atmosphere?
Something romantic like the Grand Floridian?
The Polynesian Resort is located on the Magic Kingdom's monorail.
Or maybe convenience or price tops your list? It's all there and finding the one that suits you best is half the fun.
2. Watching for discounts. Even after you book your room, watch for discounts. If a discount comes out that matches your existing reservation, you can try to apply it (keep in mind they are limited). Disney normally releases room discounts or free dining several months in advance. This year has been a little different, because free dining was released for dates through next fall. This doesn't mean that the last series of discounts are it for the year. What will likely happen is that new discounts will be released and some blackout dates will be removed. This is not guaranteed, of course. Disney likes to keep us guessing.
If you're not working with a travel agent, you can look for these discounts yourself. The resort board at Disboards is one of the first places to post news of discounts; I always say, if you want to find out what's going on at Disney World, check there first. You can also check Mousesavers, but they are usually slightly behind the news at Disboards.
If you have a travel agent, she should keep up with discounts for you. If not, fire her. Seriously. There are too many excellent Disney certified agents out there for you to work with someone who doesn't keep your interests in mind.
3. Making your advanced dining reservations (ADRs). Park hours usually come out right around when you can also make your ADRs, which is at the six-month mark. The most popular restaurants, like Cinderella's Royal Table and Le Cellier will fill up before 8:00 a.m., Eastern time on the first day of availability, so if you want one of those restaurants, you're going to have to get up early. You can either call Disney at 407-WDW-DINE or book online at the Disney website.
4. Buy a good travel guide. The absolute best guide out there is the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, but it's huge and for some people, it's intimidating. If you want something smaller that is equally good, try The Complete Walt Disney World, which has gorgeous pictures and is written by a couple who spends a great deal of time in the parks. Finally, for those who like to organize their trips and keep all the information in one place, the Passporter guides are excellent; Passporter also runs a wonderful site with a friendly community forum where you can discuss Disney and how to use the book. You can't go wrong with any of these guides, so it's really a matter of how much reading and detail you want to tackle.
On a personal note, I'm not a fan of any of the Frommer's or Fodor's Disney World guides. They seem like an afterthought and I find that the information isn't any more useful than you would find on a site like Trip Advisor; in some cases, it's far less useful and potentially out of date
5. Finally, learn two of the most important rules for guests: How Disney transportation works and why you need a fastpass.
Next up we'll talk about what to expect when you're expecting (to visit Disney World).