Disney moms panelist shares secrets of planning last-minute trip

If anyone knows, she knows.

— -- Editor's note: Earlier this month, Disney Parks announced their new Disney Moms Panel. The 11 new panelists were selected from thousands of applicants to provide honest and relatable vacation tips. Collectively, the panel has taken 1,250 Disney vacations. Kristen Neukom of North Charleston, South Carolina, was chosen for her expertise in planning last-minute Disney vacations.

For the last few years I've booked multiple last-minute Walt Disney World Resort vacations for a variety of reasons. Once was on a whim after my husband's return home from a deployment. We would have loved more time to plan, but we weren't sure how tired or jet-lagged he'd be upon his return. I ended up calling to book a room at 10 p.m., and we left at 10 a.m. the next morning! Another time was due to an emergency work conflict that caused us to move our initial vacation, our son's first trip, up from two months away to two weeks out. EVERYTHING had to be rescheduled, from our Resort Hotel reservation, to our FastPass+ selections and Advance Dining Reservations; even a special once-in-a-lifetime and VERY limited booking at the Harmony Barber Shop on Main Street U.S.A for our son's first haircut. But we managed to get everything back in place and still had the best time ever. Here are some tips and tricks I've learned:

1. Play with dates

If you're having trouble finding a Walt Disney World Resort Hotel with availability in your budget, or you want to stay at a specific location that says it's sold out, play around with all of your possible travel dates in the online Resort Hotel booking area of https://disneyworld.disney.go.com. If you initially searched a check-in date of Sunday with a check-out date of Friday, try checking-in on Saturday and checking-out on Thursday, or a Monday-through-Saturday stay. Sometimes just a single day in your vacation range is booked solid and shifting your dates even by one is all that it takes to find a room.

2. Try a "split-stay" for finding hotel rooms

A "split-stay" is actually two (or more!) separate resort hotel reservations at different properties around Walt Disney World Resort. You'll have to really play around with your dates on the Resort Hotel booking portal, and you can only look at one range of dates at a time. I like to determine how many nights we'll stay total, and split that number down the middle as best as possible. Example: a five-night stay means I'll search for hotels in the first reservation Saturday to Tuesday, and then the second reservation will be Tuesday to Thursday. It may seem like a lot of work, but it could be the difference between being able to squeeze in a trip or not. Make sure you book your check-in date of the second stay as the same check-out day of the first room, or else you'll find yourself without a bed for a night. And if this is an option that you're considering, know that most Walt Disney World Resort Hotels even offer a complimentary luggage transfer service from your first hotel to your second while you're off playing the day away.

3. Customize those MagicBands

No matter if you're booking a complete vacation package or a rooms-only reservation with tickets that you'll purchase elsewhere (like at the gate!), the next thing I would do is customize your MagicBands. If your vacation is more than 11 days away, you can pick out each person's preferred color and have their names (or nicknames!) inscribed on the back with enough time to still be shipped to your home. If your vacation is between six and 10 days out, there is still time to customize each band, but you will pick them up at check-in of your Walt Disney World Resort Hotel. If you're 5 or fewer days away from arrival, you'll still receive a MagicBand at check-in, however it will not have your moniker. MagicBands are your room keys, serve as your park tickets, hold your FastPass+ reservations, can access any of your dining plan entitlements, and can link back to a credit card for charging privileges all across Walt Disney World Resort. You'll definitely want to personalize your MagicBands if you can as they can unlock some really fun surprises all across your vacation.

4. Ship your stuff to your hotel

If you find yourself running out of time to run around gathering vacation supplies before you make your way to Florida, you can have anything you need shipped from home or any online retailer to your Disney World Resort Hotel for a $5 per-package fee. Swimwear, snacks for the room, diapers for the baby, your special shampoo, a case of water. Make sure you include the word "guest" + your reservation number and arrival date in the delivery address field, and your Resort Hotel will take care of the rest.

5. Let's talk dining

There is a longstanding tradition of getting up at zero dark thirty to book your sit-down table-service meals as soon as the phone lines open at 7 a.m. ET exactly 180 days before you step foot into Walt Disney World. Today everything is completely different thanks to the Walt Disney World planning website, y Disney Experience, and the My Disney Experience App. You can now "look and book" all dining locations that still have open availability during your visit across all four theme parks, all resort hotels, and even Disney Springs, from wherever you are, whenever you have a few free minutes. It doesn't matter if you're 100 days away from your vacation arrival or just one. Reserve your character lunch while you're at the library, book breakfast while you're waiting in line at the bank, or decide on dinner while you're walking the dog.

6. But don't give up on that hard-to-score reservation

Don't give up in trying to score that reservation you really want. Most sit-down table-service restaurants, as well as certain special experiences, keep a number of their tables or time slots open every day specifically for walk-in guests. It's best to check first thing in the morning, and in person, as the lists that are most up to date are at each location's check-in. When we had to reschedule our son's first visit, it was the first place we went when we walked into Magic Kingdom. Not only were we able to put our name on the list, we even got to choose the time slot that worked best for the rest of our schedule. Another time we walked in to Cinderella's Royal Table and were seated in 20 minutes.

7. Don't forget Quick Service

The counters and kiosks in Epcot's World Showcase as well as Disney's Animal Kingdom are full of culturally accurate plates; you can even order smaller nibbles from multiple locations so you can "eat your way around the world." Your Quick-Service options aren't all deep-fried, either. There are fresh fruit stands and many healthy options in all of the parks, with combos like salmon and couscous or Mediterranean salads. But my favorite thing about Disney's Quick-Service options is that as a last-minute traveler I can still find some of the most beloved table-service dishes at these walk-up locations. Was your heart set on Tonga Toast but you couldn't get in to Kona Café at Disney's Polynesian Resort? Head around the corner to Capt. Cooks where you can order a similar portion. Do you dream of the beer-battered fish and chips from Epcot's Rose and Crown Dining Room? You can get a basket of the same delectable strips at the Yorkshire County Fish Shop right next door. The walk-up counter Yak & Yeti Local Food Cafes has the same delicious honey chicken and pork egg rolls as the hard-to-book Yak & Yeti table-service restaurant, yet you can order and be eating them in half the time.

8. Stay on top of your app

Check your My Disney Experience App throughout your day for last-minute FastPass+ openings and sit-down dining options as cancellations happen all the time. You never know what will magically open up. We even like to play what we call "what's open for dinner," where we search for a same-day reservation based on a general chunk of time and the number of people in our party. Sometimes there are only a few options available, but it's a really fun way to be spontaneous, and we even step outside our comfort zone by trying a restaurant that would have been really low on our list if were able to pick our number one choice of all 116 table-service restaurants.