First Things First
I'm not going to sugar coat it. A Disney vacation can be very expensive. A weeklong stay for a family of four at a value resort with tickets for six days during the off season is around $2,200. That does not include food. That does not include travel to get there. And, of course, that does not include anything you buy while you are there. Depending on how far away you are traveling from, it could cost you around $4,000 or more for this vacation. That's a pretty penny for sure, but there are ways you can save money and not sacrifice any of the iconic Disney experiences.
Staying on and off property have their own advantages and disadvantages. If you have read any of my other articles on vacationing at Walt Disney World you are already familiar with some of them. Believe it or not, but there are ways to save money on food while you are at Disney World, and you can even save a little on tickets if you know exactly what you want and need.
My family stayed in the value resorts on property before buying into the vacation club. For us the convince of transportation and being completely immersed in the Disney experience was worth it. Some of our family friends also spend one week at Disney each year, but they do with another family and rent out a vacation home. They make breakfast each morning and have a late dinner each night. For them this is a better option.
Where You Stay Matters
There is a long-standing debate amongst Disney people about whether staying on or off property is better for a Disney Vacation. Personally, the only time I have ever stayed off property was on a school trip to sing at the Candlelight Processional. Our stay was just fine, but traveling with 120 high schoolers is different than traveling with the typical American family.
Most of the hotels around the Disney property have special offers to entice people to stay. Nearly all of them offer some sort of free breakfast. This can save you a lot of money. Especially if you take some of the fruit from the breakfast bar for a snack at the parks later. Most of the larger hotel chains offer shuttle services to and from the parks. This will help you save on that pesky parking fee you have to pay if you drive to the parks. But, these services often aren't as continuous as the busing services that Disney offers its resort guests. Though this is to be expected as Disney has a lot more funding and guests that they need to cater to. And the bottom line is the majority of the hotel rooms are a little larger than the value rooms and roughly cost the same or a little less.
There are a lot of vacation homes for rent by the week or even month in the Disney area as well. I've heard of a lot of families using these. The most cost effective way I have heard is for a two families, say your closest friends or family with children your age (that you get along with of course), to rent a home together. You get the luxury of feeling like you are at home and not in hotel room while on vacation. If you plan on cooking breakfast this is the best way to go as many of the homes have full kitchens. The only real downside is that you will have to drive to the parks and pay the parking fee everyday. Personally the heavy traffic leaving the parks at the end of the day is enough to make me cringe at the thought of driving to and from the parks. But, if you have small children and don't think you will make it to 10pm each night this might be a great option for you.
The benefits of staying on property can outweigh the added cost for many people. Disney has a massive transportation system that will get you anywhere on property you wish to go. Disney has customer service that is legendary. (That is not to say that you will not receive excellent service at any of the hotels or resorts off property.) If you stay on property you are eligible to participate in one of the dining plans. Disney even will open its parks early or keep them open later just for its resort guests. Disney calls this their Extra Magic Hours, and you can get a list of park openings and closings when you check in at your resort. This can be a great way to get in everything that you want to do without running around all day. The parks are typically less busy during this time as well, which is always nice.
Essentially, when you are mapping out your budget you need to take into consideration what amenities are important to you. Would you rather have free breakfast at your resort, or a bussing service to take you anywhere free of charge? Would you rather save money on your hotel room or spend an extra hour or two at the parks? There is no right or wrong choice, it is just a matter of budget and opinion.
There are a lot of people that are against the dining plan, and a lot of people that are very much for it. Both sides have their key points, and depending on what you want to get out of your vacation they are both right.
Personally, I think the dining plan is a great deal if you were going to eat like that anyway. Meaning if you had planned on eating two meals at the parks each day then the dining plan is the way to go. If you only want to eat one meal at the parks then it most likely won't be the best route for you.
Saving Money on Food
Unless your hotel offers free breakfast you are going to have to spend a little money on the most important meal of the day. If you are looking to save a little money why not do breakfast yourself? No matter where you stay you can have breakfast in your own room without spending money on over priced food at the parks.
You know those stores where you can buy in bulk: BJ's, Costco, and Sam's? Well, they offer juice and milk packs. You can get a case of juices or chocolate milk for relatively cheap. You can also bring things like bagels with different spreads, pop tarts, pre-pacaged doughnuts, muffins (costco has variety packs with enough muffins for an entire trip), and if you are willing to bring some bowls and do some light dishes oatmeal. All of this stuff is easy to pack, though some may require a cooler, and the best part is it won't be there to take up room on the trip back. Sometimes we will use this to help remind us to save space for all the things we will inevitably buy on our vacation. You can even buy fruit in bulk at these stores, which makes a great addition to breakfast or a snack at the parks.
If you have never been to central Florida before you have not had the pleasure of experiencing the lovely taste of the water. I strongly advise that you bring bottled water. You can pick up a case really cheap at most bulk stores and it travels really well (assuming you are driving of course). I know that it is more environmentally friendly to use a refillable water bottle, but trust me the water from the fountains at the park is nasty. Though, you can get free water from any vendor that has food and beverages at the parks. I would also recommend packing some granola bars or other snacks in your day pack for the parks. That way you can save a little on snacks at the park.
If you do stay at one of the many resorts on Disney property I would recommend participating in one of the meal plan options. You get, at minimum, two quick service meals and a snack each day and a refillable mug for your resort. Think about it, if you were going to eat two meals at the parks anyway wouldn't it make sense to save a little money? How much you save depends on how smart you are with your spending. For example, there is a quick service restaurant at EPCOT called Seasons. This is where you can get some quick services meals that can rival table service dinners at some restaurants outside of Disney. My advice would be to eat breakfast in your room, bring a morning snack with you, use your two quick service meals for lunch and dinner, and then use your snack for an end of the night treat before fireworks. The only thing not included on the meal plan is alcoholic drinks.
I've heard people complain about not being able to use all of their snack during their stay. This absolutely blows my mind. A rice crispy Mickey counts as a snack. If you are too full at the end of each day and find yourself with 16 snacks left at the end of your trip why not get a bunch of rice crispy Mickeys for your friends or coworkers back home?
If you are just going to the water parks for one day it is cheaper to just buy tickets at the gate. However, if you plan on going twice, or to a water park and Disney Quest or any combination of the above you should strongly consider just adding the water park and more option to your tickets.
Tickets: What Exactly Do You Need?
The tickets to the parks are expensive, there just isn't a way around it. Fun fact: if you are going to Disney for just one day a one day ticket for the Magic Kingdom is more expensive than any other park.
The more days you plan on spending at the parks the cheaper it is, per day, for each ticket. My advice is if you are going to stay for a full week is to get tickets for six days. That way you can spend two days at one of the parks, the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT are usually the ones that have the most to do, and one day at the other two. This will save you a little and allow you to do everything that you want to without burning you out at the end of the day.
If you plan on jumping from park to park each day you NEED to add the park hopper option onto your tickets. If you do not you will be charged a full day for each park you go to on the same day. If you want to take advantage of the water parks or Disney Quest you should add the water parks and more option to your tickets. This option is cheaper than just buying another ticket at the door.
My brother and I have both had teachers have us do projects on our Disney vacations. Disney vacations make great projects for things like budgets. One of my favorites school assignments was my Disney vacation pie chart. I broke down how much each part of the vacation cost: lodging, food, tickets, transportation, and souvenirs. My brother has had assignments like keeping a daily journal of the trip for his writing classes.
When to Go
There are certain times of the year where the parks are busier than others. These times are called the peak seasons. Spring break, the majority of the summer and especially around the fourth of July, and the week before Christmas through the week after New Years. A good rule of thumb is if you child is out of school chances are the Disney parks will be packed. During this time the parks will be crowed, it is not uncommon for the Magic Kingdom to close its gates to new guests after only two hours of operation. This is also when hotel rates will be the highest. Its not only the Disney resort rates that go up in price but the hotels and resorts around the Orlando and Kissimmee area go up as well.
Just like how there are times of the year when the parks are busy and everything is really expensive there are times when the parks are relatively empty. This is the time you want to go if you want to save a little money. During these periods the value resorts can as cheap as $85 a night, and that isn't too bad. As an added bonus the parks aren't very crowded so you don't have to wait in horrifically long lines. The downside to this time is that this is when school is in session so you will have to pull your child out of school to go on vacation.
There is a period of time between the busy and off seasons where the parks are moderately crowded and rates are considered 'normal. Typically this is during a transition period where some schools are in session and some are not. A perfect example is I got out of school in early June, but my cousins in Iowa got out in early May. A reverse is that I went back to school the last week of August and they went back in September.
The bottom line is if you feel comfortable pulling your children out of school you will save a little money on a trip to Disney. I'm not saying that taking kids out of school is the best practice, just that it will save money and the parks won't be as busy. If you get with your child's school before your trip chances are pretty good that their teachers will be more than willing to give them the work that they will be missing in advanced. I can't tell you how many trips I spent doing homework on the car ride down and back. I would even spend time doing homework while every one was getting ready for the parks in the morning and for bed at night. My parents were also usually really nice in that we would drive back on Saturday and give me the entire day Sunday to work on all my homework.
More Money Saving Ideas
Over the years I have heard some crazy ways to save money at the parks. Some of them I use and agree with and some I think are just plain weird. I will share them with you so that you can make up your mind and decide which ones you would like to use:
- Order a large tray of fries from Pecos Bill's and load them up with condiments. That way you aren't spending a lot of money on food and still get filled up.
- Before you go get Disney t-shirts and stuff animals from stores like Wal-Mart and Old Navy. That way you won't have to spend money while you are at the parks for your chidden to have Disney apparel and they will already have that stuffed Mickey that they will inevitably want.
- If your little girl wants to dress up as a princess try to buy the dress on-line when its on sale. Disney's website typically has sales around the holidays and after Halloween. As an added bonus the dress is a great Christmas or Birthday present and a great way to get your little girl even more excited about your upcoming trip.
- Make your own autograph books. Kids love getting their favorite characters to sign their autograph books. Making your own before the trip is a good family activity and will save you $15 at the parks.
- Take advantage of the fastpass system. Why spend an hour and a half waiting in line for one ride when you can get a fastpass and ride two in the same amount of time.
- If you really want to do a character meal (typically they are buffets) try for a breakfast over dinner. Breakfast is always cheaper and you can eat as much as you want. Another great benefit is that if you get the first seating it is often before the park opens. Sure you might have to get up a little earlier but you will get into the parks before everyone else, and just think about how happy you and your kids will be. Imagine being the first into the parks, being done with breakfast when the park opens, getting fastpasses before everyone else, and starting the day with a full autograph book.
- AAA members often get discounts on many things in the magical word of Disney.
- Start saving when you start planning. That way you aren't spending months are even years after your trip paying extremely high interest rates.
- Flying is a time saving, but it can be very expensive. If you don't live on the complete opposite side of the country it might save you a couple hundred, or thousand, dollars to dive. Just plan for more time getting there and coming home.
- Take advantage of the free activities. Nearly all the resorts offer nightly movies and there are often nightly campfires (usually with s'mores) at Fort Wilderness.
- At some resorts, like Animal Kingdom Lodge and Kidani Village there are bonfires at night near the main savannah. The cast members even provide marshmallows and sticks so you can roast marshmallows while you watch the animals at night. Which is free to all resort guests.
- There is a nighttime water parade for the resorts along Seven Seas Lagoon, just find a place on the beach and sit back and wait for it.
- For guests staying on property you can request a free wake up call from Mickey or Stitch.
- If you don't want to spend money on the photopass and photopass photographer will take a picture with your own camera if you ask them to.
- Disney has buttons for every special occasion you can imagine. Get one, often cast members will go out of their way to make sure these guests are having an exceptionally magical experience.
- Nearly all of the cast members have stickers that they give out to kids. First stickers make any little kids happy, and second they are great for scrapbooking later.
- Ask cast members for advice. These guys typically are big Disney fanatics and often aren't the highest paid of employees so they know how to save a buck or two at the parks.
- Watch the Disney website for deals and combination plans.
- You can visit any of the resorts for free, and Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge has safari animals on exhibit that you can go see for free.
- Start your trip on a weekday, weekend stays tend to be more expensive and the parks are often busier.
- If you are a member of the military you will get a discount on park tickets. Sometimes you can even get a discount on hotel stays as well. Just call and talk to a Disney cast member to find out what their current discounts are.
- Harmony Barber Shop is a cheaper alternative to Bibbity Bobbity Boutique.
- Bring your own ponchos or reuse ponchos from a previous trip.
- Consider bringing your own snacks to the parks. It will be a lot cheaper than buying a Mickey ice cream or churro every day.
I hope this was able to help you find some money saving tricks for your next Disney vacation. Remember to stick to your budget no matter what. Have fun, and find your inner child.