Written by Trent Hamm, The Simple Dollar is a popular personal finance blog that chronicles one man's road back from overwhelming debt to financial security. Hamm declared the contents of the blog to be in the Public Domain in 2008 and available for sharing when attributed properly. We will share a couple of posts a week.
In late June, my family went on a lengthy vacation through the south, including a long stop in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a large chunk of a day in Savannah, Georgia, a visit to a relative in rural northern Florida, and eventually a trip to Walt Disney World with our children.
Sarah went to Disney World three times during her childhood and it was an experience that she was excited to share with our children. I’m not particularly a big fan of roller coasters and most amusement park rides, but I had my own reasons for getting excited for the trip – namely, traveling with my parents to a part of the country they had never seen. Yep, my parents went along, too. They had never seen an ocean before and, since my dad was a lifelong fisherman, we actually got to go saltwater fishing together, which was another major highlight of the trip.
While we were at Disney World, I kept my eyes open and my notebook out as I looked for strategies for making a vacation there less expensive. Without a doubt, it’s an expensive place, but what tactics can people use to trim the cost without trimming the fun?
Here are twelve things I learned from our vacation that can help you trim the costs of a trip to Disney World.
Save Up for the Trip
Perhaps the most expensive mistake you can make on a big trip is to pay for everything on a credit card without anything saved for the expense. This means that you’ll be carrying a credit card balance for months or even years as you whittle the balance down and that can easily add up to a premium of 15% or 20% in interest beyond the cost of the trip.
Instead, start saving now, even if you don’t plan to go for a few years. If you can save $20 per week, you’ll have $1,050 at the end of the year. Save for three years and you’ll have enough to pay for a very nice Disney World trip. Make that your “Disney World savings.” You’ll be glad you did.
Once you get there, it can be a good idea to pay for things using a credit card because you’ll get consumer protections and credit card rewards, but you should have savings from which you can draw to immediately pay off the balance. This will earn you a quick return on your money.
Don’t Make Disney World the Center of Your Trip
Disney World is an expensive place, but it’s far from the only thing to do in the Orlando area – particularly if you start looking at a broader area for your trip. Don’t make Disney World the entire focus of your trip and instead include the many other things you can do in the area.
It’s about an hour from a large number of free beaches on the coast, for example. Spend a day going to the ocean and enjoying the beach – build some sand castles, collect some seashells, and play in the surf. You can go up the coast just a bit and visit historic Fort Manzanas National Monument or the Fort Christmas Historical Park in Titusville – or, if you’re driving down from the north, do what we did and check out the Great Smoky Mountains.
If you want free stuff in Orlando itself, the downtown arts district is a great place to wander and spend a day enjoying the sunshine and countless free art exhibits. You can also visit the rock springs at Kelly Park, but they can be crowded (because they’re frankly impressive) and has a small admission fee (a couple of dollars per vehicle).
There are an infinite number of other options for vacation fun and entertainment in Orlando that are less expensive than Disney World.
Go in the Off Season
The best times to visit Disney World are in December before Christmas, in January, and in the fall (between Labor Day and Thanksgiving). The crowds are smaller, plus everything you book at Disney World during those times is less expensive.
On the other hand, if you book during the summer and during the “spring break” period, the parks will be very crowded and everything will be more expensive.
It can sometimes be trickier to get time off during the fall or the early winter as opposed to the summer, but it depends on your employment situation. For some families, it may even be easier.
Do the Travel Math
From much of the United States, it takes far less time to fly to Orlando than it does to drive there. In fact, that’s true for almost anywhere outside of Florida.
The problem is that it can be really expensive. We had seven people in our party and the cheapest tickets we could find were $300 a pop and still required us to drive several hours to get those prices. Flying out of Des Moines was even worse than that. That’s $2,100 for all of us to fly there.
We ended up choosing to drive. After doing the math, we rented a minivan with unlimited miles on it so that the only expense we had was the fuel. We saved about 50% over the cost of just the plane tickets, let alone other expenses, plus we had the freedom to enjoy other things in the Orlando area.
Yes, it took more time and, yes, time is money, but by only making Disney World part of our vacation, it didn’t matter nearly as much. Our vacation included many things along the way and on the way back.
Use Discounts Such as AAA
No matter what you decide, search hard for discounts – they are in abundance for Disney World trips.
For example, AAA offers a nice discount on rooms if you choose to stay at a Disney World resort (see below for more on that). There’s also a very nice military discount as well. You can find many, many deals like this if you hunt around, so do a lot of Google searching before you buy.
You can also buy discounted tickets to the parks, but be careful. Stick with a reputable ticket seller like Undercover Tourist. I actually witnessed someone who had apparently been scammed by a ticket broker find themselves unable to get into the Magic Kingdom. I wouldn’t bother with an on-site guy selling tickets and I also wouldn’t bother with a less reputable ticket seller.
Stay Off Site – Or Camp
It can be very tempting to get an all-in-one vacation package with a room at a Disney World resort, a meal plan, and your tickets. However, I’d skip this for a few reasons.
First, the Disney World resorts are really expensive. They’re nice, don’t get me wrong, but they’re pricy. There are great places to stay just a few minutes from Disney World that offer a shuttle to the parks. If you hunt around on Hotels.com, you can find amazing deals on extremely large, nice rooms at those places – even some with kitchen areas, which can help a ton with food costs.
I personally stayed at both the Caribe Royale and the Westgate Town Center while in Orlando (we cobbled together our housing from multiple discounts) and both were excellent and very inexpensive compared to the Disney resorts themselves, plus we earned a free night and a $100 voucher from Hotels.com in the process. If I were doing the trip again, I’d be happy to stay at either one of those places for the entire length of the trip.
Another option is camping. Disney does have a large campground at Disney World called Fort Wilderness, but slots there start at $50. It is a far cheaper option than the resorts and cheaper even than some of the off-site hotels, but you’ll need to bring camping gear with you.
Pack Your Own Food – and Water Bottles – to the Parks
The second reason I’d skip an all-in-one package is that Disney World meals are pricy. They’re excellent – we ate a few meals there – but the prices are very stiff for almost everything. (That’s to be expected, of course.)
A much better approach is to simply eat breakfast in your room, then take food and beverage items with you to the park. They have a very open policy about outside food and drink. One good strategy is to just pack enough food for a simple late lunch, then leave yourself open for a late dinner at the park or, if you’re watching your dollars, outside the park (at your room or at a less expensive place).
Also, pack your water bottles! The cost of drinks there is incredibly expensive. My plan was to have a water bottle with a short strap that I could attach to my belt loop and detach when I needed it. I would just refill this at water fountains, then I would hook it to my belt when I wasn’t actively drinking water. It’s far cheaper than a $4 bottled water or soft drink.
Avoid the Disney Dining Plan (Probably)
The Disney Dining Plans are very convenient and do save you a little money if you buy a large package of them. They allow you to eat very conveniently within the parks – all you have to do is swipe your card or use your wristband to “pay” for the meals.
However, they’re still far more expensive than just planning your own meals as described above, and the savings really don’t appear unless you carefully plan and reserve your meals at the better restaurants i the park, which puts you on a pretty tight schedule and restricts your free exploration.
Not only that, a big plan – like the Deluxe Dining Plan, which offers three meals and two snacks per person per day – gives you a ludicrous amount of food. The meals at the actual Disney World restaurants are huge (and delicious). You will gain several pounds if you do it this way, even with all the walking. I don’t even want to eat that much food.
My recommendation is that if you do choose to get a dining plan, get a simpler one with perhaps one meal a day and make that your main meal. Plan those meals carefully and go to a really good restaurant (I particularly liked the Coral Reef Restaurant at EPCOT) each day so that you get a lot of value from that plan, then eat small meals that you prepare yourself for the rest of the day.
Avoid the Park Hopper
The final reason I’d avoid an all-inclusive plan is that you can get tickets cheaper elsewhere, as I mentioned above.
Speaking of tickets, the “park hopper” option seems really, really tempting, but it’s not quite as good as it seems. A “park hopper” is a special ticket that lets you go to any of the amusement parks at Disney World (of which there are four, plus two smaller water parks) on that day – the ticket will allow you to go to one park, leave, go to another one, leave, and go to a third, if you want to fill your schedule like that.
Here’s the problem: our family couldn’t even explore one park in a single day to our satisfaction. We skimmed over large chunks of every park we were in and we were often at the parks from the time they opened until well after dark. There were entire sections of most of the parks that we didn’t even visit.
I am glad that we didn’t buy the park hopper option because we would have either never used it or we would have rushed at a ludicrous pace to try to squeeze even more into a day, causing us to miss many things.
If you are going for less than four days, I’d suggest just excluding parks entirely rather than using the park hopper option. Save your money and just explore one park per day instead.
In fact, if I were planning our vacation all over again, here’s what I would do. I would wait until the off season, then rent a room at one of the off-site hotels (or possibly camp). I’d alternate days at Disney World with days doing free stuff in the Orlando and central Florida areas, such as a beach day and a Orlando art district day. I would either prepare all of our meals ourselves or get a low-end meal plan with one meal per day at Disney World. This would halve (at least) the cost of an all-inclusive package and not really eliminate any major memorable part of the vacation.
Don’t Buy Souvenirs at Disney World – Get Them Elsewhere
Disney World has a stupendous number of souvenir shops. There are shirts, hats, glasses, pins, and countless other things there, with thousands of variations.
Most people who travel to Disney World will be tempted to pick up a souvenir of their trip, particularly if there are children involved. However, virtually everything you see in a Disney World gift shop can be found for much less online.
If you want everyone in your family to have Mickey Mouse ears, buy them beforehand and pull them out when you arrive at the park. That way, everyone can be in that really cute picture in front of Cinderella’s castle with Mickey Mouse while wearing their ears and you paid half price for them.
If your kids find a souvenir in the shop, tell them that you’ll have it shipped home, then just order that exact item from your phone or from a computer. You’ll save a significant chunk on the cost.
Make Your Own Autograph Books
One aspect of Disney World that I didn’t really expect was the autograph collecting. There are tons of characters there in costume who will sign autographs for people.
Naturally, when our children met Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh, they wanted an autograph, as they’d seen other children getting them. At first, we used scratch paper, but eventually Sarah decided to get each child an autograph book. Surprise! It was overly pricy.
A much better solution would be to make your own autograph book before you go. Just get a small blank journal of whatever type you can find on sale, then let your children decorate it as they wish with stickers and so on. Let them make it personal. Plus, it will help get them excited for vacation and they can also use it for a vacation journal.
Then, just take that journal and a pen with you into the parks. When a character is available for an autograph, you’re ready to go.
Not only will the autograph book seem more like a personal memento, it’ll also be cheaper.
Be Smart About Fast Pass
One final note that won’t directly save you money, but will likely make your trip more enjoyable: be smart about the Fast Pass system.
Disney has a great system called Fast Pass where you can reserve times on popular rides in advance – it’s free with your ticket. You can only reserve three rides per day, however.
Since some rides are more popular than others, you’ll naturally want to use Fast Pass to reserve slots on the most popular rides so that your total time spent in line is as low as possible, but how do you figure that out.
As soon as you book your trip, go onto the Disney World website and start looking at the rides that have long lines that day. The rides with the longest lines will be the ones that you should consider using a Fast Pass for. So, start by evaluating the ride with the longest wait. Do you want to ride that one? If so, use one of your Fast Passes on it. Then, move down the list, going to the next longest line.
You’ll eventually end up with three Fast Passes that allow you to duck the longest lines, which means you’ll only need to stand in the shorter lines.
(And one final tip: if you’re planning on going this year and your daughter really wants to meet Anna and Elsa from the movie Frozen, you really, really should use a Fast Pass on it or else you’ll be standing in line for three hours surrounded by children who are bored with the wait but don’t want to give up their place in line.)
Our Disney World vacation was a wonderful one. Although I did a lot of homework in advance and we definitely did some things right in terms of minimizing the cost, it was hard to grasp many of the smaller tactics until we were actually on site – and then I realized that there were several additional things we could have done to make the trip less expensive without missing a moment of fun.
Would I do things a little differently? Sure. Would I do things drastically different? Not at all. It was a great vacation, one within our planned vacation budget, and one that we all enjoyed. Our best experiences didn’t involve the perfect meal or the perfect hotel room. They involved little moments of family camaraderie and togetherness in a fun place. You don’t need to mortgage your future for that.
If you plan on visiting Disney World in the next few years, I hope you take all of these tips to heart. Good luck!