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I thought it would be fun and helpful if I sat down and wrote a post on how we afford our trips to Disney World, and how you can, too! I completely understand how overwhelming is… Disney World is seen as a vacation that is expensive (it can be) and out of reach (doesn’t have to be), or a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. In all honesty, it doesn’t have to be seen that way. There is so much to do at Disney and it’s impossible to do it all in the same trip. Depending on how you do it, it can be as cheap as you want. It just takes a little thought…
At the time of this post going live, I’m just 3.5 months away from my second Disney vacation in two years time, so let me preface this by saying that I am not a Disney guru, junkie, genius, etc. by any means. Who I am is someone who is really good at maximizing my dollars for vacations and I see that family time as a priority. I’m someone who is strategic about spending, and I LOVE planning my vacations! I’m someone who loves to plan things far out in advance, and when it comes to planning for a Disney trip, you have to plan, and plan, and plan some more if you want it done right and for less money. Seeing as we leave in a few months for our second trip, the financial part is still so fresh and new (and 75% paid/saved for). Side note: we never use credit for vacations. We reserve credit for other life events, so all vacations are paid in full before we leave.
My site isn’t going to become a Disney hub or anything like that – all I’m doing is sharing what I do know. It may not be much, but I hope it helps some of you get started on your Disney planning. If you are a Disney guru and have more savings tips to add, please feel free to leave a comment, including links to your own site if you have posts that are Disney specific. My family will probably continue our “every 2 years” pattern because while we do love Disney, there are plenty of other great vacations we enjoy, like camping, or visiting the beach or mountains. When I start getting into the Disney financial planning mode again, I’d love to be able to come back to this post and see not only my own tips, but yours as well.
Consider Hiring a Disney Travel Agent
Disney travel agents are FREE for you to use! Yes, you read that right – FREE. Their commission all comes from Disney, so you don’t pay anything extra to hire them for your travel plans. A Disney agent will help you find the best deals and will do all the grunt work of booking reservations, applying applicable promotions as they release, booking dining, and your fast passes. So if you’re overwhelmed, not sure where to start, and want to maximize your savings, start with an official Disney travel agent for the best prices. I’m using Lauren from Main Street Travel Co. for my upcoming trip and it has been awesome. I did all the work for our first trip for 6 of us and I was pretty exhausted. While I thoroughly enjoyed the planning aspect, I did not enjoy getting up extra early to book our dining and our fast passes myself, especially when I work full-time outside the home and had to get ready for work. Knowing someone else could do that for me for FREE was worth it this time. Plus, she pays attention to new promotions as they release in case she can apply any to our trip, which I greatly appreciate.
If you’re like me, you want to make small dents in your pocket, not get hit with a financial meteor. The sooner you book the trip and commit to it, the longer you have to save the money you need to go. Stretch out those savings so it’s less of a hit. We start discussing our Disney trips 18 months out and book at 12 months out. We currently have two vehicles without any car payments, so honestly what we would spend on a car gets spent on our vacation savings right now. Afraid you might accidentally spend that money if you book too far in advance? That brings me to my next point.
Buy Disney Gift Cards
This is one method to get you to force your savings into Disney if you need the extra push. Those gift cards are usable for everything… your hotel, your dining, your souvenirs, all of your extras on Disney property. So as part of your savings strategy, buy a Disney gift card on each paycheck, and you’ve coerced yourself into saving for Disney and not accidentally spending it on something else. Need ways to earn Disney gift cards for free? Next point!
Earn Free Money for Vacations
In January, I wrote a post on how I earn extra money for vacations, and I still successfully follow these strategies today (in March I redeemed $88 through Ibotta for Zoey’s birthday). Between March and today, I have earned $164 extra dollars just using IBotta and Checkout51 for CASH to take on the trip! My goal is to earn at least $200 (hopefully more) between the two apps by September 1 (to give time for cashout. Ibotta is instant – no experience with cashing out Checkout51 yet). Plus, I’m super close to a $10 reward on Shopkick (these are harder to earn). This cash is going straight to our souvenir and “play money” fund, but you can obviously use it for anything. Maybe you really wanted a park hopper ticket upgrade but couldn’t afford it previously, or maybe that extra money will cover all of your gas for the entire trip, or maybe your travel meals on your way down and back. However you use it is up to you, but that extra money adds up and helps take some of the financial burden off of you.
Read more here: How We Save and Earn Free Money for Vacations
If you intend to plan everything yourself and do all of the booking, use UndercoverTourist.com to purchase your tickets and possibly your stay. They are one of the few official and legit third-party sites to buy Disney tickets. Please do not fall for other websites and don’t purchase leftover tickets people supposedly didn’t use… you might get screwed over in the end. DON’T use Ebay! Either buy through Disney directly, or UndercoverTourist to save a few dollars. Every dollar counts when you’re on a budget so if you’re totally cool booking everything yourself, I recommend buying tickets through them instead of a travel agent. We used UndercoverTourist on our first trip and it worked out great!
Transportation: Fly or Drive?
How you decide to travel to Disney World is very important because it can make or break the budget. For our family of 3, it would cost anywhere between $900-1,200 to fly roundtrip from Nashville to Orlando. Believe me, I have looked at so many airlines, flight times, and days of travel. Flying just isn’t an option for us when we’re working with a lower budget, or if we want to add on other things to the trip (like Legoland). For us to drive, we budgeted $150 in fuel round-trip, and $150 in travel meals round-trip, so for $300 we’re there and back. Last time we went, we only spent $113 in fuel round-trip and less than $100 in meals, which is less than $213 round trip! I’m hoping we’ll be blessed with that again this year, but I have budgeted $300 for fuel and travel meals just in case. This year, we’re splitting our drive down between two days and booked a hotel room south of Atlanta for $100 (included tax), so that puts us at $400 total. We might split the drive back between two days as well, so for another $100, we’re looking at $500 max round-trip to get our family of 3 to and from Disney. This is significantly cheaper than flying for us. The extra $400-700 we’d spend to fly could be saved or used somewhere else. For us, that savings is allowing us the opportunity to do Legoland before Disney. For you, it might make or break your opportunity to even go to Disney at all.
Park Hopper – will you really use it?
Everyone does Disney differently and no method is wrong, but this is a serious question to ask yourself if this is your first or even second trip to Disney World, and if you are on a tighter budget. There is so much to see at Disney in each park, and it’s easy to spend a full day at each one just taking it all in. From riding rides, to watching shows or street performers, to shopping, to meeting characters, to just stopping and basking in the beauty of the parks, it’s easy to dedicate an entire day in each park without park hopping. Our first trip, we purchased park hopper tickets against my better judgement and we didn’t park hop once. Not once. We spent over $200 extra for the hoppers and didn’t even need it to have a great time. I thought maybe we would hop the last day since we were doing Animal Kingdom that day and it closed at 5 PM, but sure enough, we didn’t. We were Disney’d out by that last day and I had gotten my foot injured (run over by a motorized wheelchair… ouch!), so I was just done. So for this second trip, we didn’t bother purchasing hopper tickets. I think after this trip, we’d consider the hoppers because we’ll have a good system down and more experience in all the parks. If you have small children who need naps, you might want to consider it, but even then, you don’t need it because you can return to the same park in the same day without a park hopper, you just can’t go to a different park. It’s something to seriously think about because we’re talking about a couple hundred dollars in savings for a family for an amenity you may not even use. Between this and your round-trip plans, and depending on the size of your family, that could be $900-1,000 that you’d save.
Hotel Stay: off site v/s on site
Think you’re saving money by staying off site? Maybe yes – maybe no. Whip out that calculator and check again, because often staying off site equals parking fees in Disney parks, and possibly hidden fees.
- Resort Fees: Some hotels are just hotels and have a per night fee plus taxes, and that’s about it. But if you’re looking to stay in a resort with a cool pool that is non-Disney, pay attention to the fine print when you’re booking because sometimes there is an extra fee on top of your nightly rate because of the amenities, and that adds up quickly. A lot of resorts in the Orlando area have the extra fees attached (believe me, I’ve looked), so make sure you’re actually getting a good deal before you book your stay.
- AirBNB or VRBO: One cheap option is to book a home through AirBNB or VRBO. But again, while you may see a low rate per night, double check the cleaning/maintenance fees to see if you’re actually saving what you think. Most of the time you are still saving more than booking a Disney resort, but I wanted to point it out so you’re not surprised. The privacy of renting a home is really nice, too! There are a lot of beautiful homes available online, from houses, to condos, to apartments. I even have a friend who owns a beautiful 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom home with a pool close to the parks and rents it out, so this is a great affordable option for you: Mickey Mouse House
- Parking: Check the hotel’s/resort’s Disney shuttle options because you may find that they aren’t convenient at all, and will end up wanting to drive to the parks instead of shuttling in, which means daily parking fees (~$20/day). This happened to us on our first trip. GREAT resort – terrible shuttle service times – so we spent $20/day to park, and that ended up being $100 for the week. For the record: if you stay on a Disney property and want to skip the shuttles and drive to the parks, your parking is free. [update 9/2018: Apparently the resorts charge parking now (boo!) but maybe this will change again in the future…]
Once you do the math between the resort fee, cleaning/maintenance fee, and parking fees, you may or may not be better off staying on Disney property. Make sure you’re including your total dining expenses in the final pricing (we’ll get to that next) because depending on how that plays out, your total package for stay+transportation+meals may surprise you. My first trip was at a non-Disney resort, but we stayed in a family member’s timeshare, so we got a killer deal on the entire week’s stay (average was $47/night for a 2 bedroom, 2 bath condo). Had we not gotten the timeshare, we would have ended up paying more out of pocket, and we definitely wanted to stay somewhere with a decent pool on a budget.
The Disney Dining Plan?
Unless you can get on a free dining promotion, the Disney dining plan may not be the best use of your dollars if you’re going on a tight budget. Our first trip we paid for everything out of pocket and spent a lot less than we are for our upcoming trip. This next trip we wanted the all-inclusive feel of Disney so we are spending significantly more and started saving further back for it. Here is what we did (and spent) the first trip:
- Breakfast: in the resort every day (except for 1 princess breakfast) with our own groceries. We did Jimmy Dean breakfast bowls each morning for less than $3/person. We brewed our own coffee as well.
- Lunch: we packed our lunch and it included sliced beef summer sausage, cheese cubes, tortilla pinwheels, frozen grapes, wheat thins, and our own bottles of water. Because this all compresses down well, we were able to fit the cold items for 6 of us (I’m including our extended family who joined us in the count of 6) into 1 lunch box, and the wheat thins + water into a backpack. This lunch was refreshing, not too heavy, and perfect on those hot days in the parks. Everything was cold and compact. We didn’t have to worry about squished sandwiches, and we were able to easily eat anywhere we wanted, including in line for rides.
- Dinner: we normally allotted ourselves dinner out. We only did 1 paid meal per day except for our Epcot day when we did 2 (for obvious reasons – it’s Epcot!). We budgeted $800 for food for all 3 of us for the week and only spent $686 (that total included the travel days and groceries, too). Not too bad for a full week at Disney, plus travel days.
- Snacks: we brought separate treat money and used it every single day for ice cream or Starbucks, but as for other snacks, we packed our own KIND bars, fruit leathers, applesauce pouches, Capri Suns, nuts, beef jerky, etc. This helped us save a ton! We budgeted $100 for treats for all 3 of us and only spent $74 the whole week, just to give a point of reference. And believe me, we had some sort of frozen treat every single day.
- Drinks: we only drank water with our own refillable water bottles, and packed 2 Capri Suns per day for Zoey to have juice. Otherwise, she drank water. This was FREE!
As previously mentioned, this next trip we budgeted higher and we’re using a dining plan for convenience sake, and for the fun of it. We are not saving money doing this, but it will be fun for the “all inclusive” feeling of it. If you’re on a tighter budget, I’m not about to try to convince you to go on the dining plan. If you have a longer timeframe to save for your trip, it’s worth experiencing at least once. Just make sure you order the most expensive items on the menu to make up the cost. If you can get on a free dining promotion – go for it! But even with that, make sure it’s worth it because it means the cost of the room might be more expensive to compensate. Just sayin’…
Time of Year
If you homeschool, have children who are not in school yet, or don’t have children yet, you have more freedom when it comes to planning Disney trips during off-peak seasons and during promotions. Unfortunately for me, we have a child in public school, so we’re at the mercy of the school schedule when it comes to planning our trips. I’m not an advocate for pulling kids out of school for a week for vacation. I can justify a day or two (which is what we are doing this year – 1.5 days), but a whole week? I just can’t get behind putting my child through that kind of make-up work. But I’m going to step off that soapbox and tell you that if you can go during an off-peak season, you’ll save a lot more money. Peak seasons are the summer, spring/fall break, and Christmas time. So pretty much any time the kids are out of school, right? For our first trip, fall break worked out great, so we’re doing that again this year. The weather was perfect, the crowds were moderate instead of severe, and the pricing was more affordable for fall break compared to what we saw listed for the other times. Speaking of the time of year…
Attending a Disney Holiday Party? Skip the Normal Park Ticket That Day
I’ve heard from several people that they won’t attend a Disney holiday party because they are too expensive. There is a strategy for attending a party and technically saving money. We went to Disney the first time when Mickey’s “Not So Scary” Halloween Party was happening. We went with the idea that we would spend 5 days in Disney parks. Instead of buying a 5-day park pass, we purchased a 4-day pass, and used the 5th day as our Halloween party day. We are doing the same exact thing this time! When you buy a multi-day pass, you don’t have to use it all in consecutive days. You can take a day off and then start up again. Technically, party tickets are slightly cheaper than a normal day ticket in Magic Kingdom, depending on when you purchase. Also, while the party starts at 7 PM, we were allowed to enter the park at 4 PM last time, so we were allotted 8 hours in the park for the lower price. Plus, we came home with loads of candy (GOOD candy). I’m not sure if the early-entry rule is the same with the Christmas party, but it’s worth looking into if you’re going. For us, the Halloween Party day is the day that we spend enjoying our resort… sleeping in, swimming, playing games, etc. It gives us a chance to actually take advantage of what the resort offers instead of only using it as a place to sleep the whole trip. I can’t wait to do this again!
Plan Ahead for Disaster
Assume that it will rain, that a shoe might break, that you’ll need first aid or some sort of medicine. Buy the “just in case” things you need and pack them so you won’t get stuck using your souvenir or treat budget on things like ponchos, emergency flip-flops, sunglasses, band-aids, Tylenol, etc. Just assume that if something can happen, it will, and be prepared. I’m not trying to fear monger you, but do you really want to pay triple for a poncho in the park when you could have spent $3 on a high-quality reusable one at Walmart beforehand? You can even get them for $1 at Dollar Tree if you don’t mind the thin throwaways. For a good list of must-haves, check out this blog post by Blair Blogs: 25 Must-Haves for a Walt Disney World Trip.
Follow the Disney Guru’s
There are a ton of YouTube channels, podcasts, and blogs that will give you excellent tips for booking Disney vacations. If you take any piece of advice from this blog post, it’s that you need to do your research. Start watching videos, start reading blogs, start listening to postcasts and take notes. I have a board on Pinterest dedicated to Disney Vacation planning. Look for common denominators, take opinions with a grain of salt, and keep in mind that everyone does Disney differently. I have found that we are slower Disney-ers. That may change over time, but I’m a person who doesn’t want to need “a vacation from my vacation”, if you know what I mean. Coming home utterly exhausted is not my favorite thing in the world. I want to come home knowing I had fun, but am also semi-rested.
So, with all that said, here is a small handful of resources to help you get started. Beyond these, I often do keyword searches such as “how to visit Disney on a budget” or “Disney value resorts reviews” or “Disney dining plan cost comparisons” or “Disney vlogs”. There are so many amazing resources out there to help you not only save money, but give you an introduction to what visiting Disney is like for different people so you can plan accordingly.
- Blair Blogs
- Magical Moments by Miranda
- YoHo Disney
- Dreams Unlimited Travel (same people as the DisUnplugged podcast)
- Molly Buck
As previously mentioned, if you have a website with Disney planning tips that you want to share, please link it in the comments. These are my recent go-to’s for my upcoming trip.
Now, go book your trip!
Need packing tips for traveling with kids? Here you go: 15 Road Trip Tips and Tricks for Traveling with Kids