Disney World on the cheap — is it possible? That’s exactly what I wondered as I planned a Disney trip for our family. I quickly learned that Disney does not give many things away. You will have to work for bargains on your trip to visit the mighty mouse, but Disney on a budget can be done. Here’s how we did it:
Travel at the Right Time
Buy the book The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World; it became my bible in planning our Disney trip. One extremely helpful feature is the book’s chart telling the crowd levels to expect each day of the year at Disney. Yes, they’ve researched it, and you can choose a time scientifically more likely to produce a pleasant visit. “Pleasant visit” to me means lower crowd levels, allowing you to do much more in a day than you could during peak season. Additionally, traveling during a “slow season” means that you’ll pay around 25% less for many options, from car rental to hotel rooms.
Surf the Net
The internet is an invaluable tool in planning a Disney trip on a budget. Disboards and Mousesavers have all the information you will ever need about any aspect of planning a Disney trip: there are boards on Disney on a budget, budget hotels, budget souvenirs, and more. The forum aspect is like getting together with a group of hundreds of others planning Disney trips, all of whom want to share ideas about how to save. Do you want to know how to increase your odds of scoring reservations for lunch at Cinderella’s Castle? These forums will spell it all out, and you can save hundreds by preparing yourself there.
Going to Disney World for a day is expensive. A one-day Magic Your Way ticket costs $79 for anyone over 9 (park hopper option, which allows you to visit more than one park per day, costs more). If you buy two-day tickets, the price per day is almost the same: $78. However, if you buy a 7-day ticket, your daily price drops to $33. With Disney World encompassing four different parks, it makes sense to stay several days in order to drastically reduce your daily ticket cost.
Should you stay on-site in a Disney resort or off-site? I recommend you stay on Disney property. Yes, you can find cheaper hotel rooms off-site, but you’ll save overall by staying on Disney property. We stayed at Disney’s “value” (read: cheapest) resorts (Pop Century, All-Star Movies, All-Star Music or All-Star Sports), which start at $82 per night. The price varies depending on the timing of your visit.
Staying on-site gives you several money savings. You’ll be able to use the Disney Magic Express for free transport from Orlando International Airport, thereby eliminating the need for a vehicle if you’re just planning on doing Disney-related things. You can use the Disney bus system to ride between your resort and any of the parks, and the buses run frequently. If you do bring a vehicle, parking is free at the parks if you stay on-site (this saves you $14 per day plus the aggravation of looking for your vehicle in the huge parking lots).
Additionally, you can spend extra hours at a different park each day during “Extra Magic Hours,” available exclusively for those staying in Disney resorts.
Of course, it’s fun to buy a few souvenirs at the Disney park itself. But if your children are begging for Disney t-shirts, you can save a lot by buying them ahead of time at a local store. T-shirts in shops in the Disney parks can easily run $30. You can most likely find similar shirts locally for half the price. Similarly, Disney stuffed animals are priced much higher in the parks than they are in local Disney stores found at several malls.
Do your kids want to collect Disney characters’ autographs in the parks? Prepare to spend around $15 at Disney World for an autograph book. Save money by purchasing an autograph book before you go, or buy a plain blank book and let your child decorate it with Disney stickers.
Dining at Disney is a memorable experience. It’s also expensive. I recommend splurging for one or two “character meals” (meals where Disney characters visit your table), and being more frugal for other meals. We planned to eat breakfast in our hotel (we brought cereal and fruit from home), and a lighter meal at noon in one of the parks’ counter service restaurants. Then, we would leave the park around 6 to eat in non-Disney Orlando restaurants.
To give you an idea of prices, character meals can set you back around $30 per person. Alternatively, you can dine at an all-you-can-eat buffet 5 miles away for about $7 per person. Be sure to check your hotel lobby for local coupon booklets, which are free and readily available. These feature coupons to save even more at local eateries.
Take Advantage of Freebies
They’re rare at Disney, but freebies do exist. Epcot is the park offering the most freebies: your kids can get a free passport to stamp in each different country area. Each country also offers a small free craft project that kids can make. Also in Epcot, check out Club Cool next to Innoventions West Plaza. This is a great spot to cool off with free cups of Coke versions from various countries.
I saved some of the plastic Mickey-shaped plates that kids’ meals are served on in Disney restaurants. After rinsing them off, I tucked them into my bag and brought them home so my kids could enjoy a bit of Disney magic when our vacation had ended.