Aaaaah…the lights, the rides, the characters! That’s what we expect when we plan that big vacation to Disney World, because, let’s face it, there’s no small way to do Disney. It’s the bigtime for amusement parks, promising a magical, unforgettable experience—and it all comes with a hefty price tag. Is there a cheap way to plan a family vacation to Disney World? Cheap? No. But you can plan a trip that thrills the family and doesn’t break the bank.
When to Go
The best time to visit Orlando is when schools are in session and the parks are the least crowded. January and early February are some of the cheapest times to visit Orlando, because many families have just gone home after the holiday season. September through November and early December are also less crowded and less expensive.
For most, the choice is either driving or flying to Orlando. Besides the cost of gasoline and air travel, here are some other considerations to keep in mind.
On-site. If you’re going for the total Disney experience, then the decision to stay at a Disney property is a no-brainer. If you stay at a Disney hotel, there’s no need to rent a car because you’ll get a free shuttle from the airport, as well as buses to and from the parks. You’ll also enjoy other perks, like early park entry and access to Disney Dining plans (more about that later). Disney frequently has special promotions on vacation packages, so it may be a good idea to check out the official Disney website for the latest deals.
Offsite. You can also find decent accommodations in Orlando or nearby Kissimmee, or even rent a condo for more space and amenities. Look for a deal on a travel site like Expedia or Orbitz. But remember to factor in the cost of a rental car plus parking when you decide whether or not the higher-priced Disney hotel is a better option. Parking can run you $20+ per day at the Disney theme parks. You can also use a “blind” purchase through Priceline or Hotwire to save the most money on hotels. Even though you won’t know exactly where you’ll be staying, you can still ensure the hotel is in the area you want.
Buying tickets for your Disney vacation might be the most expensive part of the trip. You can purchase tickets from Disney in advance from single-day to 7-days or even a season pass. In general, the more days you purchase, the better the value. Most travel reviewers agree that skipping the Park Hopper pass is a good way to save money. Hopping between parks is time-consuming and expensive, and definitely not as easy as “hopping” implies. Pick one park a day and enjoy the attractions.
There are many discount ticket brokers in the Orlando area and online. Be careful who you buy from, because some are scams. Avoid buying from those advertised along the roadside in Orlando, and be wary of buying tickets on online resale sites like eBay.
It’s best to buy tickets in advance from Disney directly, or have park tickets shipped directly to your door at lower prices than what you’ll find at the gate via legitimate brokers. Undercover Tourist is a leading supplier of online discount tickets to Florida-area attractions, and is fully authorized by Disney to sell discounted tickets. You can also get discounts on hotels, car rentals, and attractions at Disney resorts on their site.
“To buy the Disney Dining Plan…or to not buy the plan.” That is the question. The answer is: It depends. The dining plan is only available if you purchase a Disney Resort hotel package. If you plan to purchase 3 meals a day on Disney property, then it might be a money-saver. Meal plans are priced per person, per night, starting at $52/adult and $23/child. (Those are starting prices, based on a minimal package. Prices go as high as $116/adult/day and $43/child/day for the 3-meal a day deluxe package.) There is no single answer to the out-of-pocket versus Disney Dining Plan question in terms of savings, because the results can substantially deviate based upon your personal eating habits. Visit Disney for more information.
Another option: You can bring your own food and drinks into the parks—just not in a hard-sided cooler. If you eat breakfast in your hotel room, cheaply at McDonald’s, or at a free buffet at an off-site hotel, then pack some PBJs and snacks for lunch, and you’ve got two inexpensive meals covered. This frees up some money to splurge on a nicer meal at the park. Consider ordering some breakfast/lunch/snack food items from AmazonFresh and have them delivered right to your hotel.
Souvenirs & Extras
Your kids will want a souvenir of their magical trip. No question. Even here, you can save some money by purchasing t-shirts online before you go, or stopping by one of the many stores off Disney property which offer discounts on Disney-themed merchandise. Avoid the souvenir shops inside the park if you want to stick to your budget. Or, let your kids use their own money to purchase souvenirs—a great money management lesson!
What about those expensive photos at prime locations in the park? It’s perfectly acceptable to ask the photographer to take your picture using your cellphone, avoiding the temptation to purchase $15-$20 photos later on.
It frequently rains in Florida. Your entire day might not be a washout, but it isn’t uncommon for midday rainstorms to occur. Bring cheap plastic ponchos for the family, save money, and keep moving!
Finally, if you add up the numbers and just can’t swing it this year, why not start a “You Name It” savings club account at Tower? You can fund it as often as you like or regularly through payroll deduction. And when you finally book that magical vacation, you’ll be able to do Disney your way.
For more discounts, deals, tips and testimonials, go to MouseSavers.com, a free website that is all things Disney and more.
Resources: DisneyWorld.com, The Disney Food Blog, Media Hopper, Cheapism.com, Farecompare.com, Tipsforfamilytrips.com, Cheapism,com, Thesimpledollar.com, Disneytouristblog.com, MouseSavers.com