Walt Disney World on a Budget
The Big Picture
So, you have decided to make a pilgrimage to the happiest place on Earth? Congratulations! No matter if this is your first visit or if you are trying to do Disney again at a more affordable budget planning a Disney vacation can be a stressful. How much will it cost? Where should you stay? When is the best time to go? Where and what will you eat? The questions are endless. Hopefully I can provide you with a little insider information.
As someone who has caught the Disney Bug I am a self proclaimed Disney expert. I have been Walt Disney World at least once every year, though the number of years I went twice is almost just as high, for the last thirteen years. I have gone with large and small groups, family and schools, and with young and old. I have even experienced Disney on a wide range of budgets, ranging from 'we will all share this Mickey ice cream' to 'do you want to share the kitchen sink or each get our own?', so it is safe to say that I know a thing or two about planning a trip.
I believe that at some point every child, and child at heart, should go to Disney. For some families that is no problem, but for others it means parents working a second job for a year to save up enough to make dreams come true. With that in mind I have decided to share some things that I have learned over the years in my many trips.
Where to Stay?
On property or off? This question is a big one, and most people don't know but it affects more than just where you stay. Many families opt to stay off property because hotel rates are cheaper. And that is 100% alright. Many of the hotels in the area surrounding Walt Disney World offer incentives like breakfast and free internet to encourage guests to stay there.
There are many different resorts on the Disney property that cater to different budgets. Disney ranks their resorts as: campground, value, moderate, deluxe, and deluxe villas. For the most part they all have the same amenities, of course the deluxe and deluxe villas will have more. Each will have a small fridge, microwave, coffee pot, cable TV (most even have dvd players now), pools, and some form of connivence store.
One really nice thing about Disney resorts is that they offer free parking and transportation to their guests. This means that you park your car at your hotel and, as long as you don't wish to leave the resort, you never have to see it again. Disney has an excellent bus transportation system that goes to all the parks, shopping areas, and even other resorts. The one downside is that you do have to wait for buses. But if you don't mind waiting about fifteen minutes for a bus this is an excellent way to beat traffic. (Trust me there is nothing worse than having to wait in a line of traffic to leave the Magic Kingdom parking lot at 10:30 at night with cranky children.) Some resorts even have other modes of transportation available to them like the monorail or boats.
If you have chosen to stay on property you have several different resorts to choose from. The Fort Wilderness campground is the cheapest way to stay at Disney. They have spaces for RVs as well as tent. (There are cabins but they are more in the moderate price range.) If you are looking to stay at a value resort you are in luck. There are currently five of them and they are designed with children in mind! All Star Sports, All Star Music, All Star Movies, Pop Century, and the Art of Animation are some of the best places to stay with children. Each resort as at least two pools, a large cafeteria style eatery with many different food choices, an arcade, and movies for kids to watch while adults do boring things, like waiting in line to get the room key. The resorts are further broken up in buildings, each one has its own 'mascot'. There are even playgrounds and regularly scheduled kids actives. The moderate resorts have all of the same amenities they are just a little more 'grown up' in style. If you are looking to get the most bang your your buck and you are traveling with children there simple is no better option than the value resorts.
One cool thing about staying on Disney property: mugs. Every year the resorts come out with a new mug. Once you buy the mug (say the day you arrive) you can use it again for FREE at your resort for your entire trip. Want hot chocolate for the kids when they wake up or a large cup of coffee for yourself? Done. Want to enjoy a fountain drink while your kids play at the pool? No problem. Need a quick pick me up between the bus stop on your hotel room. Disney has you covered. The mugs are a little expensive, but if you, say, get hot chocolate every morning that really adds up. In my opinion its kind of a nice touch to the trip and it gives you a cheap souvenir to bring home.
Another point to keep in mind when considering where to stay is the combination offers. In the last few years Disney has done a type of combo deal where if you stay at a resort on property for 'x' amount of nights you get 'y' amount of park ticket days and the dining plan. When they offer those deals they are worth considering because they typically allow you to save several hundred dollars.
Where exactly is Walt Disney World Anyway?
How likely are you to stay on property when you visit Walt Disney World?
There are several different option available when it comes to park tickets. There is the standard park ticket that allows one person entry into one park (if you leave and return later in the day you must go back to that same park). The park hopper allows one person to travel to as many parks as they want to in one day and only use one day's worth of tickets. Then there are the water parks and fun additions. These allow one person entry to one 'fun' activity. These activities can be one of the two water parks, Disney Quest, or one of the two mini golf courses.
If you purchase a five day ticket of any one of thees options then you have five days of park time. However if you pick the one park per ay option and find yourself visiting more than one park in a day you will have used two days of tickets.
If you are looking to save money try to stay at one park each day, that way you only have to buy the cheaper base-line tickets.
Who Will Enjoy What?
Small Children will love
The new fantasy land and seeing all of their favorite characters
The hands on kids activities in innovations
The giant play ground in Dinoland USA
'Big kids' will love
The mountain range (Big Thunder, Splash, and Space Mountain)
The high speeds of Test Track and Mission Space
The thrills of Rockin' Roller Coster and Tower of Terror
The white knuckle thrills of Dinosaur, Kali River Rapids, and Expedition Everest
The family will enjoy
The classics (PotC, Haunted Mansion, nightly Fireworks)
Taking in cultures from all over the world
Indiana Jones stunt show and Fantastmic
The safari ride and all the different animals on display
Food is a big thing to consider when planning a vacation. After all you need to eat everyday. This is where you can save a lot of money when at Disney World. Eating breakfast in the room will save you money. Take snacks and water into the park with you. You will be glad you did when you are standing in line for a ride and your three year old tells you he is hungry.
There are some seriously good eats at Disney world. If you are eating breakfast in your room (or on the the way to the parks) and bringing snacks from home why not eat a nice dinner a few nights? Yes Disney has a lot of fast food restaurants, called quick service in the Disney world. And yes these quick service places have very nice portion sizes. Disney offers table services and buffets, all of which with kid friendly options, that won't break the budget. Even if you only want to spend one night during your trip eating at a nice restaurant it can really make the entire trip. And let me tell you, you will regret it if you don't try the food at at least one country in EPCOT.
The dining plan is an option. If it is included with your vacation package then you booked at the right time because you will save several hundred dollars just in food. And with the dining plan you have several different options, either way you will not be going hungry. Without a vacation package it is about a 15% savings, depending on how you spend your dining plan. (Think about it, are you going to order the $15 pasta dish or the $32 rib-eye if they both count as the same thing in the dining plan...)
How Much Will This Vacation Cost?
This is the most important question of all. You don't need to spend an extravagant amount of money to have a good time at Disney. Your children will just be happy to see Mickey at the Magic Kingdom, they probably could care less if they are sleeping in a five star bed. In all honesty you will most likely be so tired when you get back to your room each night that you won't even care where you sleep. A good baseline price is about roughly $1900 for a family of four for a six day stay with a four day standard ticket. Adding the lowest dinning plan option (two quick service meals each day and a snack) and that price goes up to $2600. To put it into prospective the deluxe dining plan (3 meals in any form and 2 snacks per day) brings the price up to $3600. That isn't too bad for what you are getting, but if you are trying to save money is it worth it?
Keep in mind that prices are going to vary for hotels by season. It is going to be cheapest to stay in the weeks after school starts, and the two months after the holiday season. The fourth of July, Christmas and anytime during the summer are going to the peak season for Disney. Personally I wouldn't go near that property during that time. Prices are sky high and there are more people than you ever want to see.
Another thing to keep in mind is Disney has a photopass system. You know those annoying photographers that every theme park has? Disney has them all attached to one system and they are everywhere. If you buy the photo cd before your trip it is about $100, if you buy it after the price doubles. The nice thing about that package is you get every picture those photographers take instead of paying out the nose at the park for a nice picture of the family in front of Cinderella's Castle.
Some of the only coupons that can be used at Disney World come from vacation planning books. It could be worth it to shell out $25 or so on the book to get a little more information about everything this magical world has to offer and get some nice coupons at the same time.
The most important thing to remember is to have fun and don't spend more than your budget.