How to Determine the Value of a Disney World Vacation Package?

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If you’re planning to visit Walt Disney World, there’s a good chance that at some point you’ll see an offer for a Disney vacation package.

Packages bundle the components of your trip.

Packages bundle the components of your trip.

It’s all but impossible to open the travel section of a major US newspaper and not see several Disney packages offered with language like: “Save 20% on a Five Night Stay” or “Kids Stay Free.” With call-outs like these, many packages LOOK fantastic, and indeed some of them are, but it’s important to put on your analyst hat to determine whether a package really makes sense for your needs. We’re here with tips on how to how to determine the value of a Disney World vacation.

Disney vacation packages include some combination of the basic components of your travel: hotel room, food, theme park tickets, entertainment, and possibly airfare.

In some cases, buying a package makes sense, and in other cases purchasing your vacation components separately is more cost effective. Here are some things to think about as you work out your vacation budget and decide whether a Disney vacation package is a good value for your family.

BASIC MATH, BUT LOTS OF RESEARCH

To decide whether to purchase a package, you’ll want to compare three versions of your travel elements: the basic, non-discounted price (which you can find on the WDW website) vs. the discounted price of your vacation components purchased separately (hunt for discounts on sites like mousesavers.com) vs. a bundled package price (usually promoted in advertising).

Screen Shot 2014-02-02 at 4.06.31 PM

Finding the non-discounted price and the package price are fairly easy, but it’s really column two – the discounted component price – that will tell you if a package makes sense. Most of the information below discusses how to put together equation two.

UNDERSTAND THE COMPONENTS OF THE PACKAGE

The most basic Disney vacation package includes a stay in a Disney resort hotel plus theme park tickets. While this seems fairly uncomplicated, even this starter package may include additional items to sweeten the deal. Some recent “sweeteners” we’ve seen include:

A discount at Splistville doesn't mean much if you're not going to bowl.

A discount at Splistville doesn’t mean much if you’re not going to bowl.

  • Mini-golf vouchers
  • Resort arcade card value cards
  • DisneyQuest vouchers
  • Recreation discounts of 10-15% on water sports or fishing
  • Discounts of 10-15% on children’s activity centers (group babysitting)
  • Discounts of 10-15% on salon or spa treatments
  • Discounts on bowling at Downtown Disney’s Splistville lanes.

A long list of items such as these sure looks pretty, but they may be of limited value depending on your vacation needs.

The next category of packages include a room, park tickets, and a dining plan. There are three primary variations on the Disney Dining Plan (all include a refillable mug for each guest age three or older, for use at the resort hotel):

  • Quick Service Dining Plan: One snack credit and two quick service meal credits, per guest for each night of your stay
  • Standard Dining Plan: One snack credit, one quick service meal credit, and one table service meal credit, per guest for each night of your stay
  • Deluxe Dining Plan: Two snack credits plus three credits that can be used for either quick service or table service meals, per guest for each night of your stay

More complicated packages include the Premium and Platinum plans which include allotments of entertainment and recreation items such as golf and tennis, full-service spa treatments, Cirque du Soleil tickets, backstage tours, and the like. We’re just going to say up front that those super swanky package plans rarely make sense from a financial standpoint.

EVALUATE WHETHER YOU’LL ACTUALLY USE ALL THE COMPONENTS OF THE PACKAGE

Before even looking at the pricing of a package, you should sit down and honestly evaluate whether you’ll use the components of the package.

Some decisions will be easy. For example, if you’re traveling with a party of only adults, you won’t be using a childcare discount coupon. If you’re visiting for just a few days, you may not have time to indulge in a spa treatment.

Other decisions, particularly those involving the dining plan, may necessitate a bit more soul searching or number crunching. For example, you should sort out your personal philosophy about the “live to eat” vs. “eat to live” question. If you’re in “live to eat” mode, elaborate table service meals may be a focus of your vacation, whereas “eat to live” folks may think sit-down meals are a waste of time. Each choice will impact the relative value worth and utility of the Disney package options.

WILL A PACKAGE COMPONENT ACTUALLY FORCE OR ENTICE ME TO SPEND MORE MONEY?

Some package components may seem like a deal, but upon closer inspection some items might be stealth money spenders rather than savers. An example of this might be something like an offer of two free DisneyQuest vouchers with a package purchase. If you’ve got three people in your party, you may end up spending about $45.00 on person #3′s DisneyQuest admission ticket, when you didn’t really have to go there at all. Similarly, 15% off a massage may be a good deal, but not if you hadn’t intended on spending $150 on a massage in the first place.

Pay particular attention to this topic if you’re considering something like a Free Dining offer. You might have been content to eat primarily quick service food during your vacation, but an offer of a “free” Standard Disney Dining Plan enticed you to book some table service meals. Although the meals themselves may be “free” with promotions such as this, remember that tips are not included when using the dining plan. The tip for your “free” table service meal could actually approach the cost of out-of-pocket quick service dining, depending on what you order.

LOOK AT THE FINE PRINT

There's always fine print.

There’s always fine print.

Many Disney package offers include a full-time attorney’s worth of fine print. Common benefit restrictions include time limits on the use of a package component. For example, many packages include blackout dates. If a portion of your intended travel falls during the blackout period, you’ll be subject to a higher rate for some, or even all, of your vacation. Some resorts or room categories may be excluded from packages or promotions. Even the minor “sweetener” benefits may have caveats. For example, your package may include a mini-golf voucher, but that may be of limited value if you’re required to use it before 4:00 p.m. when you’re likely to be playing in the parks.

In addition to looking at benefit restrictions, the purchase of a package may make you subject to additional constraints on required deposits, cancellation deadlines, payment deadlines, or the refundablity of your vacation payments. Be sure to compare the details of components purchased separately with those found in the package.

Another consideration for packages is that, in most cases, all guests sharing a single room must be on the same package. For example, if one member of your party (in the same room) is participating in the Disney Dining Plan, all must participate in the same configuration of the plan. This might not make sense if not all party members will be present for the entire duration of the trip or if different party members have markedly different eating habits.

UNDERSTAND YOUR BASELINE PRICING

Disney World pricing information is readily available online. Your first step in evaluating any travel package is to find the baseline rate for each of the components.

Go to DisneyWorld.com and click on the “Places to Stay” tab at the top. Input your party size, travel dates, and hotel selection to see the listed full price rate (rack rate) for your resort stay.

Similarly, at DisneyWorld.com click on the “Parks and Tickets” tab. Then input the number of guests in your party, the number of ticket days you’ll need, and any add-ons you’ll use such as the Park Hopper or Water Park Fun & More option. This will give you a quote for your ticket pricing. Remember, there may be days that you don’t need a theme park ticket. If you’re spending a day at Universal Studios or SeaWorld, or taking a down day at your resort pool, then you won’t need to purchase a theme park ticket for that time period.

The more complicated part of this process is understanding how much you’re likely to spend on food. Again, both the Disney Dining Plan and individual Disney food pricing is readily available online but you’ll have to do both some soul searching and some math to figure out your baseline food expenditure. To find pricing, head over to the Touring Plans menu pages. You’ll find full listings of what’s available in the Disney World restaurants and how much they cost, don’t forget to consider snacks and tipping in your plan. If you have questions about portion size or plating, you may want to visit DisneyFoodBlog.com which has photos of most Disney food items.

To decide whether the Disney Dining Plan makes financial sense for you, ask yourself:

  • Do I like to splurge on vacation, eating more than I usually do at home?
  • Are any members of my party particularly fussy eaters?
  • Do any members of my party have limitations to the types of food they’ll consume due to vegetarianism, medical considerations, religious considerations, or the like.
  • Do I want to take time out from park touring and rides to have sit-down meals?
  • Do I want to have dessert every day? With more than one meal per day?
  • Do I want to partake in character dining experiences?
  • Am I interested in gourmet dining experiences?
  • Am I interested in dinner shows which combine entertainment with a meal?
  • Do the members of my party have big appetites? Are they willing/able to share an entree, dessert, or other item?
  • Am I willing to prepare some meals myself? For example, am I OK with have cold cereal or a granola bar in my room for breakfast?
  • Am I willing to drink tap water rather than bottled water or other beverages?
  • Will character dining be a big part of our vacation?

Based on your responses, construct a sample plan for your party and price it out using the menu links. We’ve done a sample daily food plan to give you some idea or what yours might look like. You should also consider whether having most food paid for in advance gives you a measure of budgetary peace of mind that outweighs a potential cost premium of the Dining Plan.

Creating a sample food expense plan can help you determine whether the dining plan component of a package adds value for your family.

Creating a sample food expense plan can help you determine whether the dining plan component of a package adds value for your family.

Please note that this rough sample one-day food plan does not include character dining. Character meals are often prix fixe and often expensive. Including a few character meals in your sample dining plan can radically alter any food-related equation.

For informational purposes: the 2014 standard Disney Dining Plan (1 snack, 1 QS, 1 TS per night of stay) is $18.88 for kids ages 3-9 and $58.66 for all guests ages 10 and up. Children under age three are not eligible for the plan.

Finally, take a look at the supplementary entertainment and recreation items you can add on to your Disney vacation. First time or quick-trip visitors may not have many (or any) of these items to add to their vacations, but Disney World veterans may water to take a tour, enjoy some water sports, or indulge in a spa treatment. The inclusion of discounts on any of these items may make a package more or less valuable to an individual guest.

SEARCH FOR NON-PACKAGE DISCOUNTS

Now that you know the baseline pricing of your Disney trip, take a look for discounts on the individual components of your trip. Mousesavers.com is a wonderful resource for locating Disney discount information. Also check the Disney World Special Offers page for current promotions. You’ll find more offers listed on the Disney World website if you’re logged into your My Disney Experience account and have any Disney affiliations linked there. For example, when I clicked on the Special Offers page when not logged in, I saw three promotional offers listed. When I tried again while logged on, I saw seven offers, including some reserved for Annual Pass and Disney Vacation Club members.

Common Room-Only Discounts

  • Annual pass holder discounts are often available. Consider whether purchasing an annual pass and using AP room discounts will save you money, even if you don’t need all the ticket days.
  • Florida resident room-only discounts are often available.
  • Disney Visa card holders may find room-only discounts.
  • Starwood Amex users may use points for free nights at the Swan & Dolphin resorts.
  • Teachers, nurses, first responders, and other public service personnel may be entitled to discounts at the Swan & Dolphin.
  • Off-site hotels may be priced significantly less than on-property Disney resorts.
  • “Bounce Back” discounts may be offered to guests when they book their next Disney vacation while still on their current vacation.

Common Park Admission Ticket Discounts

  • Use the Touring Plans Ticket Calculator to find lower priced Disney park tickets via reputable non-Disney vendors. Reputable non-Disney vendors include Undercover Tourist, Maple Leaf Tickets, OfficialTicketCenter.com and others.
  • Disney Vacation Club members receive discounts on annual passes.
  • Annual pass renewals are cheaper than annual pass initial purchases.
  • Special ticket pricing for military families.
  • AAA members may receive discounts on park admission for advance purchase tickets.

Common Food Discounts/Savings Tips

  • Annual pass holders and Disney Vacation Club members receive discounts at some restaurants.
  • Annual pass holders and Florida residents may purchase the Tables in Wonderland discount card.
  • Bring you own food into the theme parks rather than purchasing on site.
  • Eat dinners outside Disney property. Many local restaurants offer their own coupons.
  • D23 fan club members may be allowed discounts at some restaurants.
  • Coupons for restaurants on Disney property are often found in the back of Birnbaum’s Official Guide to Walt Disney World. (By the way, this is the only acceptable use of the Official Guide. For all research and planning purposes, The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World is the way to go. :-))
  • Share large-portion meals between several family members.

Common Entertainment/Recreation Discounts

  • Annual Pass holders and Disney Vacation Club Members receive discounts on most backstage tours.
  • Birnbaum’s Official Guide to Walt Disney World often includes discount coupons for select tours.
  • Sammy Duvall’s Water Sports Center at the Contemporary often has promotional pricing codes listed on their website.
  • Disney Vacation Club members often receive discounts at Cirque du Soleil La Nouba.
Annual Pass Holders are offered lots of promotions, but beware the fine print.

Annual Pass Holders are offered lots of promotions.

CONSIDER SMALL CHANGES IN YOUR TRAVEL PLANS TO REAP BIG DISCOUNTS

When determining your baseline pricing, it can pay to look a bit deeper than just searching for promotional discounts or coupon codes. Tiny tweaks of your vacation plans might make a significant difference. For example, changing your travel dates by a night or two might put you into a different pricing category for your room, your flight, or both. A particularly large savings might make it worthwhile to pull your kids out of school for a bit. Choosing a different resort might change your need for a rental car, potentially reaping savings. Tinker a bit before settling on a strategy.

FREQUENTLY OFFERED PACKAGE PROMOTIONS

While there are no guarantees about when/if Disney will offer package promotions in the future, there are some packages that tend to show up year after year. Some commonly seen package promotions are:

  • FREE DINING – Details vary but a typical version of this includes a rack rate (full price) room for a minimum of three nights, a minimum of two-days of park admission tickets, with a dining plan added at no additional charge. Often guests of the value resorts will receive a free Quick Service Dining Plan and guests of the moderate and deluxe resorts will receive the Standard Dining Plan.
  • ROOM DISCOUNT AND EXTRA TICKET DAY WITH PACKAGE PURCHASE – Value resort rooms offered at something like 20% off, moderate rooms at something like 25% off, and deluxe rooms at something like 30% off, buy a minimum four-day park admission and get an additional day free.
  • KIDS STAY AND PLAY FREE – With the purchase of a rack rate room stay, children ages 3-9 receive a free park admission ticket. Typically this is limited to one child free per adult.

There are variations on these promotions and other offers that pop up sporadically, keep your eyes peeled for new package permutations.

DO THE MATH

Once you’ve gotten a package price and a baseline no-package price you can compare whether the package offer makes sense for your family.

For comparisons, I’m pricing out a hypothetical three night vacation for a family of four (two adults, a 12-year-old, and a six-year old) during mid-May 2014. They’re staying at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort in a Garden View room and visiting the theme parks on five days with base (non-Park Hopper tickets).

VERSION ONE: NON-DISCOUNTED PACKAGE PRICE

Non-discounted (rack rate) room: $772.00
Non-discounted tickets: $1,210.92
Standard dining plan: $194.86 x 4 nights = $779.44 (does not cover all meals needed during five park days)
Total: $2,762.36

VERSION TWO A: UNBUNDLED PRICE (for the light-eater family in sample version A)

Publicly available spring vacation offer room: $579.00
Discounted ticket price: $1,139.80 (via OfficialTicketCenter.com)
Dining out of pocket based on actual food needs: 132.07 x 4 days = $528.28 (does not cover all meals needed during five park days)
Total: $2,247.08

VERSION TWO B: UNBUNDLED PRICE (for the big-eater family in sample version B)

Publicly available spring vacation offer room: $579.00
Discounted ticket price: $1,139.80 (via OfficialTicketCenter.com)
Dining out of pocket based on actual food needs: $217.57 x 4 days = $870.28 (does not cover all meals needed during five park days)
Total: $2,589.08

VERSION THREE A: ANNUAL PASSHOLDER PRICING (for the light eater family)

Annual pass holder room offer: $540.40
Ticket price: One adult annual pass $648.59 + Two adult and one child discounted price (via OTC) $849.85 = $1,498.44
Dining out of pocket based on actual food needs (light eater family) = $528.28 (does not cover all meals needed during five park days)
Total: $2,567.12

VERSION THREE B: ANNUAL PASSHOLDER PRICING (for the big eater family)

Annual pass holder room offer: $540.40
Ticket price: One adult annual pass $648.59 + Two adult and one child discounted price (via OTC) $849.85 = $1,498.44
Dining out of pocket based on actual food needs (big eater family) = $870.28 (does not cover all meals needed during five park days)
Total: $2,909.12

VERSION THREE C: ANNUAL PASSHOLDER PRICING USING THE DISNEY DINING PLAN (must buy tickets from Disney)

Annual pass holder room offer: $540.40
Ticket price: One adult annual pass $648.59 + Two adult and one child Disney direct price $903.13 = $1,551.72
Standard dining plan: $194.86 x 4 nights = $779.44 (does not cover all meals needed during five park days)
Total: $2,871.56

VERSION FOUR: “FREE DINING”
(While Free Dining is not currently offered, this may happen again in the fall. Because dates are not yet available, real pricing for this is not yet available, so I’m assuming a room rates consistent with the above examples.)

Non-discounted (rack rate) room: $772.00
Non-discounted tickets: $1,210.92
Standard dining plan: $0.00
Total: $1,982.92

As you can see, there’s more than $1,000 difference in what you’ll spend for this sample Disney visit depending on how you book, the options you choose, and what you eat.

Some things to note:

  • If you can travel during an annual pass discount period, buying an annual pass for one member of your might save you enough money to make up for the increased ticket cost, plus then you can reap AP discounts on tours, merchandise, etc. which were not considered here.
  • If you’re a family of light eaters, then purchasing the Disney Dining Plan will rarely make sense for you.
  • Even if you’re a big eater family, the Dining Plan is not always your best option, but it can be (compare version 3B to 3C).
  • Your dining style and food preferences make a significant different in the value of the Dining Plan. This is particularly true if you have light eating tweens. Many younger tweens (and even some older teens) are perfectly fine eating child meal portion sizes, but if you purchase the Dining Plan, they will be charged at the adult rate, regardless of what they eat.
  • For the big eater family, the bundled non-discount package price is within $200 of the a la carte discount price. It’s certainly possible to amass $200 worth of savings in the package “sweeteners” often offered to bundlers. Dig into the details if you think you may actually use some of the sweeteners. On the other hand, those doing due diligence may also find similar discounts via coupons or other deals.

FREE DINING IS NOT ALWAYS A NO-BRAINER

In my example above, there’s a $264.00 savings with Free Dining vs. even the lowest light-eater estimate. It seems like taking advantage of Free Dining is a no-brainer. However, this is not always the case.

For instance:

  • If the room rate were higher (a very likely possibility), the savings would disappear.
  • If Sally were 10 years old instead of 12 years old, she would be billed at the adult rate, making the savings above closer to $100 rather than $264. This more modest savings might not make the loss of flexibility worthwhile.
  • The room category level can make a big difference. What makes sense at the moderate level might not make sense at the value or deluxe level.

RUNNING THE NUMBERS FOR A DELUXE LEVEL RESORT

Let’s see what happens if instead of choosing Coronado Springs, we chose the Grand Floridian.

Non-discounted (rack rate) room: $679 x 4 nights = $2,716
Non-discounted tickets: $1,210.92
Standard dining plan: $0.00
Total: $3,926.92

Common publicly available discount offer price for the same room: $543.20 x 4 nights = $2,172.80
Discounted ticket price: $1,139.80 (via OfficialTicketCenter.com)
Dining out of pocket based on actual food needs (light eater family) = $528.28 (does not cover all meals needed during five park days)
Total: $3,840.88

By choosing to get Free Dining rather than unbundled discount prices for their vacation components, the light eater family is losing $80+ and a big measure of freedom in their flexibility. The big eater family would still come out ahead.

A NOTE ABOUT ADDING AIR TRAVEL TO YOUR PACKAGE

While you can purchase airfare through Disney, I don’t recommend it. There are rarely any cost savings involved with adding airfare to your package and if you book through Disney, you lose all control of your flight selection – they’ll do it for you. I’ve been cautioned by both a specialist travel agent and by a travel specialist Disney cast member that Disney air bookers will get you from point A to point B, but they won’t pay attention to the presence or length of layovers, fine details about departure times, size of the aircraft, local airport selection, or other details that can turn a good trip into a logistical headache.

I witnessed an egregious example of this while on my Adventures by Disney trip to China last summer. Our return flight was direct from Hong Kong to Newark, which we researched and booked ourselves. A New Jersey resident tripmate had Disney book her flight for her as part of a package, thus ceding control of her air travel plans. Despite the fact that she lived equidistant between Philadelphia and Newark, Disney booked her Hong Kong – Tokyo – New York – Philadelphia, with a six hour layover in Tokyo, alone with an eight year old child. Her pricing was slightly more than ours. You’re unlikely to encounter anything that extreme with domestic air travel to Orlando, but why worry about it.

You may also find that flight refunds are more difficult to obtain if you arrange your air travel through Disney. Book your flight yourself or use a travel agent who will consider personal factors and logistics as well as pricing.

IN SUM

As you can see there are innumerable variables that can tip the odds for or against the purchase of a particular package or particular discount plan. An hour or so of research and calculation could save you many hundreds of dollars. However, if you don’t have the patience for that, a few rules of thumb generally apply:

  • The bigger your appetite, the more likely the Disney Dining Plan is to make sense for you.
  • Free dining often, but does not always, makes financial sense.
  • The more guests ages 10 and up in your party, the less likely adding the Disney Dining Plan to your vacation will make sense.
  • You’re unlikely to find any package discounts during peak holiday seasons (Easter, July 4, Christmas). At these times your best bet for saving money is to purchase tickets from a third party vendor, use food coupons, and watch what you eat.

Do you have the patience to research your vacation in detail? Do you find it easy or challenging to locate discount information? If you’ve mapped out a food budget, do you tend to stick with it? Let us know in the comments below.

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Posted on February 13, 2014

4 Responses to “How to Determine the Value of a Disney World Vacation Package?”

  • Great blog, just wanted to to chime in, for the dining plan you could use your snack for breakfast, bagel, cereal, yogurt, etc. That’s what I’m going on my next trip with the deluxe plan, and saving my meals for the m

  • Oops…saving my meals for the more expensive restaurants that require two (Cinderella and Brown Derby)

  • If you see a deal that you know is better than normal and there is opportunity to cancel jump on it. A couple of weeks ago cheaptickets was offering an additional 25% off promo code on top of spring discount of 30% disney promo for many on site hotels, making the all in price MUCH lower than disney’s 30% spring discount rate. Those rooms can be canceled up to five days prior if something else better comes along. You do have to pay in full at the time of booking for those rooms though and it takes a couple of phone calls to get kids stay free so that magic bands and magic express can be added to reservation for more than two to a room. It looks like Monday mornings they change promo codes and eligible hotels. Some weeks they include on site hotels and some weeks not.

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