by Erin Foster
on October 2, 2013
While scanning a recent Quora feed, I came across the question, “What are some ways to save money at Disney World without taking away from the experience?”
Over the years, I’ve seen countless requests for money saving tips and read scores of articles proffering advice on how to save money on Disney travel, but very few of them address the quality-of-experience topic. So I’m here to discuss whether saving money will negatively impact the quality of your Walt Disney World vacation. I’ll preface my discussion by saying that almost all of this is subjective. One man’s minor sacrifice will be another man’s major drag.
The main areas of potential savings are: transportation, lodging, food, souvenirs, and tickets. Here are my thoughts on whether utilizing common money saving tips in these areas will negatively impact your trip.
Saving money by not renting a car can be no big deal or a giant drag, depending on where you’re staying.
- Common Savings Tip: Drive instead of fly.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Maybe. Depending on the number of people in your party and the distance you’re traveling, driving instead of flying can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars. However, if you’re driving for more than 8 or 10 hours, you’re losing a day of vacation time on both ends of your trip. You’ll also likely arrive at Walt Disney World somewhat tired from the concentration of driving or the frustration of dealing with “Are We There Yet” children.
- Common Savings Tip: Use Disney’s free transportation instead of renting a car.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: It depends on where you’re staying at Walt Disney World. If you’re at one of the monorail resorts (Contemporary, Polynesian, Grand Floridian) or one of the Epcot resorts (Boardwalk, Beach Club, Yacht Club), your travel time to more than one of the theme parks will be shorter using Disney transportation than it would with a car. If you’re at these hotels and spending most of your touring at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot (plus DHS for BW, YC & BC), then not having a car will be no imposition at all. However, if you’re staying at a Saratoga Springs Treehouse, which requires two steps just to get to one theme park, or at one of the larger moderate resorts (Caribbean Beach, Coronado Springs) with multiple internal bus stops, then having a car will be a big plus for you.
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by Seth Kubersky
on May 29, 2012
After transportation, tickets, and accommodations, food takes the biggest bite out of the budget of most Disneyland visitors. It doesn’t help matters that the food sold on Disneyland property is unavoidable, plentiful, decently edible, and extremely overpriced. But that doesn’t mean you have to choose between going broke or going hungry on your next Anaheim adventure.
In the first episode of Inexpensive Eats Outside Disneyland, I highlighted two of my favorite inexpensive off-property restaurants that are within walking distance of the Disneyland Resort. Though there are a number of viable options accessible around Disneyland to anyone on foot, having a car exponentially increases the number of outlets available to you.
Here are two places within a short drive from Disneyland’s front door that I always take time to visit on nearly every trip to the Hungriest Place on Earth.
Viva Bargain Center
One of our top money-saving tips in the Unofficial Guide is to get a hotel room with a refrigerator (or a cooler with ice-filled water jugs) and stock it with store-bought snacks. This tip is even more applicable now that Disneyland has installed upgraded mini-fridges in its on-site hotel rooms, and most of the lodgings ringing the resort (regardless of price range) at least offer one for a modest extra charge.
If the place you are staying doesn’t offer a free breakfast, a cooler of comestibles is essential to following an efficient morning touring plan. It’s infinitely easier to make it to the park before opening when you can breakfast bedside in your boxers. In-room food can also come handy around your early-afternoon break time (essential if you’re planning to stay in the park until closing) and for late-night snacks.
But where to stock up? Obviously, convenience stores (such as the 7-11 at the corner of Harbor and Katella) are most convenient, but also overpriced. The nearest full-service grocery stores are Vons (12961 Chapman Avenue) and Food 4 Less (1616 West Katella Avenue), each about 2 miles from the resort.
Instead, I usually head to the shopping center at 12000 Harbor Boulevard, just south of Chapman Avenue. There is a Target for groceries and supplies, and Walgreens pharmacy that sells liquor. Most importantly, it is home to the Viva Bargain Center, the most wondrous dollar store I’ve ever found.
In case you aren’t familiar with the concept, every item sold in Viva costs exactly 99 cents or less. Unlike similar establishments I’ve encountered, Viva isn’t dank, depressing, or disorganized. While you’ll find some out-of-season and off-brand items on the shelves, the majority of the merchandise is name-brand and not yet expired. I frequently make Viva my first stop after unpacking to pick up some ramen noodles (my usual post-park midnight snack), drinks, and cookies. And along with a wide sampling of salty, sweet, and spicy (including large Latin food selections), you can also pick up some dirt-cheap Disney branded souvenirs to distract the kids from the pricier in-park items. If you want a one-stop shop to shave some dollars off your Disneyland dining expenditures, this is it.
Mexican food isn’t really “foreign,” in Southern California; it’s practically the local cuisine, and should certainly be sampled by any out-of-town visitor who is only familiar with the terror of Taco Bell. While the enchiladas at Disneyland Park’s Rancho del Zocalo are at least edible, and Del Taco (2330 South Harbor Boulevard) is a great guilty pleasure of mine, neither can be considered anywhere near authentic. If you want a genuine taste of great Sonora-style Mexican food that makes the locals line up, drive three miles south of Mickey to Los Sanchez (11906 West Garden Grove Boulevard).
This perpetually-packed counter-service establishment may have fast-food style service, but the quality is first class. The menu features chicken, the best chocolate mole sauce I’ve ever had, fresh-caught fish ceviche, and tender lengua (tongue) tacos, along with more conventional dishes American will find familiar. Most of the platters on the menu are around $8 or under (through you can spend up to $18 on a feast of lobster or oysters), and all come in enormous portions you’ll want to share. All guests get a complimentary appetizer of freshly made tortilla chips with cheese and guacamole (something any other place would charge at least $5 for), and there’s and unlimited toppings bar of salsas and raw radishes (try one as an antidote for the spices).
Don’t forget to order a super-sized bottle of Mexican-made Coca-Cola with your meal; unlike modern domestic Coke, it contains old-fashioned sugar instead of corn syrup, and tastes like Coke used to before the 1980′s New Coke/Coke Classic debacle.
by Erin Foster
on December 8, 2011
You think a Walt Disney World vacation sounds like fabulous fun. Your next door neighbor thinks that a Walt Disney World vacation sounds like fabulous fun too. If you have enough of these conversations, inevitably your neighbor (or your sister and her kids, or your in-laws, or your college roommate and her family) will come up with the brilliant idea that if you’re both going to have amazing Disney vacations, then wouldn’t it be great to have those vacations together.
Whoa, hold it there partner. Traveling with another family could be a wonderful experience for all involved, or it could be a way to beat a perfectly nice relationship to death with a grotesquely over-sized turkey leg. Before you book those connecting rooms, take a minute to consider some thoughts about whether multi-family travel is right for you.
Do you have the same philosphy about souvenirs as your companions?
Now before you start thinking that there is NEVER a situation where you’ll be comfortable traveling with another family, there are also some pros to group vacations that may outweigh any cons:
If you do decide to take the plunge, here are some guidelines you may want to set before you travel:
Over the years, I personally have traveled to Walt Disney World with neighbors, my parents, my sister-in-law and her family, my Moms Panel buddies, and even some unrelated babysitters. There have been great successes (priceless photos of the extended clan) and some frustrating challenges. Meeting at 8:00 does actually mean meeting at 8:00, why don’t some people understand that? What have your experiences been? Have you enjoyed your journeys to the World with others, or are you going nuclear-family-only from now on because of a negative situation? Give us your tips in the comments below.
by Erin Foster
on October 17, 2011
Let’s face it, a trip to Walt Disney World can be an expensive undertaking. The good news is that there are plenty ways to conserve funds and still have a magical vacation. I’m going to walk you through the process of creating a budget for your trip, and suggest some areas of potential savings. What you should know right off the bat is that planning an accurate and economical trip budget is going to involve some math, some research, and possibly some hard decisions. As a first step, download the TouringPlans Budget Planning Worksheet.
You’ll see that there are seven main areas in which you’ll spend money on your vacation:
- Theme Park Tickets
Let’s go through these one by one to see where you can find information on obvious costs and hidden costs, as well as where you can find information on ways to save money.
The main options here are flying vs. driving. In some cases, the choice will be clear; if you’re coming from Tampa then you’re driving, if you’re coming from the UK then chances are you’re going to fly (or get very wet ). However, for most of the rest of us, the decision may not be so easy.
Your ultimate choice must be based on real numbers – not only the cost of plane tickets vs. gas, but also factoring in all related expenses. For example, if you’re flying, you’ll need to get on the phone or search the airline website for hidden fees such as baggage or onboard snack charges (yep, AirTran recently charged me for crackers). Fliers should also consider the cost of parking or taking a taxi to the airport, tipping for baggage handlers, and other related expenses. Even if you are using frequent flier miles, many of these ancillary charges will apply. You may also want to consider the opportunity cost of using frequent flier miles. Would using your miles for this trip impede your ability to take a more expensive trip later on?
Drivers must consider not only the cost of gas, but also meals on the road, wear and tear on the car, and possibly more on-the-road entertainment. Longer drives may even include a night in a hotel along the way depending on the length of the drive and the number of drivers in your party. For a good rough estimate of gas cost on your trip, try consulting AAA’s Fuel Cost Calculator.
Additionally, your fly/drive decision will impact transportation charges once you’re in Orlando. For example, if you’re flying and staying at a Disney resort hotel, you have the option to use Disney’s free Magical Express bus service to get you to your hotel. If you’re flying and staying off-site, you’ll need to pay for a car service or rent a car to get to your hotel. If you’re driving and staying off-site, you will need to pay for parking at the theme parks (unless you are a Walt Disney World Annual Passholder) and possibly also at your hotel. If you need to work while on vacation, or just want to upload your digital photos at night, budget for in-room internet charges if your resort does not include them (usually around $10/day when there’s a charge). Be sure to factor all of these stealth charges into your budget.
When looking at the cost of flying, there are now dozens of online tools and apps that can help you locate the most cost effective flight. Popular choices include Kayak, Google Flight (new), Trip Advisor, Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity. These tools make it easy to experiment with your flights to find the best deal. Try playing with departure dates or number of connections. Sometimes a Saturday night stay or a brief stopover can save you hundreds of dollars.
If you decide to fly to Orlando, many of the sites above also offer discounted rental car opportunities. When renting a car, be sure to check your personal auto insurance policy and your credit card benefits. These often make the purchase of insurance on a rental car redundant. Declining insurance on the rental can also provide big savings.
As a starting point, log on to disneyworld.com and get a price for your preferred hotel during your travel dates. This will tell you the standard “rack rate” for the room. A little sleuthing can often uncover discounted prices on the exact same room. Twice this year I have saved about $20 per night at the Pop Century simply by booking through Expedia rather than through Disney directly. I had no loss of Disney benefits, I still got Magical Express service, Extra Magic Hours, and the like, I just paid less for them.
If you’re looking for room discounts, try asking a travel agent or using one of the online services listed in the transportation section. Additional discounts might be available for Disney annual pass holders or AAA members. You may even want to tinker with the timing of your reservation as a cost variable.
Another rule-of-thumb is that if cost is your primary concern, then staying at an off-site hotel can be a big money saver. While this often the case, be aware that some off-site hotels tack on additional fees not represented in the room rate. For example, the non-Disney-owned Swan and Dolphin hotels add resort fees and charge guests to park at the hotel. These add-ons can add up fast. Before you settle on an off-site stay, pick up the phone and ask what additional fees you might expect.
THEME PARK TICKETS
The best place to start for park ticket pricing is the TouringPlans.com Ticket Calculator. The Ticket Calculator makes it easy play around with variables and see the real price differences between several choices. For example, a few clicks will show you that once you’re visiting for several days, the price of adding another park day has minimal impact on your admission ticket price.
While you’re figuring out how much park tickets will cost, don’t forget to consider the price of the popular evening parties at the Magic Kingdom if you’ll be traveling during the fall or winter. You’ll also want to consider the price of admission to other nearby attractions if you’ll be venturing off campus to see the Wizarding World at Universal Studios.
Planning your food budget takes some serious number crunching. Some Disney guests swear by the Disney Dining Plan (available to guests staying at the Walt Disney World resort hotels), but by no means does the Dining Plan make sense for everyone. To see if the plan is right for you, take a few minutes to look at the detailed menus and pricing for Disney restaurants available at DisneyWorld.com or AllEars.net. Ask yourself some questions and map out a few days of sample eating for your family. Will we eat full breakfast or will a muffin and coffee do? Will we eat dessert with lunch and/or dinner? Can our children share a meal? Do we eat appetizers? … and so on. By really pricing out several days of eating, you can extrapolate your actual food budget needs.
Don’t forget to factor in the cost of snacks you bring from home or buy at a local grocery, as well as the price of tips and alcoholic beverages, which are not included on the Dining Plan. Be aware that many Disney restaurants tack on a surcharge during peak seasons such as the winter holidays.
On the cost savings side, many restaurants offer discounts to Disney Vacation Club members, Disney annual pass holders, Disney Visa holders, and other affiliations. I ALWAYS ask my server what discounts are available.
One cost savings measure might not be all it’s cracked up to be. I’m talking about “Free Dining,” a promotion that Disney has run each of the last several autumns. I’m going to leave it up to the extremely capable Tom Bricker, who explains the pros and cons of free dining HERE.
While there is certainly plenty to do at Walt Disney World with just your theme park tickets, there are also many ways to enhance your experience with activities and entertainment. And, no surprise, many of these items cost money. For example, strolling through Downtown Disney is free. But then your child sees the oh-so-enticing-and-not-so-free Characters in Flight balloon and begs for a ride. For my family of five with older children, that 10-minute ride is $90 proposition.
Of course the best way to economize on these activity extras is to simply say “no,” but you may want to indulge a bit with that balloon ride, a visit to the spa, or a round of golf. Pricing for these items is readily available online or with a call to 407-W-DISNEY. Factor them into your budget if you’re planning to partake.
The purchase of souvenirs is another area where saying “no” is your biggest budgeting tool. However, as I discussed in a previous post, coming home with absolutely no souvenirs is unrealistic. Use the advice in the post found HERE, to help create realistic souvenir expectations for your family.
While you’ll likely not get away without souvenirs for your kids, you can often skip souvenirs for friends at home. Does your dog walker really want a Mickey sweatshirt? Do you absolutely have to bring a mug back for your child’s teacher? You may be able to easily trim these items from your budget.
This is where everything else settles: stroller rentals, PhotoPass purchases, shipping fees, kennels, and so on. Not all of them will apply to all guests. As with nearly everything else in your budget, it pays to shop around for these miscellaneous items. For example, there are several ways to save money over renting a stroller from the Disney parks. You can save money on airline baggage fees by doing some laundry while on vacation, but then you’ll need to factor the cost of washing into you budget. Again, play around with numbers to see what works for you.
So what’s your budgeting process? Where have you found ways to cut corners? What do you spend money on that I forgot to include? Let us know in the comments below.
by Erin Foster
on October 11, 2011
With a vacation destination as vast as Walt Disney World, it’s possible to stay there for several weeks or longer, without repeating a single activity or attraction. But just because there’s plenty to do at the parks, that doesn’t mean you can, or should, stay to do it all in any one trip. With so many options available, how do you decide the length of your Walt Disney World vacation?
There are several factors you might consider when planning the duration of your trip:
- Amount of time available for travel
- Budget allocation
- Time of year of your visit
- Age/Stamina of the members of your traveling party
- Your frequency of travel to Walt Disney World
- Number of “must do” attractions for your family
- Distance from which you’re traveling
- Interest in non-theme-park activities
- Interest in time for relaxation
- Interest in visiting other Central Florida attractions
- Do you need time at home at either end of your trip to pack/unpack?
Let’s break these down individually …
Amount of Time Available for Travel
In my previous post, Trip Planning 101: Deciding When to Visit Walt Disney World, I determined that April break 2012 is an ideal time for my family to visit the parks. Given that time frame, does that mean we stay for six days? Seven? More? For us, the trip could possibly last as long as nine nights (from Friday after school until the following Sunday). But is that the right length visit? The first step in deciding the length of your trip is to determine the maximum time available.
You may want to extend your trip in order to experience special events such as the Osborne Dancing Lights
It sounds like a truism that the longer you stay, the more you’ll pay, but that’s not necessarily accurate. With a bit of savvy shopping, you’ll find that two or even three nights in a Disney value resort costs less than one night in a deluxe resort. Are you willing to stretch your budget into a longer trip by compromising on accommodation amenities? Are you willing to save enough money for extra nights at the hotel by eating a quick service restaurants vs. table service restaurants? Your answers to these questions will help determine the trip length that’s right for you.
One area where you may not need to make concessions to stay longer is in park ticket prices. Take some time to explore different options on the TouringPlans.com Ticket Calculator. For example, in a few minutes of experimenting I learned that Undercover Tourist currently offers a 7-day WDW Park Hopper ticket for the exact same price as a 6-day Park Hopper ticket. In general, you’ll find that beyond the first four or five days of a trip, increasing the number of days of your stay has minimal impact on ticket expense.
Time of Year of Your Visit
Take a look at the Touring Plans Crowd Calendar. Make a note of the relative crowd level during the time of your visit. Even with a Touring Plan in hand, the larger the crowds, the longer it’s going to take to accomplish what you want at Walt Disney World. Decide if crowd levels create a need for you to stay longer. Also, note whether there are special events that may influence the length of your stay. For example, if you stay one extra day, you might have the opportunity to attend Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. Or, because you’re traveling during Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival, you might want an extra day at that park.
My family often visits Walt Disney World during our February break. At that time of year, I like to spend every possible vacation moment in sunny Florida, thus avoiding the icy yuck at home in New York.
Age/Stamina of the Members of Your Traveling Party
Does your party include babies or toddlers who have limited patience for non-home environments? Does your party include seniors who want to take things at a slower pace and extend the trip with intermediate rest days? Does your party include teens who want to sleep all morning, thus limiting touring to the more crowded afternoons? Factor these items into how long you’ll need in the parks.
Taking in all of Downtown Disney could add a day to your trip.
Your Frequency of Travel to Walt Disney World
I often make half a dozen trips to Walt Disney World in a year. With such frequent visits, I know that if I don’t go on a favorite ride this time, I’ll have a chance again soon. This means that short trips are often fine with me. However, if this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, or even if you only visit once every several years, then adding a few days to accomplish more may make sense for you.
Number of Must-Do Attractions for Your Family
I have three daughters, all fairly close in age. For many years, there was a large overlap in their park touring interests. This kept my family’s list of must-do attractions quite small. As long as we hit the princess highlights, everyone felt satisfied. However, if you have a large age range or both boys and girls in your family, your list of key attractions may be longer. If both the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and Expedition Everest must be accomplished, then you may need a longer vacation to get everyone what he or she needs.
Distance from Which You’re Traveling
Most folks like to spend more of their precious time off actually enjoying their vacation vs. traveling to and from their vacation. This means that if you’re coming to Florida from a sizable distance (Europe or even the Western U.S.), you may want to consider taking a longer visit to Walt Disney World. This keeps the ratio of travel to trip balanced in the right direction.
Interest in Non-Theme-Park Activities
Walt Disney World is a HUGE place. In addition to the four major theme parks, there are also dozens of non-park activities: spas, mini-golf, water parks, waterskiing, parasailing, fishing, shopping, exploring the resorts, dining, dancing, shows, a tethered balloon ride, tennis, horseback riding, behind-the-scenes tours, bike rentals, and on and on. If you want to experience these types of amenities, you’ll need a longer trip.
To make time for swimming, you may need to stay longer.
Interest in Time for Relaxation
A Disney World vacation has the potential to be both fun and exhausting. Many folks walk five, six, or more miles per day just visiting park attractions. Consider your family’s need for unplanned downtime on a vacation. If you’d like to take a mid-trip day to lounge at the pool, factor that into the length of your stay.
Interest in Visiting Other Central Florida Attractions
While I’m a Disney girl at heart, my kids are absolutely Harry Potter fanatics. On our Disney vacations, we’ve planned side-trips to Universal Studios’ Wizarding World. Your family may be interested in Sea World, Orlando’s outlet shopping, the new LEGOLAND near Tampa, Kennedy Space Center, a beach visit, or any number of other non-Disney attractions. Add time to your trip if you plan on experiencing other nearby attractions.
Do You Need Time At Either End of Your Trip?
When I return home from a vacation, I like to start fresh the first Monday back with suitcases unpacked, laundry done, and groceries purchased. This means that on a week-long trip, I’ll almost always choose to come back on Saturday rather than Sunday. This may make my trip shorter by a day, but it keeps me saner when I’m home. Other folks may choose to delay the start of their trip so that they can pack or clean house before they go. Both options may impact how long you’ll be able to be at Walt Disney World.
Decide What’s Right for YOU
Many “experts” will recommend a five-day or seven-day trip as the best way to experience Walt Disney World, but that could be entirely wrong depending on the profile of the guest. For example, taking into consideration the factors above, a single parent coming from Atlanta on a limited budget might have a four-day trip work best, while a family of six coming from London might find that a ten or twelve-day trip works best. Try to disregard blanket recommendations and create the travel plan that’s right for your specific needs.
Are there other factors you consider when planning how long to stay at Walt Disney World? Have your past Disney vacations been too long or too short? What made it feel that way? Please let us know in the comments below.