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.
Many years ago, I traveled to Walt Disney World with a friend who derisively called it, “A mall with a cover charge.” To that I say both, “Bah, humbug,” and “Well, maybe he has a point.” In addition to the incredible rides, food, entertainment, and general merriment at the Disney parks, there are indeed, many, many, many shopping opportunities. Merchandise is available everywhere at every price point, from $1 pencils to several thousand dollar art and jewelery. You can find items as diverse as underwear and teapots emblazoned with the image of Mickey Mouse, as well as completely unembellished French perfume, designer clothing, and Italian wine. Basically, unless you’re the most austere of minimalists, you’re going to find something you want to buy. And yes, so will your children.
Plush toys are a popular souvenir
With all the eye candy just crying out for acquisition, you’ll be in much better shape both emotionally and financially if you create a souvenir-buying plan before you hit the parks. Of course this may not prevent every Veruca Salt-like outburst, but it can go a long way toward preventing family discord.
Questions for the Adults
Before sitting down with your kids, it may help to sit down with your spouse or other adults in your traveling party to make sure you’re in agreement about general strategies. Some questions to ask each other are:
- Will we give the child souvenir money or will she be expected to spend her own funds?
- Will all the children in our group be given the same budget? (If you’ve got a four year old and a fifteen year old, their needs will not be the same.)
- What is the maximum total dollar amount we feel comfortable having the child spend on souvenirs?
- Are there any categories of items that are off limits for practical reasons? For example, snowglobes are problematic with airline travel and TSA restrictions. Similarly, the four-foot-tall plush Mickey won’t be able to make it home without his own seat on the plane.
- Are there any categories of items that are off limits for personal reasons? You can’t stand toys that make noise, for example.
- Will you give the child access to his complete budget at the outset of the trip, or will we ration the money daily?
- Will we allow the child total purchase control within the budget or will the child be required to have particular purchases approved?
Preparing the Kids
You can involve children even as young as two or three in some of the decision making about their souvenir budget. Start before the trip by telling them that there will be lots of enticing merchandise at the parks. Explain that on vacation, just like at home, it’s not possible to buy everything we want. Then, do a little advance planning to help them narrow the scope of the things that they will want. Try taking a look together at the merchandise on disneystore.com. This website does not even begin to approach the variety of items available in the parks, but it will provide a basis for talking points. Ask your child:
Pins make an inexpensive collectible
- Is there something you’d like to collect? Pins, Vinylmation figures, and pressed pennies are all inexpensive collectibles. The trading possibilities of the first two items may also be interesting to an extroverted child.
- Do you have a favorite character? Focus on buying only items with Mater or Daisy Duck on them.
- Do you want to have items only available at the parks, not at a local Disney store or other retail outlet? You’ll likely only find an “I survived the Tower of Terror” tee at the Tower of Terror.
- Is it important for you to have a wearable item to show your friends at school? Then it’s better to allocate your spending on a tee rather than on a toy that will have to stay at home.
- Do you already have enough of something at home (plush animals, for example), so you don’t need to get more at the parks?
- Do you want things that are personalized or that you’ve had a hand in creating? Many in-park items can be made one-of-a-kind, from embroidered Mickey ears or build-your-own-lightsabers.
- Are there no cost souvenirs you’d be happy with? Maps can be made into room-decorating posters, for example.
A few pointed questions like this can get the child thinking about specific items of interest, rather than having an “I want it all mentality.” If your child goes into the vacation with the realistic view that, “I’m going to get one tee shirt featuring my favorite ride and find four Donald Duck pins for my collection,” you can more easily steer him away from the giant model monorail.
Deciding on a Dollar Amount and How to Manage It
I know there is a school of thought that advises saving money by purchasing Disney-themed items at discount stores at home and giving those items to the children during the vacation. I understand that from a short-term financial perspective, this makes sense. You can find a Minnie Mouse tee at Walmart for $10 that might cost $20 at the parks. However, you’re missing out on some wonderful learning opportunities by doing this. Planning a budget and making purchase decisions within that budget is an invaluable life skill. Your child won’t have a chance to practice and learn if you just hand him items that he had no hand is selecting. Even having control over a few dollars can be very empowering.
Personally embroidered hats are a popular item
For some families, a child might be allotted a five dollar budget for the entire trip. I have one friend who gives her children $50 to spend on each day of their Disney vacations. The exact amount will vary depending on the child’s age, the family’s means, and the general souvenir strategy developed by the family during planning discussions.
Once you’ve arrived at a dollar amount – and communicated that dollar amount to your children. Figure out how you’re going to physically manage the souvenir money. Will the child hold his or her own cash? Will mom hold cash for the child? Will mom pay for the items and the child reimburses at another time? Would giving the child a Disney gift card loaded with the budgeted amount be safer? Should an older child be allowed charging privileges on his room key?
Again, working out as much as possible in advance, and getting all members of the family on board, can help turn a greedy whine-fest into a productive lesson about money management.
So what’s worked for you? How do your kids manage money in the parks?