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 August 11, 2013
Disney California Adventure’s World of Color nighttime spectacular is one of the most popular productions at the Disneyland Resort, and having a meal a the park’s upscale Carthay Circle Restaurant has been the best way to secure “Center Stage” VIP viewing area tickets to the show. Recently, Disney has made a major change to the way World of Color Fastpasses are distributed to Carthay Circle diners.
Previously, anyone eating at Carthay Circle for lunch or dinner would receive a WoC ticket at no extra charge, as long each person ordered an entree along with an appetizer or dessert. Recently, a “fixed price” 3-course menu was introduced for WoC diners, and the original 2-course option has now been eliminated.
Currently, in order to receive WoC passes, Carthay Circle customers must order from a limited 3-course lunch menu ($39 adults, $22 children) or dinner menu ($59 adults, $24 children). You can see the available meal options by following the above links; notable, the popular duck wings and cheese biscuits are not offered on the WoC menus.
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by Erin Foster
on March 21, 2012
One of the most frequent areas of confusion for Disney guests is the topic of tipping. International guests may be unfamiliar with American tipping in general. There are some Disney travel situations where guests tip differently than at other travel destinations. And some folks are just plain miffed that they have to tip at all.
With an aim at reducing anxiety, here are some frequently asked questions about tipping at Walt Disney World.
I’ve arrived at Orlando International airport, do I have to tip anyone here?
At the airport, and throughout your trip, you should tip anyone who handles your luggage for you in your presence. The rule of thumb is that you tip about a dollar per bag, or two dollars if the bag is extra heavy. If you’re claiming your bags yourself and taking them to a cab, rental car agency, limo service, or Magical Express bus on you own, then you won’t need to tip anyone while you’re in the airport. If you use a porter to assist you with moving your bags from the luggage carousel to ground transportation, then you tip the porter.
No need to tip your inter-park bus driver.
I’m taking Magical Express to my Disney resort, do I have to tip the driver?
You’ll see a sign at the front of the bus telling you that driver will accept tips. If you’re just hopping off and on the bus, you shouldn’t feel obligated. However, if the driver is helping your store luggage under the bus, go by the dollar per bag rule.
Did you notice that I said you should tip anyone who handles your bags “in your presence”? If you’ve used the yellow Magical Express luggage tags and had Disney take your bags directly to the hotel for you, then you won’t see the person who’s doing your luggage transport. In this situation, you’re off the hook for tipping.
I’m taking a shuttle to an off-site hotel. Do I tip the driver?
It’s the same situation as Magical Express. If the driver helps with your bags, offer about a dollar a bag.
What do you mean “about” a dollar a bag?
Assuming that you have normal weight bags, aim to tip a dollar a bag. However, it’s good manners to round up, and poor form to ask a bellman or porter for change. This means that if your family has three or four suitcases and all you have a five dollar bill in your wallet, give the porter the fiver.
I’m renting a car. Do I have to tip anyone?
Not at the airport, but maybe later.
I’m taking a limo service or town car to my hotel. Do I tip the driver?
Depending on the agency you’re using, the tip may be included in the price. Be sure to ask this when you set up your booking. In general, plan to tip about 15% of the fare. If the driver has done something extraordinary for you, such as making an extra stop or assisting with car seats or colossal amounts of luggage, tip more.
I’m taking a taxi to my hotel. Do I tip the driver?
Yes. Taxi drivers also get about 15% of the fare. Again, if the cabbie does something above-and-beyond, tip more.
Does the taxi tip level remain the same for shorter trips?
Generally, yes. For shorter trips on WDW property you may end up with a ride that costs seven or eight dollars. In a situation like this, it’s often easier for both you and the driver if you round up to ten dollars. It’s considered poor form to tip the driver in coins. Always round to the next higher dollar in your tip.
Taxis are one situation where asking for change for the tip is OK. For example, if your cab ride is $11 and you have a twenty in your wallet, it’s perfectly acceptable to say to the driver, “Here’s a twenty, can I have six back, please.” This tells the driver that you’re paying the fare and giving him a $3.00 tip.
What was that “maybe later” you said earlier with the rental car tipping?
All the Disney resorts have self-parking which is free for guests. No need to tip anyone if all you’re doing is self-parking your own car or a rental car.
The deluxe resorts also have valet parking available for a fee. If you use the valet parking service, in addition to paying the daily rate (currently $14), you’ll need to tip the attendant each time you get your car. A dollar or two will suffice.
Do I have to tip the bus/boat/monorail driver who takes me from my Disney hotel to the theme parks?
Nope. This is a no-tip situation, but a smile and a cheery “thank you” would be nice.
Is there anyone special I need to tip when I’m leaving Walt Disney World?
If you use the Resort Airline Check-In service at your Disney resort, you should tip the agent who tags your bags. These folks are not Disney employees. Consider them in the same way you would porters at the airport and give them about a dollar a bag. Remember, Resort Airline Check-In is responsible for getting your luggage onto your plane. It’s better if they’re happy.
You do tip the folks at Resort Airline Check-In.
AT THE HOTEL
Ta da! I’m at the hotel. Who needs a tip first?
Much of the tipping at your hotel is centered around luggage assistance. Yet again, if someone touches your bag, they should be tipped about a dollar a bag. If a bellman not only takes your bags to your room for you, but also provides additional information about the hotel or the workings of your room, then a bit more may be in order.
You’ll also give a dollar a bag to the bellman who helps you with luggage when you’re leaving the hotel.
All this tipping for moving my bags is really adding up. How can I economize?
You can avoid a lot of tipping if you transport your bags yourself. This may not be feasible for guests with medical challenges, copious amounts of luggage, more small children than adults, or owners of non-wheeled luggage. However, if you’re able-bodied and each member of your party can handle their own rolling bag, then by all means deal with your own luggage and circumvent the tip stream.
What’s this I hear about tipping mousekeeper housekeepers?
Yes, this is a thing.
It’s polite to leave about a dollar per day, per person in your party, as a tip for the cast members that make up your room. If you’re a family of five, this means a five dollar tip for your housekeeper each day. You’re supposed to leave the tip separately each day, rather than at the end of your stay, because there likely will be different cast cleaning your room over the course of your visit. You’re also supposed to leave the tip in an envelope with a nice note that says “thank you.” This makes it clear to the housekeeper that the tip is indeed for her, and not just a bit of cash that you forgot you left on the dresser.
Many guests make fun projects for their kids based around decorating the housekeeper tip envelopes. A quick Google of “Mousekeeping Tip Envelopes” will give you lots of links to people who are more creative and patient than I am.
Now it’s time for Erin’s true confessions: I rarely tip the housekeepers. If the housekeeper does something special like make towel animals or arrange my kids’ stuffed animals in a Mickey-centric Last Supper tableau, then yes, I’ll leave a few bucks in appreciation. Also, if my kids have been super messy (um, the sand was supposed to be wiped off your feet before you got to the room), I’ll leave some cash to assuage my guilt. But otherwise, I usually don’t.
Clearly this is some glitch in my programming because I go absolutely insane with rage when people undertip at restaurants. A housekeeper is clearly working just as hard in a service job as a waiter. Do as I say, people, not as I do.
Even if your Jungle Cruise driver is so good he makes you cry, he still doesn’t get a tip.
Do I tip those random helpful people at the hotel?
Generally not. Disney has greeters and random helpful, cheerful souls all over the place. They don’t expect to be tipped for answering simple questions, opening doors, or pointing you in the right direction.
Are there exceptions to this?
If someone actually does something for you, offer a tip. For example, if you call down to housekeeping for more pillows or towels, give the person who brings them a few dollars. If a bell desk cast member calls a taxi for you, give them a dollar or two.
What about the concierge?
Every Walt Disney World hotel has a concierge desk where you can ask directions, pick up tickets, get assistance with dining reservations, etc. For basic requests, there’s no need to tip. If you find a concierge particularly helpful or if they make multiple meal or recreation reservations or solve a thorny problem for you, offer a tip of $5-10. Most likely this will be firmly, but politely, declined, but it’s kind to offer.
If you’re staying at an off site hotel and a concierge there provides you with assistance, you should tip $5-10 for simple requests, and $20 or more for complicated requests. This most assuredly will not be declined.
Is there anyone I’m supposed to tip at a counter service restaurant?
No. There’s no need for tipping at counter service venues.
Restaurant tipping information is provided in several languages.
How much am I supposed to tip at table service restaurants?
I’m just going to say it: You should be tipping 18-20% at table service restaurants, possibly more if you’ve had truly exceptional service or have lingered at a signature restaurant.
Eighteen to twenty percent? Really? I though I was being generous by tipping fifteen percent.
Yes, really. The 15% thing is just so 1990s. No flames, please.
I super-double-plus promise you that I’m not making this up. 18-20% is now the tipping norm in U.S. metro areas (of which Orlando is one).
To keep everyone on the same page, Disney restaurants often place a little card about tipping in the bill presentation folder. The card says: “We are often asked about gratuities. No gratuity has been added to your bill. Quality service is customarily acknowledged by a gratuity of 18% to 20%. Thank you.”
Many of the questions we receive on the Walt Disney World Moms Panel are related to tipping. To keep myself educated on the topic I’ve been collecting articles about tipping for the past four years. I have sources ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the most recent edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette that will back me up: you really should be tipping at least 18% at table service restaurants.
In all cases, remember that you’re tipping on the bill, not the bill plus tax.
OK, that’s what I should do, but is it what I absolutely have to do?
Of course it’s really up to you to decide how much you want to tip. If you’ve taken root in the land of 15% tippers, then it’s up to you to decide if that’s where you want to stay.
There are, however, a few situations where the 18% tip is mandated. These are:
- Parties of six or more. The 18% gratuity will be assessed regardless of the age of the guests (babies are included) and regardless of whether the bill is broken up into separate sub-checks.
- Guests dining at prepaid restaurants and dinner shows including: Cinderella’s Royal Table, Hoop Dee Doo Review, Spirit of Aloha Luau, and Mickey’s Backyard BBQ.
- Guests using the Tables in Wonderland discount card or Cast Member discount.
If you fall into one of these categories, take extra care to look over your bill. You’re certainly welcome to add more to your tip if you received exceptional service, but you don’t want to inadvertently double tip.
I’m eating a buffet. Do I have to tip the same amount as at a regular table service restaurant?
In my experience, the servers at Disney’s buffets work just as hard, if not harder, than those at traditional table service restaurants. There’s a lot more clearing and refilling than at other meals. However, if you feel that buffets are in a different category of dining, then it’s up to you to decide your tip level. But remember, if you’re a party of six or more, an 18% gratuity will be automatically added to your bill.
Most Disney restaurant bills include suggested tip amounts.
Do I have to tip if I’m using the Disney Dining Plan?
Yes, you do. Many years ago, the tip was included with the Dining Plan. It’s not any more.
If I’m paying with Dining Plan credits, how do I know how much to tip?
If you’re on the Disney Dining Plan, your bill will include a notation about how much you would have paid had you been paying cash. Tip based on that amount.
If you’re a big eater on the Dining Plan, your tips over the course of a vacation can end up being quite substantial. Be sure to factor this into your budget.
Do I have to pay my restaurant tip in cash?
No. You can use any acceptable form of payment at Disney World to pay your tip. Cash, credit card, debit card, room charge and Disney gift cards all work well.
What happens if I have really bad service? Can I stiff the waiter?
Personally, I have never had truly horrendous service at Walt Disney World and have only had semi-bad service a handful of times in upwards of a thousand dining experiences. The likelihood of you having a horrible server is minimal.
However, if you do encounter service that’s sub-standard, the best thing to do is speak to a manager at the restaurant. They can work with you to rectify any negative issues. It’s better to get the problem fixed than to walk away angry.
Also, remember that your tip is related to your service, not to the food. If you’re unsatisfied with your food, speak to the manager, don’t take it out on the waiter.
Only a few dining experiences have the tip included in the price of the meal.
I’m having a night-cap. What do I tip the bartender?
If you’re just having drinks, one to two dollars per drink is the right amount. If you’re also getting food, go with 18-20%.
I’ve had looong day in the parks. We’ve decided to get room service. What do I tip?
The In-Room Dining menus state, “A $3.00 delivery charge, applicable sales tax, and an 18% service charge will be added to all orders.”
It’s not obligatory, but if the server who brings your food to your room is extra nice or helpful, you could hand him $3-5 to be extra nice back.
IN THE PARKS
I’m a mover and a shaker. Can I tip the cast member at Soarin’ a sawbuck to sneak me into the FastPass line?
Um, no. But you get points for creativity. Cast members doing their regular job in the parks are not allowed to accept tips/bribes/grift/etc. If they are seen accepting tips, this is grounds for dismissal.
A cast member has completely made my day. She (pick one or more) helped my child find her favorite character, got me a new ice cream cone after I dropped mine, let me drive the Jungle Cruise boat, told me about the high-value Toy Story Mania targets. Can I tip her as a thank you?
You’ve got your heart in the right place, but still, no tipping for regular parks cast.
But I reeeeaaally want to thank them properly.
Some super sweet guests carry a small bag of thank you cards or tiny treats from their home town when they go to the parks. They’ll offer these to cast members who have shown them a special courtesy. Cast are allow to accept these de minimus tokens.
While giving a kind cast member a Statue of Liberty pencil sharpener is nice, what’s even better is giving the cast member some documented props. Guest comments weigh heavily in cast member performance evaluations. Your positive remarks can help good cast members get promoted into better jobs. To make an official comment, pick up a comment card at the Guest Services office at the parks. If you’d rather wait until you get home, you can send comments to:
Walt Disney World Guest Communications
PO Box 10040
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830-0040
The e-mail address for Guest Communications is: email@example.com.
Be sure to include the cast member’s name and hometown (both noted on their name tag), as well as a description of the cast member’s good deed and approximately where/when it happened.
Is there really no one at the parks to tip?
There are a few small exceptions to the “no tipping in the parks” rule.
You can tip cast involved in your personal beautification at the Harmony Barber Shop, Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, or Pirates League. For the Barber Shop, tip about 15% of your bill. At one point tipping at the BBB had been prohibited, but in recent years this rule seems to have been relaxed. If you feel so inclined, you may offer a 15% tip to the Fairy Godmothers in Training or the Pirate tutors.
What about tour guides? Do I tip them?
Not the Walt Disney World tour guides. They’re not allowed to take your tip. If you’re with a private tour group, a tip very well may be expected. Speak with your tour carrier for guidelines.
ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD BE THINKING OF?
Outside of the parks there are plenty of relaxation and recreation opportunities. These activities are often outsourced to contractors. For example, Nikki Bryan Spas runs the spa services at the Grand Floridian and Saratoga Springs resorts and Sammy Duvall runs the water sports centers. Contractors generally are allowed to accept tips.
We’re treating ourselves to a massage. Do I tip the masseusse
Plan on tipping 15-20% of the bill for any personal care or grooming service. Massages, manicures, haircuts, facials, and those poolside hair wraps all merit a tip of at least 15%.
I’m taking my beloved out on the town and we’re leaving the kids behind. Do I tip the sitter?
The cast at the Disney childcare centers (Neverland Club, etc.) will not be expecting a tip. If you’re using Disney’s in-room sitting subcontractors such as Kids Nite Out, then a tip should be offered. This could range from rounding up the bill by a few dollars to an extra $100 or more if the real-world version of Mary Poppins has tamed your unruly mob. For a normal, competent sitter, a tip of $10-20 is a nice gesture.
I’m going water skiing at the Contemporary. Do I tip the boat driver?
Offer a tip of at least 15% for any specialty recreation. This includes boat drivers, waterski instructors, parasailing guides, tennis instructors, and the like. For golf instructors and caddies, use standard golf club etiquette on tipping.
Tips for your water sports guide are welcome.
I’m still lost, what do I do?
When in doubt, ask other guests, or ask at the Guest Services offices in the parks. They’ll give you the scoop on tipping norms.
If you had one piece of advice to give me overall, what would it be?
Carry a lot of singles.
When in doubt about tipping, remember the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In other words if you, or your parent, or child, or best friend were in a service role, how would you want them to be treated. Tip accordingly.
And at the risk of getting all soapboxy here for a sec, if you’re traveling with kids, think about the example that you’re setting for them. Do you want to teach your kids that it’s OK to stiff the waiter?
With that in mind, you heard it here first, I vow that from now on I will leave a tip for the housekeepers and will teach my kids to do the same.
I’m bizarrely intrigued by all this. What were some of those resources you mentioned about tipping?
Ask and ye shall receive. Here are some places to learn more about tipping:
So fellow travelers, what are your thoughts on tipping? Do international guests think we Americans are crazy? Have you made any tipping gaffes that are keeping you up at night? Let us know in the comments below.
by Erin Foster
on February 22, 2012
Life with a baby can stressful enough. Put that baby, and her parents, in a new and possibly overwhelming situation such as Disney vacation, and frustrations are bound to occur. Things that seem easy, or at least routine, may prove challenging on the road. How do feed my child in a hotel room? How do I potty train in a theme park? How do I hold a squirmy baby in a haunted mansion?
Never fear, there are number of hacks and gadgets that can make Disney travel (or any travel) easier on all involved.
One quick caveat: As I mentioned in a previous article on packing, I am not a fan of bringing unnecessary gear on a trip. No one should be toting all of the mentioned items to the World. Just choose the few that help to keep your personal demons at bay.
How do I bathe my baby in a hotel room?
- Hack: Get in the shower/tub with her; everyone gets clean. Easiest when there are two adults on hand, one to do the washing and one to take the wet baby while the other adult dries off.
- Gadget: Inflatable baby tub. Inexpensive and takes up almost no room when deflated, but difficult to fully dry.
- Gadget: Handheld shower converter. Sit an older baby in the tub and use a gentle spray for shampoo removal.
Inflatable baby tub.
How do I potty train in a theme park?
- Hack: Um, don’t. Bad mommy confession time – We had a WDW trip planned when one of my daughters was right around training age. We decided to keep her in diapers and not attempt potty use until after our trip.
- Hack: Make frequent visits to the baby care centers. The park baby care centers are equipped with super small, child-sized toilets. So fascinating, you child my never want to leave.
- Gadget: Bring a portable folding potty seat. Just toss one of these (about the size of a hardcover book)in your backpack and you can convert any standard toilet into a child-size toilet. Just remember that the Disney/airport auto-flush toilets scare the heck out of some toddlers. Bring a pack of dark-colored post-its to cover the sensor.
How do I warm my baby’s bottle?
- Hack: Don’t do it. Maybe I’m lazy, but I never quite understood the “warm the bottle” thing. Once my kids were about a month old, we did progressively less warming of bottles. You drink room-temperature or cold beverages, baby can too.
- Hack: Use the microwave oven in your resort food court. Not particularly practical for middle-of-the-night feedings, but it works. If you want to do this often, request a room close to the food court. Also, the baby care centers in the parks have microwaves for guest use.
- Hack: Use your coffee maker (at the moderate or deluxe resorts). Run water through your coffee maker, without the coffee. Place bottle in pot of heated water to warm.
- Gadget: Electric bottle warmer. Kinda heavy to pack, but more official than the hack method.
Electric bottle warmer.
How do I keep my baby cool in a theme park?
- Hack: Don’t go out mid-day. It’s been said before, but it works.
- Gadget: Fill a hot water bottle with cold water or ice. Place this in the stroller with baby to keep his immediate environment nice and cool.
- Gadget: Keep the air moving with a stroller fan. Make sure you position it away from tiny fingers.
How do I handle my baby on a ride?
- Hack: Don’t worry about it. Just carry your child and hold her on your lap during the attraction. If the posted height requirement allows you to bring your baby on an attraction, then Disney thinks it’s safe to do so.
- Gadget: Wear your baby in a front carrier. When my twins were babies we wore them on front carriers on rides such as Small World, Buzz Lightyear, Haunted Manison, and the Kilimanjaro Safari. This allowed them a good view of the attraction and allowed me to keep my hands free to hold on to a hand rail or to my older daughter’s hand.
How do I carry all my baby gear?
- Hack: Tote less gear. Keep your big diaper bag in a locker and stop by repeatedly to replenish your “on hand” supplies. Make use of resort package delivery or package pickup if you make purchases.
- Gadget: Bring a few extra stroller bag accessories. Works with your stroller or Disney’s.
- Gadget: Disney strollers have no cup holders. Bring your own.
I have a baby and a preschooler, do I have to bring a big doubler stroller?
I’m going to rent a Disney stroller. How do I make it more comfortable for my child?
- Hack: Grab some towels from your room (they’ll bring you more). Use two as cushions to make the seat softer. Use one draped over the canopy as a sun shield, privacy screen, or light rain protection.
- Gadget: Use a blow-up seat cushion for a softer ride.
- Gadget: Bring a sun shade and/or plastic rain cover to keep the elements at bay.
How do I keep my toddler/preschooler from falling out of a big hotel bed?
- Hack: Make a nest of pillows/blankets on the floor and have him sleep there. Housekeeping will bring you whatever you need.
- Hack: Push your desk/table chair against the side of the bed to form a barrier.
- Hack: Borrow a bed rail from housekeeping.
- Gadget: Bring your own bedrail.
How do I get my anxious child to sleep in a hotel room?
- Hack: Leave the bathroom light on and keep the door ajar. Might be enough to keep the monsters away.
- Hack: Get a flashlight and/or white noise app for your phone. As long as it’s plugged in, you can let these go all night.
- Gadget: Bring a night light with you.
My child wants a thousand bedtime stories. How do avoid bringing the library with me on vacation?
- Hack: You know all those weird closed-circuit TV channels that run on the Disney hotel sets? Often one of them runs a loop of low-key children’s stories in the evening. Story time with Duffy! And yes, I do realize that this is not the same as interacting with a book (I’m a former librarian), but everyone’s on vacation here. A few nights of slacking will do no permanent harm.
- Hack/Gadget: Load up your electronic device with kiddie lit. No extra weight.
- Hack: Bring an anthology which includes many favorite stories. Good choices are The 20th Century Children’s Book Treasury and Harper Collins Treasury of Children’s Book Classics.
These were some of the travel issues I faced when my daughters were younger. What are your personal baby travel bugaboos? What are you favorite baby travel hacks and gadgets? Let us know 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 Evan Levy
on October 9, 2011
This is the second of our Trip Planning 101 series. It follows last week’s article on deciding when to take your vacation. TouringPlans.com is experimenting with a scoresheet to help you rank your hotel choices. You will need a copy of the Unofficial Guide (for offsite reviews) or can just use the Hotel section of TouringPlans.com. Download the PDF and let us know how you like it or if we need to include more instructions on how to use it.
The Polynesian, complete with palm tree
So you’re off to Disney World. What is there to say but “Yay!”?
Well, actually, a lot.
The first question (or possibly, the fourth, after “Will I meet Mickey Mouse?” “Is Dole Whip as good as they say?” and “How many more minutes until I can ride Splash Mountain?”) should be “Where will we stay?”
So to get you to the aforementioned Dole Whip, Mickey Mouse, Splash Mountain and the other reasons that you’re really going, here are some tips to get started.
The big question: On property or off? (Also known as onsite vs. offsite)
Our reviews of onsite Disney hotels are found here to help you out.
Why you SHOULD stay on property:
It’s wildly convenient in terms of transportation
You don’t need to worry about a car because the Disney transportation system will take you to all the Parks, as well as to places like Blizzard Beach and Downtown Disney. Disney buses are convenient, stop at your hotel and all Disney venues, and run relatively on time. That means you don’t need to worry about parking (or finding) your car after a long day. The buses will also deposit you pretty close to the action. If your hotel is on the monorail or has boat service, even better—your trip will be speedy and easily accessible. (However, if you do have a car, parking is free in the Parks.)
If you stay onsite, you can also take advantage of the Magical Express, a service for guests who arrive in Orlando by commercial flight. Disney will get your checked bags (now, that’s a yay) and take them to your hotel. Oh, yeah—they’ll also take YOU to your hotel–all for free. You can also check your bags at your hotel and get a boarding pass right there when you leave. How groovy is that?
It has fantastic amenities
Extra Magic Hours
Guests can take advantage of Extra Magic Hours, whereby you get access one hour earlier to different parks on different days than the general public, or can stay up to three hours after closing time.
Disney Dining Plan
Only Disney resort guests can purchase the Disney Dining Plan, which provides a set number of meals, snacks, and drinks for a fixed price per night. If you use it right, you can save some money. Plus, many love the peace of mind of having their food paid for before the trip starts, allowing them to ignore prices on the Disney menus while on vacation.
If this is Your Once-in-a-Lifetime Trip
Maybe it’s a big family reunion, or an anniversary, or a birthday, or you’ve saved your pennies for years and this is your shot. If this trip is your once-in-a lifetime, then you should definitely consider staying on property. You’re going to Disney World, and staying at a Disney resort is a HUGE part of the experience. If you’re already planning to stay on property, considering staying at a higher-level resort than you might normally consider, if you can swing it. Bottom line: If this is it, make it memorable and make it Disney, every second you’re there. You won’t regret it.
That Disney Magic (duh)!
Seriously, staying on property extends the thrill you get from being in the Parks. When you leave Typhoon Lagoon and go back to you’re hotel, you’ll still be in Disney World. When you wake up and look out your window, you’ll still be in Disney World. When you…OK, you get the idea. It’s a fantastic feeling. And the theming at the Disney hotels is incredible, from the decor to the pools to the gift shops. Staying on property means you don’t have to leave that Disney magic behind when you leave Epcot at the end of the day. And seriously, there’s so much to do at many of the hotels that you may choose to spend part or all of a day just taking advantage of everything offered there.
And that, as they say, is priceless.
For first-time visitors, the above factors make staying on property a serious consideration. The ease of being picked up at the airport, booking your meals ahead of time, the Disney transportation system, extra magic hours, and so forth will ensure that your first time there is really special–and that you’ll want to return.
Value vs. Deluxe: The Disney Hotel Classification System
But wait—even after you’ve decided to stay on property, you still have some work to do. Disney has a somewhat complicated ranking system of its properties, one that you’ll need to decipher before you can book your stay.
Deluxe resorts, are, as you can probably guess, the nicest. They offer the most space, the nicest accommodations, the most to do at the resort itself, and a wider range of dining options. They’re often close to the monorail or boat transportation, and offer fewer guests and thus more efficient service. (The Grand Floridian is a good example.) Disney Deluxe villas (or vacation club resorts) have full suites, sometimes with kitchens, and are often attached to these resorts (like Disney’s Beach Club Villas).
A level down you’ll find the moderate resorts (such as Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside resort). They’ll still offer nice theming, but they’re bigger, the rooms are smaller, and you’ll have fewer dining and transportations options.
The value resorts (All-Star Music, the soon-to-be-unveiled Art of Animation) have the most rooms but also the smallest, and each hosts large numbers of people; they also don’t offer many dining or transportation options. However, you can also opt for family suites. At the Art of Animation (opening next year) the suites will be twice the size of standard rooms and offer theming from such classics as Finding Nemo and The Lion King; they can accommodate up to six guests. (That being said, some folks who can stay pretty much anywhere they want opt for a value resort because they love the theming.)
And finally, you can also check out the Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground for campsites or fully equipped cabins. (For the real scoop, and more details, check out our Disney World Hotels page.)
Another option is to split your stay. Speaking from personal experience, it’s a hassle, but can be well worth it if you want to stay at a particular resort or level of resort but can’t afford it for the whole trip. You might stay at a value resort and move to a deluxe for a night or two; or even stay off property, see the sights outside of Disney World, and then move to a moderate resort for your last few nights. If you want real luxury, you could splurge on the Ritz-Carlton, for instance, and then move to a less pricey hotel in Disney World. This brings us to…
Why you might consider staying off property
Even though the value resorts are, well, good values, and you can usually get discounts for many of them, there’s no question that staying off property is less expensive. If that’s a huge consideration for you, it might be worth it.
While many Disney rooms are a decent size, if you’re going with large group, a condo or vacation villa might offer more space than you get on property.
For some families, having a pool, washer/dryer, or kitchen might be an important factor. You can more easily choose certain elements that are important to you if you stay offsite.
Many offsite properties have kitchens; preparing your own meals can cut down on eating costs.
Spending Time Outside of Disney World
(Yes, some people actually do that…) If Disney World is only one of your destinations, it could make sense to be located someplace where you will have easy access to a number of different attractions.
Planning the Trip
So, now let’s take a theoretical family and help plan its dream Disney vacation.
Mom, Dad, Grandma and three kids are flying to Disney World over spring break. Let’s meet our protagonists.
- Dad: Wants his family to have a great top-of-the-line experience but can’t justify paying for the six entire nights at a deluxe resort. Doesn’t want to see the inside of a car for the whole trip. Convenience is paramount. Embarrassed at how much he wants to try Toy Story Mania!
- Grandma: Game as all get out but has trouble walking long distances. Has wanted a hat with Mickey Mouse ears for 37 years.
- Mom: Has a secret pin-trading obsession; needs to be somewhere she can do her daily run.
- Bobby, 16: Severe Star Wars obsession. Rumored to have come out of the womb wielding a light saber. Happy to show up for the occasional ride like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but also wants to stay at the hotel and watch the Final Four Basketball Tournament.
- Babs, 11: Mostly wants to ride Pirates of the Caribbean as many times as is humanly possible. Wants access to a fantastic pool. Is desperate to eat at the 50s Prime Time Cafe in Hollywood Studios.
- Bitsy, 6: Making her first appearance at Disney World. Completely enamored of Lilo and Stitch. Frightened by loud noises and dark spaces.
How can this family with different interests and goals have its best Disney vacation?
We recommend booking on site, all the way. The family can fly down and take the Magical Express bus, then rely on Disney transportation so Dad doesn’t have to be car bound. They might start at a family suite at a value resort like All-Star Music for two or three nights to save some money, then move to the Polynesian, where Bitsy can enjoy all things Lilo and Stitch, including merchandise and the ‘Ohana restaurant, as well as the terrific Volcano Pool. Mom can run on the path to the Grand Floridian; the hotel also offers pin-trading sessions, or she can hop on the bus to Downtown Disney. The Polynesian allows easy access to the parks and other hotels, which also means less walking for Grandma. If she feels like staying at the hotel one day, there’s plenty to do, including checking out different Mickey Mouse hats. It also means that Bobby can stay at the hotel to watch basketball and hop on the monorail with quick access to a number of hotels and parks. If Bitsy wants to duck out early to avoid nighttime fireworks at the Magic Kingdom, someone can take her back easily on the Monorail. They have easy access to the Magic Kingdom, where a lot of their interests lie, and can also access Hollywood Studios without too much trouble.
So there you have it.
What are your thoughts about staying choosing your hotel? Let us know!
by Erin Foster
on June 23, 2011
One of my most vivid memories was the first night of an impromptu family trip to Walt Disney World. It was about 9:00 p.m. After a full day of park touring we were exhausted and ready to snuggle in for a night of rest in our room at the Contemporary Resort. Hubby and I were winding down, reading the newspaper on one bed. My then 6-year-old twins were cuddled in the other bed. And their nine-year-old sister was camped out on the daybed. I was overcome by a feeling of peace and warmth. We were a family. Together. Safe and sound and peaceful.
Needless to say, this moment of zen was short-lived. Hubby started complaining that he wanted to sleep and my light was bothering him. The twins, not used to sharing a bed, began kicking each other and making cover-hog accusations. My older daughter screamed that she wanted the noise to stop. After several rounds of musical beds, trips to the bathroom, a call to housekeeping for extra blankets, and many threats of no-Space-Mountain-tomorrow-if-you-don’t-quiet-down-RIGHT-NOW, I think we finally settled down around 11:00 p.m. So much for togetherness.
Although our room was lovely, it wasn’t the best set-up for us getting the rest we needed. Disney may say that a particular hotel room sleeps four or five (or more) people, but how do you make sure that many people can actually, well, sleep in that room?
Get the Right Size Room
When choosing a Walt Disney World hotel, most people consider price, location, and room capacity to be the key data points. However, beyond simply the number of people allowed to stay in the room, you should also consider how many separate sleep surfaces are there. For example, there are rooms sized for four people at the Wilderness Lodge which are furnished with two queen-size beds. Other rooms at the same hotel have a queen-sized bed plus two bunk beds – three distinct sleep surfaces instead of two. For a family with children of different genders, or a blended family, the extra sleep surface could greatly improve the quality of their vacation. Additional sleep surfaces may also be important for unrelated adults or multigenerational families traveling together. Make sure you reserve the version that works for you.
Standard rooms at the Grand Floridian sleep five, on three surfaces
A family of five (two adults plus three children), could have each of the kids on a separate sleep surface at the Fort Wilderness cabins or the All Star Music Family Suites. The same result could be achieved by getting two rooms with a connecting door. Connecting rooms are available at all WDW hotels (this must be requested in advance). In my family of five, we can technically stay in one room at the deluxe resorts, many of which are equipped with two queen-sized beds plus a single daybed, but we’ve learned through hard experience that we’ll all be better rested if each of the three kids has her own sleep area. Maximizing sleep surfaces cost effectively may mean making concessions in other amenities. For example, getting two rooms at a value resort (four sleep surfaces) may be comparable in cost to one room at a deluxe resort (with three sleep surfaces). You’re trading monorail access and water slides for better sleep and access to two bathrooms. Different families will find each of these options more or less appealing.
Before booking your trip, take an honest assessment of your family’s sleep needs. Does one child go to sleep much earlier than the other? Do the parents want a door between them and the sleeping children? Can siblings share a bed without fighting? Do different family members have vastly different sleep environment needs for noise, light, or temperature level? Each of these factors may influence your room requirements.
For those with nonstandard needs, there are a number of unique room types at Walt Disney World: rooms with trundle beds at Port Orleans Riverside, junior and deluxe suites at many of the hotels, units with substantial outdoor space, and multi-room villas. It can be a challenge to figure out the exact configuration of each room type on the Walt Disney World website, sometimes picking up the phone and speaking with a reservationist be a quicker route to booking for guests with specific needs. Rooms can be booked by calling 407-W-DISNEY or through a travel agent.
Modify Your Space
You may sleep easier if you make some minor modifications to your room. All Walt Disney World hotel rooms contain at least one table and two chairs. During your stay, it may make sense to rearrange these items. For example, when my kids were small, they often had difficulty falling asleep if they could see me and tell that I was still awake. If this is your situation, try positioning a chair to block you child’s sight line to you. You can also move a chair into the bathroom for similar effect. I’ve done many a crossword puzzle on a chair in a hotel bathroom while I waited for a child to fall asleep. At the value and moderate resorts, it is also possible to move a chair just outside your room door to sit there while your children are dozing. In this situation, remember to keep your room key with you at all times and be courteous to guests in neighboring rooms.
Call housekeeping if you need extra blankets or pillows
Disney does not advertise the availability of rollaway beds, but there are a very limited number of them for use in rooms that are large enough to accommodate their size. This means that you won’t be able to get a rollaway in a value resort room – there simply isn’t enough square footage – but if you need one in a deluxe room, this might be possible. While you shouldn’t count on having a rollaway, it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask.
If a room with an extra bed isn’t available or isn’t in the budget, it may make sense to bring your own “furniture” in the form of a sleeping bag. My oldest daughter would much rather sleep on the floor than with either of her squirmy sisters. Most airlines will allow you bring an extra bag for less than $25. This fee is substantially less than any room upgrade would be. Just be sure to straighten up in the morning so that housekeeping can do their work. Also, safety dictates that you not use items such as sleeping bags to circumvent the fire code maximum number of persons per room.
Even the most minor of room modifications can help. Disney housekeeping is happy to provide extra pillows or blankets for your room. When my children have shared a bed, we’ve made good use of this service by creating a pillow “wall” between the kids and giving them each their own blanket. We’ve had more success getting them to sleep in a timely manner when they don’t have to struggle for control over the covers.
Ask for the Right Room Location and Configuration
I’ve often been asked which is the best room location at various WDW hotels. The answer to this varies greatly depending on your goals. If you want to save walk time, then being close to the food court, bus stop or pool may make sense. If you want to sleep soundly, then you may have more luck being away from the hotel’s amenities. My husband always requests a room far away from the elevator banks so that we are not disturbed by other guests speaking in the halls on their way to the parks.
You can sit right outside your hotel room door while baby falls asleep. Bring a monitor.
If you are traveling in warmer months, try asking for a room on the first floor with patio space or on an upper floor with a balcony. These outdoor areas can serve as a parental retreat while the children settle down for the evening.
Special Considerations for Babies
All Walt Disney World resort hotels allow an additional guest in each room if that guest is a child under the age of three sleeping in a Pack ‘n Play crib. Disney provides these cribs and associated bedding free of charge. However, my experience is that the younger the child, the more sensitive he or she is to variation in the sleep environment. Bringing a familiar crib sheet and blanket from home may provide an extra measure of comfort for a little one.
Many guests with crib-age children find that they can create a makeshift private room for baby in the moderate resorts. Many rooms at this price level have a feature which allows the vanity area near the bath to be enclosed via a sliding door or curtain. Setting up the crib behind the curtain may prevent the baby from being awakened by light or noise in the rest of the room. This can be especially helpful when attempting to get children to nap during the day.
Use Technology to Your Advantage
There are a number of small electronics that may improve your sleep experience in any hotel room:
- Nightlight: Children who are wary of unfamiliar surroundings or afraid of the dark may sleep better with a nightlight on.
- Booklight: Allows adults to stay up and read while children are falling asleep.
- Baby monitor: If you’re planning to sit on your room’s patio or balcony while your children fall asleep, a baby monitor can keep you fully apprised of their activity level.
- iPad, iPod, or other smart device: Download a noise machine app (I like Ambiance) to muffle ambient room sounds. Watching a stored movie on the iPad keeps the room light level lower than turning on the TV.
Explore Off-Site Alternatives
I am a strong proponent of staying inside the Disney bubble when on vacation. However, families with complicated sleep needs will likely find more varied room configurations offsite. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World includes extensive reviews of and recommendations for offsite hotels.
What’s Your Best Tip?
Is your family always able to sleep well together in one hotel room? What strategies have you used to make everyone’s nighttime routine more relaxing? Let me know in the comments below.