Travel on a Shoestring: Disney World

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It’s been a long, cold winter here in Northeast Ohio, so we’re declaring this to be Sisters Shopping on a Shoestring’s Travel Week!  We’ll share some new posts about fun, frugal destinations for your family vacations, along with general tips for frugal travel and surviving road trips with your family!  We hope you find them useful!

Today, here’s one of our most popular Frugal Travel posts, updated with a few new tips!

It’s the time of year when many of us start thinking about next summer’s vacation.  If you’re thinking about Walt Disney World, I’ll share a little a few of my best tips.  There are other general travel tips about saving on food, transportation, and lodging in other Travel on a Shoestring posts (see links at the end of this one), so I’ll stick mostly to Disney-specific information here.  I know that no matter what hints I give, a Disney World vacation won’t exactly be a “Shoestring Budget” trip, but if you’ve been saving for the special trip, there are ways to keep things somewhat reasonable when you go visit the House of the Mouse!

Our crew at Cinderella’s Castle (with a bun in the oven :) )

In preparation for our Disney trip three years ago, I did a lot of research, knowing that we’d need all the help we could get taking an almost-5-year-old, a 3-year-old, and a 20-month-old while I was 4 months pregnant!  We ended up having a fantastic time, and while it was definitely expensive, we tried to pinch as many pennies as possible.  A few tips if you’re considering going:

  • Research: There are tons of websites devoted solely to planning your Disney World vacation.  A simple Google or Pinterest search will keep you busy for hours (if not days!).  Some people go every year and have lots of tips to share.  Just be aware that not everyone’s suggestions are based on a Shoestring Budget, so run things through that filter too.  A few good ones: Couponing to Disney, MouseSavers, and Disney on a Dime.  (Any other favorite sites?  Add them in the comments!)
  • More days=Best deal per day: Park tickets are the biggest expense of a Disney World trip, and they really don’t offer discounts on the tickets themselves.  However, once you get beyond the 3-4 day threshold, it’s pretty cheap to add on additional days to your ticket.  For instance (as of February 2014), a 1-day adult ticket is $99.  Adding a second day adds $89.  The third day adds another $86, but the fourth day only adds $20.  The difference between a 5-day ticket and a 10-day ticket is just $50 per person.  If you’re able to stay longer, you can get the best cost per day for the park tickets, and take a more leisurely pace as you explore the parks, possibly taking a half-day here and there to just rest and recharge your batteries.
  • Earn Fuelperks on your trip!  Giant Eagle sells Disney gift cards, which you can use to pay for tickets, on-property lodging, food, and souvenirs.  You’ll want to estimate as closely as you can, but if you can biy your gift cards during a Double Fuelperks time, you could earn as much as $12 in free gas for every $100 you spend.  When you consider that a trip goes into the thousands pretty quickly, that’s a lot of free gas.  Every little bit helps!
  • On-property vs. Off-property for lodging: Disney World owns and operates hotels in every price range on their property.  
    • Pros of staying on-property: Bus transportation to the parks (no parking fees each day), Disney atmosphere (All-Star Movies, where we stayed, has 3-story-tall characters decorating each building), possible package deals (we got a $500 Disney gift card when we booked, which paid for all the extras on the trip, plus some souvenirs–they also frequently offer deals on meal packages).  The new Art of Animation Resort is considered a “Value” price level on-property hotel, but it includes suites for up to six people instead of just the usual four; a huge bonus for bigger families like mine!  Next time we go, we’ll plan to take our camper and stay at Groupon.  It’s the most reasonable nightly rate on the Disney World property, and you still get to take advantage of most of the on-property bonuses.

Groupon

Those are my kids by Buzz’s feet at the All Star Movies hotel…pretty cool, but only if there’s a good deal!

    • Pros of staying off-property: Usually lower prices, more options for larger families, more likely to have a kitchen, many have shuttle service to the park (ask when you book). There are frequently deals on Groupon, Living SocialPlum District and other daily deal sites for rooms at Downtown Disney area hotels (kind of an on/off-property hybrid) or other nearby hotel options.  You can also try VRBO for vacation rentals. 
  • Consider off-season: Fall and spring (not near holidays) are less crowded and usually less expensive for lodging.
  • Military Discounts: Be sure to mention if you or a family member is a current or retired service member.  There are special discounts available for the military!
  • Watch for package deals, even after you book: If you book through Disney World (either by phone or online), and a better discount package comes along that’s valid for your travel dates, you can call and have them adjust your package to take advantage of the new one.  You may be able to do this through travel agents too, but be sure to ask when you book whether this is an option (sometimes travel agent bookings are final!).
  • Plan ahead: If your kids are old enough, get a book or show them web sites so they can pick their top priorities for what to see/do/ride.  Make sure you hit these, then the rest is bonus.  My family loves the Birnbaum’s Walt Disney World for Kids guidebook, and we’ve used the pictures and descriptions to make our game plans.  (But be prepared to be flexible too, especially if you’re traveling with little ones!)
  • Which things can you only do at Disney?  When you prioritize your plan, considering this question might help you decide which things you might be able to trade off.  You can do water slides closer to home (possibly for cheaper), and you can see animals at the zoo…these ideas put Animal Kingdom and the water parks toward the bottom of the priority list for our family, but everyone’s idea of “must see” is different.
  • Eat a quick, simple breakfast in your room: Snag some breakfast bars and juice boxes at home when they’re on sale, and bring them with you for a quick, frugal breakfast before hitting the park.  You’ll save the time and expense of a sit-down breakfast meal, and be ready to hit the parks when they open and your crew is fresh to enjoy all the magic.  Other options are bagels, fresh fruit, and even cereal & milk if you hit a store once you get to town.
  • Pack water and snacks: Take a refillable water bottle for each person, and hit the drinking fountains, especially if you go in the summer.  We also packed sandwiches, fruit, and snacks so we didn’t have to buy much food in the parks.  If you take a mid-afternoon break, you can grab an early dinner outside the park before heading back for the evening.

Quick snack & drink break in the shade

  • Get the most bang for your buck:  If you do buy food at Disney, get the biggest meal, snack, or drink and share.  Many meals are enough to feed two people (double cheeseburger, chicken dinner, etc.).  You can also order a kids’ meal for an adult, and there’s usually plenty.  If you stay on-property, check to see if your resort has a refillable mug.  We bought one for around $13, and got coffee in the morning and soft drinks in the evening.  Hubby & I shared, and we still use the mug at home.  Find special Disney snacks, like Mickey ear ice cream bars or popcorn in a souvenir container.  At least if you spend big bucks on food, it’ll be on something unique and memorable that you can’t get anywhere else.
  •  Don’t pay in a pinch: Avert disaster and budget-busting in-park prices by packing these things: Band-Aids & antibiotic cream, pain reliever, moleskin (for foot blisters), sunscreen, chap stick, cheap rain ponchos, extra batteries for the camera.  If you go in the summer, bring a battery-operated spray fan ($10 or less at Walmart vs. twice that in the park).  Bring your stroller so you won’t have to rent one.  Even kids as old as 5 or 6 get tired of walking and might need a break.  You can also find the first aid area at all the parks for help with minor issues.
  • If you get sick or hurt: Disney World is famous for how it takes care of its guests in times of need.  If you find yourself sick or injured at the parks or property, contact a Cast Member (employee).  They can help direct you to assistance, call an ambulance if needed, help you get to an urgent care center, call a doctor to your hotel room…anything needed to help get you better so you can enjoy your trip.  There are numerous stories about how Disney goes above and beyond to help with sickness or injuries.  Hopefully it won’t happen, but ask for help if you need it!
  • Bring extra fun from home: When the lights go down at Disney, fabulous (read: expensive!) light-up toys come out.  I brought a tube of 100 glow sticks ($8-ish at Pat Catan’s), and gave some to the kids each evening.  We also bought our matching shirts online at The Disney Store before we left (for us, the grandparents, and relatives from South Carolina who met us there).  Check out the Disney Store before you leave home to see how much things cost there, so you’re not tempted to over-pay for something in the parks.  You can also find special treats in Target’s Dollar Spot, Walmart, dollar stores or other bargain places.  I love the idea of pre-buying items featuring your kids’ favorite characters and leaving them as “Tinker Bell Gifts” for them to find in the hotel–the kids get something special to remind them of the trip, but you don’t have to pay the premium of buying the souvenir in the park.

Glowy sticks from home=fewer cases of the Gimmes!

  • Make the most of your memories: Take tons of pictures, then make a photo book when you get home so your kids (and you) will always remember the fun.  Our photo book was our best souvenir, and the kids still look at it a few times a week.  When they still talk about a trip almost three years later, it makes me feel like I got my money’s worth, even if it was expensive. 

My #1 Most Important Tip for doing Disney with Kids:  Especially for those of us who pinch pennies, we may want to milk every ounce of possible fun out of this expensive vacation to get our money’s worth.  If you go hard core from when the parks open until they close, you’ll wear yourselves and your kids out, and everyone will be miserable.  Take time to rest and relax, either by going back to your hotel for an air-conditioned nap, a quiet train ride around the park in Magic Kingdom, and air-conditioned monorail ride, or just a rest in a quiet, shady spot watching the Disney Magic all around you.  Take a morning to sleep in a little, and/or an evening to head back to the hotel by dinner time and have an early night in before a big day.  If you don’t over-do, you’ll be ready to experience the Disney Magic rather than being crabby and exhausted the whole time (which would not be a good use of your hard-earned money!).

We’d love to hear your Disney World tips, especially those that help you stretch your Shoestring budget!  Share in the comments or on Facebook–I’ll be reading because we hope to go back again soon!

Have you checked out our other Travel on a Shoestring posts? (Be sure to read the first 5 in the list for more tips that could help with a Disney vacation!)

 

Coupons procured by Savings.com









Comments

  1. We booked through Triple A and used gift cards from Giant Eagle to pay for the trip. We then charged anything bought to the room and paid with another gift card. Earned a lot of fuel perks! Kids got gift cards from the grands for holidays leading up to the big trip so they were able to pick many souvenirs that they wanted. Did the meal plan and I feel that you got your money’s worth and made a lot of memories at the character meals.
    • Good reminder to use gift cards–if you’re spending the money anyway, might as well get some free gas out of it!
      • matilda says:
        Giant Eagle is running 20 cent fuel perks on disney gift cards till march 13th!
        • Great point! I noticed that this morning as I looked through the ad–every little bit helps, and you can pay for park tickets, on-property lodging, food, and souvenirs with Disney gift cards. 20¢ Bonus Fuelperks is worth up to $6 in free gas (if you buy the full 30 gallons) for every $50 purchased. So if your room and tickets run $1500, that’s up to $180 worth of free gas–a great savings! (If you want to figure out how much free gas you could get, it’s 12% if you get the full 30 gallons–if your gas tank isn’t that big, fill up some gas cans and take them home for another vehicle or to save for your next fill-up!)
  2. Melissa Zifzal says:
    Great tips! We went in December and stayed off property at a site I booked only a few months ahead of time–paid $550 for 6 night! We also saved lots of money on a car rental by booking through Costco. I had saved up points on one of our credit cards for five years-and paid only $17 for the five of us to fly. On our Disney credit card, we accumulated enough money to pay for all the meals we ate in the park, plus a few souvenirs. That credit card also entitled us to get a free 5×7 family picture at Epcot.

    If anyone in your family or group is celebrating a birthday, stop by guest services for a free Happy Birthday button. Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, riding on a parade float, spotted my daughter’s button and called out Happy Birthday to her! Everywhere we went, she and her brother (who was also celebrating) got lots of birthday wishes from Disney employees.

    We also took snacks and purchased glow sticks ahead of time like you!

    Great job on your website.

    • Thanks, Melissa–you mentioned a few things that I forgot! The Disney Rewards credit card offers gift card perks when you first sign up (I’ve seen it as high as $100 gift card back when you make your first purchase), and you also earn cash back in Disney gift cards. The free 5 x 7 photo session at Epcot was nice too, because it’s just for cardholders, so the line isn’t ridiculous and you get a little more time with the characters. The cash back isn’t as good as some other cards (I think 1%??) but it’s a sneaky way to save a little extra for your trip without noticing, then cash it in when you go. We were just talking about starting to use our card again in preparation for going back in 2-3 years! :)

      We did the birthday button too for our almost-5-year-old (we went 2 weeks before her b-day–it doesn’t have to be right on their birthdays, as long as you’re celebrating!). She loved how people fussed over her, and it made her feel even more “princess-y!”

  3. Thanks so much for this! We’ve planning on going next year and what a huge help! Love you guys!
  4. I LOVE all things Disney! I tell everyone that I am 44 years old and in love with a mouse. Luckily, my husband and son share the same affection for the mouse. :-)

    My family and I think the water is terrible at Disney. An idea to avert bad tasting water is to take the single packets of kool-aid for kids (because no aspartame) and crystal light for adults if you don’t want kool-aid.

    Another thing that you can do is order a double cheeseburger and ask for an extra bun. Then you can split the double cheeseburger into good size burgers. They may or may not charge you for the buns, depends on restaurant. I think we paid 60 cents for an extra bun only once. And we like to take uncrustables into the park with us. They are frozen at first and by the time you are ready to eat them, they are still a little chilly but ready to eat.

    A good place to check for rental cars for Orlando is http://www.rentalcarmomma.com.

    Another good website for tickets for Disney and other useful information is http://www.undercovertourist.com. We did purchase our tickets from Undercover one year and didn’t have a bit of trouble. I would highly recommend using them if you need park tickets. The prices on their website include tax. If you want to compare to Disney pricing, the prices on Disney’s site does not include taxes, those are added on at the end. Normally, we do a package with Disney, so we have only needed Undercover one time.

    If it is hot, remember to take baggies and put wet wash rags in them. I always put a little extra cold water in them. That way you have something refreshing to wipe your face off with. Also, we take hand towels in the park also. You will be able to wipe off a wet or dirty surface.

    If you either have or rent a stroller, take a bright colored bandana to tie around the handle so you can pick your stroller out in a sea of strollers!

    And on the Disney Visa Reward Credit Card, I received a $200 gift card offer and that paid for our down payment on our vacation. And yes it is only a 1% return on purchases. They also offer a premium card and it has up to 5% back for the first 3 months on purchases but there is a $49 annual fee. If you use your Disney Visa card to pay for your Disney vacation package, there is 6 months same as cash on a Disney package.

    Hope this helps someone!

    • Awesome tips Lori, thanks!! And I can understand the whole loving the Mouse thing…all this Disney talk has me itching to go back, even though it’s not on the agenda till at least summer 2014. I’ll just keep reminding myself that patience is a virtue… ;)
      • I agree about the water at Disney Lori! I hadn’t thought about the packets but I am def getting those for my husband- thanks! Another trick that might combat the taste is the new Brita filter bottle (the portable one- just like a water bottle but it has a filter under the mouth piece). I use it at the gym all the time -the water there tastes like chlorine and the filter helps eliminate it so it should work for Disney water too.

        I third the motion on the mouse! My husband and I are in our thirties and go at least once a year- and we don’t even have kids yet! I am pregnant and due in December though so thanks to all the money I save on groceries (thanks to Sisters!) since I started using coupons, I have been able to put money away every week for the baby AND annual vaca! We are going down in two weeks so if I find any other money saving tips while I’m there I will certainly share!

  5. I love reading WDW tips! One thing we found out in a rough moment was, the nurses station gives bandaids/neosporen free! They take care of injuries like blisters ( or in my case a 2 yo with a scraped knee!) . They also have tylenol/ibuprofen. The nurses are very sweet and caring!
  6. We rent DVC points every yr for our stay, we found our renter at mouseowners.com, we pay $7 per pt. Our stay in Dec, we had a two bedroom villa, free dining plan (DVC member perk) 10% off all park and food purchases bc we were staying as DVC members and stayed at the Beach club for 5 nights, Disney’s Cost: $7,988! We paid $880 and split that with my I laws who came and stayed with us. We got the Disney chase debit card, additional 10% off purchases, my MIL works for chase so we bought 3 day park hopper tickets for $168 through her, paid once we were down there for additional 3 days which was 9.62 for each day added and since we had a full kitchen in our room, grocery shopped at Walmart with coupons when we got down there and saved a ton!!!
    • Julie – how did you purchase the Disney tickets through Chase? THat is an awesome deal for 3 day hopper passes. Do I just apply for the credit card thru Chase and order the tickets through them? Obviously – I am confused. We are going in June and tickets are our biggest expense. We are staying off-site in a condo (15 min away) and driving down. We are also going to go to Legoland which is 45 minutes away. Thanks for your help!
  7. I love your website! :) always a little something extra on top of match-ups!! Awesome!
  8. I love your website! :) always a little something extra on top of match-ups!! Awesome!
  9. Visiting from the Bloggy Moms hop! :)

    We’re notorious for loading up suitcases with non-perishable foods – peanut butter, snack bags, breakfast bars. Then we typically eat a grab and go breakfast and save on one meal every day.

    I’m considering getting the Disney Visa too. My mom has one and there are sometimes some good perks in addition to the cash back like special seating for Epcot concerts and fireworks.

    One area we don’t scrimp on is staying on property though. It really makes it a much more relaxing vacation to not have to drive or wait for unreliable transportation. It’s worth it for us to stay.

    • Hi Valerie! Thanks for stopping by!

      I’m with you on packing at least one, if not two meals a day. Big savings, no waiting in line, and it’s something you know the kids will eat. We stayed on property when we went and the kids thought the shuttle bus ride was one of the best parts of the trip! :) (they’re easy to please, though!) For as little time as we spent in the room, the value resorts were fine for us. Next time we go, we’re taking the camper and staying at Fort Wilderness!

      We have the Disney Visa, and it takes a while to rack up points, but I use it when our other cards don’t have a better deal. We got the special character meet & greet photo op in Epcot when we were there, which was nice, and not too long of a wait.

  10. We ate breakfast at the McDonalds closest to the park so that it was one less meal that we had to eat on the Disney Properties. I have heard to invest in the Meal plan if you plan on staying onsite, that it is well worth it.
  11. We found a company that rents travel trailers. AND they deliver! We’re not paying an arm and a leg for the space and kitchen that we need. It winds up being close to the same or a little cheaper than on site. Besides, two of our kids are REALLY picky eaters so this will actually save us money . So looking forward to it!
  12. How I planned a Disney Trip for a family of four for $500.00

    http://www.disneyfor500.com/2014/01/how-i-did-it.html

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