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 Fort Wilderness Campground. 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.
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 Social, Plum 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.
- 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.
- 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!).
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!)
- Travel on a Shoestring: Lodging and Transportation
- Travel on a Shoestring: Road Trip Shopping List
- Vacation Planning on a Shoestring
- Travel on a Shoestring: Feeding your family away from home
- Road Tripping with Kids series: General Tips, Behavior Tips, Road Trip Fun for Kids, Avoid Emergencies
- Northeast Ohio Staycation & Summer Fun Ideas
- Nationwide Staycation & Summer Fun Ideas (check the list to find free & frugal fun near your vacation destination!)
- Travel on a Shoestring: Fun for the family without busting the budget
- Travel on a Shoestring: Staycations (general staycation ideas)
- Travel on a Shoestring: National Parks with Kids
- Travel on a Shoestring: Megan’s Month-Long Cross-Country Road Trip
- Travel on a Shoestring: Mount Rushmore and Jewel Cave
- Visiting Laura’s Little Houses Part 1: Intro and Little House on the Prairie
- Visiting Laura’s Little Houses Part 2: Little House in the Big Woods and On the Banks of Plum Creek
- Visiting Laura’s Little Houses Part 3: Laura’s Little Town–De Smet, South Dakota
Coupons procured by Savings.com