Disney World is a fantastic family vacation destination, but it’s not always budget-friendly. We’ve rounded up our top tips for doing Disney World on a budget–it is possible to save when you visit the house of the Mouse!
1. Know what “on a budget” means
Ok…so…realistically speaking, “Shoestring Budget” isn’t going to be quite as “shoestring” at Disney World as it is at other places. There’s nothing you can do to change the price of tickets—they’re expensive. We’ve got some wiggle room on practically every other aspect of the trip though.
Know what you can afford. If you do the math and it doesn’t add up, find a place to cut, or save a little longer. Disney world is fun, wonderful, and magical…but not at the expense of your family’s financial health. This is a biggie to save for, and we’ll help you get the most bang for your buck…but it’s not a life-or-death “must do” thing. You’ll survive if you put it off another year. Deal with reality, try not to get carried away (so hard when you’re up against the marketing machine, but be strong!), and remember your priorities. At the end of the day, if you’re stressing about how to pay for the trip, it’s not nearly as much fun. Make a budget you can live with, allow for some wiggle room, then stick to it, and you’ll be free to enjoy all the pixie dust and magic that blows your way!
2. Do your homework
This is both an easy one and a hard one…Pinterest could exist on just Disney World ideas alone. But there are some excellent resources out there so you’ll be prepared when you plan.
- Disney World Web Site: Basic info like ticket prices, park attractions, hours, online reservations, etc.
- Disney app: Everything you need to know about the parks, all on your phone. Includes park hours, wait times for rides, managing your FastPass+ reservations, interactive maps of the parks, restaurant menus, and tons more. You can even keep an eye on the parks ahead of time to notice which rides get long wait times, which can help you make a plan of attack
- Mousesavers.com: budget-minded tips, detailed descriptions
- DisneyDining.com: Detailed restaurant reviews and menu information, along with articles about special needs like dining with food allergies
- Undercover Tourist Crowd Calendar: This helps you know which park might be your best bet for a smaller crowd on given days based on many different factors–a good way to help you plan which park to visit when!
- Books: My favorite is the annual Birnbaum’s Walt Disney World for Kids book, which contains detailed descriptions of almost every ride in the park, with reviews and tips written by kids, for kids. Cute pictures and lots of information helps kids get involved with the planning and gets them excited for the trip (and let’s face it…for this amount of money, they better be stoked, am I right?). Other helpful books include the adult Birnbaum’s Disney World book, and the Frommer’s Guide.
With all this research, you’ll be able to prioritize the most important rides, attractions, and characters for your family to see. You’ll also get tips about how the FastPass+ program works, and how to maximize those reservations to decrease your wait times on the most popular rides. Depending how nerdy you want to get about your trip, you can even find enough info to make a general game plan for each day at the parks (and I say “nerdy” with love…I’m the person who swears by getting a late-morning FastPass for either Soarin or Test Track at Epcot, then racing with my family to the other one as soon as the park opens before the line gets too long so we don’t have to wait long for either. I totally qualify for the nerdy category! 😉 )
3. Take full advantage of FREE Disney fun!
There are TONS of add-ons and extras that you can spend money on besides actual admission to the parks, but before you do, be aware of some of our favorite freebies that you can do for fun at and around the parks:
- Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom Card Game: Stop into the Fire Station on Main Street in Magic Kingdom each day for a pack of playing cards that will be your keys to this fun interactive game, which can be played throughout the park. You’ll receive a map that will send you on a quest, and the cards help you defend the Magic Kingdom. You can get one new pack of cards per person each day, and the cards themselves are a fun, free souvenir, even if you don’t spend a ton of time playing the game (they each feature different Disney characters.
- Unique transportation: The monorails and boats of the Disney transportation system are free to ticket holders, and provide unique views of the parks. The monorail provides a fantastic view of Epcot as it loops around Spaceship Earth before dropping you off (*Monorail bonus in the hot Florida summer: it’s air conditioned!). The Magic Kingdom monorail loop goes through the Contemporary hotel, and also has great views of the park, the other hotels, and Seven Seas Lagoon. Boat transportation runs between many of the hotels and the parks, and also between the parks or hotels and other destinations (like the Disney Springs shopping area). These can be a fun change of scenery, or a great free “first night there” activity, just to get a little Disney flavor without extra cost
- Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure at Epcot: Become an O.W.C.A. agent and stop Dr. Doofenschmirtz from destroying international treasures with his “inators” when you pick up a F.O.N.E. (a specially enabled smartphone for the game) at one of the designated stations, or use your own smartphone to access the game. You’ll have an interactive scavenger hunt within one of the Epcot countries, with different things to input into your F.O.N.E. These trigger certain cool little “secret” things to happen (like the volcano in Mexico to erupt, or an indoor thunderstorm in England), which my kids got the biggest kick out of. My family loves Phineas and Ferb, so we did several of these missions, and they were a lot of fun (warning…they do take some time, so plan on about 45 minutes to an hour per mission if you plan to do them!).
- KidCot Stations: Each country around Epcot has a special area just for kids, where they can do a little craft or activity, and get a stamp from that country. My kids loved having their names written in Japanese, and they learned interesting facts that were right on their level. They had a souvenir fan to take home with special stamps from each country.
- Special activities at your hotels: Disney hotels always have things happening to make your stay special. One night a few years ago we stumbled upon a make-your-own sundae bar and activity at the hotel food court, and during our most recent trip we took advantage of the nightly sing-along, campfire, and movie at Fort Wilderness Campground (which you can attend even if you’re not camping! Bring your own s’mores supplies, or buy a kit there). The kids also enjoyed the organized poolside activities and games. Keep an eye out for special fun for kids wherever you stay!
- Enjoy some unique window shopping: It only costs money if you buy something 😉 but there are some pretty unique stores over at Disney Springs (formerly called Downtown Disney). My kids loved looking through the Lego Store at their huge displays, and the Disney Store there is pretty spectacular too. We had a fun evening just walking through the shopping area and checking things out. They frequently have concerts and other activities going on in the area too.
Where you stay has a huge impact on the cost of your trip. There are three different ways to go when it comes to Disney lodging, and all have their pros & cons:
- On-Property: These are the official Disney-owned hotels, on Walt Disney World property, and they can be booked as part of your “Magic Your Way package, which can also include park tickets, a dining plan, and more. Often there are discount codes for Disney owned properties, and many travel agents who specialize in booking Disney vacations can help you find them. You’ll likely get offers in the mail and through emails once you’re on the Disney mailing list once you request a trip planning DVD.There are several different levels of On-Property hotels: Value, Moderate, and Deluxe. Obviously, the best bargain will be the Value resorts. They have great theming and the lowest prices. The rooms themselves aren’t spectacular, but realistically speaking, you won’t spend a ton of time in them, and they’re a place to crash at the end of a fun-filled day. Another reasonably-priced on-property option is Fort Wilderness Campground. As a family of 6, our options for big-family lodging on a budget were limited on our last trip, but Fort Wilderness offered us a great option for under $100/night, and we still got to take advantage of all the on-property perks, like free parking at the parks, use of park transportation, and Extra Magic Hours when we wanted to use them.
- Off-Property: There are tons of condos and vacation homes within a few minutes’ drive of the Disney World complex, and they can be rented for reasonable prices. The “pros” of this option are that you usually have more space to spread out, and you have a full kitchen, refrigerator, and freezer to help cut down on food costs. The “cons” are that you’ll have to pay for parking each day (around $20/day) when you drive into the park. Still, if you have a bigger family, don’t mind driving in, and want that kitchen option, you can find some bargains on vacation rental sites like VRBO.com, Airbnb.com, or through rental agencies. There are also plenty of traditional hotel options in the area as well!
The best way to save on food is to pack as much as you can. If you’re driving, bring as much from home as you can. If you’re flying, there are some options to have groceries delivered to your hotel, including having an Amazon shipment waiting for you, or ordering groceries from a grocery delivery service. You can also make a quick stop at a store when you get into town—an hour at a Walmart could save you big bucks in the parks! We like to eat a quick breakfast in the room or while we wait for the Disney buses. Then we pack lunch and snacks, and either eat dinner in the park or when we camped we took a late-afternoon break to eat a simple dinner in the camper (I made a bunch of meals ahead and froze them so they were easy and cheap!)
Ideas for what to pack:
- Granola bars
- Breakfast bars
- Dry cereal (or buy milk and pack disposable bowls & spoons)
- Frozen microwaveable breakfast sandwiches or pancake sausage wraps (if you have a freezer & microwave)
- Juice boxes
Lunches & snacks:
- Cheese sticks
- Yogurt sticks
- Peanut butter cracker packs
- Trail Mix
- Snack Packs of chips or cookies
- Gatorade, juice boxes, and water bottles
For meals you’re planning to buy in the parks, consider what’s really important. You could eat for as little as $6.99 to as much as $100+ per person, so there’s a huge range of cost. Do you want the fancy character meet & greet, the themed ambiance, and the unique food options? Then one of the sit-down “table service” dining reservations might be worth the cost. If you just need food in your belly to carry on, there are plenty of counter service options available that can get the job done for under $10 per person.
Dining Plan or no Dining Plan?
Several times a year, usually during the non-peak seasons, Disney offers “free” dining. I use quotation marks because there is a cost: you can have free dining—OR—a room discount, but not both. So…the “cost” of your “free” dining is actually the difference between the full-price room and the best discount available. Still usually cheaper than the regular Dining Plan cost, but not technically free, right?
So, is the Dining Plan right for you? In my opinion, if budget is a concern, if you’re driving and can bring food, if you’ll have access to a refrigerator, and if you don’t mind putting forth just a little effort to save a lot of money, you can usually eat for less on your own. However, if you can get a great deal on it and you’re really wanting to try some of the Disney dining options, it’s not a terrible way to go. You can maximize your Dining Plan with a few tips:
- Go for the cheapest plan: Counter service restaurants will get you fed quickly, allowing you more time to enjoy the parks. (If you think you want to do a sit-down character meal, see my bonus tip at the end!)
- Allow younger kids to split a counter service meal at breakfast or lunch time—you can use those extra credits throughout your trip so you don’t have to pay for the meals not covered by the dining plan!
- Go for the biggest snacks possible, then share! Google “Biggest Disney Dining Plan Snacks” to get some of the best suggestions. If you share those snack credits, you’ll have something to nibble mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and during the fireworks.
6. Transportation Costs
It’s hard to beat the price of gas right now, which makes driving a simple and affordable option. Depending on your distance from the park, you may need to factor in an overnight stay on the way down, along with the extra time needed to make the drive. If you’re driving to the parks but staying off-property, you’ll need to factor in the daily cost of parking. If you stay on-property, you can use the in-park transportation, or drive your own car to the different parks and attractions and park for free.
Disney has streamlined air travel for those staying at one of their on-property resorts. Regardless of your “level” of accommodations, you can take advantage of a shuttle bus that will deliver you and your luggage to your hotel from the airport. You will also be able to use the in-park transportation system to get you from your hotel to all the parks and attractions. Keep in mind that the in-park transportation is more efficient at certain times of the day than others, and you’ll need to allow plenty of time to get from one destination to another (for example, if you have an early breakfast reservation!). Staying off-property and renting a car is also an option, which would once again leave you with daily parking fees. Other options would be to take a taxi, shuttle bus, or Uber…all of which have their pros and cons.
7. Stay as long as you can!
Did you know that Day Two of a Disney ticket costs almost as much as Day One…but Days 8, 9, and 10 are a mere fraction of the price? If you can finagle the time off work, AND if you can keep lodging and food prices for those extra days reasonable, you can add a lot of bang for considerably less bucks.
My favorite fringe benefit of extending your trip isn’t even monetary…it takes some of the pressure off of feeling like you have to milk every ounce of fun out of every minute of every single day of your trip. Consciously or subconsciously, this can add stress to what should be a fun and memorable family trip. With the cushion of an extra day or two, you’re able to slow down and take your time a little bit, rather than rushing from attraction to attraction…and in some of those slower moments, that’s where I’ve noticed some of the true “Disney Magic” really happens!
8. B. Y. O. E. (Bring Your Own “Extras”!)
Disney World is sensory overload for kids (and grown-ups!), and it’s designed that way on purpose. There’s a reason why super cool, flashing, glowing doo-dads pop out of the woodwork as the sun sets. There’s a reason why you smell that delicious cookie smell wafting out of the bakeries. Do you need any of those things? No! But are they an extra tempting way to bust your budget? You bet.
My sneaky way around this is preparation. You want something glowy while we watch the fireworks? Great—I bought a tube of 100 glow sticks at Pat Catan’s for $7.99 before we left home. They’re in the backpack. You’re hungry for cookies? Awesome—Have a Chips Ahoy…I bought the whole pack at Walmart for half the cost of a big cookie from the bakery. You want everything the gift shop at the end of the ride sells? Nope—not gonna happen (sorry…there’s a limit to even Disney’s magic!). But look at this cool Disney (pen/notepad/sticker set/matchbox car/doll/beach towel/pajamas/whatever) that I bought (waaay on sale) before we left to make the trip extra special! Isn’t that cool?!
Saying no is totally ok too…there’s no way around that with the barrage of the Disney marketing machine flooding your senses at every turn. But when you can intersperse it with a few special pre-planned, inexpensive, but cool treats, along with the handy budgeting tool in the next tip, you’ll feel a little more like Mary Poppins and a little less like Uncle Scrooge.
9. Stockpile Gift Cards and Take Advantage of Bonus Offers
Kids have a birthday coming up? See if family members will give them a Disney gift card. Family Christmas gift? Ask for a gift card. Would your kids rather have another toy that they don’t really need, or an extra-special experience at the Happiest Place on Earth? It’s also a great way to cut down on the “gimmes” in the gift shops or with snack options—if they know they have a certain budget in gift cards to spend on treasures, they can weigh their options and choose accordingly. My kids even chose to pool their resources and get “joint custody” of a stuffed tiger at Animal Kingdom…bonus points for creative thinking!
You can also take advantage of bonus offers, like Giant Eagle’s Bonus Fuelperks (or bonus offers on gift cards from other stores), and the Disney Visa card’s rewards program, to get the most bang for your buck. Pay for the whole trip with gift cards you buy from Giant Eagle, and the free gas you earn just might get you to Florida! Tip: buy the gift cards in the largest denominations you can so you’ll have less information to input on the Disney web site.
The Disney Visa card offers its rewards in Disney Dollars, which load to a rewards card that can be used in the parks just like a gift card to buy merchandise, tickets, or food. If you’re able to wait for a Double Fuelperks event to buy your gift cards, then use your Disney Visa to buy them, the bonuses can add up.
**Bonus Tip: Choose Your Splurge Wisely**
I know this is all about doing Disney on a budget…but there are some really incredible experiences that can only be found at the Happiest Place on Earth, and you just might want to take advantage of one of them on your trip. Here are a few tips for choosing your “big” treat!
- What’s the most Magical? When my daughter was 5, our splurge was to have breakfast with the princesses at Cinderella’s Royal Table in the castle at Magic Kingdom. She was the perfect age to wear her Belle dress and have the princesses come greet her at the table, and the little brothers were young enough that they enjoyed their swords and got a kick out of being in the castle too. For about three years afterward, every time we watched a Disney movie and they saw the castle at the beginning, they shouted “There’s where we ate breakfast!” It was one of the single most expensive meals of my life, but the memories were pretty darn magical, and it was worth PB&J for lunch the rest of the week.
- What can’t you do anywhere else? We opted not to do the water parks while we were there because we had a pretty cool slide at our campground (included in the cost of our stay!), and there are some pretty fun water slide options in Northeast Ohio that we can probably try out for less money. However, we did opt to check out Universal Studios while we were in the area since our kids are huge Harry Potter fans, and there’s nothing like that close to home.
- What will give you lasting enjoyment? Rather than splurge for an expensive sit-down meal on our most recent trip, we decided to do the Memory Maker photo pass, which allows you access to all the professional pictures taken of you in the parks. This includes Character meet & greets, ride photos, special events like Jedi Training Academy, and all the photographers randomly scattered throughout the parks. While the ride pictures and Jedi Training pictures were awesome, the best part to me was that it looked like I actually came on this vacation! Rather than being behind the camera for all the fun, I was able to be in the pictures with my family. They also had some cool shots where they added some extra “digital magic” after the fact, along with a few movies of us on rides. The Memory Maker is worth considering if you’re going with a big group and could split it between two or more families (it’s linked to all the Magic Bands in your party), or if you’re staying for at least a week or longer and will have plenty of park time to get lots of pictures taken.
So, Mouseketeers…what are your favorite tips? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments. Do you have a money-saving idea I didn’t mention? Join the conversation!