A Disney World vacation doesn’t have to be big and expensive. I’m sharing all my money saving hacks you can use to plan your Disney vacation without going into debt. I believe a Disney vacation can be financially possible for anyone with a little creativity. It’s possible to scale down a trip to Disney so it fits within your means!
Disney on a Dime
I come from a long line of Disney lovers. My childhood was sprinkled with a healthy dose of Disney animated classics and visits to Walt Disney World. Now, with a family of my own, my husband and I absolutely love watching our kid’s faces light up when we tell them we’re going on a Disney World vacation! Nothing beats the fuzzy feeling you get while watching your little boy run with open arms toward Mickey Mouse at Epcot or your daughter gasp in amazement at Cinderella’s castle at the Magic Kingdom. We’ve done it plenty of times over the years, and I’ve been asked on numerous occasions how we’ve done it on a budget. So here it is, everything I can think to write about saving money on a Disney vacation!
When to Go
We always shoot for the off-season as opposed to peak times. Crowds and costs are both lower during these times.
Start by checking a crowd calendar like this one: Undercover Tourist Crowd Calendar
If staying at a Disney Resort, they will tell you right on the resort page when their “value season” is. See this link for example: all-star-movies-resort/rates-rooms
UPDATE: I don’t think there really is such a thing as a value season anymore, but there are definitely days when rates are cheaper. I just double-checked and found rates as low as $113 a night.
We have historically gone somewhere between mid February to mid March. Of course, the weather can be unpredictable that time of year. Florida averages in the low 70’s during January and February, which is still an upgrade from snowy Michigan!
I understand that not everyone can get away during the off times. School and work schedules can complicate things. If at all possible, make it work.
UPDATE: In recent years, the idea of an off-season has become less and less of a reality. January through February and early September are still generally lower crowd levels, but not nearly as low as they used to be.
When we first started taking our kids to Disney World, we were a family of 5 living on $30,000 a year. Our family has grown now to 7 and our financial situation has changed a little, but we still live pretty tight.
Many times, our trips are fairly spontaneous and based on deals that come up or flash sales on ticket prices. Sometimes our trips are based around areas where we have family or friends who are willing to let us stay with them, borrow a guest house or rent a cabin at a discounted rate.
There is a growing trend in today’s economy, to tack on vacation days to business trips, making them dual purpose. We do that at times too. If my husband has a conference to attend, we will save on gas by tagging along and spend an extra day as a family doing something fun.
Our budget for vacations has always been summed up in a phrase: As cheap as possible
We have always made the habit of setting a monthly amount aside for vacations, and when we receive an unexpected amount as a gift or a bonus, we put into our vacation fund.
When times are tight, we have come up with money by selling things on Facebook Marketplace or picking up a side job. I sold a gold necklace from an old boyfriend one time, we’ve also sold guitars, baby items, furniture, books, toys, etc. We’ve also cashed in credit and debit card reward points for gift cards that can be used on the trip. It might take a little bit of creativity, but there are lots of ways to fund a vacation.
You may want to check out my post on creative ways to save for a Disney Vacation: HERE
There are obviously different ways to get to Florida, and choosing the one that is right for you will be dependent on several factors:
- How far of a drive are you from Walt Disney World in Florida?
- Are you closer to Disneyland in California?
- Do you have a major airport nearby that offers reasonably priced flights?
Option #1: Driving
From Michigan, the drive to Florida is about 19 hours without stops. AAA’s Fuel Cost Calculator currently estimates this round-trip to cost us around $560.00 in our Traverse.
If you’re going to drive, calculate the following:
- cost of fuel
- one night at a hotel (unless you want to drive straight through – which we’ve done and vowed we’d never do it again!)
- cost of meals while on the road
Once you have a good handle on the cost of driving, you can weigh it out against the option of flying.
If you plan on driving and stopping for the night, don’t book a hotel in advance because you never know how far you’ll actually want to push yourself. Grab up a discount hotel book from the nearest rest stop along your route and call ahead to verify vacancy. Plan ahead by packing a small hotel bag within easy reach, rather than take all your luggage in. Keeping things to a minimal also lowers your chances of picking up hitchhikers (aka bed bugs).
Go with plenty of snacks, movies and activities for the kids. Don’t push yourself to the point of exhaustion, remember to enjoy the journey!
Driving Pros and Cons
Here’s a little summary of the pros and cons I like to weigh out before making a decision.
Pro: You’ll have your own vehicle to get around in
Con: It can be an insanely far drive depending on where you live
Pro: You can fit more luggage with no risk of an airline losing it
Con: Gas prices can be expensive
Pro: You can pack more of your own food to save money
Con: You may have to factor in the extra cost of a hotel and food on the way there
Pro: You won’t have to rely on public transportation which can take longer
Driving Straight Through
One year, we went to Florida with friends and challenged ourselves to get there and back by spending the littlest amount of money possible. We drove straight through the night to cut out the hotel cost and packed coolers full of food and never once paid for a meal. It was insane, and I don’t recommend it, but it is possible!
Option #2: Flying
Ticket prices can fluctuate and will vary depending on your closest airport. We have flown Spirit Airlines for years, which has always been our cheapest option. Back in the day, we would fly quite frequently for $20 a person, round trip. Today a good price is closer to $100 a person round trip.
If you’re going to fly, factor in the following things:
- Will I need to rent a car while there?
- Do I need to pay extra for checked bags or a carry-on?
- Will I need to pay to park my car at the airport?
If you’re staying at a Disney resort, remember that Disney no longer provides free transportation on the Magical Express. You will need to arrange for transportation to your resort, but once you are there, transportation around the Disney resort is free. Some people would rather have their own car. We have found that car rentals through Costco are the cheapest option!
How to Find Cheap Flights
When checking for the lowest airfare, you can start with some of the usual places: expedia.com, hotwire.com, orbitz.com, delta.com, southwestair.com, etc. Or, take my tip and go straight to Spiritair.com or even better, utilize Google Flights to compare prices across all airlines (note, Google flights do not include Southwest Airlines).
When making the decision to fly, we always start by checking the list of airlines flying out non-stop. Making stops or changing planes is basically not an option for us with 5 kids and a tendency to get motion sick! Spirit and Delta are some of the only airlines with non-stop flights from Detroit to Orlando, so we start by frequenting their sites (and when I say frequent, I mean checking in daily!).
Airlines can run deals and promotions at any moment’s notice – Spirit has been known to offer some crazy good deals, especially to “$9 Fare Club” members, which is totally worth the cost of membership if you know you will be utilizing it.
Tip: Tuesday is generally the cheapest day of the week to book flights! Never book on a weekend!
Watch for Hidden Fees
Spirit wont end up being any cheaper than Delta if you end up paying out big bucks for all your checked bags and carry-on’s. The key is to pack light!
Tip: Pack everything you think you need – then cut out at least half of it!
Use the biggest bag possible and pack everything for the whole family in that one bag. Stay up-to-date on air travel policies, carry-on restrictions (liquids and gels), and what special policies apply to travel with small children and infants. Children fly free under the age of 2 if they are sitting in your lap (sometimes a baby carrier or wrap like this makes this easier – but they may make you remove it during takeoff and landing).
Strollers and infant carriers can be checked right at the entrance to the plane (for free) and will be waiting for you when you get off. If you really want to carry a car seat onto the plane (because you need it for a car ride at your destination), it has to be up to airline codes, otherwise, children are not required to sit in them. Disney buses and shuttles do not have infant or children seats (and actually, they don’t even allow them!).
When we fly and stay at a Disney resort, we check one big bag (stuffed to the maximum weight capacity) and carry-on as little as possible. We take one small stroller for the baby, which gets checked plane side and no car seats.
Where to Stay
Unless you have relatives in the area and plan on staying with them (which is obviously the cheapest option and one that we’ve enjoyed on numerous occasions!), you’ll be looking into hotels or condo/home rental in the area, camping or a Disney Value Resort.
Vacation Home Rentals
If an off-site hotel doesn’t sound appealing, you may want to consider renting a home off-site in the Orlando. Here are a few sites you should check out for vacation home rentals in the Disney area:
If your family has outgrown rooms at the value resorts, you should try camping! We love Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground! Find my complete review here: Fort Wilderness Campground
Bring your own camper or tent. You can also rent RV’s from Disney or an outside company! Check out these options for the one that fits your budget. For a large family, this may be a better option than a pricey hotel room.
If Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground is out of your budge, consider another nearby campground!
Disney Value Resorts
We have thoroughly enjoyed staying at Disney’s All Star Movie Resort which is part of the Disney value class of hotels. My husband has attended a conference in Orlando for years now, and what we discovered was that the All Star Movie Resort’s price per night was actually cheaper than the hotels that the conference was recommending he stay at! So, our family has tagged along for the ride and enjoys time at the resort while daddy is away at the conference.
Like any of the moderate or deluxe Disney hotels, your stay at a Disney Value Resort includes the complimentary shuttle service from the airport to the hotel. This has made it possible for us to fly, without spending any money on car rental.
Once at your resort, you can also hop on a Disney bus to any of the other resorts, Disney Springs, and any of the theme parks that are owned by Disney. My husband and his parents, who have stayed at some of the most expensive Disney resorts over the years, have all been very impressed with the value resorts.
Prices fluctuate a little bit based on the season. By going late February or early March we have paid as little as $70 a night and no more than $90. I have seen the price go much higher during peak season. By checking in on the same day as my grandparents, we were able to get a Florida residents rate (just by having them with us) that dropped our price down considerably.
Keep an eye on Disney’s site for Special Offers on hotels and dates that are less expensive
Disney does some very nice package deals that include meals, tickets, hotel stay, etc. We have never used these deals because we figured we could still spend less by coming up with our own meals vs. using their meal plan for 3 meals a day. Watch their promotions, however, because there have been times they’ve advertised adding on free meal plans, etc. to your hotel reservation.
There are a number of hotels in the Orlando or Lake Buena Vista area, many with great prices, free breakfast or their own shuttle services into the Disney Parks. There are a few nearby that have pretty awesome pool areas of their own, like this one: Holiday Inn Resort Orlando
Non-Disney Hotels Located on Disney Property
Did you know there are a few hotel options that are technically on Disney property, but not owned by Disney? These hotels are located throughout the Disney resort area, but the best value options are located specifically near Disney Springs. These hotels are priced as a package that includes park tickets. A Disney value hotel may be less expensive.
Are Meal Plans Worth it?
Update: Meal plans are not currently being offered.
We don’t usually use the meal plans because we’ve always figured we could eat cheaper without it. Many times, my grandparents that live in Florida have joined us at a resort with a cooler full of food. That obviously helps! If you have flown in and don’t have a car to do grocery shopping, there are grocery delivery services available such as: Garden Grocer and Shipt.
My advice is to add up how much you think you would need to eat on your own, and compare it to the price of the meal plan. My kid are all very small eaters, so a meal plan just didn’t make sense for us. Many times, I have packed as much non-perishable food in our suitcase as I can get away with! There are plenty of options you could pack in your checked luggage, including almond or coconut milk that is shelf-stable. I even have a bread loaf container to keep bread safe.
We plan on eating some meals at the quick-service restaurant and splurge on some character dining as well. We will split some of our meals, share with the kids and eat others from our suitcase, so I think we will still end up spending less. I think it all comes down to how you are used to eating as a family and how cheap you really want to be. For some great advice, check out The Disney Food Blog
Why We Love Value Resorts
Our favorite Disney value resorts are:
- All Star Movies (because of the Toy Story theme and refurbished rooms)
- Pop Century (because of it’s refurbished rooms and proximity to the Skyliner)
- Art of Animation
Here are all the reasons we love Disney Value Resorts:
- Free transportation to and from parks.
- You get the same Disney perks and service as you would at a more pricey Disney resort.
- Large pools and kiddie pools for kids of all ages. There are plenty of lounge chairs and tables with umbrellas near by – we sat here many days while the kids swam, and ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch!
- Cafeteria-style food court. We ate one meal a day here and were able to split 2 adult size meals or a large pizza between the 7 of us, which allowed us to spend only $20.
- The refillable cups – which are expensive at first (around $14) but we only bought 2 and refill them endlessly for the whole family during our entire stay. This would be our coffee in the morning, pop, water and tea all day long. They can be used at any of the Disney resorts (but not the theme parks unfortunately), so when we visited Animal Kingdom Lodge one night for dinner, we took the cups!
- Most rooms include a mini-refrigerator which makes bringing your own food along much easier.
- The whole place is so much fun, our kids would have been content to just stay there and do other free things in the area without paying money to actually go into the parks. You get the real feel of Disney World just by staying there.
- The staff is very friendly and accommodating – they will do everything in their power to give you an enjoyable stay.
- There are connecting rooms available – which can be requested and guaranteed when traveling with kids.
- There is a decent size arcade/game room and good size Disney store on the grounds.
- Rooms are kept very clean and the housekeeping service is very nice! If housekeeping isn’t too busy, they do a fabulous job of adding magical touches. One lady used all the toys in our room to create a window display. It was such a fun greeting when we returned! There are always cute little animals or Mickeys formed out of the towels. UPDATE: In recent years this has become less common.
- Pack and Plays are available, so that is one less thing to have to bring with you!
- Disney tickets can be purchased right at the front desk and added right onto your magic band.
- Each park has a day of the week that offers “extra magic hours” for those staying at a Disney resort. This could add an extra hour onto the beginning or end of your day in the park.
- On certain nights, Cartoons are shown on a big screen down by the pool.
- They have a very nice playground with sand, right next to the kids pool.
- They have a very nice laundry facility which makes packing light all that easier. This is located right next to the kids pool.
Here are a few extra things to keep in mind:
- There are 3 All-Star Resorts: Movies, Music and Sports. All 3 are located side by side and are in walking distance of each other.
- Pop Century and Art of Animation are connected by a bridge and a Skyliner station. You can easily walk between these two resorts and utilize their pools.
- For a change of pace, we hopped on a shuttle and ate dinner one night at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. We ate for the same price we had been paying at our resort, but got a change of scenery. The Animal Kingdom Lodge comes highly recommended by us as well (to visit for free!).
- Standard rooms allow up to 4 adults and one infant under 2. When booking online, you cannot include a 5th person, but you may be able to add them later over the phone.
- When using Disney transportation, plan on it taking a full hour from the park to the resort. This is the one draw back, but still a really nice perk.
- We always pay an $10 extra a night to be in a preferred room. This guarantees a spot in one of the 3 closest buildings to the pool and cafeteria. At All-Star Movies, the three preferred buildings include the Toy Story building, Fantasia and 101 Dalmatians. There is no map of the grounds for this resort, but you can visit googlemaps.com and look up Disney All-Star Movies Resort to find maps and more pictures than Disney even has on their site.
One Last Money Saving Tip!
Kids will inevitably see all kinds of things at the Disney resort and inside the theme parks that they want. Rather than spend big bucks there, I like going prepared with our own special Disney toys! Shop around ahead of time for deals. We take our own Disney toys, all the makings for a princess outfit including dress, crown, “pixy dust” and jewelry, Disney pool toys, floaties, and Mickey ears! Our kids have warn the same Mickey and Minnie hooded sweatshirts that Grandma bought, for the past 3 trips! We still get inquiries about them while there, and we have to say – sorry, they’re from Walmart in New Jersey!
Pin-It for Later!!
But wait, there’s more!! Disney on a Dime (Part 2)
- FREE Things to Do at Disney
- Disney Theme Park Tickets
- Theme Park Comparisons and Tips
- Visiting with Young Children