My family, and my husband’s family alike, are pretty big Disney lovers. Our childhoods were sprinkled with a healthy dose of Disney animated classics and visits to Disney World. Now, with a family of our own, my husband and I absolutely love watching our kids faces light up when we tell them we’re going to Disney World! Nothing beats the fuzzy feeling you get while watching your little boy rub noses with Piglet or your daughter gasp in amazement at Cinderella’s castle. 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
When determining the best time to visit Disney World, we usually always shoot for the off season – when crowds and costs are both lower. Start by checking a crowd calendar like this one: yourfirstvisit.net If staying at a Disney Resort, they will tell you right on the resort page when their “value season” is: all-star-movies-resort/rates-rooms We have historically gone somewhere between mid February to mid March. Of course the weather is always iffy that time of year. It usually averages in the low 70’s, which is still an upgrade from snowy Michigan that time of year!
We live on a $30,000/year salary. We don’t have much by way of savings or vacation funds. Because of that, many times our trips are fairly spontaneous and thrown together based on deals that come up, ticket prices, gifts, and many random ways that God provides. We also have been blessed by an amazing family that has helped us out in different ways over the years. We also have family in strategic areas (Florida, NJ), so many times our trips are based around these areas to incorporate free housing! I just read somewhere that 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
There have been a few times we’ve set money aside that was received as a gift, etc. Other times we will come up with money by selling things on craigslist and ebay. I sold a gold necklace from an old boy friend one time, we’ve also sold guitars, baby items, furniture, books, toys, etc. We also cash in credit and debit card reward points for gift cards that can be used on the trip.
Option #1 Driving:
From Michigan, the drive is about 19 hours without stops. AAA’s Fuel Cost Calculator currently estimates this round trip to cost us $515.58 in our mini van. If you’re going to drive, calculate the 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!), the cost of meals while on the road and gas while you’re down there touring around. Once you have a good handle on the cost of driving, you can weigh it out against the option of flying.
We went to Florida with friends one year on the challenge 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. We packed coolers full of food and never once paid for a meal. If you do plan on 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).
Option #2 Flying:
Ticket prices seem to be higher right now, but there have been years we’ve scored $9 flights on spiritair.com which made flying a no brainer. If you fly, you have to factor in the price of car rental while there, unless you have relatives in the area or are staying at a Disney resort which provides free shuttle services! Other sites to check: expedia.com hotwire.com orbitz.com delta.com airtran.com southwestair.com
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 3 kids – it’s not fun! Spirit, Delta and Airtran 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 frequenting, I mean checking in daily!). Airlines can run deals and promotions at any moments 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. Delta is a “Disney preferred” airline which means they are in direct communication with Disney and can streamline certain parts of your travel to a Disney resort, but it’s not absolutely necessary to use them if staying at a Disney resort.
Be on guard, airlines are sneaky these days with all their 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!
The general rule, even with kids, is to 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.
Update! Be sure to read all the helpful tips people have left in the comments section at the bottom of this post!
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. I’ve known many people who have gone down in large groups and rented homes in the Orlando area or condos on the beach.
For the past couple years, 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 youth pastors conference in Orlando for 2 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. Of course my grandparents have driven over from Lakeland, FL and met up with us there for a few days, and my husband’s parents have flown in to join us as well!
Like any of the Disney hotels, your stay there 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, Downtown Disney, 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 resort.
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 as high as $130 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.
Are Meal Plans Worth it?
We don’t usually use the meal plans because we’ve always figured we could eat cheaper without it. Many years, my grandparents that live in Florida have joined us at the 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 WeGoShop.
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. When we go back in January, I plan on packing 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. Watch for that post to come!! I will be doing a comparison of eating the cheap way vs. a meal plan, to finally see what worked best! 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 Disney Value Resorts
Here are all the reasons we love Disney Value Resorts:
- Free transportation to and from airport, to and from parks
- You get the same Disney perks and service as you would at a more pricy 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 5 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! PLEASE NOTE: There is some controversy surrounding the use of cups. Though we were told by Disney staff that the cups could be used at all other resorts, some places will tell you they can only be used at partnering resorts (for example: All Star Sports and All Star Music, etc). Check out some other great advice and info on the cups here: Disney Food Blog there is also an interesting post about Disney’s plans to crack down on the use of cups at other resorts and for those that bring them back year after year: System Experiment Check with a Disney cast member for up to date info!
- Many 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 – but cannot be reserved ahead of time or guaranteed. We stayed one night in separate rooms from my grandparents and when a connecting one came available, were moved over to it. It was worth it! Overall, the staff just wanted to do what we wanted and made the process very smooth.
- There is a decent size arcade/game room and good size Disney store on the grounds.
- The rooms are nothing special. They are fairly small with two queen beds. But the decor is cute, they are kept very clean and the housekeeping service is very nice! If the housekeepers are not too overbooked for the day and have extra time to spare, they do a fabulous job of sprucing up your room Disney style. One lady took all the toys in the room, including my daughters princess dress, to create a window display that greeted us when we returned! There are always cute little animals or Mickeys formed out of the towels, which the kids love.
- Pack and Plays are provided, 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 room key.
- 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, so I had laundry running while still keeping an eye on the kids.
Here are a few more:
- I am not totally clear on how many they will allow in each room depending on what resort you stay at (due to fire codes). The first year we were there, we had 2 adults, a 2 year old, a 4 year old and an infant. This year, everyone was a year older but we still counted our 14 month old an infant. I am not sure what the age cut-off is where they would count the infant as a 5th person and potentially not allow it. You could possibly sneak around this by leaving the 5th person off the registration, but they have to be accounted for to get transportation to and from the resort, or to use the extra magic hours at a park.
- When using the Disney transportation, plan on it taking a full hour from the airport to the resort. This is the one draw back, but still a really nice perk.
- We paid $10 extra a night (and thought it was worth it) to be guaranteed a spot in one of the 3 closest buildings to the pool and cafeteria at the All Star Movies Resort. These three 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.
- 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. You could feasibly visit the pool or arcade at the other resorts if you really wanted to – and take your refillable cup with you!
- For a change of pace, we hopped on the Disney shuttle and ate dinner one night in the food court over 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!), but more on that in my next installment.
One Last Tip!
Kids will inevitably see all kinds of things at the Disney resort and inside the theme parks that they want, and they will beg you for them. Rather than spend big bucks there, I like going prepared with our own special Disney toys, activities and clothing! 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 them, for the past 3 trips to Disney! We still get inquiries about them while there, and we have to say – sorry, they’re from Walmart in New Jersey!
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