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Is a Disney Vacation Too Expensive?

Is a Disney Vacation Too Expensive?

When you read the title question, most likely you will think yes, Disney is too expensive. That’s the automatic reaction for many of us. We all complain about how much a trip to Walt Disney World costs. They could lower the ticket and other prices and still make tons of money each day. But they keep things expensive and the public keeps coming. Walt Disney World is one of the top family tourist destinations on the planet, so obviously the cost is not keeping everyone away. Families from all walks of life arrive daily and pay the prices that Disney is asking. Some people can easily afford it, others need to save for years, although most visitors are probably somewhere in between.

We all like to talk about the “Magic of Disney”, but when it comes down to it we need to remember that it is a business. Disney is there to make money and they are quite successful at it. The company’s goal is to get as much of your hard earned money as possible, while giving you and your family an experience that you will never forget. Great customer service goes a long way, and that is something that is important to the company. They want you to have an incredible time. They just want to make sure that you pay a lot to do it.

Maybe a better question than “Is Disney too expensive?” would be “Is Disney worth the price?” In my opinion it is, but other people may not agree. For some it’s not worth the cost, but to those who regular this site most likely it is. I recently read that the average American family should budget between $50-$200 per person when planning a vacation. While Disney on $50 per person a day is next to impossible, if you’re careful you can keep it under $200.

Before you decide whether or not you can afford a trip to Walt Disney World, you will need to realize what you will spend money on. The main categories are transportation to Central Florida, accommodations, food, tickets, and extras. These categories have been broken down here. I have included some tips from my own personal experiences. My family and I are far from rich, but we’ve still managed to enjoy Walt Disney World. We live in the Orlando area now but when we didn’t, we traveled to Central Florida a lot. I hope that others can benefit from our experiences.

The most important thing to do when planning a Walt Disney World vacation is to set a budget and stick to it. Memories don’t come from how much money you spent. They’re formed by having a great time together as a family. Sometimes spending a little bit less will cut down on the stress level, which will make your entire party have a better vacation. You don’t need to max out your credit cards in order to have a great time.

Transportation to Florida:

Flying

Many families fly to Florida. It’s faster than driving and less stressful than packing up a car and listening to “Are we there yet?” for hours on end. Flying can also eat up a major chunk of your vacation budget. If you fly and stay on Disney property, you can take advantage of Disney’s Magical Express (more on that later), which can save money and also be a huge stress reliever. Look for flights that are off-hours, or use rewards points to get better deals. Be flexible with your flights and you might save some money.

Driving

If the trip isn’t too long, driving has advantages as well. If you drive, you can bring what you want with you, just pack up the car. You won’t have to worry about extra fees for bags, there’s no going through security, and you can follow your own schedule instead of the airline’s. Having your own car with you is also nice if you plan on leaving Disney property at some point on your trip. Taxis in the Orlando area are incredibly expensive and the buses are confusing. Even with the cost of gas, driving might save you money. Make sure you use an app like Gas Buddy on your trip so that you can find the least expensive gas stations along the way.

Tip – Email the directions to yourself or write them down, even if you have a GPS. I don’t know how many times our GPS has dropped the signal while driving on an unknown road. Always have a backup so that you won’t get lost.

Other Methods

There are also other ways to get to Central Florida. Amtrak passenger trains have recently grown in popularity. The train station is at least 15 miles from Walt Disney World so you will need to find a way to get there. The Greyhound Bus Station is also about 15 miles away. Either one might be an option if you are looking to save money. You will probably want to rent a car once you arrive.

Tip – One more word about gas prices; there are several Hess stations on Disney property that have prices that are comparable to the rest of the area. Sometimes they’re even the lowest price around. Don’t fall for a certain station on Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway (Route 192) that claims to be the “last gas” station. If you’re running low, you will be able to fill your tank on Disney property. You might assume that all the stations near Disney shoot up their prices to get more tourist dollars but that isn’t the case. My family and I live about 30 minutes away from Disney and gas is currently more expensive here than it is in the more touristy areas.

Accommodations:

Where to stay on a Disney vacation is something that people are passionate about. Many people swear by the Walt Disney World hotels, but others would rather stay off property. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, which will be discussed here. Remember that what is right for your family might not be right for your next door neighbor. Each family is different.

Staying On Property

There are a lot of people who would not consider staying anywhere else. There are many advantages to staying on property and it might not be as expensive as you think. One great perk is Disney’s Magical Express. If you are flying to Orlando, this is something that you will definitely want to consider. Disney will pick you and your family up at the airport and drive you to your hotel. When your trip is over, they will take you back to the airport. You will not need to rent a car, which is a huge savings right there. From your hotel, you will be able to catch a ride (usually a bus) to anywhere else on Disney property. If you stay on property you can enjoy Extra Magic Hours, which will give you more time in the parks. You could be eligible for the Disney Dining Plan as well, which can be another great way to save money. Prices are slashed on property during the slower seasons, making the rooms more affordable. Each resort is themed, adding to your overall vacation. If you want to be surrounded by Disney and only Disney during your trip, staying on property is the way to go.

Staying Off Property

If you don’t want to be surrounded by Disney and only Disney during your trip, then you might not want to stay on property. While Disney’s Magical Express is an incredible idea, it also ensures that you can’t leave. It is also useless if you drive. If you’re only on Disney property on your trip, you will end up paying Disney prices for everything, including things like milk, sunscreen, and aspirin. The Value Resorts on Disney property cost the least but many of the rooms are incredibly small. If you’re trying to pay as little as possible for your vacation you might be able to save by staying off property. There are many discount hotels in the area so you should be able to find a low price. Many of them offer a free breakfast, which is another way that you can save money because it will be one less meal that you need to buy. Remember that you get what you pay for. Some of the discount chains are older and a bit rundown. You won’t be talking for years to come about how nice the accommodations at a discount chain were. Of course not all hotels that are off property are rundown. Do your research and you should be able to find a discount room that will suit your needs. Many of the hotels have shuttles to the parks, but they run on a limited basis.

Tip – We always make hotel reservations over the phone, there’s no room to negotiate with a computer. We’ll find the lowest price online and then we will call the hotel directly. (My husband will usually call because he is in sales and can be very persuasive.) When talking to a live person, he will first ask what the price is. Then he will ask about the price we found online, which is often lower. If we still aren’t satisfied he will ask, “Is this the lowest price that you can offer me?” We purposely use “lowest” instead of “best”, sometimes the staff is trained to interpret “best” as the best price for the hotel. You can often get a lower price this way, not only at Disney but at other hotels as well.

Vacation Homes

Another possibility that you might want to consider is renting a vacation home. There are plenty of them in the area. Depending on the company that you rent from, you can rent a house or a condo for a few days or longer. You will have plenty of space and all the comforts of home. Most of the houses have private pools. If you are traveling with a large party this might be worth looking into, it’s cheaper than you might think. You can also save money on food because, with a full kitchen, you can make some of your meals.

Tip – Remember that pets are not allowed in any of the Disney hotels. If you’re like my family and me and usually travel with your best friend, you’ll have to stay off property, unless you have an RV or board the animal at Best Friends Pet Care. Some vacation homes may allow them, it is up to the discretion of the owner. If you do bring your pet make sure that you return to the hotel in the middle of the day to check on him or her.

Tickets:

Cheap Tickets?

One of the most common questions that people ask when planning a Disney vacation is “How can I buy cheap tickets?” The answer to that question is that you can’t. Disney really does have you when it comes to tickets, they know that you’re there to head to the parks, so you will pay whatever they charge. It is possible to save a little bit on tickets, but they still won’t be “cheap”. The best way to save a few dollars is to buy your tickets through an authorized ticket reseller. Look for the logo, it’s blue Mickey ears with the words ” Disney Selected TicketĀ  Seller” underneath. The discounts may not be huge, but every dollar counts when you’re trying to vacation on a budget.

When buying tickets, do not buy more days than you will need. The price per day goes down the more days that you buy, which makes it tempting. A five day ticket is currently only $10 more than a four day ticket, but if you only plan on spending four days in the parks that’s an extra $10 per person that you’re spending. Park Hopper is another option that can either save you or cost you. It is great if you use it, you can spend the day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and then head to Epcot for IllumiNations once AK closes. But Park Hopper will add $59 per ticket, which will quickly shoot up the cost. Add it only if you will use it.

Tip – The past couple of years Disney has raised the ticket prices in June. Your ticket does not become active until it is used for the first time, and it is then good for 14 days. As soon as you know what type of ticket you want, buy it. When ticket prices are going to go up, there is usually only a day or two notice. If you already have your tickets, the increase will not affect you. Here at Disney Dining we’ll inform you the moment that we hear that the ticket prices might increase. If you still don’t have your tickets, buy them the moment the impending increase is announced.

Beware of Cheap Tickets

When you are getting near the parks, you will see places that advertise “Cheap Tickets!” or “Disney only $50 per day!” on giant balloons or banners. Be careful. Selling used tickets is illegal (yes, Disney and the police do know about these places and there have been arrests in the past) and used tickets will not get you into the parks. Many people are turned away at the front gates each day because they bought worthless tickets. You also should not buy tickets from Craigslist or eBay. It is illegal to sell tickets that way and you do not know if what you’re getting will get you into the parks.

Timeshare Presentations

Some people will sit through a timeshare presentation and get a great price on tickets that way. (These are also advertised locally on balloons with “Cheap Tickets” banners.) If you decide to sit through such a presentation, read up on the tactics that the sales staff will use to get you to buy. Timeshare presentations are very high pressure and the staff knows what they need to do in order to make that sale. You will most likely lose time from your vacation if you decide to get your tickets this way.

Tip – A family friend recently sat through a timeshare presentation while in Florida. The numbers didn’t add up, and he told them so. If you do decide to attend such a presentation pay careful attention so that you will not be mislead.

Annual Passes

If you are a total Disney fanatic and plan to visit Walt Disney World often you might want to look into purchasing an Annual Pass. They are ridiculously expensive but if you use them often they will pay for themselves. Non-Florida residents can purchase the regular Annual Pass, which allows access to the four theme parks, or the Premium Annual Pass, which includes the water parks, DisneyQuest, and more. Free parking is included with either pass, which is a huge savings right there. There are also merchandise discounts, hotel discounts, and dining discounts at some restaurants. Florida residents have even more Annual Pass options (not all include parking). There is a discount if you renew your pass as well. If you will use it, an Annual Pass can be a wise investment.

Tip – You have 30 days to renew an Annual Pass after it expires to get the renewal price. After that you will have to pay full price again. What is nice is that you can change the type of pass that you want. We started off with the Premium Pass for Florida residents, renewed with the Annual Pass for Florida residents, moved out of state for ten months and renewed again without the Florida resident discount, and we plan to renew next time with the Premium Pass for Florida residents once again. Since we’re renewing, there’s been a discount each time, even though we keep changing the type of pass.

Dining:

With the Disney Dining Plan

Food at Walt Disney World is expensive. Leaving a park to find a cheap meal is inconvenient and takes up precious vacation time, but do you really want to pay $8 for a hamburger? If you’re staying on property look into the Disney Dining Plan. There are several options, from the Quick Service Plan, which will give you two counter service meals and a snack each day, to the Deluxe Plan, which includes three meals and two snacks daily. Sometimes Disney will offer the Quick Service Plan for free, which can “free” up quite a bit of money in your vacation budget. You must purchase a Magic Your Way Package to be eligible for the Disney Dining Plan and it is not available to Annual Passholders.

Without the Disney Dining Plan

If you’re not on the Disney Dining Plan there are other ways to be able to eat in the parks and save money at the same time. The first thing that you need to do is to research. Read the menus here at Disney Dining and decide where you are going to want to eat. Most of the prices are listed so you won’t end up surprised when it is time to order. Another way to save money and time is to eat at off hours. If you eat a late breakfast and an early dinner you can cut out one meal each day. Bring snacks into the park with you so that you will not be tempted to buy popcorn or ice cream when you are hungry. You might even want to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches back at the hotel and bring them into the park so that you will have one less meal to buy.

Tip – When at Epcot we always stop by Club Cool. They have eight different Coke products from around the world to sample, all for free. The cups are small but you can drink as much as you would like. Don’t think of filling up an empty bottle so that you can drink some later, a Cast Member will stop you.

Full Service Restaurants

Don’t count out the table service restaurants if you want to save money and you’re not on the Disney Dining Plan. Make a meal out of appetizers or split an entree. Ask for water instead of soda to drink. Skip dessert. You will still be able to experience some incredible restaurants without spending as much. Some full service restaurants cost less for lunch than they do for dinner. Keep that in mind when you make your reservations.

Counter Service Restaurants

If you want to save money at a counter service restaurant skip the sides. Many entrees come with fries or a salad, ask if the price is lower without them. Again, order a cup of water instead of a drink. If the restaurant has a toppings bar you can load up your food with extras, which will help fill you up. Please eat what you take, you don’t want to waste food.

Buffets

All of the buffets at Walt Disney World are on the pricey side. You might want to skip a meal so that you will be able to get your money’s worth. Don’t overdo it, you don’t want to feel miserable while on vacation. Be careful to not take more food than you will eat; if the restaurant throws out a lot of food, it will justify the high prices. If you’ve been skipping desserts to spend less, splurge a little at a buffet. That will help to keep your sweet tooth under control.

Tip – Don’t live off of pizza and burgers while on vacation. You’re going to pay a bit more to eat on Disney property, make it an experience! The servers at the full service restaurants know the food well, ask for recommendations. One of the best surprises that I’ve ordered was the Wok-Fired Green Beans at Yak & Yeti Restaurant. I don’t even like green beans but we ordered the appetizer on the server’s recommendation and it was delicious.

Extras:

There are plenty of things to do at Walt Disney World that are not included in the ticket price. Dinner shows, The Richard Petty Driving Experience, La Nouba by Cirque du Soleil, parasailing, behind the scenes tours, and many other experiences are going to cost you extra. Check out the prices ahead of time and decide which ones you really need to do. You are also not going to want to return home empty handed. The costs of the extras will quickly add up. The most important thing to do is to set a budget before you leave home and stick to it. That way the prices of the extras will not get out of hand. You might also want to check out some free things to do. They can be a blast and they won’t eat into your vacation budget.

Souvenirs

Who heads to Walt Disney World and does not buy anything to bring back home? Shops are everywhere! Decide ahead of time what each member of your family can return home with. If you limit each person to one t-shirt and one pair of Mickey ears, you will be able to keep your spending in check. Buy souvenirs the last day of your trip, that way you will only buy the things that you really want. Give children a budget, for example $5 per day, and stick to it! Be prepared to say “no” a lot because kids are going to find many things that they think that they can’t live without. You’ll also find Disney (but not Walt Disney World) souvenirs in off property hotel lobbies, in CVS, in Target, at gas stations, in restaurants, in gift shops, and many other places that you might stop by. If you want a Florida souvenir and don’t care that the words “Walt” and “World” aren’t on it, you can save money that way. Some of the gift shops advertise things like “99 cent mugs” and $2.00 t-shirts”. Remember that the cheap items will be flawed. Souvenirs inside a giant wizard might still cost less than in the parks but don’t expect to buy gifts for everyone back home for under $10.

Tip – Try to buy practical souvenirs. Rain ponchos will come in handy once you get home and you will use them while in Florida! Baseball-style hats are another practical souvenir. I personally love buying event shirts. They’re a fun reminder of a special event and they can be great conversation starters. If you buy them in the final few days of the event they might even be on sale.

PhotoPass

If you don’t want to carry too much extra with you on your vacation, PhotoPass can be a great service. You will end up with wonderful family pictures and you won’t have to carry a camera everywhere. PhotoPass is also expensive, so unless it’s included in the package that you buy you might want to skip it. Take pictures on your phone since you’ll want to have that with you, or bring along an inexpensive digital camera. Look for a PhotoPass photographer for some great picture opportunities and ask him or her to take the picture with your camera or phone. A few might say no but usually it will not be a problem. You will end up with the same great shot but you will not have to pay Disney for your pictures.

Tip – My family and I tell the photographer right away not to take any PhotoPass pictures because we aren’t going to purchase them. That way, we’re not tempted (you can’t buy pictures that don’t exist) and we still get the shots that we want.

Shows

The dinner shows at Walt Disney World are fun for the entire family. They also cost a lot. There is plenty of food at the shows, skip a meal and get your money’s worth. A popular non-dinner show is La Nouba by Cirque du Soleil. It is incredible but it is also expensive. The worst seats start around $75 per ticket, if you want to be up close it will cost you quite a bit more. You can sometimes buy La Nouba tickets from an authorized ticket reseller, which will save you a few dollars. Make sure that everyone in your party wants to see the show before you buy the tickets, it might make sense to cut it out if you’re trying to save money.

Freebies

There are plenty of free things to do at Walt Disney World, so take advantage of them. Watch a movie under the stars, explore the resort hotels, or visit Downtown Disney. Head to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge and watch the animals on the savannah. Catch the fireworks portion of IllumiNations for free at Disney’s BoardWalk. After it’s over, if you’re old enough, stop by the Atlantic Dance Club, where there is no cover charge. You can also watch Wishes for free from Disney’s Polynesian Resort, Disney’s Grand Floridian, or Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Time your visit to include the Electric Water Pageant, many people have no idea that it even exists.

If you don’t want to spend the money for a water park and the hotel pool isn’t cutting it anymore, throw the bathing suits on the kids and take them to the town of Celebration. There is a huge interactive fountain near the center of town. The kids can play in the water while you relax on a bench. Keep an eye on your kids, there is no lifeguard or anyone else official to keep everyone safe. Once things calm down, spend a little bit and grab an ice cream cone at Kilwins across the street. For just a few dollars you will make a memory that will last a lifetime.

Tip – Sometimes the best things in life are free. Anyone who knows me knows that my family and I are obsessed with Disney’s BoardWalk. The sunsets are incredible and the atmosphere is lively, but it’s the street performers who keep us coming back. The performances run each evening from 7:00 until 10:00 in front of the Flying Fish Restaurant and the Screen Door General Store. If the weather is bad they will perform indoors instead. It’s family friendly enter

About PaulaK

I grew up in Western Massachusetts. When I was nine my family went to Disneyland and I was hooked. I grew up, attended New England College in Henniker, NH and eventually moved to Virginia. I worked as a disc jockey, married and became a full time mom when our daughter was born. Fast forward several years. In 2010 we moved to Central Florida and my Disney obsession grew. I now work as a freelance writer and spend my spare time in the parks. Under the name Paula Brown I penned the novel Dream Wanderers, the sequel is due out in 2012. I also am a co-author of the InsideScoop To Walt Disney World series. I've been a vegetarian for well over a decade, a choice that my daughter eventually made as well. While my husband still hasn't joined us fully he has given up most meats except for seafood. I was relieved to find that vegetarian dining is not difficult at Walt Disney World. You can email Paula at paula@disdining.com