Do you wish you could visit Disney World, but can’t imagine how to achieve the trip on your current tight budget? What if I told you that you can go to Disney World on a dime? Okay, so you can’t really go to Disney World for a dime, but saving dimes can get you there. Once in that magical world, you can have a fun, frugal trip and get the most bang for your buck possible.
The first thing you should do if you are thinking about planning a trip to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, is to read through the trip planning guide from the official Disney World website. You’ll receive additional tips and often money-saving coupons and offers that might not be available elsewhere.
Saving for the Trip
Our family doesn’t pay for anything with change. If an item costs $5.01, we pay with $6.00, getting 99 cents in change. That change then goes into our “vacation” jar. Our family loves pickles and pickle juice (yes, we’re weird and proud of it), so a huge empty pickle jar that we got at Sam’s is what we use. We just cut a hole in the lid to turn it into a piggy bank. You can use any good size container, but I recommend something clear so you can see the change adding up. All change goes into our jar. The kids even put change in there. Loose change found in the wash, pennies and other change found in parking lots, change found in the sofa cushions, it all goes into the jar. Every once in a while, someone will throw a bill in there, too, which is nice bonus money toward our trip. When the jar gets full, we roll the coins or take the jar to the bank to put in our trip savings account (keep this separate!) and start over again. We never use those machines in the grocery stores because they charge 7 or 8 cents on the dollar to sort the coins for you. This really adds up and we just aren’t willing to give up 7 or 8 dollars every time that jar gets full.
Put a little each week into the account. If you budget out your money, you’ll have enough for your trip before you know it. We are learning and use Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University system and I highly recommend it. If you can’t afford the kit, then buy the book or get it from the library and follow his examples of budgeting for future things you’d like.
Some people like to use their tax returns for vacation, too, and this is basically a form of a savings plan. You are loaning the government your money instead of keeping it in the bank where you could earn interest, but if you know you’d just spend that money if it were in your hand, then don’t have your company count any deductions for you or one less so that more taxes are taken out and you’ll be due a nice refund. We’ve always done this and while I know it isn’t a wise “investment” of our money, I also know us well enough to know that if that money is too easily accessible it will be spent. You can’t earn interest on what you don’t leave in the bank anyway.
When to Go to Disney
Plan to go off season if you can. November and February (before Thanksgiving and spring break) are said to be less crowded. You’ll get a better deal on your hotel and you’ll get more out of your visit. Check out Disney’s All Star Resorts, which can be as low as 79.00 a night. There are many advantages to staying at a Disney Resort that make it worth a few dollars more. If the cost is still too steep, try to get a hotel three or four miles away that has a shuttle to the park. Also, try to get a room with a fridge, microwave and other amenities so you can save some money on food.
Food Doesn’t Have to Break the Bank
You don’t have to starve and you don’t have to spend on a fortune on food. Remember that you are on vacation, so some choices may not be 100% healthy but you can find filling, inexpensive fare. First, I got a wonderful tip from Kelly Henkins, who now runs World Romance Writers. Attach a fanny pack to each person entering the park (you can get these very inexpensively at most thrift stores) and put in that fanny pack a bottled water and some cheese and crackers and other snacks that will fit.
We did this the first day when we went to Magic Kingdom. We ate a huge breakfast and then had a small snack around 11 a.m., when we were starting to get hungry. We didn’t need to buy drinks as we had the bottled waters. The snack held us until about 1:00 when the kids started to get hungry again. Another snack held them and we had a very late lunch/early dinner.
The cheapest place we found to eat in the park was Tomorrowland, where they allowed my 13-year-old to go ahead and get the kid’s meal. The kids’ meals featured hamburger or hot dog and fries (not healthy, but filling). My husband and I chose to drink our bottled water and the girls’ meals came with a small soda. The total for all four of us was around 25.00. I didn’t think this was bad for not having the inconvenience of leaving the park.
Another thing to consider is to take in a backpack of food. It will be a pain to carry but if the family shares this task, it makes life easier. The second day, we went to Animal Kingdom and we did take a backpack. My parents also gave us a Rain Forest Cafe gift card, so we planned a late lunch there because we knew it wouldn’t cost us anything if we watched what we ordered and made sure to leave enough on there to cover the tip. Because we saved so much on food, we treated the girls to Mickey Mouse ice cream bars for a grand total of $5.00 spent that day. Prices may vary from year to year and depending upon what treats you choose.
As Scar from The Lion King Would Say, “Be Prepared.”
My daughter’s favorite movie of all time is The Lion King. One year, we enjoyed a wonderful show at Animal Kingdom called “The Festival of the Lion King” and in it Scar sang his frightfully devious song “Be Prepared.” I want you to be prepared for Disney so you don’t have to spend a fortune while in the park or leave to go get items at a reasonable cost.
It will probably rain at least part of one day while you are there. I have been to Disney World about 8 times and every single time it rains for a little while. You will need sunscreen because it’s sure to get sunny. You’ll want a camera and a disposable works so well because you don’t have to worry about losing an expensive digital camera. How will you transport these items easily?
After taking the backpack into Animal Kingdom, I am a huge proponent of taking one along. Make everyone in the family take turns carrying the backpack (with the exception of very small children). This makes it much less cumbersome as you only have to carry it for a limited amount of time. Start packing now. Go to the dollar store and buy rain ponchos for everyone in the family. Fill your backpack with:
- Small first aid kit (band-aids for the blisters!)
- Small disposable camera
- Food you know your family will enjoy
- You may need other items if your children are small.
Time Shares – Worth Your Time?
We chose not to go on the time share tours for free tickets. Our time was very limited and I figure my time is worth more than saving 50.00 and spending all day while they try to sell me. Not to mention the stress involved if they are persistent. If you have a longer vacation or are very skilled at saying no, you may find these worth your time. However, be aware that I have heard some real horror stories about them refusing to drop people back for hours and hours and high pressure tactics. One friend told me that it was so bad that she went ahead and signed up to get them off her back, knowing she had a certain amount of time to cancel the contract. I do NOT recommend doing this, but am just trying to illustrate how bad it can get. I know the Disney tickets are expensive, but think about your time investment and what you’re really saving and see if you can save another way. Does your hotel offer a discount? Can you buy tickets through your employer or AAA?
Disney now has a base ticket (price depends on how many days you purchase for as the cost goes down the more days you purchase) and then you can “add on” park hopper, water parks, and no expiration. My husband and I studied these add-ons long and hard, especially the park hopper option and decided it wasn’t worth it to us. We had only two days to spend anyway, so where were we going to hop to? Also, it was about as cheap to just go ahead and buy another day as to add the park hopper and would give us more time at each park. If you have the time to spend, crunch the numbers. Let’s say you are spending a full week at Disney. You would look at what it costs you to buy a straight 7-day ticket where you can only go to one park each day but you choose the park vs. a 4- or 5-day ticket with park hopper option.
What about the water parks? Disney has some wonderful water parks and if your heart is set on these only, then go ahead and pay the extra. It’s your vacation, you should enjoy yourself. However, there are also non-Disney water parks in the area for much less. And the resort hotels have some wonderful swimming pools on grounds at no extra charge. Ultimately you have to choose what works for you. If you have extra money, it might even be worth it to buy the most days possible and get the no expiration option so you can come back for another trip at a later date.
More Tips for Your Disney World Trip
Try to get your kids to buy souvenirs off-site. The exception would be the Disney pins, which they can trade. But even these have a cost that varies from location to location. Try your local Disney store or online for deals. For toys for younger kids, buy some stuffed Disney character toys before entering the park and pull them out when the kids start to whine for the pricier versions. Our children had their own money and were surprisingly frugal about how much they spent. Each daughter took a set amount in with her and that was it. Once that was gone, she didn’t buy anything else. I take that back, my husband did buy them each a Lion King pin for their necklaces, but he’s a daddy and they are his little girls after all.
Bang for Your Buck
Do yourself a favor and go in with a plan. Disney has the Fast Pass system, which can help you avoid crowds. This is the first time I’ve gone to Disney with a plan beforehand of what we would ride and in what order (although I was also flexible with the plan if there was a ride with a short line or one with a long line, etc.).
First, I researched rides and found out which ones were fast pass and printed out park maps from AllEars.net (a WONDERFUL site for preparing for your Disney trip and listed in the resources area below). I knew from reading somewhere that the tendency for crowds in amusement parks, zoos, etc. is to head to the right front of any park. So, guess where we headed? Back and to the left of course!
Our first stop at Magic Kingdom was the Peter Pan ride. Not only because it was to the left and there was NO line, but because the last time we visited my 10 year old (then 7) hadn’t been able to ride it when she’d REALLY wanted to–the lines were just too long by the time we got there that visit. We walked right on this ride. No wait at all. The area was completely deserted.
My next stop was the Haunted Mansion, where I planned to get us fast passes. However, I saw there was no line again, so we abandoned the fast passes and walked right onto the ride with NO wait. At this point we split up, planning to use our cell phones to stay in contact as hubby and 10 year old dear daughter wanted to ride Splash Mountain and me and 13 year old dear daughter wanted to see the Country Bears (yes, we’re nerds, and proud of it). Hubby and youngest daughter walked right onto their ride and older daughter and I walked right into Country Bears Jamboree. When we got out of these two things, the crowds were starting to pick up a little, but we went ahead and finished everything in FrontierLand and Adventureland, without having to wait in line for more than 20-30 minutes, which is amazing for Disney World at Christmas.
We then headed to Fantasyland, got a fastpass for Mickey’s Philharmonic and rode the other rides in the area while waiting for our time to return to the fast pass line. I’m not going to go through the entire day. I just wanted you to get an idea of how “Lori’s Plan” worked. We never waited more than 30 minutes for any ride and we used the fast passes to our best advantage. The next day at Animal Kingdom it was horribly crowded EVERYWHERE. Yet, by using my to the left and back first system and using the fast passes, we still managed to see and ride everything. Here are the keys to coming up your own plan that will work for your family:
- Print out maps of the parks you’d like to visit that list the rides and which ones are FP rides
- Have each family member choose ONE ride that they absolutely must ride (only one, even though your goal is to ride everything in the park)
- Using your must ride list, see which rides are at the left back of the park and ride those first
- Are any of the rides fast pass rides? If so, grab a fast pass and then ride the other rides in the area while waiting. For example, my choice THE HAUNTED MANSION, was in the back left of the park. My plan was to ride Peter Pan (we HAD to get that in, top priority) and then get a fast pass for THE HAUNTED MANSION. While waiting on the fast pass, hubby and younger daughter would ride his choice SPLASH MOUNTAIN. It worked out different, because your plan needs to be flexible, but this would have worked if there were a line to Haunted Mansion. My older daughter decided she did not need a choice at this park if she could have a certain show as the first stop at Animal Kingdom the next day, so we were then able to just organize by the area we were in and Fast Passes. Also, I remembered from past visits how Tomorrowland was always very busy when we first arrived and headed there with the rest of the pack, so I saved it for last. It was still crowded but not as much so.
I hope these tips help you and get you excited about your own visit to Disney World and that you have a truly wonderful and magical time.