I got these amazing printable Disney stickers for my Life Planner from Studio1955 on Etsy.
I recently posted on how planning is therapeutic for me. One of my favorite things to plan is a Disney vacation. A Disney trip can seem daunting and expensive, but with proper planning, you can find many ways to save money and make it possible. There are travel agents who can help you find ways to save, and even plan the trip for you. But if you like to do things yourself, here are some of the ideas I have discovered for how to save money and what to splurge on.
First, I strongly recommend planning at least 6 months to a year in advance. This allows you time to save for your trip, search for the best deals, and make the best reservations. You may even have your trip paid before you go; which allows you to enjoy your vacation without worrying about cost.
Paying for Your Trip:
For our last trip, I opened a Chase Disney Rewards credit card. They had a special offer that gave me $250 in Disney gift cards. We used the Rewards card daily, instead of our debit card. By the time of our trip we had a couple hundred dollars earned in Disney gift cards, which we used for food and souvenirs. The Disney Rewards card also saves you 10% on certain Disney purchases and offers special pricing on certain Disney vacation packages. Plus, you only have to pay a deposit when you book your trip. The remainder is due 45 days before your trip.
If you are a member of Disney Movie Rewards, you can earn rewards for purchasing Disney movies and movie tickets. We cashed in our rewards for another $50 in Disney gift cards.
If you are flexible with your dates, you can save more money by avoiding peak seasons. The cheapest times to go are in January/February, between Easter and summer, early fall, and between Thanksgiving and mid-December. Disney typically offers deals during these times, such as discounted lodging or free meal plans. I saved 15% on a room for going after Easter and got a free meal plan for going in early December.
If you can find an inexpensive flight, I recommend flying. Disney has free transportation for guests to and from the airport, as well as around the Disney property. There’s no need for a rental car, as long as you don’t leave the property. We have always driven, which is typically a two-day drive from Michigan. This can add additional costs such as hotel stays, food, and gas. However, then you have your own car to travel off-property or do things on your own time (instead of being bound to the shuttle schedule).
Disney Transportation: Disney offers free shuttles around the entire Disney property. Shuttles run about every 20 minutes, and take you right to the front gates. However, some routes may require multiple stops.
Parking Your Own Car: Parking at the parks costs $20/day (We paid $100 just in parking on our last trip). Using your own car means you are on your own schedule, but you will have to walk to and from the parking lot. Also, you will have to ride the monorail or ferry to the Magic Kingdom.
Lodging: The biggest decision is whether or not to stay on Disney property. We’ve done both, and I see benefits to either side.
On Property: There are definitely perks to staying on the Disney property. The first is transportation, as stated above. Secondly, guests of Disney resorts can take advantage of extra park hours. Every day, one of the four parks is open either 2 hours earlier or 2 hours later for Disney resort guests. Resort guests are also eligible to make Fastpass+ choices 30 days earlier than just ticket-holders. Also, when you book a Disney vacation package, they send you luggage tags and coupons for various activities/restaurants. Once at the resort, each family member receives a Disney travel mug that they can refill for free at any resort/park. Another benefit, is being close enough to the parks that you can go to your room to rest and then back to the parks when crowds are lower (very helpful with kids!).
There are over 25 resorts on the Disney property, ranging in price from $100/night to over $500/night. We stayed in the Pop Century Resort, which is considered a “value resort.” It’s basically like staying in a 2 or 3 star hotel, but with all the Disney magic. All the value resorts have pools, an arcade, and a cafeteria-style restaurant. It wasn’t a luxury hotel, but was fun and everything you would expect from Disney. I recently found a value resort for $104/night, which is actually cheaper than staying at an off-property hotel! If you do your research, and are flexible with dates, you can find a good deal.
Off Property: You may find a cheaper option off the Disney property, such as a hotel, timeshare or rental. This is especially beneficial if you need more than one room. However, some expenses to consider are needing transportation, paying for parking at the parks ($20/day), and purchasing food. We stayed in a timeshare that charged $8/person for their shuttle to the parks. It was cheaper for us to drive our own car and pay parking. Plus, then we weren’t stuck with the shuttle schedule.
There are a few hotels that are on Disney property but are not considered a Disney resort. They are surprisingly inexpensive and a great option to be close to Disney but not completely immersed. Plus, they offer a few of the benefits of staying in a Disney resort. I would recommend checking those hotels before checking hotels off the Disney property. We stayed one night in the Holiday Inn across from Disney Springs and were very happy with it.
Bonus Tip: You don’t have to stay at a Disney resort to visit it. You can check out the resort or eat at their restaurant (but not use their pool). We visited the Animal Kingdom lodge for lunch, looked at the animals, and played on the playground. This is a great way to experience the more expensive resorts for free!
Picking a Park:
The next big decision is how long to stay and how many parks to visit. Disney has four theme parks and two water parks. We have never done a water park because we typically travel off-season (to save money) so it’s never warm enough to warrant a water park. The past two visits, we did 5 park days and one rest day. This is an intense pace, but we figure that’s what we came to do!
The more days you purchase, the cheaper the tickets become. For us to buy 5 days, it was only $30 more than doing 4 days. Splurge: I recommend spending two days at the Magic Kingdom (I’ll post a review of the parks in a future post).
The Park Hopper pass allows you to visit multiple parks in one day. This may save you money by not having to buy as many tickets, but you won’t be able to spend as much time in each of the parks. Also keep in mind that Magic Kingdom tickets are more money than the other three parks, and ticket prices fluctuate depending on the season. Bonus: Children under 3 are free, so time a trip just before your child’s 3rd birthday!
How to Eat:
If you stay in a Disney resort, you are eligible for the Disney Dining Plan. Disney typically offers a free dining plan in the Fall/early December. We took advantage of this one year, which was an amazing deal. We each got two quick-service meals/day plus a snack/day. The quick-service meals typically came with a main dish, side, dessert, and drink. It was more than enough food for us and we didn’t spend a dime! The meal plan can be expensive, and you can find cheaper options, but I recommend it for the ease of mind.
If you don’t stay on Disney property or do a meal plan, then you are on your own for meals. You can pack lunches or eat for less off property but you’ll need a car. There are no “cheap” or fast-food options on the property. On our last trip, we did not do a meal plan. We ended up splitting meals to cut costs. We also bought groceries and made food at our time-share.
I recommend using Gardengrocer.com, which delivers groceries to hotels on the Disney property. I placed an order online a few weeks before our vacation for items like diapers, water bottles, snacks, and breakfast items. They were delivered right to our room on the day we arrived. The earlier you place your order, the bigger the discount they offer.
Splurge: I recommend doing at least one character meal. We did breakfast at Cinderella’s Royal Table, which was very expensive. We had to prepay which turned out to be nice because we could just enjoy the meal without thinking about the cost. The food was not worth it, but we were paying for the experience which was priceless! We also did the Disney Jr. Play & Dine breakfast at Hollywood Studios. It’s an all you can eat buffet for a pretty good price, so we took advantage of it and filled up on Mickey waffles.
Other things to consider:
Photopass: Disney offers a photopass package for you to pre-purchase. Throughout the park, Disney photographers take your pictures with characters and on certain rides. All your pictures are tied to your account so you can download them when you get home. The photopass offers you unlimited downloads of all your pictures. Photographers will take your picture whether you have the photopass or not; and they’ll also take your picture with your own camera. I’ve never done the photopass because we just bring our own camera. However, on our last trip there were a few photos that the Disney photographers got a better shot than we did. I ended up buying a few of these pictures after the trip, which added up fast. If you’re looking to save money, then just bring your own camera. But if pictures are important to you, splurge on the photopass!
Things to buy before your trip: We allowed our daughter to pick one souvenir at each park, and there are plenty of inexpensive options. But I did pick up some fun stuff before we left. I purchased some T-shirts on clearance from the Disney store for my daughter to wear to the parks. Dollar Tree has a lot of Disney brand products. I bought glow sticks and a glow wand that I gave our daughter for the nighttime fireworks. I bought a cheap notebook for her to get character’s autographs. I also bought some crayons, activity books, and toys for the car ride.
Splurge: One lesson I learned is don’t buy cheap ponchos. I bought ponchos at the dollar store in case of rain. Well, it POURED the day we were at Animal Kingdom and the dollar store ponchos did nothing. We were soaked within 5 minutes and spent the rest of the day wet and uncomfortable. I wish we would have splurged on Disney ponchos so we could stay dry and have a cute souvenir to reuse on future trips.
Our Disney vacations have taken many different forms, and each one has been great. There’s no wrong way to do Disney but if you’re looking to save money or take advantage of the most options, then you have to do your research and give yourself time to plan! Please feel free to ask questions or offer your money-saving ideas!