It’s no secret I am a big Disney fan. I’ve visited the Florida theme parks over 5 times, including a two-month internship in 2004. You also know I am big into savings, as I said on my January recap and as you may have noticed from my 2012 project Occupy the Wardrobe. I’m often taken aback by the amount of money some people spend on Disney World vacations, so no wonder some other people think they can never make it happen for them. But I disagree, you CAN make Disney and affordable work together in the same sentence. Michael and I made an epic trip there in February 2012, we were in Orlando for 10 days, and we spent roughly $1700 for all that time. That’s $850 per person, and if you ask me, that’s pretty good price for a 10-day trip that could have easily cost way more. So I decided to write down everything I saved on, hoping that it will help you or someone you know plan a cheaper Walt Disney World trip, especially if you always wanted to go but never looked too much into it because you thought it would be so expensive. Let’s make it happen!
1- Use Up Those Miles
This is one of the biggest money saving tip for any trip. I saved about $800 by getting our tickets to fly to Orlando with miles. I signed up to the United Airlines credit card about 8 months before the trip. It was the cheapest credit card to sign up for, and I already had 16,000 miles from United from my trips to Brazil, where I’m originally from. I also put all of my major expenses on that card, and quickly got to the magic number to get us two tickets. Fair warning though: only take a credit card if it makes sense to you. It made sense to me and Michael to get a CC together at the time, and we use it for our house/travel expenses, and we pay it off every month. I’d like to help you save and make financial sound decisions, and not get in debt over Disney, EVER.
If miles are not an option for you, I use Bing travel to track price on flights and buy them at their cheapest (I’ve read that two months before a trip is the cheapest). Orlando in general is an expensive destination to fly to, and I never got them cheaper than $400 both ways (from SLC). Last year I saved $100 flying to Florida by landing in Miami and then meeting a friend who lives there and going together to Orlando.
2- Visit on the Off Season
Another thing that helped me save big was visiting in the end of January/early February. It’s the off season, so besides smaller crowds and cooler temperatures, you also get hotel rates at 25-30% off. We stayed on Disney property, on one of their cheapest hotels (All Star Resorts or the Pop Century Resort). It was an average of $70 (instead of $100) per night for the room when we went in February 2012 (Monday-Thursday is cheaper than Friday-Saturday), so for 9 nights, we spent about $700. Prices go up a little each year, so you might not find US$ 70 rooms anymore, but still rest assured that the rates are 25-30% cheaper around this time of the year than they are April-December.
From what I’ve seen this year, the discounted rates on hotels are happening mid-January through mid-April, so that’s your window to plan for next year (and you have 8-12 months to save and plan!). The first week of November is also a good time to go, the Food and Wine festival is happening at Epcot (and the food is so good!) and the crowds are smaller because Halloween is over, and the Christmas crowds are not quite ready to flood. But my personal opinion is that February is still THE best time to go, though.
3- Skip the Car Rental
I did the math and figured that not renting a car and staying at a Disney hotel would be to our advantage. Parking on the theme parks is $15+. Add that daily parking fee to your car rental fees, and even if you find a cheaper hotel outside of Disney, you end up about the same, or spending more (car rentals ain’t cheap!). All Disney hotels have buses that take the guests to the parks and Downtown Disney. And if you need to go to a different hotel, say for a dinner reservation, you can take a bus to a park and then from the park a bus to the hotel you have dinner reservations for. With the added benefit that you don’t have to worry about parking a car. I hate parking. It’s a vacation and I don’t want to worry about a car, I want someone else driving me around!
And Disney offers a free bus from the Orlando airport to the hotel (and back) called Magical Express, so there’s another reason to skip that car rental! It’s not a flying carpet, but it does the trick.
And if you want to go to Universal (because the Harry Potter park is totally worth it), there’s a bus service you can call and reserve, and they’ll come pick you up at your Disney hotel, and drop you back at the end of the day. When I went, I booked a shuttle with Mears, and they were VERY late picking us up. Apparently late is normal for those shuttles, according to a Pop Century employee I talked to. So, take that into consideration when you book, especially if you care about what time you get to Universal. I don’t remember the price exactly, but it wasn’t very cheap. I think we spent about $20 per person. Googling this morning, I found this article that talks about an even better rate for the Mears shuttles of about $10 per person).
4- Sign Up For the Mouse Savers Newsletters (they e-mail it on the 15th of every month).
It doesn’t really have super interesting deals unless you are traveling as a family (and even so…), BUT it has a link to a site that sells discounted tickets, the Undercover Tourist, and that link from the newsletter is the cheapest way to get tickets! Another bonus of the newsletter is knowing which attractions will be closed for refurbishment when you visit. Also, the MouseSavers.com site is full of interesting information about savings at Disney, and I recommend the read.
5- Don’t Buy Park Hoppers
Disney offers two options: the Park Hopper (you can visit multiple parks per day) or the Magic Your Way (you can only visit one park per day). I think the Magic Your Way is the best way to save money. If you only have 2-3 days in Orlando, then two Park Hoppers for Disney and one park hopper for Universal should cover everything (but you’ll be dead tired on your plane ride back), because you can visit two parks per day and see it all. But on our case, since we were in Orlando for 10 days, I chose the Magic Your Way, and we took our time to enjoy the parks. I got a 7-day MYW for each of us, and 1 park-per-day at Universal (because we only wanted to go see the Harry Potter). The Universal Park Hopper is a pretty good option if you’ve never been to any of the parks, and you can easily do both parks in one day. So in tickets per person, we spent about $300 for Disney and another $100 on Universal. We bought them from the Undercover Tourist link from the Mouse Savers newsletter (above), and ordered them a month before the trip so they’d have time to mail the tickets to us. They ask you to order with at least 3 weeks in advance, and their service was very reliable.
Just for comparison, with $300 you barely get a 4 day park hopper (it’s $330). But if you only have 4 days for Disney, the MYW is still the best choice… It takes so long to go from one park to the other because Walt Disney is so huge… Michael and I would go when the park opened then come back to the hotel when we got tired and then go out for dinner later on the day in Downtown Disney (it was where I worked during my internship, so I of course wanted to visit it often). Or on days that we (read: I) wanted to watch fireworks, we’d leave the hotel after lunch. It was nice to take our time. A MYW for 4 days (5th day free) is just $10 cheaper than the 7 days, though, so it seems the longer you stay, the better the deal!
6- Go Grocery Shopping
We saved a couple hundred dollars by going to a supermarket the day we arrived and buying food for breakfast and snacks… The hotel we stayed didn’t have a mini fridge, so we bought stuff that wouldn’t go bad out of the fridge (like apples, pretzels, cookies, bagels). I have a friend that lives in Orlando and the day I arrived it was her day off, so she came to see us and took us to the grocery store. It was great, and we got all our breakfasts and snacks covered that way. I brought a bunch of zip lock bags from home too, and filled them with the snacks we bought to take to the park. I also brought a water bottle, so we could refill it throughout the day and not buy water bottles at the parks ($2 each).
We also got one of those refillable cups at the hotel, since we were staying for 9 nights. It was $15 and we refilled it 2 or 3 times a day. Once for breakfast with coffee/chocolate, and after we were back at night, we’d get a soda or something, while we enjoyed an evening stroll. It was an easy way to guarantee the daily coffee without breaking the bank, if you think a Starbucks might have set us off $3/day.
My guess is we saved at least $200 by doing this. We didn’t have breakfast at the hotel on any day, and they were about $5-$10 per person, and we also saved a lot by not getting tempted by Disney park snacks. Granted, I did have a Mickey Ice Cream bar and a Dole Whip because you gotta have some fun! But I’m sure having the healthy-ish snacks on hand helped our pockets and our consciences.
If you can’t go to a grocery store while in Orlando, consider bringing non-perishables (like a bag of pretzels or a box of granola bars) in your baggage. Just avoid the stuff TSA will get mad about (I wouldn’t bring fruits or breads or stuff in cans or any sort of liquid), and make sure everything is still unopened. Just something to think about!
7- Research all Restaurant Options Ahead of Time
This one is two-fold: you find out which are the cheapest places to eat, and you also find out which places have the food that sounds good to your tastes or food allergies. Michael and I were both vegetarians at the time of our trip, so I read all the quick-service restaurant menus ahead of time and made a list of where we could find good vegetarian food for less. We didn’t eat at a nice restaurant while there not even once, but it’s okay cause we don’t really care for that. When I went back this past November, I ate at the new Be Our Guest for lunch (if you want for dinner, reserve as soon as humanly possible. I think it’s the only restaurant taking reservations earlier than 60 days because it’s always packed) and really liked it. For lunchtime Be Our Guest is “quick service,” so prices are $12-$15 per entree. It was the fanciest I ever ate at Disney World, lol. The line is pretty scary, though. I went for an early lunch at 11, and still sweated in line for 20 minutes. But you can eat at the Beast’s ballroom, guys! That was totally worth it.
Anyway, the site I used to search menus ahead of time and compile a list of restaurants I was willing to eat at/afford is the All Ears website. I wrote on a small notebook that I carried with me all days (I also made notes of attractions I wanted to visit, photos I wanted to take, little things I wanted to buy… total list-maniac).
Speaking of restaurants, you might also be interested in this post I wrote about Orlando restaurants (to eat and to avoid).
8- Pack Light
Mike and I traveled with only two carry ons for our 10 days (I hate checking bags, and hey, another $25 saved!), and we managed fairly well with such limited amount of clothing. And another saving bonus: less space to carry things back home! Since we went in late January, I had given Mike a $25 gift card for Christmas, so he wanted to buy some mugs. We fitted his 4 new mugs in one of the carry ons we brought, and a Mr. Potato Head for me (I know, I buy the silliest things!) on another, and a couple of small gifts, and that’s it. We probably didn’t spend over $100 on merchandise to bring back, and all we bought was tiny enough to fit on our luggage. With no space to carry stuff home, you can’t spend much. So what do I do with all the cute things I want but can’t bring home? I take pictures of/with them, as seen above.
9- Plan Ahead and Spread Out Your Charges
I never pay for an entire trip in one credit card installment and then spend the rest of the year paying for it (and its interest). Instead, I plan ahead of time, and spread out my expenses early on. I usually get the airline tickets first, 4-6 months before going. On the next credit card period I reserve and pay for the hotel. Then a month before traveling, I get the park tickets. Just this way, I spread out $1400 worth of expenses through 6 months to pay for them. So when it’s time to go to my trip, I don’t have to worry about big bills when I get back home. Plan early and you’ll see that your dream Disney World trip can be much more affordable and financial-drama free.
Do you have any more tips to add to this list? Please let us know how YOU save on your Disney trip!
All photos are my own. You can see more Disney pictures I took at my Photography Blog.
**UPDATE April 8, 2014** If 9 ways is not enough for you, check out Great Walt Disney World Tips’ Pinterest board for EVEN MORE!