A Walt Disney World vacation doesn’t have to be expensive. Follow our Disney World on a budget tips to save money and have a great trip for less money! Use these suggestions in conjunction with our Disney Tips & Tricks posts in order to do “Disney on a Dime” and have a great vacation!
When it comes to planning, here are the five biggest areas where you can save on your trip to Walt Disney World, and our suggestions for how to cut costs in each area. You’ll save so much with these tips that you’ll feel like you just got back from Appliance Direct, not Walt Disney World!
1. Travel Package Discounts – The “Magic Your Way” Vacation Package is one of the biggest first-time visitor pitfalls. Disney carefully markets this package to give guests the impression that they’re saving money, when in actuality, they aren’t. Quite simply, this package is Disney’s way of bundling hotel, tickets, and the Disney Dining Plan together. Despite what Disney agents may say, the Magic Your Way vacation packages are not discounts, and are usually worse deals than you can get if paying full price for the package than buying each component individually. Although you will receive certain extras for booking a Magic Your Way vacation package, these extras are not things that most guests will use.
However, there are some package discounts you can find on DisneyWorld.com (depending upon season and availability) that will save you money. These packages can be complex and difficult for the uninitiated to understand. Given this, I highly recommend contacting a Disney travel agent to assist you. I know what you might be thinking: “Travel agent?! I’m trying to save money here–remember that I’m on a budget! I’m not rolling in dough like John Stamos!” There is this misconception that travel agents make Disney trips more expensive. Couldn’t be further from the truth, as long as you book with a fee-free agency. Fee free means that you don’t pay them, Disney pays them a commission. They can find the best discounts for your circumstances, and even assist you with advance dining reservations and other planning. If it’s your first trip, I highly recommend contacting a fee-free travel agent.
One thing travel agents can’t help with is PIN codes. PIN Codes are the holy grail of Walt Disney World discounts. They are an exclusive discount sent to a limited number of recipients that frequently allow offer a greater discount than promotions offered to the general public. PIN codes are shrouded in mystery, but I’ve written in the past about how you can increase your chances of receiving one.
The most important thing to remember about these package deals is that they’re only a deal if what’s offered appeals to you. You shouldn’t book a Deluxe Resort because it’s 40% off versus a Value Resort at 25% just because of the “better” savings, nor should you take advantage of the free Disney Dining Plan promotion if saving money is your biggest goal and you’d just as soon prepare your own meals at your hotel. If you do book a package discount, it obviates the need to concern yourself with some other items on this list, but you should read this list in full before booking anything.
2. Hotel – This is tricky. You can undoubtedly save the most money by staying at a hotel that is off Disney property. Even the cheapest Disney hotels (the Values) are around $70-110 per night after discounts, and for that amount of money, you can get a much nicer hotel off-property. A hotel that offers comparable amenities to a Value but is located off property might be as cheap as $40 a night. The problem with staying off site is that you don’t have the advantage of Disney’s (complimentary) Magic Express shuttle from the airport to your hotel, nor do you (usually) have free transportation to the parks from your hotel. So you need a rental car if staying off property whereas you don’t necessarily need one if staying on Walt Disney World property. Even after the cost of the rental car (we use Hotwire’s “Hot Rate” finder to score rental cars for $10-15/day a lot of places), you probably would come out ahead by staying off property from a budgetary perspective, but Disney offers other perks, like Extra Magic Hours and the ability to purchase the Disney Dining Plan, to those staying on property. Plus, Disney-owned hotels have Disney themed and offer a nice escape from the real world.
If you’re going to stay off property, we recommend using a “blind” purchase through Hotwire or Priceline to save the most money. You won’t know exactly which hotel you’re getting, but you will get a far, far better deal this way and can still ensure the hotel is in the area you want.
Another option besides booking a Disney-owned hotel or staying off-site in a hotel, condo, or vacation home is renting Disney Vacation Club points from a third party and staying in a Disney Vacation Club resort. This isn’t an ultimate “on a budget” tip, as you’re still looking at paying a minimum of $100 per night, but it gives you great accommodations and Disney perks at a great savings. So consider it a “frugal person” tip to save more money instead of an “on a budget” tip.
Ultimately, if money is your absolute and only consideration, stay off property. If cost is important, but there are other considerations, I strongly recommend staying on property. If you do decide to stay on property and you’re on a budget, the next question is whether you should do a Value Resort or a Moderate Resort. Typically, if money is an issue, we recommend a Value Resort.
Everyone’s circumstances are different, and staying on property isn’t “necessary” for everyone. You should weigh all factors accordingly and do what’s right for you. There are a lot of great off-property hotels and vacation homes, so don’t have trepidation about going off property. If you do stay off property and rent a car, you’ll have the secondary benefit of being able to eat off-site or going to a grocery store to pick up food when you arrive in Florida, thus saving you even more money!
3. Tickets – If you purchase a vacation package, this is not something about which you need to worry. If you don’t buy a package, consider purchasing your tickets in advance and from an authorized third party vendor instead of Disney. These third party vendors offer savings of about 5-20% off Disney prices (sometimes more, sometimes less). Not a huge savings, but every little bit helps when you’re visiting Disney on a budget, right? The vendor with by far the best reputation and after-tax prices is Undercover Tourist. Even if you don’t purchase from them, what you don’t want to do is buy the “cheap” tickets you see advertised along the roadside on your way to Walt Disney World nor do you want to buy via eBay. Those are scams.
Once you figure where you’ll get your tickets, you need to figure out which tickets to purchase. This depends largely upon how many days you’re going and how frequently you plan on visiting Walt Disney World. Your best per day value is always getting tickets for longer length of stays. For example, the per day cost of a 10 day ticket might be $35, whereas the per day cost of a 2 day ticket might by $80 (numbers for the sake of example only).
To take advantage of this pricing scheme, back when we visited Walt Disney World once per year for about 5-7 days per trip, we would buy 10-day No-Expiration Tickets with the Water Parks Fun and More option from Undercover Tourist, and would use approximately 3-5 of these days per trip plus one or two water park days. On the water park days, we’d leave the water park at around 5 pm, and spend the rest of the day at Downtown Disney or we would head to one of the monorail resorts to enjoy dinner followed by the Electrical Water Pagent and Wishes! from one of the hotel beaches.
Since we also often visited when Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party or Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party was taking place, we would save days by having breakfast or lunch in a resort hotel (or, if it’s Christmas season, the best way to spend the morning before Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is by doing a FREE self-guided Deluxe Resorts Christmas Tour!) and then heading into the Magic Kingdom at 4 pm once our tickets were valid. This made for an incredibly entertaining day and nice change of pace, but the REAL benefit was that we didn’t have to use one of our precious park days! By doing this, we were able to stretch these tickets out and use them over the course of multiple years, which greatly decreased our ticket costs. If you visit Walt Disney World once per year for 7 or less days, we highly recommend adopting this strategy to save money!
There are various affiliation discounts and other ins and outs to saving on tickets. If the above strategy (by far the best if you’re going to visit multiple times and are on a budget) doesn’t work for you, check out our Disney park tickets page for other options.
If you’re planning on going for more than 10 days on your trip, or once per year (move the second trip up a bit so they’re both within a year), you may want to look into Annual Passes. If it’s a close call as to whether you should get an Annual Pass, sometimes getting one for one person in your party may be a good idea so you can take advantage of other discounts, too.
4. Food – Once you have your tickets and are in the park, it’s time to think about food, assuming you’re not already covered by having the Disney Dining Plan as a part of your vacation package. This is the best way to ‘get creative’ with your savings at Walt Disney World. The easiest way to save money on food is to not purchase food from Disney restaurants. Stop at a grocery store on your way to Walt Disney World, eat at off-site restaurants, or use a grocery delivery service. Disney also allows guests to bring food to the park (check out our packing list for recommendations), so you can conceivably never purchase food from Disney during your entire trip! We happen to think that Disney’s restaurants can be a fun part of the experience, so we don’t recommend going this route.
If you decide to eat at Disney restaurants, the next question is whether you should add-on the Disney Dining Plan. While you can save a good amount of money (as much as 40% if you maximize your usage of the Plan) by using the Disney Dining, you can also eat at Walt Disney World cheaper by paying out of pocket if you focus on “dining on a dime.” So whether you should get the Disney Dining Plan is another one of those “personal decisions.” Read our review and overview of the Disney Dining Plan to get more help on that front. If you decide against the Disney Dining Plan, consider the Tables in Wonderland card (if eligible).
If you want to “dine on a dime” at Walt Disney World, here are some specific tips for getting the most for your money at Walt Disney World restaurants:
These are just some ways that come to mind that we’ve saved money when dining at Walt Disney World. If you have others, please share them in the comments!
5. Souvenirs – Souvenirs come last on our list much like they do for most people visiting the parks on a budget. The notion that Disney really pushes expensive souvenirs has so permeated our culture that even Disney has gotten in on the act by poking fun at itself for the practice in the script of the Jungle Cruise and on the television show Modern Family. However, Walt Disney World souvenirs don’t have to be expensive. Our biggest tip for saving money on souvenirs is purchasing Disney pins for Pin Trading on eBay prior to your trip. Not only can you get them cheap ($1-2 pin versus the $8-20 that Disney charges for “normal” pins), but Pin Trading is a blast and will add another layer of fun to your Walt Disney World vacation. For more information about it, check out our Pin Trading tips.
If Pin Trading isn’t your style, there are other ways to save money on souvenirs. If you’re purchasing for kids, the best thing to do is look for clearance deals on Amazon.com’s Disney page or in the clearance section of your local Disney Store. You can then bring these toys with you and give them to your kids on vacation. Other cheap and fun souvenir options include Vinylmation (be careful, they’re addictive!), magnets, or keychains. Learn from our mistake and don’t spiral into the dangerous and expensive world of Disney collectibles. Disneyana is like crack…except without the life-threatening and illegal aspects. Okay, it’s nothing like crack besides being marginally addictive. Bad example.
Are you a frugal traveler? What other tips for saving money at Walt Disney World do you have? Share your “Disney on a Dime” tips in the comments!