Disney World On A Budget Tips


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.

Fully loaded thanks to the toppings bar!

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:

  • Order the 1/2 Chicken and BBQ Rib Combo at Cosmic Ray’s (Magic Kingdom) and split it; it’s more expensive than other meals, but it’s enough food to share.
  • Order from the kid’s menu. Portion sizes are smaller, but so is price.
  • At Cosmic Ray’s, Pecos Bill (Magic Kingdom), and other restaurants with Toppings Bars, order a DOUBLE cheeseburger and extra bun to make two burgers. An extra bun now costs as much as $4 at these locations, which is ridiculous, but you can fill up on delicious toppings to make the meal much more affordable.
  • Sunshine Seasons (Epcot), Electric Umbrella (Epcot), Restaurantosaurus (Disney’s Animal Kingdom), Backlot Express (Disney’s Hollywood Studios), and most Disney resort-hotel food court restaurants offer free drink refills. Dine at these restaurants if you really like soda.
  • Eat lunch at Table Service restaurants instead of dinner; often the same menus are used, but at lower price-points.
  • Order a la carte. Menus typically list “combo” prices. If you don’t want fries (or a side), order just the entree to save.
  • Eat at Earl of Sandwich (Downtown Disney). Prices are lower at this independently-owned restaurant, which just so happens to be a favorite restaurant among Disney fans!
  •  “Build Your Own” Dole Whip at Captain Cook’s (Disney’s Polynesian Resort). The Dole Whip is a storied Walt Disney World treat. Make your own (huge) Dole Whip at the Polynesian instead of getting one at Aloha Isle in Adventureland.
  • Get some free caffeine at Club Cool (Epcot) by trying the beverages of the world. Our favorite is the Beverly! ;)
  • Pizzafari (Disney’s Animal Kingdom) and Pizza Planet (Disney’s Hollywood Studios) offer sizable pizzas for affordable prices.
  • Purchase a Restaurant.com $25 gift card for $10 and use it at restaurants at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin hotels.
  • The Plaza Restaurant (Magic Kingdom) offers table service food for counter service prices.
  • For another cheap(er) table service meal, order the largest pizza at Via Napoli (Epcot) and split it between 3-5 people.

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.

Your Thoughts…

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!

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52 Responses to “Disney World On A Budget Tips”

  1. Tobias Beck says:

    I’m sure Beverly is your favorite, Tom . . ;-)

  2. Jeff says:

    Love your suggestion for kids re: buying toys on Amazon and brining them along to give the kids as souvenirs.

    One strategy we use with our children is we tell them they get two toys the whole trip (you cold obviously just say one as well) but they have to wait to buy them the last day. This has helped cut down on the inevitable and unintended buying of multiple souvenir toys – which really added up when multiplying by three kids. Big money saver for us, amity the added benefit of cutting down on the constant begging and whining for toys!

    • Tom Bricker says:

      My parents used to do this with me and it worked like a charm. Anything I wanted besides that I had to buy with money I earned cleaning up dog crap. You value your money a bit more when that’s how you’ve earned it! ;)

    • Clarf says:

      I always brine my toys before giving them to my children. Gives it a sort of flair regular stock can’t give.

  3. Justin M says:

    Even though I like staying on-site I found that using the priceline name your own price can save a ton of Money on Hotels. You can get 4 start hotels for around $50-$70 dollars a night(plus parking and fees) during slower times.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      Great tip. I’ve never used Priceline, etc., at Walt Disney World, but have used it elsewhere. There are some sites out there that help you game the system, too!

  4. Kristina says:

    Ohh….I’m going to have to check out the restaurant.com coupon for the Swan and Dolphin. Thanks!

    I’m in the process of booking a mini vacation and I’m very excited to find that the Swan & Dolphin is significant cheaper then the Boardwalk Inn. I usually take the same mini vacation every year and go cheap with a value resort. This year, I figured its worth the extra $200 to save time on transportation. AND since I have a AAA membership, they give a small discount, BUT if I was staying longer, the S & D offers really great rebates for AAA members.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      Great tip on the AAA discount (there are MANY discounts at the Swan & Dolphin, for those reading)!

    • Staci says:

      January at AAA in Kansas is Disney month and you can get up to 30% off of packages when you go through the travel agency this month. I’m not sure if it’s the same elsewhere. You might call and ask.

      • Brittany says:

        I’m going on my first disney trip as an adult in June and have been reading this site everyday. I compared the price of my vacation with my fiance with Disney directly and AAA. In booking with AAA I’m saving almost $600! Shop around before you book!

  5. Mark D. says:

    I thought restaurant.com didn’t have GC for the Swan and Dolphin anymore.

    If you do end up getting these, you can often get them for $2 instead of $10 at one of their 80% off sales.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      Did they stop doing them? That would stink. I’ve used the 80% off sales for other (local) restaurants, but never for S&D.

      • Stephanie says:

        Unfortunately, restaurant.com does not carry these any more. At least I couldn’t find them. They also don’t have the certificates for House of Blues either. Darn!

  6. Travis Karcher says:

    Something not mentioned in the “pros”for staying at an on property hotel is that you save by not paying for parking at the parks.

    • Travis Karcher says:

      If you use the on site transportation (bus, monorail, or boat.)

    • Sofie says:

      Hi, im coming from the UK to stay with my friend who is a cast member. A) is parking free if you stay at the all star resort? b) I am either going to rent a car for a couple of days to visit miami and orlando or will i need it for longer (is disney transportation reliable?) Thanks,Sofie.

      • Jodi says:

        Yes, parking is free if you are staying at a WDW resort.

        Everyone’s perception of “reliable” is different. I think it is reliable, but it has it’s limitations. It certainly saves $$ but might not save time. Hope that helps.

  7. Mandy says:

    Travel Agents can use pin codes, we just can’t create or find them as they’re sent directly to the guests(wasn’t sure what you meant up there). I’m an agent and I use them all of the time. We even have guests who book a Magic Your Way package, get a pin code later, and apply it. Always book with an agent! :)

    • Kristin says:

      My travel agent just calls and asks if there are any pin codes available for me to use. They will tell you. Once she found one (unfortunately not for dates we wanted) in which we had no idea had been sent (we never received it).

  8. Lois Brody says:

    If you are staying onsite is it free to park at the Parks also, rather than using the bus service? Also, is it free to park at the various hotels (not a registered guest) to check them out for next time?

    • Jodi says:

      Yes, I have done this. They have been really nice about it too. One that I recommend is Sheraton Lake Buena Vista Resort, which has an awesome pool!

      If you are staying on-site, parking is free. Thye give you a paper to place on your dashboard & this allows you to park for free at the parks.

  9. Sara says:

    Not a money saver at WDW per se, but we recently paid for our entire trip buying gift cards at the grocery store and got free gas. Literally filled up three times for free. That saved us several hundred dollars that we just put right back into the Disney trip fund. I had a ton one luck with my 10 year old last year by giving her a gift card and told her she could get what she wanted, but when it was gone, she was done spending money. She was quite the frugal shopper and actually cashed out her last few dollars when we were about to get on the Magical Express in the resort gift shop on our way home. Doing that again this year for sure!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Sara,
      where were you able to ultimately use the gift cards that you purchased?
      I’m trying to plan a trip as inexpensive as possible and thought your post was great idea.
      I understand buying the gift cards and getting fuel points towards gas at that specific store right? And then using the actual gift cards where? I guess my question is, does WDW accept them as payment on site?

  10. Meghan S says:

    Another tip is Disney offers Scrip which most schools offer as well. We pay tuition for my sons schooling and disney offers 2% back. This was a double dip for us. We purchased the gift cards to pay and had some schooling paid for.

    • Tom Bricker says:

      Awesome tip! Double-dipping on gift cards and various other payment arrangements is a great way to save, too. Every little bit helps!

  11. Samantha W says:

    Do you know if the pin codes expire? I’ve recently gotten 1 or 2 in emails and am going to plan a trip in January. Great tips!

  12. Becky says:

    I thought I knew every money-saving tip for Disney, but there are two or three here that I missed or forgot about… Thanks!

  13. Becky says:

    I thought I knew every money-saving tip for Disney, but there are two or three here that I missed or forgot about…

    Also look to see if your employer is part of TicketsAtWork.com. They offer multiple day tickets with add-on days free (like a 5-day park hopper for the price of a 3-day)!

  14. Mandi says:

    The best advice by far is ordering off of the kids Menu…..the portions are, yes, smaller…..but only slightly! Plus with the kids meals you get a side, such as fries with your burger, and cookies/grapes and a small drink….all for $2-3 less than buying the adult burger on its own (forget the fries, drink, etc). We are a military family so we buy everything piecemeal and stay at Shades of Green, I.e. no Dining Plan, and this is invaluable when trying to Disney Dine on a Dime!

  15. Linda says:

    We are taking the family , 1st time to Disney. We rented a large home, but are confused on parking situations, heard it is costly. Are there places we can catch a shuttle and ride to Disney that way?

  16. Jeana says:

    The 1st time I went to Disney I was so lost. There is so much to know about the property and I got a bunch of guide book but seriously their “money saving” tips were a total rip! This last time my friend gave me this ebook by an ex-Disney employee about how to save money and I have to say it really did save me money. Check it out its a good read on all things Disney
    http://tinyurl.com/brqbufv

  17. Rob says:

    I am confused about the savings with the “no expiration” tickets. They are very expensive and for comparison, I calculated the price per day for 2 adults and 2 children on 4 day MYW passes that DO expire against 10 day MYW passes with no expiration. (Undercover Tourist prices from 6/10/13)

    My findings:

    4 day passes – 2x$268.64 + 2x$251.25 = $1093.78 = $259.95/day

    10 day “no expire” passes – 2x$606.95 + 2x$591.95 = $2397.80 = $239.78/day

    The savings were a little better versus the 3 day passes which came to $329.93/day, but even worse versus the 5 day passes which came to $209.16/day.

    In the BEST case savings scenario here (versus the 3 day pass), the no-expiration passes save a total of approximately $90/day. However, one would need to invest quite a lot more up front (toward future vacations) to get this savings. Further, if I intend to come in for at least 4 days on our visits (which I certainly do) the savings drops to only $20 per day, and still with a much higher up front cost.

    My point here is not to debate, but rather to see if there is something I’m missing. I am ALWAYS for good deals and savings, but I’m just not understanding the economics here of purchasing 10 days worth of the the no-expire tickets to save very little in the long run for a few 3-4 day trips to Disney World spread out over 3 years or so.

    Any help?

    • Tom Bricker says:

      The key thing you’re missing is price increases. Buying a 10-day no expiration now guards against the inevitable yearly price increase. Of course, as you point out, the trade-off is having those funds tied up.

      To give you an idea of how significant that price increase can be (and thus how big the savings can be), check out this chart on AllEars: http://allears.net/tix/MYWhistory.htm

      Hope that helps!

      • Rob says:

        Thanks… I think you must have been writing this reply as I was writing my more recent post :-)

    • Rob says:

      I think I’m getting closer to understanding… when you buy the “water parks and more” tickets (with no expiration), the price only increases by around $250 over the no-expiration MYW base tickets, but effectively gives you 10 additional days of play since the 10 “fun” days at the water parks don’t count against your theme park entrances… and thus substantially decreasing your price per day – Assuming you don’t go into the theme parks on the days that you go to the water parks.

      Is this correct? And if so, it sounds like you didn’t go use the water park tickets as frequently as the theme park tickets. Would you ultimately/eventually just end up never using some of the water park tickets?

  18. Anel says:

    Hi, we are planning our vacation to WDW for Sept 2014. If we book a Disney Resort through priceline could we still get the dining plan for free? or Would we have to book directly through Disney to get that special offer?

    thanks

  19. Nate says:

    Tom, I clicked on the link just above the third picture (the link that brings you to the article that you wrote for TouringPlans.com that gives you tips on how you can increase your chances of receiving a PIN code).

    In that article, you mention how you have a Cast Member friend book your tickets for you. Is there some huge discount that they get or are you using one of their guests passes?

    I’m curious because my wife and I are heading down to WDW next month. We, too, have a Cast Member friend and are using her passes for some days, but she does not have enough for all the days we will be there. Can we save money by buying the rest of the tickets through her?

    • Tom Bricker says:

      If it says tickets, it should say “hotel.” We never have had a Cast Member purchase tickets for us…just book hotel rooms.

      • Nate says:

        OK. Thanks for the clarification.

      • Nate says:

        You know, I just re-read it and it doesn’t mention anything about tickets. I must’ve just have tickets on the brain. My mistake!

      • George F says:

        I have a friend who is a Space Mountain Tech. He gets me 40% off hotels and employee discounts on park tickets are cheaper than Undercover tourist.

  20. Tammeka says:

    Hi Tom I’m going on a disney cruise on 7/5/13 and then staying at disney AOA for three days. I have a party of nine including myself going and purchased the magic ur way plan with a 2 day park hopper & deluxe dining plan. Can u give me some money saving tips & tell me the best way to get the full value of my trip. The people in my family are small but eat a lot with the exception of the 4& 6 year old. Should I down grade the dining plan? This is our first time at Disney and did not know planning would be so stressful.

  21. Marissa says:

    One thing we did last year in our first Disney trip was buy souvenirs at Walmart instead of WDW. It was so much cheaper and we bought for multiple family members!

  22. Dr Mickelson says:

    This website was… how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I’ve found something that helped
    me. Thanks!

  23. Cheri says:

    My rule with my kids is If We Can Get It (or just like it) At Walmart we are not buying it in Disney. All I have read the last couple months is how hard it is to buy Frozen items down there, as its hard to get any anywhere. I have bought things for my daughter and bringing them to give out to her throughout our trip.

  24. Joshua says:

    Go to disney during September January. And early December to save money on the fee of going to disney

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