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, but we break it down in our Walt Disney World Discounts Comparison post.
If you’re having trouble with this, I highly recommend contacting a fee-free, Authorized Disney Vacation Planner (i.e., 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, contacting a fee-free travel agent is a no brainer.
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, using a “blind” purchase through Hotwire or Priceline can 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.
One app we especially love for booking last minute hotel deals when traveling is Hotel Tonight. There are regularly hotels in the Downtown Disney Resort and the Swan & Dolphin on the app, often at really great prices. The caveat to this is that you have to wait until the last minute. If you’re fine with that (and will have a rental car for your Walt Disney World trip), I highly recommend waiting. I’m guessing many of you like to plan far in advance, but if you can hold off, you’ll definitely be rewarded. Use code TBRICKER1 to save $25 on your first booking, too.
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 (see our Tips for Renting Disney Vacation Club Points post for more info) 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 the best reputation and after-tax prices is typically 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. Determine which tickets will save your party the most money with our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post.
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 on our park tickets 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! It’s easy to have take a 7-day trip to Walt Disney World and only purchase 5-day tickets. There’s a ton of fun stuff to do outside of the theme parks.
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 Disney 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.
Planning a Walt Disney World trip? If you’re interested in learning more about hotels, our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page is a good place to start. For where to eat, try out our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews page. If you want to save money on tickets or determine which type you should get, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at unconventional things you should take on your trip. Once you arrive at the parks, our Walt Disney World “Ride Guides” are great for determining what to do and when to do it. For overviews of all of these topics and so much more, the best place to start is our comprehensive Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide to make the most of your experience!
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!