If you want to splurge on a bit of luxury for your Walt Disney World vacation but are on a budget–or are simply a frugal tourist who is conscious of value–this list is for you. We cover which resort, dining, and other add-ons are worth the money, as well as some that are not worth it.
We’ll start by quickly dispensing with what isn’t worth your vacation dollars. As is likely obvious from previous posts, we’re not huge on up-charge offerings at Walt Disney World. You won’t find dessert parties, fireworks cruises, or pretty much any special experience on this list. Not because we haven’t done them–but because we have and wouldn’t bother with any of those things again. We also typically don’t recommend paying extra to upgrade room views, nor are we keen on spas or makeovers.
One splurge we really do enjoy is staying Club Level, but even that’s one with which we grapple. As noted in our Guide to Club Level & Concierge Lounges at Disney Worldand some specific reviews, it’s difficult–if not impossible–to justify Club Level at Walt Disney World from an objective, value-for-money perspective. In fact, the exorbitant cost and desire for reasonable alternative splurges is the main motivation for this list.
In our Review of Atrium Club Level at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, several readers left comments requesting a list of more attainable splurges that we recommend. Specifically, ones that offer sufficient value for the cost. That’s what this list is all about, with the operative question for inclusion on this list being, “is the quality of the experience commensurate with the cost?”
With that in mind, we have a variety of great splurges at Walt Disney World at all price points and for guests with pretty much any budget!
Genie+ at Magic Kingdom – Let’s start small. Many of you are stretching your budgets just to make a trip to Walt Disney World happen in the first place. You might already be worried about cascading costs, or not having a memorable trip because you won’t be able to do the things on this list.
Let me stop you right there. Like so many things in life, Walt Disney World is what you make of it. There are so many ways to beat the crowds and have a great time with “only” the base experience. Few things in life and when visiting Walt Disney World are more valuable than knowledge, and that’s free.
With that out of the way, there is one small splurge we typically recommend: Genie+ at Magic Kingdom. Arriving early, staying late, or following the other Best Time-Saving Strategy for Walt Disney World can help you avoid long lines in other parks, but there’s no such fool-proof approach to Magic Kingdom. This is also one case where time is money, and buying Genie+ can mean doing Magic Kingdom for only 1 day instead of 2.
Minnie’s Seasonal Dine – In and of itself, character dining is expensive and is not categorically a worthwhile splurge in all cases. Sure, we love and highly recommend a good pre-park opening breakfast as well as several resort character meals, but most in-park character meals don’t even come close to making this list.
Minnie’s Seasonal Dine is one exception to that. We’re particularly big fans of Minnie’s Holiday Dine at Christmas and Minnie’s Halloween Dine. With the value proposition of both Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party being more and more dubious, these meals are great alternatives. Not only is the food good, but it’s a great chance to get dressed up for the season and take family photos with characters that are likewise in special attire.
Behind the Seeds Tour – I’ll preface this by saying that I’m the wrong person to ask about backstage or VIP tours. We’ve now some from both categories, and Behind the Seeds at Epcot is the only one I’ve loved. (Almost everyone we know has nothing but effusive praise for every Walt Disney World tour they’ve done, so what do I know.)
Irrespective of all that, Behind the Scenes at Epcot is the perfect way to get your feet wet with the world of Disney’s tours. It’s the cheapest tour you can do, offers fun info, and interesting backstage access–all at a price point that feels fair for the duration of the tour.
Upgrading to a Moderate – While we love Pop Century (especially now that it offers Skyliner transportation), there’s definitely something to be said for the resort experience at Walt Disney World, and that doesn’t really kick in until you’ve moved from the Values to the Moderates.
Fortunately, at the Moderate tier, there’s an option for everyone. Want a compact resort layout? Go with Port Orleans French Quarter. Looking for a romantic resort suitable for a honeymoon? Port Orleans Riverside all the way. Want a business-class hotel? Gran Destino Tower at Coronado Springs is your best bet. Prefer something with good transportation, diverse dining, or tropical ambiance? There’s a reason we call Caribbean Beach Resort the “Poly Lite.”
Upgrading to the Lodges – It’s increasingly difficult to justify an upgrade to Deluxe Resorts unless you rent DVC points or manage to score a great discount. Even those aren’t sure things, as DVC availability has become more competitive and general public discounts are rarer, with more exclusions and less availability. The rack rates have gotten so high that even with a 20-30% discount, the prices don’t match the level of service, room quality, etc.
The two exceptions to this are Animal Kingdom Lodge and Wilderness Lodge, which also just so happen to be Walt Disney World’s two least expensive (typically) Deluxe Resorts. They are themed to the hilt and generally offer something you cannot get from a real-world counterpart. Of course, we still go for the best possible deal at both (we try to book the “Value Studio” at Animal Kingdom Lodge whenever possible).
Dining at the Lodges – If staying at the lodges is out of the question, we highly recommend dining at them. This one actually started out as specific restaurant recommendations, but we quickly realized that we enjoy literally every restaurant at both Wilderness Lodge and Animal Kingdom Lodge. So, why not include both for the sake of offering a variety of options at various price points?
Our top recommendation here is to slow down and make an evening of it. Do either on a non-park day, and if you’re going to Wilderness Lodge, take the boat over. Enjoy sunset on the savanna if you’re heading to Animal Kingdom Lodge. Unwind in the lobbies after dinner. There’s no reason not to turn this into a 3-hour, leisurely experience. (As for specific dining recommendations, our favorites are Sanaa at Animal Kingdom Lodge and, for something totally different, Whispering Canyon Cafe at Wilderness Lodge.)
Toledo Steakhouse– This one making the list really illustrates the operative question of the post. Here, it’s important to remember that there’s a huge difference between cheapness and frugality. We are willing to pay for quality and luxury, especially when the value given matches the price paid. In the past, that meant doing and recommending Victoria & Albert’s on rare, special occasions. However, it has become a non-starter for us after the latest price increase.
Instead, we’re turning to a sleeper Signature Restaurant: Toledo at Gran Destino Tower. This is an exceptional date night destination, with an ambitious and fun concept, delicious food, exceptional views, and prices–for the quality of the cuisine–that are not inflated too much by Walt Disney World standards. The fact that Toledo caters heavily to conventioneers plays a huge part in all of this, and will likely ensure that the restaurant maintains its high standards. Toledo is absolutely worth the challenging commute–and the Signature Restaurant we most consider splurge-worthy. (Topolino’s Terrace and Flying Fish are also right up there.)
Sebastian’s Bistro – If Signature Dining is too rich for your blood–or you have small children and it’s simply not suitable for your party–here’s a mid-tier alternative. Sebastian’s Bistro is a sleeper pick, and one that’s easy to access from the Skyliner. Despite that convenient location at Caribbean Beach Resort, this restaurant still flies under the radar of most Walt Disney World fans. The new family style service at Sebastian’s Bistro holds its own and offers exceptional quality on par with traditional table service dining.
It’s arguably the best buffet or family-style meal, right up there with Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Far superior to ‘Ohana, which definitely qualifies as a good splurge that you’ll remember, but not a good value splurge. By contrast, Sebastian’s Bistro offers exceptional value for money. For $35 per person, you’ll have a meal that’s better than the $59 dinner at ‘Ohana.
Booking a 1-night stay at Beach Club for the end of your trip and taking a late flight out on your last day is perfect. Alternatively, you could do that night in the middle of a three-resort trip, with a couple of relaxed resort days to decompress amidst your vacation. It’s worth noting that this is not our favorite Club Level at Walt Disney World, but the “SS Harbor Beach Club Strategy” is your best bet for squeezing every ounce of value out of a Club Level stay.
Disney After Hours – I hesitate to include these paid evening hours for a couple of hours. First, because doing so makes us “part of the problem” of guests willing to pay extra for something that used to be free, and could lead to the further erosion of regular hours. Second, because I don’t totally trust that Walt Disney World won’t oversell these in the future, as has been the case with the Halloween and Christmas parties.
With that said, Disney After Hours offers great opportunities to get a ton done with minimal waits. These are particularly good options if you’re interested in doing the headliners repeatedly, you don’t score the most coveted Genie+ ride reservations, or you have limited vacation time. (Essentially, this is one for people who prioritize their time over their money.)
As with all things, Disney After Hours is not for everyone. The event also is not strictly necessary if you follow one of our Walt Disney World Itineraries and only want to do each popular attraction once per day. However, After Hours is great for guests who want a stress-free way to enjoy the best time of day at Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios (the jury is still out on EPCOT After Hours). That could be said about everything on this list of WDW’s top splurges, though.
Savi’s Workshop – Here’s another one along those same lines, albeit with a value proposition that’s incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to quantity. Sure, there’s the real world cost of a lightsaber like the one you build, but Savi’s is so much more than that.
As you can read in our Is Star Wars Land’s $250 Lightsaber Experience Worth It? review, we were blown away by this. We almost didn’t do it because of the cost, but are very glad we did. For adult Star Wars fans or kids, this is something special that will make a lasting memory. It’s arguably worth it as a splurge or Christmas present. (At half the cost, Droid Depot might seem like a better alternative–it’s not.) It’s tougher to justify with recent price increases, but we still think this is the type of experience that’ll make indelible memories for kids who are Star Wars fans.
That’s it for our list of the best value for money splurges at Walt Disney World. As with pretty much everything WDW-related, your mileage may vary. Some of you will likely find great value in the things we wrote off as “not worth it” at the top of the post, whereas others may disagree with what we think is worth the extra money. Reasonable minds may differ and all that.
One thing that does bear stressing before we close out this article is that no enhancements or up-charges are necessary to have a great trip to Walt Disney World. When it comes to online trip planning and social media, there’s a pervasive sense of FOMO that drives many people to spend on unnecessary experiences. This is exacerbated by certain popular experiences booking up quickly, but that’s less a reflection of quality and demand than it is limited supply and the FOMO machine. (Looking at you, dessert parties!)
It’s easy to fall into this trap, but you should try to avoid it. You could easily drop an extra $5,000 or more on extras and upcharges to “guarantee” a great trip to Walt Disney World…and end up having an inferior experience to someone who didn’t buy any of those things. Spending more creates more pressure, meaning more tension, and leading to a great chance of meltdowns. We see this all of the time.
Regardless of how much you spend or plan, you’re going to miss out on something. That’s the bad news. The good news is that some of the best magical moments at Walt Disney World occur by chance, and no amount of spending or planning can “force” those to happen. In short, spend strategically on splurges to treat yourself here and there, but don’t chase perfection. It’s a fool’s errand, and you can have an amazing trip without spending anything extra.
What are your favorite Walt Disney World splurges? Anything offering great bang for buck that you think we missed? Anything that made the list you feel does not belong? Questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!