Travel: A trip to Disney need not break the bank

My family recently went on a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando. We decided to stay at a moderately-priced Disney World resort and purchase their meal plan, but we also considered more budget-friendly options.

It is easy to spend several thousand dollars on a family-of-four trip to Disney, but you don’t have to. The three biggest expenses are tickets, food, and lodging, but there are also souvenirs and miscellaneous expenses that pad the final bill.

Pandora Floating Mountains Web
The floating mountains of Pandora are a new feature to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The attention to detail is stunning in this the recreation of the landmark from the movie Avatar. Photo by Doug Deal.

The one required element is the tickets to the parks. A one-day pass to any of the four major Walt Disney World parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios) will run you between $100-$140 depending on the season, day-of-the-week, and any holidays that may fall on or near your desired date.

Buying tickets for additional days in the parks, to total 2-4 days, reduces the per-day ticket price a little, but the final price is still around $100 per day, per person. Beyond 4 days, the price for additional days in the Disney World parks is nearly free, as each extra day may only cost $10-$20 more per ticket.

For example, four days of tickets for a family of four would cost $1,520, which is a little under $100 for each of the tickets. Extending that to a whole week (seven days) of tickets is only $1,660, which comes out to about $60 per person per ticket.

Walt Disney World offers a feature called the “park hopper pass” which adds an extra cost to daily ticket prices. The park hopper allows you to purchase a ticket which can be used at any of the four parks on the same day. Your family can start the morning in the Magic Kingdom, then travel to Epcot for lunch, and spend the evening at Animal Kingdom, using a park hopper. If you elected to add the park hopper pass to seven-day tickets for your family of four people, the cost of the seven days of tickets increases to $1,960.

Food is an expense where you can save a lot of money by planning your meals. If you are stuck in the park, food prices are astronomical. It is common to pay $4 or more for a drink. Items like a personal pizza or a sandwich can run more than $10.

However, the portions will generally be larger than restaurants outside of the park. If you go to a table service restaurant, it is easy for a family of four to spend more than $100 before tip, but the portions will be huge, and many of the meals can be split among family members. The Disney parks are also quite generous in allowing food and drinks to be brought into the park, which can help to minimize costs.

Disney also offers a meal plan, but if you are looking to save money, it is a bad idea. There are three meal plans, one that includes two quick-service credits and two snacks per day for around $50, one that includes one table service meal, one quick-service and two snack credits per day for around $75, and one that includes three table service meals (can also be used for quick service) and two snack credits per day for around $120.

A quick-service meal is similar to fast food meal; snacks include traditional park foods like popcorn and soft pretzels; and table service meals are sit-down restaurant meals, including several buffets. With the mid-range eating plan, our family felt compelled to eat even when we weren’t hungry, and several meals that could have been split ended up being wasted.

There is a discount for visitors under ten years old, but with four regularly-priced plans, these will run from $1,400 to $3,500 for a week-long stay. This is for food alone, and in order to get a meal plan, you have to stay in a Disney hotel.

I highly recommend against getting the meal plan except under two circumstances: if you like “all inclusive” vacations where you don’t have to worry about paying for something while traveling, or if you can get a package deal where they give you a free meal plan. These are offered from time to time, but you will be paying full price for your hotel in exchange.

The last big piece of the puzzle is lodging. For small groups, Disney has three levels of pricing, value, moderate and deluxe resorts. Depending on the length of stay, season and availability, value resorts can be had for a low as $120 a night, but expect to pay $150 a night. For a week, that can be $940 to $1,050 for lodging. The accommodations are cramped for four people, and they have smaller beds than the other resorts.

Moderate resorts offer a mid-tier room with the option for two queen-sized beds or a king. Some even have an extra bed that comes out of the wall or tucks into a drawer or couch. The best of these for value is probably Port Orleans Riverside/French Quarter. I have seen these rooms on sale for as low as $160 a night, but they normally appear to be $220 a night or more for special rooms with additional amenities. This will add anywhere from $1,120 to $1,540 to the cost of a week-long trip.

Deluxe resorts are a step up from moderate but are a lot more expensive. I have seen these listed for $350-$500 a night. If you are looking to save money, look elsewhere as these run a whopping $2,450 to $3,500 a week.

Another option is to stay at a budget “off property” hotel which could be anywhere from $75-$120 a night. Staying in one of these hotels will reduce the weekly rate to $525-$840, but comes with some disadvantages. The biggest is transportation and parking. Visitors staying in a Disney resort get free parking and rides to all the Disney parks and attractions. If you drove to a park, parking alone could be an additional $25 a day.

Disney also offers package deals that can reduce the total price. The best-valued ones are hotel and ticket packages. The best days to book are when most kids are in school and not around a holiday or school break; for example, mid-September to early November and mid-January through February. The worst times are summer vacation, Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring break.

If you are diligent and book early, you can get a one-week value resort and ticket package for $2,900 in a value resort like Pop Century. If you like camping or have an RV, you can get the same number of tickets with a tent space for $2,500 or an RV spot with full hookups for $2,700.

You will still need food, but bring sandwiches and bottled drinks and the cost is insignificant. Orlando also has every type of restaurant you can imagine, including options at normal restaurant prices.

This may still seem like sticker shock to some, and it is a lot of money, but round-trip airfare to a city like Denver from Atlanta can cost about half of the minimum you could pay for a week at Disney World. Adding a hotel, you would have spent just as much without doing anything else. There are also cheaper options for staying off Disney property and shorter stays that could lower the housing costs.

If you do choose to go to Walt Disney World, I have some additional recommendations to enjoy your stay. The first is to plan on getting to the park early, staying until afternoon, then returning to your hotel for a rest before going back in the evening. Doing this not only gives you a chance to leave the park for lunch on your terms, but also the midday sun in Orlando is brutal, even in winter. It is easy to grow tired and irritable with the crowds and long lines when you are over-heated and exhausted.

The next recommendation is to take two pairs of shoes. Each shoe rubs you in a slightly different way. Changing shoes puts pressure on a different part of your foot and allows some recovery from the pounding of what could be 10 miles of walking a day. If you leave the park in the afternoon, this is a perfect time to change them. Also, if you have an issue with your feet swelling, don’t be shy about using compression socks, as they will give you a couple of extra hours of life.

Lastly, if you eat in the parks, try eating two meals a day. Disney gives large portions, and two meals are more than enough food. If you eat a late combined breakfast and lunch, you can easily make it to an early evening dinner. This has the advantage of avoiding the lines that happen around traditional lunch and dinner. It also reduces the chances of over-eating. Combine this with saving a water bottle and refilling it at drinking fountains to save money on beverages.

Few things are as enjoyable as a trip to Disney with kids of a certain age. It can be expensive, but there are ways to save money so that the debt of the trip does not outlast the memories.

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