As a single mom, I am always looking for ways to stretch a dollar while also maximizing fun.Being a Floridian with a school-age kid, it should come as no surprise that one of our favorite destinations is Walt Disney World, the Happiest Place on Earth. Now I know Disney is not for everyone. The thought of planning months in advance and paying gobs of money to stand in endless lines in the steamy Florida heat is not everyone’s cup of tea. But I have to say that there are few places I’d rather be with Little than on the People Mover in Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland or tearing up as I watch the Finding Nemo show at Animal Kingdom. Though we’ve been to Disney at least 20 times over the past 5 years, for some reason it never gets old. But it ain’t cheap! So how have I managed to make repeat trips, stay on property, and actually enjoy my trips without stressing (too much) about money in the process? Here are my tips for a successful Disney trip on a budget:
Florida resident? Get an annual pass.
I bought annual passes for myself and Little as soon as I realized that they paid for themselves over two weekend trips. After a nominal down payment, Florida residents can spread out their pass payments over 12 months, interest free. So, not only are annual passes cost-effective for repeat visitors, but they give you the flexibility to park-hop (visit multiple parks in one day), take breaks when needed, and experience what you want without stressing about getting your money’s worth. Annual passes include parking (currently $20 per day), and certain passes include PhotoPass, which allows you to download all of the photos taken by cast members and those attraction cameras. If you’re like me and travel as lightly as possible, this can be a great way to capture memories without lugging around a camera. Bonus: You get shopping and restaurant discounts, and a discount on your pass when you renew!
Got children under 3? Get yourself a dining plan, and make reservations for character meals and buffets.
Not only are children under 3 admitted to the parks at no cost, but they are also able to eat of an adult’s plate at mealtime. One of my favorite Disney trips was during Spring Break in grad school, right before Little’s 3rd birthday. We spent a week at the World, splitting our time between Moderate and Value resorts. In that week, we were able to enjoy dinner at ‘Ohana’s (all-you-care-to-eat), breakfast at Crystal Palace (all-you-care-to-eat AND Winnie the Pooh character meal), lunch at Akershus (Princess character meal), and other great restaurants I normally could not afford to visit.
Order from the kid’s menu.
If the dining plan seems out of reach, or just isn’t your cup of tea, don’t overlook ordering from the kid’s menu. Every Disney restaurant has a separate menu for kids that usually goes beyond chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers. As a matter of fact, Little’s meals at some of the nicer restaurants have looked (and tasted) better than my own; and for a fraction of the price. Even if the goal is not to be cost-effective, eating from the kid’s menu will allow you to save room for many of the delicious Disney desserts!
Stay on property at a discount.
Experience has taught me that it pretty much always make more sense to stay on Disney property; however, I NEVER do so at full price. Disneyworld.com consistently offers discounts to pass holders, Florida residents, Disney Vacation Club members, military service members, and the general public. With a little bit of planning, you can save anywhere from 15% to nearly 40% on accommodations; I have stayed at the All Stars (Value resorts) for as little as $65 per night. While you may be able to find a cheaper room off property, staying on property allows you to take advantage of resort transportation, extra magic hours, and resort parking. And if you’re staying on property and flying into Orlando International Airport, you can take advantage of Disney’s Magical Express, which will transport you from the airport to your resort, free of charge. No need to rent a car, or fight traffic in an unfamiliar city! Additionally, as I single mom, it’s much easier to rely on Disney to take me “home” when Little needs a nap, a change of clothes, or a break from the parks.
Invest in Disney gift cards.
I previously mentioned that I like to travel light while at the World. You won’t catch me with anything other than my phone (with the latest version of the Disney app), magic band, ID, and a Disney gift card. Not only does this keep me from getting bogged down with unnecessary stuff, but I also avoid the dreaded bag check lines at each park’s entrance. And because we stay on property, it’s not a big deal to travel back to the room if necessary. Though you can link your credit/debit card to your magic band for purchases, I don’t go this route, as it’s just too easy to make impulse buys without the thought of consequences. Disney gift cards are accepted throughout Disney property, don’t expire, and work the same as cash, with one added benefit: they can be replaced if lost of stolen. Just be sure to keep your original receipt. I also recommend taking a picture of the front and back of your gift card, as you will need the card’s number, which may not be printed on the receipt. Gift cards can also be used to teach money management skills. Little loves to buy her own Disney gift card with her hard-earned money. She does not have to worry about losing cash, can keep track of her balance, and has the option of saving any unused monies for another time. As an added bonus, if you have a Target Red card, you receive 5% off all purchases, including gift cards. In essence, you can buy a $100 Disney gift card for $95. Every little bit helps! Just be sure to pay off the balance before incurring finance charges, or it was all for naught.
I have to admit, I refuse to spend my Disney vacation stressing about money. Though I am sure there are many other ways to practice true frugality at Disney, these have consistently been the most beneficial for me. How do you save money at the Happiest Place on Earth?