A Walt Disney World (WDW) family vacation is a big deal, and like many families we planned it for years. Okay, months. We had books. Lots of books. We visited websites. Daily. We had countdown apps on our phones and desktops. We set aside a family vacation fund to pay for the trip. We thought we had it all figured out. Top of the world, Mickey!
Here’s what we learned — we didn’t allow for everything. Shortly after we made all of the major purchases required for a trip of this magnitude I lost my biggest account at work, roughly 65% of our household income. It was, obviously, unexpected. Did I mention that the major purchases we made were non-refundable?
We had airline tickets, park tickets, and a hotel room bought and paid for, all without a paycheck in sight. The money that we had saved toward the trip now had to go toward bills. Suddenly, our air of anticipation was replaced with the foreboding of fear. For the record, the anticipation was a lot more fun.
Luckily, we had already taken some steps to ensure that our trip was relatively sound, financially speaking. Relative being that we were planning a cross-country family vacation for four to the Walt Disney World Resort, quite possibly a once in a lifetime trip, and some corners couldn’t be cut.
Here’s how we did it:
We were flying from Seattle, which, if you don’t have access to a map, is far from Florida. The average price for most airlines was, generally speaking, very expensive. We saved money on the flight by choosing an overnight (aka “red eye”) option for our trip to Orlando. It actually worked out quite well.
The night of the flight we boarded our plane at 10 p.m. our time, the boys were asleep within the hour and when they woke it was 7 a.m. in Orlando. They never knew what hit them.
Total cost for our family of four to fly round-trip across the country: $1,575 (including taxes, fees, and a travel insurance add-on of $16 per ticket). Could we have flown cheaper? Probably, but not by much, and doing so would undoubtedly have involved stops along the way, which are nice to avoid when traveling with children. Or ever, really.
We also saved money by packing light. We knew that our hotel room had a washer and dryer in it, so we only took a carry-on bag for each of us, and that was it—toothbrushes and swimsuits for all the family! Not having to check bags saved us at least fifty dollars per flight, and that is money better spent elsewhere.
As an added bonus, Disney offers free transportation to and from the airport for guests that are staying at one of the Walt Disney World Resorts (just one of the perks to staying on property). Anyone that has taken a 45 minute shuttle ride from an airport knows how expensive ground transportation can be, both ways, and using Disney’s Magical Express literally saved hundreds of dollars for our family of four.
The Park Tickets
Here’s the thing about buying park tickets at Walt Disney World: The more days you buy the cheaper they are. Yes, the price seems staggering at first glance. Also, at second glance. However, when you factor in what you’re getting for the buck — admission, shows, parades, rides and attractions, not to mention the characters and magic of Disney, well, I’ve paid more for less.
There are many options to consider when purchasing tickets. How many days will you be visiting the parks? Do you want to add on a Disney Dining Plan? Do you want to visit more than one park per day? What about the water parks?
We didn’t care to visit the water parks (the pool in our resort was sufficient for our young children) and we didn’t opt for a meal plan for reasons that I’ll outline later, so we chose the 9-day tickets with the Park Hopper for two adults and two children (that’s ages 3 9 by Disney standards, under 3 are free). The hopper part meant that we could go in and out of all four parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, respectively) on any given day, which we never did. However, we did hit at least two parks every day and the hopper was a good decision for us.
The total cost for four 9-day tickets with Park Hopper (which we bought online): $1,173 (this was in 2010, so prices will vary). We had planned on spending our tenth day at a non-Disney park, but a last minute change in our itinerary kept us at Disney World, and it actually saved us money. We added a tenth day to our ticket plan for an additional $12 and some change. That’s $12 total for the four of us. Yes, as I said earlier, the more days you buy the cheaper it is, and adding another day meant that we each received a one day hopper pass for about $3 per person (retail value of an adult one day hopper pass at WDW at that time was $136).
Some of you might think 10 days at WDW sounds crazy, but we were never at a loss for things to do and we left with a huge list of things that we never had time to experience. Also, when you do the math, one big Disney vacation (including travel) is cheaper than two smaller trips. See, reasonable!
We are members of the Disney Vacation Club (DVC). Basically, it’s a timeshare (but Disney doesn’t use that term), and it is brilliant. My wife and I first purchased our DVC membership about 10 years ago (the day after I proposed to her). We added on to our membership just a few years later. Even before we took our trip to WDW the membership(s) had more than paid for themselves (read my post on the Disney Vacation Club for more information).
We stayed at the Boardwalk Inn and Villas, which is within walking (or boating) distance from Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios (also, if you have the hopper pass you can take a nice stroll through Epcot to catch the monorail). A one-bedroom suite (sleeps four comfortably) with a full kitchen would have cost over $5,000 at that time (according to my own research), but thanks to to DVC we booked the room for no money out of pocket.
I mentioned earlier that we did not choose to utilize a meal plan on our Disney vacation. Since we had a full kitchen (refrigerator, oven, stove, microwave) in our room we decided to use it. The first thing I did upon arrival at our hotel was take a cab to a nearby grocery store where I bought $200 worth of staple food items. I didn’t get anything fancy, but I got food that the kids would eat like sandwich supplies, macaroni and cheese, cereal, juice, and so forth and so on. I also bought some beer and wine, because hey, vacation!
I didn’t buy any treats because those were something we would get in the parks, and everyone knows that churros only taste good straight from the cart. Also, we made a point of eating one meal per day (usually breakfast or lunch as they are generally cheaper, relatively speaking) in the parks so as not to miss any of great dining options that Disney provides (and there are many).
The math on this is a bit blurry, but we have concluded that spending $200 on food and drinks to enjoy in our room saved us about $1,000 had we dined exclusively in the parks. Saving $1,000 makes macaroni and cheese taste fantastic.
And that is how we did Walt Disney World on a budget while loving every minute of it. If you have any tips on making a Disney vacation easier on the wallet please share them in the comment section below.
The entire cost of this trip, and everything outlined above, was paid by us (the Honeas). We did not receive any compensation from Disney. Please note that all prices mentioned are from 2010 and will vary at the time of your trip. Check linked sites for current prices and information.
Read more from Whit Honea at his site Honea Express and the popular group blog DadCentric. You can follow Whit on the Twitter or Pinterest (his opinions are his own and do not reflect those of Babble or most rational people).