The Disney Vacation Account quietly launched in December 2013. How quietly? None of the MousePlanet staff had heard of it until last week, when someone noticed it mentioned in the footer of a promotional email from Disney.
Designed to help you save for your upcoming Disney vacation, it is reminiscent of a traditional Christmas club savings account from a local bank or credit union. Automated recurring deposits are made to your vacation account, which you then use to pay for your vacation.
Acknowledging that many users don't know how much to save, the Disney Vacation Account budget estimator works to establish your budget. Once you choose the type of vacation you want to save for (theme park, cruise, Aulani Resort, or Adventures by Disney trip), the system prompts you to set budget amounts for different expense types.
For example, if you choose a theme park option, you are prompted to enter amounts for hotels, admission, dining, shopping, and air transport.
Other than calling out those categories, you get little guidance on what numbers to put into those categories. Some categories do offer help, however. For example, if you need to determine a budget amount for park admission, you click a link that opens a new browser tab to the theme park admissions website. You can then calculate your options, get a total, then return to the Account website browser tab and type that amount into the budgeting tool.
For other categories, however, the process breaks down and provides no help at all. Want to calculate a budget for excursions at the Aulani Resort? A link takes you to the Aulani web page that describes its excursions, but it includes no pricing information at all—so now you have to guess how much to budget.
Considering all of these are Disney websites, it would have been more helpful to actually be able to explore, price, and calculate all from the estimator tool. Having to jump between multiple websites and copy and paste values is a disappointing experience. Another challenge is that the budget you calculate is based on pricing as of today. It does not account for or predict price increases. So be sure to pad your budget appropriately.
Once you define your budget, you can create your account, then specify your destination and travel dates. You also choose the frequency of deposits—weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. From that information, the system calculates the amount of each deposit. Your initial deposit can be as small as $10 using a credit, debit, or Disney gift card. Additional deposits are made via a credit or debit card (there is no direct deposit option from paychecks or bank accounts).
There is no point in having this vacation account unless you actually use those funds for your vacation. Funds can either be applied to an existing reservation or redeemed for Disney gift cards to cover dining, shopping, or entertainment expenses. If you are working with a travel agent, they cannot apply the payments on your behalf—you need to call Disney to do that yourself.
So what are the benefits? This is not a traditional savings account where you gain interest. In fact, Disney holds the funds specifically in an FDIC-protected, noninterest-bearing account. Instead, Disney offers an incentive that for every $1,000 in vacation expenses you pay for using your vacation account, it provides you with a $20 gift card. Basically a 2 percent return, it is better than most savings accounts today. Be warned though that the gift card offer is currently only valid on payments made through the end of 2015. There is no guarantee that this offer will be extended past that date. So if your vacation is in 2016 and you are counting on those gift cards, be warned that they may not be available.
Why is Disney offering this? It locks you in and protects that money from yourself, so the money you need to pay for your vacation is safely tucked away where you cannot easily spend it on something else. It also helps you avoid having to pay for interest charges on your credit card after your trip.
That means that while your account is fully refundable, the account is designed to make the process both inconvenient and slow. You can assume that a refund process will take a few weeks, and refunds are made to the original form of payment—to the credit card or debit card the deposits were made with. If you are in need of immediate funds to fix a car or handle other emergency expenses, making it slow to pull the funds out of the account means you are more likely to look elsewhere, leaving your vacation fund untouched. That's the whole point of this account.
Ultimately, the question boils down to: "Is the Disney Vacation Account for me?" If you want the ease of scheduled deposits with the promise of some bonus gift cards, as well as the knowledge that your vacation funds are building up automatically—and you don't mind the lack of immediate availability of the funds for withdrawal, then it is probably worth exploring. If you prefer flexibility in managing your funds, have no difficulty quickly paying off the hefty post-vacation credit card bill, or want the ability to easily change plans, then you might want to consider other options.