Saving Money on Disney Family Vacationsby Adrienne Krock, staff writer
The Disney resorts provide guests with premium vacation experiences. However, with premium experience often comes a premium price. Many visitors carefully plan their vacation budgets and diligently save their pennies to make the magic happen for their families. This week we asked our Parenting Panel: How do you save money and cut costs on your Disney destination vacations?
Chris Salata, also known as GusMan, is a Disney-inspired author and photographer, and loves to help people get the most out of their Disney vacation. Chris writes:
When my wife and I started to plan out our first Disney trip, I was trying to do it on the cheap. I didn't want to stay on site and I wanted to keep costs at bay. I knew things were going to be expensive, but I soon found out through the next few trips that there are ways to keep costs down without sacrificing any of the magic.
Dining costs can be significant at the Disney Parks. At the same time, I also consider dining at Disney to be a part of the fun and should be planned for accordingly. We soon found out that portions are rather large, even at counter-service eateries, and splitting dishes ended up being an option. Even while dining at some of Disney's more upscale establishments, such as the California Grill, my wife and daughter splits an appetizer and a main course without an issue. At the same time, my son orders off the kids menu many of the times, or I will split a meal with him as well. In cases like this, its all about portioning and sometimes larger meals slow you down. The only time where splitting meals is not available is when you dine at a buffet or family style restaurant.
Drinking enough fluids throughout the day is very important regardless of what time of year you visit. With bottled water or soda being rather expensive, we opt to bring in our own water bottles from our room and refill them with water throughout the day. While there are many water fountains available, we simply ask for a cup of ice water from any of the counter service eateries. They do not charge for this and you do not have to buy anything else. We fill our bottles and go about our way.
Snacks or light meals can help stretch your food budget. We pack snacks that won't melt in the heat, like nuts, granola bars, or homemade trail mixes. Even the small single-serving boxes of cereal can act as both a snack or a quick in-room breakfast. The nice part about bringing them along from home is that if you pack them right, as you eat the food, you open up room in your luggage for in-park purchases.
Transportation is a major cost in any vacation. While you can snag some good deals on occasion from your favorite airline, consider extending your trip an extra day or two by driving to the resort. I know that this may be difficult to do with young children but I found out that by having a bit more time than money, we take the opportunity to enjoy the journey. We also take advantage of the route and see family and friends during our drives, which makes the commute a lot more purposeful. To help cut costs even more, I have a credit card associated with our favorite hotel chain and use the points to pay for our “layovers” to and from Disney.
Annual Passes, when done right, can net you two trips easily if you tend to take vacation around the same time each year. Just make your first trip with the passes a bit later than your plans for the following year. We've done this the past several years and we can easily get in two week long summer trips with the same annual pass. This brings down the average cost per day dramatically.
Having a Disney Visa card earns you rewards that you can use for incidentals or even major parts of your trip. Over time, use of reward points can really help save a lot of money. If you use the card as a part of being a cashless household and pay it off every month, it is like getting free money, and sometimes enough to pay for most of your food, tickets, or that something special at a shop.
Mary Kraemer is an avid Disney fan and a co-owner at EscapadeAdventures, who loves to travel with her husband and children to Disney destinations as often as possible. Mary writes:
When our kids were little, we averaged four visits to the Disneyland Resort per year, and we made the conscious decision to save money wherever we could so that we could afford this travel choice.
The first decision was where to stay. If we stayed at one of the Disney hotels, it would be really excellent, but we knew that it would bite substantially into our budget, so we made the choice to stay at a Good Neighbor hotel across the street on Harbor Boulevard. At a more reasonably priced hotel, we felt more at ease with planning multiple long weekends at Disneyland.
Another decision we made was transportation. We live about 400 miles away from Disneyland, so it’s a considerable amount of time to drive each way. There were some trips where we flew, but that also required a rental minivan, which was an added expense. After one flight that was delayed by several hours, we realized that the amount of time we’d spent getting to the airport before the flight, waiting, and then picking up luggage and driving to Disneyland did not really save us any time. After that, we nearly always drove, and we’d set up the ‘inflight entertainment’ with DVDs, which kept the kids happy as the miles rolled by. We also could pack snacks and other foods, so we were equipped for the road trip as well as our time in the hotel.
Back then, we pack a large package of frozen tamales in the cooler (which did double-duty as an ice pack), which we’d heat in the microwave for dinner. We’d also take plates and plasticware, and take either coffeecake or cereals so we could have breakfast in the room. There were some trips when we were stretching the budget by packing lunches, stowing them in the Disneyland lockers, and eating in the picnic area just outside the gates. These simple little things really helped save money, and we were happy to have more days at the parks because of it. We also would buy a pack of water, so we’d have our own water bottles for each day in the parks; sometimes our spare water bottles were stowed in the locker so we didn’t have to carry so much all day.
I have a Disney Visa card, and I’d save my reward points to spend at the parks, usually for dinners or a treat, such as an ice cream cone on Main Street, U.S.A. We usually felt that one sit-down meal per day was very adequate (we were there to go on rides and have fun, not sit around eating!).
At night, there are a zillion enticing glowing toys, all with a pretty high price tag. We would buy glow bracelets or sticks in bulk before the trip and take them with us. You can make a lot of friends by handing out glow bracelets while sitting around for a parade or the fireworks. And this kept my kids happy, too.
We’re not big shoppers, so it’s easy for us to stay out of the stores. We allowed each child to pick one thing on the trip, and usually that purchase needed to wait until the morning that we were about to drive home. There was never a problem with whining about “I want thaaaaatttttt” and they were careful in their selection process. Sometimes, we would buy a new movie in one of the shops, and then watch it in the car on the drive home.
Lisa is a married, stay-at-home mom of Joey (5) and Matthew (2). She has been a Disneyland annual passholder since 2002, and has made several trips to Walt Disney World, as well. Lisa writes:
Disney vacations can certainly cost a lot, and it adds up fast. As Disneyland annual passholders, we try to watch how much we spend since we go so often. It is amazing how much you can spend each time you go! (Churros cost how much now?)
The first thing I can recommend, especially to annual passholders, is to look into the Disney Visa credit card. We almost always use rewards points for lunch or dinner when we go to the parks, so food is rarely out of pocket. I prefer to put most of my purchases on my card instead of using a debit card or cash for security reasons, so our points add up fast. We even pay the $49 annual fee to have the Premier cards, and we get 2 percent rewards on groceries, gas, restaurants, and Disney retailers.
I typically bring snacks for us when we go to Disneyland, so we aren’t tempted to buy anything other than lunch or dinner. I also try to bring a bottle of water so we don’t have to buy any there. Or, if I do buy a bottle, we save it and refill it at a drinking fountain so we don’t have to buy new bottles all day long. Also, any of the food service places will give you a cup of ice water if you just ask. I have refilled our water bottle that way by asking them for a couple of water cups.
We went to the Walt Disney World Resort twice last year. Our second trip was a very low-budget trip, since it really was unplanned. We had been saving for a while for a trip in May, so when it was time to book it, I looked into the option of upgrading our Disneyland annual passes to Premier Passports to include the Florida parks. We figured it saved us about $300 to upgrade than to buy nine days worth of tickets to the parks. We also ended up getting the passholder rates for our hotel and merchandise.
After we got back from our trip in May, my husband and I looked at each other and said, “Well now our passes to WDW are good until the end of the year. We should go back.” Since it had taken us so long to save for our first trip, we tried to do the second as cheaply as possible. We flew Southwest, and had to change planes instead of flying non-stop. We stayed at Disney's All-Star Movies Resort instead of Disney's Port Orleans Riverside Resort(and although I LOVE Riverside, I must say, the All-Star Resort worked out just fine. For the amount of time you actually spend at the hotel, pricier isn’t always better). We got the Tables in Wonderland card to save on food, and I wished that I had gotten it on our first trip. We ate at the hotel in the morning, quick service for lunch, and occasionally at a sit down restaurant for dinner. Our second trip cost almost half as much as our first, and we still had a great time!
There are lots of ways to cut costs on Disney trips. And you can still enjoy yourself without spending a ton of money.
Sheena also known as Mermaid, teaches first grade in Arizona where she lives with her husband and two children, Matthew (4) and Katie (3). She visits the Disneyland Resort as often as she can and has passed on her love of the parks to her little Mouseketeers. Sheena writes:
Save money? At a Disney park? Say what? We use a few minor money-saving tricks, such as bringing snacks, soda and water for our hotel room and cooking in our Disney Vacation Club Villa on longer vacations, but I am much better at saving money for our Disney vacations than scrimping once the fun has started. I like to get as much of the trip paid for with "found money" as possible. A few ways I do this are:
Online Yard Sales: I participate in a few yard sale groups on Facebook. They are generally called "swip swap *insert your city here*". I am in a larger kids-only group where people only sell children's items and than a more local general group that services a few square miles around my home. I almost always post on the smaller one first, because I have a lot less no shows from people who live nearby. But, because that group is smaller, sometimes things don't sell and then I post to the larger citywide kids group. I love this. I set my own price and it is very little work. If the item is under $20, I just set it outside in the morning and they buyer picks it up and leaves the money under the door mat. Over $20, I like to meet the person and get the money in my hand. Because I can check out their Facebook profile, I feel better about giving strangers my address, but if you don't, plenty of people meet at the mall or in a local parking lot. I make about $40 a month selling things this way on Facebook and all this money goes into our trip fund.
Found Money: When we get money from holidays, work bonuses, essential oil commission checks, rebates etc, we also put this money into the trip fund. This varies a lot, but I would say this adds up to a few hundred dollars a year.
Gift Cards: As a teacher, I get a fair number of gift cards as gifts. I always enjoy these and because my families know I always have a Disney trip on the horizon, I get Disney Gift cards often. Any gift cards that I can save for vacations, I do. This includes Visa gift card, Starbucks, convenience store cards and Target cards.
Disney Visa CardL There is a lot of talk that this credit card does not have the best rewards rate out there. This is true. But- I like knowing all my rewards will be spent in a way I enjoy- vacationing at a Disney destination. In addition to my day to day expenses, we put large purchases on the Disney Visa to accumulate rewards as quickly as possible. We have done extensive remodeling in the last two years and those projects really helped earn a lot of reward dollars. I will miss those now that we are done remodeling. Before our trip to the Disney's Aulani Resort in Hawaii last year, I had about $350 rewards dollars saved up—enough for me to justify a cabana one day. I cash in the rewards about once a year and generally earn about $150 a year.
Spending$100 here and a $100 there adds up at vacation time. We use this money to pay for our souvenirs and meals and it generally covers it. With that covered, the financial sting of a Disney vacation is lessened and we all have a wonderful time without having to worry (too much) about the bill at the end of the trip!
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