Saving Money on Disney Family Vacations

by Adrienne Krock, contributing 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.

Disney stores offer a plethora of opportunities for guests to spend their vacation dollars. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix.

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!

It's your turn—keep the discussion flowing!

Visit the Parenting in the Parks forum on our MousePad discussion board, and share your opinions about this topic or many others, or send your suggestions via e-mail. Reader-submitted tips might be used in a future article, and you might be selected to participate in an upcoming panel discussion!



  1. By josephfive

    I think the biggest tip is that the food portions are really large and that when you eat well, you tend to feel satisfied longer. Our favorites are Rancho del Zocalo (the 1/2 chicken plate) and French Market (chicken add extra fruit or salad). We could easily share plates and have plenty of food.

  2. By 3Princesses1Prince

    One thing we learned when our kids were all part of the "under 9" crowd was that sharing an adult meal at counter service was cheaper than getting them multiple kids meals. We also bring sandwich baggies to split up things like popcorn. We also steer clear of going crazy with souvenirs. The kids can pick out a new pin for their lanyard and get one other item (price limit varies depending on how often we are visiting, time of year, when the next trip will be).

  3. By GusMan

    Quote Originally Posted by 3Princesses1Prince View Post
    We also steer clear of going crazy with souvenirs. The kids can pick out a new pin for their lanyard and get one other item (price limit varies depending on how often we are visiting, time of year, when the next trip will be).

    One trend that we are seeing in our family is that we tend to buy less now that we have gone so many times. Sure, I always look for a cool watch, a Pandora charm, something with Goofy for my daughter, and Lego for my son, but other than that, we would rather spend time and money trying new things. (Characters in Flight, new dining experience, etc...)

  4. By bumblebeeonarose

    I buy the kids T-shirts through regular stores like Wal-Mart or Children's Place before the trip so we don't have to pay the premium price at the parks. I have also bought pins, lanyards, and signature books offline before the trip too. We use the Disney Visa points to pay for all of our food, which is very nice. I book my hotel as far in advance as I can, and always look for deals.

  5. By DisneyGator

    One thing I try not to say when planning a Disney trip is "I deserve better". I have to beat myself into check before I start spending money on the DL hotel or some other pricey hotel with awesome waterslides. I know I have a budget, so I get the most hotel, most ticket, and most food out of that budget. And having a budget helps me realize that because I didn't blow all our savings on this trip, I can have a "next" trip sooner rather than later.

    The Disney Visa is a big help, too. I put all of our bills and even put work expenditures on it. It adds up!

  6. By Mermaid

    Quote Originally Posted by 3Princesses1Prince View Post
    One thing we learned when our kids were all part of the "under 9" crowd was that sharing an adult meal at counter service was cheaper than getting them multiple kids meals. .

    This is a great tip and one I am going to try to use next time. Thank you!

  7. By davidgra

    Our family decided that the way to go for us was to invest in the DVC. It was, of course, a huge investment up front, but we did it at a time we could afford it, and it's paid off ever since. Our yearly costs for maintenance fees are WELL below what we'd need to stay in similar accommodations; we generally get a one-bedroom or two-bedroom DVC villa on each trip, so everyone has adequate space, and it allows us to have enough bathrooms to make getting ready in the mornings a painless process. The washer/driers in DVC villas also helps us cut down on what we need to bring with us, and having a full kitchen means we can eat breakfast in the room and save on the cost of at least one meal per day.

    DVC also gives us a pretty significant discount on our annual passes; we tend to make three trips per year to WDW, so annual passes pay for themselves, especially with the $150-per-person discount from the DVC. With annual passes, we don't worry about maximizing our days inside the theme parks, and we feel free to come and go as we like, and also spend time doing other things.

    Staying on property means we don't necessarily need a rental car, too. We almost always split meals, so table-service meals tend to be more reasonable. We get Tables in Wonderland, so we save 20% on most of our table-service meals; it's not really a huge discount, but it covers the tip, so you are saving some money there. The DVC and annual pass discounts on merchandise are nothing to sneeze at, either.

    All told, once we've paid for our yearly maintenance fees on the DVC membership, and the annual passes are purchased, we feel like we're almost going to WDW for free. We often use frequent-flyer miles for airfare, so meals become the main cost, along with some souvenirs and clothing.

  8. By GusMan

    I wanted to mention DVC as well, but it would have been a long submission.

    I have to agree that it is a way to save big on resort accommodations... but people who look into becoming a member should do so asking a ton of questions. I see so many people go into it then disappointed because of a reason that would have been avoided if they would have read the fine print.

    Its a commitment to buy in, but after your membership is paid off, you pay annual fees which in most cases equates to paying value resort money for Deluxe DVC resort accommodations.

    We broken even with our membership after 5 years. Now, its all savings.

  9. By adriennek

    We bring refillable water bottles - Nalgene, Camelbak, Insulated, etc. We either clip them with caribiners or S-biners to our backpacks or belts. We have found that between restaurants and water fountains, we can regularly fill them up during the day. We waste less trash and we spend less money than if we bought bottled water. Plus we have big openings that we can fill with ice - I'm all about the cold water. We rarely drink soda any more, also, which is another savings.

  10. By GusMan

    Caribiners and s-biners can be your friend!!
    Not only can they be used to hook a water bottle, they can be used to tote small bags and even create a way to protect your camera from being dropped.
    ie: I have a camera case that has a neck strap. I attach a caribiner to the camera strap and also to the neck strap. I can then take the camera out of the case and use it normally with the case/strap still around my neck. If it slips out of my hand, it gets caught by the case.

    Sometimes keeping things from breaking is a way to save money too.

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