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Disney World on a Budget

Okay, we just got back from Disney World and had a great time. It was all we hoped for--fantastic weather, wonderfully kind and helpful staff, great times on the rides, mind-blowing technology, wholesome fun. It was a wonderful trip and one that we are going to remember for the rest of our lives. 

We had an absolutely amazing time that cost us only about what airline tickets cost for us to fly to see Corinne's family in California. Lots of our savings came from specific decisions we made ahead of time and really worked out in massive savings that surprised even us. All throughout this trip, we saw how a few pieces of key information really helped us have a great time that really wasn't too expensive. We kept telling ourselves, "We've got to post this so other people can hear about it..."

So now that we've been back for about a week, I wanted to get some of our thoughts online while they are still fresh in our memories. If you're considering a trip to Disney, hopefully these tips might save you a penny or two, or twenty thousand (literally).

First, let's go over the places where you can (or will) spend money at Disney:

1) There's the ticket price just to walk into the place that's going to set you back about $80 bucks each (before quantity discounts, which we'll talk about in a minute)
2) You can rent strollers for $10 bucks a day
3) There's the "Hoop De Review" show at Fort Wilderness for about $200-250 for a family of 5
4) Table service restaurants are about $25 per entrée
5) Counter service restaurants are about $15 per entrée
6) Souvenirs -- in the parks they are relatively standard from shop to shop- -hats go for about $19-24, t-shirts go from $14 to $35. Those benchmarks will give you an idea of what you'll pay for coasters or playing cards or jewelry, etc.

So, here's how we saved huge amounts of money on our trip:

1) Book through AAA - if you are planning on going to Disney World, and don't have a AAA membership, get it and then book your trip through them. Getting a membership just for the trip would pay for itself in both cost savings as well as time savings (we'll get to the time in a minute). They also included some coupons and free Disney luggage tags which made great souvenirs for the kids. 

Camp at Fort Wilderness - this alone literally saved us thousands of dollars. Through AAA, our campsite was about $40 per night. Compare that with a minimum rate of $240 in the resorts, and you can see how the savings adds up. But not only is this cheaper, but it is incredibly fun!!! We camped in a tent, but a pop-up camper would get the same rate. 

Camping at Fort Wilderness is a bit like camping in a happiness factory; everyone there was having a great time. The campground has a huge pool with a great zero-depth playground pool for the kids, a twisting water slide that we all loved, crafts in the morning (a bit cheesy, but the kids liked them), a great campstore that sold just enough stuff to keep you from running off grounds too often, and best of all, campfire singalongs and movies every evening with Chip and Dale. These campfire singalongs were terrific--the cowboys that led them seemed like the real-deal. The songs ranged from cowboy bumba-deda-deda-bum songs to Hokey Pokey songs, to pretty ballads that kind of made you tear up. It was great. Plus there was a campfire where you could bring your own marshmallows or hot dogs for roasting.

The "Comfort Station" facilities were also super-clean, had nice showers and a coin-op laundry facility which is fantastic if you are there for longer (like we were). One of the things you definitely want to consider if you have the ability, is bringing bikes. As the campground is large, getting around the campground (like to the pool) can be a lot of walking or time consuming as you wait for the shuttle. With that being said, we didn't bring ours and although it was fine, regretted that decision.

Lastly, Fort Wilderness seems to have the quickest access to Magic Kingdom because you're not having to take the Monorail--you just hop on the ferry and cross the lake, and the ferry is an event itself. Another major benefit of staying at Fort Wilderness is that you get all the benefits of being on a Disney Resort--for instance, the parks have resort patron's only hours that are really cool, the ride wait times drop to almost nothing during those hours. For what it's worth, in the camping area, we highly recommend site 2024 or 2026--they are the largest sites that allow for the most privacy (if there is a fault to the camping area, its' that the sites are relatively close together. Yet, considering where you are, the sites were nicer than many other campgrounds we've stayed at over the years). 

3) Skip the "Public Transportation" and drive -- except for Magic Kingdom, all the other parks are best accessed using your car, GPS, and using the trusty Diamond Parking Pass from AAA (see below). Doing your own driving will save you hours over the course of your stay. Likewise, having your car by the theme park entrance also allows you to store a cooler/food that you can hit up halfway through the day. We'd also recommend bringing along a GPS. While it is true that there are very good directional signs all over the park's road systems, but the GPS got us from Point A to Point B so easily, it was great. I could easily imagine a tense ride as a family it trying to get to a park early, and getting lost on the roads. Do make sure you ride the monorail, the kids loved the break of sitting down and it was fun to see the park from a different angle.

4) Get the Diamond Parking Pass from AAA - this was a HUGE part of our overall costs savings. Not only is it a free parking pass, but Diamond Parking is super-close parking that is basically the same place as the Handicapped parking. Not only is it really cool to simply park and walk right into the park, but being so close to the main entrance also allows you to stow stuff (like food/gear) in your car so that you can go back and forth to your car during your stay. Without the Diamond Parking Pass, you're stuck in those incredibly far parking spots that require a tram to access. Another cool feature about Diamond Parking is that you "follow the Green line" (as the attendants will tell you) from the ticket booths, winding past all kinds of cones/barricades right up to the park entrance. Lastly, the Diamond Parking often had different entrances so you also bypass the long lines at the check-in gates. Totally cool all around. One point though, later on I was talking with a AAA Rep near the Daytona Speedway about how great the Diamond Parking Pass was and she mentioned that they are limited in availability, so I'd definitely recommend asking about it when you place your ticket order through AAA. 

5) Book your stay for early/mid October -- in fact, I can't think of a better time to go. All the park employees kept mentioning to us that it was the best time to be there. First, it's the cheapest time to be there for lodging/tickets. Plus, the weather was "cooler". In actuality, it was still in the upper 80s throughout our stay (even into the low 90s). It was warm enough that we were able to want/enjoy the water rides but not so warm that we were dying. There was a couple of times when we were overheating, so I can't really imagine going when it's much hotter. Also, because early/mid October is the slowest time of the year, the lines were relatively minimal. Even then, we still had to wait about an average of 20-30 minutes per ride and once or twice nearly an hour. Even with the "Fast Pass" (which is really great) some rides sold out early in the day. The matter of short lines is not just a matter of convenience put also economics: Why drop a small fortune on higher rate/busier days where you spend your day in lines all day and are only able to go on a few rides? Also, don't forget to look at the park schedule (the concierge has one for all the parks) and check out the hours so you can plan out which park to visit when.

6) Wear small, tactical backpacks -- this is another one of those details where the specific item made all the difference. I and the kids all had small, tactical backpacks that hold water and a few extra things. They are light, not cumbersome, cool (as in temp), and give you the ability to have lunch, soda, snacks, etc. on your back and ready whenever you need. Lots of people had larger school packs, but they looked miserable lugging these hot and heavy packs (even when empty) throughout the park all day. For us, we loaded them up every morning with water and snacks, put 'em on and took off. They were great to have, even after wearing them for 10 hours. Having these small, tactical packs saved us big bucks in drinks/food costs.

7) Bring a Small Fridge -- I have a small refrigerator in my office at church and we brought it along for the trip. It cost me about $50 and we just plugged it in at our site and kept it running the whole time we were there. Except for the constant hassle of sandy gravel getting into it (we only could keep ours directly on the ground) having it there helped us keep a wider range of food without having to buy a lot of ice every day (though we still needed to buy a bag each day for our cooler).

8) Make use of Costco and Walmart -- Both are about 25 minutes from the campground. The GPS and maps say they are pretty close, but when you go through the campground and through traffic, it'll take about 20-25 minutes to get there. So it's definitely not a place you want to go to every day. But having both nearby gave us access to cheap food, cheap gas, and cheap souvenirs (yes, Walmart in Orlando has a great selection of Disney t-shirts, towels, etc., some that I liked even better than the authentic Disney World souvenirs). Plus, a trip off base helps you feel like you are still in the real world. For the cheapest gas and ice, Costco can't be beat.

9) Book your stay for 8 days in the park and 8 nights in the campground -- We spent a lot of time on Disney's website looking a configuration of days in the park/nights in the campground that provided the best bang for the buck. We changed days and nights many times to arrive at 8 days and 8 nights being the best use of cash. The final cost for that 8th day in the park is about $3 PER PERSON! That's an incredible ticket price and I challenge you to find an event so memorable or majestic for such $15 for the whole family. Plus, here's an important side benefit: Many vacationers drop thousands of dollars on their trip and they want to make best use of their trip. To maximize their buck, they wake up early, hit the park's opening and then stay till close. That might work for couples with teens, but it's brutal on little kids. More than once, we saw exasperated parents unable to understand why their 3 year old was crying because they didn't want to stay any longer. We found that the trick to this dilemma is to have 8 days of tickets. All those days allowed us to:

1) casually get ready for the day each morning (we had some nice breakfast times as a family)
2) not have to "close" the park every night 
3) not have to visit every ride on the first day
4) and most importantly--it allowed us to truly enjoy the other features of the resort, such as the pool and campfire sing-alongs. Those other events served as let-off points where when the kids started getting cranky and worn out. It was great to be able to go back to our tent site, swim in the pool, or get set for a campfire and movie. Having 8 days allowed us to be relatively leisurely (afterall, this is Russ Brewer writing, when am I ever really leisurely?) in our time usage. If anything, it helped me not to personally be frustrated with each days efficiency knowing that we had plenty of time to see and do the parks. 

So these tips helped us stave off thousands of dollars in extra costs and impulse purchases. Our family had a wonderful time, and we weren't stressing about the credit card mounting up the whole time.

Lastly, if you're going to Disney World anytime soon, we wish you a great and wonderful time.
Last modified on Monday, 28 February 2011 17:27
Russ Brewer

Russ Brewer

Rescued from the domain of darkness, transferred to the kingdom of the Son. Undershepherd of Grace. Husband of Corinne. Father of three. Chew-toy to Zeke...