Walt Disney World on A Budget

Walt Disney World on A Budget

If you’re hoping to get to Walt Disney World on a budget it may not be as unattainable as you think. In fact we find it’s cheaper than most travel. Here’s our breakdown of each part of your Disney Vacation and what decisions and costs to consider. Grab some paper and a pen, we’re going to show you how we make Disney possible on a tight budget. 

Budgeting for a Disney Vacation

Visiting Walt Disney World can very easily become overwhelmingly expensive if you don’t have a budget in place and don’t take everything into consideration. But it’s also not worth knowing all the tricks if you don’t know how much you need to put aside. So lets start there.

For the purposes of this post we’re going to break this down into several areas;

  • Flying Or Driving
  • On-Site or Off-Site,
  • Purchase a Package or Hotel and Tickets separately,
  • Dining Options and What They Cost,
  • Hidden Expenses
  • Extra Ways to Save Money
  • Even More Ways to Save Money at Disney

After you drill down to see what works for you in each of these areas, then we’ll share some ways to save in each area. Add it all up and you’ll have a pretty accurate budget plan to work with.

Should you Fly or Drive?

Depending on your travel party size, choosing to book flights or rent a car should be a pretty easy decision. Here are the variables that we run these decisions through.

Time: How much time can you commit to this vacation? If you’re up against a tight work schedule that only allows 5 or 7 days, taking 2 of those to drive to and from your home will cost you more than flying, because you’ll be losing precious vacation days sitting in your car. The exception here is if you live within 6 hours driving distance of Disney then driving won’t interfere too much with your vacation.

  • Short Vacation time period 4-6 days? Fly.
  • Longer Vacation 6-12 days? Driving can be considered.

Location: What’s the difference in flight time and drive time? Research your local airport flights to Orlando. We always suggest Southwest first, simply because of the perks and because checking your luggage is free. For us, a flight is about 2 hours from Cleveland to Orlando. Driving there would take 15 hours. We’ve driven down a couple times before, but with flights around 80-120 bucks a person on Spirit and Southwest, we find a better value in just taking the flight.

  • Live within 8 hours driving distance of Disney? Driving can be considered.
  • Live farther than 8 hours drive time? Fly.

Number of People: How many people are in your travel party? Flights can eat up almost your entire travel budget if you’re travelling with more than 6 people.

  • Up to 6 people? Flying can be considered
  • More than 6 people? Driving should be considered.

Luggage: This may seem a mundane concern but if you’re bringing more than the bare minimum, booking a flight where you are charged for luggage, or packing food to offset dining costs, this will affect your costs.

  • One bag per person? Flying can be considered.
  • More than one bag? Driving can be considered

DRIVE: To sum up the above, renting a car will be cheaper IF you 1. Have a longer vacation of 6-12 days 2. Live within 8 hours driving distance 3. Have more than 6 people, 4. Are bringing extra luggage.

Hidden Costs for Renting a Car: Don’t let the average 40 dollar a day price tag fool you.

  • Insurance: Check with your own car insurance company, chances are you have some coverage for rental cars, call and make sure you have enough. It will be cheaper than the extra 35 dollars a day they will tack on automatically at the rental car counter
  • Gas: Calculate your gas cost here.
  • Time: We alluded to this at the beginning. It may not be a bad idea to calculate the cost of your time before choosing to drive.

FLY: In contrast flying will be cheaper IF you 1. Have a shorter vacation of 4-6 days 2. Live farther than 8 hours away 3. Have 6 people or less in your travel party 4. Are bringing one bag per person.

Hidden Costs for Flying: It won’t matter if you got the cheapest ticket if you have extra costs to include per person.

  • Checked Bags: The number of mickey ears we bring usually warrants checked bags. On Southwest you get two bags per person included with your ticket cost. Other airlines will charge between 50-75 dollars per checked bag. So add that in.
  • Airline Seats: Most airlines charge for which seat you pick. Even the cheapest airlines. Depending on where you sit it could be between 12- 60 dollars for a seat per person in addition to your airplane ticket, and luggage cost. Southwest doesn’t charge for seats.
  • Transportation To and From the Airport: If you are not staying on site at the Disney Resorts you will not get access to the Magical Express ( Disney’s free transportation to and from the airport). You can plan to Uber which will be about 30 dollars each way, but definitely check with your offsite hotel to see if they have a free shuttle service. Other transportation services we’ve seen are about 30-40 dollars per person just to get to and from the airport, so Uber would be the more budget-friendly disney transportation option there.

disney resorts staying on site at disney budget resorts

Should You Stay On Disney Property or Off-Site?

We’ve written about the pros and cons of staying on and off site before. And this may be a choice you have some emotional attachment too, so let us clear up the options for you.

Staying On Disney Property Perks

  • Access to the Magical Express ( Transportation to and from the airport for “free”)
  • Luggage check service at the resort (The resort will send your bags along to the airport so you can enjoy your last day of Disney without worrying about the luggage)
  • Access to Laundry Room
  • Access to Dining
  • Rooms that fit up to 6 people
  • Magic Bands, Advanced Dining Reservation Access, and Fast Pass Access
  • Bus transportation to and from the Parks and Disney Springs

Staying Off-Site Property Pros and Cons

  • May be cheaper
  • May have a shuttle to the parks
  • May have a shuttle to the airport
  • You can use your hotel loyalty points
  • Away from the Disney Craziness

If you’re leaning towards a Disney Resort choosing a Value Resort at Walt Disney World will be your cheapest bet. While these can get pretty crowded, they do add a very Disney-esque feeling to your vacation. You can usually score the All-Stars resorts for about 80-125 dollars a night. Value Resorts are All-Stars Sports, Movies or Music. If you move up to the next tier you get the Art of Animation and Pop Century, both Value Plus Resorts and then run between 125- 270 a night. Moderate resorts like Caribbean Beach and Coronado Springs go even higher while the Grand Floridian and The Polynesian, as Deluxe Resorts can be more than 1000 a night.

If you’re leaning towards an Orlando hotel off site, we highly recommend aiming for one near Disney Springs. This will give you access to the Disney busses and the boat to Port Orleans Resort. While the busses do go to the resorts from Disney Springs you can easily transfer from a resort to the parks if your hotel doesn’t have a shuttle. Holiday Inn Express is usually our go-to choice because you get a free continental breakfast, wi-fi and parking. Depending on the season you can expect anything from 60-150 dollars a night off-site for the value hotel chains, depending on location.

Should you Buy a Make Your Way Package or Park Tickets Separately?

Make Your Way Package

Disney takes great pride in selling the Magic Your Way (MYW) resort plus tickets package. If you’re more concerned with convenience than budget, then a MYW package is the way to go. If budget is still a top concern then try combining the resort and tickets options on the Disney site to see if a manageable amount can be reached. The tickets for the parks go down the more days/people you have, so when the numbers are right, this would actually become cheaper than buying tickets outright.

Park Tickets 

If you decide to book a Disney resort, the website will automatically ask you how many tickets it should attach to the reservation. Play with this tool a bit. You may not actually venture into the parks your first day or last day there. Perhaps you’ll fit in a resort day, or rent a car to go the Wizarding World of Harry Potter one day. By tweaking the amount of tickets in that last screen you can see a true cost as opposed to the one with all the tickets you may not use.

If booking an off-site hotel, be sure to check if the hotel has a deal on park ticket. Sometimes its only a 3 or 4 day ticket deal, but sometimes that’s enough depending on your plans. If your hotel doesn’t offer a deal, plan to spend about 100 dollars per person per day. The park hopper is another 50-65 dollars depending on the time of year, so we strongly recommend against adding that option if you’re on a budget. Just plan one park per day. Disney has four parks, so if you go to each of them one time you’re looking at 400 dollars per person in park tickets alone.

port orleans riverside restaurant

How much should you put aside for Dining at Disney?

Disney has several tiers of dining options.We’ll also look at special dining and festival dining options here as well so you can get an accurate budget.

  • Food Carts and Kitchens get you your basic fare like the Disney turkey leg, a mickey pretzel, fruit, etc. These items tend to run less than 10 dollars each, but aren’t really adequate sustenance for a meal.
  • Quick Service is your typical walk-up counter and order meal dining experience. In addition to being found all over the parks, this is also the type of dining that happens at the resort cafeterias on property. Plan on 10-15 dollars a person for a meal. We definitely have our favorites in each park, and all of these restaurants are themed so you’ll still be getting a great Disney dining experience even if you don’t go more expensive than this. You don’t need a reservation for quick service.
  • Table service restaurants will require a reservation. These will be the restaurants that offer the buffets, character dining, fine dining or immersion experiences. Table service ranges per person from 15-35 dollars on the low end. The second tier of table service is 35-65 dollars per person and then 65-85 per person is the higher end. Keep in mind that you’ll have to add an 18% tip to your budget per table service meal. ( But as tips go, truthfully, you can leave as much as is comfortable) If your party is more than 6 people this tip will be applied automatically to your bill.
  • Festival Specialty Foods are offered during the many Epcot festivals throughout the year. If you have a day where you’ll be at Epcot during one of the festivals you can forego any formal dining altogether on that day and just plan on eating around the world showcase. These mini-meals are usually pretty nice portion sizes and run about 5 or 6 dollars each, so depending on what you combine for each meal, your cost of meals for the day may actually be cheaper across all the guests in your travel party.

Our daily Disney dining budget usually includes a breakfast at the less than 10 dollar level ( a yogurt, croissant and coffee), a quick service lunch for 15 dollars and a table service dinner around the 40 dollar a person range. Places like Garden Grill, Boma, Whispering Canyon Cafe and Crystal Palace are usually priced around that dollar mark. Be sure to check the disney site to sort your dining preferences by cost. This plan usually means we budget about 65 dollars per person per day. 80 dollars per person per day if we go for a fancier restaurant.

Tips will need to be added to this cost if you plan on visiting a table service restaurant. If you plan on one each day add another 20-40 dollars to your total food budget each day.

Miscellaneous Vacation Costs at Disney

  • Souvenirs: While you may think the Disney Vacation memories are souvenir enough, we can guarantee you they’re not. To spare yourself the screaming child or pouting teenager who wants another pair of mickey ears they won’t wear ever again except on this vacation, plan for 40 dollars a person. This may feel like a high number, but the ears alone are 25 dollars which will leave 15 dollars for something small, like a mug. Disney sweatshirts are close to 60 and t-shirts run about 25-35. You can set your own limit here, but we do one souvenir per person, which is actually really lovely, because otherwise you just buy everything.
  • Emergencies: I can’t tell you the amount of times we end up needing medicine, or band aids or laundry detergent. You may not think this would be significant enough to budget, but believe me, everything is significant enough. While band aids are 2.50 at the Philharmagic gift shop, the Midol or Alieve is closer to 7 dollars. Add in another 9 dollars for the laundry detergent you need and you will be wondering where the money went. Plan to set aside 20 dollars here for little things in this category. And be sure to pack your own poncho, otherwise you’ll have to plan another 12 dollars per person to buy one at Disney when you get stuck in those Florida storms.
  • Snacks and Treats: We don’t know about you but we can’t say no to Starbucks at Disney and if we’re near Fife and Drum, we’ll be getting an American Dream. Plan 15 dollars per person in this category. For the adults this will cover one coffee and a snack later. To cut costs, you can aim for just 7 dollars per person for one coffee… but that dole whip sure is hard to turn down, so we always allow for 15 per person per day.
  • Extra Transportation: With Disney getting busier during the next few years and in any months leading to openings for Toy Story Land or Star Wars Land the Disney busses will be busy. That said, if you’re toting family, travelling during the rainy season or holidays there will come a time when you’re praying for a taxi, can’t stand to wait 45 minutes for the bus to arrive, or just need to get back to the hotel. Set aside another 20-30 dollars for this category if you think it would give you a little piece of mind.

Ways to Save Money on a Disney Vacation

Buy your vacation during the off-peak periods. While Disney is going to be jam packed for the next few years heading towards the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World, you will have better luck saving money if you go during the off-season.

  • Peak Periods 2018 / Most Expensive Times to Visit Disney
    • Winter Break Feb 16-24
    • Spring/Easter Break Mar 9-Apr  7
    • Memorial Day May 25- 27
    • Summer Vacation May 28- Aug 11
    • Christmas Dec 14- 31
  • Off-Peak Periods 2018 / Least Expensive Times to Visit Disney
    • Jan 2- Feb 10
    • Aug 26- Dec 8

Aim for more weekdays than weekend days in your vacation. This will help save you money on Disney and your flights.

Have at least one Park-Free day. If you’re planning on a budget you’re probably hyper aware that you need to fit all the things into this one vacation. But, if you’re only focused on going to the parks you’re going to miss some of the best parts about Walt Disney World. Visiting the resorts and Disney springs are free. You can boat over to Wilderness Lodge to see the geyser, or hike at the campground. Wander around the Grand Floridian and listen to the piano. Or lounge on the beach at The Polynesian. There is so much to do that would cost less than the 100 dollars per person the parks admission will require.

Grab a special souvenir BEFORE your Disney Vacation Trip. If putting aside 40-60 dollars per person for a souvenir seems impossible then grab a Disney shirt from our shop ahead of time to make your vacation extra magical. Our shirts are around 24 dollars and you can get them to match for everyone in your party. That way when you get into the parks you can promise everyone something smaller like a key chain and not feel too badly about it.

Use this cart trick on the Disney website a few months before planning purchase your trip. It’s no secret that Disney wants you to buy the vacation you add to your cart on their website. Because we know this, why not make them work for it? One of our favorite tricks after signing in to our Disney accounts is to add our ideal vacation to our carts. In fact we go all the way to the last page. We choose the resort, set the number of tickets we’ll need, choose a dining plan, assign the family members we’re taking and get to the last page right before purchase. Then, we’ll abandon the cart and close the page. You’ll get several emails about this “abandoned cart” over the next few days. Be sure to click through and visit your cart from at least one of those emails, but don’t purchase it yet. Visit it, and then close the page. In fact you’re welcome to visit your cart over the next month as long as you make sure not to purchase. By the time the second month arrives, Disney will send you a % off deal. This may or may not meet your needs just yet, but click through the deal, see what it looks like, modify your cart if you want but don’t purchase anything and close the page. It really is all about just tricking the computer. Disney will send deals that get better and better over the next couple months and this gives you the opportunity to get a better rate. If you’re an avid Disney traveler, know that this works better with newbies, so use a different email or have someone else in your party be the one using this trick with their Disney account.

Use this computer trick on the Disney website and Airline website before buying anything. Your computer stores all your information. Scary, yes, but true. When you visit the same website over and over, it’s learning that you like that site. Suddenly prices start to get higher each time you visit and by the time you’re ready to purchase anything, they’re way higher than you remember. The way to beat that for anything you’re considering purchasing is done a few ways. 1. Clear your cache on your internet browser. Just go to settings and clear it. 2. Download a browser you’ve never used before like firefox. 3. Access the Disney or Airline site from a public computer at the library or your friends house. When going to the Disney or Airline site for the first time after the cache is cleared or the new browser downloaded, don’t sign in just yet, browse prices first and note how they are lower. Add to your cart and then sign in. Adding the items to your cart at a certain price should lock in the lower price before you sign in and remind the computer its you again.

Even More Ways to Save Money

Buy your Disney Vacation with Gift Cards. Most stores have perks for purchasing gift cards. Whether they’re fuel discounts, or a percentage off for certain types of gift card purchases, you can save money by collecting the amount you’ll need on giftcards and earning the rewards for buying them. We also like putting our dining, souvenirs, and other things on gift cards, which helps us stick to the budget a little better.

Bring a water bottle with a lid that can fit in your day bag. You can ward off headaches and money spent on special drinks a little better if you have an empty water bottle available for quick water refills.

Uber or have a friend drive you to the airport if you’re flying. This could easily save you hundreds of dollars in airport parking during your vacation.

Purchase an EZ Pass if you’re driving. Depending on where you’re driving from you may or may not encounter toll roads. But having an EZ pass will make sure you are ready and prevent you from having to pay tolls along the way. You have to load it with 25 dollars to activate it, but all that money goes to your future tolls. And if you accidentally exit the toll road via an EZ pass lane without this little device you could be charged 32 dollars.

Drive your own car to Disney. If you’ve made the decision to drive you can forego rental costs all together by just driving your own car. If you’re leasing you’ll want to be careful of adding the extra mileage that may cost you later, but if you own your car a quick checkup at the mechanic to make sure its ok for a road trip will be cheaper than a rental.

Plan out your coffee or alcohol. Everyone vacations differently. If you’re planning on fancy drinks or coffee drinks, set a daily limit for yourself. Alcoholic Drinks at Disney are usually around the 12-15 dollar mark and that’s just for 1 drink. Budget this in ahead of time so you know how much to allow. If you visit some special bars, like the Ale and Compass at Yacht Club, check the drink menu and prices first, so you can think through the extra costs.

Disney Pro Tips and Tricks

Don’t link your Credit Card to your Magic Band: Yes, it does feel extra magical to just be able to scan your magic band everywhere including the gift shop checkout, but attaching your magic band to your credit card will start working against you by day three of your trip when you suddenly realize you need more stuff, drinks, food than you thought and “who cares, you’re on vacation.” The problem with this usually comes in the form of a 600 dollar bill at the end of your trip you weren’t expecting.

Bring your own Breakfast Snacks: We usually bring kind bars, or think thin bars and tea for the mornings in our hotel. If we’re staying somewhere where breakfast is free this isn’t necessary but its a great way to save some money by not having to buy breakfast.

Get the Free Souvenirs: You can check any gift shop or cast member for the “I’m Celebrating” buttons. These are given for free, and are custom to whatever you may be celebrating. Hint: You can always be celebrating something. You can get a packet of Sorcerers to the Magic Kingdom Cards at the Fire Station in Magic Kingdom. You can play Treasures of the Seven Seas at Pirates of the Caribbean for a treasure map.

Crunching the Numbers for Your Disney Vacation

Hopefully this post has given you an idea of all the things that need to be considered to get a good handle on a what a Disney budget looks like. With the goal of getting an actual number to aim for your next tasks will be working through the steps above. Choosing a car or flight, choosing the number of days, the number of people and whether you want to stay on or off site will set the base of the amount needed for this vacation. Once those things are figured out you can add the approx. 65 dollars per person per day for dining, the miscellaneous and souvenir money needed.

This planning is worth the time. Disney will easily be the most magical vacation ever if you are able to just show up and go through the motions your budget has allowed. The stress of trying to make money decisions in the moment will take away from the magic, so do this ahead of time, it will be worth it. 🙂

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