It's possible to save money and still have an incredible experience.
Although you can find some discounts, a trip to Disney World in Orlando, Florida is expensive. A four-night hotel stay at a Disney Value Resort (Disney's least expensive option), four days' worth of tickets to any of Disney's parks, and four days of food runs around $4,200 -- without airfare. When you're spending more than $1,000 per day for a vacation, it pays to find ways to cut costs.
One couple's story
To budget, it helps to know more about Disney World. Fortunately, there's an abundance of information available through the Disney website and fan forums. That's where Amber Stultz of Kansas City earned her PhD in all things Mickey and friends. It began several years ago when Stultz and her husband, Matt Demarest, decided to take their young daughter, Charley, to Disney World for the first time.
As the couple budgeted for the trip, Stultz poured herself into learning more about Disney to help decide exactly how much they needed to save to make their trip. She discovered ways to cut down on expenses without sacrificing the Disney experience. Since that first trip, Stultz has made four more visits to Disney World. After those visits (and with a new child in the family), Stultz knows the value of saving up.
The Stultz-Demarest household refuses to pay interest on credit card debt. They do use a rewards credit card for everyday purchases, but they pay it off in full by the end of the billing cycle. That way, they have plenty of airline miles by the time they're ready for vacation.
The couple also has a special "travel" account. Each time they receive a paycheck, they deposit 3% of their net pay (the amount received after taxes) into their travel savings account. According to Demarest, they also put 3% of "found" money into the account. Any time there's a tax refund, bonus, or other source of unexpected funds, a portion goes toward their next trip. Let's say Demarest receives a bonus for $2,000. Of that, $60 immediately goes into the travel fund ($2,000 x 0.03 = $60).
Stultz also spends five to 45 minutes most days filling out consumer opinion surveys. While each survey only pays $0.50 to $10, the funds quickly add up. Any side hustle you can do from home can add to your travel budget.
Because the two know how much they must put aside for their trip, they can continually gauge how close they are to saving enough, and when it's financially safe to make reservations.
Tips for avoiding disappointment and saving money
Like many people, the Stultz-Demarest household finds it easy to get caught up in the Disney dream. After all, commercials show smiling families holding hands and skipping down a practically abandoned Main Street. In real life, Main Street can be quite crowded. A churro costs more than $6, and a turkey leg sets you back nearly $12. Having come face to face with that reality on several occasions, the family has found eight ways to save money and avoid disappointment:
- Decide how much you're going to spend and stick to a budget. According to Stultz, all Disney-related costs are easy to find online. She uses this calculator to come up with how much the family should budget for food during their stay.
- Bring your own snacks and drinks to the park (it's allowed). If you need a cup of water, any of the quick-service restaurants provide it for free.
- Make hard decisions before you go. For example, you can save money by limiting the number of special activities you pay for (like a meal with your child's favorite Disney character).
- Create your own dining plan. Unless you have big appetites, skip the expense of the Disney dining plan. According to Stultz, they ended up wasting much of the food. Instead, they eat food they've purchased outside the park, or opt for a less-expensive quick-service meal.
- Only stay on site once. While Stultz recommends that everyone book an on-site Disney property for their first trip, staying off site for subsequent trips can save a lot of money. The family has stayed in Airbnbs, as well as a non-Disney hotel close to the parks.
- Cut the cost of souvenirs. If you have young children, purchase Disney souvenirs in advance and hide them for your children around the hotel room. Not only are such souvenirs a fraction of the in-park price, you won't have to lug them around the park all day. Now that Charley is seven, her parents give her a gift card loaded with her souvenir budget. They take her to one of the Disney Character Warehouses (off-site stores that sell slightly outdated Disney products) and let her decide how she spends the funds.
- Pick up free souvenirs. You can get a free driver's license outside the Dumbo ride or Tomorrowland Speedway, and Disney buttons from guest services. If you stop by the barber shop on Main Street, they will sprinkle pixie dust in your child's hair for free.
- Skip the Park Hopper. The Park Hopper allows you to leave one Disney park and go to another on the same day. Stultz says the extra expense is not worth it for her family, as there is plenty to do for an entire day at a single park.
Asked why the couple has chosen to visit Disney World so often, Stultz answered, "For me, it's practical. With Disney, there's a built-in itinerary. You pay for tickets in advance, and then have things to do every day. If you want to rest, you can explore the hotel or go swimming. If we planned a trip to someplace like Colorado, I think it may be harder to find things to do."
Stultz was quiet for a moment before adding, "And Disney is magical. That's the important part."
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