You’ve seen the surprise “We’re going to Disney!” videos plastered all over your Facebook wall. You’ve heard your child’s not-so-secret birthday wish whisper. You’ve dreamed of being one of those families posing in front of Magic Kingdom in your cutesy coordinated Disney merch. And now you’re determined: You want to take your kids to Disney (as soon as danger from the coronavirus pandemic dies down.)
Then you Google “average cost of a Disney vacation” and, once you pick your jaw up off the floor, you wonder who’s bankrolling this trip. Because it might be the happiest place on earth, but it sure doesn’t sound like the happiest place for your bank account.
Let’s be clear, though: You can absolutely have an amazing Disney trip without feeling like you need to take out a second mortgage. And don’t stress yourself out comparing your budget-friendly trip to the sequined-Mouse-ear-extravaganza your cousin shared on social media. Comparison is the thief of joy. Disney is what you make it… no matter how much — or more to the point, little — you spend.
To help you harness the power of your inner frugal Disney ninja, we gleaned the wisdom of a slew of seasoned, Mickey-lovin’ mamas. Read on to discover their (and our) best tips and hacks for saving money on a trip to Disney.
Buy Disney gift cards
We can’t tell you how many Disney-planning mamas recommended this hack! Basically, you work out a budget for what you want to spend while at the Disney parks. Then you buy Disney gift cards at a discount from a participating wholesale store like BJs Wholesale, Sam’s Club, or Wal-Mart — most of which offer a 4 percent discount on the gift cards. You can amplify your savings if you use a good cash back credit card to make the purchase.
Target, while it doesn’t offer a discount on the gift cards, offers a 5 percent discount with them for using their Target REDcard or Debit REDcard. This includes Disney gift cards. Word to the wise, though? One mama we spoke to warned that Target doesn’t seem to love it when you buy $1,000 worth of gift cards in a single transaction. If you go this route, start shopping sooner and pick up a few cards every visit (‘cause, hello, we’re all hitting up Target on the reg anyway).
Use a Disney Vacation Planner
Raise your hand if you hadn’t realized before that Disney planners are free (*raises hand*). It’s true! Any reputable Disney-centric travel agent should not charge for the basic service of helping you arrange your trip. Add on services may be offered at á la carte costs, but you don’t have to opt for any extras. Not only does a Disney Vacation Planner’s vast expertise save you invaluable time, but it can also save you a bundle. They know how to get all the best discounts and promotions, and they’ll even sit on the phone for hours to make sure you get the most bang for your buck.
Skip the Park Hopper
What we’re about to tell you is a controversial opinion in some circles, but hear us out. When purchasing your Disney park tickets, you’ll have to choose between a base ticket or a park hopper ticket. The latter is exactly like it sounds — it lets you bounce from park to park in the same day. Since there are four parks at Disney World (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios), this may seem like the most logical way to squeeze it all in. However, adding the park hopper option will add $65 per ticket for 1-day tickets, $75 per ticket for 2 to 3-day tickets, and $85 per ticket for 4 to 10-day tickets. Save the money and spend more time at each park.
Pick Your Tickets Strategically
When you go to the Disney website and explore your ticket options, you’ll notice that different calendar days have different ticket prices. Unless you’re totally locked into a specific timeframe, you can use this calendar to pick tickets on more budget-friendly dates and times of year.
Do Your Discount Research
A military mama shared this pearl of wisdom with us: Disney offers special pricing for military personnel. You have to go through your military base ticket office to get more details, per the Walt Disney World website, but members of the armed forces qualify for promotional rates on 4-day, 5-day, or 6-day tickets. Bonus? They come with the Park Hopper Option. Both Disney World and Disneyland run discount promotions throughout the year, so do a thorough scan of the sites to see if there are any that could benefit your bottom line.
Purchase an Annual Pass
Admittedly, we realize how counterintuitive this sounds. But by the time you’re finished paying for a full Disney trip for your family and crunch the numbers, you’ll realize that it kinda makes sense — especially if there’s any chance you’ll go again in the same year. For instance, the Platinum Pass for a family with two adults and two kids between three and nine would cost you around $5,091. That gets you admission into all of the parks for a year with no blackout dates. It comes with the Park Hopper option, Disney PhotoPass downloads, standard parking, and up to 20 percent off on various meals and merch.
For the same family to purchase four days’ worth of tickets with the Park Hopper option for a vacation in December, it would cost around $2,300. So, this won’t exactly save you money on the first trip unless you’re counting the discounts you’ll score. But thinking ahead, it means that your pass could pay for itself as soon as the second trip. Everything after that would be bonus Mouse-time. Did we mention there are even more affordable annual pass options, too? Or the fact that Florida residents can pay in interest-free monthly installments? Seriously, think about it.
How to Save on Airfare
Several mamas swore by using the ticket counter in the airport as opposed to booking your flights online. One, who flew her family via Spirit Airlines, originally priced their tickets online at around $700 for a family of four. Off the advice of a fellow Disney-planning parent, she went to the airport after work and snagged the exact same flights for only $350. Another mama revealed she paid only $300 for six roundtrip tickets from central Texas to Orlando for their Disney trip. So, while this hack may be dependent on the airline you choose, it’s certainly worth exploring.
Forego the Disney Resort
Yes, this is a tough call to make. On the one hand, staying on Disney property definitely has its perks. Plus, you probably feel like it’s “part of the experience.” You know what, though? That experience comes at a premium. Fortunately, both Disneyland and Disney World are in large, tourist destination cities. This means there’s no shortage of nice, considerably less expensive off-site hotels that’ll save you a major chunk of change. Or you could always opt for a vacation rental home. It’s worth noting, however, that many hotels close to Disney offer free shuttles to and from the parks. Look for ones with free continental breakfast while you’re at it!
Opt-Out of “Mousekeeping”
If you do stay at a Disney resort, you can still find little ways to pinch pennies. Two mamas who’d visited Disney within the last year told us that if you opt-out of “mousekeeping” — aka Disney’s adorable name for housekeeping — they’ll reward you with an e-gift card.
Let’s say you want to stay in a Disney World property but the prices of the resort hotels make you feel woozy. Well, it might be time to get in touch with nature with a stay at Disney World’s Fort Wilderness RV resort. You can bring your own RV or book one through a site like RVShare.com but, either way, you’ll likely end up saving money.
You won’t miss out either since Fort Wilderness boasts everything from archery and horseback riding to canoeing and nature hiking on the pet-friendly 750-acre property. And it gets you some of the same killer perks as a Disney hotel, like booking your Fast Passes (more on that in a minute) further out.
Get the Meal Plan (or Don’t)
Here’s the thing, as one smart mama pointed out to us: The meal plans at Disney will save you money if you are already planning on eating a lot of Disney meals during your stay. But if you’re trying to save money, your best bet is to say no to the meal plan. You can still splurge on the occasional treat or plan a fancy Disney meal, but you can also take food that doesn’t need to be heated or cooled into the parks in non-glass containers.
If you definitely want to plan for one big Disney meal, eat early. Breakfast or lunch at the parks will be less expensive than dinner. Also, don’t max out your budget booking character meals for your kids. You can use Fast Passes to meet characters at all of the parks, and the time you get with them may be brief but it’s quality and includes an amazing photo opp.
We rounded up a list of some cheap eats around Disney World just in case you want to plan ahead:
Columbia Harbour House
Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe
Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie
Kringla Bakeri Og Kafe
Flame Tree Barbecue
Eight Spoon Cafe
Kusafiri Coffee Shop & Bakery
If you’d like to save even more money on at least some of the meals during the trip why not consider nearby chain restaurants. Many offer deals where kids eat for free with a purchase of an adult and some have an age limit that goes up to age 17. And, let’s be honest, most kids and teens eat the same three or four meals anyway, so checking out a national chain you usually frequent is not a bad idea.
Buy Into the Popcorn Bucket Hype
Confession: We were Disney popcorn skeptics until another Disney mama told us the real reason everyone seems so obsessed with this snack. It isn’t just because Disney makes some out-of-this-world flavored popcorn. Or because you get a cool keepsake bucket. Those things are benefits. But the big draw is that once you buy the souvenir bucket, you can get cheap (like, $2) refills for the rest of your stay.
Bring Reusable Water Bottles
Disneyland will be cooler than Disney World, but both can get hot in the summer months. Coupled with the fact you’re going to be walking roughly one zillion miles, you’re going to want to stay well-hydrated. Theme park drinks add up quickly, so do yourself a favor and pack reusable water bottles. You can then refill them for free at the park’s water fountains or anywhere you see a soda fountain (just ask a CM, or cast member).
Disney offers several different types of photography options, which utilize both professional photographers and cameras set up all over the park. And honestly, at just under $200, this is still an affordable option. If you don’t get it and decide to download photos individually, you’ll see how quickly you hit that price point. Having said that, you can absolutely document your Disney trip using your smartphone. There are even mobile presets, or filters, designed with Disney trips in mind. We’re partial to Six Little Babes Mobile presets.
Order Your Ears Ahead of Time
You can’t swing a bubble wand at Disney without hitting a Mouse-ears headband. Glance around the sea of people and you’ll see countless ears dotting the crowd. If you want to be one of those people, get crafty! There are tons of tutorials on how to make your own at home before your trip. Or you can order pre-made versions from Etsy or Jane.com. Waiting until you’re at Disney means schilling out $20 to $30 or more. Same goes for those matching T-shirts you know you want to wear! Ask a friend with a vinyl-cutting machine like a Cricut to make yours.
Buy Last-Minute Merch at Discount Stores
Waited too late to put in your Etsy order for custom Disney tees? Don’t panic. There exist a plethora of stores near Disney to fulfill your kitschy needs. You can get bubble wands, spinners, glow sticks, clothes, and more at the nearby Wal-Mart. In Orlando, shops like the Disney Character Warehouse will hook you up with Disney clothes and more at major discounts.
Either pack your own poncho or buy some at the aforementioned discount stores. Odds are good it will rain at some point during your visit, and the ones you purchase in the parks are pricy. These can pull double-duty as well since you can use them to keep from getting drenched on water rides.
Set a Souvenir Budget
Trust us when we say that there are mountains upon mountains of toys and trinkets at Disney that your kid will be convinced they need. You can either spend a gazillion dollars buying them, or you can take the advice of a more practical mama who told us she sets a souvenir budget. Ahead of her family’s trips, she makes it clear that her kids each get one souvenir from the vacation. You can also cap the price to curb spending further.
Many of the Disney-loving mamas we spoke to suggested a simple and cost-effective souvenir hack: buy them somewhere else. Order then from Amazon. Get them from a discount store. One mama puts out a little pre-bought souvenir for her kids each morning of their Disney trips, leaving with them a note from favorite Disney characters explaining they’d dropped the gifts off.
DIY Disney Magic
Just because you aren’t splurging on character meals every day or buying every overpriced stuffed animal on Main Street doesn’t mean you can’t make your kids feel super-special. For starters, you took them to Disney! If you want to amplify those warm and fuzzy feelings, though, try a little DIY Disney magic.
One idea suggested by a Disney mom? If you’re staying offsite in a hotel or rental with a kitchen, download some of the official Disney recipes like Gaston’s Tavern Cinnamon Rolls everyone is always raving about. Or Dole Whip. Get your kids in on the fun when you make them, and we promise they’ll treasure those memories more than an overpriced stuffed animal.
Embrace a “Free Is Me” Attitude
Because both Disneys are in touristy areas, you can find countless things to do nearby. And, as luck would have it, plenty of those things are free. At Disney Springs near Disney World, you can score a free diamond necklace. At Sir Mickey’s Gift Shop on the backside of the castle, a CM will sprinkle your little princess with pixie dust. And if you do a quick search on Pinterest for “free things to do in Orlando” or “free things to do in Anaheim,” you can bookmark more free things for your own family to do.
Does your little Disney fanatic love animals? Well you can go visit them at the Animal Kingdom Lodge for free. Need ice water to rehydrate you and the kiddos on a blistering day? Ice water is free in Disney World and Disney Parks. Kids under 3 eat free from a parents plate at buffets and family-style dining establishments. There are plenty of other ways just like these to save money if you do the research ahead of time.