How To Evaluate A Walt Disney World Travel Package

Hundreds of Walt Disney World package vacations are offered each year. Some are created by the Walt Disney Travel Company, others by airline touring companies, independent travel agents, and wholesalers. Almost all include lodging at or near Disney World plus theme-park admissions. Packages offered by airlines include air transportation.

Prices vary seasonally; mid-March through Easter, summer, and holiday periods are the most expensive. Off-season, forget packages: there are plenty of empty rooms, and you can negotiate great discounts, especially at non-Disney properties. Similarly, airfares and rental cars are cheaper off-peak.

Unofficial Tip

If you consider a non-Disney hotel, check its quality as reported in independent travel references such as the Unofficial Guides, AAA directories, Mobil guides, or Frommer's guides.

Almost all package ads are headlined "5 Days at Walt Disney World from $645" (or such). The key word is from: the rock-bottom price includes the least desirable hotels; if you want better or more-convenient digs, you'll pay more—often much more.

Packages offer a wide selection of hotels. Some, like the Disney resorts, are very dependable. Others run the gamut of quality.

Checking two or three independent sources is best. Also, before you book, ask how old the hotel is and when the guest rooms were last refurbished.

Locate the hotel on a map to verify its proximity to Disney World. If you won't have a car, make sure that the hotel has an adequate shuttle service.

Packages with non-Disney lodging are much less expensive. But guests at Disney-owned properties get Extra Magic Hours privileges, free parking, and access to the Disney transportation system. These privileges (except Extra Magic Hours for Hilton guests) don't apply to guests at the independent hotels of the Downtown Disney Resort Area (Buena Vista Palace Hotel & Spa, Regal Sun Resort, Doubletree Guest Suites Resort, Hilton, Holiday Inn at Walt Disney World, Royal Plaza, and Best Western Lake Buena Vista Resort Hotel).

Packages should be a win–win proposition for both buyer and seller. The buyer makes only one phone call and deals with one salesperson to set up the whole vacation (transportation, rental car, admissions, lodging, meals, and even golf and tennis). The seller, likewise, deals with the buyer only once. Some packagers also buy airfares in bulk on contract, not unlike a broker playing the commodities market. By buying a large number of airfares in advance, the packager saves significantly over posted fares. The practice is also applied to hotel rooms. Because selling packages is efficient and the packager often can buy package components in bulk at discount, the seller's savings in operating expenses are sometimes passed on to the buyer, making the package not only convenient but also an exceptional value.

In practice, however, the seller may realize all the economies and pass on no savings. Packages sometimes are loaded with extras that cost the packager almost nothing but run the package's price sky-high. Savings passed on to customers are still somewhere in Fantasyland.

Choose a package that includes features you're sure to use. You'll pay for all of them whether you use them or not. If price is more important than convenience, call around to see what the package would cost if you booked its components on your own. If the package price is less than the à la carte cost, the package is a good deal. If costs are about equal, the package probably is worth it for the convenience. Much of the time, however, you'll find you save significantly by buying the components individually.

Walt Disney Travel Company Magic Your Way Packages

The Walt Disney Travel Company has scrapped the Dream package vacations that had been its mainstay for years and introduced a more flexible approach to building a Walt Disney World vacation. The program is named Disney's Magic Your Way and mirrors the admission ticket program of the same name. Here's how it works: You begin with a base package room and tickets. Tickets can be customized to match the number of days you intend to tour the theme parks, and range in length from one to ten days. As with theme-park admissions, the package program offers strong financial incentives to book a longer stay. "The longer you play, the less you pay per day," is the way Disney puts it, borrowing a page from Sam Walton's concept of the universe. A one-day adult base ticket (with tax) costs $79.88, whereas if you buy a seven-day ticket, the average cost per day drops to $34.69. You can purchase options to add on to your base tickets, such as hopping between theme parks; visiting water parks, DisneyQuest, or Wide World of Sports; and buying your way out of an expiration date for any unused ticket features.

With Magic Your Way packages, you can avoid paying for features you don't intend to use. No longer must you purchase a package with theme-park tickets for your entire length of stay. With Magic Your Way you can choose to purchase as many days of admission as you intend to use. On a one-week vacation, for example, you might want to spend only five days in the Disney parks, saving a day each for Universal Studios and SeaWorld. With Magic Your Way you can buy only five days of admission on a seven-day package. Likewise, if you do not normally park-hop, you can now purchase multiday admissions that do not include the park-hopping feature. If you don't use all your admissions, you can opt for the No Expiration add-on, and the unused days will be good forever. Best of all, you can buy the various add-ons within fourteen days of the first time you use the ticket.

Before we deluge you with a boxcar of options and add-ons, let's define the basic components of Disney's Magic Your Way package:

Magic Your Way Dining Plan

Disney offers a dining plan to accompany its Magic Your Way ticket system. Called the Magic Your Way Package Plus Dining, it's available to all Disney-resort guests except those staying at the Swan, the Dolphin, the Downtown Disney Resort hotels, and Shades of Green, none of which are Disney-owned or -operated.

Magic Your Way Premium Package

With the Magic Your Way Premium Package you get lodging; Magic Your Way Premium tickets with Park Hopping and Plus Pack features; breakfast, lunch, and dinner, including character meals and dinner shows; unlimited golf, tennis, fishing excursions, and water sports; select theme-park tours; Cirque du Soleil show tickets; unlimited use of child-care facilities—everything you can think of except for alcoholic beverages. (Note: The length of the Magic Your Way Premium Package must equal the total number of nights you stay at a Disney resort, plus one day. Package length cannot be customized to fit your touring plans.)

Disney, needless to say, has built a nice profit into every component of the Magic Your Way Premium Package. If you don't use all features of the plan and did not purchase the No Expiration option on your tickets, Disney makes out even better.

Number Crunching

COMPARING A MAGIC YOUR WAY PACKAGE with purchasing the package components separately is a breeze.

  1. Pick a Disney resort and decide how many nights you want to stay.
  2. Next, work out a rough plan of what you want to do and see so you can determine the admission passes you'll require.
  3. When you're ready, call the Disney Reservations Center (DRC) at #407-W-DISNEY and price a Magic Your Way package with tax for your selected resort and dates. The package will include both admissions and lodging. It's also a good idea to get a quote from a Disney-savvy travel agent.
  4. Now, to calculate the costs of buying your accommodations and admission passes separately, call the DRC a second time. This time, price a room-only rate for the same resort and dates. Be sure to ask about the availability of any special deals. While you're still on the line, obtain the prices, with tax, for the admissions you require. If you're not sure which of the various admission options will best serve you, consult our Disney Ticket Calculator.
  5. Add the room-only rates and the admission prices. Compare this sum to the DRC quote for the Magic Your Way package.
  6. Check for deals and discounts for packages, room-only rates, and admission.
  7. When you upgrade to a Magic Your Way Premium Package, you load the plan with so many features that it's extremely difficult to price them individually. For a rough comparison, price the plan of your choice using the previous steps. To complete the picture, work up a dining budget, excluding alcohol. Add your estimated dining costs to the room-only quote and admissions quote, and compare this to the price of the plan.

Platinum Plan Reprise

The Platinum plan of yesteryear, where Disney essentially mortgages your life in advance, then allows you to elope with Minnie, is being resurrected. Scrapped when the Magic Your Way program debuted, the Platinum Plan was the favorite of Disney high rollers who wanted to prepay for everything they might desire while at Walt Disney World. Write one check and you get lodging; tickets with all the add-on features; breakfast, lunch, and dinner in full-service restaurants; unlimited golf, tennis, boating, and recreation; unlimited dinner shows and character breakfasts; primo Cirque du Soleil seats; private in-room child care; unlimited use of child-care facilities; personalized itinerary planning; dinner at Victoria & Albert's restaurant; a spa treatment; a fireworks cruise; admission to select tours; reserved seating for Fantasmic!; and (here's the kicker) nightly turndown service! Everything you can think of, in other words, except alcoholic beverages. Per diem prices for the new Platinum Plan weren't available when we went to press, but anyone who buys the Platinum Plan doesn't give a Goofy fart what the prices are anyway.

Throw Me A Line!

If you buy a package from Disney, don't expect reservationists to offer suggestions or help you sort out your options. Generally, they respond only to your specific questions, ducking queries that require an opinion. A reader from North Riverside, Illinois, complains:

I have received various pieces of literature from WDW, and it is very confusing to figure out everything. My wife made two telephone calls, and the representatives from WDW were very courteous. However, they only answered the questions posed and were not eager to give advice on what might be most cost-effective. [The] WDW reps would not say if we would be better off doing one thing over the other. I feel a person could spend eight hours on the phone with WDW reps and not have any more input than you get from reading the literature. If you can't get the information you need from Disney, contact a good travel agent. Chances are the agent can help you weigh your options.

Packages From A Different Perspective

We've always evaluated packages a dollars-and-cents point of view, paying scant attention to other consideration such as time, economy, and convenience. A reader from Westchester County, New York, finally got our attention, writing:

I fully understand your position not to recommend the [Premium] plans in your guide, because they are not a good buy by financial comparison. However, when one books six rooms, as I have, with guests ages 4 through 59, including a wife, grandchildren, children, sons- and daughters-in-law, and a nanny, the thought of trying to find out what way each family segment would like to go and then arranging for it on a daily basis is a scary scenario. With the Premium Plan, they can go where they want, eat where they want, and Gramps and his roommate don't have the hassle.

A Mobile, Alabama, couple, also enthusiastic about the Premium Plan, offers these thoughts:

Our last trip was for our honeymoon, and we purchased the Premium Magic Your Way Plan. We really enjoyed most of the restaurants we ate at, and we loved being able to order anything we wanted from the menus, but I wouldn't recommend this plan to anyone who is impatient or whose goal is to see the parks. While we had plenty of time to see and do the things we wanted to do, if we had been there for a week or less I probably would have been frustrated with how much time it took to eat three table-service meals a day, once you calculate the secondary time expense of traveling to the restaurant (which may or may not be in the park you're in at the moment). There was one time in particular where we finished eating lunch and basically had to go check in for dinner almost immediately! But if a person has plenty of time, the Premium Plan can be fun, and the Cirque du Soleil tickets were a big bonus—we loved the show!

Purchasing Room-only Plus Passes versus a Package

Sue Pisaturo of Small World Vacations, a travel agency that specializes in Disney, also thinks there is more involved in a package purchase decision than money.

Should you purchase a Walt Disney World package, or buy all the components of the package separately? There's no single answer to this confusing question. A Walt Disney World package can be compared to a store-bought prepackaged kids' meal, the kind with the little compartments filled with meat, cheese, crackers, drink, and dessert: you just grab the package and go. It's easy, and if it's on sale, why bother doing it yourself? If it's not on sale, it still may be worth the extra money for convenience.

Purchasing the components of your vacation separately is like buying each of the meal's ingredients, cutting them up into neat piles and packaging the lunch yourself. Is it worth the extra time and effort to do it this way? Will you save money if you do it this way?

You have two budgets to balance when you plan your Disney World vacation: time and money. Satisfying both is your ultimate goal. Research and planning are paramount to realizing your Disney vacation dreams. Create your theme-park touring plan prior to making a final decision with regard to the number of days and options on your theme-park passes. Create your dining itinerary (along with advance dining reservations, if possible) to determine if Disney's dining plan can save you some money.