How Two Disney World Vacations That Cost the Same Can Feel Completely Different? or Where’s Goldilocks When You Need Her?

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Len Testa recently did an analysis of the different ways the same party size can choose to allocate the same amount of money on a Walt Disney World vacation, yet arrive at very different trips. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s definitely worth a look.

Staying for four nights at a value resort might feel like a splurge or like an affront, depending on your profile.
Staying for four nights at a value resort might feel like a splurge or like an affront, depending on your profile.

Len examined the quantitative aspects of expenditures on the core costs of food, lodging, and park tickets, noting how choices like deluxe vs. value resort, onsite vs. offsite hotels, and table service vs. counter service meals can change your vacation within a fixed budget. I’m here to look at the qualitative impact of those choices beyond the bottom line, considering how two vacations which cost exactly the same can feel entirely different.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to look at Len’s hypothetical trip for two adults (two people over the age of nine, or two people over the age of nine plus a child under the age of three) which costs $1,500, but you can apply the same principles to any price point or party size. Running the numbers, Len found that two adults can spend $1,500 on core costs in some of the following ways:

  • Budget option: Six days theme park admission, 6 nights in a budget level off-site motel, 6 counter service breakfasts, 6 counter service lunches, 6 counter service dinners
  • Value option: Four days theme park admission, 4 nights in a Disney value level resort, 4 counter service breakfasts, 4 counter service lunches, 4 counter service dinners
  • Moderate option: Four days theme park admission, 3 nights in a Disney moderate level resort, 4 counter service breakfasts, 4 counter service lunches, 4 counter service dinners
  • Deluxe option: Three days theme park admission, 2 nights in a Disney deluxe level resort, 3 counter service breakfasts, 3 counter service lunches, 3 counter service dinners
If access to Disney perks like early entry and included MagicBands is important to you, then your vacation will feel better or worse depending on your budget allocation choices.
If access to Disney perks like early entry and included MagicBands is important to you, then your vacation will feel better or worse depending on your budget allocation choices.

WHAT ARE YOUR VACATION MOTIVATIONS?

When you’re deciding which of these options is right for your needs, the first thing you have to do it determine WHY you’re going on vacation and then specifically why are you going on a Disney vacation. While the answer may seem obvious, just saying “because I want to go on vacation” is circular logic. Some of the possible answers to the “Why am I going on vacation?” question include:

  • To occupy my child during as much of his vacation week as possible.
  • To escape for the weekend, getting away from the kids.
  • To spend time away from the cold climate at home.
  • To get away from my routine.
  • To feel pampered.
  • To relax.
  • To experience as many rides and attractions at Walt Disney World as possible.
  • To celebrate.
  • To have a once in a lifetime experience.
  • To impress a reluctant traveler.

Those are just a few of the possible motivations for vacation travel. You can find more ideas about why people travel to Walt Disney World in our post How Well Does Disney World Meet Vacation Needs? Your reasons for travel should inform your budget allocation choices.

Other factors to consider when deciding how to distribute your vacation budget are your own personality and demographic profile. For example:

  • What level of vacation travel are you used to? Posh? Roughing it? Something in between?
  • Is the vacation expense something you’ve struggled to save for? Or is it a common or relatively insignificant expense?
  • Are you traveling with anyone with special needs, a small child, or an older adult? Comfort and access to services might be more significant to certain categories of guests.
  • Will you be returning to Walt Disney World soon or will this be your one and only visit?
  • Do you like being with your travel companion/s?
  • Will you need/want alone time during your trip?
  • Do you mind doing chores like driving or cooking during vacation?
  • Do you crave new experiences and/or new foods? Or do you prefer to stick with the familiar?
  • What is your average/typical vacation expense? Has your financial position changed recently?

The same person might embody any of these diverse attributes at various life stages. For example, if you’re on a wedding gift honeymoon trip, your vacation motivations will be very different than if you’re young cash-strapped parents on their first vacation with a preschooler. But it’s your current demographic and personality profile that will influence your opinion of the various vacation configurations, even when the vacations are at the same price point.

More thoughts related to this can be found in our post Is It Worth It?

YOUR VACATION MOTIVATIONS INFLUENCE HOW DIFFERENT BUDGET ALLOCATIONS FEEL

Now let’s go back to the $1,500 trip and see how the four options listed might FEEL different to different people depending on their vacation motivations and personal profile.

In the BUDGET OPTION above, you’re staying for the longest amount of time and you’re staying at an offsite motel. Some divergent observations about a long, offsite stay might be:

  • I will definitely need a car when staying offsite. If I’m flying to Orlando, the expense of a rental car will add to my final expense tally. VS: We’re driving to Orlando, so we’ll just need a bit more gas if we’re staying offsite.
  • I like having the control that comes with having access to a vehicle. VS: I dislike driving at home, I wish I didn’t have to fight traffic or worry about getting lost while I’m on vacation.
  • I’m missing out on the unique themeing elements present at the Disney resorts. VS: I’m glad to have a chance to break out of the Disney bubble; it can be overwhelming at times.
  • With more days in the parks, I’m able to check more rides and attractions off my to-do list. VS: I’m just doing this trip to check it off my kids’ to-do list, why do I have to be here so long?
  • We’re only going to be sleeping at the hotel; I’m proud that I’ve made the sound financial decision to economize on lodging. VS: I love hanging out at a fancy hotel; I miss that atmosphere when I stay at economy lodgings.
  • We’re theme park commandos who go, go, go from sunup to sundown. VS: I need a nap during the day, taking the car offsite to nap is less convenient than going back to a nearby onsite hotel.
  • I can sleep anywhere. VS: My back is bad, I need a great mattress.
  • I’ve saved for this trip forever and I want to make it last as long as possible; we may never be able to do it again. VS: I’ll be back later this year; I don’t need to do it all this time.
  • Without access to Early Entry or FastPass+ selections 60 days in advance, I feel like I’m missing out on key touring and planning tools. VS: I’m using a Touring Plan and I don’t need meal or FP+ reservations, so I won’t miss those perks of a Disney stay.
  • If I’m staying offsite, I won’t be as tempted by the food offerings in the parks. VS: Since I’m staying offsite, I’ll sometimes be eating at the same boring fast food restaurants I have access to at home.
  • New foods are the reason to travel; I’m excited to eat at as many new places as possible. VS: I like the comfort of knowing that by staying offsite I’ll have access to the familiar favorites that I know and love.
  • I don’t travel often; I’m happy to have any time off. VS: I travel all the time for work and usually stay in deluxe hotels; this really seems like slumming.

In the VALUE OPTION, you’ve got two fewer days in the parks than with the budget option, but you’re staying on Disney property rather than offsite. In addition to some of the dichotomies mentioned above, feelings about the value stay might be:

  • A room is a room is a room; why am I paying more to be on property when I could have the equivalent room offsite for less money? VS: I’m thrilled to be in the Disney bubble; I love that my kid gets to play around all the colorful themed elements.
  • I love that I can use Disney’s transportation options; not having to drive anywhere is a big break for me. VS: I hate not having control of my time when I don’t have a car.
  • I wish that we had a few more days to revisit some of our favorite attractions. VS: I’m glad we don’t have to stay longer; this trip is just the right amount of time.

In the MODERATE OPTION, you’ve got a better onsite hotel and the same number of park days as the value stay, but one less night at the hotel. You’re leaving the area at the end of your last park day to drive or fly home. In addition to some of the feelings in the above categories, you might add:

  • The difference between value and moderate amenities is negligible to me; it’s silly to pay for more than I need. VS: My tween adores the hotel pool slide; I’m so glad our hotel pool has some extra play elements.
  • When we’re done with park touring, I want to get out of Dodge and start heading for home. VS: I’m exhausted after all this park touring; I wish we could get a good night’s sleep and leave in the morning when we’re fresh.
  • It’s just me and my partner, having a few extra square feet of floor space doesn’t really matter. VS: It’s me and my partner and our baby, having a few extra feet of floor space for the Pack N’ Play makes a big difference.
  • I’m traveling with a platonic friend; we’re each sleeping in our own bed, so the bed size doesn’t really matter. VS: I’m traveling with my partner, we like to sleep in the same bed; the value resort double beds are just too small for us; I’m glad we have a queen bed at this moderate level resort.

In the DELUXE OPTION, you’ve got a still better onsite hotel, one less day in the parks, and you’re leaving at the end of your last park day to drive or fly home. In addition to some of the feelings in the above categories, you might add:

  • Because we only have three days of park admission, we’re going to have to skip one park entirely; I’m so disappointed. VS: Eh, whatever; we’ll be back soon and we’ll get to the Animal Kingdom next time.
  • I feel out of place and overwhelmed in these luxe surroundings. VS: Being in luxe surroundings makes me feel special.
  • Spending money on a fancy hotel is frivolous. VS: When I’m on vacation, I want to have the best of everything.
  • I want to spend my time in the sun, sipping drinks at the pool. VS: I want to do as much as possible in the parks.

As you can see, the same $1,500 Disney World vacation can be too much, not enough, or just right, depending on where you choose to allocate your expenditures. Unfortunately, we don’t have Baby Bear’s sage analysis of which allocation profile is the one that’s “just right” for you.

Depending on who you are, that offsite option might be a huge splurge and feel like the trip of a lifetime, or it could make you feel like you’re missing out on the really good vacation.

It may be fairly straightforward to look at your family’s budget and say, “I have $1,500 to spend on a trip” this month/quarter/year/etc. But don’t forget to take the more challenging, soul-searching next step to determine your personal value criteria, and thus determine which budget distribution option is just right for your needs.

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Erin Foster

Erin Foster is an original member of the Walt Disney World Moms Panel (now PlanDisney), a regular contributor to TouringPlans.com, and co-author of The Unofficial Guide to Disney Cruise Line. She's been to WDW, DL, DL Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, Aulani, DVC Vero Beach, and DVC Hilton Head. She's a Platinum DCL cruiser and veteran of 10 Adventures by Disney trips. Erin lives near New York City, where she can often be found indulging in her other obsession - Broadway theater.

8 thoughts on “How Two Disney World Vacations That Cost the Same Can Feel Completely Different? or Where’s Goldilocks When You Need Her?

  • February 3, 2015 at 11:32 am
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    For me personally, the vacation always feels longer when you stay on site. I love having the option of taking Disney transportation vs having to drive. I also love being immersed in the Magic 24/7. I

    Reply
  • February 3, 2015 at 12:03 pm
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    I noticed here that there wasn’t any kind of mention of people that would be flying over. Being in California, driving isn’t the best option. (So I guess I’d fall under the “this is a once in a lifetime trip” category?)

    Also, I wasn’t sure if it mentioned anywhere that the one constant in all of the trips is a counter service meal. It’s too bad because if I were to be making my trip there, I’d probably stay at a moderate or even economy hotel, just so I can try all of the unique food options!

    Usually when I go to DisneyLAND I stay at a budget hotel (Candy Cane Inn ftw!) and then splurge on all of the food. For me, I’m the person that thinks, a hotel is a hotel. I will be spending all of my time at the parks because in Disneyland, the Disney hotels are so expensive and hardly worth it that there is no real “Disney Bubble” to speak of.

    I understand this article is about the all powerful Disney World too, so if I ever get an opportunity to visit Disney World, I’d probably stick with a lower tiered hotel simply so I can gorge myself at Be Our Guest or the Cinderella restaurants 😉 thanks for an interesting insight!

    Reply
    • February 3, 2015 at 12:29 pm
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      I noticed that too. I think the problem is that flight cost will vary wildly depending on where you’re from. The $2000 top end does show that they’re used to driving, however. I saw that and thought ‘That’s close to the flight cost for my family, no way I’m taking a vacation where 50% of my spending is on travel’. They would need a few more columns at the high end to hit my normal WDW family vacation cost 🙂

      Reply
  • February 3, 2015 at 3:56 pm
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    These analyses are great, but I find that they are really incomplete in that the only off-site option considered is a “budget hotel”. There are plenty of 2-3br 2-3bath VRBOs with a private pool that rent from between $80 & $120/night. We are going again in May. Our cost, exclusive of tickets (as we have annual passes) for a 7 night stay for two adults will be around $672 for a condo, $500 for on-site food, $150 for food cooked in the VRBO (mostly breakfasts and a couple of evening meals), and around $200 for fuel to/from NC/Disney. However, fuel costs should be omitted in this comparison, since the TouringPlans analyses also do not include travel costs. If we amortize our annual passes ($1350 total for two) over the number of days we will use it (25 days), subtract $17 times 25 days parking fees (annual pass holders park free) we get a total cost for tickets of $296 (or $148/each) for the May 7-night, 8-park day trip. That comes to a total of $1618. I could reduce that total about $250 by eliminating our Dine with an Imagineer reservations, along with another of our ADRs, which would bring it down to $1368.

    I submit that this scenario is far more comfortable, flexible, and affordable than the metrics chosen for the TouringPlans “budget” scenario. In fact, having done exactly this (or something very similar) 3 times in the last 2 years, I know it is.

    Cheers,
    –Lee

    Reply
    • February 3, 2015 at 5:24 pm
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      I made a very similar comment on Len’s original post about what you could get for the money, and he invited me to send him my spreadsheet w/ updates based on my assumptions. Unfortunately I live in New England so I’ve been digging out, but I’m hoping to send it back soon, because I 100% agree with you.

      Reply
    • February 4, 2015 at 7:35 pm
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      Lee- I don’t get your math. $672 for lodging + $650 for food = $1322 (we are omitting transportation costs). Your annual passes are $1350*8/25 = $432. For a total trip cost of $1754. I don’t see how parking really applies, at least in the way you have applied it. If you were staying offsite without an annual pass you’d have to pay for parking- which definitely helps make the annual pass more affordable, but it doesn’t make this current trip cost less.

      Reply
      • February 4, 2015 at 8:28 pm
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        Sarah:
        The way I look at an annual pass is that anything included for “free” in the pass cost lowers the effective cost of the pass vs. using day tickets. The point is that if we were staying offsite with day tickets instead of an annual pass, we would incur an additional $17/day to park each day we were in the park. With an annual pass, those parking costs don’t apply. My rationale for subtracting the parking costs for the number of days we are in the park is to be able to calculate what we are paying in admission fees for the number of days we are in the park during the year on our annual pass.

        To take my rational to the extreme, if you go to the parks 80 days in a year, admission is free because $17 x 80 days = $1360.

        To look at it from the opposite sense, if you have 2 adults going on 8-day park hopper tickets and staying off-site, the total ticket cost is $775 + ($17 x 8) = $913.

        In any event, if you eat only counter service meals and meals cooked in the condo, the total comes back down to the $1500 (or less) for the econo option, even using your math for the ticket costs.

        –Lee

      • February 4, 2015 at 8:29 pm
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        Acck that ticket cost should be $777 + ($17 x 8) = $913. Typo.

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