While scanning a recent Quora feed, I came across the question, “What are some ways to save money at Disney World without taking away from the experience?”
Over the years, I’ve seen countless requests for money saving tips and read scores of articles proffering advice on how to save money on Disney travel, but very few of them address the quality-of-experience topic. So I’m here to discuss whether saving money will negatively impact the quality of your Walt Disney World vacation. I’ll preface my discussion by saying that almost all of this is subjective. One man’s minor sacrifice will be another man’s major drag.
The main areas of potential savings are: transportation, lodging, food, souvenirs, and tickets. Here are my thoughts on whether utilizing common money saving tips in these areas will negatively impact your trip.
- Common Savings Tip: Drive instead of fly.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Maybe. Depending on the number of people in your party and the distance you’re traveling, driving instead of flying can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars. However, if you’re driving for more than 8 or 10 hours, you’re losing a day of vacation time on both ends of your trip. You’ll also likely arrive at Walt Disney World somewhat tired from the concentration of driving or the frustration of dealing with “Are We There Yet” children.
- Common Savings Tip: Use Disney’s free transportation instead of renting a car.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: It depends on where you’re staying at Walt Disney World. If you’re at one of the monorail resorts (Contemporary, Polynesian, Grand Floridian) or one of the Epcot resorts (Boardwalk, Beach Club, Yacht Club), your travel time to more than one of the theme parks will be shorter using Disney transportation than it would with a car. If you’re at these hotels and spending most of your touring at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot (plus DHS for BW, YC & BC), then not having a car will be no imposition at all. However, if you’re staying at a Saratoga Springs Treehouse, which requires two steps just to get to one theme park, or at one of the larger moderate resorts (Caribbean Beach, Coronado Springs) with multiple internal bus stops, then having a car will be a big plus for you.
- Common Savings Tip: Bring only carry-on luggage.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Probably not. There are laundry facilities for guest use at every Walt Disney World resort, as well as a range of personal care items for sale in the resort gift shops. I’m no fan of chores on vacation, but most of the laundry rooms are located near the resort pools, so you can spin while you swim. This means that very little fun time will be consumed by clothing maintenance. (And yes, I know that Southwest and JetBlue fliers generally get free checked bags, but not all areas are served by these carriers.)
- Common Savings Tip: Visit during off-peak times.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: No! Much to the contrary – visiting during off peak times will likely save you time as well as money. The lowest hotel cost times are also the lowest crowd times. The only possible negative is that Disney often uses the off season for attraction maintenance. You may find that a favorite ride is out of service if you visit off peak.
- Common Savings Tip: Stay in a Disney value resort.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Only if you’re a prima donna. Guests who are used to Four Seasons comfort may be underwhelmed by Disney’s value resorts, but they’re perfectly fine for those of us living here on earth. The value resorts are clean, fun, and include all the perks of staying on Disney property including free Magical Express transportation, resort merchandise delivery, access to Extra Magic Hours, free theme park parking, and more. And if you’ll be spending most of your time touring the parks, you may barely notice that you’re in an economy-style room.
- Common Savings Tip: Stay at an off-site resort.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Maybe, maybe not. Offsite guests won’t be able to take advantage of Disney perks like Magical Express and Extra Magic Hours. Depending on the location of your hotel, you may spend extra time in transit, particularly if you plan on taking an afternoon nap at your hotel. On the other hand, some guests like breaking out of the Disney bubble at the end of the day, or have accommodation needs that make on-site stays impractical.
- Common Savings Tip: Put the maximum number of adults in a room.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Probably. Each Disney resort hotel has a stated maximum room capacity. For example, the value resorts allow four guests, plus an infant in a crib, per room. The value resorts are great if the occupants are a single, a couple, or a couple and small child. However, four large adults sharing a 260 square foot room, two double beds and one sink/shower/toilet can feel very cramped, very fast. If you plan to put four adults in a value room, make sure you’re very close friends.
- Common Savings Tip: Share lodging with extended family.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Maybe. There’s a lot to consider when you’re vacationing with relatives. If your touring styles are totally in synch, then economies-of-scale savings can be substantial, particularly at off-site lodging. However, mismatched personalities can turn a great vacation into torture. Consider whether any amount of savings would make bunking with your grumpy brother-in-law worth it.
- Common Savings Tip: Use PIN codes or special offers.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Nope, go for it! Disney often releases special PIN codes, bounce-back offers, annual pass discounts, or other promotional discounts. If you’re able to find these, enjoy the savings.
- Common Savings Tip: Use travel aggregators such as Orbitz, Expedia, or Travelocity to book your room.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: No. Even without special codes, you can often find discounts on Disney lodging via the major travel aggregator websites. Last year I priced a stay at the Pop Century resort on the Disney World website and then priced the same stay on Expedia.com. The Expedia price was 15% lower for the exact same room, with all the same perks and amenities. Guess where I booked?
- Common Savings Tip: Bring snacks into the park.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Probably not. Disney allows guests to bring their own food and beverages into the theme parks. In my mind, a water bottle and an apple are the same whether you pay $3.00 for them in the park or $1.00 at a local grocery. However, some snacks, like the iconic Mickey bar, have no portable equivalent, so you may want to work a few bonus snacks into your budget.
- Common Savings Tip: Bring meals into the park.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Maybe. Toting a few snacks into the parks isn’t much trouble, but once you’re talking about full meals, you have to start thinking about serious shopping and food storage, which can cut into your vacation mindset. There are also a number of dining experiences (character meals, dinner shows, themed venues such as the Sci-Fi Dine In) that can be big fun. You may feel that you’re missing out if you avoid those entirely.
- Common Savings Tip: Cook in my room.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Probably. You should first be aware that most appliances are forbidden in standard Disney hotel rooms. If you bring your hot plate, waffle iron, electric skillet, or crock pot into a standard room, you’re violating a slew of fire code regulations and are subject to eviction from the hotel. If you’re in family suite or villa (or many off-site accommodations), cooking is OK, but do you really want to be washing pots at Walt Disney World? For folks facing severe food allergies, cooking on your own may be your best alternative. For many others, cooking will be a big vacation downer.
- Common Savings Tip: Eat meals at off-site restaurants.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: It depends on where you’re staying and where you’re eating. There are many wonderful and not-so-wonderful dining venues both on Disney property and off. Guests staying on Disney property without a car will find off-site dining untenable. But if you have a car, there are a number of good, affordable restaurants within a 20 minute drive or so. If you don’t mind stepping out of the Disney bubble, and you avoid obviously dicey dining spots, then you’re probably OK with this one.
- Common Savings Tip: Share meals.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Probably not. Disney portion sizes are notoriously large. It’s often possible to share an entree between two adults or three small children while fully satisfying the appetites of all involved. If you have light eaters in your party, sharing meals is a great way to diffuse costs.
- Common Savings Tip: Get free dining.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Maybe. You should first read Tom Bricker’s excellent analysis of whether free dining is really a cost savings. Then consider whether your personal dining style matches that of the dining plan. For example, the dining plan includes lots of dessert. If you’re not a dessert eater, this may not be for you. Or if your favorite restaurant is not part of the plan, then you may feel frustrated. This one requires lots of research to assess its true value.
- Common Savings Tip: Eat only quick service meals.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Probably not. The quick service options at Walt Disney World have improved considerably in recent years. If you’re dining on St. Louis ribs at the Flame Tree BBQ, Tacos de Carne at La Cantina de San Angel, or a lobster roll at Columbia Harbor House, chances are you won’t even notice that you’re having fast food.
- Common Savings Tip: Use coupons or discount programs.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: No. A number of Disney and related entities offer dining discounts as part of their plans. If you’re a DVC owner, Annual Pass holder, D23 member, or AAA member, you’re entitled to many dining discounts. There are also coupons in the back of the Birnbaum Guide to Walt Disney World and some local Orlando publications. Assuming that you were going to eat at those restaurants anyway, why not enjoy your meal at a reduced price.
- Common Savings Tip: Don’t buy any souvenirs.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: It depends on your personality and the decibel level of your children’s pleas. Of course you don’t actually NEED any Disney souvenirs, so this seems like a relatively easy place to cut costs, but the unavoidable ubiquity of merchandise in the parks means that you or your kids are bound to find something that screams, “BUY ME.” More power to you if you can stick to your guns and skip souvenirs or acquire only free items (of which there are many). Remember that the best souvenir may be photos of your family enjoying time together. Take those with your own digital camera and incur no incremental costs.
- Common Savings Tip: Buy Disney-themed items to give to kids during the trip.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Not if you’re a good planner. Low cost Disney-licensed merchandise is available in countless locations including dollar stores, discounts stores, and online. Some guests will buy trinkets and tees at these venues, and give them to their kids during vacation in lieu of the more expensive in-park offerings. If you’re a good planner and packer, this can be a viable alternative to big spending. For possibly disposable items like a princess dress, buying off-site can reap substantial savings.
- Common Savings Tip: Set a strict souvenir budget.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: No. Everyone needs a budget on vacation, that’s just common sense. Check out our guide to Disney souvenir pricing and tips on how to communicate your family’s souvenir strategy to your children. You’ll be in great shape to craft a plan that makes sense for you.
- Common Savings Tip: Buy park tickets from a non-Disney vendor.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Not at all. There are a number of reputable vendors of discount Disney tickets. These are the very same tickets you can buy from Disney itself, but at a lower cost. Our Least Expensive Ticket Calculator can help you find a deal that meets your needs. Of course, always do your due diligence before buying tickets from anyone other than Disney, there are some scams out there, but most vendors are above board.
- Common Savings Tip: Don’t buy the Park Hopper Add-On.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: It depends. Check out the comments on our Park Hopper FAQ article. You’ll see that some guests wouldn’t visit Disney World without it, while other find it a waste of cash. See which touring style matches yours to make the best decision for your family.
- Common Savings Tip: Pre-buy tickets ahead of a price jump.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: No. Disney typically announces their annual ticket price hike a few days in advance. If you’re on the ball, you can buy your tickets for next year’s trip during this time, effectively letting you in at last year’s prices. The expiration clock on Disney tickets does not begin until they are first used, so if you’re willing to tie up some cash, you can reap even more savings by pre-buying your tickets several years in advance.
- Common Savings Tip: Don’t buy tickets to extra events like the Halloween and Christmas parties and the water parks.
- Will This Hurt My Experience?: Probably not. I’m a big fan of the Magic Kingdom parties, but if you’re a first time visitor you may find them overwhelming, or if you’ve done the parties in the past, you may have had your fill. And then there’s a myriad of things to consider if you’re thinking about doing one of the parties with small children in tow. In any case, there are enough things to do in and around Walt Disney World that skipping an evening party shouldn’t have an appreciable negative impact on your vacation.
So what do YOU think? Have you found that penny pinching put a dent in your fun? Or did being frugal make the fun all the better? Let us know in the comments below.