Walt Disney World (FL)

Challenge: The Least Expensive Disney Trip

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A few weeks ago, I shared a scenario to illustrate the reality of the potential budgetary constraints and considerations in planning a Walt Disney World vacation. Thanks to all of your comments, tips and discussions, we were inspired to visit the opposite side of the spectrum and see just how many costs we could cut, while still presenting a realistic example of how families could save on a trip.


Of course, there had to be a few parameters  – and since this was designed in the spirit of the “least expensive” rather than full-on “Disney on the cheap,” here’s what I set out to work with:

  • Four guests (two adults, two kids)
  • Four days (full days)

In the interest of “keeping it real” as much as possible, I will use the “Davis Family” again – as a reminder, Mom – Susan, Dad – Richard, and two kids Billy (age 9) and Emily (age 5) are visiting from the midwestern United States. In this example, they are returning to Walt Disney World for a visit since they had so much fun on their first visit – but this time, they are not only using what they learned last time to craft a much less expensive visit, they have a much shorter window for their visit.

Since their first visit was in the fall, they decide they’d like to visit again during January since Richard, an avid marathoner, scored a spot on his corporate team to run the 2014 Walt Disney World Marathon (registration fees covered), a trip that would also coincide with Emily’s 6th birthday. Susan and Richard reviewed the discounts available for on-site lodging, but figured they could get a lot better of a deal, especially since they had some experience under their belt.

Let’s see how they did!


Susan checks out a Vacation Rental website (like vrbo.com) and finds that there are 1-bedroom villas just minutes from WDW property that start at $75/night and require a three-night stay: perfect! These accommodations include one queen size bed, two full-size futons, a full kitchen and site amenities include free parking and a fully stocked kitchen as well as a community pool and jacuzzi. Accommodation tax of 12.5% factored.

TICKETS ($1124)

Although they purchased park hoppers in the past, they decided to stick with base tickets and visit each park separately this go around – and after some careful research (perhaps using the free Least Expensive Ticket Calculator!), Richard and Susan eventually find the Undercover Tourist, which offers the popular 4-day  base ticket and a rate $6 off adult gate price from the official website.  At $290.95 per adult ticket and $270.95 per child ticket (tax included, with free shipping) the Davis family saves a total of $25 on theme park tickets.

DINING ($203)

diningNow, this is where it gets fun! Since the villa has its own kitchen, Susan reasons that breakfast can enjoyed at”home,” or on the go, snacks and sack lunches can be store-bought, prepped and packed, empty filtered water bottles carried and filled, dinner ready in minutes from arriving back to the villa, and just a few purchases in park will be necessary:

  • Breakfast items –  1 package of bagels ($3.50), 1 container of cream cheese ($2), 1 box Chex cereal ($3), 2 cartons of milk ($5), 1 carton orange juice ($3), bunch of bananas ($2.50), and coffee from home (free). Breakfast item total: $19
  • Snack items – box of granola bars ($3), package of apple sauce pouches ($3), medium sized bag of trail mix ($5) and box of clementines ($6). Snack item total: $17
  • Lunch items – loaf <24 slices> of bread ($4), package of Kraft singles ($3), package of sliced ham ($3), package of sliced turkey ($3), container peanut butter ($4), jar of jelly ($3), 1 large bag of potato chips ($4) and ziplock bags from home (free). Lunch item total: $21
  • Dinner items – box of spaghetti ($2), 2 bottles spaghetti sauce ($4), 1 pound hamburger meat ($4), pre-made garlic bread ($2.50), 3 bags of salad mix ($6), 1 bottle salad dressing ($2.50), 1 rotisserie chicken ($6), 1 bag frozen peas ($1.75), 2 packets microwavable rice pilaf ($3.25), 2 frozen pizzas ($10) and 1 carton ice cream ($4). Dinner item total: $46
  • Other dining expenses – Richard and Susan are fully aware that Billy and Emily will not be pleased with sack lunches all four days, so they are planning on surprising the kids with one table-service lunch: Crystal Palace, the all-you-can-eat character meal on the Monday after the marathon, and conveniently, Emily’s birthday. With tax and gratuity, this will be approximately $100.

EXTRAS ($80)

  • Since they will be staying off property, they will have to pay the $15/day parking fee at the theme parks ($60 for 4 days)
  • Miscellaneous expenses – though they will have purchased enough food items, Richard and Susan are allowing a budget of $20 for special snacks ($5/pp).

TOTAL = $1,662 *

*Transportation wasn’t worked into the total, as this would vary, depending on where a family is traveling from, however, if we were to use the Davis’ last estimates of driving again, we’d add about $750 to $800.

As you can see, crafting a much lower-cost vacation isn’t rocket science, but it is an exercise in determining what a family’s needs are versus their wants. When trips are more frequent, it is easier to forgo things like knick knacks and souvenirs, though that tactic would likely not fly easily with kids. Also, it’s important to consider what value is associated with time – since the Davis’ will be eating dinner at home, that means less park time, which may or may not work with different family’s touring goals.

In the end, this exercise proves that with a little creativity and  leg work, a trip doesn’t have to break the bank – though it isn’t without some degree of sacrifice.

If you were challenged to plan the least expensive trip, what would YOU do?

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26 thoughts on “Challenge: The Least Expensive Disney Trip

  • Bryan Klinck

    Dining is the one area where I might change things up, as your goal is “least expensive” (which I interpret as good value for money) rather than “Disney on the cheap”. Cooking dinners at the villa is a great way to save money, but it really does cut into your touring time, and you cannot do things like MSEP or Wishes if you want to eat dinner at a reasonable time. A different way to approach this is to have a big lunch at a reasonably-priced CS or TS restaurant, and bring a “packed dinner” of sandwiches to have at the park so that you can stay later. You can vary things based on the park you are doing each day – for example, AK with its earlier closing would be a good day for a pack lunch and dinner back at the villa.

    Also, as Richard’s company has a team for the WDW marathon, they might have a good deal available for tickets. Many corporate HR departments have discount programs for entertainment activities, so it is always good to check with them.

    • Great suggestions, Bryan! I agree, making the sacrifice to skip nighttime entertainment could be out of the question for many families, and that DAK switch up is a good point! Thanks for sharing your ideas.

      • Bryan Klinck

        Thinking about this a little more, I believe that in order for people to determine the least expensive way for them to go to WDW they need to first set their vacation expectations (which you appear to have done quite well for the Davis family). If “Mom doesn’t cook” on vacations, then the least expensive option may well be a WDW package with a Dining Plan (especially if they can get Free Dining), but off-site with a carefully budgeted schedule of CS/TS restaurants may work out well too. If “Dad doesn’t drive” on vacations, then on-site is probably the best option, although some off-site hotels/resorts with shuttle service may work out. If there are certain requirements in terms of room size, bed configuration, or resort amenities, then they may only be looking at Deluxe Resorts or Condos. Once these expectations are set, then you can start to see what you can do, and you can also see if lowering one of your expectations results in a savings that you feel is worth it.

        As an example, in our case we are not averse to light cooking (in fact we prefer to make our own breakfasts and don’t mind making a “packed lunch” for one of the other meals), I don’t mind driving (except to the Magic Kingdom), and we must have at least a Queen bed for us. So, our “least expensive” option was to rent DVC points for a Studio at WL, as it gave us a Queen bed with a sleeper sofa for our daughter, a kitchenette for our meal prep, and easy access to the MK.

      • Chris

        Bryan — I agree with you! I am not willing to stay off site. For me, there is something about the magic of the Disney resorts that is essential to our Disney vacation. We did the same thing you did — studio at WL to have kitchenette. Loved it!

  • Melinda

    These were great tips!!

    If you are staying off site and leave for lunch, do you have to pay for parking again?

    If you don’t have to pay for parking twice, maybe the family could go back to the villa for swimming, resting, and lunch. Then head back to Disney for evening festivities with a packed dinner as Bryan suggested. They could plan to be at the park from open to close, with a 3 hour break or so during the afternoon. If they really are just “minutes” from Disney, travel time wouldn’t be that much.

    We always fly because we live far away. We use Garden Grocer for all of our perishable foods and a case of water. Although, it is more expensive than a regular grocery store, it is cheaper than buying the same type of food at Disney. We also bring tons of snacks in our suitcases. We saved a lot of money just on food when we went in May.

    • Melinda – thanks for your comments! 🙂

      Great suggestions – and yes, parking is a one-time fee per day, with in and out privileges.

  • HelenB

    I think you forgot one thing here: poor Mom! I know when I travel to DIsney with my family, I’m the one taking care of everything: laying out clothes, getting everyone up on time, planning out schedules, cleaning up, etc. If I had to actually cook meals too (particularly after a long day at the park when I am physically exhausted) it would take a lot out of me! Now in your example it’s just 4 days, but still… coming back to cook dinner every night after heavy touring would wear me out! I could see the frozen pizza, but not much more. Maybe a microwave popcorn…

    Now granted, it’s a bit more expensive, but we do something similar to what Bryan recommends: bring our own breakfast and eat it while waiting for rope drop (bagels, cereal bars, containers of raisins, and milk) then have a TS lunch at the park. This is our big relaxing meal. Then we bring our own snacks for the afternoon (usually eaten while we are waiting in line somewhere) and dinner, if any, is minimal. Since we are rope drop people, we rarely stick around for the nighttime shows/fireworks, so this does well for us.

    • Brian

      @HelenB: you assume Mom’s the cook. In our family, I’m the one doing the cooking. Maybe your husband needs to step it up a little! 😉

      But seriously, I think that’s a good shot at going as inexpensively as possible while still meeting basic standards. For example, you could go cheaper on food but my wife would insist we have vegetables like salads in at least 1 meal/day. It’d be difficult to do all 3 meals in the rental each day, but with some planning I think it’s doable.

      Even though it was noted at the end that they were not included, I do think you have to add travel costs in order to “keep it real.” Depending on where they’re coming from in the Midwest, driving may work better than flying. There are some good calculators online to do a drive/fly cost comparison, like this one: http://www.befrugal.com/tools/fly-or-drive-calculator/

      • HelenB

        Brian, I’m impressed that you do the cooking! My husband could cobble something together if he was totally desperate, but his skills don’t like int hat area. He’d be the one throwing in the frozen pizza or better yet, just ordering the pizza. 😉 But then he’s also the tecchy guy who can fix all of my computer problems, big or small. We all have our own strengths. But my point is that no matter who is doing the cooking, it’s not something you will want to do at the end of a long Disney day.

        If you’re not fixated on salads, it’s easy to bring a few veggies with you for a snack. Raw carrots, celery sticks, cucumber or green pepper slices… these things can sit in a hotel fridge and be put in a ziploc bag for snacks. And minimal prep!

      • Good points, Brian! Thanks for chiming in with your perspective and ideas! 🙂

  • Kristina

    We are APs and do long weekend trips every month. Since we drive, we bring all of our non-perishables with us since groceries are so much cheaper at home than anywhere in Orlando. Our splurge is always a big breakfast before the parks open at the Wave, Kona, or Tusker House. We don’t even have to think about eating again until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. We are usually back at the condo at that time and can eat there or grab something off-property.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Kristina! As a fellow AP (and somewhat local) it is rare that we spend a full day in the parks without a break or stop somewhere, so we can head out again later…and as wonderful as the nighttime spectaculars are, it’s common for us to leave before the crowds so we don’t get stuck in the mass exodus of the parks in the evening 🙂

  • bridget

    One thing i would add is if a person is running in a rundisney race they are eligible for hotel and park ticket discounts that are usually pretty good. i know the park tickets would be better than undercover tourist for the race discount. that would make a difference

  • Courtney

    We just went to Disney a few months ago, we stayed off site but used DIsney Transportation. We had to get up a little earlier to use it but it was worth the $15/day for us.
    Go to Downtown Disney, in gate 2, walk past Once Upon a Toy to the bus depot. You usually have to get on a bus to a resort, then transfer to a bus going to the park you want…. it took us at most 40 minutes, but that was because we got on the wrong bus. After that is was no more than 30 min. It is nice to use for Magic Kingdom, you don’t have to park, then take the monorail, Disney Trans. takes you right to the main entrance!

  • Alicia Ellis

    Just a little reality moment…1 package of 6 bagels for 4 people for 4 days? Hmm, that wouldn’t last in my family. And a carb filled breakfast every day for 4 days would leave my family cranky and starving by 10:30. That would mean needing to add another meal in the park. As always, I appreciate the effort but I really don’t think the people who write these blogs have any experience in living this kind of plan with real people. Would Len allow you to do a trip like this one, with this menu of foods ONLY, and see if your family was comfortable? Would this family actually have a good vacation experience? As a mom who would be dealing with the fallout from this kind of plan, with all of the cooking, I wouldn’t be happy. When will we see a real life touring plan experience? Document the money, document the foods, document the emotions when you say No, you already used your $5 on a mickey bar this morning, no more snacks for you until we get back at midnight? Lets get real and do the next level of touring plans research.

    • Alicia – thanks for your comment. This was more like a follow up to the original post, so I invite you to read that one to see what the family had already done. I believe that if you go into a vacation with the appropriate mindset, it would not be disappointing 🙂 I know that this plan would not work for everyone, but I think I added some tips that could get people thinking.

      As a DVC member, I actually do return to the room to prepare meals for myself and my husband. I love the special treats at Disney, don’t get me wrong, but as someone who trains for marathons, I prefer eating more “regular” things, even on vacation so I don’t mind the extra time it takes to make a healthy meal for my family. Boiling spaghetti or heating up some rice isn’t a lot of cooking in my opinion – and to be honest, it’s just that: my opinion 🙂 Again, this doesn’t and will not work for everyone, but I did want to provide that perspective.

      Side note: breakfast had several components to it (cereal, bananas, etc) so I agree, one package of bagels wouldn’t cut it. I am not a mom and do not claim to understand how family dynamics work, but I know that in family situations that I am an aunt, or looking back to when I was a kid, I know that some mornings, no one is in the mood for breakfast and so a granola bar is subbed once it’s realized that yes, a kid (or adult) is hungry.

  • Renee

    So I just checked Disney’s free dining offer. If the family is willing to eat counter service and stay in a value resort, then at least for the days I checked (November 12-16), the price for the above family for 4 nights would be $1662.18. (THE SAME AS ABOVE!) It’s all about what is important to the family. If a condo and spacious accommodations is important and they like home cooked food, then the above scenario works well, but if they would rather stay on property, eat counter service and not have to cook, then getting a deal like free dining costs the same. Staying on property can be less expensive if you get a deal like Free Dining and are willing to stay in a value resort.

    • Thanks for checking this out, Renee! I totally agree, every family situation is different!!

  • Gary

    I have to question the accomodations amount. At $75 per night, plus tax, your $255 is for three nights. If the plan is to do four days at the parks (one day at each) and coming in from the midwest (so having to factor in flight times and car rental/travel times, seems like they would need at least and extra night if not two.

    I live in the midwest and I can’t get a flight that will land at Orlando airport any earlier than 12:30pm and then add waiting for bags, getting your car rental, driving to hotel, checking in and unpacking, etc. For my upcoming trip, I decided to come in the night before and stay at a cheaper hotel the first night to save money.

    • Thanks for your comment, Gary. Please see the last scenario for their longer trip that they went on prior to this one, this challenge was to have the shortest and cheapest trip possible 🙂 In this situation, they were driving as well, so flights/rental car travel times would were not considered.

  • This is very similar to how we do Disney and it works well! We stay at Orbit One Vacation Villas, which is very close to Animal Kingdom. The condos have full kitchens so we eat a lot of our meals at home. I’ve been preparing meals at Dream Dinners for years, and I’ve found them to be perfect for Disney. There are no leftovers and I don’t need to shop for as much once we get to Florida. We freeze the dinners (all but one, for the first night) and pack them into a rolling cooler for the flight. Extra ice really isn’t necessary since the dinners keep each other cold. Once there, I head to store to pick up milk, etc. I use the Wal-Mart off US 27, which is a bit of a drive but much less crowded than any Publix in the area.
    For the parks, we pack Lunchables for the kids, which is something of a treat for them, along with frozen juice boxes which thaw by lunchtime. We leave the park not long after lunch and return to the condo for a rest. I make dinner about five, then we eat and return to the parks for the evening festivities. We do eat out (we never miss Boma!), but we don’t have to pay Disney’s prices when we just need fuel to keep going. The money we save goes towards extras, like the Halloween party.
    In response to an earlier post: no, moms don’t want to work on vacation, but Disney is pretty much a working vacation for me anyway. Sometimes it’s less stressful to cook while the kids play than to keep them busy in a restaurant. I always take aluminum foil and line the baking pans to make cleanup easier, and we generally eat breakfast on paper plates. By the time we’re ready to leave, the cooler is empty and ready to hold all our new treasures.

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