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Affording Disney

After consulting several families and a few experts, the consensus is in … drum-roll please. There’s just no way to have an inexpensive Disney family vacation. The average family of four will spend between $3,500 (very cheap during off-season times) to $5,000 for a week at Walt Disney World. There are, however, great ways to save time, aggravation, and a little money by planning ahead—which can make it easier to spend closer to $3,500 rather than $5,000!

To get savings tips, I turned to Jennifer Bright Reich, an editor and Disney World expert, who is currently writing a book about her favorite holiday destination (where she has vacationed already seven times!). Her Web site, DisneyWithKids, outlines terrific strategies to save. While many experts explain strategies to save in particular areas, such as hotels or meals, I wanted a picture of what the total vacation typically costs so families can better budget. 

Jennifer provided a thorough estimate for a family of two adults and two kids, ages five and three, (traveling off-season for cheaper rates) from November 26th through December 2nd 2007 (seven days, six nights in value season):

  • Disney’s Pop Century Resort (a Disney value resort) in a standard room and seven days of Magic Your Way Tickets with Park Hopper option and Water Park Fun and More option: $1,804.98
  • Round-trip airfare from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Orlando, Florida: $1,038.40
  • Travel from airport to hotel via Disney’s Magical Express: $0
  • Meals:
    • $20 for counter-service breakfast X 6 breakfasts = $120
    • $30 for counter-service lunch X 7 lunches = $210
    • $80 for sit-down restaurant supper X 6 suppers = $480
  • Grand total: $3687.34 (Keep reading and you’ll see below how she reduces this by a third!)


Realistically, however, many families would rather go during the summer or a spring break from school. Prices go up then. But there are ways to save. According to Elizabeth Sippel, mom of a fourteen-year-old boy and teacher from Salisbury, North Carolina, you can save money by using the educator discounts available through the resort and also by purchasing the no-expiration-date option for the tickets. They also opted not to stay at a Disney Resort hotel.

Whether or not to stay at a Disney hotel is one of the first budget choices you must make. I talked to some people, who see the off-site hotel as a great way to save. Others say this is the place to splurge; there are easier ways to save.

“We would stay in Kissimmee instead of Orlando. The hotels are much cheaper and it’s really not that far away.” Elizabeth explains.

For additional savings, she purchased her five-day passes through AAA. The five-day pass allows families to leave a park and return to it on the same day or go to another park on the same day without paying extra. Also, because the passes don’t expire, Elizabeth will be able to use leftover days on the next trip.

Lori Roe and her husband, Chip, have taken each of their three children to Disney World individually as a special treat and have done each vacation in a different way. They have driven from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where they live, twice, and recently flown. They have stayed on and off the resort and have finally concluded time is more valuable.

“The one thing I would recommend is suck up the cost and stay on Disney property. The upfront cost seems higher when you compare room cost on Disney property to hotels surrounding Disney, but the thing we found is that on the last trip, the savings isn’t that much. … We took a cab from the airport to the hotel, then we rode the Disney buses everywhere. They run very frequently, they are cool, you avoid the hassles and cost of parking. There are buses running to all the Disney parks and downtown Disney. There are special shuttles that take you to other sites as well (Sea World),” explains Lori.

Another perk with staying on the resort is that entry into the park is earlier for the folks on Disney property than the general population.

On-site hotels also can be great for families with babies needing to nap. One father said it was a lifesaver to be able to ride the shuttle back to the hotel with his baby, while mom and their older daughter continued to play at the park. Dad and baby took the shuttle back to meet them in the afternoon—a much easier scenario than shuffling back and forth into the parking lot.

If staying on the resort appeals to you, there are ways to lower costs elsewhere. Remember the original estimate that our Disney expert provided for a family of four flying in from Pennsylvania? Jennifer has whittled away at certain options to lower the original cost of $3687.34 to $2,340. Here’s how:

  • Bring breakfast foods, such as cereal and snack bars, from home and enjoy them in your room as you’re getting ready to go to the parks. Estimated savings = $120
  • Eat supper at a counter-service place instead of a sit-down restaurant. Estimated savings = $270
  • Stay in a standard room instead of a preferred room. Estimated savings = $81
  • Skip the Water Park Fun Option. Estimated savings = $174.74
  • Skip the Park Hopper Option. Estimated savings = $172.88
  • Drive instead of fly. Estimated savings=$529.52 [Cost of flight $1038.40 minus cost of two hotel nights on the road ($65.00 X 2 = $130.00) and gas (1044 miles at 30 miles per gallon = 34.8 gallons X $2.57 per gallon = 89.43 X 2 ways = $178.88) and eight fast-food meals ($25 X 8 = $200)]

Total estimated savings = $1347.34

Each family can find ways to save that better reflect the type of experience they hope to have. For Elizabeth, who was driving, staying off-site and buying the no-expiration-date tickets made sense. For Jennifer and Lori, it didn’t.

“Every family travels differently,” Jennifer says. “We usually save money by eating at less-expensive counter-service meals for breakfast and lunch, but we splurge on sit-down dinners most days, such as at character buffets.”

More Money-Saving:

  •  Bring snacks like granola bars and crackers and juice boxes in a backpack
  • If staying at a hotel on the resort, Jennifer advises that you buy refillable mugs for everyone at the first meal. “They cost around $12,” she says, “but you can refill them for free as many times as you want at your hotel’s food court.”
  • Research additional discounts such as those for Armed Forces service members and their families. For instance, Shades of Green is an Armed Forces Recreation Center located on Disney property where certain members of the U.S. Armed Forces community, their families, and certain civilians in the Department of Defense can stay for very low rates.
  • Discounts are also available to Walt Disney World annual pass holders, Florida residents, educators, and sometimes Disney Rewards Visa cardholders. In the past, Disney has offered discounts to Georgia and Canada residents, as well as firefighters and police officers—so it never hurts to ask!


I’m certainly inspired for our first trip next year. Do you have any other tips to add?

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