Saturday, January 25, 2014

Disney on a Budget

I thought I'd offer a bunch of tips on how we managed to make it to Disney World over Christmas holidays without completely breaking the bank mixed in with some tips that made things more smooth for our trip. Travelling over the holidays is dreaded by many but we actually spent very little of our vacation waiting in line ups and weathering crowds even though it is supposed to be one of the busiest times of year at Disney.

I'm a compulsive planner.  As soon as we decided to take the trip, I spent a few months researching - food, accommodation, age appropriate attractions, must sees/dos for boys etc.  but also combing through the myriad of blogs devoted to doing Disney on a budget.  Since we were driving and this would be our first road trip with the boys, aged 5 and 2, longer than 6 hours in a small car (we used to travel by minivan), I sought out road tripping with kids tips too. Luckily I didn't have to search too far for those - my go to blog posts were - here and here

1. If you're staying on site, stay at a value resort rather than a fancier one. This is especially true if you have young kids. The "tackiness" and double beds vs. queen size beds mentioned as negatives by some reviewers are actually pluses for the little ones who love seeing gigantic characters or in our case, running along a giant computer keyboard. Our neighbours stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge which when I looked was twice the price per night as our room at Pop Century! I had grand plans of relaxing at the resort and going for swims or playing on a playground. The hubby and oldest only managed to get in the pool once during our stay, we spent most of our time at the Parks. Originally we had planned to have one non-park day where we'd just stick around the resort or do Downtown Disney but even at the price of the value resort, it probably wouldn't be worth paying that much to stay on-site to not go to the parks. A bonus of staying on-site are extra park hours and free Disney Transit. Although when researching afterward I saw some hotels in the area (Downtown Disney) offer cheaper rooms, continental breakfast AND access to Disney Transit. 

2. Book through Disney Vacations. Even better if you book during an off-peak time.  This is my budget friendly tip since you can make and book vacations up to 18 months in advance with only a $200 deposit (and no interest!). The rest you can pay at any time in any increment so long as the balance is paid off a month and a half before your visit. There's nothing like actually booking a vacation to get you excited about going on (and paying for) that vacation. Don't forget the exchange rate if you live somewhere other than the U.S. like I did and wonder why you were charged $215 instead of $200. 

3. Children under 3 are FREE. Choosing to go while N was 2 1/2 proved to be a great idea. There were only a few rides he could not go on due to his height and only a couple of those our 5 year old was tall enough to ride. Both boys had a blast. 

4. Opt out on the Dining Plan and the Park Hopper Passes. The Dining Plan is not only expensive but also healthy options aren't in abundance either. I had originally booked the Park Hopper Passes for us but then cancelled after reading several reviews of people with young children saying they weren't worth the money and I couldn't agree more. The base pass allowed us to enter and exit one park as many times as we wanted in one day. With the travel time required to get in-between the parks it also would've been a waste of some of the day that could've been spent in the park. There was more than enough to do at one park in one day. One day was sufficient for us to do all we wanted at Animal Kingdom but we used 2 days at Magic Kingdom to get in almost everything we wanted to do there. Unfortunately the parades and fireworks will have to wait until the boys are a bit older. 

5. Drive rather than fly. Parking at the resort is free and it cost us less than the cost of flights for 2 people including hotel accommodations to drive rather than fly. If you do drive, we brought lots of snacks, spill proof water bottles, a car tray - they took turns with this, colouring book and crayons, laptop (which we barely used), a Nintendo DS with new games (Xmas gifts from family and friends), and a LeapPad2 (Santa gift). We pulled the snacks out when the whining started. We had a fairly peaceful trip. 

6. Make most of your own meals. We don't eat out much at all regularly so this one wasn't hard for us. We chose to eat out for dinners while we were away. This meant breakfasts and lunches in our resort room (which had a mini fridge). We stopped at a grocery store about an hour out of Orlando and stocked up our cooler. We also chose to stay at Holiday Inn Express hotels on the way down and back which included continental breakfasts. We brought our own drinks and snacks into the parks without any trouble. We did splurge one night and got the boys Mickey ice cream bars since we only spent $30 on hot dogs for dinner that night at Casey's Corner in the Magic Kingdom.  We did buy coffee each morning too at the Parks. Even though we ate relatively few meals out, I was dying for a home cooked meal when I got home and feeling really crummy from all the sodium. 

7.  Read menus and make reservations! Disney dining reservations book up quickly and I was bummed to find that by the time I got around to it I thought we'd be eating dinner at 2 in the afternoon or 10 at night. BUT I came across good advice in the comments section of a blog saying to call the restaurant to reserve instead since they only book a certain portion of the restaurant through online Disney reservations. I called. Got the exact times I was looking for. Warning: If you don't make reservations you could be waiting anywhere from 1-2 HOURS at table-service restaurants during peak times. With the reservations we waited 10 mins. Our two reservation meals we had while at Disney were at the Rainforest Cafe at Animal Kingdom and the T-Rex on our first night in Downtown Disney. Both bills came to around $100 for the four of us. We preferred the T-Rex which was a wee bit cheaper and the portion sizes were so large we had leftovers for lunch the next day. Side note: it pained me to spend $100 on dinner. Especially when the 4 of us ate dinner at Denny's on the drive down for $26. 

8. Bring your own stroller. We dusted off and brought our own umbrella stroller (you'll want something small and easy to collapse with transit). Stroller rentals are something like $15/day for a single. Our stroller has gotten virtually no use since a long day trip to Centreville last summer when N had just turned 2. Back in the fall, when we took the boys to a local Conservation Area, he walked/ran  a 3 kilometre loop without any trouble. At Disney, he rode in the stroller about half of the time so it was somewhat handy to have. If your child is school-aged you can get away with not bringing a stroller. Though we did see a lot of older school-aged children being pushed around in strollers which BAFFLED us. B was even confused and asked us why the big kids were riding in strollers.  

9. Book your Fast Passes ahead online. Every park ticket has the option of using up to 3 "fast passes" which allow you to arrive to the ride at a certain time and skip the line up. We picked our 3 for each day and booked them all for before noon. That way we got them all in while the kids were well rested and before we headed back to the resort for lunch and afternoon naps. The rest of the time, we chose rides with short line-ups. N was good for no more then about a 20 minute wait while B waited in line without complaint twice for 45 minutes to go on some more thrilling rides with his dad. We found early in the morning the waits weren't bad and when the whether was overcast/a little drizzly. We got many rides done during this time. Being pregnant, I was surprised there were still a number of rides I could actually go on. 

10. Souvenirs are expensive traps. The boys were lucky to get a little bit of money from grandma and grandpa for souvenirs as part of their Christmas gifts. They also got Disney PJs (from Walmart) as part of their gift that they wore during the trip. We were firm with the boys that they each got $40 to spend on souvenirs and that was it. The very first night, after playing in the Lego Store in Downtown Disney B wanted to use his souvenir money to buy Lego. We reminded him he got Lego for Christmas and that he should spend his money on something he couldn't buy at home. We told him to wait until the last day to choose his souvenirs after he had seen everything there was. The night before we left, I took him to the gift shop and let him look. I told him his spending parameters. He came back several times with expensive items. If it was more than $40 I let him know he couldn't afford it. Same went for the cheaper combinations of items. He carefully chose a Perry the Platypus stuffed animal and a Mickey Mouse digital watch. At Animal Kingdom, N saw a giraffe stuffed animal at one of the souvenir carts that he just had to have so we bought him that and then the last day I took him to another shop while the bigger boys were off riding go carts and he chose a small Mickey Mouse stuffed animal. Both boys were beyond happy with their souvenirs. We also splurged on a Lego Coffee Mug from the Lego store for R ($9) which had his name on it and on a couple of professional photos ($30) - one of all of us with Mickey and Minnie and the other of just the boys which we figured was worthwhile since we don't have any family photos of us all together since N was born and it is a nice memory of a fun vacation - our last as a family of 4. 

What we actually spent on our trip in total (we did get $100US, a $50 GC for Applebees and $50US for souvenirs as Christmas Gifts which is all included so out of pocket expenses are $200 less than the total below): 

Disney Resort + Base Park Tickets - 3 nights/3 days
Other Hotel Accomodations: 2 nights @ Holiday Inn Express - could've gone cheaper - paranoid about pests
Gas & $15 Tolls
Food ($355 Restaurants & Coffee, Mickey Ice Cream Bars), $70 Groceries and Beer
Travel Emergency Medical Insurance
10-year Passport for R
Lego mug ($10), Photos ($30), Mickey Watch & Perry the Platapus ($40), Mickey & Giraffe ($35)


Amanda said...

I've visited Disney in December and July and much preferred December. There were still some crowds, but nothing like the summer rush! The hot weather was also exhausting. I think you did really well spending wise. It would've been easy to spend a lot more!

Kristy said...

Nice to have perspective from someone else who has visited. I thought we did okay too budget wise. As a kid I visited twice in August. I don't remember much but I do remember getting the worst sun burn of life and being so uncomfortably hot waiting for the afternoon parade. All the Christmas decorations were really nice when we went this time around and the weather was in the low-mid 20's (celsius) which was just perfect for those of us in colder climates. We returned to polar vortex conditions with wind chill temps of -40!

Mo said...

This just blows my mind. I guess a trip to Disney is not so near in our future, if spending $3000 for only a few days is considered doing Disney on the cheap. It scares me to think how much other family/friends have spent that have done a week, with like 7 parks, fancy hotel, food plan, and flights! Perhaps we'll camp or just make a week long Florida trip with just one day at Disney.

Thanks so much for sharing Kristy! Very eye opening

Kristy said...

I know - pretty crazy huh... I think Sarah (Sleeping is for Losers) said she spent about half that on her week long Florida trip - they drove, spent 5 days in Florida at a condo and didn't do Disney. One day base tickets for adults at a Disney park are somewhere around $90. You're probably looking at almost $300 just to go for the day and that's without souvenirs/food! Though you can buy them reduced at a number of places I think. We've been thinking about a Great Wolf Lodge trip but even that is 2-300+ per night. Certainly won't be in the budget when I'm not working unless we can get some GCs from family/friends for birthday and xmas gifts.