by Brittany DiCologero
One question that I am all too often asked by readers, is how I’m able to fund my Disney trips. It is obvious to most anyone that Disney can be an expensive vacation, and one reason why I am able to fund it fairly easily is because I am only paying for one person whereas many guests would typically be paying for multiple family members. If you’re looking for insight on to how to budget for a Disney vacation for yourself, spouse, and a couple of kids, this post isn’t entirely meant for you, however I hope it will provide at least some helpful insight for the financial planning of your next trip.
Plan ahead using gift cards
I do not generally book my Disney vacations as far ahead of time as the average family probably does, however I do still save for them ahead of time. I usually have a couple of trips planned (in my head at least) per year. While I do not often book trips too far in advance, or really have anything set in stone, having a rough idea of when I’m planning on traveling can help me save.
For anything that must be paid for to Disney directly, I either use rewards points from my Disney Visa card, or Disney gift cards. Generally speaking, I pay for the deposit for my hotel room using a debit or credit card, and I pay off the remaining balance upon check-in using a gift card. I do some math and figure out how much it would cost to pay the trip off weekly, and I stop at my local Disney store and add this amount to a Disney gift card.
For instance, if you set aside $50/week on a Disney gift card, this time next year you’ll have $2,060 saved. Depending on how frequent my trips are, and how much the cost of my resort stay will be, the amount that I choose to add to the gift card weekly changes, however you get the idea. It’s the same principle as using a credit card to pay off a trip without the interest. I also use the gift cards to save for spending money on the trip. Anything I charge on my Magic Band can also be paid off using the gift card when I check out. Furthermore, I really make an effort to save more on gift cards than I know my trip will cost (for accommodations and food). By doing this, I am actually able to come home with money remaining on gift cards, at least for the first couple of trips I take each year.
Annual Pass $$$
Because I have an annual pass, I’m also able to book rooms at a discounted rate for most of my trips, and I’m able to use discounts on merchandise and dining. If you’re a Florida resident, paying for an annual pass isn’t all that difficult as you can use the monthly payment plan, however for out of state guests the payment plan does not exist. I use the same discount method to pay for my annual pass, which while expensive is “paid for” for me after just one or two trips, which saves me money over buying separate park tickets for each visit, and the additional discounts.
Having the annual pass takes some of the pain out of paying for a Disney vacation, because once it is paid for you can start planning your vacation without factoring in the cost of tickets. Just be positive that you will go enough to get your money’s worth for the annual pass before purchasing it.
Side note: When you use your annual pass to book Disney resort rooms with a discount, be sure to compare all of the available offers. In many cases, a certain number of rooms are allotted to each discount. As a result, there have been times where a general room discount has allowed me to find a cheaper deal than the annual passholder discount. You may have to spend some time on Disney’s site to figure out which one is best for you, but it’s worth shopping around to be sure you’re getting the right deal.
I really don’t like discussing airfare, because it is so different for everyone depending on where you’re from and your own preferences. I use a Jet Blue credit card to earn points to put towards airfare, I fly SouthWest when I’m really sticking to a tight budget, and I obsessively check numerous sites for the lowest fares for weeks before booking it. It’s not the most established strategy but it works for me. For a more streamlined approach, you may have better luck using a site like Kayak that will show you all available fares at once.
But how do you really pay for all this?
Ok, it’s time to get real here. There are a couple of reasons why the cost of a Disney vacation for me is probably exceptionally cheaper than it is for the average guest. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m always only paying for myself. This fact alone makes it “easier” for me to pay for a Disney vacation than someone who is paying for children or additional family members, which is the “average” Disney guest. If I am planning a trip with someone else, it’s usually either Chaz (in which case he’s paying for the trip too), or I’m going with friends, and while I may not pool my money with friends the same way I would with Chaz, sharing hotel rooms and splitting costs can still really help (which I’m sure is not something that would work if you’re traveling with a spouse and kids).
I almost always stay at Disney value resorts. I have also stayed off Disney property in the past, but I found staying at a Disney resort to be a better value. For me, Disney’s complimentary transportation (both between parks and resorts and Disney’s Magical Express), close proximity to the parks, and Extra Magic Hours more than make up for the cost of staying off-site. There are arguments to be made for staying in bigger suite or villa style accommodations that may turn out to be more affordable than Disney’s even without transportation, but since I almost always travel alone or with one or two other people this hasn’t been something I’ve needed.
I don’t buy souvenirs. Years ago I would have saved up tons of extra money to go shopping in Walt Disney World, but I’ve really cut back recently and doing so has saved me a ton. The Shop Disney Parks mobile app has actually helped me curve my spending habits in Disney gift shops– if I see something I like in the parks, I immediately check to see if it’s available on the app, and if it is I don’t purchase it. Knowing that it’s easy to order from the app means that I can wait until I go home from my trip and see if I’m still thinking about it. If I am, I’ll order it, and if not I’ll have saved a lot of money over impulsively buying things as I see them.
Lastly, I always order water at table service restaurants (unless I’m having alcohol in which case there is no way around that cost), and I never buy soda or other drinks at quick service restaurants or anywhere else in the parks. I actually don’t like soda, so unless I’m looking for a glass of wine I’m not really tempted to spend money on drinks, and I really think you should be drinking lots of water anyway to stay hydrated. My exception to this rule is if I’m dining at a buffet or some other experience that includes beverages. I also don’t eat anywhere too expensive, or if I do it’s a once per trip sort of thing, and I often order from the kids’ menu at quick service restaurants. Again, these tips may not work if you’re paying for a family, and for some people bringing their own snacks to the parks or having groceries in their rooms works better– For me, I really feel that experiencing unique food and drinks is part of the Disney experience, and while I’m all for making it easier on my checking account I’m honestly not interested in skipping a Mickey cake pop in favor of a granola bar.
Lastly, I look for ways to get the greatest value out of everything I purchase. Sometimes saving money isn’t necessarily about making an amount cheaper as much as it’s about making sure you get the most for your money. As such, I almost never pay for any transportation during a Disney vacation. The only times I’ve paid for transportation while staying at a Disney resort has been to take an Uber to an early breakfast– but there is a trade-off in this scenario. Yes I’m spending extra money on Uber, but if my breakfast is at 7:30 or 8:00, I will more than likely be able to sleep in a little bit later than if I took the bus, have an early breakfast, and still get to the parks when they open. In this case, I would save the Uber is giving me a greater value by freeing up some of my time and allowing me to have the breakfast I want and spend the most time in the parks in the morning before they get too crowded.
I try to pack using carry-on bags to avoid luggage fees when I can, and when I do check luggage I make sure it’s under 50 lbs. In the grand scheme of what a vacation costs this may not seem like it would save you a lot of money, but if you take four or five trips a year (or are paying for all those extra family members) it can surely add up.
Value is an important factor for me when it comes to entertainment and dining as well. For instance, I will probably never go to AMC in Disney Springs, simply because I can go to AMC at home. I don’t think it’s a good value for the time and money I’m spending getting to Florida to spend time in a movie theater. I don’t fault people who do choose to go, but it just isn’t worth it to me. Likewise, I won’t dine anywhere or order food and drinks I can get at home (usually for much cheaper). A prime example of this is Bud Light– I like beer as much as the next person, but paying for Bud Light is just silly when you can get a beer like the Safari Amber that is unique to the Walt Disney World Resort for the same price. You also won’t find me dining at Rainforest Cafe, Blaze Pizza, or Earl of Sandwich– I can visit any of these restaurants at home, so again I just don’t see the value in dining there on vacation.
A huge part of paying for Disney is perspective. If you’re having a hard time figuring out how to budget for your trip, I would suggest factoring in all the small variables before you go ahead and book a $40/night room off property and stop at the grocery store on your way from the airport. Check different special offers for room rates, see if you can apply for or use a credit card that will give you rewards points, or consider purchasing Base Tickets instead of Park Hoppers. It may take more time and effort before your trip, but really researching all of the smaller ways to save can help you plan a more affordable Disney trip without sacrificing any part of your vacation.