How to Not Break the Budget

by Evan L. Weston
AllEars® Guest Columnist

Feature Article

This article appeared in the January 24, 2017 Issue #905 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

Evan WestonWhen I was 18 years old, I somehow convinced three also-18-year-old friends of mine to go to Walt Disney World with me for a week. I had been just once in the last decade and was eager to spend more time at my favorite place in the world. Problem was, well, we were all pretty much broke. And so began months of planning the trip, looking for cost savings every which way, until we eventually managed to make four park days and two reserved dinners happen for less than $1000 per person.

If you want to venture down to Walt Disney World but you dread years of saving and preparing in your future, dread no more. It is possible to spend a significant amount of time inside the House of Mouse for a relatively reasonable price! Here are a few tips based on my experience on how to make the most of your time and your dime in Disney.

Airfare: Don't even bother

The biggest obstacle for many planning a trip to Walt Disney World is simply getting to Orlando. School schedules often make it difficult for families to travel when airfares are less expensive, and so parents are forced to spend hundreds per ticket just to load everybody up on the plane. To which I say: why fly at all?

The first decision we made on our trip was to drive to Orlando instead of flying. We were coming from New Jersey, meaning about 18 hours one way to Florida. Frankly, the drive down was one of the best parts of the entire trip. Road trips are tremendous bonding experiences, and we made a few stops along I-95 to see some sights, including Washington, Savannah, and the hilariously tacky South of the Border "resort" on the North and South Carolina border.

Unless you're driving a Hummer from Alaska, you'd be hard-pressed to spend more on gas than on airfare, and there are cheap hotels littered along the way for a nighttime break. You also avoid the risk of the airlines ruining your vacation with delays and cancellations. Being in charge of your own travel is a phenomenal way to avoid being forced into nasty charges along the way.

Lodging: You have options

As you coast down I-4 through Orlando and toward Walt Disney World, you have several options on where to say. There are some real benefits to staying on Disney property, especially if you do choose to fly, because it provides easy access to Disney's resort-wide bus service. If you opt to go that route, the three All-Star resorts, Music, Movies and Sports, are popular choices, as they tend to offer the lowest prices of any Walt Disney World resort hotel. If you can find availability, though, I recommend Pop Century Resort, which is usually in the same price range as the All-Stars and has, I feel, a bit more character to it.

Staying off-property, though, may be your best budget-conscious bet. If you're only here for Disney, look to stay south of the resort in the Kissimmee area, as you'll often get better deals there than in the tourist-filled International Drive area. If you plan to hit other Orlando parks, staying closer to Universal is often cheaper than trying to get close to Disney World. Most attractions are within about 20 minutes of each other provided you're not on the road at rush hour.

There is a third option, if you can afford a little more, say in the $150-$200 a night range — renting points. Disney's timeshare service, the Disney Vacation Club, allots a certain number of points to its members every year, and those points are spent on nights at DVC resort hotels. Often, members have more points in the bank than they want to use, and thus will recoup the value on them by "renting" them to non-DVC members.

To do this, it's best to go through the proper channels, which include timeshare resellers like David's Vacation Club Rentals. I know that David's is an AllEars® sponsor, but in my experience they do a phenomenal job reaching out to members, securing unused points, and turning them over to non-DVC guests, often for more than 50 percent off the listed price of the room. This is not going to be an option for everyone based on schedules, price and availability, and David's service is non-refundable once the reservation is secured. But if you're looking for luxury at a far reduced price, renting DVC points is definitely worth looking into.

Park Tickets: Bite the bullet here

Park tickets are, by far, the most difficult necessity on which to save money on a trip to Walt Disney World. The Mouse is very careful about guarding its ticket prices from discounts, and even Florida residents don't get much of a break, except on annual passes. In fact, if you think you might make another trip to Disney World within a year, you should consider an annual pass. There are significant savings on annual passes, including passes that are only available to Florida residents, an owning an annual pass makes you eligible for some dining and lodging discounts as well. Otherwise, there are places to find slight discounts on multi-day tickets, such as Maple Leaf Tickets, but you'll largely be paying close to the listed price from Disney.

The best advice I can give on park tickets is to have a strong plan before you go and do not purchase the Park Hopper option. Yes, that option provides flexibility, but it's just far too expensive for the budget-conscious traveler. Disney's best value ticket right now is the 4-Day Magic Your Way base ticket, which includes a free fifth day if you purchase through some ticket discounters like Maple Leaf Tickets. (AllEars® readers get an additional discount when using the special link above.) No, you won't be able to go to more than one park per day, but you can hit each one over the course of your stay.

Food: Shoot for the middle tier

One of the best ways to save on food prices during a Walt Disney World Resort vacation is to eat most of your meals outside of the parks. There are plenty of restaurant chains of just about every price level in the Orlando area that will allow you to eat without busting the budget.

During my trip a few years ago, my friends and I took a detour to Target before departure and loaded the car with cheap non-perishables and snacks to keep us satisfied throughout the vacation. Don't forget that you can also bring along a drawstring bag or backpack to the park with such snacks, granola bars, fruits that won't spoil quickly in the heat like apples, and plenty of water bottles. That alone will save you some bucks throughout the day. If you're really motivated, you can bring a small cooler (no bigger than 24 inches long by 15 inches wide by 18 inches tall) into the park with food that does not need to be heated.

But how do you get to eat at those awesome Disney restaurants without breaking the bank for the meal? The Disney Dining Plan is an option if you're staying at a Disney resort. Because the Dining Plan is part of a vacation package that is pre-paid, you won't have to worry about paying as you go, and if you plan ahead by using the menus on AllEars.Net, you can maximize the value of your meals. If you're not staying at a Disney hotel, or if the Dining Plan is beyond your budget, there are still ways to experience table service dining at Disney restaurants at least once or twice.

Fortunately, Disney has a middle tier of table service restaurants with a selection of entrees running in the neighborhood of $20-$25. These are not stand-in-line-and-order places; you're getting full service in a beautiful, themed atmosphere. Some of these restaurants are so under the radar that you can often walk up without a reservation and get a table, though I'd highly recommend advance reservations if at all possible. Epcot has a really nice group of these places, including Nine Dragons (Chinese), Spice Road Table (Moroccan), and San Angel Inn (Mexican). There is also a mid-range restaurant at each Magic Kingdom area resort — The Wave at the Contemporary, Kona Cafe at the Polynesian, Grand Floridian Cafe at the Grand Floridian, and Whispering Canyon Cafe at Wilderness Lodge — and they provide a perfect respite from a hot day at the park. Most other resorts around the property have great middle-tier restaurants as well, including the Captain's Grille at the Yacht Club and Olivia's Cafe at Old Key West. And the recently revamped Disney Springs has recently launched several restaurants that fit the mid-range bill, particularly Chef Art Smith's Homecoming Kitchen and Chef Rick Bayless' Frontera Cocina. If you happen to have a Disney Visa credit card, be sure to ask if there are any discounts. (You can check this in advance of your trip on AllEars.Net's Discounts page.)

Souvenirs: Wait it out until the World

You're going to want to bring something home from Walt Disney World Resort to commemorate your trip, but the temptation exists to grab everything in sight. Don't. Wait until the final hours of your trip to make any sort of souvenir purchase. You don't want to be carrying around a bunch of Disney bags while you're in the parks having fun, and this way might save you money.

When you're getting ready to head back home, make a bit of time to stop by the all-new Disney Springs shopping district. Head toward the Marketplace side and you'll find the World of Disney store, which offers the widest variety of merchandise on the property. Almost everything you can find in the parks is available either in this store or in one of the smaller stores nearby, including Once Upon a Toy, Mickey's Pantry (for the cooking-inclined), and Disney's Days of Christmas. Snag your favorite piece of merchandise and then hit the road! Don't forget to ask about that Disney Visa card discount if you have one. One extra hint: for those looking to take a T-shirt home that represents this trip specifically, you can customize your own shirts with characters, color, and print at Design-A-Tee, hidden away in the farthest corner of the Marketplace section. You can get fully customized shirts for as little as $25!

It definitely takes some work, but if you're thinking two steps ahead and are ready to make a full plan, you can do a Walt Disney World Resort vacation without breaking your bank. If four 18 year-old kids could do it, you can, too!

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AllEars.Net Menus

Discounts Around the World

Ticket FAQ

Annual Passes

Magic Your Way Packages

Maple Leaf Tickets

David's Vacation Club Rentals

You can also find a host of TIPS on saving money from our budget-conscious readers in our Searchable Tips Database.

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Evan Weston is a Disney and theme park enthusiast from Central New Jersey who has lived in Orlando since summer 2015. When not enjoying Disney World or Universal, he works as the television play-by-play voice of Stetson University athletics. He considers himself a Sorcerer Mickey superfan and visits the parks at least once weekly.


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.