Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World on a Budget
by Ryan G. Vest
For military families, Disney World remains the number one destination pre- and post-deployment, as well as for summer vacations and spring break. As such, a large percentage of the questions we receive via email revolve around how to do Disney World on a military salary. This guide is designed to give you some ideas and help in planning a vacation for any budget to get the most out of your money. With four theme parks, two water parks, 31 resorts, nine spas and 139 restaurants, we have a lot of ground to cover.
Where to stay.
The logical starting point for any vacation planning is choosing the right place to stay. For those of us without a rich aunt living in Orlando, lodging falls into three general categories:
Disney resorts, Orlando area resorts and hotels, and home rentals. Each has pros and cons and there is no one size fits all solution.
After building Disneyland in California, one of Walt’s greatest regrets was the small city of sometimes dubious hotels and restaurants that sprang up around the park to profit from his dream, but without his values and operating beyond his control. When Disney decided to build a park in Florida, he vowed not to make the same mistake again, and this time bought an enormous parcel of land so that he could keep less reputable elements at arm’s length. Because of Walt’s foresight, the two biggest advantages of choosing a Disney property today are reputation and convenience. No matter which of the 31 on-site properties you choose to stay in, you know it has Disney’s name on it and is guaranteed to be clean, respectable and family friendly. Although today the vast majority of Orlando (and Anaheim) hotels would meet with Walt’s approval, you can know with certainty what you are getting when you choose a Disney resort. But on top of that, you also get convenience. Because Disney World is so huge, (roughly the size of the island of Manhattan!) non-Disney properties are relatively far from the parks and don’t always have shuttle service, with many only offering shuttle service to the transportation and ticket center. In contrast, all Disney resorts have free bus service to all parks, waterparks and Downtown Disney, making it easy for every member of your family to get where they want to go. As an added bonus, several of the resorts have alternate transportation options to select parks, including monorail and boat service. None of the Disney owned properties charge for self parking, which can save both parking fees (which many non-Disney hotels charge) as well as daily parking fees at Disney parks, which is something to take into consideration when comparing prices between resorts.
Of the 31 hotels and resorts on Disney property, 23 are owned by Disney with the other eight resorts owned by other companies on land leased from Disney. As a general rule, in the past, Disney has not offered military discounts on any of their properties. Instead, Disney created the Shades of Green resort, a resort available only to military families at reduced rates based on rank/paygrade. Because it’s based on paygrade, Shades of Green is a great deal, especially for more junior personnel. But if you decide to stay on Disney property, remember there are eight resorts that aren’t owned by Disney that do offer a military discount, which, depending on your paygrade, are sometimes lower than Shades of Green. Make sure you check rates at these other properties before booking your room at Shades of Green. As an example, we have found that the military rate at the Swan and Dolphin resorts is often very close to the Shades of Green rate, for a much nicer hotel. Also, it’s a good idea to take a look at the other Disney owned properties because occasionally they do run promotions and military discounts. As an example, right now Disney is offering up to 40% off select resorts for military members, which is an offer worth pursuing. See our home page for more details.
For those that are flying to Orlando, Disney properties offer the added bonus of a free airport bus, Mickey’s Magical Express. If you are flying to Orlando and only planning to visit Disney theme parks, the Magical Express may be just the ticket to save you the cost and trouble of renting a car.
One last thought on the subject of convenience. Many families ask us what the difference is between taking a bus to the parks from a Disney hotel versus driving from an off-site hotel. The example that always comes to mind is toddler nap time. It’s not uncommon to walk around the Magic Kingdom at about dinner time, and find a lot of crying and upset kids. They’ve been outside in the sun all day, among large crowds and have had their schedule turned on its head. Suddenly the happiest place on earth is anything but to weary parents trying to give their kids some wonderful memories. We have found that taking the kids back to the hotel for an hour or two around their regular nap times will alleviate most of that stress. If we’re staying at a Disney property, it’s easy for dad to take a tired kid on a short bus ride to the hotel and back. It’s a much different story, trying to take a sleepy kid on the monorail to the transportation and ticket center, followed by a tram ride through the parking lot to a hot car, followed by a 15-30 minute drive back to the hotel.
Orlando Area resorts.
The Orlando area is the premier vacation destination for families in the world. It’s easy to get wrapped up solely in what Disney has to offer and forget that there are other theme parks in the area as well as local attractions. Unlike Disney resorts, Orlando area resorts are not generally owned by theme parks themselves, and any association with a theme park is generally an issue of proximity and convenience, therefore if a property bills itself as a Universal Studios or Seaworld hotel, it usually means it is near that park, not exclusively associated with it. Because of the high density of properties and the number of potential guests every year, each of these resorts will regularly offer deep discounts to keep rooms filled, and almost all of them offer a great military discount.
Because of their location and convenience, Disney resorts don’t have the same competition that Orlando area resorts have, which generally translates into higher prices. Though there are often extra fees (like parking) at Orlando area resorts, you can usually find great deals at brand name hotels.
As mentioned above, choosing an Orlando area hotel will mean that you have to drive to and pay for parking when visiting Disney parks, but on the up-side, it makes visiting non-Disney attractions much easier. If your family is planning on visiting Universal Studios or Seaworld on your next trip, as well as Disney World, an Orlando area hotel or resort is a nice compromise.
One other item to consider for traveling on a budget is meals. We will address dining on vacation later in the article, but for hotel rooms, bear in mind that Disney properties will usually provide a fridge in room and nothing more, where finding a room with a kitchenette in off-property resorts is fairly easy.
The last category we will address is home rentals. We have had great luck over the years working with property management companies to rent condos, apartments and homes. These will generally be a little bit farther away from parks and attractions than hotels and resorts, but come with an added degree of privacy and comfort, and can often be had much cheaper than any comparable hotel, though often without hotel perks like housekeeping and room service.
On our most recent trip to Orlando, we rented a four bedroom, four bathroom house with a full kitchen, private swimming pool and game room. This particular house rented for less money per night than some of the Disney resorts. Though the price was a little steep for our little family, most of the other families renting houses in the same neighborhood were traveling with friends, splitting the cost of the house between two or three families, which made it an unbeatable value. If you vacation with extended family or friends, you would do well to look into renting a house. We had a hard time getting the kids out of the pool long enough to visit the Disney parks!
Overall, you need to evaluate what you plan to do on vacation and compare it to your budget. No matter what you are planning or how much you want to spend, there is an option for you in Orlando. As you budget for your vacation, don’t forget that the state of Florida charges relatively high hotel tax and resort fees. Taxes and fees vary county to county in the area so ask for specifics when you book your room, but as a general rule, taxes and state and county fees for your room should be around 15%. If they amount to significantly more than that, check with other nearby hotels to make sure that you aren’t being hit with hidden fees by the hotel itself.
Which tickets to buy.
After hotel, the next biggest expense of a Disney vacation is the tickets to the parks themselves. Depending on how long you stay, these can get very expensive.
The first question everyone asks is how many days tickets should their family purchase to see the parks. Like any other vacation question, the answer depends very much on your family and what they want to see, but as a general rule I would recommend a minimum of four days to maximize the value for your money. On a basic ticket, the price per day drops rapidly after three days. As an example, at current 2011 rates, a one day ticket to one park is $82, a two day ticket is $162 ($81 per day), a three day ticket is $224 ($75 per day) and a four day ticket is $232 ($58 per day). Note the big price drop in the per day column starting with day four. If you are interested in staying longer, prices continue to drop, with a 10 day ticket only costing $30 more than a four day ($262), at a rate of $26 per day. Do the math when planning your vacation and find the right number of days for your family.
The next popular question is whether or not to buy park hopper passes. Again, this depends
greatly on your family, but understand you are paying a high premium to switch parks mid-day. On a one day ticket, it costs an extra $54 to park hop. On a four day pass, it’s an extra $13.50 per day, which is much more palatable, but still extra money against your budget. When making the decision of whether or not to park hop, bear in mind that it takes 30-60 minutes to change parks on the best of days, which is time that you’re sitting on a bus, boat or monorail rather than enjoying the parks. On the flip side, we often switch parks in the late afternoon if we’re not in a park with great dinner restaurants. As an example, the Animal Kingdom lacks good sit down restaurants, and usually closes early. On Animal Kingdom days, our family will often hop to Epcot to enjoy dinner and fireworks after Animal Kingdom has closed.
All that said, if you travel between now and September of 2012, Disney has just announced a special ticket offer only for members of the military. As a thank you to our troops, Disney is now offering a $138 rate on a 4 day park ticket, and for an extra $27 you can add both Park Hopper and Water Parks to your ticket. That’s a deal that can’t be beat! For more information on the Disney military offer, visit the link on our home page.
Where to eat.
With 139 restaurants available on Disney property alone, choosing the right dining options can be daunting. Behind hotel and park tickets, dining will likely be your next highest expense and should be carefully budgeted for in advance to make your vacation less stressful.
Dining options in the parks are generally categorized as either table service or quick service. Each Disney park has a wide array of both options, making it easy for each individual family to find exactly what they are looking for, whether that is five star fine dining or popcorn and corn dogs from a cart.
For families on a budget, I would recommend against relying on quick service restaurants to save money. Disney’s table service restaurants are first rate by any standard and are one of my favorite parts of a Disney vacation, and can be had for only a little bit more money than fast food.
For breakfast, families on a budget would be best served by visiting a local grocery store on arrival and picking up plastic bowls, spoons, milk and cereal. Rooms without refrigerators are rare in Orlando, and feeding your family cereal every morning ensures they get some gas in the tank before walking several miles in the sun, and it’s very cost effective.
By the same token, making sandwiches for lunch is a great option. Disney has a very liberal outside food policy and even provides some limited picnic facilities. When you are packing for vacation, include a soft, collapsible cooler and a reusable ice pack to keep your lunch fresh every day. At lunch time, you will be amazed by the number of off the beaten path places where you can rest in the shade and eat lunch. Consider augmenting your homemade lunch with popcorn in a souvenir bucket, both to add some park flavor and to give the kids a trinket to take home. To break up the monotony of sandwiches every day, on the day you visit the Magic Kingdom, splurge and visit the Liberty Tree Tavern for lunch (but not dinner – see character dining below). You’ll thank me later. Whether you plan to bring your own lunch or not, it is a good idea to bring bottles of water for everyone in your family, especially if you’re not used to the Florida summer sun and humidity.
Dinner time is the one time you should consider splurging on food, especially while visiting Epcot. If you properly budget for dinners in the park, there will be no nasty surprises and your vacation will be worry free and relaxing. Every restaurant is different and prices vary, but as a starting point, if you budget $20 per person for dinner, you will be on the right track. Each park and Downtown Disney has great restaurants for everyone. Don’t miss the 50’s Prime Time Café and the Brown Derby at Hollywood Studios, Portobello at Downtown Disney, the Plaza at the Magic Kingdom and every restaurant in the World Showcase at Epcot. Put it in your budget because you deserve to get spoiled a little bit.
Character Dining is an option that has gained a lot of momentum in recent years and may be an option you want to consider. Disney now sells autograph books in the parks, and among kids, collecting autographs has become immensely popular. For those parents who don’t want to plan their day around character schedules and spend hours of their day waiting in line to meet a princess, Disney offers character dining. For a fee (usually about $20 per person) your family can enjoy a buffet meal while select Disney characters move table to table, allowing your kids to get autographs and pictures with their favorite character without having to get up from the table. If you have a daughter whose vacation will be ruined if she doesn’t meet every princess, character dining will be the best part of your trip. If not, it may not be worth the extra cost.
The Disney Dining plan is another option families may consider. If you book your vacation as a package, Disney gives you the option of prepaying your meals with a dining plan, essentially making your Disney vacation all inclusive. For the money, you get a quick service lunch, a sit down dinner and a snack every day, ordered from a special, truncated menu at any Disney restaurant. Dining plans allow you to be worry free during your stay, and offer maximum flexibility for families that may want to eat at different restaurants, however for the budget minded, this probably isn’t the best option.
Regardless of where you decide to eat, you can and should make reservations by calling 407-WDW-DINE. This is especially important if you are visiting the parks during peak times like spring break and summer vacation, as the restaurants fill up fast. If you can during these busy times, try to make your reservations at least 24 hours in advance to ensure a table is waiting for you when you’re ready to take a break from the rides (but make sure you get a fastpass first so that you can jump right on your favorite ride after dinner!)
Since we’ve saved money on hotels, tickets and meals, there should be a little extra money left over for shopping and souvenirs. Buying souvenirs in the park is one place where you will pay a premium. One technique that we’ve used to save a little money, is to visit the Disney outlets before going to the parks so that we know what is available at a discount. In store decisions are much easier when you have a data point for comparison. But beware, Disney has one outlet store in Orlando (on Vineland Ave) and a store in St. Augustine off I-95. Other outlets may or may not be selling Disney licensed wares. We have also had great luck shopping at the World of Disney at Downtown Disney after we are done at the parks. If you saw something you liked at a park store, you will likely also be able to find it at Downtown Disney, and you will find much more selection to boot.
Visiting Disney World on a budget doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the quality of your vacation. With some advanced planning and a little bit of research, you can have a wonderful time on any budget. As members of the military, knowing where to find military discounts can cut the cost of your vacation in half, so there’s no more excuse. We will always bring you the latest military discounts and news. Look forward to seeing you there!