I’ve been blessed with many people in my life, but none have stuck with me as long as my friend Carmen. When I wrote 5 Tips to Start Planning for Disney, it was Carmen who gave me all the great advice. We will be taking our road trip to Disney later this year. I’m so thankful she as a Simply Magical Vacations Specialist, is giving us her Top 5 Money Saving Tips for a Magical Disney World Vacation.
Top 5 Money Saving Tips for a Magical Disney World Vacation
Planning your first (or fiftieth) Disney vacation can be quite daunting. I have seen many articles about incredibly creative (yet often impractical) out-of-the-box ideas to save, as well as ways to cut every “frivolous” expense down to just the basics. Perhaps I will someday even try some of these methods myself, but I prefer an approach that allows me to save a little (or a lot) without feeling like I’m sacrificing any of the magic along the way. Here are my Top 5 Money Saving Tips for a Magical Disney World Vacation that I have learned.
Do your research and plan ahead.
This one seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many clients think they’re ahead of the game, only to discover that their top choices have been fully booked for months.
Your resort—It is recommended that you book your resort 7-12 months in advance. When Disney offers discounted rooms, there is usually a limited number available, and the rest are full-price. Booking early typically means that discounts haven’t yet been released, but you have your resort choice, and adjustments can be made to your vacation package later.
Dining—Considering that I don’t even know what my family will eat this week, it seems absurd to plan a meal for 6 months from now. However, table service reservations open up 180 days before travel, and many of the most popular choices (Be Our Guest, Cinderella’s Royal Table) fill up in a matter of hours. Now is the time to research and be ready for that 180-day window. Disney’s website has a complete listing of every restaurant, including menus and prices for each. This makes it MUCH easier to budget for food well in advance.
Because dining can be a huge budget-buster, my family likes to select just two or three table experiences for each trip, and then plan lighter meals and snacks around those.
More about this later…
Vacation accounts, gift cards, Disney Visa
Yes, Disney is expensive, and no, there isn’t really a good way around it. However, Disney offers some perks that may help offset the cost a bit.
Disney Vacation Account (DVA)— You can sign up for this FREE service through the Disney website. The DVA allows you to save for your trip at your own pace (5-year maximum). You can contribute whatever amount at whatever time meets your needs. As an added bonus, you receive a $20 gift credit for every $1000 spent toward your vacation.
Disney Visa Card—Get 6 months’ interest-free on your vacation packages when you book with this card. Other perks include discounts on merchandise, as well as exclusive character experiences.
Gift Cards—I love to keep my eye out for special gift card deals online, at the grocery, and my favorite wholesale club. It may only save a few bucks, but every little bit helps. I know people who buy gift cards with their red and white bull’s-eye card from a certain store and receive shopping perks while saving money. If you grab a few gift cards along with your regular shopping as your budget allows, you can use them for spending money or apply to your (on-property) room at checkout.
Staying on-property vs. off-property.
This is probably the conversation that always offers the most conflicting messages. My family has stayed both on and off-property, and I can assure you that each carries its own brand of magic. Here are the perks and pitfalls for each to help you decide:
On-property—You are completely immersed in Disney from the moment you step off the airplane and onto the Magical Express. This complimentary shuttle service, along with Monorails, boats, and buses means avoiding the expense of a car rental, the $20 parking at the parks, and daily rates elsewhere. A few bonuses that save time and mental energy: you get to skip baggage claim, and your belongings magically appear in your room later in the day. All purchases made in the parks can be sent directly to your resort at no extra charge.
Off-property—It is decidedly less expensive to be off-property when your head hits the pillow at night. But again, do your research and make comparisons before committing. There are other costs you need to factor in. The costs of car rentals and parking fees, as mentioned, along with the additional time needed for transportation, luggage, parking, etc. The big bonus here is the flexibility is shopping for groceries and visiting other attractions in the area if you desire.
Snacks, small meals, DDP.
This is where my family has always saved the most money, regardless of where we stay. Unlike most theme parks, Disney welcomes food and drinks inside its gates. When we had a stroller, it was easy to attach a small cooler (see website for restrictions) and a large bag of portable, high-protein snacks. On our last trip, the kids were 7,9,13, and 17. Everyone carried a light drawstring bag with filtered water bottles and snacks. No one ever got “hangry”, and we didn’t need to make any unexpected stops.
Some of our smaller eaters shared meals, and even the adults and older kids occasionally ordered from the kid’s meals. We also brought things like macaroni and cheese to enjoy in the room. Not every meal was the epitome of nutrition, but hey, it’s vacation! By taking the lighter approach, we were able to enjoy our few table-service meals as truly memorable experiences, and our waistlines were very thankful!
On-property guests can take advantage of the Disney Dining Plan, which allows them to purchase dining “credits” in advance. If you’re one who likes to have no surprise expenses and enjoys the freedom of everything being paid ahead of time, this may be for you. At certain times of the year, Disney has historically included this plan in its packages for FREE!!! Again, do your research, or feel free to contact me.
Employ a reputable vacation specialist.
If this list is overwhelming, you may find it worthwhile to delegate much of this work to an experienced professional. There is a misconception that a specialist is expensive. Not true! Most agents receive commissions from the company, allowing them to offer their invaluable services to the client. A specialist becomes your central point of contact. They will book reservations, search for deals (even after the booking), make fast passes, answer questions and offer advice. She will generally make the whole experience much more magical!
Carmen Stieringer is a lifelong Disney enthusiast whose favorite past times include singing along to her Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast soundtracks on cassette and proudly carried her Lion King bedsheets to college (giving away her age here). She is a wife and mom with a passion for helping others make magical memories with their own families. For a free quote or information, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her Facebook page at