Disney World has a reputation for being amazing, magical really, but also extremely expensive. Is it possible to go to Disney World on a budget and make it work? Our family set out to do just that in April this year.
This is post #2 in a series I’m writing about our trip to Florida this Spring. You can find my first post here.
My son had the opportunity to attend the VEX World Robotics Competition, and since it nearly coincided with the kids Spring Break and we have never been as a family we thought it would be the perfect time to visit Disney.
We spent 1 1/2 days driving on the way there (arriving at Disney World mid afternoon on day 2), and 2 days driving on the way back (I don’t recommend driving anywhere on Easter weekend for what it’s worth).
The plan was pretty simple-we were going to stay on the park for 6 days and 5 nights, and then move to a rental home not far from the parks for the last 5 nights.
We borrowed an awesome Suburban from Chevy to drive for our trip which helped with both getting robots safely from PA to Florida, and gave us ample room for all the little people and their gear. You can read more about our driving experience here.
Disney World and All Star Movies
Despite going to Disney World for an event, we did not get any kind of reduced rate or package deal. I was surprised about that, but given the timing (right during Spring Break) I guess Disney didn’t need to make a special rate for the robotics teams.
We opted to stay at All Star Movies both because there was a ‘sale’ on the value resorts when we booked, and it was close to ESPN Wide World of Sports where the event was being held. See Disney’s special offers page for more info on current deals.
The resort itself was great. The main building housed the ‘cafeteria’ which had a great variety of ‘quick service’ meals that ranged from pizza and burgers to salmon and roasted turkey. I was especially impressed when I spoke to the chef about the gluten-free options. They had everything from gluten free buns to gluten free pizza and most of the main dishes were made without allergens (chicken, fish, turkey, etc).
The main building also housed a check in area, arcade, gift shop, and a bar off the back that led to the pool area which was huge but manageable with 3 of my kids in tow. They also had music pumping, games you could participate in, and a blow up movie screen on some evenings with Disney movies of course.
The rooms themselves were very motel style-and as I expected about the same quality as a motel. It was a tidy room, but it was clear it needed updating, and repairs. for instance our bedspread had holes in it, the doors needed a coat of paint, and the shower was mildewed in spots. Overall it was serviceable with beds that were comfy (or maybe I was just exhausted?) and to my kids who have never been to Disney, and rarely stay in hotels (it was my 5 year old’s first time in a hotel!) it was magical. Really that was all that mattered.
The downside to staying at a value resort is that they are the furthest from Magic Kingdom, and the wait and long bus ride was probably our least favorite part of the trip. The bus line was literally the longest line we had to wait in for anything though!
Was staying in the park worth it? YES! considering the cost with the sale price it was the same as renting a home off park (more on that later). Of course the rooms were small, but the convenience of staying on the park is well worth it. You don’t have to be concerned about renting a car, driving, parking, and waiting in long lines to get into and out of the park.
You also get the benefit of extra magic hours where you can enter the park earlier than other guests and stay later (see the Disney calendar for details when you are planning your trip).
I could go into great detail about the parks we loved, the rides that we favored, and the magic we felt at nearly every turn despite crowds and occasional grumpy kids (or parents), but it was magical.
I had my doubts going that I would be as wowed as I remember feeling as a little girl, but I think I turned into a little girl again riding Pirates of the Caribbean and seeing the fireworks show for the first time. And my kids? They were amazed at everything. Even our 13 year old thought it was spectacular.
Our family’s favorite rides were Pirates of the Caribbean, the new Winnie the Pooh ride, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, the African Safari, Splash Mountain, the Haunted House (they just added new interactive props in the line to get in and we loved it!) and of course Space Mountain.
We purchased ParkHopper tickets which were a bit more expensive (bundled in they were cheaper than purchasing them separately) but well worth it. It enabled us to do one park with the kids, and go out together in the evening to another park. This gave us an evening out that was beyond magical. Landing the last table at the Rose & Crown Pub in Epcot just before the fireworks started and enjoying one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time.
Tip: Rent a double stroller if you have two children or more. While my kids would normally never ride in a stroller it was wonderful to be able to keep track of them when the park was busy, and give them a place to take a rest. You can rent them for more than one day for extra savings as well
Dining at Disney
As part of our ‘package’ we also purchased a Disney Dining Plan. We chose the quick service dining plan, but on arrival (after check-in) saw that it was listed as 1 quick service meal, 1 casual dining meal and 1 snack per person/per day. Oops. We didn’t have reservations, and since it was Spring Break we had difficulty finding reservations for those meals. Since we had already checked in, we couldn’t change it according to the front desk, so we tried to do our best to use them up. I planned out our remaining meals (which took hours one day) as best as I could.
We were never told we couldn’t use it AFTER we checked out of our hotel (in fact we were told the opposite when we booked), so in the end Disney refunded us our unused portion and we ended having to pay out of pocket for a very expensive meal since the server didn’t check our card before we ordered. An expensive lesson for sure.
Spending hours dealing with this while on vacation was not a fun experience, and based on the serving sizes (huge!), and the confusion we had about the meal plan I wouldn’t recommend using a Disney Dining Plan.
My main issue is the ‘cost savings’ which Disney claims is 25-30% savings. The problem? If I have the option of one quick service meal and let’s say it breaks down to $7 from my plan. I want to know what the most expensive use of my meal is so I get the most bang for my bucks and savings. This was completely unclear though given the way the pricing is structured and the meals are set up (a meal is usually an entree, side, drink and dessert).
The other thing we realized was that one adult meal (and even some of the kids meals!) were such large portions they could have served 2 of us. By paying out of pocket we could have easily saved more than the 30% the Dining Plan ‘saves’ you.
Additionally when you buy a meal or snack you can only see the number of meals you have left for that type. So if you buy a snack you can see you have 13 snacks left for your room but not how many meals you have left. When you have multiple adults in your party and varied schedules like we did that made for a lot of confusion.
Given that 2 of our party was also not able to use their Dining Plan for 3 days while they attended their event it was also a waste.
Quick vs. Sit Down Meals
When we booked I assumed the quick service meals would be easier to manage with 4 kids and 4 adults, but after we had a sit down meal mid-day on one of our days I realized that sitting down for an hour in the shade or AC and hydrating and fueling up was actually just what we needed.
The Positives of Dining at Disney
I will say the meals at our resort I throughly enjoyed. The variety was good, but they always had a healthy and hearty option that was perfect for me.
Disney takes pride in making sure folks with allergies are taken care of. At every meal that I mentioned my gluten-free diet the chef would come out to speak to me about what options were available. It was a wonderful thing to feel like I could eat without having to guess. I’m sure anyone who has an allergy would greatly appreciate the care Disney takes with their meal planning and menus.
When we go back again in the future (I hope!) we will definitely plan on sit down meals for lunch every day and get a simple breakfast (or make or own) and a simple dinner instead. In the end I think this will save us 50% or more versus the dining plan.
The Stuff aka Souvenirs
We didn’t spend much on ‘stuff’. The kids have been saving up for months to go to Disney and they each had $100 to spend as they chose (our oldest had $200 but he is saving some of his still). This was the perfect amount for them to spend on the little things they wanted, and we feel like it gave them freedom to chose without being costly for us. My oldest daughter chose to spend the bulk of her money on a pin collection which we thought was a wise choice. The other kids each bought some toys and trinkets, most of which were pretty promptly ignored once we got home.
As for the adults the only souvenirs we needed were the smiles, hugs and thank you’s especially since we had to foot the bill. 😉
Did we stick to our budget?
By knowing and paying upfront for many of the costs, and padding our budget for miscellaneous expenses we were pretty prepared for the expense of the vacation. Having the kids spend their own funds also helped so we weren’t caught in the endless cycle of “I wants”.
For our family it was worth it to experience Disney with our children at what we all felt was a great age for them all. They will all remember it, there was no stopping for nursing breaks, diaper changes or potty breaks since they are all over the age of 5. To me it felt like the perfect age to introduce them to both the magic and the fun of the ‘big kid’ rides.
I hesitate to say this was a vacation that most families can afford easily though. It certainly took the right set of circumstances for us to afford it and a reason to be there to make it happen. The money we spent could have been used for many of the other things we have on our financial to do list including home improvements, beefing up savings, and paying off debt, but since we have very rarely taken any vacations (we usually keep it simple and cheap!) this was a real treat for all of us.
There are ‘affordable’ options at Disney. If you are on a very tight budget it will require saving money for your vacation, and a lot of careful planning but it can be done. I would highly recommend reading, researching and talking to friends who have been to Disney for their advice.
Have you been to Disney World with your family? Did you manage to stick to your budget?
Disclosure: While I do link a lot to Disney in this post, I was in no way perked, compensated or VIPed at Disney.