Save vs. Splurge: A Disney World Vacation - Quicken Loans Zing Blog

Walt Disney World: Just the sound of the name recalls images of princesses and parades, fireworks and ferryboat rides and, of course, Cinderella’s castle in its royal splendor. You can almost taste the Dole Whip.

A trip to Walt Disney World (WDW) in Orlando, Fla., is a dream vacation for the young and young at heart. With four theme parks, two waterslide parks and an army of hotels, WDW offers a vacation that requires a little more than just pixie dust.

Let’s get down to business and discuss the many tips and tricks you’ll need to plan your dream Disney World vacation without breaking the bank.

When to Travel

People walking on Main St. at Disney World

Avoid large crowds and long lines by planning your Disney vacation during the off-season.

WDW’s off-season is typically identified as the following:

  • January through the first week in March
  • Late April through early June
  • Post-Labor Day through the beginning of Thanksgiving week
  • The first two weeks of December

Avoid holidays, if you can. While it might be more convenient to take kids on vacation when they’re out of school, consider that most parents have the same mindset and will also travel when school is out.

Also note the ticket price tier of value, regular and peak: Value days are most weekdays during the off-season; regular days are most weekends and busier weekdays; peak season is the busiest time, mostly during spring break, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Finally, off-season prices for hotels are on the lower side, with better rates and more opportunities for discounted packages.

Consider planning your Disney vacation on weekdays during the park’s off-season in order save on admission and hotel stay.

Where to Stay
Disney World hotels

On our most recent Disney vacation, my sister and I opted to stay in the Disney Art of Animation Resort – partly because she’s obsessed with the Little Mermaid-themed hotel rooms, but more so because they boast better benefits than staying offsite.

For example, when you stay at a Disney resort, you’re allotted extended park visiting hours, free parking or shuttle services and the option to send your souvenir purchases directly back to your suite – no charge!

It’s no shock that this option is a little pricier than a Disney value or offsite hotel. You might not have to sell your voice to an evil sea witch, but the cost of the hotel is still pretty up there.

If you still want to stay on Disney property but don’t want to pay the price of a resort, consider staying at a value hotel. Two lower-priced value resorts are All-Star Sports and Pop Century. In my opinion, they’re just as nice as the higher-priced Disney resorts, with slightly less razzle-dazzle.

The last option is to stay at an offsite hotel near to the park. These hotels usually offer discounted rates and better deals. However, these affordable hotels get booked quickly, so be sure to book way in advance of your trip.

The majority of your time will be spent outside of your hotel and at the Disney theme parks, so ask yourself if it really matters what your hotel looks like or offers.

Extend Your Stay

If you’re looking to get more for your money, consider extending your Disney vacation. I know that sounds like the opposite way to save money, but consider this: The more days of admission you buy, the lower the cost per day. For example, if you buy an adult five-day ticket, costing around $415.35, each day will cost $83.07. Compare this to the cost of a one-day ticket at $132.06.

Personally, I wouldn’t plan a Disney trip longer than five days. Sounds odd coming from a hard-core Disney fanatic; however, after my trip to WDW in March 2017, I found that the four theme parks can be completed in a four-day, if not three-day, stint.

My sister and I were able to combine Epcot and Hollywood Studios in one day. This was most likely because those specific parks don’t have a lot of attractions or characters.

The bulk of your time will most likely be spent in Magic Kingdom, which includes Frontierland, Adventureland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland.

It basically boils down to how many times you want to hear “It’s a Small World After All” during your vacation? Just a thought.

Getting Around

Depending on where you live, it might be cheaper to drive, rather than fly, to Orlando. However, the headache of battling Orlando traffic or finding a decent parking spot in addition to the $15 – $17 parking fee per day, driving might not be worth the struggle.

Put your SUV in park and opt for the free Disney Transportation System. If you’re staying at a Disney-run hotel, the resort’s Magical Express coaches provide free shuttles to and from Orlando International Airport. Additionally, you’ll have free shuttle service to and from all parks and attractions, so you’ll never need to drive.

Pro tip: If you plan your Disney vacation off-season, you’ll also find better air fare rates. It’s definitely not as cheap as a magic flying carpet, but those are hard to come by.

Park Passes

Disney World Park Passes

This might take a little more than a spoonful of sugar to swallow, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find heavily discounted Disney theme park tickets, even when you’re saving a little extra during the off-season time.

However, here’s something to consider when planning the duration of your WDW trip: The cost of a one-day adult ticket for Magic Kingdom ranges from $113.96 to $132.06, depending on the time of year (off-season or peak). One-day adult admission for the other three Disney World theme parks (Hollywood Studios, Epcot, Animal Kingdom) ranges from $105.44 to $126.74, based on the time of year.

Should You Pass on a Park Hopper Pass?

Like I said earlier, you’ll get more for your money on a five-day Disney trip compared to the cost of a one-day ticket. There are a couple of other options you can implement into your Disney ticket.

Adding a Park Hopper feature to your WDW ticket allows you to visit more than one theme park per day. However, the cost of a one-day adult ticket with a Park Hopper feature rises considerably.

The cost of a one-day adult Park Hopper ticket ranges from $172.53 to $185.31, depending on the time of year (off-season or peak). Pretty high for just one day, but again, the more days of admission you buy, the lower the cost per day.

Let’s say you want to extend to a five-day vacation: The Park Hopper pass would add an extra $79.88 per ticket (not per day) to your ticket price.

Much like the Park Hopper Pass, which gives you the ability to visit multiple parks per day, the Park Hopper Plus ticket gives you the flexibility of a Park Hopper Pass plus a single admission to one of Disney’s water parks, such as Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. The cost would be an extra $15.98 on top of a Park Hopper Pass ticket.

It depends what you want to get out of the trip. In my opinion, most of the fun of WDW is situated in Magic Kingdom. This park has the bulk of rides, attractions and character meet-and-greets. But again, it’s up to you to choose to spend or save.

Is a Fast Pass for You?

People standing with Winnie the Pooh and Tigger at Disney World

This won’t necessarily save you money (unless you believe that time is money) but it will help you to get the most out of your Disney vacation.

With every WDW ticket purchase, you are able to access the Fast Pass system, where you can reserve times on popular rides or character meet-and-greets in advance.

However, each group or family only receives three Fast Passes per day, so use them wisely on the most popular attractions with the longest wait times to spend less time in line.

I suggest downloading the Disney World app, which is free. This app allows you to:

  • Get wait times for attractions and show times for fireworks and parades
  • Find character greeting locations and times
  • See restaurant menus and make reservations
  • Mange your Fast Pass times
  • Preview and purchase your Disney PhotoPass photos

If you’re like me, time is money. By staying organized, you’ll optimize your Disney experience, giving you a real bang-for-your-buck vacation.

Disney Dining Plans

Flo's diner at Disney World at night

Food is a tricky topic when considering dining plans versus do-it-yourself meals. While you might want to save money by packing your lunch, you also might want the convenience of purchasing food whenever you please.

Here are the main pros and cons on the Disney Dining Plan versus DIY meals, based off my experience with both.

The Disney Dining Plan

Disney Dining Plans are definitely good for people who want substantial meals for at least two meals. It also helps that you get a snack every day, if you need a pick-me-up between meals.

Pros:

  • Two full meals and two snack per day
  • A souvenir cup with unlimited refills in your Disney resort/hotel
  • Peace of mind knowing your food is already paid for

Cons:

  • Two full meals and two snack per day might not satisfy everyone
  • Restricted to the food options made available to you (sorry, picky eaters!)
  • The souvenir cup can’t be refilled inside the theme parks (believe me, I’ve tried)

You can still pack a few non-perishable and pre-packaged snacks, should you need a little pick-me-up in the middle of your Disney park adventure. For example, trail mix, granola bars and crackers are clean and easy-to-store snacks.

Disney World Starbucks drink

DIY Meals

DIY meals are great for those who might want more variety in their food choices and don’t mind meal prepping every day.

Pros:

  • Can be less expensive than the Disney Dining Plan
  • More freedom and flexibility with your food options
  • More control on the amount of food you get

Cons:

  • More to pack and carry around the parks
  • Might not stay fresh throughout the entirety of your trip
  • You’ll have to cook/make your food every day

It’s up to you and/or your family’s eating habits. If money is your bottom line, the best thing to do is to compare the cost of the Disney Dining Plan to the cost of having to buy food at a local grocery or convenience store.

Souvenirs

This is just one Disney aficionado’s opinion, but after five vacations to “The Happiest Place on Earth,” I’ve picked up a few insights on the souvenirs that are worth the splurge and those that should stay on the shelf.

Disney Costume/Boutique Experience: Splurge

If you’ve been to WDW before, you’ve most likely walked past the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique or Pirates League – kiddie service salons that give your child a princess or pirate makeover, respectively.

Unlike the fairy godmother, these stores are a little less generous with their magical transformations and can cost upwards of $50 for a makeover.

However, the joy you see on your child’s face when they look in the mirror is priceless, in my opinion. Plus, salons really get into the experience by styling the child’s hair, applying makeup and adorning accessories to give the full character effect.

Autograph Book: Save

I’ve always found the Disney-brand autograph books to be a bit pricey. Essentially, what you can use is just paper and a pen for the characters to sign.

My advice: Opt for a Disney-themed notebook, which can be found at any bookstore or even purchased online.

Character Pictures: Splurge

Hear me out on this one!

Out of my five trips to Disney World/Disneyland, I have only purchased one photo package, but and I wish I’d have done that for every trip to Disney. Here’s why:

  • The photo packages are higher quality (yes, even better than your iPhone 7)
  • The photographer will catch candid moments that you might not get on your phone/camera
  • Not all character meet-and-greets have great lighting. You can see the difference below.
iPhone picture with characters at Disney World

Character photo op with a camera phone

Professional photo with characters at Disney World

Character photo op with the professional photogrpaher

You can purchase a variety of photo packages, from just a single shot to a day’s worth of memories. You may want to purchase a Disney-themed picture frame for your favorite shot!

Attraction Photos: Save

Contrary to character photos, I would not purchase attraction photos.

Most of the time, especially if you were positioned in the back, they’re hard to see and maybe a little embarrassing, which might be funny to look at for the moment, but probably not anything you’d want to hang up in your home.

If I had to choose between character and ride, I’d skip the ride photos.

T-Shirts: Save

Unless you’re at Disney World during an anniversary celebration (2017 was the 45th anniversary), I would skip the T-shirt.

Children might get a little more wear out of a Disney-themed tee than an adult, but if you really want to get them a shirt, I would order online or at your local Disney Store because it will be far cheaper.

Mouse Ears: Splurge

Two girls wearing Disney World mouse ears

Mickey Mouse ears are the most iconic and timeless souvenirs of the Disney experience.

Since they started selling this popular product, the variety of mouse ears has expanded to include Minnie Mouse ears (donned with her classic bow), princess-themed ears and ears for every holiday celebration.

Basically, you’ll look cute. So buy the ears.

Stuffed Animals/Knick-Knacks: Save

I can’t even tell you how many stuffed animals and knick-knacks I’ve collected over the years, and quite frankly, I got rid of most of them because of the space they take up at home.

However, if you still wish to purchase a toy for your child, I would wait until the end of the trip. Ask your child who their favorite Disney character was that they met, and purchase the toy/stuffed figure of that character. It will be a lot more meaningful than a tote full of various toys.

Custom Christmas Ornaments: Splurge

I never really appreciated the value of a custom Disney Christmas ornament until I got older. This priceless souvenir will bring back memories of your trip every time you decorate your Christmas tree.

They’re great for kids because they can grow up decorating their family tree and eventually take it with them into their own home.

If you’re careful with it, this souvenir will last quite a long time and will more likely be used every year because of its purpose.

Pressed Pennies: Splurge

This is another souvenir that took me a minute to fully understand and appreciate.

This inexpensive, but fun, activity allows you to document their Disney vacation in the form of a pressed penny.

Every Disney theme park, and most theme park stores, have a penny-pressing machine. The pressed penny typically costs 51 cents (two quarters, one penny). This is definitely a more cost-efficient souvenir option; plus, it’s fun to turn the crank and watch your penny pressed into the design of your choice.

For just a few dollars, you can upgrade this gift more and purchase a penny collection book to hold all of your pennies, making it easier to display and reminisce.

Souvenir Cups: Save

I’ve purchased many a souvenir cup, and those stinkers are such a pain to carry around the park. And most of the time, they do not come with a free refill.

Pass on the cup.

Free Souvenirs

Important Disney insider secret below:

You can visit any Guest Relations or indoor merchandise center and get a free Disney World celebration button. Here are some occasions you can receive a customized celebration button for:

  • Birthday
  • First visit
  • Engagement
  • Marriage
  • Anniversary

Or, get one for a fill-in option: “Celebrating ______.”

This is ideal if you’re looking to save money but still want that perfect souvenir that summarizes your vacation.

The Adventure Begins

Girl standing in front of Magic Kingdom at Disney World

As you can see, there are many ways to save money during your Walt Disney World vacation. Where some may splurge, others may want to save and opt for a less expensive alternative.

It all comes down to what you or your family decide to do on your trip, what compromises you’re willing to make and what will have the most meaning.

Of course, after every memorable vacation comes the reality of returning back to your normal day-to-day. Find out how you can ease the post-vacation blues and make a more seamless transition back into life.

Did you recently go on a Disney dream vacation and want to share your tips and tricks of the trade? Let us know in the comments below.

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This Post Has 25 Comments

  1. Staying off Disney property in a beautiful villa with a private pool and spa in the Windsor Hills resort is the best and most affordable option! There are many vacation rental properties owned by private people who use their vacation homes to visit Disneyworld and rent it to other families the remaining days or weeks they don’t use. For example, during low season or when booking last-minute, you can get a gorgeous 5 bedroom / 5 bath villa for $179 a night plus tax and cleaning and pool heat. This is less than most upscale hotels, accommodate up to 12 or 14 people and you have a private pool and spa, a full kitchen, a gameroom and access to the resort’s many amenities. The best way to find owners is to avoid the websites that charge service fees and go straight to the owner. Some owners have Facebook pages and others have full websites.

    1. Hi Janine:

      Offsite rental properties are certainly a good option, particularly if you plan ahead.

      Thanks,
      Kevin Graham

  2. One thing for souvenirs we like to do is to go to the Disney Character Warehouse in the nearby Orlando international premium outlets. It is the outlet store where Disney sends all of the overstock, discontinued,or seasoned out parks items and they are at amazing prices compared to the parks. Especially t-shirts. We usually stop in near the end of our trip and always find great things.

  3. We have been going to Disney at Spring Break now for 8 years. We love Disney!! We stay at Floridaysorlando.com in Orlando . We buy suviners at walmart. We are wanting to go twice this year and take our two children and their families. Our son will be going to Afghanistan with the Guard and we really want the family time . We want our grand blessings to have this wonderful experience with their Dad ,Mom, aunt and uncle and with us. We are praying God will provide a way. I take 20 to 30 people every year and I love it. I just want to experience it with my family!!

    1. Hi Sadie:

      We are very thankful for your son’s service. I hope you get the family time you want. We do have the Sunny Day Getaway Sweepstakes going on right now. The winner gets $4,000 toward their dream vacation or whatever else they want to spend it on. The winner is picked at random, but you would have as much chance as anyone else. You can check out the blog post for details. Good luck!

      Thanks,
      Kevin Graham

  4. We go nearly every year, and my girls were 5 & 6 for their first trip(they are now 16 & 17). For souvenirs; we always gave our girls a set amount of money and they could spend it as they wished-this avoided us buying 2 of everything after each attraction-they had “their”money and they chose to spend it on what they really wanted-saved is a lot of hassle negotiating with them! Also, please think of the memory maker-this saved me tons of money over the years-those photo packages add up very quickly-we take advantage of every photo op there is and have so many great pics after our trip!

    1. Hi Theresa:

      That Memory Maker photo package sounds like a great tip. And it’s definitely helpful to set the budget ahead of time. That way there’s no argument and they get what they want for sure!

      Thanks,
      Kevin Graham

  5. Also, if you have a big family or group there can be significant savings in renting a large home for a 4-7 days. Not only will the per couple/group cost be less than a hotel, you’ll also have the option to cook…

  6. “Two lower priced value resorts are All-Star Sports and Pop Century. In my opinion, they’re just as nice as the Disney resorts, just without the razzle-dazzle.”
    All-Star Sports & Pop Century (like Art of Animation) ARE Disney resorts, & having personally stayed at Pop Century, I can tell you that it has plenty of “razzle-dazzle.” The theme of different decades is evident all around the resort, & the rooms have Mickey/Disney decor. Art of Animation is the newest of the value resorts, plus it has the family suites, which is why the price is a bit higher than the All-Stars & Pop.

    1. Hi Meggan:

      You’re right that they’re all owned by Disney. We’ve gone ahead and made that correction to the wording of the sentence. I’ve stayed at the All-Star resorts before and I can confirm they have very cool decor and very nice accommodations.

      Thanks,
      Kevin

  7. Another money saving tip if you have to fly. Visit our neighbor Toronto Canada and fly from there. IT is a HECK of a lot cheaper than flying out of a US airport.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Jonathon! It’s amazing how it works that way for certain destinations. It doesn’t make sense to me, but whatever works!

  8. I see that my comment was erased.

    I want your readers to know that Art of Animation IS a value resort and that the meal plan now offers 2 snacks instead of one.

    1. Hi Teresa:

      I do want to assure you your comment wasn’t erased. There’s a delay of as much as 24 hours before your comment shows up on the front end of the blog in order to improve page load times. We’ve made the correction on the snacks. Thanks for the sharp eyes!

      Kevin Graham

    1. Hi David:

      Thanks for reading! It’s awesome to hear from so many passionate Disney fans!

      I did some checking on your comment based on the resort listings Disney World has. I’m sure that these prices vary based on seasonality, but right now the Little Mermaid room looks like it’s going for about $40 more than a room at one of the All-Star resorts.

      If you do have the budget or live in an area where it’s otherwise economically feasible to get the Magic Kingdom every year, it may make sense to go with the Vacation Club. This post was targeted more at less frequent visitors looking for an awesome, memorable experience.

      Thank you so much for reading and sharing your experience!

      Thanks,
      Kevin Graham

  9. Correction. The art of animation is a value resort. And the 3 all stars are also Disney owned and operated resorts. The Little Mermaid room is approximately the same price as a room at all star movies.

  10. one comment on the boutique splurge, if you go to the barber shop on Main street on Magic kingdom for $15 you can ask for pixie dust and they will spray and style girls or boys hair with (pixie dust) glitter and color, we have done this several times and my girls love it!

  11. What we love to do is go to the local Walmart the first night in Orlando and get groceries as well as souvenirs. They have a giant variety of clothes, cups, magnets, characters, ect. Significantly less expensive than the parks!

  12. Just a couple of things:
    The Art of Animation IS a value resort (although you wouldn’t know it if you stay in a suite!)
    The Dining Plan now comes with 2 snacks (this began in Jan. 2017).

    Looking forward to our next trip this summer with our family of 6 plus extended family!

    1. Thanks for reading, Teresa! The Art of Animation is definitely also a value resort. Allison just didn’t mention it because she was just talking about where she stayed. The dining plan does include two snacks. You’re right, and that’s been fixed. Thank you so much for the extra pair of eyes! I hope you enjoy your vacation!

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