Parenting

6 Budget-Conscious Ways to Do a Disney Trip

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In my book Football, Faith, and Flannery O’Connor: A Love Letter to the South, I write about how special a Walt Disney World vacation can be, and part of what makes Disney so wonderful is that families can enjoy the parks and resorts together regardless of budget.

For those families who are hoping to make a vacation to the Disney Parks a reality, here are six budget-conscious ways to do it. Enjoy!

6. Plan Ahead…Way Ahead.

One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give anybody who wants to do a Walt Disney World or Disneyland trip is to plan ahead. Thinking about your trip in advance not only saves money, but it allows you to build excitement for the whole family.

Back in the ’80s, when there were fewer options for accommodations and experiences, guests had no choice but to book trips about a year in advance. My family would book our trip for the next year before we left the resort. We’ve sort of kept that tradition alive in that we start talking about our next trip not long after we get home from the last one.

Planning far in advance allows you to break the budget for a trip down into smaller chunks over time. I build Disney trip money into my yearly budget and set aside a little every pay period. It makes paying for a trip when the time comes so much easier because I’m not having to scramble to come up with a lot of money all at once.

Another factor to consider is taking a Disney vacation during the value seasons: January-February and August-September. These are the lowest priced, and often least crowded, times of year.

Pop Century is my favorite among the Value Resorts.

Pop Century is my favorite among the Value Resorts.

5. Stay at a Value Resort.

Nothing beats staying in one of the resorts on Disney property, for a myriad of reasons. Many Disney guests think that they have to stay at one of the pricey deluxe resorts. That was the case for the first 17 years at Walt Disney World, when the company opened Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort. Six years later, Disney opened the All-Star Sports Resort, the first of five value resorts, which offer immersive Disney theming at a  more affordable price. The five value resorts are All-Star Sports, All-Star Music, All-Star Movies, Pop Century (my favorite), and Art of Animation (though it’s significantly more expensive than the other value resorts, it still counts as one).

Now, make no mistake — the value resorts have fewer appointments and luxuries than the higher-priced hotels, but guests can still experience the fun pools, dining and shopping, and immersive theming of any of the Disney hotels. Plus, most importantly, the benefits of staying on property — resort transportation, Extra Magic Hours, and all the rest — apply to all the resorts, regardless of price.

Take time to explore some of the other resorts on the days when you’re not in the park, but you can save tons of money by enjoying a value resort room.

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4. Go Camping, Disney Style.

Another really fun and affordable option for lodging is Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, located just a quick boat ride from the Magic Kingdom. Whether you’re pitching a tent or rolling an RV onto the property, Fort Wilderness means camping as only Disney can present it.

Fort Wilderness doesn’t really count as “roughing it” by any stretch of the imagination, but camping Disney style is loads of fun. Two pools, trading posts, a beach, watercraft for rent, playgrounds, and walking trails mean that guests won’t lack for things to do. In fact, I’ve heard that one could spend a week at Fort Wilderness and not run out of things to do, and I’m inclined to believe it.

Clean restrooms and showers, along with laundry facilities make camping at Fort Wilderness convenient for everyone. If tent and camper living aren’t your style, try the cabins, though they’re quite a bit pricier than the campsites.

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3. Use Disney Gift Cards for Spending Money.

I’m a big believer in using Disney Gift Cards, and there are a lot of reasons for using them. I personally use them for nearly all my spending money for souvenirs and food, and I buy them throughout the year. I spend $50 per month on cards, and I wind up with more spending money than I need!

Recently, Disney began allowing guests to combine cards, up to a total of $1,000, through the Disney Gift Card website. This has been a huge blessing because, rather than carrying a stack of gift cards like I used to have to, I can keep all my gift card spending money on one card. I even bought a Big Hero 6 gift card to use as my master card.

The gift cards carry with them a couple of other advantages as well. They make great gifts — obviously — for other members of the family, and they’re a great way for kids to manage their spending money. They’re safer and more discreet than cash.

(Here’s a side tip: purchase your cards at retailers with gas stations that offer “fuel points.” Here in Georgia, I buy my Disney Gift Cards at Kroger, where they always offer double fuel points and sometimes offer quadruple points on gift cards. My monthly $50 purchase nets me at least 100 fuel points and sometimes 200, which gives me ten or twenty cents per gallon off my next trip to the Kroger gas pump!)

My nieces made this goody basket for my upcoming WDW trip.

My nieces made this goody basket for my upcoming WDW trip.

2. Don’t Waste Money on Snacks (or Breakfast).

One of the biggest expenses that can get out of hand quickly on a Disney trip is food, so the biggest advice I like to give people when it comes to food is to take snacks into the park. Small, individually wrapped snacks like granola bars, packs of crackers, and small bags of peanuts are perfect. (BUT NO CHOCOLATE!) If you snack right, you may even be able to skip lunch and only purchase one meal on a park day.

Bring non-glass water bottles that can can be refilled, because it’s important to stay hydrated, especially in the hotter parts of the year. Additionally, counter-service restaurants give free ice water to guests who ask.

Another culinary money (and time) saver is to grab breakfast on the go on your way to the parks. But don’t buy breakfast; bring it. Quick, handheld breakfast items that don’t require preparation are perfect on-the-go morning meals. Items like cereal bars, individually wrapped pastries, granola bars, or Pop Tarts are ideal for quick breakfasts, and the best thing is, you can bring them from home and won’t have to purchase them at the resorts.

On our 2010 trip, my niece Mackenzie, then 5, enjoyed roasting marshmallows at Fort Wilderness.

On our 2010 trip, my niece Mackenzie, then 5, enjoyed roasting marshmallows at Fort Wilderness.

1. Take Advantage of Free Ways to Have Fun!

One of the biggest misconceptions about a Disney vacation is that everything costs lots of money. That statement couldn’t be farther from the truth, as there are plenty of activities and experiences that don’t cost a dime. In 2014, I wrote a list post of ways to have fun at Walt Disney World, and you can read all the details here.

Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground offers two really cool options. One is Tri-Circle D Ranch, where guests can see some of the park’s four-legged cast members — horses. The ranch also hosts an exhibit of some of the Disney Parks’ most memorable animals. Most nights, guests can also enjoy a campfire sing-along and movie with Chip & Dale at Fort Wilderness. (S’mores kits are extra.)

Disneyland doesn’t appear to offer as many free experiences as Walt Disney World does, but guests can take free drawing lessons at Animation Academy or color with characters outside Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

(Now, there are some free goodies that guests can get at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, but my WDW list only includes “experiences” that don’t cost anything.)

There you have it! If you have other tips you think are worth sharing, let me know in the comments section below.

All photos courtesy of the author.