I’ve mentioned many times I’m in debt, on a budget and trying to fulfill my travel dreams. Many people might say, “A trip to Disney World? Why not vacation someplace local or less expensive and use that money to pay off debt?” Well, you’re right. I could have done that, but we haven’t taken a family trip in quite a few years and I wasn’t quite sure when we’d get a chance to travel as a family again. One of my kids just graduated college and will be off on her own soon, my son is getting close and my daughter will be off to college next year. They are going in different directions. A trip to Disney was one we’d remember for a lifetime and it had something for everyone. I don’t regret a thing. But I wanted to do it affordably – YES it’s possible. No, you can’t do Disney on a $500 budget, but these money saving tips are easy and can knock off a ton of money from your bill.
Start early. As soon as I knew I wanted to take the family on a trip to Disney, I signed up for anything and everything related to saving money while traveling. I started at Mousesavers.com, and also signed up for Groupon, Sweet Jack, Living Social and more, other travel websites and more. Sign up for places you’re visiting, local Chamber sites, tourism bureaus and more. You never know when you’re going to get coupons for something you’re doing. Don’t want to flood your email with these subscriptions and information? Start a new email just for vacation info. You can call it SmithVacation (at) hotmail.com or something like that.
I regularly went to Disney’s site and kept a regular tab on the prices for my trip and where I wanted to stay (we had stayed at Pop Century the last time and we wanted to again, so I needed to monitor their rates), so I could compare when I got an email in that announced a new ‘bargain.’ Ultimately, by signing up for Groupon, I found a rate that cut my hotel stay by almost 50% — a tremendous savings. On that note…
Be flexible. I’ve stayed on Disney property when the kids were younger and we loved it. There were perks for the guests and when the kids were smaller it was more fun staying in a themed hotel. Now that my ‘kids’ are now 21, 20 and 17, well we were more flexible. We love A+ hotel stays (and I consider the Disney hotels A+) but we found a middle ground. We stayed at Royale Parc Suites Orlando and it wasn’t top notch – they have some repairs to do on their property to make it more inviting (more on that later), but it was clean and it included free breakfast for all five of us.
Find freebies. So far, I’ve cut my price almost in half and the hotel is paying for breakfast. Pretty cool deal.
Bring snacks. We were driving to Florida from New York and I knew we would incur a lot of costs with snacks on the road and in Disney, so starting about two months ahead of time, I started cutting coupons and buying snacks we could bring with us. We had a big box in the car filled with boxes of Ritz Crackers, popcorn, Pop Tarts, candy and other easily transportable food that wouldn’t spoil. The day before I went to the store and bought a big bag of apples and some canned fruit. Not once, and I mean that, did the ‘kids’ ask me to buy snacks outside of what we had in the room while we were at the hotel. Every morning, I packed a bag of snacks for all of us. Even a sleeve of Ritz kept us full while we were waiting online. We brought in refillable water bottles. Tidbit: Every stand that has ice will give you a cup of ice for free. On a hot day that ice melts into water, so you’re refreshed. I bought a chocolate/caramel covered strawberry from the Werther’s store (don’t even ask how addicted I am to Werther’s) and my honey bought a beer. I can’t remember how many other unnecessary treats we bought, but it wasn’t many at all. We preferred to spend our budget on our meals, versus overpriced snacks.
Research places to eat. I sat down and researched each possible place to eat in each park. The Disney sites have the menus and, for most of the restaurants, their prices. I didn’t have a dining plan, but I decided that we would spend NO MORE than $75 a day to feed FIVE people all day. Yup, we did it. Breakfast was free, so that was lunch and dinner. For lunches we looked at every park and found the ones that were the cheaper ones. Except for Pizza Planet –my kids really wanted to eat there just to finally say they did! – and a meal at a local restaurant that ended up being pricier than we expected – we stuck to our budget. One day we left the park early enough and decided on McDonald’s for dinner. Not the healthiest, but we got sandwiches and split fries. You can also buy salads and apple slices at McDonald’s too. We filled up for $22 for dinner. That day we came out ahead so we moved the balance to the next day in case we wanted a treat. We didn’t go over budget for the entire week and my kids never once complained they were hungry. So: have snacks at the hotel (if you fly in you can go to the nearest Publix to stock up), pack snacks (or even sandwiches) for the parks and stick to a budget.
Tickets: Food was done and so was the hotel. Now the hard part – tickets. Here is where you should keep an eye out on Mousesavers.com. Tickets really aren’t money saving opportunities, but I have to be honest, I remembered that I hadn’t used up all the days the last time we went. I wrote Disney and they verified I still had a day to use for the entire family. Awesome. Hey a dollar saved is a dollar saved! As a travel writer, Disney provided me with a one day pass for just me, so it still knocked down more money. If you are military or a state resident you can save even more. If you are paying for family members, see if they can chip in. The trip was my gift to my family, but I asked for help with ticket prices. Each child was responsible for helping to raise money for the tickets. Whether they worked and bought them on their own or helped with the garage sale – we designated any garage sale money toward tickets – they were still helping. I ended up making enough at a few garage sales to buy a couple of the tickets.
Picture perfect. When the kids were younger, I purchased a Disney-made photo of us at Chef Mickey. This time, we posed and had someone at the park take a photo. We weren’t paying for extras unless we really wanted them. I told each kid I would buy one souvenir out of my own money, so they were very selective, but if you have older kids they can decide how much of their own money they want to spend. Here’s the funny part: when they are spending YOUR money they’ll want more, but when they are spending their own money, they become MUCH MORE selective.
What was the bottom line? We left from New York to Florida on a Saturday, got to our hotel on Sunday. Spent three days at Disney parks and one day at Universal Studios (the kids went on their own and my honey and I spent the time at the hotel for some much-needed R&R). Left Saturday and was back home Sunday – and the entire trip was paid IN CASH – not bad, huh?
What would I do differently? Honestly I was proud of myself this trip. I paid it all in cash and did everything we wanted to do. I just wish I could’ve stayed longer.
Over the next week, I’ll be posting about our experiences. Stay tuned!