My husband and I live a frugal life for several reasons, one of those reasons is to be able to provide some of our wants without feeling guilty, neglecting our needs or racking up debt. This past Christmas we were able to purchase something we’ve wanted for a very long time, annual passes to Walt Disney World.
While annual passes to WDW are expensive they are really just the tip of the iceberg for most people. It seems to be a given that everyone, even local residents like us, spend a couple hundred dollars a day at the park on food and souvenirs. We just can’t afford that and we certainly don’t want to turn something wonderful into a negative by going broke. We’ve found ways to trim the cost of visiting the parks down significantly, in fact, we rarely spend more than the gas money it takes to get to the parks.
I realize most people aren’t going to want to visit WDW as bare bones as we do and will want to splurge a little more on their vacation, so here’s an insider’s look at how you can save money during your visit to WDW with just a little preparation. These tips are specific to Disney World simply because that is the park we visit and because Disney is a bit more relaxed when it comes to bringing outside items into the park. See the bottom of this article for more information on the other local theme parks.
We live 15 minutes from the Disney parks so our transportation cost is simply budgeting a little extra gas money toward the van each month. For those traveling longer distances I advise eating your own food as much as possible, flying into one of the many airports outside of Orlando, and taking advantage of the complimentary shuttle between the airport and Disney hotels.
If you are staying off Disney property expect a shuttle ride to cost between $20 and $30 per person, plus tip. Before your trip you may want to consider calling local limousine or towncar services, they are sometimes cheaper than shuttle service if you have a large party (not to mention the awesome feeling of stepping off a plane and being greeted by a driver, that’s just cool!)
Staying at Disney
There are perks to staying on Disney property, including free transportation and parking. If you time your visit at the right time of year an economy class hotel can be as little as $70/night! Staying-off-property can cost as little as $45/night off-season, and don’t forget to look into houses and villas for rent within driving distance (having a kitchen is a big bonus when it comes to saving money!) When you stay off-property you’ll incur some transportation costs like car rental or shuttle fees, though many hotels offer free transportation to the theme parks.
Disney offers many inclusive vacation packages and you might find that a package is the way to go. Vacation planning services are free through WDW, take a look here.
Getting into the parks
Don’t forget to budget parking fees! Currently it costs $14 per day to park your car, truck or van at a Disney theme park. That’s a lot of cash just to park. There are ways to get around the fees though, if you’re willing to spend more time riding a bus or walking.
-Annual Passholders and those staying on Disney property can park for free at all parks.
-AAA members can purchase discounted parking passes at their local AAA office
-If you purchase a Dining in Wonderland meal discount plan (NOT the same as the Disney Dining Plan mentioned later in the article) you get free parking after 5pm and free valet parking at Disney resorts (you should tip though). You can get free bus, monorail or boat transport from the resorts to the parks, valet parking is otherwise $12.
-You can park at Downtown Disney for free and board a bus to the Ticket & Transportation Center (TTC) or a resort and transfer to a bus, boat or monorail to get to the parks. This is a pretty convoluted way to get to where you’re going and can take over an hour just to get to the park, and even longer getting back to your car. Also, be sure you check the transportation schedule for the day as schedules do change and you don’t want to be stuck calling a taxi.
-Self-parking at a resort is usually possible but sometimes you will be turned away unless you have a dinner reservation (and no, don’t make a dinner reservation and skip it just to get free parking because your credit card will be charged a fee for not showing up for your meal and it’s much higher than paying for parking!) Self-parking at the Boardwalk Resort is usually available even without a reservation, except at the busiest times of year. From the Boardwalk you can hop a bus, boat or walk to the parks.
Tickets to Disney are very expensive, near $100/day for a park-hopper. I’ve not heard a lot of things about the discount vendors that line the shopping strips near Walt Disney World, but I know they are regulated because every few weeks you hear about one being shut down for selling bogus tickets. I can’t tell you if that is the norm or not, just that paying $30 for a $90 ticket is probably too good to be true. There isn’t a lot you can do about the cost of tickets unless you qualify for a Florida resident discount. Your best bet is to call WDW or visit online and see what tickets will do the best for you as there are a lot of options, and the more days you buy the cheaper the tickets are per day.
If you know someone who works at Walt Disney World hit them up for comp tickets or beg them to sign you into the parks one day for free. Cast members are prohibited from selling their comp tickets and sign-in privileges (and will lose their job if they are caught!) so please don’t offer cash in exchange, but the least you can do is buy your host a meal.
-Souvenirs are a fun way to remember your vacation but will cost you, a lot. A quick trip to a local Super Target (there is one within sight of Disney’s Animal Kindgom) has an entire department full of nothing but Disney souvenirs for about 50% less than you will pay at the park. Local Wal-Marts also have souvenir sections and some Wal-Marts sell Disney tickets as well. Many hotels offer transportation to the stores, but you may feel the cost of a taxi ride is justifiable given the savings.
Here’s an example of how they “getcha” with prices. We were at Epcot this past Saturday and I was wearing the same warm-weather shoes I’ve worn for the past two years, my fancy, beaded flip-flops with 2” cork heels. These shoes were amazing at the park, they were cool and the cork heel absorbed the impact of walking for hours every day. Well, the shoes came to an abrupt end-of-life Saturday when my 5 year old son stepped on them and slid his foot, tearing the flip out of the flop. I was sad but I needed a new pair of shoes, pronto. I walked to a flip-flop stand with my eyes on a pair of Mickey Mouse Croc sandals. I don’t necessarily like Crocs but their flip-flops aren’t too offensive and I do need the extra arch and heel support. $39. What?! No thanks. I turned around and priced the regular, you’d pay $3 for these anywhere else because they offer no support and will break within a year flip-flops. $15, or $20 if you buy two pair. *sigh* I ended up buying two pair and shared with my 13 year old daughter. After my annual passholder discount I paid $19.97 for two pair of flip-flops, though to be fair each did come with a free keychain we’ll never use. Ouch. Not only am I now $20 in the hole (over flip-flops!) my legs still ache three days later.
TIP: If you have small kids bring a full change of clothes, including undies, in a resealable plastic bag! Maybe it’s just my kid who forgets how to use the potty when he’s at WDW, but even so there are a lot of water fountains for the kids to run through and there may not be enough time for them to dry before you have to be at dinner or on a ride. You can buy clothing at the park but a t-shirt will set you back $30!
TIP: Bringing your own portable crib, stroller, wheelchair or scooter will save you a lot of money but not everyone wants to travel with these items. These items are available for rental through Walt Disney World but are expensive, they are on a first-come-first-served basis and usually require another wait in a long line. There are quite a few rental companies near the Disney area who rent these items (and more) for a better price and they’ll deliver.
-Sunscreen, umbrellas, rain ponchos and other sundries should be brought from home or purchased cheaply off-property. A yellow Mickey Mouse rain poncho at Disney World is now about $10. The same poncho is $4 at Wal-mart or $1 for a plain, one-color poncho. The sunscreen that costs $5 at Target will cost $13 at Disney.
Eating at Walt Disney World
The second major cost of a Disney visit, just after tickets, is food. Dining at Walt Disney World is a world-class experience you won’t forget but you will pay for it! My family has come up with a few tricks to allow us to enjoy the parks without spending an entire month’s grocery budget on two meals.
If you eat in the parks, eat cheap (cheaper, anyhow). There are reasonably priced choices at each park if you don’t mind counter service and eating outside, and there are no age restrictions on ordering children’s menus at counter service places. Save your fancy table dining experiences for one or two special meals and eat counter-service the rest of your trip.
Some of our favorite cheap(er) food stops by park are listed below. All prices approximate and rounded to the nearest dollar as of 3/5/12.
-Cosmic Ray’s Cafe is a large counter-service restaurant between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, here you can get the typical fast food fare. We’ve found that the cheapest meal is a salad heaped with toppings from the topping bar, which is even cheaper if you ask for no chicken on it. You can also get ½ chicken meals that are big enough to split between two adults for around $12.
Casey’s Corneron Main Street & The Lunching Pad in Tomorrowland are great places to grab a quick meal or snack. For around $8 you get a HUGE gourmet hot dog covered in toppings that is big enough to serve two small kids, or as a snack for two adults.
Turkey Leg Carts are mobile carts that can usually be found in Frontierland and throughout all of the parks. These carts sell delicious (and huge) smoked turkey legs for around $9. One turkey leg provides a decent portion for two adults, or can be used as a not-so-well-rounded whole meal. During the summer you can enjoy fresh roasted ears of corn for a few dollars extra.
Pecos Bill Cafe in Frontierland serves a taco salad for $8 that can be made HUGE after a visit to the topping bar, easily enough to feed two people. There is a veggie burger for $7 and the chicken Caesar salad is an inexpensive option at $7, even cheaper if you skip the chicken and visit the topping bar.
It’s easy to eat a very delicious, filling meal for less than $10 per person just by walking around the World Showcase area of Epcot. Every pavilion in World Showcase has a fast food stand offering snacks and appetizers for $5 and under, it’s fun to start with an egg roll in China and end with a bear claw in Canada.
-Cool Wash Pizza is located near the Test Track ride. Pizzas big enough for two kids to share run $7-9.
-Sunshine Seasons is a cafeteria-gone-gourmet located in The Land pavillion. Your family can eat really good, really fresh food for $10 per person. If you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet this is the place to eat, though anyone can find something to enjoy. The best values are the kids meals, which include an entree (I suggest the hot entrees as the portion is almost adult size), a drink, fruit and two snacks, all for around $6-8.
-Chinese Take-Out Cart located just outside of the China Pavillion. Here you can buy snacks for under $5, but the real deal is the sampler platter. The sampler platter comes with an egg roll, a pork bun, a curried chicken pastry, ice cream and a soda, plenty of food for a meal for just $10.
-The Tangerine Cafe is my absolute favorite place to eat at Disney World! You can get a platter with enough food for two to share for $10-14. I enjoy the vegetarian platter but my husband really enjoys the Mediterranean sliders.
I admit, we haven’t eaten here, there just aren’t very many choices available for the budget-conscious. There is a hot dog stand near the Tower of Terror and there are several fruit stands around the park, those are going to be your best bets if you’re buying food.
-Yak & Yeti Counter Service offers huge portions of Asian favorites for around $8-10, each portion suitable for two people. My favorites are the Honey Chicken and Beef Lo Mein. I love to eat here at night as there is a DJ spinning dance music and free dance lessons!
-Pizzafari is located near Dino World and offers, well, pizza. A pizza can easily serve 2 small kids and is about $9 with salad, skip the salad and it’ll be closer to $7. The kids meal is a good value here too, for $6 you get a hot entree, fruit, carrot sticks and a drink.
The above are just some of our favorites, for an extensive list of restaurants available at Disney World and prices, visit http://allears.net/menu/menus.htm
Bring your meals, snacks and drinks with you
Walt Disney World is pretty liberal with their policy of bringing in food and drinks. As long as the items you’re bringing in don’t need to be heated and aren’t in glass containers, and of course aren’t alcoholic, you’re pretty much free to bring whatever you want.
After a week of toting around two meals, snacks and drinks for 7 people we managed to figure out what works best for us. We now bring one meal, a few empty water bottles and small snacks. Even those who are visiting the area can take advantage of this money-saving advice by visiting a local grocery store, many hotels offer free transportation to stores and some stores will even deliver your food for you.
This is how we do it:
-Eat a big meal at home. Plan at least one meal at home around your visit and you’ll have less to carry or buy.
-Bring food that is light to carry. We pack our food in a backpack and carry it around. It’s possible to carry ice packs around with you but they get heavy fast. I prefer soft ice packs because they aren’t as heavy as they thaw, but they don’t last as long either (TIP: put your ice packs in a plastic zipper bag, there’s nothing worse than the look on your kid’s face when their autograph book was ruined by a thawing ice pack!). You can rent a locker at the park entrance to store small coolers (only soft-sided coolers are allowed) but it’s going to cost you $9-15 for a locker.
I’ve listed some of the things we frequently bring below, they aren’t fancy but they fill our stomachs so we can get back to the fun. Keep in mind that your ice packs will thaw much quicker when temps hit the 80s, so be prepared to bring food that doesn’t have to stay cold, or that you’ll eat early in the day.
-We bring plastic forks and a handful of napkins in a plastic bag every visit. Sometimes I bring shallow plastic bowls that I scavenged from frozen food entrees with us as they’re easy to store and wash, and I don’t feel bad tossing them in the recycling or trash bin when we’re done eating.
-Sliced baguettes, dinner rolls or whole wheat crackers are easier to carry than sandwiches and loaf bread. Bring a small container of peanut butter to spread on the bread. In cooler weather chicken and tuna salad is nice to bring, but eat it early in the day and don’t bother bringing it in the summer.
-Wraps, lunch meat and cheese (packaged and iced seperately) are easy to carry and quick to wrap into a meal or snack. You can freeze your lunch meat and cheese so it’ll last longer in your pack, it’ll be thawed but still cool when it’s time to eat.
-Bring some cut vegetables and hummus as a snack or meal. Hummus doesn’t need to be chilled, just stir it really well before serving.
-Pasta salad is very filling, a good way to bring your veggies to the park and can be eaten right out of a plastic zippered bag, eliminating the worry of carrying plates and bulky plastic containers. I suggest double bagging anything you plan to eat right out of the bag.
-A jar of nuts (plastic jar or metal can!), granola and cereal bars, baggies of breakfast cereal, dried fruit and crackers are all good, easy-to-carry snack choices.
-Instead of bringing full water bottles, which are heavy, bring in empty bottles and fill at counter service restauntants (with water!) or water fountains. For variety you can bring some single-serve drink mix packets. To save even more weight ib your backpack you can bring paper cups to be filled with water or just drink from the water fountains and ask for empty water cups at counter service restaurants. If you’re at Epcot and craving a soda visit Club Cool for as many free soda samples as you want, though the flavors are exotic (try the apple and orange, my favorites!)
-If you’re staying on Disney property you can purchase a Disney Dining Plan. There are a lot of plans to chose from but the premise is the same, you’re pre-buying your drinks and food at a considerable discount. The plans are expensive but could be a good way to go if you don’t want the hassle of carrying and preparing food.
-The Tables in Wonderland dining program is a discount program offered exclusively to annual passholders and Florida residents. The cost is $75-100/year and offers a 20% discount on food and beverage purchases throughout Walt Disney World. Read the fine print because the discount is not available everywhere, during certain times of year and an 18% tip is automatically added to your bill.
Bringing food into the parks is the #1 way to save on your Disney vacation but what about the other local theme parks? Unfortunately the other parks aren’t as flexible as Disney. Here is a little bit of info about the other area theme parks:
Universal Studios & Islands of Adventure only allows you to bring in baby formula, medically necessary food and drinks and prohibits picnic lunches. More info here.
Sea World Orlando allows only baby formula, medically necessary food and prohibits picnic lunches and outside drinks. More info here.
Legoland Florida prohibits all outside food and drink, including those with allergy concerns. Baby formula is allowed and food allergy-friendly menus are available at most dining locations in the park. More info here.
For even more information on planning your Disney vacation you can order a vacation planning DVD for free here.