In the summer of 1989, my wife and I took our two preschool boys on their first Walt Disney World vacation.
We drove from New York to Orlando, prepared most of our own meals and stayed at Disney's Fort Wilderness campground. We spent less than $800 on the whole trip.
More than two decades later, my wife and I brought our two grown sons, new daughter-in-law, and her her sister and mom on our most recent Walt Disney World vacation. We still drove from New York and prepared most of our own meals, but this time around we stayed in a four-bedroom vacation home we rented for $69 per night.
In the years between, we learned many ways to save time and money while getting a better value for our vacation dollars. Here’s how to plan your own Disney trip for less.
Booking a Walt Disney World vacation can be a daunting task. With four theme parks, two water parks, 29 hotels and resorts, and around 70 restaurants, your vacation can quickly become complicated -- and expensive.
To save money, prepare for your trip far in advance. Think about when to go, where to stay, what tickets to buy and how each of those factors affect the cost.
Disney’s hotels have seasonal pricing, which varies greatly depending on the time of year you visit. To help you make a decision on timing, visit a Disney-planning site like AllEars or this guide for first-timers from Touring Plans.
It sounds counterintuitive, but using a travel agent to plan a Disney vacation is actually a smart way to save money and time.
Why? In general, they’re free. Disney pays them, not you.
Disney Hotels can be expensive. Fortunately, there are many affordable lodging options outside Disney property.
My favorite choice is to rent a vacation home or condo. I like this option because a vacation home has more space for the family -- including more than one bathroom! -- and you can also use the kitchen to save even more time and money.
These sites offer incredible deals if you time your booking right. On our last trip, I rented a vacation home through VRBO with four bedrooms, three bathrooms and a private pool. It was listed at $200 a night, but I was able to book it for $69 a night!
The trick is to wait until about two weeks before your planned stay, and then search for available properties. Owners who’ve had a last-minute cancellation are usually willing to rent for a discount rather than have the property sit empty.
As I write this post, a one-day ticket to Disney's Magic Kingdom will set you back $105. But Disney's ticket prices are set up so the longer you stay, the less you pay per day.
A five-day ticket will cost you $74 per day, while a 10-day ticket falls to $44 per day. A good strategy is to plan one longer trip every few years, rather than shorter trips more often.
Disney World ticket options can be complicated because you can add options such as "Park Hopping" and "Water Parks Fun and More" to your tickets. A good way to decide what ticket combination works the best for you is to use this Ticket Calculator.
Buy groceries at the supermarket when you arrive and prepare as many meals yourself as you can manage. (Use these tips to get your groceries for the best price!)
Preparing your own food is easier if you’re staying in a vacation home with a kitchen, but you can still use these tips in a hotel room. If you didn't drive or rent a car, consider grocery-delivery companies like Instacart or Garden Grocer.
Did you know you can bring your own food into the parks? We usually pack sandwiches, snacks and drinks in a small, soft-sided cooler for a quick lunch on park days. After lunch, we just fold up the cooler and stow it inside a backpack or shoulder bag for the rest of the day.
By mid-afternoon, you’ll likely need to return to your room for some rest, especially if you’ve got young kids. This is a good time to start preparing your dinner, which you can enjoy without waiting in line outside a restaurant.
These tricks help keep your costs low, plus make the occasional restaurant meal into a special treat, rather than a time-consuming (and expensive) routine.
If you want to get the most out of your theme park day, arrive early.
We usually arrive at the park gates at least 45 minutes before the scheduled park opening time. It’s almost always open a little earlier to curb long waits at the turnstiles.
But the most important reason to arrive early is to ride the most popular attractions with little to no wait time. We have walked onto Space Mountain with no wait, sometimes more than once. The same ride can have wait times of 90 minutes or more at peak.
To avoid waiting in long lines, consider creating a customized plan for your day with Touring Plans. Its mobile app, Lines, shows you how long you can expect to wait for each attraction. Premium membership costs $12.95, but in my experience, it’s well worth the investment (and there’s a 45-day money-back guarantee).
Your Turn: What are your best strategies for saving money at Disney World? Let us know in the comments so we can all save a little more cash!
Ron Walpole is retired from the NYC Department of Education, where he worked as a Laboratory Specialist. Ron and his family have been making regular trips to Walt Disney World since 1989, always finding new ways to get a better value for their vacation money.