Monday, February 27, 2012

Walt Disney World on a Budget

In January of 2014, I published my book, Walt Disney World Tips n' Tricks.  I removed the book from Amazon to make updates, hopefully I'll have it up again soon!

This post is now a Chapter Preview - Enjoy!

Chapter 5: Let's Talk Finances...

 Disney World is expensive. There is no way to sugar coat it, and no way to get around it. There are however, a few tried and true methods that take the “ouch” out of our Disney extravaganzas. Before I dive in, the cheapest vacation inside Disney World will be value resort, no dining plan, no park hoppers. You will need to bring food into the parks, share purchased meals and work within one park a day. We’ve done it plenty of times and the trip was always a hoot. Life is what you make it. Even if you don’t opt to stay in a value resort or bring food into the parks, there are plenty of ways to save and have a memorable trip.

Avoid “Peak” Seasons

Disney World loves to jack up the prices during peak travel seasons. If you can avoid traveling the week between Christmas and New Year’s, as well as between mid-March and the end of April (think Spring break season), you can save money.

    Unfortunately, the best months to travel to Disney are when most kids are in school. If you can swing taking the kids out of school for a few days, you will be able to plan the most cost efficient trip. We prefer late February into early March and September through mid November. The weather is good, and the crowds are light. We were able to do this for many years, and it enabled us to vacation for much less than if we went during school breaks or holidays. Look at your school calendar and consider taking the family when the kids have a long weekend, such as for President’s Day.

   Give Each Child a Wallet 

Limit souvenir money before the trip.  For the months leading up to the vacation, my kids start to save every penny.  They do chores to earn a little extra, and usually any money that is gifted to them goes into their Disney fund.  Before we leave for the trip, we sit the kids down and explain how much they have to spend.  They each have their OWN wallet.  Whatever is in the wallet they can spend, but once it's gone, there are NO loans from mom and dad

When we arrive at every park the kids always ask how much they have left to spend.  They are very aware of prices because we can easily demonstrate how much something will cost by removing the money from their wallet.  

Every time they check out the money comes from them, do not buy what they want and then "pay yourself back."  When they see the money leaving their wallet the lesson is more effective.

This method teaches them how to save, how to evaluate how much they really want something (is it worth having no money for remainder of the trip?), how to count money, keep track of change and most importantly how to budget for each day.

If you do nothing else before your trip make sure you implement this spending system. You will thank me for this later, every ride drops you into a shopping zone.  

Every. Single. Ride.  
The Money Jar

The money jar is ongoing in our house, so there is no timeline for this little beauty. The money jar, simply put, is a jar of money. This jar is the home for all our lose change and dollar bills we have lying around at the end of the day. We usually use one of those empty pretzel tubs because a jar is not large enough.  

Every day, we put all loose change into the jug.  We toss dollar bills in and money we find in the laundry.  We never take out of the jar, that is a major rule.  If we need cash the jar is still off limits.

Over several months you'll be surprised how much money accumulates.  We use this money for our big meal or to help pay for the dining plan. 

Dining Plan

I have mixed feelings on the dining plans.  If you are only going to Disney one time, and this is your huge family trip, I recommend the basic dining plan.  The one snack, one counter service, one sit down style meal a day.  You can book one nice meal for every evening (do not spend your dining credits on breakfasts if you can help it. Dinner is more expensive and you're paying one price for the dining plan).  DO NOT BUY THE DELUXE PLAN.  The three meals a day may seem like a good idea for families that enjoy more food, but you spend your days trying to get to meals instead of enjoying the parks.  

You do not need a dining plan to enjoy your stay (or to eat while you're there).  The parks allow coolers, and we bring food into the parks.  Dining Plan or not, I always pack one suitcase of dried goods for our trip.  If your munchkins are anything like mine, they could eat a four course meal and still complain they need a snack five minutes later.  You do not want to be buying drinks and snacks in the parks. I have had NUMEROUS people tell me they won't pack a suitcase of dry food because of baggage fees.  This is my answer:

Pack smart.  Pack two kids in one bag and save a bag for food.  Pack food in everyone's bag (a few boxes of granola bars in one bag, pop tarts in another...sprinkle it in).  Or, fly an airline that offers more bags (southwest is a favorite of mine).  Lastly, an extra bag might be $20.  ONE SOFT PRETZEL IN DISNEY WORLD IS OVER $5.  If you buy one snack every day of your trip in the parks you will have paid more for snacks than that extra bag.

Consider this carefully.  

A few of my favorite items to pack in my luggage for the parks:

Bread (in tupperware)
Peanut butter
Jelly (collect small jelly packets from restaurants leading up to your trip.  Sounds silly but it works)
Granola Bars
Fruit snacks
Pop Tarts
Juice pouches (in tupperware)

If you are really dedicated to saving money (as I am) and you will have a mini fridge in your room (check with hotels on availability of fridges) pack cold food as well.  I usually pack a soft cooler in one suitcase and fill it with frozen yogurt sticks, apple slices, frozen juice pouches (they serve as excellent ice packs) and even cold cuts. 

Every day before you go to the park pack a backpack of snacks.  Drinks, pb&j  sandwiches, yogurts, cookies or whatever you have with you.  I have a backpack that is a cooler as well, which works awesome.  If you have a stroller in tow, this extra bag won't be an issue.  If not, dad or mom can wear it no problem.  The best part?  It gets lighter as the day goes on.

Wishing you a very fun budget friendly trip!  Happy Trails!


  1. what a great savings, we have never done the meal plan but have never been there for more than 2 or 3 days.

  2. Smart!!!!!!! I'm glad you posted this. :) we are planning a trip to the 'land' and was thinking what to do in regards to food, on our budget.

  3. OK. Where's Walmart in relation to WDW? We used to use Publix (the first time it was Gooding's. *shudder*) and now we go to Winn-Dixie (I even have one of their savings cards) but I can't seem to find a nearby Wal-mart!

    We do this exact same thing - breakfast in the room, lunch is packed or split and a quick dinner of hot dogs, pasta, or Pizza Hut pizza (the one on Palm Parkway is really quick and friendly). We still splurge on a Character meal but we only go every 1 1/2 to 2 years. Even still, I somehow managed to lose (!) 4 pounds.

    Nothing is more aggravating than spending $6.49 on a hotdog and then having NO ONE EAT IT! At least with yogurt I know someone will eat it (although it's kinda comical to watch a grown man eat a Danimals crush cup!).

    1. LOL! I went to the Winn Dixie...and also got a savings card this time! I just needed a few small things ...too funny.

      The Walmart is on International Drive. When you leave Disney, the road is on the right, past the Nickelodeon hotel.

      YES! I can't stand to buy a hot dog or something similar and have it sit there...we end up eating it so it won't go to waste!!!!

  4. Thanks! The Writer's Stop is around the corner from the Muppets heading towards the American Idol experience. It's small, they have books and are usually playing a Disney movie on an old-fashioned looking TV. They also have ENORMOUS sweets and the best coffee - including flavor options this time! Woot! It's usually quiet which means the munchkins can unwind and the doors are automatic - perfect for when you're pushing a double wide stroller!

  5. We normally hit up the Super Target on 192 West.. the Dining Plan has never been something I've truly been interested in - too much food in one place! I like sharing appetizers and finding dessert elsewhere - but will probably be useful when my 2 boys are teenagers (they're 2 and 7 weeks shy of due date right now!) Next time you're going not on a budget - try the dining plan this way - not my idea, but good enough to share!

  6. I am going in late Sept / early October. This will be my first time to use the dining plan and we are only doing the quick serve version - counter meals only. I have always believed in your budget plan - we can eat cheaper and healthier by bringing in "sides" to eat with our shared main course. And, we have plenty to eat. Dinner reservations and the rigidity of that just doesn't jive with my Disney plan. The kicker this time for the dining plan is that we will be there for the Food and Wine Festival and you can use the snack options at the kiosks at that. That totally made it worth it. And, it was "free" with a full price package.

  7. I would love to know about your decision to buy into the DVC program. With a family of 7 we are limited in our lodging accomodations and have been wondering If this is financially worth it.

    1. Kim, we decided to join the DVC because it gave us the freedom to go to Disney every year...yes, it is expensive. But we financed over 10 years. The villas are beautiful, and you can stay in any of the Disney timeshare resorts. You also should consider this - you can rent your points as well on a site called So if you want to go every other year - rent 1/2 your points every other year - and put the money towards your next trip. We have paid completely for trips by renting our points. The great thing about Disney timeshares is people will pay good $ to rent! Email me if you need any more help!

  8. My family and I just returned from WDW and I have a few money saving ideas. Each morning a character would leave a special gift for her, it had a pin from the park we were visiting and something else related to that park; I purchased these small gifts at the dollar store and Wal-mart before we left. Each gift had a note for the days activities. She told me before we left she wanted to buy a Merida dress at the park, about 2 weeks before we left I got an email from the Disney Store for 25% off, so I snuck out and got that as a surprise from Merida and I got her gold shoes to wear as well. We had dinner reservations at Akershus for dinner, so before we left the room in the morning, I pretended I forgot something and ran back into the room and laid the new dress, shoes and matching hair bow on the bed along with a note from Merida. She loved wearing that dress to dinner, and that particular dress isn't sold in the parks.

    Another thing we loved doing was finding the pressed penny machines, we spent probably $20 but got so many. On the last day, we told her she could buy whatever she wanted and she just picked out a stuffed Pluto and Bolt. We saved 20% on these purchases with receipts from our food purchases which had a 20% off coupon from open until noon at select stores. Really saved money. We spent more money on the rental car than we did for souvenirs.

  9. I am a first time WDW mom. We are going in early December. I have been a few times as a kid and went once in my early 20's, but this will be my first trip to take my kids, ages 6, 4 1/2, and just turned 3.
    We are staying at the resort and have the quick dining plan (it was 'free' with our reservation). My question is - how much more $$ should I plan on saving to have as spending cash? My older 2 kiddos will be in charge of their own souvenirs and we plan to pack extra snacks and drinks and not purchase much on that side of things.
    Also, with the 2 meals per day on this dining plan, what are your recommendations as to which meals to use? B,L,D??

    1. I always recommend using any meals you get through the meal plan as L and/or D. Breakfast is so easy on the go...granola bars, an apple, dry cereal...etc. Pack those items to bring along and use your meals for L and D.

      I like to have $50/day set aside if I'm using meal plan. Just in case, for fun stuff like treats or a beer for Hubby.

      Have Fun!!! So exciting!

  10. Found your blog on pinterest - wouldn't normally look but I'm going to WDW (Epcot) with my BIL and SIL and my adorable niece and nephew. We're VERY lucky and have our own "savings" method - my BIL works for Disney in LA so we get crazy discounts!

    Regardless, I LOVE the fact that you let your kids take responsibility for their own money/spending/souvenirs. What a great way to teach them the value of money, I'm sure it's a life lesson that will stick with them for a long time!

  11. We are planning our first trip to Disney since our honeymoon, this time with a 6, 3 and 1-year-old. We are so excited! We are going in January and staying on-site, with the Dining Plan. However, I want to save $ on things like breakfasts, snacks etc and we are coming from Canada and won't have a rental car. How do you feel about grocery delivery? Or do you think it's more cost efficient (if not time-efficient) to take a cab to Walmart?

    1. Look into a ride to walmart...but we did buy some items such as pancake mix in the gift shop and make breakfast...its more than what you pay at walmart but way cheaper than buying everyone breakfast!!!! I think a few easy items in the gift shop will be worth it, and I always pack an entire suitcase of dried goods like cereals, pop tarts, crackers...etc...and we use that suitcase for souveneirs on the way home! Have fun!

  12. The Mommy: " (the first time it was Gooding's. *shudder*) I MUST ditto this. Avoid like the plague!

    They only thing that I would add is how to do the dining plan and max the value. I should preface this with we are "splitters". My DH and DD (x2) have no problem sharing lunch, snack, etc. So we also take short DVC trips to Disney (BTW if you do this, consider 10 day no expire tix with water park. We go 1 or 2 days once every 1 or 2 years to the parks. Just with ticket inflation of 7-10% per year, we come out ahead.)
    We are going in March for 3 days, but parking it for only 1. (my kids love swimming, resort exploring, DTD, etc.) So we have the Dining plan for 2 nights. I would never do Dining if we went for a full week because we could never eat that much food. But we take the 2 days of Dining and split it over the 3 days. Here is my plan:
    Total plan: 4 dinners (because Cindy's is double), 8 Lunches, 8 snacks

    Friday: arrive w/ breakfast on way.
    Share lunches (2 used) I suggest Bongo's at DTD today or sunday and Cook's of dublin for fish and chips on the other day or wolfgang puck's bacon wrapped meatloaf
    4 snacks (4 used)- Baby cakes NYC in DTD? or save 1 and get Zebra domes at Mara
    Dinner out of pocket (bring something?) but I vote to order pizza again.

    Light Breakfast: in hotel (bring something) or cold pizza :)
    Lunch: Big lunch at Belle's Castle (4 lunches) EAT EARLY
    Share 2 snacks: (2 used) I suggest cheese filled pretzel and a rootbeer float- Possibly eat (pun intended) into next day's snacks if we are hungry.
    Dinner at Cindy's Castle (4 used)

    Breakfast: in hotel or go to boardwalk bakery (no snacks in afternoon)
    Lunch: Share lunches (2 used)
    Share Snacks: 2 used

    Max value. We did this partly because we are at Animal kingdom lodge, which is far from everything. However, we won't do this ALL the time. We are doing this because we are eating at Cindy's table which is super expensive, but girls are princesses for such a short time that we would have ponied up for it anyway. Ended up being only $40 more TOTAL to Dining it the whole way than to just do Cindy's.

    1. GREAT tips! Thanks for sharing! Love having this blog because I learn such great tips!

  13. Hubby and I are planning a trip next March. While we don't have kids, there are still some great tips here! Thank!

  14. We are going in Nov of this yr and are flying in from the west coast. I found out after I booked/ paid for our hotel that we can't get the Meal plan as the hotel we booked is not an official Disney Hotel( bummer) However we do have a mini fridge in our room and that is all we have access to in our room and we found a shuttle company that will go to a grocery store for 1/2 hr for free on our way to the hotel so we can stock up on snacks and beer for DH. Can you give me any tips on how to cut food costs at the park for someone who has limited access to a " Proper" kitchen?

    1. We like to pack a small soft cooler with drinks - they are a biggie because buying the in the parks is very costly. if you pack small water bottles and juice pouches, and some items such as cheese sticks, yogurts, granola bars and other snacks, its easy to save. We like to split meals - three meals four four or five people works great. Have breakfast in the room - and share lunches. Dinner was always when we splurged. Have fun!

  15. Hi there, we're planning our first ever WDW trip and my friend sent me your blog link as a "must read" before we go, so I've been reading up as much as I can.
    You say that you advise against the park hopper - what does that mean? I'm getting military discount tickets, I was under the impression the park hopper part is included - is it not that way for all the tickets?
    Thank you so much for providing so much great information!!

    1. Hi Lindsey! I advise against park hoppers for anyone keeping a tight budget,(not sure what military discount offers) and anyone with young kids. Kids tire very easily from all the walking and stimulation (rides, shows, people). If you need to keep the budget in check don't park hop (it's an "add on," you can upgrade your tickets to include water parks, park hopping etc). Park hopping means you can do as many parks as you like in the same day. With kids, one park is more than enough most days. Do the same park at night if you want to go out and do more! We buy the base ticket, no add ons. We always have more than enough rides, shows, food and pool time to fill a day!

      If the park hopper ticket is included, that is great! Makes dining wherever you want easy because you don't have to worry about admission to another park for your meals. Have fun! Thanks for reading!!!!!

  16. Thanks for sharing your trip to Disney looks much they enjoyed it, I plan to travel to Disney in November with my son, and your post helps me a lot.

  17. I have a question. Why some people say the Dining Plan is "too much food"? In my opinion, it is not.
    The Dining Plan gives one Quick Service, one Table Service, and a snack. I am used to eat three times a day plus two healthy snacks, so I am a meal short.
    I am not an 'wake up early' person, so we sleep in in the mornings. Normally hit the parks around 11am with some juice and coffee in our refillable mugs. Eat lunch around 1:30pm using the credits; a Snack around 4pm and Dinner reservations at 7:30 or 8pm. That way I have enough food without having to buy a meal in the parks.
    No, I still do not think the Disney Plan has "too much food".


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