Thrifty Thursday: Tips for Making Your Disney Dream Come True

As you read on Tuesday, I have recently been reminiscing about my family’s trips to Walt Disney World while preparing the board for my son’s upcoming graduation party. In remembering all of our wonderful times, it became increasingly important to me to make sure that I have done my part to try to make a Disney vacation seem attainable to everyone – even those who think there is no way to visit without spending a fortune.

Walt always said, “if you can dream it you can do it.” Today, I am going to give you the insight on every tried and true money-saving tip that my family has used throughout the years. I am hoping that by incorporating any or all of these ideas, you can make your dream of taking a Disney vacation a reality for you and your family.

Travel in the off-season

There are many advantages to traveling to Disney in the off-season. Not only are there smaller crowds, but there are usually great discounts on Disney packages, as well as cheaper airfare with some major airlines. Often, the weather is very pleasant as well.

When my kids were young, we took them out of school for a week and went in October or February, whichever had the best deal. Different people have differing opinions about taking the kids out of school, but when I would send letters to the school principals asking permission for my children to miss school during those times the requests were always approved, no question.

If you do take them out of school, be sure to obtain their homework assignments ahead of time so they won’t be behind once you return. In some instances, the teachers would just assign a written journal or report on their trip or on a specific thing they learned that they never knew before. Of course, when they started high school we moved our annual trips to the Thanksgiving holiday when they were out of school.

By taking your children out of school, you are not limited to taking a vacation during the most busy travel times of the year.

Travel by the cheapest means possible

Driving saves us money as we have a large family so buying airline tickets has not been feasible for us in most cases. You can save a lot if the airline lets kids fly for free with a paid adult, but I have not seen such a deal in my area in a long time. Research the prices for your family and make a decision based on your budget.

Save on lodging

First, I would like to make a comment about hotels. If it is AT ALL possible, I recommend staying on Disney property. This huge Disney complex has been created with everything you could ever need in order to keep you enveloped in the Disney magic 24/7. The Disney experience is not the same when you are staying off-property. The value resorts are quite reasonable and they are themed, clean and offer the amenities of all Disney resorts including extra magic hour benefit and free Disney transportation. If you cannot get a good enough rate, then stay off property. Shop around for the best deal including offered specials, AAA, and any other discounts out there at the time of your booking. Also, if you are driving your own vehicle, be sure to factor in paying for parking at the parks each day unless your hotel offers free shuttle service.

Use a Disney World Travel Agent

If you decide to stay at a Disney resort, use a Disney World travel agent, to book your trip. Their entire mission in the travel agent business is to save you money and they keep an eye on any deal that might benefit you.  They will tell you the least expensive times to visit and, if discounts come out after you book, they will notify you immediately to get you those discounts.  The best thing is that it is a free service to you so you can’t lose.

Utilize the free transportation

If you book at a Disney resort and you are flying into Orlando, be sure to utilize the free transportation the Magical Express offers. This is a wonderful service Disney offers that picks you up from the airport and delivers you to the resort. They even retrieve your bags and deliver those as well.

There are other free transportation options at WDW also, and those are the buses, boats, monorail and ferries that take you to and from wherever you need to go on property. There is no need for a vehicle at all, so don’t budget the expense of a rental car; use that money toward meals.

Know what tickets would be best for you

Tickets are expensive, so you have to pick out what you want to see and make a plan. Research on the front end can save you a lot of money. Check out tickets without the park hopper option for your number of days vs. park hopper for fewer days if that is what you are looking for.  Make a Must-Do list and a list of things you can do without seeing. Then figure how much time you will need at each park to accomplish your must-dos. Keep in mind that you can’t do everything on one trip so choose your favorites. You can possibly save money by purchasing park hoppers for fewer days and combining 2 parks in one day. Definitely do Magic Kingdom on its own day.

We never splurge on water park tickets, because the pools are fantastic and kids love them!

Bring your food with you

This part will be tricky if you are flying but quite easy if you are driving to Orlando. Just bring money saving items with you to keep in your room and use throughout your trip. Bringing a backpack, insulated lunch kit, baggies, breakfast and lunch fixings, snacks and drinks can save a lot of money. These are the items I bring when there is no free dining and we are on a tight budget:

  • insulated lunch bag for each person
  • 1 case of 10-oz waters with spouts
  • Gallons of water (for refilling water bottles in the room)
  • breakfast foods such as muffins, cereal bars, cereal and boxed milk
  • sandwich fixings such as bread, peanut butter and jelly
  • snack foods like chips, a variety of fruits, nuts, fruit roll ups and granola bars
  • juice boxes

This is just to name a few. We stock up at our local Sam’s Club before we leave and spend approximately 75 dollars. That covers every breakfast and every lunch while we are there for an 8-day stay. You would pay a lot of money for breakfast and lunch at the resort or parks.

Eat breakfast in the room

The best thing to do is to have a good breakfast in the morning. If you are staying off-site, check for a free continental breakfast offering. If your room has a microwave and small refrigerator, you might bring some other breakfast options. At the very least, eat a muffin or a bowl of cereal before heading out. This will save you a lot of time and money. Be sure to pack what you will need like paper plates and bowls, plastic utensils, etc.; enough for your entire stay for each member of your family.

Pack for the park

We each have a backpack made of lightweight but strong prolypropylene with a drawstring closure and straps. They weigh less than an ounce when empty and are 15” high by 13” wide. Each person carries one loaded with the items below needed for a day in the parks.

Each night, I put one of the water bottles for each of us in the small fridge inside the room. We pack our lunch bags in the mornings on the days we will eat in the parks. We usually pack a bottle of water, a juice box, sandwich, bag of chips, fruit, snacks such as nuts, fruit rollups, etc. and maybe even a surprise special treat that I pull out in the morning. Then we put our lunch bags inside our backpacks and we are ready to go.

For my family, we pack a backpack for each person, or you can pack a cooler small enough to store in a locker. There are a few rules when it comes to bringing items into the parks however. You are allowed to bring snacks and food items that do not require heating. You must have a soft-sided cooler and it must not be on wheels.

A note to MOM and DAD: do not walk around all day carrying everything for everyone in your family. This is your vacation too; enjoy it.

If you are flying instead, there are some grocery store options for resort delivery such as You just place your order and they will deliver right to your resort room.

Have a picnic

Whenever everyone decides they are ready to eat, we pick out a bench or two and people-watch while we have our dinner. Food is cheaper in the parks during the lunch period so we will usually purchase lunch in the parks, then save by eating dinner from our backpacks. If you want to save even more, either share meals at lunch time or order all kids meals at the counter service restaurants. Very often, the portion size is not much smaller than the adult portion but this can save you money and save your waist-line.

We never buy drinks or snacks at the park, except for ONE meal per day. You should be able to save enough with that strategy to splurge on one special treat like a Mickey Mouse Ice Cream bar.

Once our water bottle is empty, you can get free ice water at any counter service restaurant within the Disney parks. Please note that this is tap water and Florida water does not taste very good to us, so we take Crystal Light packets in a baggie to flavor the water. Be sure to stay hydrated.

On days when we head back to our resort in the early evening, we just make our dinner when we get to the room then either eat in the room or take it out for a poolside picnic. Then, we either swim or just veg out for the evening. These are usually the days we got up extra early to attend morning extra magic hours so it is nice to take it slow and just relax.

Another important money saver, at least for my family, is buying the refillable mugs. For those members of your family who like coffee, hot cocoa and soda, this will save you lots of money rather than having to buy drinks. Be aware that milk and juice are not available on the serve-yourself line however.

Take advantage of all the free stuff

There are free, fun things to do all over the Disney complex:

  • Enjoy your surroundings. Look up, down and all around as the imagineers have done amazing things to create this magical place. Enjoy the spectacular rides, shows, the friendliness of the cast members and the visitors alike, enjoy the cleanliness and the attention to detail offered here.
  • Be sure to enjoy the fireworks shows. A lot of entertainment value for free.
  • Visit Downtown Disney, go to the Boardwalk to watch the street performers, ride the monorail, take a boat ride, and swim in the resort pool.
  • If money is an issue, don’t try to splurge for character breakfasts and dinners. The characters are available at many places inside the parks and the kids can meet them for free. Just check your entertainment and times guide as you enter each theme park.
  • Club Cool: If you are thirsty while at Epcot, check out Club Cool. There is a soda sample from each country and kids and adults love to try them. Take my advice and stay away from Italy!

Don’t leave anything to chance

Be aware that everything is more expensive inside the parks. Make sure you bring any items you might need in your backpack. In addition to our food items, we carry ponchos, hand sanitizer, baby wipes, pain meds, band-aids, etc. You don’t want to have to buy anything in the park.

Quelch the gimme bug before going

When you create your budget, include all your expenses in the budget and stick to it. Let your children know that the money you will save by eating breakfast in the room or sandwiches for one meal a day will afford you the opportunity to spend another day in the parks. If you have young children, I am sure you know that everything in every souvenir shop looks good to them. Here is a good rule to follow: tell your children they can buy whatever they want with their own money, but they cannot ask you for more. If they want to make a collection jar at home to save their money before the trip they can. If they don’t, they can choose not to. The day you leave, give each child a set amount (I usually give them $20 each) in addition to what they have saved. Tell them that if they spend it the first day, that is all they will get. If they choose to spend it the last day, that is their choice as well. But they cannot ask for anything else except what you gave them already. Be prepared for the fact that there is a gift shop at the exit of many rides, so remind your children in advance that you will not be purchasing any items in the parks.

Ask and you shall receive

Some of the best souvenirs you could have are the pictures of you and your happy family captured on film, or digital media. PhotoPass photographers are set up at all the best locations and they will be happy to take a picture of your family with your camera. This will save you from having to purchase photos if you cannot afford them.  These will be the best and cheapest souvenirs of your trip, hands down.

I hope you will find these tips helpful. I truly hope that everyone will plan a trip to Walt Disney World with their family to share in this magical place. I have so many wonderful memories of my family here and as my youngest graduates I envy everyone who is just starting on this wonderful journey. To all of you, good luck and don’t forget that there is a wealth of information in the pages of The Affordable Mouse. Happy planning!

Want help planning your Disney vacation? Find out how the FREE services of a Disney World travel agent can make it all simple…and save you time and money too!

Brenda is a native Texan born and raised on the Gulf Coast. She visited Disney World twice as a teenager and always dreamed of growing her family Disney. She took her first-timer husband and their three children to Disney World in 2000 and they now spend every Thanksgiving there. Brenda writes with a comedic twist on various Disney topics. She will be sharing tips she has learned during her travels and also hopes to enlighten people on little-known freebies that Disney has to offer. She wishes she could have met Walt Disney and considers herself to be a student of Walt. In parallel to his dream it is her wish that everyone would take at least one trip to Disney World in order to share in its magic with their families.

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2 Responses to Thrifty Thursday: Tips for Making Your Disney Dream Come True

  1. Jo says:

    Continental breakfasts – awesome. Besides, the better breakfast you eat, the less you tend to eat throughout the day (even bigger money saver!)

  2. Shepard C Willner says:

    Re: Quelch the Gimme Bug, how do you apply the tips in that section to young adults and adults who have no impulse control? What if Mom wants that jeweled Mickey Mouse hat? What if Dad wants that Mickey Mouse watch? What if Junior wants to bowl at Splitsville, and the cost is more than $20 for games and shoes, but not food? As for saving some bucks, I prefer to have my Disney Dining Plan in place so that nearly half or more of my meals are paid-for in advance. I’ll have my advance dining reservations vouchers or confirmations in my cross-body satchel, along w/my camera. Also, I’ll have breakfast in the hotel dining room or at the bakery-coffee counter, depending on what time I awoke that day and if one of the restaurants is still serving breakfast when I get there.

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