Disney vacations can be one of the most memorable trips you ever go on…but it sure can get pricey! Here are some tips for making your Disney vacation a little more affordable.
In just a few short weeks, we are going to be heading to Disneyland!
Yes, this was me right after I graduated from high school…pretending like I was so cool as I dreamt of my fairy tale ending over a wishing well at Disneyland. Those were the days. And oh, how I wish my hair was that long again.
I absolutely love all things Disney, and I can’t wait for the day that we can take Jack to Disneyland. And while that day is far off in the distance, it doesn’t stop me from doing researching late into the night tips for having a Disney vacation on a budget. I know, I have no life.
As I mentioned, I went to Disneyland after I graduated from high school with my parents and little brother. It was SO fun, and I often think about that trip. I think I enjoyed it so much, partially, because I helped my mom plan the entire trip. We planned it primarily through Get Away Today, and it was just so much fun. I don’t care what anyone says — you never get to old for Disney!
Awhile back, I created the ultimate guide to planning a Disney vacation, and I was excited to see a lot of people liked it. I thought that I might as well take it another step, and try my hand at my own guide — this one being the ultimate guide to planning a Disney vacation on a budget. While I have no training as a travel agent (though I think I’d be a pretty good one, haha), I have researched this topic extensively, and believe it or not, I remember quite a few things from the trip I helped plan several years back! Hopefully you will enjoy this and learn something new. I’d love to hear any input you have.
Before I give any advice, I think something that is important to remember is that budget doesn’t necessarily mean cheap. No matter how many great deals you get, a Disney vacation will not be just a couple of hundred dollars (assuming you are having to travel there and stay multiple days.) It’s most likely something your family has been saving up for, and may or may not be a once in a life time event. However, there are many things you can do to make it a lot less expensive. I think if you follow the rule of never paying full price for anything and do your research, you can make your Disney vacation a lot more affordable!
BEFORE YOU GO
Determine your budget
Before you do anything…decide on your budget. Be realistic with it (so, if you have a family of six and you are flying to California from across the country, don’t think you can do it for under $1,000.) By starting out with a specific budget in mind, you will know how much wiggle room you have. Here are a few things you will likely need to pay for, to help you determine that budget:
- Disney Tickets (obviously). These vary in price depending on the time of year, how many days you get, etc. The worst day is a day long pass, and the best deals come as you purchase more days.
- Hotel or Lodging: Lodging varies a lot. If you stay on Disney premises, you will be paying a lot more than at an off-site location. I’ll talk a little bit more later though.
- Travel Costs: Flying? Driving?
- Food: This also varies, depending on how much you want to eat in the park
Obviously, you budget is going to depend a lot on how many people are going to go to!
Consider Layaway with Get Away Today (only available for Southern California vacations)
I’ll mention Get Away Today a few more times throughout this post (yes, I am an affiliate, but I truly love what they have to offer.) However, one of the huge advantages of booking through them is their Layaway program. It’s great for planning a vacation several months in advance, and not having to pay it all up front.
Basically, they allow you to book a vacation, and lock-in that rate, for as low as $125 down. That fee includes a $50, non-refundable fee to lock in the rate. After you pay that initial fee, all you have to do is make sure you pay off the vacation two weeks before it’s set to happen. You can make as many or as few payments as you want up until that two weeks before.
Personally, I think this is an amazing option, especially if you can’t necessarily pay for an entire vacation up front. I mean, you shouldn’t do it if you don’t plan to have the money at some point before the vacation, but it’s great for people who only can allocate a certain amount of money per month to their Disney trip. Layaway trips can be set up through the Get Away Today website, or by calling 855-GET-AWAY. And for any of my readers, if you use the code ClarksCondensed, you can get $10 off any vacation!
Research, Research, Research
Don’t just make a knee-jerk reaction and purchase the first package you find. While I believe some of the best Get Away Today, I would encourage you to research all your options before you make a decision. There are so many websites out there dedicated to helping you find the best deal.
A lot of people wonder how to get discounts for Disneyland vacations, and while I”m not expert on the topic, here are a few tips I’ve found:
- Sign up (and use…but pay off 😉 a Disney Visa. You can get exclusive discounts this way.
- Pin Codes — These are special codes that people get at random times…there’s no way to really predict when you will get one, but I’ve read that if you request a copy of the Disney Vacation DVD, create on account on Disney.com and save your family’s information and trip dates, or create a Disney customize map, your chances increase substantially.
- Undercover Tourist has tons of great discounts on Disney World tickets — some of the best I’ve seen!
- AAA members can get great Disney discounts
- and Military members, too!
Oh…and don’t try and be sneaky and buy tickets in a sketchy way. There are people who will buy multi-day passes, and then sell the wrist bands to people at their hotels. Sometimes you won’t get caught, and sometimes you will…but it’s not particularly honest. If you are going to go on vacation, anywhere, I recommend doing it as honestly as possible!
Book several months in advance
After doing a little bit of research, I’ve found that the general consensus is to try to book your trip several months in advance. While you may be able to find some “last minute deals” somewhere, but personally, I think that would be too stressful! In general, you need to find a happy medium — planning too far in advance (a year or more) isn’t really a good idea, but neither is planning to close (less than a month). You probably won’t find great deals, and won’t be getting the most bang for your buck.
From what I can tell, the most recommended time to schedule the trip is 4-6 months in advance. These typically yield some of the best deals, plus it gives you plenty of time to change your mind. However, starting to plan your trip before then would be a smart idea, too!
When to go?
There are definitely times that are better to go Disneyland. As you could probably guess, during the summer is the most expensive time. Not only is it most expensive, but it’s also very hot, and likely to be super crowded. Other times where it will be crowded and you aren’t as likely to get a good deal, is during spring break (so April-ish) or over the holidays. The general consensus is that the best times to go are during the fall and winter, and during the week. This website has a lot of great information about when to plan your Disney vacation!
Some aspects of your trip may be more important than ever! Perhaps you really want to have your daughters attend a Disney Princess character breakfast, or you really want to stay in one of the resorts on Disney grounds. I think, if you can afford it, it’s totally fine if you pick something you really want to splurge on.
I’ve already mentioned a few tips about buying tickets, but here are a few more things to consider:
- If you can, plan it around someone’s birthday. They can get in free!
- Children under three get in free!
- Many tickets include one “Magic Morning Early Admission” pass, which is awesome for extending your stay.
- As I already mentioned, you can get Military discounts, or AAA discounts. Booking through Get Away Today is a great idea, too, for getting the best deals.
- Buying one day passes are typically the worst deals.
If you are going overnight, you’ll need somewhere to stay. Thankfully, there’s a lot of great options out there, and you should be able to find something in your price range. Here are a few options:
- Disney Hotels: This is probably the most fun option…but probably one of the most expensive as well. There’s definitely perks to staying on the Disney Park’s premises (they’ll deliver things you buy to your room, it’s close, and it’s magical), but it can definitely cost a pretty penny.
- Off-site hotels: There are tons of hotels in the LA/Anaheim area, and many of them are reasonably priced. A lot of these hotel will have free breakfasts, and some may even provide free shuttles to Disney (or, even better, be within walking distance!) If you choose to stay off site, I think that Get Away Today is definitely the place to go to check out hotels. They give you all the details of the hotels (free breakfast, free shuttle, and other amenities, as well as the distance), and, if you book for a certain amount of nights, you can get free ones. You can search for hotels that have things you specifically want, too. Combined with buy tickets from Get Away Today, you can save a lot of money on lodging. And remember, if you use the code Clarks15…you get 10 dollars off!
- Camp on the Beach: Ever done this? I sure haven’t. But I know a lot of people have had very fun memories of camping on the beach before going to Disneyland. I have no idea what rules are associated with this, but hey,
One of the most pricey parts of a Disney vacation is getting there! Unless you are lucky enough to live close to Disney, you will likely have to shell out a good amount of money on flights, or gas, to get there. There’s pros and cons to both methods of travel, which is especially dependent on how many people are going, and where you are coming from.
I always love using AAA’s fuel calculator when I’m trying to see if flying or driving is a cheaper option. It’s also important to consider the shape your car is in — will it cause significant wear and tear to drive a good distance in it?
If you are planning on flying, you can get some seriously cheap deals if you are vigilant about checking. There are, of course, sites like Priceline, Expedia, etc. that will help you see what prices are best at that given time. We always like using Bing’s Flight Search, because it tells you if the price is expected to rise or fall in the next week or so. Be sure to check out discount airline’s websites, like Southwest, because they don’t usually show up on sites like Expedia.
However, my favorite way to find flights is with the Skyscanner app. We used it when searching for a flight to North Carolina last year, and we found the best deal I’d ever seen — round trip for about $200 each. It was only on two very specific dates we could get that flight, and it was thanks to this app that we found it!
Obviously when buying a flight, you have to consider what time it leaves (many red eye flights are cheaper) and if they include any luggage with the price. While an airline like Spirit may seem super cheap, once they start piling on the feeds, it can get a little out of control.
There’s been numerous studies done on when the best time to buy a flight is, and apparently, 54 days, or about 7.5 weeks, before your departure date has been shown to have the best deals! I’ve never tested it myself, but it could be true. It’s also cheaper to fly on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as opposed to weekend dates.
And finally, if you are going to be flying, you might want to invest in a rental car. If you stay on Disney’s property, and you don’t plan to ever leave, you can probably get away with just using their free shuttles. However, if you are staying off site, or plan to go to the beach, or anywhere else, having a rental car is worth it. I’ve seen some crazy low deals (we’re talking $15 a day or less) online…it just takes some searching. Websites like Priceline are where I’ve found the best deals.
Another awesome reason to use Get Away Today? They can help you with ALL of your travel needs, including flying, rental cars, etc.
INSIDE THE PARK
Spending money doesn’t stop once you’ve gotten your tickets, travel, and lodging taken care of. There’s definitely a lot of temptations to tempt you to empty your bank account…but try and resist them! Here are a few ways to save inside the park.
Ah…souvenirs. Something that most parents dread the thought of. If you can avoid buying anything in the park, you are better off. However, it can be hard to resist Mickey Ears. So, if you want to let your kids buy a souvenir, just set a firm budget for each kid beforehand. Jack isn’t at the age where he really asks for toys or souvenirs, but when he is, we will definitely give him a small amount of money for sounvenirs…and when it’s gone, it’s gone!
Some items can become rather tempting if you are walking around in the hot sun, such as spray bottles. Consider stopping by the Dollar Tree, or Target, before you leave and stocking up on spray bottles, hats, etc. to help keep you cool.
There are some free souvenirs you can collect while at Disney. I think the most well-known ones are buttons that say it’s your birthday, anniversary, first trip, etc. These obviously aren’t anything big, but they are fun, and can even get you some special recognition throughout the park. I’ve heard that if you tell restaurants that it’s your birthday or anniversary, some of them will even give you a free treat! Other free souvenirs include maps of Disney – you can get a free customized one here:
This may seem like a silly topic, but if you find yourself with blisters, or even a headache, head on over to the first aid station. They have an assortment of OTC medications that guests can use, free of charge. In addition, you can store medical equipment (such as a breast pump) if you don’t want to carry it around the park (and who would?!)
Okay, so obviously, if you have admission to the park, you don’t have to pay extra to go on rides. However, there are a few ways to get the most bang for your buck, and get to see as much as the park as you can. Here are the two most popular ways:
- Fast Passes: This is a great way to make sure you get to go on some of the more popular rides, without having to wait for hours in line. Basically, you get a pass from rides that offer them, and it tells you a time you can go back and get in the “Fast Pass” line. Generally, the wait time is a lot shorter, and you can spend your time going on rides with lines that are less long, or eating lunch. Sometimes you might run into people that give out fast passes they couldn’t use, which is always a pleasant surprise!
- Stroller Passes: I’m not sure if this is the exact name, but if you are traveling with small children, this is a must! Basically, it allows one parent or guardian to go on a ride with a child, and then, instead of having to wait in line again, the other parent can go straight to the front of the line afterwards to go on the ride themselves with their child again. I love how Disney is such a family-oriented company, and they make it easy for families to go and have fun.
One of the most expensive parts of Disneyland is the food! It’s crazy how expensive some things are (and, after a long day of playing, how tempting the food gets, regardless of the price.) However, with a little bit of planning, you can save a lot!
While you aren’t supposed to bring large amounts of food into the park, they have some great picnic areas outside of the park. If you are parking near Disney (or even just staying on the premises) you could leave a cooler there, and go grab your food when you are ready to eat. You can even throw a few granola bars and fruit snacks in your bag to help lessen the temptation to buy some of the overpriced treats in the park. From everything I’ve read, the outside food and drink rules are a bit iffy, but most people have said they have brought in food in their backpack and water bottles with no trouble. The main limitations are no alcohol, and no glass bottles.
You can get free water anywhere in the park, with a few exceptions. At most restaurants or food stations, you can walk up and ask for a cup of ice water. If you don’t want to carry around a water bottle, this is a great option.
I also feel like it’s worth it to try and book a room at a hotel that has a complimentary breakfast. The hotel we stayed at when we went a few years ago had a full, hot breakfast, that was included with the booking of the room. It was a nice way to start the day, and it usually held us off until lunch. Even if your hotel doesn’t have a breakfast, it will end up being a lot less expensive if you buy bagels, donuts, or cereal and milk, to store in your room. If you have a refrigerator, even better! Some hotels come equipped with kitchens, as well, which makes it even easier to prep or eat food at the hotel.
Sometimes, certain Disney “clubs” will offer discounts on food, such as having a Disney visa. Downtown Disney restaurants often have coupons, as well, so be sure to check online before you go.
And of course, there’s tons of places to eat outside of Disney, that aren’t even too far away! I’m sure you can easily find fast food or other restaurants that are significantly cheaper than eating in Disney.
Of course, there are a lot of great places inside of Disney, and I think going to at least one is worth the splurge. For the more “casual” places, you can easily buy the kid meals for adults, and they will probably have plenty of food. Some places will even let you get an upgraded kid’s meal, which is more of an adult portion, for just a few dollars more than a regular kid’s meal. Oh, and kids under three? They should be able to eat free.
Although I haven’t gone to Disney in a few years, I truly can’t wait to go again. I had so much fun researching all of these topics, and drawing on my past knowledge, and hopefully some of it will help you have a less expensive Disney vacation. I’d love to hear any of your tips!