Long considered a rite of passage for many parents is the family trip to Disney World. But anyone who has survived the House of Mouse knows that the experience is more like a trek up K2 than a relaxing resort vacation: There’s a ton of preparation and equipment needed, you’ll feel as if you’ve pushed your body to the limit while you’re there, and you may have to do some things you’d rather not talk about after the fact just to survive.
If you want to do as little work as possible, book a package vacation. Disney packages include accommodations in the park, theme park tickets and airport transfers and can include food. While all of that sounds glorious, you may wind up spending more if you go that route. If you want to maximize your dollars, it’s best to plan it all yourself—a daunting task for Disney neophytes. Speaking from experience, I spent many a night completely overwhelmed, glass of wine in hand, pouring over websites trying to figure out the lay of the land before my first Disney trip with the kids. I also cornered every friend and family member asking for any advice they could give me on how to stay sane while traveling to Orlando on a budget. So I feel it’s only just to do the same, and share my suggestions for planning a Disney vacation (without going bankrupt).
RESEARCH: Planning a Disney trip requires about as much research as a PhD dissertation, but fortunately, there are a ton of bloggers who’ve done a lot of the ground work for you. And many focus on doing Disney on the cheap. One of my favorite sites is Mousesavers, a comprehensive resource that gives you insight on getting the best deals in Orlando (and Anaheim). The site also includes exclusive discounts for regular readers as well as a newsletter with deal alerts. Also check out blogs like wdwinfo.com, and, like I said, talk to as many people as you can about what worked and didn’t work for them.
STAY: If you’re staying in a non-Disney resort and you’re bringing a couple of kids with you, consider staying in a suite if you can afford it. Suites give you a little more elbow room and the chance to separate from your brood during downtime, which you may need after the inevitable meltdown in the parks. We stayed in the Sheraton Suites Lake Buena Vista on our recent sojourn to Orlando—I swear my children loved the bunk beds in the family suite as much as they did the Magic Kingdom. In an ideal world, you’ll find a resort that offers free breakfast—a standard for places like the Embassy Suites, which also features a free happy hour. Factor in hidden costs like charges for Internet, resort fees and parking, which can make a cheap room a bit pricey.
Looking for cheap options inside the park, visit David’s Vacation Club Rentals, which basically allows you to rent rooms from the Disney Vacation Club without signing up for a timeshare.
EAT: Deals abound when it comes to dining outside the park. Orlando has a sea of kid-friendly chain restaurants, many of which offer “kids eat free” days. If you do your homework in advance, you can also sign up for coupons at many restaurants (Mousesavers has a list of these). Another great option is stocking up and eating in your room. You’ll find Winn-Dixie and Publix in the vicinity and a number of airport shuttles will make a scheduled stop for you when you land in Orlando. If you have a kitchenette or microwave in your room that’s a win—especially if you’re traveling with picky eaters who subsist on the standards like frozen waffles, chicken nuggets and noodles. Grocery delivery is also popular among vacationers. Check out gardengrocer.com and wegoshop.com. Also, you can bring water bottles and food into the Disney parks—picnic-style dining is allowed.
Side note: If you don’t want to pay for character dining but you have a princess diehard in your crew, check out the Enchanted Tales with Belle ride in the Magic Kingdom. Belle participates in this interactive storytelling and you can snap free pictures of your kids with her after. The ride is free with park admission.
DO: Visit Downtown Disney if you want to have a Mickey experience without an entrance fee. This fun (albeit not shaded) strip of shops, restaurants and entertainment on Village Lake is a perfect place for families during the day to pick up souvenirs, catch a movie or go bowling. It consists of the Marketplace, West Side, and Pleasure Island, and a free water taxi (a thrill for little kids in and of itself) will take you from section to section. Of course, at night, the place comes alive and is a bit more grown up.
LOOK: Seek out deals. Deals for one or two days in the park are limited, but for three or more you can certainly find discounts. Avoid shady buys on Craigslist and eBay and instead visit reputable sites like Undercover Tourist, which will send you your tickets with free shipping. Costco and AAA also feature Disney ticket and package deals.
DOWNLOAD: The Disney World App. It may not save you money, but this free app will save you time. The app allows you to fast pass attractions and gives you real-time wait times throughout the park, which will help you determine how to navigate them. If you’re staying in the resort, you can make fast pass reservation up to 60 days in advance; if you’re not, you can make them up to 30 days.