A trip to Walt Disney World is a magical experience, but no one would ever mistake it for a cheap little jaunt. But depending on how your family likes to travel, there are ways to save money and places to splurge. Putting some thought into what you want to get out of your trip will allow you to enjoy it even more when you arrive.
Drive or fly? You have to weigh the cost of gas plus wear and tear on your car versus the cost of flying and possibly renting a car.
If you stay off property, you will need a car and you'll pay $20 for parking each day you go to the parks. If you fly and stay on property, you can get free transportation from the Orlando airport to your resort and use the free transportation from your resort to the parks.
Your room and your tickets will be your greatest expense. On property, you have the choice of value, moderate or deluxe accommodations. Off property, there are hotels, condos and homes for rent. The size of your group will greatly affect this cost. Are you bringing your kids, their spouses and your grandkids? If so, it may be cheaper to rent a house or a large condo off property.
Some of the resorts on property do have one and two-bedroom options. You can book through Walt Disney World, but Disney Vacation Club members also have access to some of the more spacious rooms. There are agencies which rent points for DVC members at a much cheaper rate than you can book through the resort. You'll want to book this option at least nine months in advance to take advantage of the best room and price options. Some members sell specific times they've booked on websites like ebay.com and redweek.com as well.
If there are five or fewer traveling, the difference between staying off property versus staying at a value resort on property, may be negligible. Most value resorts are cheaper than moderate resorts, but not all. Deluxe resorts (obviously) are the most expensive.
Another benefit of staying on property is getting extra time at the park. Each day, there's at least one park that allows those staying on property to arrive earlier or stay later than those staying off property.
No matter where you stay, you can still visit the resorts, eat in their restaurants, and shop in their stores. We've even had s'mores at Animal Kingdom Lodge while looking at the giraffes and zebras - and both were free!
Depending on where you stay, tickets can be the biggest part of your budget. The cost per day gets cheaper with the more days you purchase. If you only go to one park per day, you can cut out the park-hopper expense. If you are someone who wants to start the morning at Magic Kingdom, eat lunch at Epcot, and end the day at Animal Kingdom, then the extra money for park-hopping is worth it.
If you are visiting during the fall or winter, there are events that require special tickets. The cost for Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party or Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party depends on the night you choose to go. The ticket allows you to enter the Magic Kingdom at 4 p.m., even though the party doesn't start until later. Both parties have special treats and the lines for rides are shorter. The special parades and fireworks also make the events nice for family members of all ages. The events go until midnight, so if you're not a night owl, it may not be worth the extra cost.
One thing that surprises many about Walt Disney World is the quality and variety of the food. You will definitely want to try some of the food on property, especially if you're visiting during one of the festivals at Epcot. If you are traveling with younger kids, a character meal is worth the splurge. You get to meet and take pictures with some of your Disney favorites. (The characters vary depending on the restaurant.)
Walt Disney World is also home to several very nice, upscale restaurants, including AAA Five Diamond award winner Victoria & Albert's. Dining here is an experience, especially if you decide to splurge for the 10 course Chef's table!
But there are also ways to save money on food. You can actually bring your own non-alcoholic drinks, sandwiches, and snacks into the parks. It can be a huge money saver, especially if you are traveling with kids who may only eat half a hot dog or a few fries and are then ready to go again.
A game changer when it comes to food is free dining! Disney will offer this during the slower times of year. It's really a win-win because the parks are less crowded, and you get free food! You must stay on property, but the cost of your room may be the same amount you would spend on food each day for your family, especially if you book a value resort. As long as you understand the rules, you can eat well and it's a terrific way to save money. Be aware, the free dining offer goes fast, so when you see it, grab it!
This expense is totally within your control, but it won't feel like it if you're traveling with what I like to call "a super shopper" (like my mom) or a child who wants every toy, stuffed animal, or balloon he sees.
One way around this is to bring surprises from home or to buy a similar (but cheaper) item at an Orlando area grocery store or Target. You can also allow each child to pick one item within a certain price range during the trip. This is also where the free dining could pay off big. You can't buy stuffed animals with your credits, but you can buy decorated Rice Krispie treats or special cupcakes for them to enjoy, which some might say is better anyway!