Disney on a Family Budget: planning ahead

meeting minnie mouse

Disney World. The dream of every child and the nightmare of every parent who doesn’t enjoy bleeding their hard earned money. Suprisingly Disney can be an affordable vacation. There is not much variation in the price of tickets from place to place on the internet. I do not recommend waiting until you arrive at the gate to purchse them or you will be spending additional money per ticket.

When we went I bought Park Hopper tickets, which meant that we could go from park to park on any given day. There is an additional charge for this and we did not use this option once during our vacation. I am not sure that I would do it again, unless I were going to be doing Disney for a long vacation. As it was we did not see everything in any one of the parks and certainly did not feel like dealing with the hassle of leaving one park and going to a different one.

Also check out the prices of the tickets. The per day goes down the more days you buy tickets for. This means the admission price for 4 days is virtually identical to the admission price for 5 days. ($50.50 per day for a 4 day adult pass versus $41.20 per day for a 5 day adult pass*)

My first and most important piece of unsolicited yet often given advice: GO OFF SEASON.

Shall I repeat it? GO OFF SEASON.

Ignore this advice if:
1) You enjoy being inches away from the unwashed masses of humanity while waiting in line for hours on end, while your children beg you to leave Disney and take them back to the hotel to go swimming in the pool, because they do not have pools in your home state, and

2) you also enjoy 105 degree temperatures with 95% humidity which essentially means you will be stewing in your own sweat as well as that of other peoplew who think deodorant is optional.

If that scenario sounds like something you would really enjoy to have played out several times over just as many days, then by all means go during the summer vacation season. Also, get some professional help.

For everyone else, doing Disney off season means there will be less people, less crowds, and little to no waiting in lines. We were able to ride the “popular” rides numerous times without ever waiting in a line. Getting off the ride and getting right back on it. It was fabulous. Honestly I don’t think I could have enjoyed Disney world if I had to wait on line for more than five minutes.

Going off season also means that accomodations will be less expensive. I know many people swear by staying at the Disney run hotels. I, however, am not one of them.

We rented a three bedroom, 2 bathroom condo that had a full kitchen, laundry inside the condo, and a swimming pool. It was also in a gated community, if that is something that matters to you. (Being from New England where we don’t have anything like this I don’t quite get it’s appeal, but there ya go.) At $120 per night, it was considerably less a night than any of the Disney single hotel room options.*

One of the great things about going this route, is that you don’t have to eat out for every meal. As exciting as that seems while you are planning the trip from the comfort of your own home and internet connection, it gets old really quickly, especially when you have cranky, overtired, hot children whose idea of fun is not sitting quietly in a restaurant.

I used the kitchen to it’s fullest. As soon as we arrived in Orlando we drove right over to the Super Walmart and went grocery shopping. As we shopped we kept in mind:
1) what sort of foods did we want to make for breakfast,
2) what kinds if snacks to bring for during the day, and
3) what kind of dinner/late night snack foods for when we arrived home from a long day at the parks.

I also brought my crock pot with me. I know you are thinking that is crazy, enough with the crock pot, lady. But it was worth it to come home and have food that was done cooking.

One morning we went to a character breakfast, the other three we ate at home before leaving. I brought snacks with us to the park every day. I had a largish soft sided cooler which the children put their water bottles in and in there I put things like string cheese, turkey to be rolled up, oranges sliced up in a ziploc bag.

Then I had a small diaper bag type of bag where I put things like granola bars, raisins, little packages of peanuts, cookies, mickey mouse fruit snacks (keeping the Disney theme, you know). The plan we had was to snack all day on these small things, buying a special treat like a Mickey ice cream or something similar and then eating dinner out.

I also brought a small can of gatorade powder to make in the children’s water bottles. Do you know that you can still get water for free to refill you water bottles? Yes, you can. It is called a water fountain. And much better than spending $5 for a bottle of water.

Our goal was to prevent us from dropping hundreds of dollars every day on grazing foods and drinks. And it worked. We discovered that if we had enough snacks, combined with the heat and excessive water/gatorade consumption in an effort to stay well hydrated, we really weren’t all that hungry.

But how did you carry all that around with you, are you a pack mule? did you bring a sherpa?

Ah, the stroller is your friend. And bring your own stroller if at all possible. Even if you think your child is too old for a stroller, bring it anyway. The Disney ones are not comfortable and you can not take them out of the park to your car in the parking lot. Do you feel like carrying a whining, tired, cranky child out to your car, when you yourself are tired, cranky, and in desperate need of a stiff drink? Yeah, me neither.

We brought our double stroller and our cheapie $20 umbrella stroller. My 5 yr old had initially refused to ride in the baby stroller and how dare we even suggest such a thing since he clearly is NOT a baby, but after the first day he saw the error of his ways, embraced his babyhood, and happily rode in it. And frankly I encouraged it because he walked SO.SLOWLY. that we might still be wandering around Epcot had he not obliged.

Tomorrow the topic will be: Disney on a Family Budget: stopping the gimmees. Because we have all had the experience of going some where and having a child beg you to buy something at every single store, kiosk, or vendor you happen to pass.

* this figure comes from the official Disney website

**this condo is no longer available for rent through this rental agency. But there are many many others.

22 Responses to “Disney on a Family Budget: planning ahead”

  1. Mom on the Gulf Coast Says:

    Brilliant! Thank you, I would not have thought of an offsite condo but for around $120 a night (off season of course) you get WAY more than a single room in a hotel. We stayed at a theme hotel before, nice but kind of small really, Disney is getting the most bang for it’s sq. footage obviously.

    The best deal we ever got was at a hotel outside of Celebration, FL., off season, nice(!), with a crib, for $65. We were estatic since we had gone to Orlando for two days for a “freebie” tour. No parks, we toured the Disney hotels to see their decorations. Celebration (a Disney inspired actual town) has one street they block off at night to make it snow. Yes, I said snow, in December, in Florida. It’s foam but our toddler found it so cool, as did we.

    Anyway, eagerly anticipating the next instalment, thank you!

  2. Colleen Says:

    Off season rocks! It’s actually our only option since my husband is a self-employed pool man. If not for homeschooling we would never get to vacation.

    I will say that I have a friend who got one of the 4 Star Disney hotels down to an amazing price on Priceline out of season (she set the price at something like $65/night for a suite at the park and it was accepted). We lucked out that trip and stayed with my husband’s sister, but alas, she has moved and is no longer an option.

    I’m looking forward to hearing more.

  3. Kate Says:

    Great ideas. I am keeping them in my head for when I have children someday and we travel!

  4. Jennifer Says:

    I love your new blog! These are such great ideas? I do have one question as far as planning - what ages seemed to enjoy it the most?

  5. the womom Says:

    Thank you for this. We love Disneyland and are planning a trip next year. We will have a very. small. budget.

  6. T in HD Says:

    Aaah, pressure from all sides! My sister and BIL took their five kids to Disneyland a few months back (March–off season!) with our parents along for the ride. The last thing I’ve ever wanted to do was visit Disneyland. My dad and BIL felt the same way but went “for the family”. They came back totally psyched about the trip and are planning the next one while trying to brow-beat me into agreeing that my family will join them. Being the organizational and planning freak of nature that I am, I enjoyed your post on the subject, especially knowing that I will end up succumbing to the extended pressure of 8 children and five adults… . And I don’t care what age the ankle-biters are, the heavy duty European Emmaljunga (the one that makes our old Viking look like a timid mouse) is going with. Who says buggys are just for babies? And to get double (triple, since we can squeeze two kids in our buggy seat) kid-carrying duty, you can get a “buggy board” to attach to the back. It can carry a child up to 5 or 6 y.o. standing and will go *anywhere* the buggy will (my sister didn’t believe this until I brought her one back). It’s great for foot-weary kids who won’t or can’t ride in the buggy. ;-)

    Anyway, I loved the post. The family stayed in Disney Hotels and ate out and loved it, but I know that would get old for me really, really fast. I like your condo idea. Not only cheaper but much easier on my sanity. And let’s face it, anything that shreds my sanity just ain’t no fun.

  7. Caren Says:

    My husband, son, and I all have season passes to DW. We always stay at one of the disney hotels b/c it is just so much easier for us (w/ only one child). We always bring a cooler with milk in it and leave it in the hotel room. We eat breakfast in the hotel room and have snacks, pb&j sandwiches, etc. for lunch and eat dinner in one of the parks. We are just to tired to do anything except shower and get in bed when we get back to the room. And I agree completely with Chris…The stroller is my very bestest friend!!!!!!

  8. Jess Says:

    We are heading to the land of Mickey in Oct. Yep that is right off season. We are staying at one of the value resorts and lucked out getting the Disney Dinning for FREE. Thanks for all of the great ideas on what to pack for snacks. I bought a back pack this weekend that will be used to house snacks and what not while we are at WDW. I can’t wait to read more of your ideas.

  9. Lori Says:


    Great advice, but I would still rather die than take my 6 (!) kids to Disneyworld. Can they tag along with you next time? I will pack plenty of snacks for them. . .

  10. alice Says:

    Great advice. I can’t wait to read the rest. We LOVE Disney and I have an uncle that works at the California Disney so the tickets are F.R.E.E.! With the rest of your tricks, this just might work for us. Yipee!

  11. Rae Says:

    I really do love this blog… the practical stuff is nourishment to some of us who still feel new at this. This is a great post, and it really is true wherever you go, packing lunches will save a ton of money… unless you *want* to spend all your money on crappy fast food. Thanks, it made me think that it might just be possible to do Disney at some point.

  12. liz Says:

    Excellent suggestions! I will definitely bring snacks and get a stroller. Thanks!

  13. rachel Says:

    Great post! My parents did a lot of the same things with my older girls when they took them (they got a freebie hotel because of my step-dad’s work). They also used frequent flier miles to get there.

    For folks with food allergies, there’s a liason person who can help you negotiate any meals you eat in the park (and every site has ingredients available). My gluten and dairy free kids had 2 fabulous character meals!

    For souveniers, my parents gave each kid a certain amount of money each day. They could save it or spend it, but that was all they would get. It really helped curb the “gimmes”, and they came home with nice stuff for us and themselves.

    The one other thing my mom did was give each girl a fanny pack with mini waters, protein bars, snacks, and their autograph book. that way they could easily grab what they needed. My parents carried the ponchos and more stuff in a backpack.

  14. Jen Says:

    You want to know what we did to help defray costs?! We went to two of those Time Share presentations. It was QUITE a joke, Hubster and I thought of it as a date (Older kids watched the younger ones, so we were ALONE!!!!!) and we laughed and laughed at our ability to say, over and over again, “Nope. We will never be vacationing, ever again. No, we don’t want to spread out the cost of our future vacations. No, we don’t like the facilities”, and “Where do we get our reduced price Disney and Universal Studios tickets?” Too much work for some folks, but we actually had a ton of fun doing it and it’s a part of our Florida adventure that we will always remember! And it really did defray costs!

  15. Jean Says:

    Wow!! Thanks for the great ideas, Chris!! It made me think that DW may actually be doable for us!!

  16. Kerri Says:

    Just wanted to send something out to any military families that may be reading this: There is a military resort in DisneyWorld in the Magic Kingdom area. It’s called Shades of Green. You can get beautiful, decent-sized rooms for under $100 a nite (depending on your paygrade). We stayed there in 2004, and had a great time!

    Love the blog, it had tons of great ideas that I will put to use next time we go!

  17. Kristen Says:

    Awesome tips.

    If you are military, you have to get your discounts before you go the park. They don’t give them there. And I agree - stay OFF the park - I brought my own food, snacks, and drinks and didn’t spend a bit on that stuff.

    I did buy my tickets on ebay - and while I know this can be tricky, if you find a legit dealer who has + feedback, it can be worth it. We saved a ton of money that way.

    And finally, my MIL insisted we just rent a stroller (they brought their cheapie one since we were lugging tons of kid crap) and complained up until we used it all day everyday and it rocked (and yes those rentals SUCK). And then I got to say I TOLD YOU SO. HAHA. Okay not really - but in my head and it felt good.

  18. Amah Says:

    We took 4 foster kids and 2 grandchildren to DW last Christmas, just before the vacation time started. They were all under school age. I even packed pb&j’s for them. We ate only 1 meal at the park and rented a large RV - we swam and played at the park in the early mornings and went to DW right before lunch. Watched the parade while eating lunch (those pbj’s) and then had a blast for the rest of the days. We took an extra stroller for our “junk”. Will always have a stroller - even if no kid!! The Gatorade idea was one that I hadn’t thought of. The whole thing also goes if you are planning any sort of trip. Can’t take the water with you but you can take the powder - keeps them off of the juice or sodas.

  19. Amah Says:

    OH, and our kids enjoyed the Animal Kingdom much more than DW. It seems more young child oriented and all of ours were young.

  20. kelly Says:

    I hear you loud & clear on this one. And I don’t even have kids!!! But I asked the same question after my trip in February — HOW?


  21. J Says:

    We just got back from Disney World yesterday, and I have to say a lot of your tips are great. But a couple need some clarification. You can buy a 24-ounce bottle of water at a Disney park for $2 (not $5), and while you can drink from Disney water fountains, you may not want to, as it tastes and smells of sulpher. Also, Disney has bargain hotels too. We stayed at Pop Century for $79 per night. By staying on Disney property, you can use their buses to get to the parks and you’re entitled to the extra magic hours and FAST passes.

  22. chris Says:


    I didn’t notice the water tasting weird at all. I would occassionally ask the concession stand people to fill my water bottle and they gladly did.

    In my post I also wrote that my family does not fit in a hotel room. We would need more than one. Secondly, a budget hotel room doesn’t have a kitchen or laundry facilities, which I think was an integral part in our overall budget and comfort during our vacation.

    By going off season we didn’t have to deal with any crowds and didn’t feel like we were missing anything by not having the extra magic hour per day.