A Disney World vacation is an important time for many families. Even though it’s hard to consider any Disney vacation “cheap”, it doesn’t have to be expensive.
It is absolutely possible to plan a Disney World vacation on a budget without sacrificing too much fun.
No matter what your budget is, we’ve created a complete resource to help you plan your trip. Whether you follow along step-by-step or you jump around from section to section, we’ve got you covered.
Note: We have a standalone recommended gear guide with all of the extra things you may need during a trip to Disney. It covers everything from clothing to cameras.
How to Plan a Disney World Vacation on a Budget
Table of Contents
- Step 1: Evaluating Your Vacation Priorities
- Step 2: Setting an Early Budget
- Step 3: The Value of a Fee-Free Disney Travel Agent
- Step 4: The Best Times to Visit Disney World
- Step 5: Flying vs Driving to Disney World
- Step 6: Disney Resorts vs non-Disney Accommodations
- Step 7A: Choosing a Disney World Resort
- Step 7B: Choosing a Non-Disney Hotel or Resort
- Step 8: Choosing the Right Disney World Tickets
- Step 9: Setting Your Food Budget
- Step 10: Adding Souvenirs
I’m at Disney World almost every weekend. My wife and I have been Annual Passholders for years and we’ve spent thousands of hours at the parks and resorts. We live right next to Disney, so we’re fortunate to have easy access whenever we’d like.
Over the years, I’ve learned how overwhelming it can be for families to plan Disney World vacations, especially on tight budgets. I’ve also learned that there aren’t very many truly helpful resources out there to help with the planning process.
Too many “Disney on a budget” guides throw out random tips without taking the time to help people determine exactly what kind of vacation is best for them. Not every family wants to spend a fortune on food. Not every family wants to stay at a value hotel. Every family is unique and there is no “one size fits all” vacation.
I created this guide because I wanted to help people plan a Disney World trip that actually makes sense for their family, not someone else’s.
Step 1: Evaluating Your Vacation Priorities
What Does a Disney World Vacation Mean to You?
Disney means something different to everyone. For some, it’s the ultimate vacation. For others, it’s an expensive detour to appease overzealous family members.
It is extremely important to identify your vacation priorities early in the planning process. This sounds like a simple, obvious thing to do, but it’s often a massive pitfall for many families.
If you’re wondering why I’m so adamant about this, the reason is simple- Knowing your priorities will help you figure out where to save and where to spend.
The “Big 3” Priorities: Accommodations, Activities, and Food.
Most families will find that they value some aspects of a vacation over others. The most common priorities are accommodations, activities, and food.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What makes a Disney World vacation special to me?
- How many days does my vacation need to be?
- What level of resort or hotel is necessary for my family to have a good time?
- Do we need to stay on the Disney World property to fully enjoy our trip?
- How much time will I spend at the resort or hotel?
- What level of activity is best for my family?
- Do we need to spend every vacation day at one of the parks?
- How important are restaurant meals during my vacation?
- Am I just as happy with cheap food as expensive food?
Ranking Your Priorities
If you asked yourself the questions above, you hopefully realized certain things are more important to you than others. This is a big step for saving money. If accommodations, activities, and food all have huge importance, it will be very hard to maintain a low budget.
We want to minimize the unimportant things so that we have more money for the important ones.
It’s totally unreasonable for a family to think that they can be happy cutting every single aspect of their vacation. It’s much more reasonable for a family to cut some things so that they don’t have to cut others.
All that said, it’s time to organize your priorities. The best thing to do is to create a simple list, ranking each part of your vacation based on its importance to your family.
For example, your list might look something like:
Add as many things as you can think of. Just make sure that you are honest with yourself when you rank them. Don’t try to convince yourself that you can stay at a value-priced hotel if you’d actually hate it. Just the same, don’t tell yourself that you need to eat an expensive meal every day if food is usually an afterthought for your family.
Keep Your Priorities in Mind
At this point, you should have a reasonable idea of which things are most important to the overall success of your family vacation.
Keep your priority ranking in mind at all times during the planning process. This will make it much easier for you to compromise when you need to.
Instead of feeling like you’re cutting an expense for nothing, you’ll constantly remind yourself that you’re cutting in order to spend more on the things you value most.
Wondering What Gear You Need to Buy or Pack Ahead of Time?
Take a look at our guide to the Best Gear for a Disney World Trip. It covers all kinds of items, from recommended cameras to shoes and rain gear.
Step 2: Setting an Early Budget
Time to Budget
Hopefully, you had a good time prioritizing the different parts of your vacation during Step 1. Unfortunately, Step 2 introduces a little more reality to the situation.
It’s time to set an initial budget for your Disney trip. Don’t stress too much about the number at this stage. You just need something to start working with.
Create a Range for Spending
This part is crucial. You need to decide what level of spending you’re comfortable with.
Even though it’s ok to consider Disney prices before budgeting, it’s best to determine your financial capabilities before you start pricing everything. It can be easy to let your budget creep higher and higher every time you see the price of a Disney hotel or a park ticket. That’s why you should sit down and pick a reasonable number before you ever see the prices.
Instead of picking one number for your budget, try to make a range. Set a hard upper limit first, then determine what you’d prefer to pay for the trip.
Keep in mind how many people are in your family and how many days you want the trip to be.
Maybe you figure that your family needs to spend no more than $1,500 on the trip. Maybe the number is $5,000. Maybe you’re going all out and spending $20,000.
Whatever number you choose as a starting point is fine. Again, this doesn’t have to be the final cost of your trip. You just want to get a rough idea of how much money you’re willing to spend for the whole thing.
Step 3: The Value of a Fee-Free Disney Travel Agent
Do I need a travel agent for Disney World?
First of all, fee-free Disney travel agents don’t cost you anything. They are 100% free for you. Their compensation comes 100% from Disney in the form of commission. If you’re planning on booking a Disney World vacation that includes Disney resorts and dining, a travel agent can make your life much, much easier. Along with knowing Disney World inside and out, they can also potentially save you a lot of money.
Disney travel agents know all about discounts and codes. They also have access to deals that the public may not, often including favorable group rates. They’ll book everything for you, from your resort to each one of your restaurant reservations.
A good Disney agent will also be able to provide you with little tips and tricks that can take your trip to the next level. The best agents know Disney World inside and out. They know which restaurant has the best burger and which store sells the best merchandise. They know the best locations for great photos and the best places to watch fireworks.
Most importantly, a good Disney travel agent will be able to help you optimize your trip to your budget and help you when things go wrong. It really can’t be overstated how helpful it can be to have an agent on your side to iron out messy situations for you.
Step 4: The Best Times to Visit Disney World
If you want to save the most money and avoid larger crowds, it’s best to pick the right time of year to visit Disney World. Accommodations are the biggest factor here. It’s entirely possible, even common, for a Disney Resort’s price to be 40% to 60% higher during the busy season than it was in the slow season.
Cheaper Months to Visit Disney World
More Expensive Months to Visit Disney World
Step 5: Flying vs Driving to Disney World
The first step in actually going on vacation is traveling to your destination. Depending on where you live and how large your family is, one option could be far better than the other.
Things to Consider
Distance is a major factor when deciding how best to travel to Disney World. As a rule of thumb, if you’re within 500 miles, it’s often a good idea to simply drive there.
You also need to consider the number of people you’ll be traveling with. Plane tickets for two may be relatively cheap, but things can become very expensive for a family of four, six, or more.
Average Cost of Flying to Orlando
We all know that flight prices can fluctuate greatly. Time of year, availability, origin airport, destination airport- all these things and more influence price. Some of them you can control; others you cannot.
Here’s a list of average-low flight prices that depend on what area of the country you’ll be flying to Orlando from:
- Flying from the East Coast to Orlando: $245 per plane ticket
- Flying from the Midwest to Orlando: $205 per plane ticket
- Flying from the South to Orlando: $205 per plane ticket
- Flying from the West Coast to Orlando: $380 per plane ticket
Keep in mind that these numbers are just simple averages. If you wait until the last minute or choose the wrong time of year, you could easily be looking at paying for tickets that cost anywhere from 25% to 100% more.
Average Cost of Driving to Disney World
Even though driving can eat a lot of time away from your vacation, it can often be a great compromise for families that want to make their budget go as far as possible. That’s even more true for large families.
Here’s a list of average costs of driving to Disney World from different parts of the country:
(Costs were calculated using a Dodge Caravan that gets about 17MPG city and 25MPG highway. We also used Gasbuddy’s Trip Cost Calculator.)
- New York City, NY to Disney World: $212 in fuel for 17 hours of driving
- Chicago, IL to Disney World: $227 in fuel for 17 hours and 30 minutes of driving
- Detroit, MI to Disney World: $230 in fuel for 9 hours and 30 minutes of driving
- Washington, DC to Disney World: $167 in fuel for 13 hours and 30 minutes of driving
- Cleveland, OH to Disney World: $203 in fuel for 16 hours of driving
- Atlanta, GA to Disney World: $90 in fuel for 6 hours and 30 minutes of driving
- New Orleans, LA to Disney World: $130 in fuel for 9 hours and 30 minutes of driving
- Dallas, TX to Disney World: $215 in fuel for 16 hours of driving
- Denver, CO to Disney World: $367 in fuel for 27 hours of driving
- Phoenix, AZ to Disney World: $441 in fuel for 31 hours of driving
- Los Angeles, CA to Disney World: $549 in fuel for 37 hours of driving
- Seattle, WA to Disney World: $652 in fuel for 46 hours of driving
Obviously, it can become a major time sink to drive to Disney if you’re coming from a far away state.
Our Recommendations on Flying vs Driving
The two most important things to consider when deciding whether to fly or drive are always time and money. It’s important to strike the right balance between affordable and efficient. If your budget is already tight and you live within 12 hours of Disney World, I recommend that you consider driving.
A 12-hour drive will likely cost you less than a single plane ticket would have. A family of four may easily spend $1,200 on plane tickets to and from Disney. That same family could potentially save $1,000 by driving 12 hours instead.
Make sure to consider whether or not you’ll need to split your driving into multiple days. You’ll incur the expense of an extra hotel room if you have to stop halfway through your drive, along with losing precious vacation time.
Another thing to consider is the amount of luggage you intend to bring for your Disney World trip. If you’ve got a massive amount of luggage, driving becomes much more appealing. If you’re trying to keep your costs extra low, it can also be a good idea to load your vehicle down with groceries to take with you.
If you’re traveling as a couple, you’re located on the West Coast, or you’re a family with a moderate or large budget, I recommend flying to Disney. You can save a lot of time and you’ll altogether eliminate the need for a vehicle.
For guests staying at a Disney resort, the Disney Magical Express will transport you to and from the airport, free of charge. Transportation around Disney is also straightforward, with the monorail and free shuttles going all over the property.
If you decide to fly, make it a priority to price shop as early as possible. Checking ticket prices early will allow you room to watch them over a period of time. If you’re rushed to make a quick ticket purchase, you’ll be at the mercy of the airlines. Google Flights, Kayak, and Skyscanner are a few of my favorite tools for booking flights. Google Flights has a useful feature that allows you to get direct updates when a flight’s price changes.
Don’t forget that you can always rent a vehicle for your trip. Even if you fly to Orlando, you can always get a car if you need one. This is a good option for those who are staying off of the Disney property or for anyone who plans on driving to other places during their vacation, like Universal Studios.
Step 6: Disney Resorts vs non-Disney Accommodations
Disney Resort or an Off-Property Hotel? – Your Trip’s Major Fork in the Road
Even though you’ve probably made a few decisions up to this point, choosing the resort or hotel for your Disney World vacation is the biggest factor in determining how much you’ll spend.
Before we go through your options, take a moment to think back to your ranking of vacation priorities. Try to have a rough idea of what kind of accommodations are necessary for your family’s enjoyment.
There is a lot of information for this step, so take your time with it.
The Benefits of Staying at a Disney Resort
Disney World resorts are unmatched in their level of convenience, amenities, and themes. That can come at a price though, as they can often be more expensive than off-property alternatives.
Even though staying on-property isn’t necessarily cheap, it doesn’t have to be awfully expensive. There are also quite a few benefits that can be appealing.
Here’s a list of some of the benefits you gain from staying at on-property at a Disney World resort:
- The immersive “Disney” experience: Staying at a resort is the best way to be fully immersed in a Disney vacation. The theming, service, and the all-inclusive nature of resorts make them outstanding for those who love Disney.
- Ticket Packages: Staying at a Disney Resort can give you the opportunity to bundle tickets. This can help cut your overall trip costs.
- Location: All the Disney World resorts are located in extremely convenient places for getting around the property.
- Extra Magic Hours: Disney resort guests are able to get extra time inside the park during Extra Magic Hours. During these hours, only resort guests have access to rides.
- Disney Dining Plan: The Disney Dining plan is only available to resort guests. The plan allows you to pay a fixed rate for one of the daily meal plans that work for almost every Disney World restaurant.
- Free MagicBands: All resort guests get complimentary MagicBands. These bands are used in place of a ticket to get into all the parks. You can also link your credit card to them and make purchases at almost every Disney World store or restaurant.
- Free transportation to and from the airport: This takes away a lot of the headaches that come with flying in and finding a ride to Disney.
- Free transportation around Disney World: Disney makes it very easy for resort guests to get around the property. Buses, boats, and monorail systems can take you anywhere you need to go.
- Free Parking: This is a big deal for anyone who wants to drive their own car around Disney World. Resort guests are able to park at every theme park for free,
- Fastpass selections are available 60 days in advance: Resort guests can select Fastpasses 60 days in advance. Guests that aren’t staying at a Disney resort have to wait until 30 days out.
- Dining reservations can be made 180+10 days in advance: This means that when you hit the 180-day mark, you can book all of your dining reservations for the next 10 days. Guests that aren’t staying at a Disney resort can only book one day at a time, 180 days out.
- Free merchandise delivery: If you buy something inside a park and don’t want to carry it with you, you can simply have it delivered to your resort room.
The Benefits of Staying at a Resort or Hotel Off the Disney World Property
While staying at a Disney World resort may be unbeatable for some, other families don’t care much about the “Disney bubble”. Fortunately for those families, they have access to a lot more flexibility and they can usually stretch their budget further.
Here’s a list of the benefits you gain from staying at a non-Disney hotel:
- More bang for your buck: Most of the time, your money will go a lot further at non-Disney hotels. There are tons of hotels in the Orlando area and competition helps to keep their prices right.
- Larger rooms: A large room or suite at a Disney resort almost always comes with a large price tag. It is much more affordable to find an affordable, large room at a hotel that’s off-property.
- Rooms with kitchens: Kitchens are rare at Disney resorts and your only option on-property would be a Disney World Villa. There are plenty of hotels, resorts, and condos near Disney World that offer kitchens. Having a kitchen can significantly lower your food costs.
- Complimentary breakfast: Full complimentary breakfasts don’t really exist at Disney World resorts, but tons of off-property hotels offer free breakfast.
- Proximity to other Orlando attractions: This is convenient if you want to visit Universal Studios or other Central Florida locations during your vacation.
- Escape from the Disney “Bubble”: The Disney Bubble is something that many vacationers absolutely love. For others, it’s something they would like to get away from at the end of a busy day. A non-Disney hotel is a good way to take a break from all things Disney World.
Our Recommendations on Disney vs non-Disney Resorts and Hotels
Choosing whether or not to stay at a Disney resort can have a major impact on your trip budget. That’s why I want to make it as easy for you as possible to make a decision.
Here’s the bottom line(s):
- If your hotel budget is lower than $95 a night you’ll probably need to look for a non-Disney option. Your only Disney Resort options at this price would be Value Resorts with special offers, if available.
- If your hotel budget is between $95 to $175 a night you’re probably better off booking a Value Disney Resort. Even though you could get a little bigger room at an off-property resort in this range, the benefits of the Disney Resort are probably enough to win out for most people.
- If your hotel budget is between $175 and $300 a night it’s much harder to give a definitive answer. At this price, you’re comparing Moderate Disney Resorts to some really good non-Disney options. I’d still lean toward recommending a Disney Resort, but you can certainly get a larger room at an off-property hotel or resort in this price range.
- If your hotel budget is higher than $300 a night I recommend you go ahead and book a Disney Resort. At this price range, you’re already forgoing a “budget” vacation, so you may as well pay the premium for the on-property Disney experience.
These recommendations are by no means definitive. There are so many factors that you need to consider before making a decision to stay on-property or off-property.
For example, if you have a particularly large family, the extra room size afforded by off-property options can become more and more appealing. You also need to factor things like Free Dining Packages, which can provide certain Disney Resort guests with a free Disney Dining Plan during certain times of the year.
At this point, most of you will still be undecided between Disney or non-Disney accommodations. That’s perfectly normal at this stage. The next sections will cover the resorts themselves to make it even easier for you to make your decision.
Step 7 (A): Choosing a Disney World Resort
This section will include every resort in every category. Each category’s resorts are ranked in order of which ones I recommend most.
Value Disney World Resort Hotels (Starting at around $100/night)
Other than the Art of Animation Resort, the Value Resorts are all similar and were easy to rank. They all represent decent a good value, but the Art of Animation is definitely superior to the rest.
- Art of Animation Resort
- Art of Animation is, by far, our favorite Value Resort.
- It’s usually slightly more expensive than other Value Resorts.
- The thing that really separates Art of Animation is the option of a six-person family suite. It’s one of two Value Resorts that have suites available.
- The resort is heavily themed, with rooms for Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Cars, and The Little Mermaid.
- It also has Disney World’s largest pool.
- Access to Epcot and Hollywood Studios with Disney Skyliner
- Pop Century Resort
- Pop Century has a 1950’s-1990’s pop-culture theme.
- It gets bonus points for being a little more spacious than other Value Resorts.
- Access to Epcot and Hollywood Studios with Disney Skyliner
- All Star Music Resort
- The All Star has a musical theme and is the second Value Resort with six-person family suites.
- I give it the nod over the other “All Star” resorts for the suites.
- All Star Movies Resort
- The All Star Movies resort draws its theme from a multitude of classic Disney movies.
- If you don’t need a suite, I actually like All Star Movies’ theme more than All Star Music’s.
- All Star Sports Resort
- Very similar to the other “All Star” resorts, just with a sports theme.
Moderate Disney World Resort Hotels (Starting at around $170/night)
The Moderate Resorts were also easy to rank. There is the Port Orleans Resort, then the rest. I really can’t overstate how much I feel that Port Orleans blows away the other Moderate Resorts.
- Port Orleans Riverside
- Riverside is our favorite Moderate Resort by a huge margin.
- It’s also one of our favorite resorts at Disney World in any category.
- I love it because it’s a Moderate-priced resort with Deluxe-level theming.
- The rooms are similar to other Moderates, but Port Orleans’ grounds are outstanding and include a beautiful riverfront.
- The entire resort is extremely walkable.
- There are good restaurants and a piano bar.
- You can take a water taxi directly from the resort to Disney Springs.
- There are bike rentals and a fishing hole.
- Port Orleans French Quarter
- French Quarter is on the same property as Riverside.
- It has a Bourbon Street/Mardi Gras theme.
- A little smaller than Riverside, but still has a great theme and river.
- It has good food.
- It also has water taxi access to Disney Springs.
- Caribbean Beach Resort
- Caribbean Beach is a Caribbean island-themed resort.
- It’s very popular with families.
- Usually a little less quiet than Port Orleans, but quieter than Coronado Springs.
- The pool is good and has a waterslide.
- Access to Epcot and Hollywood Studios with Disney Skyliner
- Coronado Springs Resort
- Coronado Springs is a huge resort.
- It has a Spanish Colonial Mexico theme.
- The property is massive and can take a long time to walk.
- The resort is known for being the “conference” hotel.
- You’ll find more business travelers here than other Disney World Resorts.
- Has a good pool with a waterslide.
- You’ll also have access to a health club.
Deluxe Disney World Resort Hotels (Starting at around $340/night)
The Deluxe Resorts are definitely the hardest category to rank. There is no clear way to rank them, as they all offer totally different themes and experiences.
I’ve done my best to put them in order based on what I feel would apply to most guests. That said, #8 could easily be #1 for certain guests. Your personal favorite Deluxe Resort will totally depend on what theme you like best, along with your age and budget.
- Polynesian Resort
- I gave The Polynesian the first-place nod because it has a lot to offer for both children and adults.
- The Hawaiian/Polynesian theme is outstanding.
- It’s located on the monorail track, so it’s extremely convenient for getting around Disney World.
- The Great Ceremonial House is one of the best main resort buildings.
- The private beach is one of the places to watch Magic Kingdom’s fireworks from outside the park.
- It’s home to some of the best restaurants, including uber-popular Ohana.
- The Polynesian’s signature lounge, Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto, is my favorite lounge at Disney.
- Lilo’s Playhouse is a Children’s Activity Center where parents can leave children with Disney supervision for some time alone.
- Grand Floridian Resort
- Grand Floridian is the first choice for many, but its steep price can deter many guests.
- It’s considered Disney World’s “Flagship” resort.
- The theme is, by far, the most luxurious at Disney.
- It’s located on the monorail track.
- The main building is absolutely beautiful, especially during the Christmas season.
- It is the top resort for fine-dining options and restaurants in general.
- I spent the first night of my honeymoon in one of the Grand Floridian’s suites before leaving for Europe.
- Animal Kingdom Lodge
- The Animal Kingdom Lodge’s African theme is one of the most impressive resort themes.
- There are two main sections, Kidani Village and Jambo House.
- One of the coolest things about Animal Kingdom Lodge is the inclusion of animals.
- There are African animal enclosures right in the middle of the resort.
- Many rooms look directly over the animal enclosures.
- There are tons of animals, including giraffes, impala, ostriches, and more.
- The restaurants are all very good, especially Jiko.
- The Animal Kingdom Lodge is harder to get to than many other resorts, being located in front of the Animal Kingdom park.
- Simba’s Clubhouse is the resort’s Children’s Activity Center.
- Boardwalk Inn
- The Boardwalk Inn is located right in the middle of Disney World’s Boardwalk, making it one of the most fun resort locations.
- The old-school Atlantic City boardwalk theme makes for a beautiful setting.
- Staying here means that you have the whole Boardwalk outside of your room.
- The Boardwalk is full of restaurants, shops, and entertainment options.
- It has a walking path that leads directly into Epcot.
- Hollywood Studios is accessible by walkway or Disney Skyliner.
- You can hop on boats to travel around Disney World.
- Wilderness Lodge
- The Wilderness Lodge is very different from other resorts, with a rustic, upscale Pacific Northwest theme.
- Its location on Bay Lake is a little more secluded than most others, but it’s still not that far from Magic Kingdom.
- The rooms can offer some of the best values for a Deluxe Resort.
- The setting makes it a good option for Disney guests who don’t want to be overwhelmed by Disney themes.
- There are good dining options.
- Geyser Point Bar and Grill is one of my favorite outdoor restaurants at Disney World.
- Contemporary Resort
- The Contemporary Resort is one of the classic Disney World hotels on the monorail track.
- Its modern theme is a totally different feel from many other resorts.
- The monorail actually runs right through the middle of the main building.
- Almost all of the resort is contained within a couple of huge buildings.
- Many of the rooms overlook Magic Kingdom.
- My favorite restaurant at Disney World, California Grill, is located at the very top of the main building.
- Beach Club Resort
- The Beach Club resort has a coastal New England theme.
- The pool area, Stormalong Bay, is the best at any Disney World resort.
- Stormalong Bay is really more of a miniature water park than it is a “pool” and includes a lazy river and a sand-bottom pool.
- The resort is walking distance from Epcot.
- Hollywood Studios is accessible by walkway or Disney Skyliner.
- You can rent boats at the lake.
- The Sandcastle Club is the resort’s Children’s Activity Center.
- Yacht Club Resort
- Disney considers the Yacht Club Resort to be the Beach Club’s “more formal” sister.
- The theme is more “nautical” than “beachy”.
- The more grownup theme makes Yacht Club a great choice for adults traveling without children.
- It shares amenities with Beach Club, including all of Stormalong Bay and the Sandcastle Club.
Deluxe Disney World Villas (Starting at around $351/night)
Like the Deluxe Resorts in general, the Deluxe Villas are also hard to rank. The Villas are more apartment-style than hotel-style, with features like multiple rooms and kitchens. Even though they can be very pricey, they are great options for large families or those traveling with multiple groups.
Take this ranking with a grain of salt, as Disney’s villa-style accommodations depend far more on personal preference.
- Grand Floridian Villas
- Copper Creek Villas and Cabins at the Wilderness Lodge
- Beach Club Villas
- Old Key West Resort
- Bay Lake Tower at the Contemporary Resort
- Polynesian Villas and Bungalows
- Animal Kingdom Villas
- Boardwalk Villas
- Boulder Ridge Villas at the Wilderness Lodge
- Saratoga Springs Resort
Step 7 (B): Choose a non-Disney Hotel or Resort
Since you have tons of flexibility and literally all of Orlando’s hotels to choose from, I won’t cover non-Disney hotels quite as much as the Disney Resorts. Your main cost-cutting strategy here will be to price shop with tools like Kayak, Trivago, Hotwire, TripAdvisor, etc.
I’ll give some recommendations here, but choosing an off-property hotel near Disney World is much more straightforward than choosing a Disney Resort. Also, keep in mind that many of these hotels can drop down a price category during the slow season.
Recommended Budget Hotels
- Comfort Suites Maingate East
- B Resort and Spa
- Grand Villas Resort
- Blue Heron Beach Resort
- Quality Suites Lake Buena Vista
- Fairfield Inn and Suites Orlando
- Magic Moment Resort and Kids Club
Recommended Mid-Range Hotels
- Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Hotels
- Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek
- Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress
- Villas of Grand Cypress
- Park Soleil Suites by Hilton
- Hilton Bonnet Creek
- Grand Beach Resort by Diamond Resorts
- Floridays Resort
- Marriot Harbor Lakes
- Staybridge Suites Lake Buena Vista
Recommended Luxury Hotels
- Four Seasons Resort Orlando
- Waldorf Astoria Orlando
Step 8: Choosing the Right Disney World Tickets
What Type of Ticket Do You Need?
It can be easy to assume that all Disney World tickets are the same. This isn’t true. There are a variety of tickets available and you don’t want to overpay for something you won’t get full use out of. An important step in your vacation budget will be determining what tickets are right for you.
1 Day Tickets
Single-day tickets are subject to tiered pricing, depending on the season. The three tiers are Value, Regular, and Peak. For both adults and children, each bump in ticket tier will add about $10 to the overall single-day ticket price.
Adult tickets start at just over $102 and can rise to just over $137. A child’s single-day ticket price ranges from about $96 to about $131. It’s also worth noting that a single-day ticket for Magic Kingdom is $5 to $7 more than a single-day ticket for Epcot, Hollywood Studios, or Animal Kingdom.
Unless your plan is to spend literally one day at Disney World, avoid buying single-day tickets.
Multi-day tickets will save you a ton of money when it comes down to your daily ticket price. There are several reasons for this.
The first benefit is that multi-day tickets are not subject to tiered pricing. This means that even during the busy season, you won’t have to worry about paying up to $137+ for a Peak ticket.
The second benefit is that the daily cost of multi-day tickets drops significantly when more days are added. The more days you add to your multi-day ticket, the more you save per day.
The third benefit is that multi-day tickets have the same cost per day for any park. This means that you don’t have to worry about paying more for a day at Magic Kingdom, unlike if you had a single-day ticket. For example, an adult would pay right at $209 total for a 2-day ticket, amounting to $104.50 per day. If that same adult bought a 5-day ticket instead, they would pay $395 total. That’s only $79 per day.
Adding Park Hopper to Your Tickets
Park Hopper tickets allow you to jump around from park to park within the same day. However, they cost significantly more than regular tickets.
The Park Hopper option is good if you truly intend to park-hop, but you’ll save a lot of money by simply sticking to one park per day. A single-day park-hopper ticket will cost you about $175 with regular pricing. That’s $55 to $60 more than you would have paid for a single-day ticket to a single park.
The Park Hopper option becomes more cost-effective with multi-day tickets. For example, a 2-day Adult Park Hopper ticket would cost you about $299 total, amounting to $149.50 per day. A 5-day Adult Park Hopper ticket would cost about $470, amounting to $94 per day.
With Park Hopper tickets, the moral of the story is this: Don’t get them if you won’t use them. If you do get them, your daily cost for the Park Hopper option is slashed dramatically the more days you add to your ticket.
Park Hopper Plus
Park Hopper Plus is a higher-tier version of the normal Park Hopper ticket. It has the added benefit of including Disney World waterparks and other Disney World amenities like the Oak Trail Golf Course. Park Hopper Plus will cost you about $25 dollars more than the regular Park Hopper price per day.
Discounts for Florida Residents
Florida residents have access to a variety of unique discounts and ticket options. They change from time to time, so check Disney World’s Florida Resident Special Offer Page for the latest options.
Discounts for Military Personnel
Disney also offers discounted ticket packages to members of the military. Check Disney World’s Military Discount Page to find the latest offers.
Authorized Third-Party Sellers
There are a few authorized third-party companies that offer Disney World tickets at a discounted price. The catch is that the only savings come with tickets that are for 3-days or more. Still, buying a ticket for three or more days from an authorized seller can save you some money. Keep in mind that third-party sellers can’t offer you the packages that Disney can. If you plan on bundling a Disney Resort, tickets, dining plans, etc, you need to buy directly from Disney. Also, be very careful when purchasing from third parties. ONLY buy from authorized sellers. Undercover Tourist is a safe, popular choice.
Annual Passes & Premier Passports
Our recommendation on the Annual Pass or the Premier Pass is simple: Just do the math any given year to find out whether or not it will save you any money. Factor in discounts, parking, and anything else afforded by the pass.
We have a complete guide to the Premier Passport for anyone interested.
Step 9: Setting Your Food Budget
How Important is Food During Your Family’s Vacation?
Every family has different eating habits, especially when on vacation. For some, eating meals at great restaurants is one of the most important parts of vacation. For others, food is an afterthought that takes time and money from other experiences. Take the time to consider what a day of eating looks like for your family. Start with breakfast, then lunch, then dinner. Add in extra snacks and drinks.
Set a Reasonable Daily Dollar Amount for Each Person’s Food Budget
Don’t worry yet about Disney Dining Plans, restaurant prices, or anything else. Just focus on what you would like to spend during the week. It’s much easier to save money on food if you have a preliminary budget before you even dive into what Disney has to offer. The idea is to adapt your vacation dining habits to fit your budget, rather than adapt your budget to your dining habits.
Here’s an example:
- Let’s say that we’re trying to figure out what an adult in our family will spend in a day.
- Maybe this person doesn’t have a big appetite in the morning, so a $2 protein bar and a $1 banana will do.
- They do like to eat a substantial lunch though, so we’ll factor in a $15 burger with fries inside one of the parks.
- They’d prefer to eat out at a resort restaurant for dinner, so we’ll factor in another $30 for that.
- That’s $48 a day total, without accounting for extra drinks or snacks.
The example above is a pretty good representation of a moderate-low spending day for eating at Disney World. If that sounds high for your family, go ahead and think of how you’d scale it down. If the example sounds like it has too little of an emphasis on food for your family, scale it up.
The Disney Dining Plans
Now that you have an idea of what you’d prefer to spend on food, let’s take a look at the Disney Dining Plans. These plans are available only to Disney Resort guests, so skip over this section if you’re staying off-property. There are three different plans- the Quick Service Dining Plan, the Disney Dining Plan, and the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan. Before we detail the individual plan, look over this overview of how Disney categorizes food items on the Dining Plans:
- “Table-service” meals consist of an entree, a dessert, and a drink at a table-service restaurant.
- “Quick-service” or “Counter-service” meals consist of an entree, side, and drink at a quick-service restaurant.
- A “Snack” consists of any single quick-service side item, along with most quick-service desserts at parks and resorts.
Now, let’s look at what the individual Dining Plans include:
The Quick Service Dining Plan – Daily Price: $52.50 per adult & $21.74 per child
- 2 quick-service credits per day
- 2 snack credits per day
- Each guest gets a refillable drink mug
The Disney Dining Plan – Daily Price: $75.49 per adult & $25.75 per child
- 1 table-service credit per day
- 1 quick-service credit per day
- 2 snack credits per day
- Each guest gets a refillable drink mug
The Deluxe Disney Dining Plan – Daily Price: $116.25 per adult & $39.99 per child
- 3 credits that can be any combination of table-service and quick-service per day
- 2 snack credits per day
- Each guest gets a refillable drink mug
Should You Buy a Dining Plan?
Now that you know how the Disney Dining Plans work, it’s time to compare your preferred food budget to them.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Whether or not you’ll save money with a Dining Plan is heavily dependent on how your family eats
- Unless you use the Dining Plans to order the most expensive items at every restaurant, you’ll almost always be better off paying out of pocket
- You’ll lose flexibility with the Dining Plans and you’ll spend a lot of time trying to structure your meals to fit them
- If you’re on a tight budget, we don’t recommend the Dining Plans at all
- If your family is a “foodie” family and your budget allows it, the Dining Plans (especially the Deluxe) start to make more sense
- Most other discounts don’t apply to guests using a Dining Plan, so make sure to factor those in
If your initial food budget was equal to or higher than any of the Dining Plan prices, then start comparing. If your initial food budget was less than any of these Dining Plan prices, then forgo them and move on.
Getting a Disney Dining Plan for Free
During certain times of the year (usually certain weeks in August, September, November, and December), Disney will offer free Dining Plans to resort guests. Those free Dining Plans will give free Quick Service Dining Plans to Value and Moderate Resort guests. Deluxe Resort guests will receive the standard Disney Dining Plan for free.
If you’re thinking that this sounds too good to be true, you’re partially correct. The Free Dining offers come with a few catches.
First, they require that you pay full price (no discounted rates) for your resort accommodations.
Second, they require that everyone in your party have at least 4-day Park Hopper tickets. The inability to get Free Dining and discounted room rates at the same time is a major drawback. It’s also significant that the Free Dining forces you to have at least 4 days of Park Hopper tickets.
Basically, whether or not a Free Dining offer can save you money is totally dependent on the math for your trip. If there aren’t any good resort discounts available for your trip and you already planned on upgrading to Park Hopper, a Free Dining offer is probably an awesome perk for you. If you have the opportunity to get a good resort discount and you plan on buying base tickets, a Free Dining offer probably won’t save you money.
Ways to Save Money on Food During Your Disney Trip
- Pack food, snacks, and drinks to take with you into the park
- Book a room with a kitchen and cook your own meals
- Eat breakfast outside of the parks or resorts
- Shop for groceries outside of Disney World
- If you’re driving your own vehicle, bring as much food as you can reasonably keep inside your hotel room
- At restaurants, order entrees without sides
Our Recommendations on Food During Your Vacation
In my opinion, food is the most subjective aspect of a vacation. There are so many views on dining during vacations, making it impossible to give a one-size-fits-all recommendation. Here are the most important things to take away from this section:
- Don’t buy a Dining Plan unless you have a whole family of big eaters and a comfortable budget
- On the flip side, Dining Plans can be a great option for families that really prioritize dining while on vacation
- If your budget is tight, bring food to the parks and find ways to avoid eating too many meals at Disney restaurants
- Large families can potentially save a fortune by finding accommodations that include a full kitchen
- Don’t assume that a Free Dining offer will save you money- do the math on available resort discounts and ticket prices
Step 10: Adding Souvenirs
Souvenirs: The Last Piece of Your Budget
At this point in the budgeting process, you’ve probably found way too many different ways to spend money. That’s why it’s usually best to save souvenirs for last. If you already feel your budget has gotten bloated, decide ahead of time to cut down on souvenirs. If you’re feeling great about your budget, then go ahead and give yourself some wiggle room to spend more on souvenirs.
The truth is that, even if your budget is thin, someone in your family is going to want some kind of memento from the trip. It’s probably worth cutting $20 to $50 from some other part of your budget to make room for a reasonable souvenir.
Here are some ideas for popular but affordable souvenirs:
- Disney Pins are definitely one of the most popular souvenirs. Plenty of them are well under $10.
- You can buy Disney Pins online before your trip and use them to trade with Disney cast members.
- There are tons of great coffee mugs at every park and resort.
- The Christmas shop in Magic Kingdom has a lot of inexpensive ornaments.
- There are penny-presses scattered at every park and resort.
- Kids love Disney autograph books for collecting characters’ signatures.