Truth? A genuinely cheap Disney vacation is pretty near impossible to come by and getting harder by the day. I suppose you could camp at a state park somewhere near by, eat nothing but hot dogs cooked over your campfire, and then just go to Downtown Disney, let your kids play in the lego store, and tell them that IS Disney World. But that doesn't sound like much fun.
What makes Disney trips....justifiable for us is that we don't have to fly there. With six people, the cost of airfare alone to pretty much anywhere would already be a giant chunk of what we spend on a Disney trip. We also have always either gone during free dining or stayed in a cheap place off property. But even so, the price of a Disney trip has gone up so much for us over the years, between constant price increases (on Disney's part) and constantly new and/or aging children (on our part) that yearly trips are almost certainly a thing of the past. Which is fine. It's possible it's time to branch out a bit. I have a big imaginary road trip post planned for....sometime.
But! There are certainly ways to save some money on your Disney trip and make it cheaper than it would be if you just called up Disney and said something like, "please book the best vacation ever for me." Don't do that.
Here's my list of tips (by no means exhaustive! Please add any I've left out in the comments!), in rough order from big meta-tips that will save you significant money on your whole trip to little dinky tips that will save you a bit here and there.
1. Go during the off season: It's possible I would feel less strongly about this if I weren't so crowd averse, but if there's one single thing you can do to make your vacation better in every way possible, it's going during the off season. I talk about this more in the post on when to go, but, basically, any time kids are in school is when you want to go. If you don't have kids, or your kids aren't in school yet, or they're homeschooled, or you don't mind pulling them out for a week (and neither you nor your partner is a teacher. sigh)....go when kids are in school. Disney raises the prices not just on hotels but at many of the restaurants during busy times of year, so everything costs you more AND you get less for your money, because you spend more time fighting crowds and waiting in line (the parks are open longer hours, though, when it's busy). You're also much more likely to get a really good discount during the off season, which brings us to number 2.
2. Look for discounts: Disney very commonly offers pretty big discounts. Don't book without checking for them! Some of these are only available to annual pass holders or Florida residents or Disney Visa holders or people who know the magic handshake....but plenty of them are available to the general public, too. I always check Mousesavers.com first for discounts.
Hotel discounts are very common, and seem to range from 15-40ish% off, depending on which resort and what time of year.
My personal favorite discount, though, is my beloved free dining. Disney sells a few different dining plans that you can always pay to add onto a package (you can't get it if you're staying off property or booking your room and tickets separately), but at various times of year they offer a promotion where you get the dining plan for free when you book a full price room and ticket package. Free dining has been offered every single year in fall (always in September and then for varying lengths of time before or after) for....maybe 8 years now? And it's sometimes offered other non-peak times of year, too, depending largely on how many people Disney's getting to book trips without giant discounts.
People like to bicker over just how great of a discount free dining is, and the truth it that it totally depends on what your family/travel group looks like and how you like to travel. If you have, say, two people and you like to stay in deluxe resorts, you'll probably save more with a hotel discount. If you're not into the dining plan, preferring to eat off property or cook for yourself or just to keep things super flexible, it also might not be the best discount for you. But if you happen to have a few ginormous boys in your family who eat more than seems possible and you generally stay in the cheapest on-property resort you can fit in, free dining is an amazing deal. Paying for the regular dining plan would cost our family something like $260/night. We're not going to find a bigger discount than that.
3. Save on tickets, if you can: Tickets are the hardest thing to save money on. Disney rarely discounts them, and it's one thing that doesn't get cheaper in the off season. If you book a package, the ticket price will be rolled into that, and you'll pay what Disney charges you. If you're booking the components of your trip separately, however, there are a few ways to save. You can buy from an authorized ticket seller and save a few bucks over Disney prices. I've used Undercover Tourist without incident (if you sign up for Mousesavers newsletter, they'll send you a link to get slightly lower prices on Undercover Tourist, too).
Another potential money saver is individual enrollment in Disney's YES program. This is a series of classes Disney offers for kids, elementary through high school aged. They're offered to school and other groups, but they sometimes open them up to individuals, too. You sign your kid up for a class and buy a package that includes up to eight days of admission with the class tuition. The classes sound really cool, and I hear good things about them. This used to be a really huge discount, but I think it's a lot less substantial now. Still, definitely worth looking into.
Another thing to remember about tickets is that Disney wants you to stay there, spending money on food, hotel rooms, and souvenirs as long as possible. As such, the longer you stay, the lower the ticket price per day is. The difference between a six day ticket and a seven day ticket is just a few dollars. One thing this means is that, just like Disney wants, it's much more expensive to hop over to Universal or Sea World for a couple of days than to spend those couple of days at Disney.
4. Stay off property: I talk more about this here, but if you're looking to do the cheapest trip possible, staying off property will need to be a part of it. Especially if you...
5. Stay somewhere with a kitchen: We cooked quite a few of our meals at our rental house this trip. This was partially to save money, but also because eating out over and over again with a 4 month old is not a whole lot of fun. But, yeah, you can save a ton of money this way. Eat breakfast, go the parks for awhile, bring lunch or buy lunch, then home for a break and dinner, back out for nighttime stuff.
6. Bring your own snacks: You ARE allowed to bring your own food in at Disney, unlike at most theme parks. You can haul in a whole lunch spread if you want, or just bring in snacks to stave off the temptation of Mickey Bars (I mean, you should buy Mickey Bars at least once, of course).
7. Don't buy water! Any place that sells fountain drinks will give you FREE cups of ice water. There is no reason at all to pay theme park prices for bottled water. You can also bring in bottles of water bought cheaply elsewhere, of course.
Next week: last week! I will talk about food, with special attention to gluten-free-ed-ness and Disney.
If you missed the first few installments, here they are:
When to go
Where to stay
Bringing your baby
On to day 5 of our recent trip. I don't seem to have too many pictures of this day. Ah well.
I couldn't stop taking pictures of Ari in his fedora.
We decided at the last minute to go on the "Behind the Seeds" tour of Living With the Land at Epcot.
It was really fun....well priced, I thought, and one of the few tours kids of all ages can go on.
I guess Abe must have been asleep, or I would have made him be
in the picture, too.