Inside: Taking your family to Disney World doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Check out how my family of 6 enjoyed a Disney World vacation on a budget.
When my children were very young, taking a trip to Disney World wasn’t anywhere on our radar:
- For many years, we simply didn’t have any extra money. We could barely afford groceries–much less a Disney World vacation.
- Even after we had the available funds to take a Disney vacation, we opted for taking our kids to Costa Rica at first instead–to see where their parents met and to experience life in another culture and language.
- We honestly didn’t want the cultural pressure of “having” to take our kids to Disney World. At the time, we felt a societal push (based on some conversations I was having with other moms) that Disney was the must have vacation for every American family–and we didn’t like that pressure.
But even when we weren’t actively saving or planning for a Disney World vacation, we didn’t put it completely off the table for the future. We hoped we would take our kids to Disney World one day. After all, our kids loved Disney movies, characters, etc., and we had no problem with that.
We wanted to wait until our children–at least our older three who are very close in age–could remember the trip for their entire lives. (We have a nearly 5-year gap between our third and fourth children, so we knew that it would be hard to wait until all four children were old enough to form memories.)
Fast forward a few years, and we finally took our Disney vacation in October 2019.
We bought tickets and made our plans, but soon after, we went into crisis mode as my husband and I separated. We had to decide if we were still going to go on the trip together or not.
We moved forward with our plans despite the fact that we weren’t living together.
At the end of it all, I fully believe that our trip to Disney became a healing point in our marriage and was one of the best decisions we made. Apart from our trip to Costa Rica in 2015, it is the best trip that our family has taken, and going to Disney truly helped bring us back together.
Because of this, Disney has a sweet spot in my heart, and the magic that it spreads truly makes it a special place for our family.
Going to Disney World was one of the best experiences in the life of our family.
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip and were able to have an amazing time while on a budget. Ever since we left, we started planning to go back because we realized it is possible to go to Disney World without breaking the bank.
Keep reading for the 7 ways we did Disney World on a budget–plus read the different ways we saved and paid for the trip.
Disney World on a Budget
1. We sought out special deals for extra savings on our ticket prices.
Using a Disney travel agent is the best way to stay abreast of special deals and extra savings incentives. Using a Disney travel agent is free! The agents get paid a small commission on ticket sales from Disney, but it doesn’t cost you anything.
We used Rachel from The Magical Mama for our trip. She was fantastic. Rachel sent us a little care package for our kids and everything! She was able to help us figure out the best savings to meet our family’s budget.
We really lucked out in that Disney was running a limited-time deal called Mid-day Magic when we went on our trip. We chose our dates around this promo, and it saved us so much money. The Mid-day Magic tickets allowed guests to arrive at the park at noon instead of at opening. We are not morning people anyway, so being able to sleep in and save money in the process really appealed to our family.
We played hard all day from noon until midnight (by the time we got settled in at our resort), and we could sleep in the next day and leisurely make it back to the park!
When you go matters. Ticket prices are not the same all year round.
You can look on the Disney calendar to find the absolute cheapest days. The last time I checked, those days were in September. If your travel dates are flexible, then definitely plan your trip around when the tickets are at the most affordable rates.
When you bundle multiple days together, you pay less per ticket than you do when only purchasing for one day.
If you’re only looking to visit parks from one to three days, the savings is negligible. However, if you are looking at go for four days, you might as well stay for five. It you go for four days, you will be paying $424 total per person on the lowest price days. If you add on one more day, the price only increases to $455 for all five days. That is only a $31 difference for an entire extra day at the parks.
It’s definitely worth exploring if staying for multiple days is in your budget. Of course, you will need to factor in the cost of extra days of lodging (see more below for how to save on lodging), food, etc.
2. We maximized our time, remembering that time is money!
I’m a firm believer that time is money.
We wanted to waste no time and get our money’s worth, so I planned the details of our days out very meticulously (which, as an aside, is not in my usual nature–my husband joked that I was a bit of a drill sergeant on getting us from here to there, but, in the end, it meant we were able to enjoy much more of Disney World versus if we had arrived without a plan).
Our plan factored in times for rest as well. That is a must when visiting Disney World! Attending shows, watching parades, eating a meal, etc. is all time to sit down and rest while still maximizing your time.
We timed our departure from our resort to arrive at the gate about 20 to 30 minutes before noon (our entry time with the Mid-day Magic tickets).
Plan on adding an hour to your trip to get from the parking lot to the entrance. The parking lots are not right at the entrances. We arrived more than an hour before our entry time to leisurely take the boat over on the days we went to Magic Kingdom, with time built in to eat a packed lunch at the gate.
The Disney World website helps tremendously with maximizing your time.
There are some days the parks open and close later than other days. There are some days that the park closes at 6, while on other days it stays open until 10 p.m.
We visited the parks only on the days they stayed open the latest. Walking around the park after closing was one of our absolute favorite memories! The crowds really thin out at night, and this is when we had the least wait time for rides.
We “shut the park down” on all three days we entered at noon, which ended up being at 9 p.m. on the day we went to Hollywood Studios and 10 p.m. on the two days we spent at Magic Kingdom. This gave us 9 full hours at Hollywood Studios and 10 full hours per day (x 2 days) at Magic Kingdom.
This felt like more than enough time for our family to have an epic vacation at Disney World!
I would recommend watching the fireworks show at least once, but if you’re going more than one day, I highly recommend skipping the fireworks shows to hit the rides during that time. This was the most fun we had!! We caught the fireworks show the first night but were SO glad to skip it the second and third nights!
In addition to the above, we maximized our time by only riding the rides we could get Fast Passes for–or what we saw was a low wait time via the app. Fast passes are free.
3. We enjoyed the entire experience–both inside and outside the parks.
One of the funnest parts of Disney is that the entire experience–from the moment you arrive on property to the moment you leave–is all part of the experience. Our kids even enjoyed the ride on the trolley from the parking lot to the gate!
At Magic Kingdom, you can opt to take a ferry or the monorail from the first checkpoint (where you go through security) to the entrance gate. We opted for the ferry ride on our first day, and, to us, it felt like yet another ride!
Getting to see the first glimpse of Cinderella’s Castle from the boat was, truly, magical.
We opted to take the monorail back to the parking area late one evening. We enjoyed that as well.
Our fun didn’t end at the parks. We only had budget to spend three days in the parks (which was plenty of time for us), but we had an entire week at the resort, so we built in several days of other activities to enjoy.
Our resort had several pools, an arcade, and a playground. We knew our children would enjoy the grounds at the resort, so we built in time to do just that!
As well, when we discovered that the crystal clear water of the Gulf Coast beaches were within a 2-hour drive, we decided to take a day trip to Anna Maria Island. The drive was well worth it for us!
As well, we built in a day to visit Disney Springs, which I like to describe as an outdoor shopping mall on steroids. In addition to lots of fun stores and restaurants to explore, Disney Spring has lots of photo opportunities, and even a few little rides.
4. We skipped character dining experiences & packed our own food.
We ate a solid breakfast at our resort and packed a lunch to eat right outside of the entrance since we had the noon arrival time with our Mid-Day Magic tickets. We entered the parks right at noon.
I was thrilled to find that there was an ALDI not too far from our resort, and we easily ordered groceries for breakfast, lunch, and snacks via Instacart. We also ordered enough food to cook dinners on the nights we didn’t go to the parks.
We skipped the pricier character dining experiences, and, instead, planned on eating dinner on our three nights at the park at more affordable dining options.
It’s very easy to pull up the menus for every single restaurant in the parks on the Disney website, so you can plan ahead and decide what to order based on your family’s unique budget. Again, planning ahead is key to saving money on a Disney trip!
We ended up choosing to eat at Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe in Frontierland on our two nights at Magic Kingdom, and we met friends (who live in Orlando and have annual passes to Disney) at ABC Commissary in Hollywood Studios.
5. We didn’t go to all of the parks.
Disney World currently has four main parks–Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and Animal Kingdom–plus a couple water parks. While some people may say it’s a must to visit every single park on every single visit, that was simply not in our family’s budget.
It is perfectly possibly to have an epic-yet-affordable vacation and visit Disney World on a budget without visiting every single park.
In my opinion, if you can only visit one park, pick Magic Kingdom. Magic Kingdom has the iconic Disney feel. When people imagine Disney World, it’s visions of Magic Kingdom that appear.
As far as other park choices, it really depends on your family and what you prefer. We chose Hollywood Studios because our son is a big Toy Story fan, and my husband is a huge Star Wars fan. Hollywood Studios has a lot of shows, so we sandwiched our visit to that park in between our two days at Magic Kingdom as a way to break up the constant riding rides. We did plenty of character meet-ups at both parks.
We hope to visit Disney World again in a few years, and we will plan on visiting Epcot and/or Animal Kingdom then (but loved Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios so much that we hope to return to them as well! My personal favorite ride was the Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster at Hollywood Studios).
6. We stayed off site.
While we have many friends who have stayed on site at Disney World and speak so highly of the experience, that was simply not in our budget for us.
In order to have the most affordable vacation possible with Disney World on a budget, we opted to stay off site.
While staying on site comes with some extra perks (like extended park hours) and conveniences, there are plenty of off-site lodging options that are very close to the parks. Many of these choices also come with great amenities.
When we began planning our Disney World vacation, I posted on Facebook, asking for lodging recommendations. My cousin sent me a private message that she and her husband had a timeshare that they were willing to sub-lease to us for a week! The entire week (seven nights!) ended up costing us only $300. I know this isn’t possible for everyone, but we are incredibly grateful to my cousin for letting us purchase the timeshare points she wasn’t going to use! We stayed at the Silver Lake Resort. While not on site, it is right outside the Animal Kingdom gate, making it one of the closest non-Disney resorts to the parks.
There is actually a Disney-owned timeshare program called Disney Vacation Club. A quick google search led me to this post that shares how anyone can rent Disney Vacation Club points and save big on Disney lodging! I also found this website on renting timeshare points from non-Disney timeshares.
(Note: As we rented directly from my cousin, I do not have experience with either of the above options. They are worth exploring, but be sure to do your research on their validity before booking anything!)
7. We skipped some of the optional add-ons.
There are several optional add-ons that can make your Disney vacation a bit more memorable, but if you’re on a tight budget, then these are completely skippable.
The Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique is a fun add-on for little girls through age 12. Little girls can “extend the magic” of Disney by getting pampered with hair, makeup, and nails at the boutique. They can get princess dresses at the boutique or bring their own. When we visited Disney, there was a boutique at Magic Kingdom and another one at Disney Springs.
At first, we were going to skip this add-on. After all, did our girls really need it? No, this was a completely skippable add-on, but when Great Grandma offered the kids some extra spending money for the trip, we decided to use the money toward this splurge.
It was worth it! Our girls were 7, turning 9, and 11 on the trip, and they were the perfect ages to enjoy this treat!
We did a couple of things to save on this splurge: We brought our own Disney princess costumes from home, and we opted to enjoy the boutique at Disney Springs vs. Magic Kingdom. (At the time, at least, the boutique at Disney Springs was a bit more affordable than the one at Magic Kingdom).
We took the girls to the boutique on the day before our first day at the parks. Since it does not require park admission to enter Disney Springs, we felt like this was, in a sense, extending the Disney magic.
The updos the stylist created for our girls lasted for several days, and they truly did feel like princesses at the parks!
Another optional add-on is Memory Maker. Memory Maker is a service where Disney photographers take pictures of your family throughout the parks at various locations and at character meet-ups. We did not purchase this in advance, but once we saw our photos, we knew this was an investment we wanted to make. Because we had saved so much money in other ways on our budget Disney World vacation, we had the extra wiggle room to add this on after our trip.
(Note: If you are a photo-loving family, and you have this is your budget, I would encourage you to add on Memory Maker before your trip. You save quite a bit of money by ordering Memory Maker before your trip–to the tune or somewhere around $30.
One more optional add-on that comes to mind is Magic Bands. Helpful and convenient? Yes. Necessary? No.
How We Paid for Our Budget Disney World Vacation
We planned this first Disney trip when our children were 11, 9, 7, and 2. We intentionally chose this year because once a child turns 10, you must pay for an adult ticket–which does increase the price. We already had one child who would need an adult ticket, and we knew that waiting one more year would cause us to have to pay for a second adult ticket. We also wanted to go when our youngest child, our son, was still free. Children ages 2 and under are free at Disney World.
We didn’t know if this would be the only trip we would ever be able to take to Disney World as a family. We wanted to time it where our kids would have memories of the trip, which had been one of our excuses for not planning a Disney World vacation earlier. We didn’t want to go when our kids were so young that they would have zero recollections of the trip.
However, we had friends who pointed out that sometimes the trips aren’t for the kids as much as for the parents. It brings us parents great joy to watch our young children delight over meeting characters or listen to them squeal when “flying” through the air on a magic carpet or while riding Dumbo the elephant.
Watching all four of our children–in their various ages and stages–soak up all of the magic that Disney offers was more than half the fun for my husband and me.
Our Disney World vacation ended up being one of the most memorable trips for our family, and we cannot wait to take another one. In fact, we started saving for a second trip as soon as we got home. We found out it is possible to do a Disney World trip on a budget–and not feel like you’re “missing out” at all.