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10 Tips to Plan a Disney Vacation on a Budget

Life as we know it is returning to normal! I can’t tell you how excited I am (and I know you are too). But the thing I’ve missed the most these last few years is planning our family trips to Disney. Yup—it really is a magical place.

And if you were worried about how Disney parks would fare through the pandemic, rest easy. In the first quarter of this year, they recovered their pandemic losses with profits climbing above pre-pandemic levels.1

Now, who’s ready to start planning a Disney trip? Planning a Disney trip on a budget isn’t for the faint of heart, but it can be done. In fact, it’s one of my spiritual gifts.

How to Plan a Disney Vacation

The best way to plan anything is with lots of research, right? The same is true for a Disney vacation. And thankfully, there are a million different resources out there that are focused on how to do Disney World “the right way.”

But when it comes to vacations, the only right way to do it is to make sure your finances are in order! No one wants to go into debt for vacation—not even for Disney World.

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Every savings goal starts with a budget. Create yours today with EveryDollar.

So, the first thing you need to do when planning a Disney trip (or any other cheap vacation) is make a budget. EveryDollar is my favorite budgeting app. Not only is it free, but it helps take the guesswork out of creating a budget.

Your budget will help you save, learn where you need to cut spending, and actually give you the freedom to spend. And with a trip to Disney, you’re really going to want to spend.

10 Ways to Do Disney on a Budget

For a family of four, the average cost to go to Disney World is anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 or more, which is a lot of money. But you can do it for less. There are plenty of ways to save on your Disney dream vacation—up to thousands of dollars, actually.

If you’re in a good position financially (and it’s the right time for your family to go), these 10 tips for Disney World will help you stay on budget and kick your experience up a notch (at no extra cost). Ready?

Let’s get started.

1. Spend some days at the park and some days at the pool.

You guys—this isn’t a popular opinion, but you don’t have to spend every day of your vacation in the Disney parks! Trust me, your feet will thank you for breaking up the week with one day at the park and the next hanging by the hotel pool. If you stay on property at a Disney hotel, the pools make you feel like you’re still at the park! They’re themed, they’re huge, and they’re just incredible.

There are also plenty of other places you can go on your “off-park” days and still be immersed in Disney magic. Head over to Disney Springs for shopping, restaurants and free entertainment. Go to Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort for dinner and stay to watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks on the beach—for free! (The boat dock is a magical place to catch those fireworks too.)

This one tip will save you hundreds or thousands of dollars in Disney park tickets, depending on how many people you’re going with and how many days you’re staying.

2. Skip the Park Hopper and visit one park per day.

It might seem like a good deal to buy the $174 Park Hopper ticket and get access to all four Disney World parks in one day. However, if you’re staying for multiple days, you can make your budget go even further if you forego park-hopping for a day or two and just visit one park per day. The average price for a single-park ticket per day is $109 (for ages 10 and up), saving you $65 per person, per day.* (Single-park tickets for kiddos ages 3 to 9 are about $104.)

Keep in mind though, Disney will lower the price of your daily ticket when you buy for three or more days. And always look at their calendar when you’re booking your trip—prices change depending on the day too!

When you purchase your tickets, you need to make sure to reserve your spots at the theme parks you want to visit. It’ll be a bummer to buy tickets for a park that doesn’t have any reservations left. Plus, those tickets are nonrefundable, so be sure to triple check before you press “Submit.”

It’s important to be realistic about how much you can and want to get done each day. Moving from park to park is time-consuming and can be exhausting, especially with little ones. But if you’re only going for a couple of days, maybe do the Park Hopper ticket one of your days and spend another whole day at Magic Kingdom—which, believe me, is entirely possible and amazing and worth it! 

3. Buy Disney gift cards at a discount.

Always try to buy Disney gift cards at a discount! If you’re a member of a big-box discount store like Sam’s Club, you can buy Disney gift cards at nearly 4% off! And if you use your Red Card debit card at Target, you can get 5% off! Sure, it doesn’t sound like much, but anything helps when it comes to saving money.

You can use these gift cards to pay for your park tickets, Disney hotels, food on property and more. While it’s not a ton of money, it will save you $40 to $50 for every $1,000 you spend—and that’s, like, eight Mickey Mouse ice cream bars!

4. Don’t buy the dining plan.

I love the food at Disney. Seriously—just give me all the food! But what I don’t love? The dining plan. It’s a way to prepay for your meals on Disney property, but it’s definitely not a money-saver. In fact, in order to make sure you don’t lose money, you’ll have to do some math on-site (as you wait in line for your Dole Whip). For example, if you get too many ice cream sandwiches during the day, you’ll probably have to forfeit your fries at dinner. And who wants to do that?

Here’s the solution: Just pay for your food with cash as you go. That way, you know how much you’re spending throughout the day. And if you use the Envelope System in the parks, you know exactly how much you’re starting with (and how much you have left to spend) after each purchase. Plus, you don’t have to waste time trying to figure out if you’ve met your quota for the day. That sounds exhausting! Pro tip: If you do decide to dine out, Disney gives you the ability to book your dining reservations early using the new Disney Genie service in the Disneyland app.

Disney World on a budget, how to budget for vacation

5. Bring your own food.

Did you know Disney allows you to bring food into the park? This is potentially huge savings in your budget! You can pack a nice picnic lunch with sandwiches, fruit, water bottles, cookies—whatever your family likes—and store it in lockers inside the park for either $10, $12, or $15 per day, depending on what size you need.2 There are no coolers allowed, so only bring things that don’t need to be kept ice-cold. Instant savings!

Another way to save on food is by making your own meals at your hotel! Making your meals is worth it even if you do it just a few times during your stay. The Garden Grocer is an Orlando-based grocery store that delivers your groceries to your resort. You can even order your groceries up to 120 days in advance! You do have to pay a delivery fee if your order is less than $250.3

6. Arrive just before the park opens.

This is a huge time-saver, because if you’re right there and ready to go when they open the park, you can book it straight to your favorite rides. Lines get long later in the day, but if you get there early, you won’t have much of a wait.

Now, if you’ve been to Disney before, you know how much of a luxury the FastPass was for skipping those long lines. But the FastPass has been discontinued and replaced by the Disney Genie service, which helps you plan the day you want while you’re at the park. Not only does it give you a map of the park—but you can also use it to view wait lines for rides. You can upgrade to Genie+ (the new version of the FastPass) to skip the long lines . . . only it costs $15 to use per day and you can only skip the line once each day. But if you don’t want to shell out the money to save time on those long lines, you’ll definitely want to get to the parks as early as possible!

7. Use PhotoPass photographers (but don’t buy the package).

What’s a family vacation without the memories to prove it? For $199, Disney’s PhotoPass photographers will take professional photos of you all over the park. You get access to the photos online after your trip, but that’s a pretty big hit to your travel budget. The cool thing is, you can actually just ask Disney’s photographers to take your picture with your phone or camera. They’ll still want to take your photo with their camera too (but you don’t have to buy it). This way, you’ll have the picture instantly and save $200. Score!

8. Buy your Mickey ears ahead of time.

You can find some really cute Mickey ears online. I found two pairs on Amazon for $7.99—that’s two pairs for $8—compared to the nearly $30 you’ll pay in the park. And while we’re on the topic of souvenirs, you can save a bunch of money by ordering all of them online ahead of time! A friend of mine did this and left one toy on their kids’ hotel bed every night, like it was a gift from Mickey. How cute is that?

9. Bring your own sunscreen.

You guys, it’s Florida—the land of heat and sun. And the only thing I want you to bring home from your Disney vacation is amazing memories and maybe a cute souvenir, not a sunburn! But you’ll pay up to 40% more for sunscreen in the park, so be sure to pick some up at the grocery store before you go.

10. Don’t waste money on water.

Now, I’m not telling you to go thirsty, but buying bottled water at the park all day will drain your budget fast! Bring your refillable water bottle with you instead. There are tons of water stations around the park to fill up at. You can also stop at any quick-service restaurant and ask for a cup of water. They’ll happily give you one . . . and it won’t be a Dixie cup, either. Easy savings right there!

Disney Hotels: Are They the Best Value for Your Vacation Budget?

When you’re making your Disney vacation budget, you might wonder whether or not it’s worth it to stay at one of Disney’s beautiful on-property resorts. There’s no denying it can cost more, but if you go with one of Disney’s less expensive options, it’s about the same as (and sometimes cheaper than) staying off-site. Plus, staying on property will save you money on transportation and give you perks you won’t get anywhere else.

For one thing, Disney is always running limited-time specials (like 25% off room rates for Disney+ subscribers) or discounts when you stay five nights or more.

Just make sure to budget for your transportation to and from the airport. If you’re staying off-site, look into your hotel’s amenities to see if they offer airport transportation. And if you’re staying in a Disney hotel, shuttles are around $23 per person to and from the airport.4

So, let’s break it down.

Staying Off-site

The WorldQuest Orlando Resort is right next to Disney World in Orlando, and the lowest rate I found was $155 per night. For two adults and two children staying five nights, the total comes to $1,070 (with taxes and fees). And if you don’t want to drive to the Disney parks and pay for parking, you can pay $25 per day for the shuttle service.

WorldQuest also offers Disney packages. You get a cheaper rate, and it comes with a free shuttle to the parks (saving you that $25 per day). Just for fun, I put together a WorldQuest Disney package and it came out to about $3,130 for a five-night stay with four five-day park tickets. By purchasing the hotel package, you save almost $200 on park tickets!

Staying On-site

The lowest rate I could find at Disney’s own All-Star Sports Resort was a promotional rate of $134 per night (totaling about $756 with taxes and fees). With that discount, staying on-property at the All-Star Sports Resort is $314 for a five-night stay—a savings of $21 per night. The key to making your Disney resort count is finding promotions that help cut the cost. Plus, Disney resorts offer free shuttle transportation to and from all of the parks (by bus, monorail, boat or skyliner). And if you choose to drive, staying at a Disney resort gets you free parking as well.

If you decide to add four five-day Disney park tickets to your package, the total comes to about $2,958 with taxes and fees. That’s $172 cheaper than WorldQuest’s Disney package. And not only is it cheaper to stay on-site (with promotional rates), you’ll also get all the magical moments that come with staying at a Disney resort. Just make sure to remember your budget when you’re passing all those Dole Whip stands!

If staying off-site at a hotel or on-site at a Disney resort doesn’t suit you, try out a local Airbnb or VRBO. You might find deals there too!

When Is the Right Time to Plan a Disney Vacation?

1. Are you out of debt?

When you’re in Baby Steps 1, 2 or 3, Mickey will have to wait . . . for now. There’s no room in the budget for Disney because any extra money is either building up your starter emergency fund or paying down debt. Yep—even that $2,000 to $3,000 you were hoping to spend on a Disney trip will do wonders for your debt snowball.

But don’t give up on your Disney dream just because you’re not debt-free! Actually, I encourage you to use that dream as even more motivation to pay off your debt quickly. Just put on some Disney music as you do your budget each month and think about how good that Mickey Mouse ice cream will taste when you’re debt-free!

2. How old are your kids?

There’s no right or wrong answer to this. In fact, I’m all for going to Disney without the kids! But if you want to take the whole family, there are some pros and cons to consider, depending on their ages.   

A big pro of taking anyone under 3 years old is that their park admission is free. That’s a savings of $174 per day for the Park Hopper ticket! And I can tell you from experience: When I took my daughter to Disney around this age, there was nothing like seeing her meet Cinderella for the first time. That moment was priceless. The downside is, she may not remember it when she’s older. But we’ll always have the pictures!

Rachel Cruze with her daughter Amelia at Walt Disney World Resort

I hear the sweet spot is between the ages of 6 and 10. At that point, they’re old enough to enjoy the anticipation of planning a Disney vacation. Plus, they’re taller, so they can go on more of the rides. And let me tell you: They’re going to want to ride the rides.

As you can tell, I’m pretty passionate about saving money without sacrificing experience on a Disney vacation. And like I said earlier, planning a trip to Disney World on a budget is possible! You just have to budget for it. Make sure to download our free version of EveryDollar now so you can live happily ever after later!

Neither Rachel Cruze nor the producers of this content are in any way affiliated with or sponsored by The Walt Disney Company or its subsidiaries. All marks and goodwill of Walt Disney World or related brands are that of The Walt Disney Company and/or its affiliates. Nothing in this article is a paid advertisement or endorsement of Walt Disney World or any affiliated brand.

*Prices in this article were pulled from disneyworld.disney.go.com on 4/22/22 and are subject to change.

Rachel Cruze

About the author

Rachel Cruze

Rachel Cruze is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, financial expert, and host of The Rachel Cruze Show. Rachel writes and speaks on personal finances, budgeting, investing and money trends. As a co-host of The Ramsey Show, America’s second-largest talk radio show, Rachel reaches 18 million weekly listeners with her personal finance advice. She has appeared on Good Morning America and Fox News and has been featured in publications such as Time, Real Simple and Women’s Health magazines. Through her shows, books, syndicated columns and speaking events, Rachel shares fun, practical ways to take control of your money and create a life you love. Learn More.

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