Going on a family vacation to “the most magical place on earth” costs a pretty penny for families, and the price has gone up yet again. This year, Disney increased the price of admission into its U.S. theme parks by about 9% on average. Forbes reports that Disney increased prices “to help regulate crowd sizes throughout the year in hopes of reducing the wait at the parks,” which are the most highly attended theme parks in the world.
They are also among the most expensive theme parks to visit in the U.S. A five-day trip for a family of four could easily cost $4,000, including park admission, lodging and food — and that’s without any travel costs or extras, like souvenirs.
In contrast, American vacationers planned to spend an average of $2,936 on their summer trips, according to our 2017 survey. But the high costs don’t keep the Disney faithful away, and many Disney enthusiasts have devised savings strategies when making the trip to Disney World in Orlando every year. We spoke to some of these families to get their best savings tips with us for anyone planning a Disney World vacation.
Top savings strategies
- Use points to book flights or use a rewards credit card
- Book your next stay before you leave or keep an eye out for hotel promotions
- Wait to buy souvenirs
- Split meals or find other ways to save on food
- Use discounted gift cards
Long Island, N.Y., couple Christine Meade, 35, and her husband John, 38, have already taken their 18-month-old son, Mason, to Disney World twice and have plans to take their next trip for his second birthday. Christine has visited Disney World every year — sometimes twice a year — since 2005.
“Before we had [Mason] we loved going. It’s a lot more than just a kid vacation,” says Christine, adding that there are “so many things to do” at Disney World. “It’s just an escape from everyday life. Now that we have the baby its almost like a natural thing to take him.”
“Now it’s like a different kind of fun. Watching him enjoy all of these things and experience all of these things is a different kind of experience,” says Christine.
Saving with Swagbucks
The trips aren’t cheap for Christine, who works as a waitress, and John, an installation technician with a home security company. Christine says the family now spends a little more than $3,000 for the entire vacation — travel and food included. Mason is still younger than 3 years old, so he doesn’t need a child pass.
Now with a toddler to budget for, Christine has been trying out apps that help her save money, like Ibotta, and earning money through side gigs like mystery shopping. She credits websites like Swagbucks, among others, and says she finds them helpful towards earning some extra income.
“I’m always making the extra money with going to Disney in mind,” says Christine.
Since November 2017, when she began using the app, the couple has earned more than $2,000 between their Swagbucks accounts. You can redeem Swagbucks for prizes, PayPal cash or Mastercard gift cards that you can use just about anywhere. This year, the couple may have enough money from Swagbucks to cover all the costs of their trip, except airfare to Orlando.
Use points on flights
But, they likely won’t pay for flights either, because they’ve earned plenty of points using their Jetblue Rewards Mastercard. They got the card about two years ago and earned enough points to entirely cover their last two round-trip tickets to Orlando.
To make sure the rewards program is worthwhile, Christine generally pays off the card’s balance weekly to avoid interest charges. She also tracks flight prices to make sure the couple makes the most of their points.
Book with a bounceback offer
The couple books their next Disney vacation before they leave the Disney hotel. Their proactiveness generally earns them a discount, called a bounceback offer. On their last trip in November 2017, they booked the day they were checking out and saved 25% on their room for their next vacation, Christine tells MagnifyMoney.
The bounceback promotions fluctuate. Sometimes it’s a different discount, or a free dining plan, which the couple has received in the past. If it’s not offered to them, the couple says there is sometimes a pamphlet left in the hotel room with information about a bounce back offer or you can dial x8844 from your hotel room to find out about the bounceback offer.
Split a Memory Maker
A final tip: Christine tells MagnifyMoney they may also search Facebook for another family going to Disney World around the same time and agree to split the cost of a Disney Memory Maker. The Memory Maker costs $169 for the length of your trip and gives you unlimited downloads of all your Disney PhotoPass photos and video taken by Disney’s photographers.
The couple finds additional savings by using perks that come with staying at a Disney hotel, like free transport to and from the airport, extra FastPasses (for shorter wait times at the parks), MagicBands (radio-frequency enabled bracelets that serves as your park pass, hotel key and more) and extended park hours, called Magic Hours. They also have a Disney Premier Chase Visa credit card that grants entry to opportunities to meet and take photos with Disney or Star Wars characters and 10% off some merchandise and dining purchases, in addition to other savings.
Cora Helton, 33, and her husband Benson, 30, of Columbus, Ohio, have gone to Disney World at least once a year since 2014.
In 2017 they went four times, and three times in 2016, and in 2018, Cora says she thinks they’ll go twice because Benson has to do some continuing education for his work as a web developer. They say they love Disney in part because has so much to offer adults.
“You are in what we call the Disney bubble,” says Cora, a voice-over artist. “You’re not checking your Facebook, you’re not watching the news, all of this turmoil and political upheaval. You are completely in this magical world of Disney.”
Use discounted Disney gift cards
She says her main savings hack is the “gift card hack,” where she purchases Disney gift cards at a discount to pay for her trip.
“You can plan your whole trip in advance and pay it all off with gift cards,” says Cora.
Several retailers sell discounted Disney gift cards. At Sam’s Club, for example, Disney gift cards valued at $500 are often sold at a discount. Target, too offers a 5% discount on Disney gift cards for its REDcard holders.
“The better option is to get them at my local grocery store, Kroger, because they have a fuel perks program,” says Cora.
Shopping with a Kroger Plus Card, Kroger’s free membership program, you earn 1 fuel point for every dollar you spend. Sometimes Kroger does a special where they offer four times the fuel points per purchase — that’s when Cora stocks up on gift cards.
Buying a $500 gift card, Cora says she can earn 2,000 fuel points, which earns her $2 off per gallon of gas, up to 35 gallons. She goes a step further to maximize her savings by making the purchase with a 3% cash back credit card; she calculates her savings at $85 with this method.
Try a Disney travel agent
The Coras also use a Disney travel agent to make the most of their trip. It generally won’t cost you any additional fee to book a Disney vacation through a certified Disney travel agent, as Disney compensates them for their work.
“It saves money because they know all of the best bargains,” says Cora. “They know when the best deals will drop; they can be up at midnight when the FastPasses become available.”
Having another set of eyes looking out for deals can be helpful as FastPasses, dining reservations and discount resort rooms go fast.
“You can tell them tell them what you want to do in advance and they do all of the hard work and you don’t have to do anything,” says Cora.
Become an annual passholder
The Heltons have annual passes, which they say helps them save money.
There are two tiers of annual passes for access to Walt Disney World’s four main parks: the Disney Platinum Pass ($849 per person) and the Disney Platinum Plus Pass ($949 per person). The Platinum Pass offers a 20% discount on some dining and merchandise purchases. It also rolls in things like a park hopper pass, which allows you to go visit multiple parks in a day, and rolls in Disney photopass downloads.
“Do the math on how much value it would be for the number of times you would go a year and the amount the discount will save you,” advises Cora.
Plan and split meals
Cora recommends choosing your restaurants carefully at Disney World and sharing meals when you can. She tells MagnifyMoney there are a couple of different places in the park that they know are inexpensive and can feed them both.
Cora says she and Benson go through the entire menus of their restaurant options while they are at the park and choose what they’d like before they decide to go. You can start even farther ahead — during your planning. You can preview Disney World dining options online and you can filter the restaurants by park. Disney also provides each restaurant’s menu online and you can filter this search by price-per-person for an easier time budgeting for food.
Baltimore residents Andrea Tucker, 48, and her husband, Brian, 49, go to Disney World once a year with their two daughters, ages 12 and 13.
Their whole family adheres to a gluten-free diet, and Disney is one of the easiest places for them to vacation with their dietary restrictions. Andrea, a health educator and the owner of Baltimore Gluten Free, is strictly gluten free for an autoimmune disease. Her youngest daughter has Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack the small intestine after ingesting gluten.
“We go to Disney so frequently because it is the safest place for us to go to eat and it really is a true vacation because of that,” says Andrea. “They are just really great with dietary restrictions and lots of dining options everywhere.”
Use a rewards card to save
Andrea says her family finds their main savings through cashback earned using their Disney Premier Visa Card on all of their purchases throughout the year. She says it helped them to save more than $1,000 on their last trip.
The card charges a $49 annual fee. It earns 2% cash back on purchases made at gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants and most Disney locations, and 1% back on all other purchases. An introductory bonus offers a $200 statement credit after the cardholder spends $500 within the first three months of opening the card.
Book Disney hotel rooms on promotion
Their family likes to stay at the three Disney resort locations closest to the theme parks, which are slightly more expensive than Disney’s other options, so Andrea is always on the lookout for a hotel room promotion.
“We wait for that sale to come up. It requires a bit of checking and vigilance to get those rooms when they go on sale because when it does, it goes fast,” says Andrea. “It’s important to be ready to act on it because there are only a limited number or rooms and people are waiting on it.”
You can find Disney’s current hotel rates and discounts on the company’s website. Andrea says that ideally she looks for a 30% room discount and generally sees discounts crop up in the early spring, for example. As of this writing, Disney is offering 20% to 25% discounts.
Save on food and drink where you can
Because they splurge on dining at Disney, the family cuts spending on food in a handful of other ways throughout the day.
They cut spending on one meal a day by getting groceries and eating breakfast in their hotel room. Andrea says they use a delivery service to order food ahead of time and have it delivered to their room, and they get staple items like cheese sticks, milk, yogurt, bananas, water and things they can heat up in a microwave in their hotel room.
The family also brings a free carry-on bag on their flight filled with their favorite snacks to eat throughout the trip. They bring water bottles to fill up at the parks to drink throughout the day.
Wait until the last day to buy souvenirs
One lesson the family learned on their first trip to Disney World: Only buy souvenirs after you’ve seen all of your options.
“Especially when my kids were younger, you’d go, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cool,’” says Andrea, who says they wasted some money on souvenirs early on. The next day, they’d inevitably see something they wanted more than what they’d already purchased.
Now, they buy souvenirs only after visiting all of the parks. They use a park hopper pass so they can visit the same park multiple times.
“We kind of just remind everybody before the trip that it’s going to be exciting and so many cool things and we have time to look around and think about the best options,” says Andrea.
These tips can help you save some money on your trip if you use them, but at the end of the day, it’s your vacation. Getting a good sense of what you want from your trip before you book will help you save overall.
For example, none of these families would consider staying off-site, in a hotel near the park but not a Disney Resort hotel, although it’s an easy savings option.
“We have stayed off property in the past. You do save, but it’s just not the same,” says Christine.
“I like the magic of staying on property. You walk into that world of Disney, it’s fun and happy and everyone is in a good mood.”
But if staying on Disney property isn’t important to you, you can save — and use your savings on things you’d personally value more.
The lowest rates for a standard room for two adults at one of Disney’s value stay resorts from Aug. 5 to 11, 2018 are, as of this writing, selling at $120.53 a night, on a 20% discount promotion. That’s a premium to pay for the full Disney experience, even at a discount, compared to a room that costs less $100 a night at a nearby hotel with a free shuttle to the Disney theme parks and free breakfast, which the Disney resorts do not provide.
Ticket prices also vary by day and theme park, so if it’s not important to you to go during peak times (which you can see when buying tickets online), visit all of the parks or upgrade to park hopper passes, you can save there, too. When it comes to saving at Disney, all about setting your priorities and doing research in advance.