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11 Ways to Save Your Money, Time, & Sanity at Disney!

If you’re like a lot of moms, you’ve found yourself dreaming of taking your family to the most magical place on earth — Walt Disney World. Visions of pixie dust, fireworks, and mouse ears dance through your thoughts. Your daughter’s face as she meets Belle for the first time.  Your son riding his very first roller coaster. Many parents dream of the moment their little ones first enter those magical gates where a child’s imagination comes to life.

Then you sit down and start actually planning your Disney vacation…and you find yourself bogged down in details and overwhelm. A weeklong vacation to Disney World costs how much?! That dinner with Cinderella is already booked up 5 months in advance?

As someone who spent a summer long ago working in the parks as a Disney Cast Member, I’ve seen my share of family vacations gone wrong.  Parents having shouting matches, toddlers throwing tantrums, and exhausted guests inconspicuously napping on park benches were daily occurrences. You’d be surprised how many families look just generally unhappy to be at the most magical place on earth. Parents are overzealous, overstretched, and overspent. Kids are overtired, overheated, and overstimulated.

I firmly believe that with some forethought and advance planning, your family’s Disney vacation can be that once-in-a-lifetime vacation you’ve been dreaming about. It is possible to go to Disney and enjoy your time there without breaking the bank, without spending hundreds of hours researching details, and without anyone having an emotional meltdown in the park. The key is to find the right balance between planning and overdoing it, and to begin your vacation with realistic expectations.

Along with being a former Disney cast member and a current travel agent, I’ve visited the parks many, many times. So without further adieu, here are my top 11 tips for saving your money, time, and sanity at Disney World!

Save Time & Money at Disney (7)

1. Book your trip far in advance {…as in, more than 6 months out!}

There basically is no such thing as booking your room at Disney too far in advance. Disney allows you to reserve a room up to 499 days in advance. However, they only release rates for their resorts about a year in advance. Each summer, the rates for the entire next calendar year are released. So right now for example, you can book your Disney room {or a package} for anytime in 2015, and 2016 room rates will be released sometime this summer.

Booking early saves you money and sanity. First, this is because Disney releases special discounts and promos for rooms, ticket packages, and meal plans a few times a year. But the special offers for rooms only apply to a set number of rooms at each applicable Disney resort, so you want to nab those deals as soon as they come out!

Save Time & Money at Disney (2)Second, you can make dining reservations as far out as 180 days in advance — that’s six months, people! Now you may be thinking, “How the heck do I know what I want to eat 6 months from now? I don’t even know what I’m making for dinner tonight.” And that’s okay. Unfortunately though, there are some really great restaurants on Disney property that are going to fill up that far out in advance {like Be Our Guest, Cinderella’s Royal Table, Akershus Royal Banquet, to name a few}. Save your sanity and book your must-do meals as close as you can to that 180-day mark.

Third, if you are a Disney resort guest, you can make your FastPass+ reservations {to be discussed in number #6} up to 60 days in advance. A FastPass is basically an electronic reservation for a ride, meaning you get to skip everybody in the regular stand-by line. Correctly utilizing the FastPass+ system can save you hours of time waiting in line on your vacation. You can advance book up to 3 attractions per day of your trip. That’s 3 rides, shows, or character meet-and-greets that your family no longer has to wait for. Just like with restaurants, the most popular attractions will book up quickly.

2. Pick the right time of year to visit

If you’re working with a tight budget and you have some flexibility in your calendar, then you should know that the time of year you go to Disney can make a huge difference price-wise.  Ticket prices do not fluctuate with the calendar, but Disney resort rates do. It’s not widely known, but Disney divides the calendar into various pricing “seasons.” I’ve created this nifty little table for you to easily see which dates fall into which season for 2015.

Disney Resort Price Seasons

The exact increase in price will vary depending on which specific Disney resort you’re considering, but by examining this table, you can see that in general, you can save a lot of money by visiting during the value, fall, or regular seasons.

If you’re working around the school calendar, there aren’t a lot of options to visit during the less expensive seasons. I’d recommend trying to go right when school lets out in the summer, or just before school starts in early fall.

If you have more flexibility, visiting during the fall {except for Thanksgiving week} is ideal because the prices are lower, the crowds are lighter, the temperatures are no longer unbearable, and you get to see the Halloween festivities or Epcot’s Food & Wine festival.  The first week or so of December is also a great time because of all the same reasons, plus you get to see Disney’s amazing Christmas decorations on display!

3. Book through a travel agent that specializes in all things Disney – for FREE!

If this conversation already has you feeling overwhelmed and anxious, I understand. Most of us moms have enough on our plate, and you might not want to spend your limited free time and energy negotiating with Disney’s dining reservation system, researching their 25 different on-property resorts, or creating park itineraries months in advance of your vacation. If these things don’t sound like your cup of pixie dust, then I highly recommend booking your vacation through a travel agent specializing in Disney vacations.

Now maybe I’m biased because I am one of those travel agents, but utilizing a knowledgeable agent can save you loads of time, energy, and money. First of all, most reputable agents provide their services at no cost to you. Disney pays us a commission on the hotel and ticket package we book on your behalf.

Save Time & Money at Disney (3)A good travel agent can research all the different vacation packages that fit your budget and your family’s needs and save you hours of researching this yourself. After booking, most agents also provide assistance with itinerary planning. For example, I help my families choose the best FastPass+ reservations, tell them all about Disney’s different restaurants {and where to meet Cinderella or Mickey!}, and even reserve these meals and FastPasses on their behalf. I also consult park crowd calendars {more on that in #7} to help them plan the most time-effective and least-stressful vacation itinerary.

A travel agent can deal with all the various deadlines I’ve mentioned. If a must-do restaurant is booked during your trip, a good agent will check everyday to see if an opening comes up, so you don’t have to. Most agents will also continuously monitor for newly released special deals and promos and get them retroactively applied to your booking, saving you money.  There’s really no downside to booking through a travel agent that specializes in Disney vacations, unless you’re one of those rare moms that likes doing all the grunt-work yourself!

4. Stay on Disney property

Yes, I said it. If you want to save time {and sanity}, stay at a Disney resort, not off-property. The Walt Disney World property is huge, 40-square miles to be exact. That’s the size of San Francisco, y’all. Is it more expensive to stay on Disney grounds? Generally, yes. But I believe the time you save by being on-property and the perks you get for the extra money are well worth it. And remember, you can save money on your resort rate by going at the right time of year.

There are two main perks to staying at a Disney resort. First, you can use Disney’s free transportation system to get anywhere you need to go within Disney World. They even offer a free shuttle to and from the airport. You can use Disney buses, monorails, and ferries to get to any of the resorts, theme parks, restaurants, and shopping areas. Unless you plan to do something off Disney grounds, you don’t need to waste money on a rental car or pay any expensive parking fees.

Second, only Disney resort guests can utilize Extra Magic Hours. Disney will open one park an hour earlier on certain days of the week and close one park up to 3 hours later on certain days of the week for on-property guests only. These Extra Magic Hours are a great opportunity to ride popular attractions without having to wait in long lines, another sanity and time-saver. You basically get more park time, without much of a crowd. It’s also worth mentioning that on-property guests get to make their FastPass+ reservations 60-days in advance, giving them first dibs over off-property guests who have to wait till the 30-day mark.

Staying on property obviously means you’ll be closer to your resort. This is essential when you’re traveling with little ones who need a mid-day break.  I’d rather pay a bit more and avoid a toddler tantrum in the middle of Magic Kingdom, how about you?

5. Pick the right Disney hotel

Staying at a Disney resort does not have to break the bank if you do your research {or get your travel agent to do it for you!}. The best way to save money at a Disney resort is obviously to visit during the right time of year.

Disney currently has 25 resorts on property for you to choose from. These hotels span all price points and are divided into price categories classified as value, moderate, deluxe, and deluxe villas.  Each category offers different levels of amenities {like pools, food options, bed sizes}, room layouts, transportation options, and proximity to the parks to correspond with their rates.

Surprisingly, Disney has been lacking with budget-friendly options for larger families {or really any size family that doesn’t want to cram everyone into two queen or double beds in a single room}. In the past few years, they’ve finally expanded their offering of “family suites” at their budget hotels, making it more affordable to stay on property without having to book multiple rooms.

If you want to stay on Disney grounds and you’re looking for a bigger room at the lowest price point possible, consider Disney’s Art of Animation Resort or their All-Star Music Resort. Also, take a look at the Cabins at Fort Wilderness.  This frequently forgotten option has the amenities of a moderate resort, a good location in the Magic Kingdom area of Disney property, lots of space {it’s a freestanding cabin, rather than a standard hotel room}, a full kitchen, and amazingly budget-friendly rates.

You {or your travel agent} should also be paying close attention to any special room discounts or promotions Disney releases periodically throughout the year. If you book early, you can even get these special promos retroactively applied to your reservation. The room discounts are usually highest for Disney’s deluxe resorts.

Save Time & Money at Disney (6)6. Utilize FastPass+ and reserve in advance

What are these “FastPass+” things I keep mentioning? In 2014, Disney rolled out their new FastPass+ system, which basically allows guests to electronically reserve a spot on their most popular rides and attractions in advance of their trip. You are allowed to book up to 3 FastPasses per day of your trip, up to 60 days in advance {for Disney resort guests}, or 30 days in advance if you’re staying off property. FastPass reservations {along with dining plans} are made via your My Disney Experience account online.

Do you want to spend half of your time at Disney World waiting in line? No? Well, correctly utilizing the FastPass+ system can save your family hours of waiting time. Yes, it’s challenging to know 2 months out which park you want to visit on which day of your trip, let alone which 3 attractions you want FastPasses for, but you should still take advantage of this system. Once your family is zooming by all those suckers in the Peter Pan queue, you’ll be glad you did.

7. Consult a crowd calendar

In addition to the resort prices, crowd levels will also drastically fluctuate at different times of year. There are several unofficial Disney crowd calendars and crowd level predictors in the blogosphere that are pretty reliable. Checking predicted crowd levels before you plan your trip can save your sanity and time.

First, if you have the ability to go during a less crowded week, you should. Crowd levels generally correspond to the resort price seasons – the less expensive the resort rate, the less crowded the parks.  My favorite sources to check predicted crowd levels in advance of picking the week for a trip are here at Your First Visit and here at Dad’s Guide to WDW. These guides give you crowd ratings for Walt Disney World Resort as a whole.

Second, you should also consult crowd predictors for each park to plan your day-to-day itinerary. This can make a big difference in your wait times, especially if you’re visiting during a busier time of year. Consulting a crowd predictor calendar is one of my “must-dos” before planning any vacation itinerary for a client or myself. You should make sure to consult these park crowd calendars before you make your FastPass+ reservations for each day of your trip. The best places to look for park-level crowd predictors are Undercover Tourist and Touring Plans.

8. Buy Disney gift cards in advance

You can save a few bucks by buying Disney gift cards in advance of your trip, if you know the right places and ways to buy them. Disney gift cards can be used at Disney parks and resorts for most of your food, beverage, and merchandise purchases. Disney gift cards can even be used before you depart to pay off your vacation package balance. They have no fees and no expiration date, so you can buy one or two at a time and save up over time.

The secret to saving money is to buy your Disney gift cards at a discount and stock up on as many as you think you’ll need. Here are a few ideas:

  • If you have a Target REDCard, you get 5% off all Target purchases, including the purchase of Disney gift cards. You can combine this discount with your REDcard Rewards Coupons to save even more.
  • Warehouse stores like Sam’s and Costco frequently offer bundles of Disney gift cards for a small discount or with a free $10 additional Disney gift card.
  • You can stock up on Disney gift cards from Kroger and accumulate fuel points to save on gas {not really saving on Disney, but still saving!}. They sometimes run deals where buying gift cards gets you 4x fuel points. Lots of grocery stores other than Kroger run similar deals from time to time.

Keep your eyes peeled for any other gift card specials at your local drugstores and grocery stores. Pre-paying with gift cards is also a great way to set a budget for your trip and control your family’s spending on incidentals once you’re actually there.

Save Time & Money at Disney (4)9. Buy “souvenirs” at home and bring them with you

Disney souvenirs and merchandise are lots more expensive on Disney property. Of course, there are some items that you can only buy in the parks, and those make great mementos of your trip. But if you have kids that like to buy every Mickey item they see, you can save some money {and add some magic} by buying Disney items before your trip and gifting them to your kids before and during your Disney stay.

Ideas for items to pre-purchase and save on are stuffed Disney plushes, glow sticks or light-up toys, and Disney-themed clothes to wear to the park. You also might want to buy a Disney character autograph book before you go. You can pick up Disney books, coloring books, stickers, and other small items to keep your little one occupied and excited during travel time and while waiting in line for rides.

I’d recommend scouring the Target dollar section and your closest dollar store to score some good deals on Disney merch and stock up in advance. Gift your child an item or two the night before you leave for your trip, then have the “Fairy Godmother” or “Tinker Bell” magically leave your children the other items each morning of your vacation. This will help curb their need to buy everything they see at the parks.

10. Get groceries delivered to your room

Just like with Disney merchandise, the food, snacks, and drinks sold on Disney property are significantly more expensive than out in the “real world.” If you’re flying to Orlando and don’t want to pack an extra suitcase full of food, you can order groceries online in advance and get them delivered directly to your hotel.

I recommend a reliable grocery delivery service like Garden Grocer to order a week’s worth of items like fruit, yogurt, soda, juice, bagels, and cookies. You can even save space in your suitcase and order baby food and other baby items like diapers and wipes.

I’d recommend ordering breakfast items, snacks, and a case of bottled water in advance.  You are allowed to bring food and drinks into Disney parks, and you can store items in the mini-fridge in your room. Have these items delivered to your Disney resort on your arrival day, and now you have enough snacks and drinks to keep everyone happy through your trip.

Save Time & Money at Disney (1)11. Get to the park early and take a mid-day break

Once you’re actually at Disney World, the best plan of action is to arrive at your park of choice just before opening time. If your family is there for opening, you can get a lot done in that first hour or so without having to deal with long lines or big crowds. I’d recommend arriving a few minutes before opening {make sure you allot enough time for parking and travel, if necessary}, and plan to immediately ride the most popular attractions on your must-do list that you don’t have a FastPass+ reservation for. A popular ride can have little to no wait first thing in the morning, and a 2-hour wait by late morning.

I’d also suggest a mid-day break, especially if you were up early to get to the park at opening. This is why it’s a game-changer to stay on Disney property and be close to your resort. Head back to your hotel for a mid-day nap, swim, or leisurely lunch break. This gives your family some time to rest and recharge, and you avoid the hottest and most crowded time of the day at the parks anyway.

 

Most of these tips are things that can be done before you leave for your Disney vacation. Pre-planning is an essential element to save your time, money, and sanity once you’re actually at Disney.  You do the work now in order to have a relaxing vacation there.

That being said, there’s a fine balance between good planning and too much planning. Do not plan your trip down to the last minute, or even the last hour. Having a short list of must do’s for each day, including your FastPass+ rides and a dining reservation or two is a good idea. Keeping your expectations realistic and your plans flexible will decrease the chance of disappointment and frustration.  And just remember – a good travel agent can help you plan and prepare for it all!

Ready to start planning?  Here’s a little something to get you started!  Enter below to win a $25 Disney gift card that can be redeemed both in stores or online…or of course, in your trip planning too!

Winner :: Stacy S.


Janet - BioAbout Janet L.

Janet is a Houston mom, creative entrepreneur at Paper+Spark, and travel agent specializing in planning memorable Disney vacations. Need some help researching, planning, or booking your family’s next magical vacation? Visit Janet with the Mouse Detectives here or email her at [email protected]


Please Note :: We are so very grateful to have Janet sponsor this post and share her WEALTH of knowledge on all things Disney.  Our hope is that this post will be a precious guide to planning YOUR family’s upcoming trip, and we strongly encourage you to reach out to her to make the process seamless!

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21 Responses to 11 Ways to Save Your Money, Time, & Sanity at Disney!

  1. Emily March 9, 2015 at 8:26 am #

    Thanks for the tips, especially about the gift cards! That’s one thing I hadn’t thought of or heard about yet!

  2. nicole nails March 9, 2015 at 10:22 am #

    Hoping to plan a trip next year..will.definatly be calling you for booking info

    • Janet L March 15, 2015 at 11:16 pm #

      Hi Nicole! I look forward to helping your family whenever you are ready to start planning!

  3. Belen March 9, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

    I love that she said if you stay at the Disney resort we can arrive earlier and leave later. She had some awesome tips

  4. Will March 9, 2015 at 11:01 pm #

    As a daddy of two, I can’t stress the importance of #4-6!!! Nice read Janet, I’ll have to put you in touch with my sister who is planning a trip to WDW in February.

    • Janet March 11, 2015 at 8:09 am #

      Thanks Will! Glad you found it helpful. I’d love to help your sister!

  5. Heather Y March 10, 2015 at 2:24 pm #

    We are going on our first trip this September and can hardly wait! Thanks for the tips!

  6. Patricia F March 11, 2015 at 12:16 pm #

    These are great tips. I agree with all of them. I have been to WDW twice and we are going back this October. I would use this gift card towards food:-) Thank you for the contest.

    • Patricia F March 11, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

      …sorry, forgot to say my favorite tip was using the “Garden Grocer” to have groceries delivered to your room. We fly from Ohio and actually have packed cereal and other breakfast items. Using this service will be so much easier! Thank you.

  7. Amy D March 11, 2015 at 8:54 pm #

    You gotta arrive at the park early!

  8. Kristen March 15, 2015 at 3:34 pm #

    My favorite is: consult a crowd calendar.

  9. Emily S March 15, 2015 at 4:19 pm #

    Such great advice! We just had a spontaneous trip to the Magic Kingdom and so much of the above made perfect sense. We are Florida residents, so plan to go again before the end of June and in September, so will be dropping you a line for sure, Janet!

    • Janet L March 15, 2015 at 11:18 pm #

      I’d love to help you plan your upcoming trips Emily! Also, I’m totally jealous that you are a FL resident and don’t have too far to travel (AND you get all those sweet resident discounts!).

  10. meg March 15, 2015 at 4:51 pm #

    I liked the resort price list. I’ve never seen that before

  11. AmyK March 15, 2015 at 5:05 pm #

    i love the idea about buying the souvenirs at home and bringing them! Great idea

  12. Rebecca F March 15, 2015 at 9:11 pm #

    Tip #10 is good to know! We’ll have four kids in our group ranging from 6 months-4 years old, so we’ll definitely need groceries. These are great tips!

  13. Tracy D. March 15, 2015 at 10:20 pm #

    The grocery delivery to your room and getting to the park early and taking a mid-day break, are both great tips.

  14. TC March 15, 2015 at 10:48 pm #

    I was planning a trip for my girls this summer and I use the word “planning” very loosely. Youre right it is overwhelming…lol. So my favorite tip is #3. This could surely go more smoothly via someone who knows this. I though about using an agent before to help but I also thought it would cost me out of pocket and I didnt know how much. Thank you so much for that info. Now I definitely am going to use one. Whats your available hours?

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