…as learned by a budget-conscious (but not cheap) family with a toddler who just spent a week there.
Don’t fly. Do drive.
What’s the price for your family to fly to Disney? For us, it would be roughly $900. Gas costs for us were on the order of $250. If you do Disney exclusively, the Magical Express will be your transportation. If you want to escape the mousetrap for any number of things available to Orlando area tourists, such as take a trip to Diagon Alley, you better figure in a cab or rental car on top of the airfare. Unless, of course, you stay in one of the numerous places between Lake Buena Vista and the Dr Phillips area of Orlando that offers free shuttle service. But that goes against my next tip.
Do stay on property. Don’t stay at the All Star Resorts.
By staying at a Disney resort, you get Magic Bands, which are convenient as all get out. The Magic Bands act as your room key and your park ticket plus you can get Fast Pass+ selections on your band and charge everything to your room account. Obviously if you have trouble with spending, you should skip charging with a wrist-touch, but not carrying gobs of cash on you is nice.
By staying at one of the three All Star resorts, you’re guaranteeing yourself a small room and long bus rides to the parks. The common areas were nice, but don’t make up for it. If you can afford it, stay someplace closer to the parks; preferably some place with monorail or ferry service.
Don’t get the Disney Dining Plan. Do eat Disney food.
The Disney Dining Plan is convenient as hell, but it saves you minimal money in a best case scenario and in the most likely scenario costs you money. We got the dining plan that gave us one snack, one quick service, and one table service per person per day (defined as a night stay at a Disney resort). Each meal comes with a drink and a dessert, so if you have a sweet tooth (I do) and were going to order dessert at every chance (I wasn’t) it might be the way to go. But I still think you shouldn’t and I won’t do it again. Hermoine drinks mostly water, as do I, so each meal we either got the prepaid but overpriced water or the prepaid, overpriced and calorie dense specialty drink. The desserts were typically decent, but unnecessary.
You should still eat at Disney, though. I read a lot of ways people save money at Disney before we left and something I saw over and over again was bring your own food from the outside. All I have to say about that is, “Hell no.” Lugging around peanut butter and bread for sammies and cases of water? That’s ridiculous and I consider it needlessly extreme. It’s hard enough carrying around the necessities. And on top of that, you have properly store it. No one wants room temperature drinks when the temps and humidity are both above 80.
While I’m talking about food, I’d like to talk quality for a moment. Quick service food has improved over the years. It used to be that tourist traps had that horrible Sodex
ho quality food. If I say “museum food” you probably wretch a little as you remember that time you ate lunch at the science museum a few years ago. I’ll say this: it’s not that bad anymore. A guy can eat a quick service meal or two a day and not want to throw up until at least the third day nowadays. The table service meals were pretty lacking though.
Do get the Memory Maker. Don’t leave your camera at home.
Throughout the parks you’ll find great photo spots and ops. And at those photo spots, you’ll find a Disney photographer. This person takes pictures for a living and is issued a Nikon SLR, so they’ll take a better picture than you’ll get when you hand a stranger your smartphone. The Memory Maker is a collection of photos taken by Disney photographers all packaged neatly into a section on Disney’s website for your pleasure.
But don’t leave all your shots to the folks at Disney. You should still being a camera; and it should be a dedicated camera, not a smartphone. Any point and shoot from a top 5 manufacturer between $75-$250 should be better than your smartphone camera. I’m a bit of a shutterbug and lugged around my SLR all week. I only recommend that for people who already own an SLR, use a strap that didn’t come with their camera, and are used to not being able to carry something more useful like a drink (and trust me, you’ll need a drink).
Further thoughts and tips:
Consider renting an RV (or pull-behind, if you can tow it).
You can reduce your lodging expenses this way. (Yes, you’ll obviously not be borrowing and operating an RV for free; see my next tip.) Also, you’ll be able to have some pretty low cost breakfasts as well.
Go with friends.
Travel down together, in an RV or cargo van, and lodge together. Then you can both have a night or two of adult time in exchange for watching your friends’ kids and giving them the same.
Wait until your kid is older.
There are a few reasons for this, the first being traveling with a toddler royally sucks. Being stuck in a 25 sq ft space inside a not-much-bigger-than-that box for 8-20 hours wears on everyone’s nerves. Add to that a kid who has the brain development and the communication skills of a nonhuman primate and you’ve got a recipe for frustration.
There’s also the fact that pretty much anything you think is worth doing at Disney either can’t be done by a little kid or is something a little kid has no interest in doing. You want to ride Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and the kid wants to meet Snow White. You want to ride Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster and the kid wants a $12 balloon.
Finally, there’s the matter of memories. How much do you remember from your preschool days?