Disney on the Cheap: My efforts to get to WDW this fall

January 2011 at Hollywood Studios

January 2011 at Hollywood Studios

The last time I took my family to WDW was also the first time – not for me, but for both of my kids. It was in late January/early February of 2011, and my daughter was about to turn 5. My son was just about 1 1/2. I’d waited years to take them, to make sure that my daughter would actually remember at least part of the trip.

After it was over I decided that my next trip would be just me and my daughter, a short camping trip similar to one I’d done for my 30th birthday all on my lonesome. I was aiming square at late September, 2012, with thoughts of tossing Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party in there too; but real life came and bit us in the butt, and long story short, the not-insignificant amount of cash I had saved up went to bills.

It happens. I mean, I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t pretty upset, but it happens. Life goes on and Disney World is still there.

So now, I’m starting from scratch and trying again to save up the money to get my daughter on a trip to enjoy as much as possible in 3 1/2 days on-property at Disney. Don’t get me wrong, I loved having the whole family, no complaints! But my daughter and I, we bond over WDW. I want to take her while she is young, to have a time just with her, and so that we can do whatever she wants without having to take everyone else’s needs into account.

So with that in mind, I’m planning a trip I might not get to take, trying to squeeze as much savings out of every part of it.

I thought, since a lot of people would love to go to Disney if they can afford it, I’d write a few posts talking about how I estimate my costs and how I try to whittle them down… My best suggestions in general, and how I am applying them specifically.

Part 1: Location, Location, Location!! Aka, Pick the right resort.

This is obvious. Look at your needs. First need is, do you NEED to stay on-property? (Personally, I do.) Depending on various factors and what you’re willing to sacrifice, plus the time of year that you go, you can get a room relatively close to Disney for very cheap. VERY, VERY cheap. I’m talking $30 a night cheap at certain seasons.

What you need to know: these are not the nicest hotels. They may smell funny. They may not be the safest-looking places.

A second need is, how long is your trip? What kind of trip is this? Is it going to be a quick-fix vacation – you know, been there before, will go again, but need a touch of Disney magic when I can get it? Or is this your Big Family Vacation that you’ve been saving for for 5 years? I’ve done both. 🙂 These two can lead you to VERY different places.

Third, who is coming with you? This is actually related to both of the first two questions, because obviously your needs are different if you are travelling solo or with an adult partner, versus if you’re travelling with kids or extended family. This can influence both whether you want to stay on-property AND the type of vacation you’re on.

And fourth, how much time do you want to spend in your hotel, and what aspects are most important to you? For instance – free breakfast? Free WiFi? Pool? Which of these is a make-or-break when selecting a hotel?

So none of these needs stand on their own. They all really dovetail with each other and you need to look at them all to paint a picture. Once you’ve got that picture, take a look at your options:

Firstly, on- or off-site hotel rooms? A quick look at non-Disney hotels:

If a hotel's exterior photo emphasizes a small patch of flowers over the hotel itself, don't have high expectations.  Image courtesy of Expedia.com.

If a hotel’s exterior photo emphasizes a small patch of flowers over the hotel itself, don’t have high expectations. Image courtesy of Expedia.com.

If you are travelling by yourself (or I should say, without children), and you will only be in your hotel for sleeping, and you are not easily wigged out by seedy-looking places, you can look into the cheap hotels I mentioned and spend a relatively miniscule part of your budget on your lodgings.  One note: read the reviews of the hotel first.  Know what you are getting into.

You can also upgrade, of course. Old Towne Kissimmee has a lot of nice hotel options. My first trip, I stayed in a Comfort Inn Suites that was really pleasant! Good (free!) breakfast, nice pool, lovely rooms. It lacks the Disney theming but in terms of room quality it was around a Moderate, but for less. Plus they have suites – BIG plus if you are travelling with a larger group (more than 4 people) and the Disney Family Suites are a bit past your price range.

Image courtesy of Expedia.com

Image courtesy of Expedia.com

Old Towne Kissimmee is closer than I thought it was to the Disney resort. We took a shuttle each day and it went to so many different hotels that I didn’t realize it’s very simple to get there. In fact, if you go to the grocery store in Celebration, then turn left out of that parking lot and left again at the light, you’ll reach the Comfort Inn Suites pretty quickly. (Of course that’s if you’re driving yourself; that will be another blog entry…)

The downsides: if you don’t have your own transportation, the shuttles usually only run once a day and pick up from multiple hotels, potentially hurting your options of getting an early start on the day at the parks. Even if you DO have a car, then you’ve got to pay for parking – getting back to the hotel for a nap, if needed, can be a hassle – and especially if you’re at the Magic Kingdom that’s a LOT of walking back to the car at the end of a long day. Good ol’ TTC. 😉

Another point to note is that you can get some great rates at the Downtown Disney hotels, which are technically on Disney property but which are not Walt Disney World owned and operated. This means you can get some luxury digs, without the perks that WDW hotel guests get (no Extra Magic Hours, not eligible for Dining Plans, etc), for less than you’d spend at a similar Disney-owned hotel. This is great if you’re not, like me, looking to make your cost as low as possible so that you can afford it, you’re just looking to save money where you can while still getting the most upscale experience possible.

So which is the better deal off-site: as cheap as possible, or bargain comfort? If travelling with kids, I point out the bargain comfort. I’d always spend a little bit extra to make sure my children are comfortable and safe. On my own though I’d probably go the cheap-as-possible route. 🙂

Now let’s say that, like me, staying ON Disney property is a must if possible. Honestly – I consider that to be a part of the expense just like the tickets. So how do you keep that cost down?

A look at WDW Resort Hotels

I apologize for my lack of realization that I'd be blogging 2 years later when I took my uninteresting photos

I apologize for my lack of realization that I’d be blogging 2 years later when I took my uninteresting photos

There are various options to you. Knowing your discounts is a good one (if you find that overwhelming, a Disney travel agent like myself can always help you! Plug, plug); in addition to Disney’s own room discounts, for instance, there are also discounts available to AAA members, to Florida residents, to Active Duty members of the Military, and more. They can be overwhelming, and some discounts are undeniably better than others; and yes, some of the best ones aren’t available to everyone. Obviously, Disney wants you to stay at the higher-scale resorts, so the discounts are deeper as the rooms get more expensive. But sometimes, shopping around can get you some unexpected cuts in your spending.

So once again you want to look at your needs.  How big is your party?  If it’s over 4 people, at most resorts you’ll either need 2 rooms or a Family Suite.  Cost-wise, you’ll get a better deal by booking two rooms at most resorts than you would for booking a Family Suite – but the suites come with a mini-kitchen, which is its own cost-saving device, since you get the option of cooking your own meals.  This is not an option when you have two standard rooms.

Obviously, you’re going to get the lowest prices on rooms at the Value resorts.  Obviously, these are not $30 hotels, either.  But the nice part is that you WILL get a better experience at a Value resort at Disney than you would get at a cheapie off-property.  Sure, it’s not glamour, but all rooms are still well-themed and well-maintained, comfortable, reasonably spacious, and when you step outside your room you get a TON of things your cheapie hotel in Kissimmee wouldn’t get you.  Food court, play areas, multiple pools, music, shopping, constant buses to the parks, and the check-in area!  Goodness. Honestly, I feel like Disney resorts are among the only non-luxury resorts where you could make an excursion just to see them and still have fun. 🙂

Clearly, what I was getting at before I sidetracked myself there is that again you look at your needs.  What you need for a Disney resort will be different if you are solo tripping than it would if you were touring with your parents and your children.  Weigh your pros and your cons for each, your biggest needs, and make a chart about what you CAN afford vs. what you’d LIKE to afford.  If the two align, then go for it!

My choice: The Campsites at Fort Wilderness

Here's the reception building circa 2008, aka, IWantToBeThere

Fort Wilderness Reception in Spring 2008

To get the lowest possible price on-property at Disney, there is no argument that the Campsites at Fort Wilderness are where to look. You bring your own tent and you can camp for as low as $40 a night, depending on the time of year. If you don’t have a tent you can rent one. The resort itself provides plenty of free entertainment to its guests like outdoor movies, running trails, a petting zoo, and so on. It’s rustic, it’s beautiful, and it’s CHEAP.

This, by the way, is my choice if I didn’t already say so. I’m aiming to camp in early October for 3 nights; the cost after tax is about $160. That’s less than the cost of one night at many of the other resorts. I’ll admit to this: the bus system is a bit on the confusing side because the resort is so HUGE (see my review of the campgrounds from a month or two ago), but they also have a ferry to the Magic Kingdom; I mean, you’re right there.

And by the way, I do have a tent; and this time when I go, I’m going to know how to put that sucker up all by myself. I hope.  As of right now I do have enough money to cover the resort reservations, but that’s not much good without the rest of the costs!

Next time: Looking at Tickets

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One thought on “Disney on the Cheap: My efforts to get to WDW this fall

  1. Hi! This is a great post. I feel like you are brave to choose the camping. It makes sense money wise, but I don’t think I could do it. (My husband also has a bad back.) But it sounds like it could be a little adventure for sure!

    I hate that WDW is so expensive and so many are priced out of the vacation. We are on a tight budget lately with him back in school and me working. We cut costs by driving and not flying, only choosing one super nice meal, not park hopping, and trying not to drink or shop too much. We also booked our rooms at the tail end of their Spring savings event which gave us a nice deal on the room and tickets. I don’t know how well we succeeded. It was so croweded I feel like we ended up spending a little bit more than we would have…

    I know you aren’t this far yet but one suggestion as far as food is… eat in a lot of lounges. You can still get the Disney quality but not have the price of a full on restaurant experience. Not park hopping is another. And just cutting it close on other things in the parks: snacks, souvenirs and things. When does the Food and Wine start? That’s a great way to get an eclectic dinner on a budget too.

    I hope you can make this work! I hate when things come up and reality sets in. It’s probably the worst, and having to make those decisions and cuts is just so difficult.
    Good luck lady!

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