Disney Trip Planning: 180 Days Out (Well, more like 177)

Howdy friends and neighbours!Β  It’s been a long time – I keep meaning to come back and get into the blog habit again, but things keep getting in the way. πŸ˜› So here I go to try again!

That's the spirit, Ralph!

That’s the spirit, Ralph!

I figure maybe I can make weekly updates on my planning for my family’s upcoming Disney World trip.Β  This is our first trip as a full family since 2011; my daughter was just about to turn 5, and now she’s 9. (If you’ve followed at home long enough you know that my daughter and I took a trip together in 2013, which was awesome! but now it’s time for my son and husband to get to come too ^_^)

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Disney on the cheap, part 2: The Bare Necessities, AKA, what to eat

This is the sequel to this post here where I looked at a multitude of overwhelming options for where to stay when you go to WDW, on the pretense of saving you money. πŸ˜‰ No, actually, it’s TOTALLY about saving money, it’s just a lengthy discussy post. *G* And guess what? So’s the sequel! Read on…

Now I know in my last post I said we’d be looking at tickets next, but I decided to save that one for a later post, because it’s probably the one expense at WDW you can’t really massage away with a little know-how. So instead I’m going to look at some of the things you really NEED, and how those can take up a bit less of your budget.

Because we can’t all look under the rocks and plants and take a glance at the fancy ants. Hakuna Matata maybe, but I am afraid I have never been able to subsist on bugs while at WDW. πŸ˜‰

I picked this picture partly b/c you can see all the food we got at the Garden Grill, and partly because Chip seems to like my son so much in it.

I picked this picture partly b/c you can see all the food we got at the Garden Grill, and partly because Chip seems to like my son so much in it.


Instead, here’s a good look at food options and ways to slim that cost down.

Part I: The Longest Part Is the Dining Plan Part

LOGO, PEOPLE. (c) the Walt Disney Company.

LOGO, PEOPLE. (c) the Walt Disney Company.

Now, first of all, you’re probably aware that Walt Disney World offers a dining plan. It has several iterations and I’m not going to go over them all and how they work or what’s included – that’s the subject of a different post. But I will talk a little about the Basic Dining Plan, which they promote as their best deal, and the cheapest DDP, the Quick Service plan. With these plans, Disney tells you, you can save a good deal of money.

And this is true. You’re going to eat, no matter what, and there’s a very good chance that as long as you’re at Disney you’re going to want to eat in the themed restaurants available. And personally, I LOVE Disney restaurants. It’s very hard to go to WDW and *not* at least look longingly at the dining options, even if you’re not particularly intersted in Cinderella’s Royal Table.

So, the Quick Service plan entitles everyone to two counter service meals and one snack for each night that you are staying at a Disney resort. It is an add-on option to the Magic Your Way package, meaning you can’t get it if you book a room-only offer and don’t add tickets (same goes for all levels of the DDP). The Basic Dining Plan, moderately but not hugely more expensive, gets you one table service, one counter service, and one snack per night of your stay. According to Disney, the basic plan can save you up to 40% off of food.

The big question is, are these plans worth it?

I’ve considered it long and hard and my opinion is – it totally varies. Sometimes OMG YES. Sometimes they’re AMAZING. But “sometimes” is not “always” because everyone has a different set of needs for their vacation, as I’m pretty sure I said in my previous “on the cheap” post; so you’ve got to weigh the pros and cons, and the particulars, of each plan. Which I will do in a different post at a later date; but for right now, I’ll be very general.

The Basic Dining Plan is great if you want to eat at a lot of character meals or buffets and you have the time to spend to do that. You can save a huge amount on this option – the cost per adult is about $56 more per night, and per child it’s $18. Kids do have to order off the child’s

You actually can get that much food on this plan if you know what you're doing.

You actually can get that much food on this plan if you know what you’re doing.

menu, so look at the prices of the restaurants you most want to eat at, because this can be tricky. For instance: $18 per night per child seems like a very small amount, but if you look at the price of an easy sample day of dining at Hollywood Studios: lunch at Backlot Express, dinner at 50s Prime Time Cafe, and a Mickey Bar snack add up to $18.33 before tax. On the other hand, if you go with *dinner* at Backlot, the Mickey Bar, and a character lunch buffet at Hollywood & Vine, well, the cost of the lunch buffet for a child is $17. So you’re pretty much paying only for lunch that day and dinner is free. πŸ™‚

For adults – same thing, except since you’re not limited to the kids’ menu and their prices, you have a few more options to make sure you get your money’s worth. But you have to remember, most counter service lunches are only going to run you about $10 pre-tax; on the dining plan you get your drink and a dessert free, so that’ll take you up to perhaps $16 or so on average. Then say you get a $4 snack so you’re at $20; you want to be sure that, for dinner, you’re going to get a $35 meal (entree, drink, and dessert) to be sure you get what you’ve prepaid for. That Hollywood and Vine character buffet is about $30 for an adult and that leaves you overspending for the day by about $5. On the other hand, if you go to Epcot’s Akershus Storybook Princess Dinner, the adult price on that is $47 and it includes a photo! So obviously – depending on your tastes, your time, and your decisions, this plan can be a great money-saver or just a convenience of you not having to worry about paying for your meals when you eat.

The other problem with the DDP is not about money, but about time: you have to be sure you’ve got the time, more or less every day, for a sit-down meal. Is this time you’d rather be spending in the parks? At the pool? Taking a nap? Or is this really what you’re looking forward to most? If “yes” to that last one, go for it.

The Quick Service plan? Well, again – tricky. For adults this is significantly cheaper per night than the basic: about $38 each. For kids though, it’s only about $3 cheaper. So here’s the very tricky part for children: “snacks” count up to about $4, tops. Nearly all kids menu counter service options are $5.99 before tax. So you’re basically paying $14.50 per night to get, tops, $16 worth of food and that’s assuming that your child wants a $4 snack and not a $2 snack (or they want a snack at all). Plus some of the kids’ menu options are $5.49. If your kids prefer those options, and a $2.50 snack, you’ll pay $14.50 per night for $13.50 worth of food… I know I’m picking at nits but you know, that’s the topic of this blog today. Saving money. πŸ™‚ Those dollars CAN add up.

I also did not actually mention that you get these refillable mugs good for your entire stay. One per person on the plan. It's like a $15 value for the mug alone plus all the beverages you want to put in it. So there's that. Photo (c) the Disney Food Blog.

I also did not actually mention that you get these refillable mugs good for your entire stay. One per person on the plan. It’s like a $15 value for the mug alone plus all the beverages you want to put in it. So there’s that. Photo (c) the Disney Food Blog.

For adults it’s about the same; depending on what you get with your counter service credits, you might break even, you might save a tiny bit of money, but you also have the chance of losing a little bit of money.

If this blog was about convenience today, I’d say who cares? I’m nickel-and-diming this to death. But since it’s about saving money, I just want to point out that it takes some careful planning to be sure that you’re saving money with the basic DDP, and that your chances of actually *saving* with the QS DDP are pretty slim.

Do note, however; when the dining plans are free, this advice up here? All those lengthy paragraphs? THROW THEM OUT THE WINDOW. You’re not going to get a better deal! Doesn’t matter if it’s free Quick service at a value resort, or free basic at the others, or what. If it’s free, you are saving HUNDREDS of dollars, and it is worth it. Keep in mind you can’t combine offers, but you’re probably getting the better deal with the free dining plan.

Also, I can totally book you on this deal for serious, give me a call. ;)

Also, I can totally book you on this deal for serious, give me a call. πŸ˜‰

Part II: So let’s assume you’re not getting the Dining Plan.

Putting all that above information aside; what other options do you have? No, they never have sales on Disney dining. πŸ™‚ (In fact, at certian times of the year – usually holidays – prices at restaurants go up.) You *can* get a membership with Tables In Wonderland, which gives you a percentage discount at participating restaurants. Assuming you are not doing that, your best bet is:

BRING YOUR OWN FOOD! *lalalaaaa!*

Daddy's Hot Rod loved his raisins back then.

Dad’s Hot Rod loved his raisins back then.

I don’t mean you shouldn’t eat ANYTHING at the parks. Because that’s like blasphemy. But try to anticipate eating at least one meal with food you brought yourself. Nearly all the resorts now have a mini fridge in the rooms, so if you bring your own perishable foods you can keep them cool; bring breakfast supplies. Bring snacks. Disney never enforces a “no outside food” rule, perhaps because they know there would be mass revolts if they did. Bring whatever you need to make it through most of the day and make use of informational sites that post menus (*cough*) to figure out where you’d like to eat and what the costs are so you can anticipate what you’re likely to be spending.

You are also not a complete captive; if you run out of supplies and you can get offsite transportation, there are grocery stores nearby, like a local Publix that has, you know, normal prices. πŸ˜‰ Depending on where you stay there are also options like lounges with free snacks, low-priced parties where you can pick up enough finger food to make a meal, or if you want to do just one buffet you can make that your only “bought” meal of the day – fill up while there and subsist off of snacks the rest of the day.

You can also split offerings at Counter Service restaurants. Some are better than others for this, but Flame Tree Barbeque has this great chicken and it’s HUGE, I mean it’s like an entire quarter chicken, for about $10 and it comes with slaw and beans. GUYS! πŸ˜€

The other option? Do a buffet… at BREAKFAST. πŸ˜€ They are always the least expensive buffet times, you get nice and full to start your day and can usually just skip lunch, and you still get the character interactions. Er, assuming it’s a character breakfast (unlike, say, Trail’s End – which by the way is good food and quite reasonably priced!).

Part III: I Open the Floor To You, The Reader, for Suggestions

I got these from Estelle, from This Happy Place Blog, and they apply mainly to money saving on food:

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.

Food & Wine, it was just announced, will be held at Epcot from September 27 to November 11. If you’re unfamiliar, this is an international festival highlighting, uh… food and wine πŸ™‚ My husband and I did this back in 2005 and it’s *terrific*. If you’re on the Dining Plan, most of the food offerings at each section in the World Showcase can be purchased with a snack credit! We had not used our snack credits for a full week and so on our last day we went around sampling a huge variety of food and well, we ended up very full! So I fully agree with this advice! My advice has to do with staying very basic to cut down on food costs, but Estelle’s great advice applies to trips where you are willing/able to pay for a little bit more, but you want to know how to get the most that you can. You don’t have to go sit down at all the restaurants in Epcot to get a taste of their amazing cuisine!

Part IV: My Choice, drumroll please…

Okay, so my trip in the fall, which I am still planning for. Since I’m trying to do this as cheaply as possible, I’m not really splurging on any extras, except the day we do the Magic Kingdom, where we will PROBABLY be doing Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. Hence the splurging. πŸ™‚

My splurges/ice cream will no doubt include Dole Whips, because I've been told that I am insane for not loving them yet.

My splurges/ice cream will no doubt include Dole Whips, because I’ve been told that I am insane for not loving them yet.

This means I’m going to be bringing breakfast – non-perishable, because we’re camping and won’t have those mini-fridges – for most days, with the option of picking up something extra to share from Trail’s End To Go if we feel really peckish; we won’t be eating at any sit-down restaurants UNLESS I really feel like splurging and doing a Crystal Palace breakfast buffet. Which I am considering.

Instead my plan is to have breakfast covered, each get a snack every day (probably will usually be ice cream, haha, but we’ll see), and for remaining meals split one counter service on one, then each get a full counter service on the other. I camped before with this plan and it worked out fine, but that was just me, so it may not go perfectly with a 7-year-old child… but on the plus side, with the option to buy more if she’s starving, no harm done. I’ll still be trying to do it as cheaply as I can and I’ll let y’all know how well it works!

Have any other tips? Please leave a comment! ❀

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. πŸ™‚ 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.Β  One note: read the reviews of the hotel first.Β  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. πŸ˜‰

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. πŸ™‚

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.Β  How big is your party?Β  If it’s over 4 people, at most resorts you’ll either need 2 rooms or a Family Suite.Β  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.Β  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.Β  Obviously, these are not $30 hotels, either.Β  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.Β  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.Β  Food court, play areas, multiple pools, music, shopping, constant buses to the parks, and the check-in area!Β  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. πŸ™‚

Clearly, what I was getting at before I sidetracked myself there is that again you look at your needs.Β  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.Β  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.Β  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.Β  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