Vacationing at Walt Disney World in Orlando Florida is the dream of many families. In reality, any Disney park has the potential to be a very expensive place to visit. Fortunately, I found there are ways to save money without limiting the Disney experience.
I recommend taking the time to do some research, talk to travel professionals and friends who have already been there, then start making plans to have the best family vacation ever.
When travelling into the United States, every family member requires a passport. Long-form birth certificates are required from some provinces to obtain a child’s passport. I learned the hard way the long-form is not the small laminated card most people keep tucked in a safe or jewelry box. The long-form is issued from the province the child was born in, and can be applied and paid for online. This process takes time.
Purchasing airline tickets online is not unlike scoring tickets to a rock concert. Be prepared to act quickly, because reasonably priced seats sellout fast. If unable to frequently check online for deals use a reputable travel agent whose job is to secure airfare at a good price.
The airline I chose requested the passport numbers of all travellers upon the purchase of the airline tickets. This may not always be the case, but be prepared to have passports in hand before booking tickets. I almost missed out on a great airfare sale because I could not immediately produce those passport numbers – I was waiting for the long form birth certificates. Note re: passports
To save more money consider flying out from an American airport to Disney World or Disneyland if geography permits. For example, my family drove from Ottawa to Buffalo, New York, stayed overnight in a hotel, then flew to Orlando, saving hundreds of dollars in airfare. I booked a stateside hotel that provided breakfast, shuttle service to the airport, and permitted visitors to leave vehicles in the hotel parking lot until their return without charging for the parking.
Accommodations and Dining
Accommodations are unique to a family’s taste, budget, and plans for the week. Disney World has many themed onsite accommodations ranging from economy to luxury appointed. Economy rooms are very basic, bedroom and bathroom. Luxury rooms or suites can include extra areas like a sitting area or kitchen. Obviously prices reflect the amenities offered.
When ‘staying on’ shuttles to and from the Disney park run regularly from early morning to late at night. Onsite accommodations are great for families who plan to spend the majority of their vacation at the park.
Disney Dining Plans allows you to pre-purchase a certain number of meals on a voucher system. Meals may be quick meals on-the-go, sit down meals or snacks. Meal purchases are tracked on cards called, Key to the World. After the meal, a receipt is issued showing exactly how many meals or snacks are left. There are three levels of packages from ‘Quick Service’ to ‘Deluxe’. Dining packages do go on sale, and at non-peak times of the year may be offered free with onsite accommodations, an excellent bargain.
To be close to attractions in Orlando other than Disney World and to enjoy higher-end accommodations for the price of economy, we chose to stay at an offsite resort. Great deals are available in the off-season, particularly September to early December, when resorts are looking to fill rooms. Sometimes listening to a time-share sales pitch is necessary to score a deal, but most would agree saving hundreds of dollars is worth forty minutes of a boring presentation.
I also booked a time-share resort so we could take advantage of the cost-savings of preparing meals and snacks in a fully-appointed kitchen. On the day I did not take the time to pack snacks, I bought the five of us popcorn and lemonade in the park and it cost almost $75. Many large Orlando grocery stores offer free delivery to local resorts. I placed the on-line grocery order while we were still in Canada. Our resort accepted the order on our behalf and staff had groceries already put away in the fridge and cupboards before we even checked-in.
Staying ‘off Disney’ does require the rental of a vehicle. Resorts generally offer limited shuttle services, and arrival and departure times may not suit every family’s schedule. Inexpensive rentals may be arranged through a selection of companies the airport. I found the extra cost was worth the mobility and spontaneity a mini-van offered.
Walt Disney World
In Orlando, Florida, Canadian military families can purchase Walt Disney World passes through the American Shades of Green, an off-site resort for US military personnel. Purchasing them at Shades of Green saves you the tax. Other options are buying through a travel agent, from your resort concierge, or online directly from Disney. Purchasing multiple days can lead to savings. Especially when you factor in on-site economy accommodations; dining and park passes is the most economical way to experience Walt Disney World. The price of passes varies to some degree, but $65-100 per person per day is average.
At Walt Disney World I found every possible detail was considered, making our family vacation magical. Disney continues to build on their reputation by adding electronic conveniences to their vacation packages, and some of these great conveniences are free.
Get the App
My Disney Experience is a free smart phone app that allows users to plan their Disney vacation by linking tickets and reservations to a personal account. Disney hotel and dining reservations can be tracked; maps of all four theme parks can be searched, notes made, and day by day plans tracked. One account can be linked to another, so everyone knows what is planned for each day. In the initial planning stages I linked with my cousin, who was travelling with us. The app made planning our itinerary simple, even though we live in two different cities and met in Orlando to vacation together.
Memory Maker is a convenient add on to Disney vacation packages, and my cousin chose to buy the package. Throughout Disney, there are Disney Photo Pass locations and wandering photographers. They snap pictures of families with Disney characters or capture moments of terror or excitement at key points during rides and attractions. Swiping a bracelet adds the photos to a prepaid account. The pictures were fantastic because the photographers asked the kids to do things like hold out a hand, and then they Photoshopped Tinkerbell into the picture, perched ever so sweetly in the outstretched palm of my daughter. This service costs $199 at the gate, or $169 when purchased three days prior to arrival at the park.
Everyone can reserve Walt Disney World attractions in advance with FastPass+ Simply purchase theme park tickets in advance and reserve access to favourite rides, avoiding long line-ups, before even arriving at the park. FastPass+ includes select character greetings, shows, parades and fireworks. The best part about FastPass+ are the kiosks at the park that allowed us to change our minds about which ride we wanted to use FastPass+ on.
Magic Bands and Magic Cards
Magic Bands or Magic Cards make a day at Disney an electronic experience. Magic Bands are rubber, waterproof secure all-in-one bracelets that allow visitors to enter parks, unlock hotel room doors, use FastPass+, and charge food and merchandise to a Disney hotel room. They make travel around Disney lighter and more convenient.
Managing expectations is important on any vacation and certainly applies to a Disney vacation. I knew we would all want souvenirs. They are expensive in the park. However, they can be purchased cheaply all over Orlando in every store, gas station, or pharmacy. Another option is bringing souvenirs along. A Disney princess dress in the park will cost $100, at a local Wal-Mart $40. I bought Minnie ears, a backpack, pens and notepads for my daughter at our local dollar store and brought them along. I saved at least $85 on items she loved at the time, but rarely touches now.
Vacationing on the West Coast at Disneyland in Anaheim, California provides a similar magical experience for families. Disneyland opened in 1955 and is the only Disney Park built under the supervision of Walt Disney himself.
The park offers families a magical kingdom, pirate and jungle filled time. Disneyland is divided into two parks, Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park. Visitors can purchase a Park Hopper pass that offers the flexibility of moving from one park to another throughout the day.
I think another fun option for families at Disneyland is the Magic Morning Pass allowing you one early admission during the duration of a three-or-more day theme park stay. One hour before the park opens to the public Magic Morning Pass holders can enter the park, beating the crowds.
Fast Pass is available in California too. Reserving a spot in line is as easy as planning ahead, selecting the ride or attraction that will have a long line and reserving a Fast Pass for a designated time. When you travel in the off-season like we sometimes do the fast pass is not even necessary, as lineups are short.
Disneyland offers My Disneyland (www.m.disneyland.com) in the form of a mobile website. This site provides updates on park attractions, weather, entertainment schedules, shopping, dining and character schedules so visitors never miss seeing their favourite Disney friends.
The Disneyland Explorer App, available in the Apple App Store provides details about the Disneyland Resorts, interactive activities, panoramas pictures of most Disneyland attractions, and digital postcards. I personally like the My Disney Experience app more than the Disneyland Explorer app, but as with any technology they change all the time.
The most budget friendly option when organizing a Disneyland vacation is to create an accommodation, dining and park pass deal. This can be done by carefully researching on the internet, or using a skilled travel agent.
The West Coast also offers off-site time-share resorts close to the park. They too are cheaper during the off-season, or shoulder season as travel agents call it. Consider vacationing in early September to save money.
Without much effort, a Walt Disney World or Disneyland vacation can be everything a family ever imagined. I believe with some planning it can be the vacation of a lifetime without breaking the bank.
**This article was originally published in our Winter 2015 issue**