Ah, Disney. It conjures up images of magic, youthful bliss and fun character sightings. However, for many, Disney seems out of reach. So is it possible to do Disney on a budget? And if so, what does that even mean? Well, after hours of research and some personal experiences, I’m here to show you what I believe to be the cheapest way to experience Disney. Hopefully this shows you that the magic is not so far out of reach!
B and I are currently living in Panama City, FL while he gets his Master’s Degree at FSU. While that puts us in a unique position of receiving “local” discounts, they mostly apply to season passes, which I’ll get to in another post. Being a poor grad student requires you to look at vacations a little differently than before. We only had a couple days over Thanksgiving (spoiler alert- it’s super crowded over the holidays) so we had to be smart about our plans as there are absolutely NO discounts at that time of year. Thanksgiving at Disney is the second busiest time of the entire year! So how did we make it work on a grad school budget? First let’s talk about accommodations.
Before we move away from Florida, we will absolutely stay “on property” at least once. I’ve been told it is the way to get the most magic in your stay. For this particular trip though, we did not have the funds for $100+ a night so we stuck with our favorite, AirBnB. Although I won’t link the place we stayed (the guy ended up being crazy at check out. Hey, it happens.) there are many affordable options on the site. If you want to stick with hotels though, we did spend one night at the ParkInn by Radisson. It was clean, had a 24 hour pool, two restaurants and was only a half mile from Disney (at $78/night you can’t beat it!). Not sure if you should try a hotel or AirBnB? We have an article for that!
This hotel also had a free shuttle service to the parks. However, here’s why I would chose not to use shuttles.
Pros about shuttles:
- They save you the $25/day parking fee
- If you choose to partake in the “drinking around the world” at Epcot, you don’t have to worry about driving
Cons about shuttles:
- They don’t give you much flexibility about when you come and go from the park (they have specific times)
- At ParkInn, the shuttles wouldn’t let you get there early enough to enjoy the “rope drop” at any of the parks, which is how we were able to ride most of the rides. This might not be as big of a concern if you aren’t there at peak season, like we were.
I feel like this is one area where you have to bite the bullet. They are expensive, there’s no way around it. I will mention that the longer you stay, the cheaper it gets, which was a determining factor in this particular vacation. We wanted to do one day at Universal, but planned to buy a three-day pass at Disney, because it was cheaper than two, one-day passes. We ended up saving money by just sticking with Disney on this trip because we had the three days covered, with the cheaper pass.
Undercover tourist also has discount tickets, so check there first.
BUYER BEWARE: You should never buy Disney tickets on Ebay or from non-official Disney locations. The tickets are now tied to fingerprints and, chances are, they will not work for you when you get there. Just make the tickets a major part of your budget and skip the risk!
Also worth noting – Disney honors old tickets. We had tickets from opening day of Animal Kingdom (1998!) and they still honored them. So we actually had free tickets. However, I’ll still write the blog like we didn’t 🙂
Eating and Entertainment
When I’m on vacation, eating is half the fun. However, Disney food can add up quick. What some people don’t know is that you can BRING YOUR OWN FOOD into the parks. Yep- that’s right. Bring yourself a little picnic and you’re all set for lunch. We did this for two days and it was perfect. Because we didn’t want to stop and wait in the long lines for quick food, the sandwiches and chips let us continue on our way without much fuss. We also had water bottles that we filled up throughout the day so we didn’t spend money on drinks unless we really wanted them. For dinners, we wanted to taste the cuisine because that’s how we’re programmed. However, you would save more money if you had your reservations at fancy lunch places and brought your own dinners.
**Also, good to note- the best snack deal in the parks is the popcorn. Get a bucket on your first day and refills are $2. You aren’t going to find much of anything for that price at Disney!
For our last day we were determined to “drink around the world” at EPCOT and because we are who we are, that also meant eating around the world. This was our biggest food splurge and we did it mostly because we had the free tickets. If you’re on a budget, this is not the best thing to do as it eats up money quick. If you want to know my feelings about our drinking around the world, read THIS article.
A Little Extra Fun
As for entertainment, everything is included in your Disney pass. So, there’s not much to buy in way of entertainment IN the park. However, Bruce and I ventured to Disney Springs (previously known as Downtown Disney) to check out a virtual reality experience that I saw while researching the trip. It is hosted by a company called The Void and I cannot recommend it enough. B and I did a Star Wars themed mission and it was completely immersive. We almost got eaten by a big lava slug and I was actually sweating! If you have the extra $30/person to spend- DO IT.
Our Budget Breakdown:
AirBnB $170 (3 nights)
ParkInn by Raddison- $117 (1 night)
Parking- $75 ($25/day)
Total- $287 (4 nights)
Our’s were free, but for a three-day pass for both of us- peak season, park hopper, is $480
Picnic Stuff- $15
Our nice night out- $120 (Terralina in Disney Springs)
Park Food- $50 (misc booths, including a turkey leg, loaded fries and coffees)
EPCOT, eating and drinking at each country during the festival of holidays- $200 (another splurge, but we had to do it!)
The Void Experience- $30/per person
With tax total- $75
Total Trip, four nights at hotel, food, drinks (including alcohol) and two, three-day park hopper passes in peak season: $1302
So, is it the cheapest vacation? No. Usually our weekend trips fall around $300-500 so this one was definitely a splurge. You could always cut down by going off-season or choosing your food options better. That being said, we’d probably do it all again. Also, if you think you would come back, upgrading to a season pass (especially as a FL resident) is a no-brainer. You can put what you’ve already spent on tickets toward the purchase price so no worries if you want to check it out before you buy. If I’ve convinced you to take the plunge, make sure you check out Disney like a Passholder for our insider tips and tricks on how to get the most out of your trip.
Did we miss anything? Tell us how you do Disney on a Budget?