Between the ages of 7 and 21, I visited the happiest places on Earth — Disneyland and Disney World — a total of five times. My first four times, my mom paid for my trips/tickets. For my fifth visit, I was actually paid (in per diem) to go to Disneyworld by my college to compete in a national choir championship. Yes, I know, that’s what they call a #Humblebrag, but also, we won (unlike our football team). But enough about my short-lived, semi-pro singing career…
It wasn’t until summer 2019 when my husband and I decided to incorporate Disneyland into our post-nuptial plans, that I actually paid my own way and realized the true price tag of experiencing Disney magic. While, in retrospect, we definitely overpaid, I obviously wouldn’t trade the experience of getting to the parks before opening and leaving just before closing (a total of 14 hours) for anything. After really looking at the numbers, I realized we could’ve probably traveled to an all-inclusive tropical resort and spent the same amount — you live and you learn right?
But that doesn’t mean I won’t go back to Disneyland or Disney World again. In fact, I’m in the process of planning another trip. This time, however, I’m wiser and have done my research and will be taking a more budget-friendly approach revolving around two effective (and fun!) hacks.
Here are two ways I hacked our budget to save on our seventh trip to the happiest place on Earth.
Disney Trip Hack #1: Start a Disney Jar (and set a budget)
Similar in concept to a swear jar but probably much more effective, a Disney jar can be a scary-fast way to save up for a trip no matter how large you want to live it up.
The rules of a Disney jar are simple:
- Anytime you see something Disney-related, you put a set amount of money in a jar or transfer it to a savings account.
- Don’t take any money out of said jar or account until you’ve hit the goal amount you need to take the Disney adventure of your dreams.
If you’re skeptical, consider how much Disney really has a presence in our day-to-day lives. Aside from their wide net of media brands including anything with the name Disney along with ABC, ESPN, Marvel, Lucas Films, Fox, ABC, you can also take the brand, Apple, for example. It’s a bit tangled, to say the least, but Apple and Disney are very closely tied through their respective relationships with Pixar. To me, the lines are blurry enough that I’d say it’s fair to add at least $1 to your Disney fund each day you use your iPhone, iPad, MacBook, or other Apple products.
The amount you contribute to the jar depends on your target timeline, plans, and how much you’ll need to save. If it’s a passive idea, maybe stick to just a buck, but if you want to be more aggressive, up the ante.
Of course, to do this you need to work backward and plan by looking up prices in advance (something I recommend for taking a trip virtually anywhere). Here are a few things to look up in advance when setting your savings goal:
- Research restaurant menus ahead of time and, as most people will tell you, bring your own snacks. We even brought our own RedBulls on our last visit—game changer!
- Same goes for merchandise and experiences. You can look up these prices in advance and even order some merchandise beforehand.
- As Disney announced in 2016, their ticket prices fluctuate at each park throughout the year.
From there, set aside an allowance you’ll stick to. And if you have kids, give them an allowance too — kids are more impulsive but the last thing you want is a toddler screaming in the middle of Tune Town over a $29 pair of ears you really wish you had known about and bought online weeks ago. This can also be an additional incentive for good behavior and chore completion in the weeks leading up to a trip (that is, if the trip isn’t a big surprise).
Disney Trip Hack #2: Think outside the resort
I know I’m going to catch flack for this but in all honesty, if your idea of visiting Disney absolutely MUST involve staying at one of their resorts, you’re already failing to hack your budget. Many Disney bloggers will preach endlessly about how you can save money on resort packages that include food or other amenities, but at the end of the day, they’ve drank a little too much of the Kool-Aid. It is by far MUCH cheaper to stay in a nearby Airbnb or even another hotel. Yes, this goes for families as well.
Again, if staying at the Disney resort is a non-negotiable item on your list of must-haves, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ll also just say, from my experience staying at a Disney resort, the rooms aren’t all that nice as far as hotels go. I’m no snob when it comes to hotels but given the room rates, you’re paying much more than you need to for a sub-par room. And at the same time, if you’re doing Disney right, you won’t spend much time in your hotel room — even if you’re there on your honeymoon.
But staying somewhere other than a Disney-run property isn’t the only or even the best way to save on accommodations. In fact, why pay for a room at all?
To uplevel this strategy, consider house sitting for local residents as a way to either stay near a Disney park for free or, even better, get paid. In some cases, you may even be able to offset some of the costs of your trip—like your flights or gas getting there depending on where you’re from, or at the very least, the $15 daily cost of Max Passes (a Disneyland/California Adventure-only item) to help you avoid lines.
Along those lines, if you have friends in the areas surrounding the Disney parks you want to visit, stop reading this article and call them. Not only might they have a spare room or couch for you to sleep on — again, all you’ll be doing is sleeping in between trips to the park(s) — but, it’s well-known that Southern California and Florida residents get very deep discounts on tickets so maybe they’ll want to come with you and show you around. (They can’t, however, typically buy you tickets as most of the deals require you to actually be a resident.)
When it comes to a Disney vacation, the key to having an amazing time without going over your budget is planning ahead. From a Disney jar to staying off-site, you’ll be able to have a blast as long as you keep an eye on your bottom line.
More than anything, you’ll need to make sure that you don’t let that Disney magic carry you away to budget Neverland.
–By Melissa Hollis