How To Plan A Disney World Vacation on a Budget

Walt Disney World is huge.  It contains within it, four theme parks, two water parks an impressive list of resorts, a shopping district and a sports compound.  You can stay for weeks and not do everything, but the pressure is still there to get as much in as possible and get the most out of your vacation.

My goal is to help you do this that, by making the best use of your time and money to have an amazing time.  First off, you may think this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.  I’ve been to WDW with my wife three times since 2010 and probably a fourth befor the decade is over.  Our first trip was 10 days.  our second trip was five days and our third trip was 7 Days.  You can easily spend 2 weeks and it’s possible to enjoy the property over a weekend getaway.  How much time you have is not nearly as important as how you use your time.  This comes into play most when you are working out travel and lodging.  I’ll help you decide where to stay in order to maximize your experience as well as how to plan and not plan your trip so you can optimize your fun.

  1. LODGING

There are four basic lodging options to choose from.  Any of them can be the right choice for you.  Budget, location, and travel time to parks and other locations will be a factor in your decision along with overall theming.  Your options are deluxe, moderate, value, or off property.  There are some nice hotels off property walking distance to Walt Disney World and they will provide a shuttle service.  Our first trip was long, but we went super cheap on the hotel which was about a ten minute walk from Disney Springs (Walt Disney World’s shopping and entertainment district).  Spending less on a room and having another day or two can be a good strategy.

Aside from those ranges in price, theming and luxury (the value resorts tend to not have as much immersive theming as the moderate and deluxe resorts), the on property resorts are broken down according to the Park they are closest to.  Animal Kingdom Lodge provides a stunning view of the creatures in Animal Kingdom Park, as well as some of the best dining on property, but it and most of the value resorts are much more of a distance from everything else on property.  Animal Kingdom Park is huge and a lot of fun.  you could spend multiple days there if you wanted to, but it can also be done to reasonable satisfaction in half a day.

In my opinion you are best off choosing either the Epcot or Magic Kingdom resort areas as those are the parks that generally require more time.  Walt Disney World fans usually break down into two groups, Epcot fans and Magic Kingdom Fans.  I’ve stayed at Deluxe resorts in both resort areas and I found the experience close to Epcot to be more satisfying.  There is also a Disney Springs resort area where the moderate Port Orleans Riverside and Port Orleans French Quarter are tucked away in beautiful scenery, just a ferryboat away from the shopping and dining.

The Epcot and Magic Kingdom resort areas are the only ones with monorail access.  Some of the Magic Kingdom resorts like Fort Wilderness and Wilderness Lodge will still require you to travel by bus or ferry to connect, but the monorail is a nice advantage to have.  Other free transportation on property includes buses and water taxis.  You can also take cabs, or Disney’s Minnie Van service for a fee.

Your choice of resort hotel is so important to your overall plan, I give an even more thorough breakdown of things to consider here:

 

 

 

PARK HOPPING

When you buy tickets you will be faced with the decision of paying more for park hopper passes.  A Park Hopper pass allows you to access multiple parks for the day.  If you do not have a Park Hopper, whatever park you use your ticket on will be the only park you can access with your ticket.  Usually, you will want to spend the whole day at the one park anyway, particularly with the parks spread apart as they are.  However, Magic Kingdom is only two short monorail rides away from Epcot.  Hollywood Studios is accessible from Epcot via water taxi.  It’s conceivable that you will want to split your days up.

The shorter your stay, the more you should benefit from Park Hopper passes.  When Sara and I stayed for 5 days (including travel) we checked in at the Yacht Club resort in the Epcot resort ares after a red eye flight and immediately went down to the dock to be water taxied over to Hollywood Studios Park.  That was a bold, some would say crazy move.  This was before we had kids and it worked pretty well at the time.  Hollywood Studios can be done pretty easily in half a day.  longer if you are doing a lot of shows and meals.  Since we were walking distance from Epcot, we knew we could head over on any morning to grab breakfast at Les Halles in the France pavilion.

Animal Kingdom despite its size can also be satisfactorily visited in only about 6 hours.  That’s not to say you can’t spend a whole day there, or shouldn’t–  it is a gorgeous park with lots to offer– But if you have experience this park before, you will have a better idea of how long you would like to spend in it versus other parks.

Epcot for me requires a minimum of two days. Three is better and even that is still not enough.  Park Hoppers are great when you have one park you would like to experience more days, but you still want to be sure to visit all the parks.  If you have a lot of stamina, you can also leverage extended hours by starting at a park that opens early and ending in a park that closes late.

Magic Kingdom is the park most people think about when they think of Walt Disney World.  It is the one that resembles Disneyland, with some key differences.  They have a very different Tomorrowland and a much more expansive Frontierland and Adventureland.  The towering Cinderella’s Castle is visible from well outside the park.  Instead of New Orleans Square, the Magic Kingdom is home to Liberty Square, a tribute to the early days of America’s independence, which transitions ever so nicely into the vast wilderness of Frontierland.  Magic Kingdom is not a rehash of Disneyland.  The rides that can be found in both parks are different in each.  In addition, Magic Kingdom is still home to original Walt Disney attractions long missing from Disneyland, such as The Carousel of Progress and The Country Bear Jamboree.

MEAL PLANNING

Meal reservations are so important to get in advance while planning your Walt Disney World vacation.  You will need to start booking about 6 months before your trip.  You ought to have at least a loose idea of where you will be each day.  Extended park hours may be one factor, but restaurant’s may be another.  It’s possible the park you visit will be determined in part by available reservations for a place you would like to dine.  There are some fabulous dining options in the Epcot, and at some of the resorts.  Disney Springs has a new variety of great food from renowned chefs like Masaharu Morimoto and Art Smith.

Food in Walt Disney World is known for being pricey.  However, I have noticed that the very fancy restaurants tend to be priced more in line with similar experiences in other parts of the country.  In other words the fancier the culinary experience the more negligible the theme park premium.  So, an expensive dinner at a really good restaurant is arguable a better value.   However, counter service in many cases have the same type of food you pay more for at a dine in restaurant.  The added benefits of counter service are no gratuity needed, faster dining experience, and no reservations required.  Many counter service locations also offer mobil ordering through the My Disney Experience app for even more convenience.

It’s a best practice to have a mix of table service and counter service in your plans, but it mostly is determined by budget and how you plan to enjoy the parks.  If you go to Epcot during any one of it’s festivals, you can plan on visiting the seasonal food kiosks.  There are a lot and the price range can be $5-$20 depending on what you purchase, Be sure to budget for this if it is in your plans.

There are always new food options and old standbys that get lots of love and attention on www.youtube.com.  It’s a great resource for getting updated and staying in the know on food and dining options at Disney World.  Know how much you will want to eat each day during the trip and come up with a realistic budget to work with.  The earlier you allot money to your food budget, the you will have a better idea how much your vacation will cost you overall.

PARK PLANNING

Youtube is an amazing resource when it comes to planning your Disney vacation because their are so many blogs dedicated to staying up to date on the parks and resorts.  many of them show plenty of in park footage that gives a really good idea of what to expect when you finally set foot on property.  In park coverage that you can find on youtube is a great form of recon.  Disney’s own marketing materials, while exciting, often make various park experiences difficult to distinguish from one another.  The more real information you can obtain about what goes on in each distinct park, the better you can strategize about how you want to divide your time.

Ideally I would plan at least one full day at each park.  Some people say they can do Magic Kingdom in half a day.  I agree that it’s possible, but I always stay for at least one full day there.  By the way, a “full day” to me does not mean open til close.  When I say a full day I usually mean about 9-10 hours.  You can get really worn out, really fast if you are not careful.  It depends on a lot of factors, but mostly when you are ready to leave, leave.  Don’t tire yourself out all in one day and diminish the fun of the experience.  This is where park hopper tickets are nice, because they afford you the freedom to go back and experience the rest of something you may have missed without giving up a whole extra day.

RESORT HOPPING AND SHOPPING

If you are on a tighter budget you may be squeezing your vacation into a tight 4 or five days.  That’s okay.  The key is to just have fun, know what you want to do and be able to go with the flow.  You obviously can’t cram it all in, but you can still have a great time visiting the four major parks in just a few days.  The best thing about having a longer trip is you have the option of some much needed rest.  Anything longer than a five day trip and I highly suggest a day away from the parks,  Bum around the hotel and see what unique experiences your resort has to offer, or hop on over to other resorts, for a little sampling oth other themes and venues.  resort hopping can be a lot of fun and it’s totally free.  You can take the monorail loop between the Contemporary,Polynesian and Grand Floridian to try the bars and lounges; Or you can stroll around Crescent Lake and visit the Boardwalk and Yacht and Beach Clubs.  Take some time away from Disney Springs to check out the fishing hole or the boat rentals in Port Orleans.

It’s a great idea to see find out what entertainment and unique offerings each of the resorts has so that you can experience more even when you are taking it easy.  And don’t forget to give yourself plenty of time to visit Disney Springs, for food, shopping and entertainment.

THINGS TO AVOID ONCE YOU ARE THERE

One thing you must always keep in mind is that you are on vacation.  Stress has no place here.  I know it’s easier said than done, but by the time I’ve gotten off the plane, shuttled to my hotel, checked in and taken my bags to the room I want to be completely-relaxed until check out.  WDW makes things even easier on you with Disney’s Magical Express and.  They handle all your checked luggage for you so it goes straight from the airport to your room.  It’s easy to have that running checklist in your head and it’s good that you have a plan, but you will be tempted to stick to your own schedule at the expense of your fun.  You should avoid being to scheduled at all costs, and allow yourself the freedom to make on the fly decisions.  It’s equally important that you don’t leave too much to chance as you will likely be overwhelmed and have little to show for it.

Try planning your trip with a basic framework that you can work inside of.  meal times with dining reservations serve as a good anchor to structure other activities around.  So do fastpasses you’ve selected, although it is a good Idea to have some picture in mind how you plan to spend your days before selecting fastpasses.  Study the park maps.  They are very easy to navigate.  Most have a hub and spoke model that make for an efficient day where you can get a lot done provided you avoid zipping around with no planned route.  You should also be aware of parade times even if you don’t want to see the parade, and know where the route is so you can plan where to be (or where not to be) at that time.

If you have not driven to Walt Disney World, you can rent a car.  It has been suggested by some that it is preferable, because you are more in control of your time.  I prefer not to drive while on vacation and I don’t think the time saved is worth the money spent and the additional responsibility of knowing where to go and navigating through traffic.

When you are deciding where to eat you should get as much information as you can from dining reviews, but a good rule of thumb to save yourself some money and not be underwhelmed or disappointed is to try something other than Chinese or Italian food, unless a very highly rated restaurant turns up on your radar.  The Disney Dining Plan is usually not worth it.  You have to eat a lot in order to get the value.  Sometimes you can get a deal, but always take the time to calculate a packaged plan against your own daily meal plan and budget.