Saturday, December 10, 2005

How to Save Money at the Mouse House

I bought yet another book about Walt Disney World, this one promising to save money. Rather than reading that book tonight, I thought I'd post my own thoughts.

These suggestions are based on our last two trips to WDW. Plus, we're already in the planning stages for another trip, planned for 2006. We have to talk about that one because in order to save money, we bought annual passes for Rick and myself. We knew we'd be spending four days in October 2005 (we did and had a wonderful time - read my blog about WDW in the eye of the hurricane), plus another 10 days in May 2006. With all of those days, we knew we'd save money on an annual pass if timed correctly.

Disney World takes planning. With Disneyland, you walk right in, and you can always eat at Denny's across the street if you want to save money. WDW, however, is in the middle of hundreds of acres of land and water; driving outside the park takes time and effort. We only get in the car to change parks, or to leave at the end of the day. So, knowing that planning is all-important when visiting Disney World, here are my suggestions.

1. Do all the research you can. Decide which parks you're going to go to when, and write it down and post it in your resort room or suite. How does this save money? Don't buy a premium pass that includes the water parks, for instance, if you're not going to go there. We decided to just get the regular park hopper during our initial visit in 2004 -- we could visit all four parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and MGM), go to any of them we wished at any time -- rather than the Premium Pass, a pass which includes visits to water parks, Disney Quest (that unique five-story building with nothing but games in it), and other extras in Downtown Disney. And buy a pass for the exact number of days you'll be there -- try to plan your trip with these number possibilities in mind, so you won't waste money on days you can't go.

If you do decide to visit something you had originally scratched off your list, pay for it separately. For instance, we went to Disney Quest for half a day -- it was raining and seemed a great thing to do for the teenager in our group, and it turned out to be a memorable experience. However, I'm sure we're not going back. Neither Rick nor I found that much about it to warrant a repeat visit.

And knowing where we wanted to END the day allowed us to park our car at the appropriate spot. Knowing, also, that you have to drive to Animal Kingdom and MGM (you can't take the monorail or ride a boat) meant that we had to plan our day more carefully when we were visiting those parks. But if we were going to visit Epcot every day because we were attending the Food and Wine Festival, as we did in October 2005, we could leave our car there, take the monorail after lunch to the Magic Kingdom, then ride the monorail back to the Epcot parking lot at the end of our long day.

It helps to have a Disney-phile among you. Ours is Rick. He reads everything about the parks (WDW and the original Disneyland) all the time, whether or not we plan to visit soon. He knows which rides are working when, which events are planned, etc. Our next visit will coincide, but not coincidentally, with a Star Wars weekend. Our last visit occurred during the Food and Wine Festival. Our 2005 Disneyland visit took place during the special 50th Anniversary.

Also, appoint someone to read the map and point the way for the driver. I drove around and around the freeways of Orlando until we could figure our way. Oh, by the way, if you buy the annual pass, you don't pay for parking -- figure that into your savings if you're there for enough days during the year to make it worth the purchase.

2. They say the best way to see Disney World is to stay in the park, that is, book a hotel that's part of the Disney system. But if you're on a budget, forget that. If you book "on property," as they call it, you pay a premium for hotels -- the upside here is that you can use their transportation system but the downside is you have to use their transportation system. It's slow and crowded during peak times. But you don't have to rent a car. BUT....if you can use a timeshare condo property that's within 10 miles of WDW, you save the most expensive part of the trip, the hotel stay, AND you can eat one or more meals in the condo because it has that all-important kitchen and refrigerator.

You don't have a timeshare? Find a friend who has one. I'm willing to bet that half of all timeshare owners have access to something in or around Orlando. Walt Disney World is the most sought-after vacation spot in the nation! Sure, it'll cost your friend some points, but I'm sure you can make it up to them somehow. Be sure to volunteer to pay the housekeeping fee, or any other administrative fee required.

3. Find a way to eat cheaply without giving up the Disney experience. During our 2004 stay with Brandon, my 15-year-old great nephew, we all ate cereal every morning. I figure that, over a 9-day stay, we saved about $200 right there. Plus, we had snacks late at night when we returned. We shopped at Publix, a large but cheap chain on International Drive on the day we flew in, took all the groceries back to the resort, and then headed out the next morning after eating a substantial breakfast. Eating well in the morning really cuts down on the hunger when you get to the parks. And buy a six-pack of water and take one with you every day.

Just so you know -- I love eating in the Disney restaurants. I think it's part of being there, experiencing Disney, even if it means going over the three-figure mark during dinner. But eating one full meal before you even go through the turnstiles is a great way to save money for the meals that are really important to the experience.

One closely-kept Disney secret: there's a special phone number to call to get the Dining Experience card that will give you 20% off specific Disney eating establishments, not all of them, but enough of them to make it really worth your while if you eat inside the park. The card is $50 for annual passholders and $75 for everyone else. Since it applies to many of the restaurants we eat at in the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and MGM, it's a fabulous deal for us. Allow 4 weeks for delivery, yada yada yada.

4. If you have kids along, give them a budget or allowance. I allotted Brandon $15 a day. I gave it to him every morning while he ate breakfast. Yeah, that cost me $15 x 7 days, but I figure if I'd been available for all of his requests for this or that, all day long, I'd have to file bankruptcy. This way, he could buy whatever he wanted and not ask me about it. I paid for his meals, as long as he was around me during meal times (he made sure he was).

5. Shop for cheap airfares during the year. Southwest doesn't have any schedules available until 3 months before, but the other airlines have up to 6 months. Use orbitz or travelocity to book, which compares fares and schedules so you can get exactly what you want. And sign up for their fare-searcher -- it alerts you when a lower fare comes up. You can usually find cheaper fares 'way before you go, or close to when you want to leave. It's hard to predict.

You should also book your rental car this way -- and you will need a car if you're not staying on property; just be sure to get a rental company that has a booth at the airport, not outside the airport. You can get some great deals on Florida rental cars.

6. Here's something you probably never thought of -- use American Express to pay for everything in the WDW parks. Disney loves American Express. If you get a cash-back card, you can charge all the meals you eat in the parks and yet get 2 or 3% back at the end of the year.

7. Sign up at and other cost-saving Disney World sites. Mouseforless, let me warn you, has about 100 messages a day! So sign up for their daily digest. You get one long message that way, but you can sift through these to find the cost-saving measures that people come up with. For instance, I learned to buy $2.50 plastic rain ponchos at Wal-Mart before I went; they came flat in plastic and packed very nicely in my suitcase. They saved us a lot, and we used them almost every day, as it rains a lot even in the summer in Florida. Mouseforless folks are Disneyphiles. They live to go. Take advantage of their knowledge. Another example: they talked about a Coke you can buy at the resorts -- it's a huge thing, but you can fill it up all day long for no extra cost, as long as you're staying at one of the Disney properties.

8. Get a meal certificate if you can, but be careful. I obtained one on eBay. The cert allows you to eat as much as you can -- it's an all-you-can eat allowance. It tells you which restaurants you can use it with, and I picked the restaurant at the entrance of Animal Kingdom, the Rainforest Cafe. It has a fantastic menu with fantastic prices, and I knew that if we pigged out, we could save money. My nephew Rick isn't a pig so I couldn't count on him, but I had a ready-to-eat teenager with us. Brandon and I plowed through the appetizers, the entrees, and split the massive Volcano at the end! Awesome! And we probably saved at least $20 even though I overspent a bit on the certificate.

9. Make reservations (they used to call them "priority seatings" but now I think they're back to reservations) at the Disney restaurants you want. If you don't, you'll be standing in front of the Liberty Bell Tavern for an hour or two with no other options for dinner except hamburgers. It's a waste of time, time you could be tearing down the freeway at 5 mph on the Autopia. Be sure to show up 15 minutes before your reservation with your entire party so that everything goes according to plan. By the way, the Liberty Bell Tavern is a character-meeting restaurant, even at dinner. You get a very American meal -- lots of turkey, ham and roast beef with potatoes and veggies -- as well as a kiss on top of the head by Minnie Mouse, the owner of the establishment. Well, that is, if she likes you. Watch out for Pluto, though. That tongue is looooong....

In May 2006 we're going for 10 days (9 actually in the parks). Rick and I are going again, hopefully with Rick's friend Joel. I know that Rick and Joel won't worry about the money. That's my responsibility. But I've now got it down to a science without living like a Scrooge.

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