This year our family is headed to Orlando for summer vacation. While I’m looking forward to what I hope will be the trip of a lifetime, part of me is cringing. I consider theme parks big money pits and Walt Disney World (WDW), as lovely as it is, is the granddaddy of them all. Parents everywhere think their children will somehow be shortchanged if they don’t visit this crown jewel of amusement parks. Really?
That said, both my children love Harry Potter and desperately want to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando. I’m kind of excited, too. So since we’ll be in Orlando, Walt Disney World (WDW) is on our list. I have happy memories of visiting the Magic Kingdom as a kid and want my children to see it, too. I just don’t want to go into debt to do it.
Start surfing now
The Internet is filled with sites about planning a budget-friendly trip. But keep in mind — it’s not going to be cheap. A three-day pass for a family of four will run you better than $1,000. The more days you spend at theme parks, of course, the lower the daily ticket price, but balance that against your higher lodging and food costs. AAA (aaa.com) offers ticket discounts to members for certain ticket packages, as does Undercover Tourist (undercovertourist.com).
Start planning early, as there’s lots of information to sift through. Don’t assume your only option is an all-inclusive vacation where you stay on site and buy a meal package. You will likely end up paying top dollar if you do.
Great planning tools
The best overall bargain-savvy planning site I’ve found is MouseSavers (mousesavers.com). The site has so many details, you’ll find just about everything you need to know to save money.
Another super in-depth guide to WDW (along with other nearby attractions) is The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids 2012. Subscribe to its corresponding website (touringplans.com) and you’ll receive a 20 percent discount. The site’s best feature is up-to-the-minute crowd calendars that tell you which areas at Disney are most crowded and how long you’ll wait for rides.
WDW and Universal Studio also have web pages that offer money-saving packages (disneyworld.disney.go.com/special-offers and universalorlando.com/Vacation-Packages/bf/Featured-Vacation-Packages.aspx).
Where to stay
Orlando offers plenty of places to stay, just choose wisely, because your lodging will greatly impact your budget. If your schedule allows, plan to visit off-season, when accommodations are less. The high season includes spring break, summer, and Christmas holidays.
WDW and Universal offer a variety of on-property lodging and all have benefits. Disney has the most options, ranging from budget motel rooms to expensive deluxe accommodations. Sleeping and eating off-site will save you money, but weigh that against missing some of the conveniences of staying at theme park properties.
Drive or fly?
According to MapQuest, Disney World is a 13-hour, 800-mile drive from Memphis, which comes to about $280 round-trip for a car that gets 20 miles per gallon. Even if you add lodging and meals, you’ll still pay $500 to $600 to drive. Compare that to a round-trip ticket (in January) from Memphis to Orlando at $400 (airfarewatchdog.com).
If all this information has your head spinning, consider working with a certified Disney vacation planner. These travel agents can help you plan a vacation that suits your taste and budget. Small World Vacations (smallworldvacations.com) is among the best known.
Finally, beware of websites offering super low prices on tickets and lodging. They are most likely a scam. Get planning so you’ll enjoy your theme-park vacation.