My friend is planning a trip to Disney World with her two girls. The moment she told me she was thinking about the trip, I went home and dashed off an extremely long email containing all the good money saving ideas our family has developed from our own trips to both Disneyland and Disney World. She then suggested I share some of these tips on my blog, so here they are. For good measure, I've also added a healthy dose of family vacation pictures.
Let me say first that my main experience with Disney is at Disneyland. Growing up in Arizona, Anaheim was a reasonable 7 hour drive (which to a college student is "nothing" and I went more times in three years than I can remember). I've been to Disneyworld twice, and both times, spent most of my time in the Magic Kingdom because deep down, that's what Disney means to me. Finally, I've visited each park once with Hannah, when she was six months and when she was about 18 months. So I admit that I am uninitiated into the world of "Mama, I NEED to buy this!" but since I always find things that I NEED to buy, I think I can imagine the dynamics.
I also have a strong belief that, while it can be rewarding to save money on a vacation (think: if I don't blow $100 on porcelain princess figurines, we can stay at the hotel another night), I also think that vacation should include some fun spending. So each of my tips includes a section called "and because vacation isn't as fun if you're a total tightwad..."
Cheapskate Rule #1: Don't spend money on theme park food for breakfast and lunch. As far as theme parks go, the food at Disney is good, but it is expensive. Breakfast is obvious if you stay at a hotel that offer free breakfast. If not, bring your own breakfast foods from home (cereal and milk if there's a fridge; granola bars and fruit if there's not). Pack our own lunch and snacks and carry them with you. Good ideas for this is are a pb&j sandwich, chips, and an apple. You can't bring a cooler into the park, but you can bring your own food. (This is not advertised, obviously, but they won't stop you.)
Bring water bottles, which I think saves us at least as much as the food. You can fill you bottle at a drinking fountain, or if you're especially observant, find a self-serve soda fountain and ask nicely to fill your bottle with water. This is best, because you can get some ice too!
And because vacation isn't as fun if you're a total tightwad, eat out for dinner. This might be in the park, or at a nearby restaurant, but it is entirely unreasonable to expect people on vacation to live out of a mini-fridge. It's also fun to splurge on a snack each day. There are some really amazing choices for splurge-y snack foods. I recommend Mickey-shaped ice cream bars. Hannah recommends the Nemo cookies.
Cheapskate Rule #2: Don't buy clothes at the park. When you get to Disney, you immediately see that every other child - and adult - has on a really cute Disney shirt that would look so good in your family picture. You might plan to buy one shirt, but they're going to be upwards of $20, even for kids. And that will only last you one day. Buy Disney clothes before you go, or take with you any Disney clothes you already own. You can get new stuff at many, many stores. If you have bought new clothes, don't wear them until you get there so that they have that exciting feeling, and you won't be tempted to get new ones in the shops.
If you have princesses among your brood, bring all your princess costumes from home. If the daddy in your family hasn't been to Disney (or hasn't been in years), this is going to sound really crazy to him, but trust me. It is entirely reasonable for little girls to wear their best princess dress around the park all day. The other little girls will be wearing their princess dresses. Do you really want to be the Daddy shelling out $50 for a princess dress at the Bibbity Bobbity Botique? (Bring your tiara too, but leave the plastic high heels at home. The amount of walking you will do requires tennis shoes.)
There are also infinite possibilities about making your own crafty Disney outfits. Check out some other folk's craft sites or etsy shops: the possibilities are infinite. The last time we went, Hannah was decked out in her last year's Halloween costume.
And because vacation isn't as fun if you're a total tightwad, buy some Mouse Ears. To me, this is a non-negotiable expense. However, I do believe in bringing your ears with you each time you visit. Hannah has her own pink pair, I have some Minnie Mouse Ears I bought when I was about 16, and Jonathan wears a set he won during the Year of a Million Dreams.
Cheapskate Rule #3: Beware the gift shops. The first time I conned...uh...convinced Jonathan to go to Disneyland with me, my excitement was so contagious, that upon exiting our car in the parking lot, he shouted out "Let's go buy something!" (For those of you who know Jonathan, this is totally true, I swear. I still can't figure out what got into him, but can only guess that Disney sprays their entire property with odorless consumerism-inducing hormones.) You will feel this way too. So get ready before you go.
For kids, I have heard (but have not tested) a very smart theory: buy things at home, hide them in your suitcase, and distribute some of them each day. I heard a story of a mom who snuck back into the hotel room after the kids left for the day, set out the pre-purchased items, and upon return, said, "Look what Mickey left for you while we were out!" She easily herded the kids out of gift shops by reminded them that there would be a surprise from Mickey waiting for them that evening. In our family, this kind of surprise would probably be a stuffed animal from the local thrift store, where they are 4 for $1. We picked up an entire set of Winnie the Pooh characters for $1.50.
And because vacation isn't as fun if you're a total tightwad, budget some spending money for each person. (Then get ready to stick to it, because every ride exits into a gift shop, and that's not counting the cool big shops, and speciality shops, and street venders...) Jonathan likes to buy T-shirts. I like to buy Mickey Mouse cooking gadgets because the T-shirts don't fit me, so I plan to eat more when I get home. Hannah, as mentioned above, likes stuffed animals. You will find things you want. Remember the consumerism hormones? They're real.
Cheapskate Rule #4: Let the professional photographer take your picture...with your camera. Disney has this wonderful thing called PhotoPass, which includes photographers placed strategically at every place you'd like to have your picture taken. Like in front of the castle, by the lovely flowers, and the place where you stand in a hours-long line just for the purpose of having your picture made with Mickey Mouse.
They will take your picture with their camera, link it to a numerical ID, and at the end of your trip, you can buy a CD of all the pictures. Depending on the amount of pictures you take and how into scrap booking you are, this might actually be a good thing to buy. Otherwise, these PhotoPass people are more than happy to take a picture or two of your whole family with YOUR camera - absolutely free. It's worth asking. They won't cut off any one's head, because they really are good photographers. And you won't look back at your pictures and say, "I sure wish I had been in some of these, but I was the one always holding the camera."
And because vacation isn't as fun if you're a total tightwad, spurge on a single print of your family in front of the castle at night. Even though the PhotoPass people will take this shot with your camera, it won't come out because you don't have a tripod, and they won't put your camera on theirs.
I tried to take a picture of the castle by myself by balancing the camera on a trash can to stablize it. The reflection you see is the top of the trash can.
In the end, a trip to a Disney park is going to cost you money, but there are a few things you can do to save here and there, and like I said before, if you're careful about being frugal in the right places, you might even save enough to stay an extra day. And what could be better than having a longer magical experience?