Budget Disney World Lodging: Accommodations

by Sue Kulick, PassPorter Featured Columnist
Last modified 3/5/2011

Photo illustrating Walt Disney World - Planning

You've seen the commercials on TV, "Disney for $1600 dollars? Yeah, we can do that!" followed by the thundering hooves of six white ponies and a glass coach.

The marketing behind that commercial is great, but most budgets really don't include the $2700 for the coach and the ponies! While a Disney vacation will never be "cheap" there are definitely ways to do it on a budget and have a fantastic time. Over the course of this four-part series we are going to talk about seasons, transportation, lodging, park tickets, dining, and souvenirs.

All-Star Music - Rock Inn photo
All-Star Music - Rock Inn

Rock Inn at the All-Star Music Resort.

The first, and perhaps the most important, decision to make is when you are planning to go. The Walt Disney World Resort divides the calendar into "seasons" and there is a difference in lodging and dining prices during those seasons. There is also a difference in crowd levels, and that can make a difference in your budget, too! For 2011, the Walt Disney World seasons are divided like this:

  • Value season: 1/2-2/16, 8/14-9/29 (for Value and Moderate resorts), 7/17-9/29 (for Deluxe resorts)
  • Regular season: 2/27-3/10, 5/1-6/2, 7/4-16 (deluxes), 5/1-8/6 (campsites), 9/30-10/22 (deluxes).
  • Summer season: 6/3-8/13
  • Fall season: 10/23-12/22
  • Peak season: 2/17-26 and 3/11-4/30
  • Holiday season: 12/16-12/31

Prices for lodging and even some dining increases with the seasons. (More on that later!) The least expensive time to visit is during Value Season. For those traveling with younger children, the decision on whether to take the children out of school needs to be made. Summertime, spring break and Christmas break are the highest seasons, since that is a common time for families to travel. For the sake of this article, we have chosen August 16-24th for our budget vacation. Our family of four includes Mom, Dad, and two children, ages 5 and 9.

If you make the decision to go during Value Season, you might end up getting better mileage from your vacation dollar. Lines are shorter, restaurants less crowded, transportation easier to navigate. So how does this help your budget? Well, here's how NOT to do it.

One year, my husband and I took my stepson and nephew during spring break. We were resort guests, and we took the monorail to the Magic Kingdom. The driver told us that the park had been closed to all but resort guests by this time, about 4:00 pm. The maximum capacity was 50,000, and the park was already up to 60,000! Due to the crowds, we needed to pick which attractions we really wanted to see. We rode Haunted Mansion, Alien Encounter, and the Tomorrowland Transportation Authority. All FASTPASSes were already gone for the day. We had dining reservations at Tony's Town Square, for which we waited almost an hour to be seated. After dinner, we did Space Mountain and Carousel of Progress. By that time, it was after 10:00 pm, and we were all exhausted, so we headed back to the resort.

Was this the best use of our vacation dollar? Absolutely not. We paid the same price for park tickets that we would have had we gone in September when there are no lines. The boys were disappointed to miss such favorites as Jungle Cruise, Splash Mountain, and Pirates of the Caribbean. It made the price paid for the tickets seem a bit over-the-top to Mom and Dad. So traveling in off-season will help you get more bang for your vacation buck!

So now that you have decided when to travel (during Value Season if at all possible), it's time to decide where to stay. You have two choices; on-property and off-property. There are pros and cons to each, and the difference in the costs can be a deciding factor. Let's look at off-property accommodations first.

Orlando offers a plethora of vacation accommodation choices. Accommodations are available at well-known chain hotels for as little as $69/night depending on the time of year. Or, you can stay at a hotel that offers suites, which often include a fridge and microwave. One such chain is located three miles from the main gate of WDW, and for $127/night, you get a kitchenette, as well as access to a free hot breakfast every day. This can be a big savings! There are also many vacation homes available for rent by the night or the week. These often include a full kitchen and a bedroom suite, and can be found for as low as $79/night! If you are staying off-property, be sure to find out what type of shuttle service your hotel offers. If your hotel does not offer shuttle service, or you want to go other places than Walt Disney World, you will need to figure transportation into your budget. And if you do rent a car, as a day guest, parking at WDW will cost you $14/day.

Now let's look at on-property resorts.

Tip: Monthly Payment Plan to the World
We go to Walt Disney World every August. We love staying on site which tends to be pricey because we love the Polynesian Resort. In order to pay off our trip easier, I book a year in advance and then divide the payment into 11 payments. Each month (right after my credit card due date changes), I make a payment on my trip. By the 11th month, our trip is paid off and I don't feel the pain of the full payment!! - tip contributed by Christina
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related tip Save This Tip

On-property will usually cost you more per night. A Value Resort will cost you an average of $82/night for a standard room. There are no in-room cooking facilities, and no free hot breakfasts! You may not get as much room for your money, but there are perks that come with staying on site. First, you can utilize Disney's free airport transportation service, Disney's Magical Express, to get from the airport to your hotel room (more on that under transportation). Second, you will have access to all Walt Disney World on-site transportation systems: monorail, bus, and boat. Third, you will not have to pay the $14 day parking charge, even if you have a car with you and drive to the parks. This amount can really add up. For our 8 day vacation, that's $112 in your pocket! On-property guests can also take advantage of Extra Magic Hours, which can add up to four hours to your daily time in the theme parks. And of course, there is the famous Disney service and theming. If you are looking for a vacation home with cooking facilities, Disney Vacation Club Villas are available for nightly stays, but a studio starts at $305/night, not exactly a bargain. There are ways to maximize your dining dollar even without cooking facilities, but we'll get to that under dining!

The choice of on- or off-property is a very personal and budget-conscious one. You must take into account the cost, the transportation, the dining, and what is important to you when you vacation. If you like the idea of being immersed in the Disney magic, having the ability to head back to your resort at any time for some down time, and not having to worry about your own transportation, then an on-property resort might be for you. If you don't spend a lot of time at your resort, want to see attractions other that Disney, and love the idea of a free breakfast, staying at an off-property resort might be just the ticket for you!

Read Part 2: Getting To and From Walt Disney World On A Budget!

About the Author:
Sue Kulick is a resident of the Pocono Mountains and an avid Disney fan. She and her husband, Steve, live in a log home with their Golden Retrievers, Cody and Belle and their cat Tigger.

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Reader Comments:

Today we are going to look at transportation options.

So far in our hypothetical vacation, our family of four has decided to go to Walt Disney World from August 16 to August 24. Our family includes Mom, Dad, and two children, ages 9 and 5. And again, we are going to look at all aspects of transportation, from the trip there and back, to the differences in staying on and off property.

Once you have your dates and your resort confirmed, it's time to figure out how you are going to travel. Fly? Drive? First, let's talk about driving. Are you within a one day drive of Walt Disney World? If not, are you a commando style driver, driving straight through? Can you share the driving with anyone else in the car? Is your car in good enough shape to make the trip? Will you be able to put up with your children/spouse throughout a long car trip? And what about cost?

We are going to base our family of four in Philadelphia, approximately 16-17 hours of drive time straight through. The first consideration in cost is the condition of your car. Before beginning any long road trip, you want to have the oil changed, the fluids checked, the tires rotated, and the brakes checked. Sitting on the side of I-95 with a leaking radiator is no way to start your vacation. A little preventative maintenance goes a long way. You also will want to clean your car, inside and out. It's no fun being stuck in a dirty car for 17 hours. Next consideration, of course, is gas. At today's prices, fuel is a huge part of your cost. At $3.25 or so a gallon, and averaging 25 miles to the gallon, you are looking at about $50 every 375 miles or so. For our Philadelphia to Orlando trip, that means about $150 in gas. And, factor in the ride home, so you are looking at around $300 in fuel to get there and back. If you don't drive through, you will need a place to spend the night. Most Interstates have a variety of chain hotels along the way, and if you are planning to stop, make a reservation in advance. Add about $75 to the trip for this one way, and another $75 for the way back. And of course, there is food for the road. We generally pack a cooler with water, fruit and snacks, and you could add sandwiches and yogurts to this. Just make sure you have plenty of ice, and if you do stop, refill your cooler with ice from the hotel. If you are planning on stopping for meals, factor that in to your budget, about $6/person for fast food, about $10/person for a sit down meal plus tip.

The down side of driving is that you take a full day away from each side of your vacation. Our family would need to leave Friday night to arrive on Saturday, and the drivers would be pretty tired on that first day. And you would need to either leave a day early from Walt Disney World, or come back on Monday. The plus side to driving is that you will have your car, and you are free to go where you please! If our family stays off property, they have instant transportation to and from Walt Disney World, and to any other attractions they want to see. If our family stays on property, they can use their car to leave Disney property, which opens up many more dining options. They will also have free theme park parking as an on-site resort guest. Whether on or off property, our family can stop for groceries at a local Orlando grocery store and look to save even more money! Now let's talk about flying. Ticket prices are also feeling the pinch of rising fuel costs, and cheap tickets are getting harder to find. However, our Philadelphia-based family still has several options. There are several relatively inexpensive carriers out there, including JetBlue, AirTran, Southwest and Allegiant Air. You need to decide how much you are willing to spend on airfare, and be flexible! Many times, a flight with a layover will be a little less expensive, if you are willing to go to Orlando, via, say, Cleveland. There are also direct flights that are relatively inexpensive, but many of them take off very early in the morning or very late at night. The best thing to do is to fare-watch. This usually involves checking for good fares every day, and grabbing them when you see them. At 5 and 9, our children may be eligible for a child's discount. For an example, AirTran's current fares are $83 one way down and $128 back for our time chosen. That's $1012 for our family to fly. Makes driving look a little better, doesn't it? J If you see a cheap fare, be careful of what it entails. Some carriers charge a per-bag fee, some charge extra to choose your seat, some don't let you choose your seat at all, and some have very strict cancellation policies.

If you are flying, you need to make a decision about getting to your resort. Orlando has two airports, Orlando International Airport (MCO) and Sanford Airport. If you fly into MCO, you can take advantage of Disney's Magical Express (DME). DME does not operate out of Sanford. DME is Disney's free bus shuttle to and from the airport. You can sign up for this if you are staying at a Disney-owned resort. Your luggage is taken care of, and you board the DME bus and get ferried to your resort. Your luggage arrives sometime after you do. This is a nice perk, available only to resort guests. But keep in mind that using DME does not allow you a grocery stop. You can also use a transportation service such as a town car company, which will take you to an off-property hotel for about $112 round trip.

If you decide to rent a car, you first must look at what type of car you need, and what specials are out there. Our family can rent a mini-van from a reputable car company for about $200 for the week. Remember that the cost does not include fuel, and make sure your auto insurance carrier will cover you in a rental car. Even on-property, a car can be a valuable asset, and you will be able to stop for groceries.

There are many decisions to be made when considering your transportation options. You need to look at how you travel, and what you will be comfortable with. Once you figure out how you want to travel, you are ready for the next step!

     PassPorter News on May 1, 2008 @ 12:12 pm
So, our family of four has decided when to go to Walt Disney World, has chosen their resort, and has decided how they are going to get there. Next on the expense list, park tickets and dining!

Unlike lodging, park tickets do not have seasons. They are the same price on the busiest day of the year as they are on the slowest, rainiest day. There are not many discounts available on tickets, but there are a few things you can do to minimize your costs.

The first decision you make needs to be how many days you will spend in the parks. Do you want to go every day, or do you plan to spend some days at other Orlando area attractions? Do you want to park-hop (see more than one park in one day) or are you content with one park per day? Once these decisions have been made, you can purchase your tickets.

Tickets can be purchased at the park, or in advance online from Disney, various ticket vendors, or from your local AAA office. Most vendors give a slight discount.

So, our family has decided to do 6 park days and they decide not to park hop. The base rate for an adult ticket for 6 days is $231. A children's ticket for 6 days is $192. This gives each member of the family entry to one park per day. So our family would be looking at $846 in ticket media. Deb Wills' site, AllEars.Net, has wonderful information and explains all the differences in tickets and prices.

Disney also offers packages, like the one advertised in the Cinderella Coach commercial we mentioned in the first installment of our money-saving article series. You can book a Magic Your Way package and have your tickets included in the price. You can also get the Disney Dining Plan as an option. Our family has opted to stay at Pop Century (on-property Value resort) and go for the Magic Your Way plan with 6-day Base Tickets. There is not much difference between booking a package and booking separately, other than the convenience of doing it all at one time. And if your tickets are purchased through a ticket vendor, you may actually save a bit over the package.

Not doing a park every day still leaves you plenty of time to enjoy the magic! Our family is going to spend some time resort-hopping. They are going to ride the monorails and the boats, explore the trail that goes from Wilderness Lodge to Fort Wilderness, and visit the stables at Fort Wilderness. They are going to enjoy their resort pool, and will visit Disney's BoardWalk to enjoy the entertainment. Then they'll go to Downtown Disney to let the kids explore the Lego store and take in a matinee at the AMC movie theater. And since this is a vacation, they are going to sleep in one morning and have breakfast in their room. Which brings us to our next topic...dining!

First, of course, you have a decision: How do you and your family like to eat on vacation? Do you enjoy sit down restaurants, or are you happier with counter service? Do you want to eat all your meals on Disney property, or do you want to go off-property for other options?

Table service options at Walt Disney World can get a bit pricey, and if you are on a budget, might be better saved for one or two special meals. Disney offers a dining plan for those staying on property. Again, I'll refer to AllEars.net, where she provides a wonderful explanation of the plan.

But there are many other ways to save. If you are staying off property, you can take advantage of the breakfast options provided by your hotel. Many hotels have a coffee maker in the room, which can certainly give the adults a welcome dose of caffeine on the morning! If you are staying on property, you can still eat a cheap, quick breakfast. If you have a cooler, keep it well stocked with ice, or you can rent a refrigerator for the length of your stay (refrigerators are no-charge, standard equipment at Disney's Moderate and Deluxe resorts, but guests at Pop Century and the All-Star resorts have to pay extra). If you have transportation, you can make a grocery stop on the way to your resort. You can stock up on juice boxes, cereal boxes, and other breakfast staples. If you are staying at a Walt Disney World resort, you can also purchase a refillable mug that is good for the length of your stay. The current cost is $12.49, and you can use it as many times as you like during your stay for coffee, soda, iced tea, and hot chocolate. You can keep snacks and bottled water in your room. A case of bottled water costs between $5 and $8 for a case of 24 bottles compared with $2 a bottle in the parks. You can purchase snack packs, too -- anything from cookies to chips. Pack a few snack packs and bottles of water in your backpack, and you're set for a day in the parks!

Another way to save at the parks is to eat your larger meal at lunch. Most Disney restaurants have similar menus for lunch and dinner, and the lunch prices are generally lower. There is a children's menu for our 5 and 9 year olds, and most meals come in around $6. At night, you can choose a less expensive counter service meal. Disney offers many wonderful buffets, where there is a wide variety to choose from at a fair price. Keep in mind that WDW adds a holiday surcharge to meals at certain restaurants during Holiday and Peak seasons, so traveling in off season can help out there, too. You can also go off property for an even better deal. Orlando is not lacking in chain restaurants and fast food places! There's something for every budget. Here is where having a car comes in handy, as you are not limited to your resort or Disney property for your meals.

If you are eating off property, make sure you take advantage of discounts and coupons out there! Pick up any brochures or local vacation flyers available in your hotel, and look for discounts. We'll explore other discounts in the last part of this series.

We are almost done planning our vacation for our family of four!

     PassPorter News on May 1, 2008 @ 12:13 pm
Well, we are almost done! This article is about inexpensive souvenirs, and even more discounts.

So our fictional family of four has had a memorable, reasonably priced vacation. They've enjoyed all that Walt Disney World has to offer, and they traveled well. They ate many wonderful meals. They saved money and still had a great trip. Now, our family wants to remember their trip, but they really don't want to spend a fortune on a Mickey sweatshirt or a plush Pluto. How to cherish the memories without breaking the bank?

One of the best free souvenirs you can collect is a map of each park. You can pick these up for free at the entrance to each park, as well as at your resort. Pick these up at the end of the day, so that they are in good condition for the trip home. If you'd like to remember a special meal, you can also ask for a copy of the menu. Most restaurants will give you a copy, and it makes a nice souvenir, as well as a great scrapbook item.

You can also collect pressed pennies. These are typically 51 cents. You provide the penny and pay 50 cents to press it. Each machine will show you the pictures available to press on the penny. Kids love to collect these, and they are easy to find, easy to collect, and easy to transport home. (Bring a little zip-top sandwich bag to transport them safely home in your suitcase). Postcards make great souvenirs, and they are also easy to transport home. You can get some great ones at Walt Disney World, and many others off-property.

There is a store in Downtown Disney called "Mickey's Mart," where everything is less than $10. Check out the World of Disney Store at Downtown Disney. There is usually a clearance rack, and also, there are usually many items that are not too expensive. One of our favorite souvenirs is of the edible kind. There are cookies, candy, Mickey-shaped pasta, coffee, and many other delectable goodies at a fair price. If you really want to bring home a T-shirt or a sweatshirt, try venturing off property. Orlando is surrounded by outlets, and they are much cheaper than the shops at WWalt Disney WorldDW. Try Character Outlet for great deals!

One of the best souvenirs you can bring back is pictures! You can pick up a single-use camera for about $5 (get them at home before you go) and give one to each child. The memories seen through their eyes will be priceless. Bring along your digital camera, and upload the photos to your computer. If you want to share your trip with family and friends, you can send them the link to your memories. This is much less expensive and more personal then bringing them something that they will only display when you come over to visit!

Now that the souvenirs are bought, it's time to return home. If you are driving home, remember to load your cooler up with ice for the trip, and repack your food, drinks and snacks. If you are flying, you will probably not want to transport foods that might spoil, but you should be able to pack your dry food in your suitcase. If you rented a car, fill it up before you bring it back. An empty tank can cost you a fortune, as the rental companies expect the car to be returned full. If you are flying, try to eat before you arrive at the airport. Airport cafes are usually quite over-priced. You can bring some snacks on the plane, but remember that you can't bring water or liquid through the security check point.

And so, our Walt Disney World vacation comes to an end.

There are a few other places to check for discounts. Apply for an Orlando Magic Card online before you make any plans. This card, issued by the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitor's Bureau, gives you discounts on dining, hotels and attractions. If you are a member of AAA/CAA, you can check for discounts with membership. For all the latest in discount codes, you can't beat Mary Waring's site, Mousesavers.com. Mary does all the research and comes up with many discount codes. Try Googling "Orlando discounts" to see what you can find. I found the following sites: Orlando Savings, Orlando:About, and Free Orlando Coupons. All these sites offer discount coupons for dining, attractions and hotels. So there you have it -- a Disney vacation that won't have you re-mortgaging the house and a wonderful world of family memories that your children (and you) will remember forever. Plus, it comes with bragging rights -- you did it all and stayed within your budget!

     PassPorter News on May 1, 2008 @ 12:14 pm
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Updated 3/5/2011 - Article #171 

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