News

Disney World, done dirt cheap

Question: Hello! We are a family of five with three kids (ages 8, 5, and 2). We have never been to Disney World and would like to plan a trip. Money is very, very tight and we are only doing this trip for a reason I wish not to disclose. We would like to stay at a hotel on-site. Our time frame is anytime between February and June, 2010. How can we find the best deal and still make this a memorable experience? Thank you for any advice you may have. — Guenter from Mechanicsville, Va.

Answer: Disney World is a dream destination for so many families, and in this economy everyone is interested in spending as little as possible. The good news is that there are some easy ways to chip away at costs and build a Disney vacation for less. Regardless of where you live, the steps for determining a good travel deal are basically the same: Research, do the math, and compare prices. Many booking sites sell Disney packages that bundle components together, such as airfare, tickets, and lodging. But you can’t know if you’re getting a good deal until you price out the components separately.

You don’t say how long you want to stay at Disney World, but to keep your expenses as low as possible, I suggest a four-night trip for which you arrive on Monday and depart on Friday. By traveling on weekdays, your airfare and hotel costs will be lower than they’d be on weekends. To cut your costs further, I also suggest that you spend a day volunteering at a local charity in exchange for free Disney tickets (details below).

Transportation: First, let’s figure out the best way to get from your hometown of Mechanicsville, Virginia, to Orlando, Florida. It turns out that there are four towns named Mechanicsville in Virginia. Depending on which one of these is your hometown, it might take anywhere from 11 to 14 hours to drive to Orlando. While driving is probably the cheapest alternative, you may not want to spend two days driving down and two days driving back.

To get an idea of what roundtrip Roanoke-Orlando airfares might cost, I checked the go-to airfare site Airfarewatchdog.com. One thing I like about Airfarewatchdog.com is that its search tool includes regional airports, which can mean cheaper flights than those out of major hubs. It turns out that (flying into Orlando’s Sanford Airport) can be nabbed for as little as $70 in January or February if you fly on Monday and Friday. You’ll pay an additional $33 in taxes and fees. In May, the roundtrip airfare would be $100 plus $33 in taxes and fees. So if you are able to travel within the next month, you could spend about $515 on plane tickets for your family of five. In May, it would cost $665—about $150 more.

When I compared airfares on several reliable metasearch booking sites, including and , nothing beat (or even came close to) this $70 roundtrip fare. In fact, the next-best roundtrip fare I found was $240 per person.

Lodging: You say that you want to stay inside the Disney World Resort, where the options include official Disney hotels and non-Disney hotels. Official Disney properties have five pricing seasons. You generally pay the least during “value season,” which is happening now through Valentine’s Day and then not again until August.

  • Slideshow Photos

    Beast's Castle

    Disney around the World

    Disneyland has delivered smiles and thrills since it opened in 1955, and its success has spawned parks across the globe.

  • Beast's Castle

    Disney around the World

    of

    Feast for a Beast

    The Beast welcomes guests to his castle in the Magic Kingdom, where Be Our Guest Restaurant will serve French-inspired cuisine for quick-service lunch and table-service dinner. Part of the newly-revamped Fantasyland, the stylish restaurant will have its grand opening on Dec. 6, 2012 at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

    Matt Stroshane / Disney / Matt Stroshane / Disney
  • Big Fun in the Big Top

    Disney around the World

    of

    Dumbo's pre-flight deck

    Waiting in line for Dumbo the Flying Elephant is as much of an event as the ride itself. As guests arrive, they'll receive a circus ticket pager that will virtually hold their place in line and notify them when it's their turn to board the attraction, leaving them free to explore the interactive wonders inside the big top while they wait to take to the skies. Dumbo the Flying Elephant is part of the expansion project which nearly doubles the size of Fantasyland, a multiyear project that will have its grand opening on Dec. 6, 2012 at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

    Disney / Disney
  • Storytelling to Extend through the Menus at Be Our Guest Restaurant

    Disney around the World

    of

    Luxurious cuisine

    French-inspired cuisine will be highlighted when Be Our Guest Restaurant opens in the New Fantasyland. Furthermore, select wines and beers will be offered to complement the elegantly-themed meals.

    Disney / Disney
  • Image:

    Disney around the World

    of

    Fit for a princess

    Visitors to Disneyland can walk through Sleeping Beauty Castle and see 3-D scenes from the classic film, originally released in 1959.

    Disneyland / Disneyland
  • Image: USA - Miley Cyrus Sweet 16 Celebration in Anaheim

    Disney around the World

    of

    Birthday girl

    Singer Miley Cyrus performs at the "Miley's Sweet 16 Share the Celebration" party at Disneyland in October 2008.

    Corbis / Corbis
  • Image:

    Disney around the World

    of

    Boo!

    The Haunted Mansion, a New Orleans Square attraction, opened Aug. 9, 1969, and is the home of 999 happy haunts. As Disney's website suggests, "Enter...if you dare!"

    Disneyland / Disneyland
  • Image:

    Disney around the World

    of

    Time for supper

    Ghosts dine inside Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. Disney classifies the ride as gentle but warns that younger children could be frightened by its special effects.

    Disneyland / Disneyland
  • Image: Disneyland 50th Anniversary Celebration

    Disney around the World

    of

    50 and fabulous

    Fireworks explode over The Sleeping Beauty Castle as part of "Remember ... Dreams Come True," the biggest fireworks display in Disneyland's history. The display took place during the Disneyland 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2005.

    Getty Images / Getty Images
  • Image:

    Disney around the World

    of

    Shiver me timbers!

    Villainous pirate Barbossa is hot on the trail of the eccentric Captain Jack Sparrow in Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride. The classic attraction re-opened following an extensive three-month enhancement and featuring new characters and elements from Walt Disney Pictures' "Pirates of the Caribbean" films.

    Disneyland / Disneyland
  • Image: It's a Small World ride

    Disney around the World

    of

    Around the world

    Walt Disney World's It's a Small World ride is a great option for youngsters. Visitors can sing along to the famous tune while visiting countries around the world. Hong Kong Disneyland opened the classic boat ride in 2008 in an attempt to boost sluggish attendance at the theme park.

    Disney / Disney
  • Image:

    Disney around the World

    of

    My, what big ears you have

    Dumbo the Flying Elephant takes riders over Fantasyland, and lever controls let them fly at their desired altitude.

    Disney / Disney
  • Image:

    Disney around the World

    of

    Eating under the sea

    Larger-than-life replicas of prehistoric sea creatures combine with giant aquariums of exotic fish in the lounge area of T-Rex: A Prehistoric Family Adventure, at the Downtown Disney area in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The 600-seat restaurant, operated by Landry's Restaurants, combines table-service dining and retail in an interactive prehistoric environment built around water, fire and ice.

    Disneyland / Disneyland
  • Image: Roy Disney, son of Walt Disney, poses with Mickey,

    Disney around the World

    of

    Mickey hops the pond

    Roy E. Disney, nephew of Walt Disney, poses with Mickey, Minnie and Pluto, in front of the Sleeping Beauty castle during a press preview of Euro Disneyland, now called Disneyland Paris, in Marne La Vallee, France. The site opened in 1992.

    AFP - Getty Images file / AFP - Getty Images file
  • Image:

    Disney around the World

    of

    Dive! Dive!

    The original submarines from the Disneyland Submarine Voyage, a popular attraction for many years at the California theme park, have been extensively refitted for the 21st Century adventure of Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. The attraction now takes explorers on an undersea voyage where they'll have close encounters with the fish characters from the Disney-Pixar movie, "Finding Nemo."

    Disneyland / Disneyland
  • Image:

    Disney around the World

    of

    Fun after dark

    Downtown Disney is a promenade that offers shopping, dining and other activities. The avenue shown here leads to both Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure.

    Disneyland / Disneyland
  • Image: Disneyland

    Disney around the World

    of

    Should've seen it in color

    Crowds are seen walking around the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, Calif., circa 1955.

    Getty Images / Getty Images
  • Image:

    Disney around the World

    of

    A visionary's vision

    Walt Disney unveils his plans for Disneyland to a national television audience during the premiere of "Disneyland," the television show, on October 27, 1954.

    Disneyland / Disneyland
  • Image:

    Disney around the World

    of

    Blank canvas

    Walt Disney purchased 160 acres in Anaheim, originally covered with orange groves, to build his dream of a place where parents and children could have fun -- together.

    Disneyland / Disneyland

But it always pays to check for special offers. Disney World has one on the table right now that effectively extends the affordable season by letting families on one-to four-night stays for most dates between now and June 3. The amount of savings depends on the resort category you choose. If you book a four-night stay in a Disney Value Resort Hotel (the least expensive of the official hotels), you can save 25 percent on your stay. That’s a great deal. For the very cheapest rates, book your stay between Sunday and Thursday, since weekend rates can be 20 percent higher. I test-booked four-night (arrive Monday, depart Friday) stays for two different travel periods: February 8-12 and May 24-28. The price came to just $278 in February and $407 in May. To take advantage of this offer, book by March 27 and use booking code QNY.

Note: Disney is running an alternative deal that offers resort credits of between $300 and $750 if you book a five-day, six-night Magic Your Way package including lodging and park tickets. The amount of the credit depends on the resort category you choose.

I did a quick check on two of my favorite deal-finding sites, and , and could not find a better price at a hotel inside Disney World. This leads me to believe that $278 for a four-night stay at a Disney Value Resort is an excellent price, at least for the foreseeable future.

Note: If your family likes camping and owns (or can borrow) a tent or an RV, the least expensive official Disney resort is the Fort Wilderness Campground, where rates start at just $44 a night. Of course, staying here would likely require that you drive down from Virginia.

Food: For a family like yours with young children, consider adding one of the Disney meal plans to your hotel package. This will add between $78 and $102 a day to your bill, which could be considerably less than you’d normally spend on meals—especially if you wanted to book some of the premium dining experiences, such as character meals. (For more on choosing a plan, see .)

Tickets: Another good reason to travel sooner rather than later is that Disney World park tickets are free for kids under 3. If you can travel before your youngest child’s third birthday, you won’t have to pay for his or her admission into the parks.

Magic Your Way tickets are pricey, so it pays to buy only as much as—but not more than—you need. Three-day basic tickets for two adults and two children ages 3 to 9 will cost $812. Adding the Park Hopper option will drive your price up to $1,020—a difference of over $200! (For more Disney ticket-buying strategies, see .)

Want to save another $280 on Magic Your Way tickets? You can bring the cost of your three-day tickets down to just $532 if you’re willing to volunteer some time at a local charity. With its promotion, Disney is encouraging folks to spend a day volunteering in their own communities in exchange for one free one-day Magic Your Way ticket per volunteer. The minimum age for volunteers is 6, which means that you, your wife, and your oldest child could participate. This would allow you to trim your tickets down to two-day basic tickets for two adults and one child ($445) plus one three-day basic ticket for your 5-year-old child ($187), while your 2-year-old can still get in for free. And, of course, you can bring your costs down even further if you opt for tickets that are valid for fewer days.

If you travel in February and use the above strategies, your major expenses for a four-night/five-day trip would come to about $1,733 (figuring $515 for airfare + $278 for hotel + $408 for the full dining plan + $532 for tickets). If you can find a Disney package that bundles similar components for less, you can be sure it’s a great deal.

Have a wonderful time!

Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is a family travel expert and mom of three. She is co-founder and editor-in-chief of , an award-winning family trip planning site. Follow her on Twitter at @WeJustGotBack.

TOP