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Disney World, done dirt cheap

Disney World is a dream destination for so many families, and in this economy everyone is interested in spending as little as possible. Here’s some easy ways to keep the cost down.
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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 One thing I like about 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.

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.