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You can go to Disney, not have a meal plan, not stay on property, and still have a magical time.
There are tons of tips, tricks, and planning tools out there that will help you get the most bang out of your Disney buck. This post is for those who just want to take a spur of the moment weekend trip or who simply can’t afford a week long trip around the house of the mouse. (Raises hand eagerly!)
Or for people like us who also wait until the last minute to decide that going to Disney is a great idea. Have no fear, my years of lack of planning and lessons I have learned may be of use to you.
If you’re planning on going to more than one park during your visit, the more days you buy, the cheaper your tickets will be. However, you can get slightly reduced ticket prices during non-peak times of the year. The rule of thumb, if it’s a school break( i.e. Christmas break, spring break, summer break) it’s bound to be busy. Which means it’s going to cost a little more to get in and you will have to wait a little longer in lines. If you have flexibility on when you can go, opt for a non-peak time of the year.
Where to stay
We get up early to hit the parks. We get home close to midnight. Basically we needed a safe and clean space to rest our heads and to shower. There are plenty of wonderful off property hotels that have a lot to offer for example breakfast, transportation to and from the parks, and really nice pool areas for an option of fun. They are also trying to compete with the big mouse himself, so they want you to come stay at their place.
This year we took advantage of my husbands employee discount. We were able to find a room less than 5 miles away from Magic Kingdom for $46.00 per night plus tax. They didn’t offer free breakfast, but they did have transportation. We still opted to drive only because when I’m ready to leave, I’m ready to LEAVE. No waiting for this momma and paying the extra $25 to park was worth it to me.
What to eat
It is true that if you don’t stay on property, then you are not able to purchase a dining plan. However, you do have options. Of course you can purchase food at the park, but did you know that you can also bring in your own food? Since we normally stay at a hotel that offers a free breakfast, we will typically eat there. Even though the hotel this year didn’t have a free breakfast, we brought our own breakfast and thankfully there were some quick options near by.
You can bring food into the park and you can rent lockers located near the front to keep your food until you’re ready to eat, or anything else you don’t want to carry around. A standard locker was $10 to rent for the day. They only ask that you bring no glass, with the exception of baby food.
I typically carry some sort of back pack to carry some essentials, including a few snacks, perfect for when you’re waiting in line. Also included in the back pack, a plastic water bottle we refill, bandaids, headache medicine, and hand sanitizer.
What we also found is that no one is really hungry for a full meal and we have been known to get a couple and share. This happened quite frequently when the girls were little and I think it was mostly due to excitement. They had no interest in eating a full meal so thank goodness for those snacks. Plus we liked the flexibility to eat when we wanted, where we wanted, and how much or how little we wanted.
Souvenirs and Autograph Books
The first time we ever went to Magic Kingdom, I raided the bargain spot at Target before we left. I found Disney princess pens, notebooks, and a bunch of other Disney related items my then 3 and 4 year old went crazy over. I even made their shirts using fabric, iron on fusible web, and ribbon. I did their hair, found the cutest princess crowns, and a little bit of glitter.
There are some souvenirs that you can only get at the Disney parks, but for the most part, most of the souvenirs you can find off property too. The Target that is just a few miles from Magic Kingdom had a great variety of souvenirs. Since we happen to go a couple weeks after Christmas, we let family in on our surprise. Often they’ve given a gift card instead of a regular gift so the girls can pick out a souvenir.
Even if you’re late to the planning party, you can still get ahold of some fast passes. After you purchase your tickets, get your confirmation, and download the Disney Parks app. You’ll be able to snag any remaining fast pass times. Try to get them earlier in the day because once you use your three allotted fast pass times, you can get additional fast passes. We did get some, but ended up not using them. Since we went during an off peak time, there were only two rides we waited over 40 minutes and one of those was not running when we first arrived to the park.
What use to be know as Downtown Disney is now Disney Springs and there are an assortment of restaurants, attractions and shopping; including the Disney Store. There is also a bowling alley, movie theatre, balloon ride and some other must see spots. The best part, it doesn’t cost anything to go or to park. Definitely a nice break from the regular parks while still having a bit of the Disney experience. One of our favorite stores to shop is Uniqlo and they too have some cute inexpensive Disney shirts.
As the girls have gotten older the priorities have definitely shifted. No longer do we need a stroller, which we recommend bringing your own if you do have smaller kids. They also aren’t as interested to stand in line to meet characters, but they will definitely stop for a picture if they see the characters out and about. The girls do love the rides, even the teacups, and they enjoy the spirit that is Disney.
What we all love are the memories we’ve created as a family. Even if it wasn’t planned out months in advance.
So how much did we spend?
We drove because we’re only 7 hours away, but we flew once when we found a really good deal. The total cost for this trip including gas, hotel, tickets, all the food and snacks (four people over four days and we really whooped it up this trip… ask my scale) was less than $1500. The one time that we did stay on property, we paid nearly that much just for the hotel. There were a couple of meals we splurged on or our total would have even been lower. Bottom line is, it’s all a matter of preference and what works for your family and your budget. Have fun and make magical memories!
Here’s a link to the Kavu backpack I used for this recent trip to Disney. It’s small enough to not be bulky, but roomy enough to hold everything we needed. Plus we got it in a pattern and color either Courtney or I could carry. This particular backpack is VERY popular in Charleston and comes in a ton of patterns and colors.