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I am so excited to share with you my exclusive report: Disney World Debt Free.

Disney World Debt FreeIf you’re a breathing American you probably have a desire to go to Walt Disney World at least once in your life. If you’ve got children, that desire is substantially escalated thanks to tricky marketing efforts aimed directly at your child. I mean, trundling down Main Street USA toward that big old Castle is an American rite of passage! If you don’t want to go to Disney World, you’re probably a communist and you should stop reading now.

Now that the commies have left us, let’s get down to business. Disney World is freakin’ expensive. Tickets are sky high, hotel prices are crazy, food costs are through the roof and then you got to fly or drive to get there! And once you’re there you’ll wanna buy stuff…it all just adds up quickly.

Wallet clutchers rejoice: never fear, the Small World Ninja is here. Grab those calculators and buckle up –  we’re going to shave some serious money off the cost of an epic Disney vacation.

Imagine having the time of your life with your family as you glide through Disney World – crowds are low, weather is great, memories are being made – knowing you did it debt free. No credit card bills to come home to, no interest payments. Just a fabulous dream vacation you’ll cherish forever.

For starters, if you told me you wanted to have a kick ass premium vacation at Walt Disney World for cheap, I’d tell you that you need 12 – 14 months lead time. That means you need to set your dates at least a year in advance, so, I’m going to set our theoretical trip for October 2013.

I recently came across an article through Pinterest where a blogger offered her wisdom for seeing Disney World on $70 a day. The article was rife with dangerous advice, like buying partially used tickets from shady brokers and hoping they work when you get to the gate (not only is it against the rules, it’s borderline illegal), or staying at a crummy motel and using your own car (not much fun, especially with kids in tow). Can it be done? Sure, but you reap what you sow, so I wouldn’t advise it. Plus, do you really want to show your kids that cheating is okay? What kind of example are you setting by skirting the system to save a few bucks? It’s distasteful and risky.

Besides you know what’s NOT fun on vacation? Staying in a dump, driving yourself all over God’s green earth and dealing with parking trams and carting a cooler through a theme park so you don’t have to buy lunch. If that’s how you wanna roll, I ain’t gonna stop you – but I’m here to show you how to have a real and relaxing Disney vacation without taking out a second mortgage.

Let’s say you’re a typical American family – two adults and two children. In this example, these children are both under the age of 10 (10 year olds and up are considered adults by Disney’s pricing system). They want to spend 7 days and 6 nights at the Most Magical Place On Earth. They live in the northeast, so they’ll want to fly down to Orlando rather than drive. They’re on a budget but still want to get the full Disney experience – you know, staying at a Disney resort, seeing the parks, etc. They’ll be taking the kids out of school for the trip to save money and avoid crowds.

To start with, we need to select a Disney resort hotel for our stay. If they wanted to stay at one of Disney’s cheapest hotels (the “Value” resorts), I’d recommend Pop Century ($774) or the Little Mermaid wing at Art of Animation ($808). By booking their room reservation now, they would need to pay a deposit equal to the cost of one night’s rate (around $115). The balance of the reservation would be due at check-in. If the money isn’t on hand now to pay it off in advance, just put away little bits over the next year to make up the difference in time for your arrival.

If they wanted to get a taste of the high-life, I’d recommend they book a Disney Vacation Club Deluxe Villa by renting from a timeshare owner. Disney would charge them $460 per night to book a studio villa (two queen beds) with a savannah view at Animal Kingdom Villas – Kidani Village, but renting from an owner would bring the $2,760 pricetag down to $1,300 if booked with a third-party broker. That means they’d get deluxe accommodations with a kitchenette and a balcony view of free roaming animals like giraffes and zebras for about $500 more than a Value resort stay. The downside to booking a villa through a timeshare owner is that you must pay the whole thing at the time of booking, and that needs to be 11 months prior to your arrival date.

So, if they have $1,300 saved up, they should go with the Animal Kingdom Villas rental. If they need time to build up the hotel money, Pop Century it is. Let’s assume they have $1,300 ready to go and start from there with the villa.

Disney Rack Rate $2,760
Online DVC Rental Rate $1,300

Savings: $1,460

Next are tickets. 7 Day Park Hoppers are expensive – $345 a pop for adults. The Youth Education Series (YES) program allows families to purchase extremely discounted tickets in exchange for their children’s participation in a short educational tour in one of the theme parks (topics range from science to animation). Since the kids are being taken out of school, this is a great option – they’ll have to do a little bit of fun edutainment, and mom and dad can shave more than $300 off their total ticket expenditure.

7 Day YES Park Hoppers $796.60
7 Day Magic Your Way Park Hoppers $1,116

Savings: $319.40

Next is food. Most families are taken in by Disney’s slick Dining Plan, which offers a pre-paid dining solution for their trip. The standard plan includes one counter service meal, one table service meal and one snack per person, per night of the trip. Let me tell you right now – this is not worth it unless you are a foodie and want to eat at a table service restaurant every night. Even then, to actually save money you’ll need to order the most expensive thing off the menu at every restaurant you hit. You’ll still be responsible for tips on all those meals too, plus any meals that don’t fit into the plan. It’s not as all-inclusive as it sounds.

Most people don’t have the will or wherewithal to really work the Dining Plan for all its worth, and since they have two children, sit down dinners every day may not be the best plan. I’m going to tell them to skip the Dining Plan and pay out of pocket for their meals. I’d recommend they plan four sit down meals at must-see restaurants and plan on doing counter service or snack options for other meals. For breakfast, I’d recommend they pack a few boxes of granola bars and apples for healthy snacks on the go rather than paying out of pocket for big breakfasts every day.

So during their stay, I’d tell them to plan on 4 table service meals (average price per meal for the whole family including tip: $95) and 9 counter service meals (average price per meal for the whole family: $35). This way they’ll get to sample the best Disney has to offer without stressing over breaking even on the Dining Plan.

Dining Plan Cost: $873
DIY Dining Cost: $695

Savings: $178

They’ll want to have some souvenir money on hand too. I recommend parents put a limit on spending in advance – make sure everyone knows they have say, $50 to spend over the course of the trip. Don’t budge on it and nip the whining in the bud. So if all 4 of them want $50 of spending money, that’s $200 for merchandise.

Unplanned Merchandise Spending: $God Only Knows
Planned Merchandise Spending: $200

Savings: Incalculable

Since we’re planning so far ahead, we have plenty of time to save. Today is August 2, which is 63 weeks prior to the departure date. If we saved $20 a week for that whole time, we’d have $1,260 in hand by the time we hit the Magic Kingdom. That’s more than enough to cover the $695 needed for food and $200 needed for merchandise. Put the balance toward tickets to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party ($230) and you’ve still got some left over for snack purchases.

If you think you can’t save $20 per week, you are flat out wrong. Does Mom have Starbucks every day? Does Dad have a stupidly expensive satellite TV package? How many times a week do you go out to eat (and that includes fast food, which is no longer cheap)? How full of food is your pantry? Do you go grocery shopping when your pantry and two fridges are still full? Are there odd jobs around the neighborhood your kids could earn a few bucks doing? Could you start a home-based business? How often do you go to the movies? Most Americans bleed money on a daily basis – finding $20 a week to reallocate is not a herculean task, and the result will be a debt-free vacation. Doesn’t get much better than that!

If you can cut $20 a week, you can probably cut $30 (total saved up: $1,890) or $40 a week (total saved up: $2,520) and take care of airfare along the way.

Speaking of which, use Kayak or Hipmunk to monitor airfares as they open up for booking. There’s no magic formula for cheap airline tickets and sometimes it’s just luck of the draw. If you’re watching them in advance though you’ll know what to prepare for and save accordingly. Since the family is flying from the midwest and specials to Orlando abound, let’s say it going to cost $850 for all four of them to fly. If we estimate that the 1,000 mile drive would cost about $600 in gas, the convenience outweighs the cost factor to my way of thinking. Plus, Disney resort guests are given free transportation to and from the airport, as well as luggage delivery through the Magical Express program. No extra costs for transfers or rental cars needed.

If you’ve got good credit, open up a credit card with the airline of your choice. They’re always offering at least one free ticket as a thank you for joining the card. Use it for all your life expenses and watch the miles pile up (make sure you pay it off as you go). Depending on how much your family spends per year, you could rack up one or two tickets for free and save $425. At the very least you’ll save $200 with that free bonus ticket, so we’ll reduce our estimate for airfare to $650.

Let’s recap what we’ve got in total:

$1,300 Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas Savannah View Studio
$796.60 (4) 7 Day YES Park Hopper Tickets
$695 Food
$200 Merchandise
$230 (4) Tickets to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party
$650 Airfare
$3,871.60 Total Cost of Deluxe Vacation at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas Ninja-Style

What if they didn’t have that $1,300 and opted for Pop Century instead? It would look like this:

$774 Disney’s Pop Century Standard View Room
$796.60 (4) 7 Day YES Park Hopper Tickets
$695 Food
$200 Merchandise
$230 (4) Tickets to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party
$650 Airfare
$3,345.60 Total Cost of Value Vacation at Disney’s Pop Century Resort

And if they took the Magic Your Way Package with Dining like everybody else and paid full airfares, they’d be up against this:

$2,760 Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas Savannah View Studio
$1,116 (4) 7 Day Magic Your Way Park Hopper Tickets
$873 Disney Dining Plan
$200 Tips, non-covered dining expenses
$200 Merchandise
$230 (4) Tickets to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party
$850 Airfare
$6,229 Full Price of Deluxe Vacation at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas – Kidani Village

Even if a discounted package became available and the Dining Plan was offered for free, the price would still come out to $5,356 – saving $1,484.40. If the Dining Plan was paid for, the savings skyrocket to $2,357.40.

By planning 12 – 14 months ahead, adding some nips and tucks to your budget and staying on task, what sounds like an expensive vacation really isn’t that bad – and you can do it debt-free.

If you wanted to pare down the extras you could – skip the Halloween party, save $230. Replace a table service meal with a counter service meal, save $60. Cut the merchandise budget, save $100. Doing all that just cut down the cost by an additional $390. That brings us just under $3,500 at Animal Kingdom Villas or $3,000 at Pop Century, and we’re still having a full and awesome Disney experience.

Bank with Chase? Get a free Disney Debit Card for your checking account. It’ll give you 10% off of merchandise purchases $50 or over in the parks and at local Disney Stores, as well as access to an exclusive character meet-n-greet in Epcot. Disney VISA credit cards can earn you 1-2% in Disney rewards dollars on all your transactions as well – a good alternative to airline miles cards, but again, make sure you keep it paid off.

Disney often releases room discounts as well, usually about 3 or 4 months out. Keep an eye out and if you’ve booked a room through them and a discount becomes available, call and they’ll apply it to your existing reservation. Got a AAA membership? They offer a discount (usually 10 – 15% off) well in advance – if you’re not taking the villa strategy, you can book with an AAA discount through Disney directly over the phone (407 W-DISNEY). 10% off the Pop Century reservation nets us an additional $77 in savings; if a 15% discount is released, $116 (that’s like getting a free night!).

There’s a reason why everyone thinks Disney World is so expensive – because it is. But if you’re not made of money and you still want to enjoy a premium Disney vacation, you can do it with a little planning…and of course, faith, trust and pixie dust.


Ultimate Guide to Walt Disney World Author Drew HackneyDrew Hackney is the author of The Small World Ninja Ultimate Guide to Walt Disney World: The #1 Guide to No Stress Epic Disney Vacations, and keeps up with the latest Disney World vacation planning tips at his blog. He’s hard at work on his next volume, The Small World Ninja Ultimate Guide to Disneyland. He resides in the midwest with his beautiful wife and scheming chihuahua, and escapes to Disney as often as possible. In addition to an unhealthy obsession with the Mouse, he loves 30 Rock, Nutella and karaoke.







Hey, if you’ve made it this far, you deserve a special treat. Enjoy an additional report on me – The Biggest Mistake You Can Make at Disney – it’s not what you think, I promise.

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In the meantime, enjoy this sneak peek and join me every Tuesday at 9pm Eastern/8pm Mountain/7pm Mountain/6pm Pacific for live open-line Q & A. If you’d like, you can even email me your questions in advance. I’ll tackle any questions you have about Walt Disney World and Disneyland, and we’ll have a good time too!

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Your Small World Sensei,

Drew Hackney