I had my first Walt Disney World experience last week on a trip with my two-year-old niece. Aside from the friendly reminders to have a "magical day" and the way her face lit up when Chip and Dale stopped by our table at a character breakfast, my first impression was colored by how pricey it seemed. After all, park tickets topped $71 for one day and my room was listed at over $400 per night. But once I looked a little deeper, ways to save money revealed themselves. And yes, you can have a Disney vacation for under $500.
Cheap airfare across the country is a constant, but discovering the little known secret to snagging a villa for less made doing the math for the budget as thrilling as riding the safari at Animal Kingdom.
Finding airfare to Orlando
It's no surprise there are ample and affordable flights to Orlando, one of America's biggest vacation destinations. What shocked me was the number of departure cities with fares for less than $200 round-trip, including all taxes and fees. It doesn't matter where you're from—East Coast, Midwest, South, or even out West—it's likely you can find a good price. And when I checked, spring flights were right on the mark:
- Washington, D.C.: $129 (AirTran)
- Raleigh: $135 (Delta)
- Detroit: $149 (US Airways)
- Nashville: $150 (Delta)
- New Orleans: $151 (Delta)
- Richmond: $151 (AirTran)
- New York City: $157 (US Airways)
- Chicago: $159 (United)
- Las Vegas $161 (Continental)
- Phoenix: $161 (Continental)
- Philadelphia: $170 (Continental)
- Milwaukee: $178 (AirTran)
- St. Louis: $179 (AirTran)
- Buffalo: $183 (AirTran)
- Harrisburg: $189 (US Airways)
- Minneapolis: $197 (Midwest)
- Denver: $199 (United)
- Burlington, VT: $210 (US Airways)
- Dallas: $210 (Continental)
- Houston: $213 (US Airways)
- Providence: $217 (United)
- Los Angeles: $219 (United)
For some reason, the lowest fares were often on legacy carriers like US Airways or Continental, but don't rule out comparing fares on low-cost carriers like AirTran, which is well represented here, as well as JetBlue and Southwest.
Finding a hotel in and around Orlando
Finding an affordable hotel may not be as easy as nabbing cheap airfare, but it's not nearly as difficult as you might think. What's even more surprising is that you won't have to skimp on quality.
Except for camping, perhaps the cheapest way to sleep and spend $500 or less per person is to rent a vacation home or villa. Not only will you get more bang for the buck, but you can also cook meals yourself, saving hundreds on dining out. It'll be easiest to rent off Disney property, but either way will ultimately work.
To find off-property vacation homes online, look on sites like Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO), Zonder, HomeAway, and a host of other smaller agent sites. And because there are so many homes at different price levels, it's easy to find something affordable, no matter how big your family is.
For simplicity's sake, I've broken the cost down for a family of four. Through a travel agent called Dreams Unlimited Travel, I found $99 per-night rates for three-bedroom villas with fully equipped kitchens at The Villas at Seven Dwarfs Lane, a gated resort community located about 10 minutes from Disney. The total for a one-week stay came to $783.09, including a tax of $12.87 per night. Divide that number by four people to get just $195.77 per person. Considering that the villa can sleep up to eight people, imagine how well larger families would make out in terms of budget.
To get from your accommodations to area attractions, you'll likely need an affordable rental car, which you can book online. On Hotwire, for example, rates for a mid-sized car for seven days came to $133.27 including tax, or $33.32 per person when divided by four. Add the car rental price to the $219 airfare from Los Angeles (the most expensive departure city on my list) plus $195.77 for hotel, and your grand total comes to $448.09 per person.
If you're determined to stay on Disney property, you won't need a car. Plus, you'll be able to transfer to and from the airport for free using the Magical Express. However, things get a little tricky, though not impossible, for our budget. And, you'll have to make some concessions such as a shorter stay.
Essentially, all of Disney's deluxe villas are part of its Disney Vacation Club, which is a timeshare membership program based on points. However, nonmembers can rent points from members on websites like DISboards.com or MouseOwners.com, and save a great deal over traditional booking methods.
For instance, a four-person, one-bedroom villa at the newly converted Animal Kingdom Villas normally costs $435 per night during the regular season (March 30 through July 19), or $2,175 for five nights. Through the point system, you'll need to pay 19 points per day, or 95 points for a Sunday-through-Thursday stay in May. If you rent the points at, say, $11 per point, which seems to be a common offering on the boards, the total translates into just $1,045 (a savings of $1,130) for the same room, or $261.25 per person for a family of four.
Add in airfare of $219 to get a complete vacation for $480.25 per person. Just beware that point rental programs are not part of Disney World, so rent at your own risk. MouseSavers.com has some good buyer-beware tips.
Saving more money in and around Orlando
Part of the benefit of staying at a vacation home or villa is saving money on food by cooking your own meals. But who wants to spend time food shopping while on vacation? Whether you stay on or off Disney property, you can easily order groceries online in advance through services such as Garden Grocer, which offers free delivery if you spend over $200. Also, all the Walt Disney World villa resorts, including the Animal Kingdom Villas, have a similar service by fax, although the offerings are much less robust.
As far as the Disney parks go, there isn't a whole lot you can do to get deep discounts apart from moving to Florida and becoming a resident, so you'll have to forgive me for not working them into the $500 budget. However, the longer the duration of the ticket, the cheaper the per-day price becomes. For instance, a one-day ticket costs $71 for anyone age 10 or older, but a five-day ticket averages only $43 per day.
Still, it might be possible to fit all the fun within the budget, perhaps by finding an even cheaper vacation rental or packaging components. I'm willing to take on the challenge. Anyone interested?
Email me your favorite money-saving tips for Orlando and Disney World, and I might publish them in a future article. Or, feel free to comment or suggest a new Escapes Under $500 destination.
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Hotwire.com.)
All prices, dates, and booking details listed here were valid at the time of publication. Some information may have changed since that time.