What it’s really like doing Disney World 3 different ways: Budget, moderate and blow-out luxury

Sep 6, 2021

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If you’ve ever priced out a trip to Disney World, you likely have already experienced the sticker shock that can come when planning out a “magical” experience. The total cost of flights, park tickets, lodging, parking, car rentals, Mickey-shaped ice cream bars, princess breakfasts, new sets of sparkling mouse ears, VIP experiences and more can be … staggering.

However, you don’t need to spend all that much to experience Disney World.

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There are value resorts, points hotels near Disney World and a free bus that takes you to and from the airport (through the end of 2021). You can also pack your lunch and snacks, bring a refillable water bottle, skip the Park Hopper tickets, steer far away from the VIP tours and wave to the princesses during a mini-parade down Main Street, U.S.A. instead of spending serious cash to eat near them.

But, by going the budget route, are you trading away some of the magic of Disney? There’s really only one way to find out.

TPG sent three staffers to Disney World on the same busy July day to experience Disney in three entirely different ways:

  • Value: Senior writer Katie Genter was relegated to free Disney transportation, a one-park single-day ticket, no character meals, no park-hopping and no blowing cash on souvenirs.
  • Moderate: Editor Madison Blancaflor stayed at a moderate Disney resort, had a rental car, enjoyed two character meals and had Park Hopper tickets for two days.
  • Deluxe: Director Summer Hull drew the golden-clad ticket. As such, she stayed (with her family) at one of the nicest deluxe spots on Disney World property, had Park Hopper tickets, a rental car and even a private VIP tour guide who could whisk that group backstage for special parking and right past most of the wait for rides.
Summer, Katie and Madison ready to experience Disney three ways. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

We’ve previously looked at how much a Walt Disney World vacation costs. But here’s what it is actually like experiencing Disney World in three entirely different ways.

In This Post

Where to stay

Disney World has more than two dozen lodging options at various price points within its borders — and of course, there are hundreds of additional options in the surrounding Orlando area.

Deluxe: Monorail resorts and high-end private cabins

If you’re going all-out and money is no object on your Disney World vacation, you’ve got some epic options for lodging. These options start at $400 to $600 per night for standard rooms in the Disney deluxe resorts (such as the just-renovated Polynesian Village Resort) and go to more than $2,000 per night for suites and high-end private cabins on the shore of Disney’s Bay Lake (at the Copper Creek Cabins).

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

When you splurge on lodging at Disney, you can put the fun of the theme parks at your fingertips. For example, our Copper Creek Cabin was about 100 steps from the boat dock where little ferries (boats, not Tinkerbelles) take you straight to the gates of the Magic Kingdom.

And at the end of the night, it provided a spot to soak in a private hot tub and watch the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks (with piped-in music on the patio), followed by the Electrical Water Pageant that floats by select resorts along Bay Lake in the evenings.

Add to this the ability to gather around a full-sized couch or table and spread the family out over multiple bedrooms (and bathrooms). It is possible to have all of the conveniences of home — and then some — on Walt Disney World property in places like Copper Creek Cabins, some of the recently renovated suites in resorts such as Wilderness Lodge and even the multibedroom grand villas available via Disney Vacation Club in spots such as Saratoga Springs and Bay Lake Tower.

Just expect those multibedroom high-end options to cost you a couple of thousand dollars a night. Our Copper Creek Cabin (which is really more like a private house on Disney property) cost a staggering $2,500 per night for our group during our two-night stay.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Pro tip: You can sometimes live the high life for less cash when staying in studios and even multibedroom suites at the Disney Vacation Club properties by renting DVC points.

Moderate: Moderate Disney resort

Disney does offer a selection of more moderately priced resorts. I stayed at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, which typically runs between $250 and $350 per night for a standard room, for two nights.

Disney’s moderate resorts can be hit or miss, and the Caribbean Beach isn’t my first choice of places to stay on a Disney trip. My room felt dated, and the sprawling resort isn’t conveniently located for most of the parks. You can take the Skyliner to Epcot or Hollywood Studios, but the level of convenience really hinges on what section of the resort you’re staying at.

Of course, Disney has other moderate resorts, but some cater to higher budgets (the Cabins at Fort Wildnerness) and others have their own limitations in terms of distance to the parks or resort amenities (Coronado Springs).

Overall, I’d recommend saving up to go all-out at a deluxe resort or saving some money and checking out an off-site or value Disney resort — especially if you’ll have a rental car during your trip.

Budget: Off-site or a value Disney resort

If you’re visiting Disney World on a budget, you’ll likely want to stay off-site at an inexpensive hotel, redeem points at a hotel near Disney World or stay on-site at one of Disney’s value resorts. Staying off-site will usually let you snag lower prices and open up more options using your hotel points. But staying at one of Disney’s value resorts can let you stay within the Disney bubble for your entire trip.

I stayed on-site at Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort (the least expensive on-site value resort for my dates). But even at a value Disney resort, I felt the Disney magic during my stay. I enjoyed scenes from Disney movies throughout the resort and noticed a few magical moments, including when cast members lined a walkway and blew bubbles over guests that walked by.

I had access to two large pools and a kids pool, but there were no slides or waterfalls at the value resorts. And although my room at Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort was clean, recently renovated and smartly equipped, it was a relatively simple room.

The $206.57 per night (including all taxes and fees) I paid felt steep for a Disney trip on a budget. There are nights when it is cheaper, but for my dates, it wasn’t all that budget-friendly. After all, the $413.14 I spent for my two-night stay accounted for more than 61% of my total expenses in Orlando.

Related: These are the best hotels at Walt Disney World: Magic at every budget

What tickets to buy

There is no single standard price to walk onto Main Street, U.S.A.

A day inside Disney World can cost you anywhere from $109 for a single-day, one-park ticket during slower days to $244 per day for a Park Hopper Plus ticket on a peak day. However, those are the starting points.

In times of more normal operations, there are many buy-up VIP experiences, early/late access and special tours available for modest upcharges that used to start around $70 for an early morning experience during pre-pandemic times.

Deluxe: Park Hopper tickets with a VIP experience

Right now, the list of available Disney VIP options is short, consisting only of private VIP tours that can cost anywhere from $2,975 to over $7,500 for a single day of special access. That price for VIP access is the same for anywhere from one to 10 people. But like with everything else, when you have some extra dollars to burn at Disney World, your experience can be significantly streamlined.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

On our July 2021 visit, the crowd levels were very high and FastPass wasn’t an option. But while on the VIP tour, our group of 10 was able to skip the vast majority of all lines during our $4,675, eight-hour tour. Led by a Disney tour guide, we walked past the one-to-two-hour lines and were escorted into an unlimited number of FastPass lines. On top of that, we needed Park Hopper tickets that cost about $209 per adult and a little less for the one child in the group (which Disney defines as under 10).

If you have Park Hopper tickets and a VIP guide, lines and planning simply aren’t your problem. You can go to just about any ride you want as many times as you want and avoid the dreaded long standby queue.

Disney World in July 2021. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Moderate: Two-day Park Hopper tickets

Of course, a VIP guide isn’t the standard Disney experience. For many families and solo travelers alike, the goal is to get through all of the parks over the course of a few days. My Park Hopper tickets, which allowed me to visit multiple parks in a single day, were booked alongside my resort stay for a total of $946.01 for lodging and admission, but two days of Park Hopper tickets for adults will generally run somewhere between $150 and $200 per day.

I planned to check out two parks per day — Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom on day one, and Hollywood Studios and Epcot on day two. My walking shoes and water bottle were packed for the miles I knew I’d be trekking around the parks, but I wasn’t prepared for just how draining it was to try to see everything in 48 hours. I can’t imagine trying to fit even top-level highlights in two days if I had kids as well.

If I were going to do it again, I’d at least schedule a day of rest and relaxation between day one and day two of park-hopping. Ideally, I’d do one day of park-hopping and spread out the other parks to have more time to really stop and experience the magic (and check out other areas of Disney, such as some of the resorts or Disney Springs).

Related: How to use points on Disney tickets 

Budget: One-park tickets supplemented with non-park days

If you’re visiting Disney World on a budget, you’ll likely want to avoid Park Hopper tickets and instead buy tickets that only allow you access to one park per day. My one-park, one-day ticket cost $140.58 after taxes for my July 19 visit, whereas a one-day Park Hopper ticket for the same date would have cost $209.81, including taxes.

But, especially if you’re a Florida resident, you’ll want to compare pricing for one-day, three-day and four-day ticket packages. You may also be able to snag less expensive Disney World tickets through AAA or a discount ticket seller. And you may want to consider visiting during the cooler and cheaper winter season when it’s often possible to snag less expensive tickets.

You can also save money at Disney World by including non-park days in your itinerary. For example, during my trip in July, I spent one day resort-hopping to see animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, visit Disney’s BoardWalk and play minigolf at Fantasia Gardens. You could also spend time relaxing at your resort’s pool or seeing other sites in the Orlando area.

Related: Why having a Disney World ticket isn’t always enough to get you in the gates this summer

Transportation

Orlando International Airport (MCO) is close to 20 miles from Walt Disney World.

Once you arrive through the gates of Disney, you’re still dealing with navigating an area roughly the size of San Francisco. This means you’ll need to decide on transportation that fits your budget not only to and from the airport but also to get around the parks and resorts.

Deluxe: Private transfers

The Disney Minnie Vans were an extremely convenient option for essentially door-to-door airport and Disney World transportation when they were available before the pandemic. We hope to see them return, but currently, your deluxe transportation options are a bit more limited.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

You can book private prearranged rides with a company called Mears that range from $25 for point-to-point service within Disney World to a little over $100 to ride from the airport to Disney World.

Or, if you really want next-level Disney transportation, the private VIP tour provides in-resort pickup and backstage parking that puts you literally as close as possible to the rides you want. That tour cost starts at $425 per hour regardless of how you are spending your time, so that’s an expensive way to get around, but it is the best of the best when it comes to getting around Disney.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

While we didn’t drive it to the Disney parks specifically, we also had a rental car — since we visited both Disney and Universal on this trip and hopped to a total of three different hotels — which came to $270 all-in.

Moderate: Rental car and Disney transportation

I did book a rental car for my trip, and while I didn’t use it a ton while exploring the parks because Disney’s free transportation options were typically more convenient, it was still a worthwhile expense during my trip.

During the trip, I used the car to drive to and from the airport, sneak in a trip to McDonald’s after arriving back at my resort late the first night, and switch between Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom. While I took the bus to Magic Kingdom my first morning, I ran back to the resort to change into dry clothes after a midday rainstorm before heading to Animal Kingdom — being able to drive to Animal Kingdom instead of waiting for a midday bus was incredibly convenient.

I’d also recommend a car for anyone who plans to resort-hop or check out the Disney Springs area.

My second day at the parks, I took the Skyliner from Caribbean Beach over to Hollywood Studios and Epcot. It was faster (and cheaper) than driving, and the Skyliner is honestly my favorite method of Disney transportation.

(Photo by Madison Blancaflor/The Points Guy)

Budget: Free Disney transportation

I spent $0 on transportation while visiting Disney World. After all, Disney resort guests can currently ride on Disney’s Magical Express between Orlando International Airport and their resort for no additional charge (although Disney will only offer this service through the end of 2021). And Disney provides complimentary transportation to its parks and Disney Springs from each of its resorts.

Frankly, I expected a wait and some inconvenience when using free Disney transportation. But my Magical Express bus left the airport about 30 minutes after I’d collected my checked bag. And I never waited more than 15 minutes for a bus or ferry. I even used bus transportation from Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort to reach the Magic Kingdom well before its stated opening time. Honestly, I don’t feel like I missed out at all by using free Disney transportation instead of renting a vehicle or using ride-hailing services.

Dining strategy

We all have to eat, but there’s eating to sustain life and eating as entertainment … and both are available at Disney World at very divergent price points.

Deluxe: Character meals and full-service restaurants

Meals that double as experiences are going to cost the most at Disney World. Places like Cinderella’s Royal Table and Be Our Guest will set you back $62-plus per adult.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

If you dine with a view of the fireworks at California Grill, you can also easily spend around that same amount if you opt for a multicourse meal.

Including tip, expect a character brunch at Topolino’s Terrace to cost around $200 for a family of four.

Dinner at Cinderella Castle for a family of four costs close to $300 all-in.

In other words, if you want to dine at the best full-service restaurants Disney has to offer, you can quickly burn through hundreds of dollars per day with a family.

Because of the COVID-19 spike at the time of the trip, we didn’t do all of the high-end indoor Disney meals, such as ‘Ohana and Chef Mickey’s, that we had originally carefully booked at 60 days out. We actually took advantage of the full kitchen and dining table at our cabin and used a $100 grocery delivery order to cover our breakfasts and snacks along with some evening beverages we stocked in the fridge. That may not have been the most deluxe route, but it was the most convenient and lowered our overall risk posture a little bit.

We also spent $124.82 for shareable plates and appetizers for the 10 of us from Geyser Point that we ate for dinner in the cabin and spent $156.58 for lunch for 10 that consisted of enough chicken fingers, burgers and fries to feed a small football team from Cosmic Ray’s in the Magic Kingdom.

Moderate: Character meals for breakfast and dinner, quick-service meals during the day

Eating inside Disney parks is definitely not the cheapest option — especially for sit-down meals. However, between the heat limiting my appetite and the time crunch of power walking my way through the parks with a mission to check off my must-do attractions, I really didn’t spend much money on food or snacks during the day.

All in all, I spent $230.67 on meals during my trip.

Over the course of my trip, I had two sit-down character meals and one other dinner reservation. The rest of my meals were at quick-service locations in the parks (excluding my one late-night McDonald’s run).

I had breakfast at Topolino’s Terrace one morning and dinner at Tusker House another night. The former was $53.73 total, and the latter $68.48 total. The food was great at both places, but so were all of my quick-service meals.

And right now, character dining only includes brief character sightings and a mass-printed signature postcard. Add in the fact that two character meals are a lot to fit into a two-day, two-night trip, and as a solo adult, I’d personally skip character meals during my next visit altogether in favor of more time actually exploring the parks. That could have saved me around $80 in total meal costs, if you factor in replacing the character meals with $20 quick-service meals instead.

Related: The 3 best Disney World character meals you’ve never heard of — and how to book them

The only other sit-down meal I had at Disney was at Big River on the BoardWalk before walking to Epcot for the fireworks my final night at Disney. My Cajun pasta and blackberry whiskey cocktail cost $42.22 total after taxes and tip, and were absolutely delicious (and much needed after a day living out my Jedi dreams at Galaxy’s Edge).

Thanks to the My Disney Experience app, ordering food at quick-service spots was a piece of cake. Since I was only ordering for one, I never had to wait longer than around two minutes for my food after ordering. Here’s a quick snapshot of the quick meals I had while at the parks (mostly eaten while power walking from point A to point B).

  • Breakfast tots and iced coffee at Friar’s Nook (Magic Kingdom): $13.92.
  • Lime Dole Whip at Storybook Treats (Magic Kingdom): $5.32.
  • Watermelon, a bottle of water and a hot dog at Harambe Fruit Market (Animal Kingdom): $15.20.
  • Breakfast muffin and iced coffee at Joffrey’s (Hollywood Studios): $12.12.
  • Ronto Wrap and Tantoine Tea at Ronto Roasters (Hollywood Studios): $19.68.

My lunch from Ronto Roasters was actually my favorite meal from my entire trip — yes, even compared to the expensive character meals. I sat down to eat my delicious wrap at a table overlooking the Millenium Falcon and the rest of Galaxy’s Edge, and that 15-minute interlude to people-watch was a highlight of my overall experience. And that meal cost less than $20.

(Photo by Madison Blancaflor/The Points Guy)

Notably, I didn’t get to spend much time at Epcot, which meant I missed out on all of the excellent Food & Wine Festival offerings during this trip. I likely would have splurged to try more food and drinks if I had more time to explore Epcot. So keep that in mind while budgeting if Epcot is one of your top-priority parks.

I’m fairly certain I drank my entire body weight in water both days, and without my refillable Corkcicle water bottle I likely would have shelled out the most money on water. But that simple switch — my refillable bottle versus purchasing bottled water throughout the day — saved me at least $70 in cash and plenty of plastic over the course of my trip.

Budget: Quick-service restaurants, kids meals and groceries

If you want to keep your dining costs in check on a Disney World vacation, you could bring snacks, visit a grocery store or order groceries to your Disney resort room. But for my July trip, I mostly stuck to Disney’s quick-service restaurants and avoided buying extra treats. Here’s a quick look at all my dining costs while at Disney:

  • Dinner at World Premiere Food Court: House-seasoned grilled chicken sandwich and fries for $12.83.
  • Breakfast at Gaston’s Tavern: Warm cinnamon roll for $6.92.
  • Lunch at Jungle Skipper Canteen: Falls Family Falafel, Curried Vegetable Crew Stew and Schweitzer Slush for $44.81, including tip.
  • Dinner at Casey’s Corner: All-beef hot dog and fries for $10.11.
  • Breakfast at World Premiere Food Court: Mickey-shaped waffles kids meal for $6.94.
  • Lunch at BoardWalk Bakery: Ham-and-cheese sandwich kids meal for $7.44.

I used mobile ordering for four of my six meals and ordered a kids meal on two of my mobile orders when I wasn’t very hungry. In doing so, I learned that Disney’s kids meals are relatively filling. But I did see a sign at Disney’s BoardWalk Bakery when picking up my mobile order noting that kids meals are for guests 9 and younger. So, I’d only feel comfortable ordering kids meals at counter-service restaurants and when using mobile ordering.

You’ll note that I splurged on a table-service meal at Jungle Skipper Canteen during my trip. This meal allowed me to enjoy bad jokes from my server and air conditioning on a hot day.

But this one meal accounted for about half of my two-day dining budget. So, unless you find an experience you want to splurge on, you’ll likely want to stick to value-oriented dining options (denoted with one $ in the Disney app).

Related: The best restaurants at Disney World

Ride strategy

Anyone inside the Magic Kingdom can get in line for popular rides such as Space Mountain and Splash Mountain if they meet the height requirements. But throughout the day, the waits for these popular rides will vary from none at all to a couple of hours. The attractions you choose, how many parks you visit and the times of day you go will determine your overall experience.

Deluxe: VIP, no-line access

With the creme-de-la-creme Disney World VIP tour, your ride strategy can be much more relaxed than if you want to maximize your time on a tighter budget.

On our July VIP tour that ran from about 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., we experienced 16 mostly top-tier rides across two Disney World parks without starting at the crack of dawn or staying in the parks well after the 6-year-old’s bedtime.

  • The Magic Carpets of Aladdin.
  • Splash Mountain.
  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
  • Haunted Mansion.
  • Peter Pan’s Flight.
  • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
  • Mad Tea Party.
  • Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.
  • Space Mountain.
  • The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
  • Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster.
  • Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway.
  • Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.
  • Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run.
  • Slinky Dog Dash.
  • Toy Story Mania!

That agenda, plus stops for lunch, restroom, park transfer and more took a little over eight hours and involved around 17,000 steps (along with $4,675 for the tour itself).

Moderate: Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize

Frankly, it’s impossible to see and do everything at any of the parks in only half a day — especially when ride wait times are long and the FastPass program is still paused. I knew that going in, so my expectations were lowered and my strategy was all about hitting up my must-do attractions while there.

At Magic Kingdom, I arrived before rope-drop to be one of the first in the park. But even so, I was unable to snag a spot in line at the hugely popular Seven Dwarfs Mine Train before the wait became ridiculous.

I was able to meet up with Katie since we had similar must-do lists to check out Haunted Mansion, Peter Pan’s Flight and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad without any wild wait times. I had my wish list in hand, but the wait times tracker on the My Disney Experience app (which I found to be pretty spot-on at Magic Kingdom) guided my decisions on what from my list I could fit into my half-day.

(Photo by Madison Blancaflor/The Points Guy)

By noon, wait times for popular attractions such as Space Mountain were over two hours. On such a time crunch, I decided to hit up a couple of classics — Mad Tea Party and Swiss Family Treehouse — before park-hopping to Animal Kingdom.

Animal Kingdom has fewer attractions, but the top-hitters are all pretty much a guaranteed longer wait. I rode Dinosaur since it was a short wait, but then I had a Tusker House dinner reservation to get to. Once dinner was finished, I really only had time for one more ride once I factored in the wait times, so I chose Avatar Flight of Passage. I stood in line for almost two hours (and that was a relatively short wait time compared to the line throughout the day), and I would do it again in a heartbeat to experience that ride again. It was my favorite attraction across all the parks (yes, even up against Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance).

On day two, I hit up Hollywood Studios first thing in the morning. I was unable to get a slot for Rise of the Resistance during the 7 a.m. virtual queue lottery, so I set an alarm for 12:50 p.m. to try again at 1 p.m. My morning was spent riding Tower of Terror, Star Tours and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. I spent some time exploring Galaxy’s Edge because actually spending time in that area of the park was far more important to me than riding Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railroad or Slinky Dog Dash (both of which had long waits and no single-rider lines).

I was able to secure a slot in a virtual boarding queue during the 1 p.m. lottery, but that meant I had lots of time to burn at Hollywood Studios while I waited for my boarding group. Thanks to super short single-rider lines and a friendly cast member, I was able to ride Smugglers Run three times back to back — each time in a different seat to try out a different job (unsurprisingly, I loved being a pilot the best). I finally did get to ride Rise of the Resistance.

This is probably a controversial take, but while the ride was incredibly immersive, I didn’t think it was necessarily worth rearranging my entire Hollywood Studios/Epcot day to ride (and that’s coming from a “Star Wars” fan).

Epcot was my final park, and by the time I got there after dinner, I was exhausted from my packed days at the park. Ride lines were still incredibly long, so I ended up exploring and scoping out a nice spot to watch the evening fireworks.

Thankfully, I was able to ride all of my “must-do” attractions during my trip, but the “go go go” mindset required to accomplish that task did dampen my overall enjoyment of the parks. Disney is at its best when you can explore the parks and experience those little moments of magic. With just two days and all four parks to experience, I wasn’t able to stop and smell the roses (or spend any time eating my way through Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival).

Budget: Arrive early and stay late

I only had one day in one park for my Disney vacation. So, to maximize my one park day, I arrived at the Magic Kingdom at 8 a.m. (an hour before it officially opened) and finally left at 10:45 p.m. (about 45 minutes after park closing). During my almost 14 hours and 45 minutes in the park, I logged 21,066 steps (8.92 miles).

Disney didn’t open its Magic Kingdom lands until around 9 a.m. But, my early arrival let me be one of the first guests into Fantasyland when the park opened. I was able to ride the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train with a minimal wait and visit the Haunted Mansion, Peter Pan’s Flight and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with modest waits before the park filled in with guests for the day.

As Summer noted, the Magic Kingdom was busy on July 19. So, I spent the middle of my day trying less-crowded (mostly second-tier) attractions, including:

  • Mad Tea Party (twice).
  • Swiss Family Treehouse.
  • Liberty Square Riverboat.
  • Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room.
  • Mickey’s PhilharMagic.
  • “it’s a small world.”
  • Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress.
  • Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover.

The crowds thinned around 8 p.m. as I hopped in a 45-minute line for Jungle Cruise (the longest line I waited in all day). While I was in line, Summer texted Madison and me with her ride count (16) for the day. So, ever competitive and knowing I was at 13 attractions for the day, I decided to forgo the fireworks show and instead try to beat Summer’s ride count.

After getting off the Jungle Cruise, I walked on The Magic Carpets of Aladdin without a wait before hustling to ride Pirates of the Caribbean, Under the Sea — Journey of The Little Mermaid and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh before the park closed at 10 p.m. I chose these rides since I hadn’t tried them yet that day and they had minimal wait times in the Disney app.

I ended up experiencing 18 attractions on my one park day, which technically beats Summer’s 16 rides. But Summer rode more top-tier rides and certainly had a less grueling and shorter day.

Souvenir strategy

Disney has gadgets and gizmos aplenty available at every turn, but very similar Disney gizmos can cost quite different prices depending on how and where you buy them.

Deluxe: New gear in the parks

It’s fun to waltz into the plethora of Disney shops throughout the parks and walk out with some cool new spirit jerseys ($75), Loungefly backpacks ($80), sparkly ears ($30) and other in-park merch.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

But you’re paying top dollar for that in-park privilege; unlike on the Shop Disney website or in the off-park Character Warehouse, the items in the stores on Disney property don’t often go on a significant sale. Be prepared for a hefty bill if the whole family is getting to pick their favorite goodies and clothing items from places like the Main Street Emporium.

Moderate: Mickey ears and Character Warehouse

Because of my strict schedule, I didn’t have much time to shop for souvenirs (a fact my wallet ultimately appreciated). While I waited out a midday storm at Magic Kingdom, I did grab a pair of Mickey ears (punk rock meets Disney, anyone?) and one T-shirt, which ended up being just over $50 total.

(Photo by Madison Blancaflor/The Points Guy)

Disney does have a Character Warehouse, where you can often find heavily discounted souvenirs. It’s located at the Orlando International Premium Outlets, so it’s a bit out of the way (and lines can get long because they are limiting capacity inside).

But considering I bought two adult shirts (including one “Star Wars” shirt) for approximately $17, I’d say it’s worth it if you’re souvenir-shopping for multiple kids and don’t mind taking home off-season gear (sweatshirts in summer, for example) or designs from the previous season or year.

Budget: Pin-trading and buying souvenirs offsite

Souvenirs are one place where you may want to cut costs when visiting Disney World. If you’re going to buy souvenirs on your trip and have a rental car, you could go to Character Warehouse to shop for discounted Disney souvenirs.

However, a different strategy you might consider when visiting on a budget is pin-trading. Pin-trading is slightly different now due to health concerns, but you can still trade pins at several Magic Kingdom stores. During my visit, staff members put pins on a numbered board and you could select up to two pins before dropping the pins you wanted to trade into a bin.

Before my July trip, I’d never tried pin-trading before. But I found that pin-trading can be a fun and inexpensive way to take home some small but new souvenirs.

Bottom line

Disney magic isn’t tied to what you spend at the parks. However, there are caveats to that.

To ride a bunch of attractions without VIP access, especially while FastPass is suspended, you’ll need to be ready to get up early, be there before the park opens and/or stay until the park closes. With that said, if you try to go too hard or too long in the parks with multiple back-to-back park-hopping days, you may find yourself exhausted and feeling less than magical.

In fact, building in downtime during a non-park day where you do and spend less may result in enjoying more overall. Spending more on nicer lodging may increase the enjoyment for some, while it won’t for others. Some of the value resorts have actually been renovated more recently than some of the moderate resorts. But, if your lodging choice gets you within a short walk of a park, that is a real value that could pay off in dividends, especially if you may want a midday break back at the hotel.

Dining is also an area where you may get your money’s worth out of a long character meal, or you may do best getting some good quick-service options like Ronto Wraps at Galaxy’s Edge, big cinnamon rolls at Gaston’s Tavern or cheeseburger egg rolls at a cart near Adventureland.

Your best results at Disney come by splurging where it makes sense for you — and that splurge may be as simple as making a midday reservation at an a la carte restaurant with a server and air conditioning, such as Katie did at Skipper Canteen.

Speaking of Katie, she was frankly surprised by how much fun she had on her two-night budget Disney trip, which cost her $657.68 excluding airfare. She says she didn’t feel like she missed out on any magic, although she wishes she’d been able to visit a few more parks. However, she notes that this trip showed her even a two-night Disney World trip on a budget could be worthwhile.

And at the other end of the spectrum, Summer and her group don’t regret what was spent at Disney because for them, this was the time and place to go all-out while they had the right number of Disney-loving friends and family members to share the magic with.

Madison’s middle-of-the-road approach may have more closely replicated the approach many take at Disney — and was the most exhausting. There are obvious advantages to doing Disney on either end of the budget spectrum, but if you shoot right down the middle you have to be careful to not overextend yourself with park-hopping and too many immersive meals that come at the expense of ride time.

But with a plan, solid walking shoes and just a little luck and pixie dust when it comes to wait times for rides, you can fit a lot into a two-day, midpriced trip hitting up all four parks.

There are pros and cons to each Disney World budget strategy. But our experiences are proof that you can have a great vacation at Disney World filled with happy memories and plenty of magic regardless of exactly how much your wallet is ready to spend.

Featured photo courtesy of Disney Parks.

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