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Yes, you can visit Disney World on a budget: Here’s how I did it

Oct. 05, 2021
40 min read
Disney On A Budget
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“Most expensive day ever … until next time” was a slogan I saw on several parents’ T-shirts at Walt Disney World. As evidenced by it being printed on a variety of T-shirts, it’s a pretty accepted belief that a trip to Disney is expensive. And yes, between park tickets, lodging, souvenirs and dining, a Disney World trip can quickly become very expensive. But, it’s also possible to visit Disney World on a budget.

There are lots of ways a budget trip can be interpreted. After all, “budget” to one may still be pricey to another. But for the purposes of this ‘experiment,’ TPG director of travel content Summer Hull asked me to visit Disney World on a budget while still buying a one-day park ticket, staying for two nights at a value Disney resort and eating three meals a day at relatively inexpensive Disney World restaurants.

As such, this story isn’t about the absolute cheapest way to visit Disney World. Instead, it’s one where we purposefully decided to slice expenses without leaving the ‘Disney bubble.’ So, in this story, I’ll describe how I recently visited Disney World for about 48 hours on a budget. In doing so, I’ll discuss how much I spent and some points where I could have made different choices to lower my expenses further.

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Transport between the airport and resort

For this trip, I flew into Orlando International Airport (MCO). And since I was staying at a Disney resort, I was able to take Disney’s Magical Express Service between Orlando International Airport and my resort for no additional charge.

I reserved my Magical Express ride ahead of time via a web form after booking my flights. But unfortunately, Disney will only offer this service for free to guests arriving before Jan. 1, 2022. After this point, guests will need to use other paid methods such as ride-hailing services, Mears Connect or a rental car to reach their resort. In the future, the Mears Connect option will cost $16 each way for adults and $13.50 each way for children.

Related: How much does a Walt Disney World vacation cost?

Despite hearing stories of long lines and significant wait times for a Magical Express bus, I was on a bus within six minutes of getting my checked bag. And the bus left the airport just 24 minutes after I boarded (I was one of the first passengers to board my bus). After stopping at two other Disney resorts, the bus reached the entrance to my resort just 47 minutes after leaving the airport.

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When it was time to leave Disney two days later, I asked at the front desk for a Magical Express departure letter noting my bus time. I’d seen these letters hanging from other guests’ doors the previous day, but no letter was on my door. So, I assumed there might be an issue with my return bus. But, the agent quickly printed a letter showing I’d depart the resort at 6:15 p.m. for my 9:25 p.m. Spirit Airlines flight.

My Magical Express bus arrived at my resort at 6:15 p.m. with just four other guests onboard. I assumed the bus would stop at many other resorts on the way to the airport, but it only stopped at the Disney Yacht Club Resort before continuing to the airport.

Cost for transport between the airport and resort: None

Staying at a Disney World value resort

TPG wanted me to stay on-site at a Walt Disney World resort for this trip to help with an apples-to-apples comparison for other stories. So I picked the least expensive resort for my dates: Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort. This resort is one of Disney World’s value resorts and we’ve seen rates dip as low as $100 per night in the past. But on my summer travel dates, it cost $206.57 per night (including taxes and fees). My two-night stay cost $413.14, which is more than 61% of my total expenses in Orlando for this trip.

Related: 6 ways using an authorized Disney vacation planner will improve your trip

Lodging is undoubtedly an area where I could have cut costs if my goal was to keep costs as minimal as possible. For example, I could’ve stayed at one of the best points hotels near Disney World. Or I could have booked an inexpensive hotel nearby. But, by staying onsite at a Disney resort, I saved on airport transportation with Disney’s Magical Express. And I saved time and money on park transportation with Disney’s bus system.

I also enjoyed Disney-theming at my hotel and I didn’t have to leave the Disney bubble for 48 hours. So, it’s worth considering whether to splurge a bit on one of Disney’s value resorts even when visiting Disney World on a budget.

Cost for two nights at Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort: $413.14

Getting around Disney World on a budget

Disney World has an extensive transportation network consisting of buses, ferries, monorails and gondolas. So, you can usually go directly between your Disney resort and the Disney World theme parks, water parks and Disney Springs. And, if you want to go between two resorts, you can usually do so with just one connection.

Related: 19 mistakes to avoid at Walt Disney World

I solely used Disney’s transportation network to get around during my stay. On my Magic Kingdom day, I was concerned that I wouldn’t arrive at the park early enough to beat the crowds. But, I caught the second Magic Kingdom bus of the morning from my resort (about 72 minutes before the park opened) and was among the first guests to enter the park.

As one of the first guests, I hurried to the popular Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and rode after just a 12-minute wait (the wait topped 60 minutes every time I checked the rest of the day). Best of all, Disney guests can use the Disney transportation network for no extra cost.

Cost for getting around Disney: None

Maximizing park time

For this trip, TPG asked me to buy a one-day, one-park ticket. Prices vary a bit day to day based on demand, but this ticket cost $140.58 after taxes and fees for my July 19 visit. This is a lot for one person to visit one theme park for one day, so you may find that a multi-day ticket provides better overall value if your budget can handle the extra cost.

And if you are a Florida resident, you may be able to snag a surprisingly inexpensive three- or four-day one-park ticket.

Related: Disney World without kids: 9 ways to enjoy an adult trip to Disney

But for this trip, I could only visit one park for one day. So I decided to visit Disney’s Magic Kingdom. I arrived at the park around 8 a.m. (an hour before it officially opened) and finally left at 10:45 p.m. that night (about 45 minutes after park closing). I logged 21,066 steps (8.92 miles) in the Magic Kingdom during my long day.

Although Disney staff didn’t let guests into the individual Magic Kingdom lands until the official 9 a.m. park opening time, my early arrival meant I was one of the first guests into Fantasyland. Being among the first guests allowed me 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 up with guests for the day.

I filled the busy middle of the day with lunch, free pin trading and experiencing some of the less-popular attractions, including:

  • Mad Tea Party
  • 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

As guests began gathering for the evening fireworks show, I waited in a 45-minute line for the Jungle Cruise. Then I walked on The Magic Carpets of Aladdin without a wait during the fireworks and rode Pirates of the Caribbean, Under the Sea Journey of The Little Mermaid and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh after the fireworks finished, all with minimal waits at that time of the day.

Perhaps I could have added another top-tier ride — such as Space Mountain or Splash Mountain — to my day with a bit more planning and strategy. For example, TPG's Summer Hull told me after the fact that as long as you are in line at the official park closing time, you get to ride. So, I could have snagged one of these top-tier rides at the end of my day. Even so, I’m happy with the 18 Magic Kingdom rides and attractions I experienced in one park day without much planning or strategy.

Cost for my one-day, one-park Disney ticket: $140.58

Eating at Disney World on a budget

I ate six meals at Disney during my two days in Orlando. Granted, if I’d traveled on a tighter budget, I could have made sandwiches or grabbed some Uncrustables for many of these meals and saved some money. After all, you can get groceries delivered at Disney World. But, for this trip, TPG wanted me to check out a few budget-friendly Disney World restaurants instead of just trying for the absolute cheapest option.

In particular, here’s what I ate at Disney:

  • Dinner at World Premiere Food Court: House-seasoned grilled chicken sandwich and fries for $12.83
  • Breakfast at Gaston’s Tavern: Big 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 kid’s meal for $6.94
  • Lunch at Boardwalk Bakery: Ham and cheese sandwich kid’s meal for $7.44

Related: 10 ways to save money on a trip to Disney World

Of course, you can also save money by buying a refillable popcorn bucket. Then, you can get popcorn refills with your bucket for $2 during the rest of your Disney stay. You can also save on drink costs by ordering a cup of water with your meal instead of a soda or bottle of water.

And you can order kid’s meals at many counter service restaurants. I tried out two kid’s meals during my trip when I wasn’t hungry enough for an adult meal. And I found the meals to be surprisingly filling.

I didn’t run into any issues when I ordered kid’s meals for myself through mobile ordering at the World Premiere Food Court and Boardwalk Bakery. However, a sign inside the Boardwalk Bakery (which I saw when picking up my meal) notes that kid’s meals are only for children 9 or younger.

Almost half of my dining expenses on this trip were from one sit-down meal at Jungle Skipper Canteen. I could have easily cut costs here by skipping the appetizer and drink (or by skipping the restaurant entirely and eating a counter service meal).

But, sitting down in an air-conditioned restaurant for lunch was a welcome reprieve from a hot, busy summer day. This restaurant is a great choice if you want to be able to have a calmer, reserved dining experience without being tied to a big set menu cost the way you are at Be Our Guest or Cinderella’s Royal Table (each of which starts at $62 per person regardless of how hungry you are). Here you can just order what you like from the menu with appetizers starting at $9 and entrees starting at $19.

And the Jungle Skipper Canteen was actually a fun experience thanks to jokes from my server and the interesting theming in the restaurant.

Cost for six meals at Disney: $89.05

Replace traditional souvenirs with pin trading

I’d never heard of Disney pin trading before this trip. But, TPG’s Summer Hull told me about pin trading and encouraged me to order some inexpensive pins before my trip to trade. So, I ordered a pack of 10 pins, set aside my favorites and then took the rest with me to the Magic Kingdom.

During the middle of the day, I visited several locations to try out pin trading. At each site, I found a particular part of the store where an employee facilitated pin trading. In each case, pins were on a numbered board and I could choose up to two pins to trade from the board. The employee would give me these pins and I’d drop the pins I wanted to exchange into a cup or bin.

I tried out pin trading solely for this story but ended up enjoying the process. It’s a fun way to get some souvenirs to take home without any extra cash outlay if you already have pins to trade. Alternatively, you could order some pretty inexpensively on Amazon in advance. So, especially if you are visiting with kids that would enjoy this process, you may be able to replace traditional souvenirs with pin trading.

Cost for 10 pins to trade: $17.30 (ordered before my trip)

Plan for predictable yet avoidable costs

You can save money on a trip to Disney World by avoiding predictable yet avoidable costs. For example, consider bringing the following items with you to save some money:

  • Sunscreen
  • Water bottle and electrolyte or flavor tablets or powder
  • Source of caffeine
  • Ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • Rain jacket or poncho
  • Change of socks
  • Nonperishable snacks, such as granola bars and sunburst
  • Umbrella

I brought all of these except a pair of extra socks and an umbrella. But after it rained, I discovered these two additional items would have been helpful. If you find yourself caught in a very predictable afternoon rain shower and have to buy a poncho in the park, it will set you back $12. But if you plan ahead, you can easily buy one for a dollar or two elsewhere.

Extra costs on my trip: None

Enjoying non-park days

Outside of lodging, my most significant expense at Disney World was my actual park ticket. So, one way to save money on a Disney trip is to include non-park days in your itinerary. Non-park days might consist of time at:

  • Your resort’s pool
  • A Disney water park or mini-golf
  • Other resorts
  • Disney Springs
  • Other Orlando attractions

Related: How to enjoy Disney World without park tickets

On my recent two-night trip, I spent non-park time on my check-out day. But, you may want to dedicate full days of your trip to non-park activities. It’s not only cost-effective but having a down day helps you have the energy to fully maximize the days you do have in the parks.

You might even be able to maximize your experience by flying into Orlando on the morning of your check-in day and departing from Orlando in the late evening on your check-out date. For example, my 9:25 p.m. departure from Orlando allowed me to spend most of my last day relaxing at my resort and checking out a few other Disney resorts.

On my last day, I explored Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort until the 11 a.m. check-out time. I only needed to be out of my room by this time, so I could have continued to use the pool and other facilities until my 6:15 p.m. Magical Express bus trip back to the airport. But, I wanted to use the time to explore a few other Disney resorts, so I left my checked bag at the bellhop desk and took a bus to Epcot.

Once at Epcot, I took a bus to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Kidani Village. Disney guests staying at other resorts often head to Kidani Village to eat at Sanaa, but I simply wanted to see the lodge and watch the animals for a bit. There are two animal overlooks that you can visit, each with personnel happy to talk about any animals you might see. Unfortunately, as I went in the middle of a hot summer day, I didn’t see many animals out and about at Kidani Village.

A biologist at Kidani Village recommended that I walk over to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Jambo House to see the flamingos. So, I walked about 15 minutes along a path to Jambo House. Once at Jambo House, I visited a viewpoint accessible through the lobby and the flamingo viewpoint by the pool. I didn’t see many animals besides the flamingos due to the midday heat, though.

Related: How to save money by renting Disney Vacation Club points

After watching the flamingos, I took a bus back to Epcot and then walked along a riverside pathway for 15 to 20 minutes to get to Disney’s Boardwalk. There’s usually plenty to do on Disney’s Boardwalk, including dancing at Atlantic Dance Hall, playing midway games and watching street performers. But, since I visited midday, the boardwalk was relatively quiet. Even so, I enjoyed walking the boardwalk and eating lunch at the Boardwalk Bakery.

I also enjoyed looking across the lake toward the Beach and Yacht Club. I’d stayed at the Beach Club several times with my family as a child and loved the pools. So, I walked over to the Beach Club to take a quick look at one of my favorite vacation spots as a child.

Disney’s Beach and Yacht Club Resort (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

After taking a literal walk down memory lane, I walked over to the Walt Disney World Swan Hotel to play a round of mini-golf at Fantasia Gardens. I’d planned to play the whimsical Fantasia Gardens course. But, the adjacent Fantasia Fairways course was much less crowded, so I opted for its sand traps, water hazards and sloping greens. I had fun but would likely wait for the Fantasia Gardens course if I returned since it would be more uniquely Disney.

After finishing my 18 holes of mini-golf, I walked to the ferry dock near the Swan Hotel and took the next ferry back to Epcot. I enjoyed the short ferry ride and found myself regretting that I didn’t have time to try out the monorail during this trip. After all, I needed to catch a bus from Epcot back to Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort in time for my Magical Express bus to the airport.

I fit a lot of fun into my non-park day. But given more time, I would have visited Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Disney Springs.

Cost of extra activities: $14.91

Bottom line

A visit to Disney World is rarely cheap unless you live nearby and have an annual pass that you really maximize. But, as my experience shows, it’s certainly possible to visit Disney on a budget and still have a great time. And although I thought a two-night trip would feel too short, my late-night flight departure when leaving Orlando allowed me to spend most of my departure day resort hopping.

As such, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a two-night trip if that’s all your budget can handle. But, I’d suggest arriving early on your check-in day and departing late on your check-out day. By doing so, you can spend these days resort hopping or relaxing at your resort. You could even redeem World of Hyatt points for a room at the Hyatt Regency Orlando Airport on your arrival or departure date so you can really use up all available daylight at Walt Disney World without adding any cash costs to your stay.

Featured image by (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.