Disney, the most magical place on earth (until you get your bill). Disney is expensive but truthfully, I was impressed with everything Disney offered when compared to the cost. I watched countless videos and read numerous blogs on preparing for our first Disney trip, and they were all vital to our trip’s success. I wanted to return the favor with my own tips and tricks. I am still a rookie, so these tips may not be expert-level but for those of you planning a trip, you should get great pointers if you are a rookie - and even a few pros may get some advice. Worst case scenario, you get a few laughs from our fun family excursion.
Disclaimer: I am very “type-A” — you know, perfectionist, planner, stressor, lists, etc. — which means Disney was a challenge for me (one that I oddly loved). Picking the hotel, meal plan or no meal plan, FastPass rides, dinner reservations, and most efficient ways to plan park days are just a few of the items that challenged me with Disney.
Well, with a 20-month-old son and a 6-month pregnant wife, Disney sounded like the most relaxing vacation idea … I am just kidding. Initially we had planned to go to Bermuda. I had a hotel picked and was pricing airfare when I thought to myself, do you need a passport for Bermuda? I knew mine had expired, and my wife’s was very close. You do, you do need a passport to go to Bermuda, so that was a fun few weeks of worthless planning. Back to the drawing board.
Our son, Ryker, loves animals. We have an annual membership to the Philly Zoo, and the kid goes nuts. He also started to take an interest in “Cars” and “Toy Story.” My wife & I have not been to Disney since we were very young, 2 years old or so. My in-laws also live in Florida on the Gulf side so I knew that if we did Disney for a few days, we would spend a few days at the pool/beach so that Mom & Dad could relax for a few days.
Disney it was!
I believe in transparency (The Ultimate First Year Baby Budget) and believe it allows us to become more transparent and more financially literate, so I will walk through costs, our experience, and tips for each section: Hotel, Food/Meals/Drinks, Parks & Other Notes of Interest, Transportation, and my list of final tips (In Conclusion).
The Animal Kingdom Lodge (AKL) with a Savannah Room View.
Wow, this was one of the coolest hotels I have ever stayed at. The hotel was beautiful, the staff was amazing, but the view. The view was spectacular. We would keep our sliding door open and watch giraffes, wildebeests, antelopes, zebras, and some crazy bull-looking thing just roam by our room.
My best tips:
- Pay a little extra for the Savannah view, you won’t be disappointed.
- We were in the Kudu Trail rooms overlooking the Arusha Trail.
- Pool area is wonderful with a nice playground for kids. We only had one pool day, but we very much enjoyed it.
- This is one of the furthest hotels from Magic Kingdom (MK), so if you plan to do a lot of park days at MK, the bus ride takes 20-30 minutes each way. However, the AKL does have their own bus routes which helps with the trip duration and large crowds (some of the shared buses can have you waiting for a few buses until you board; we did not have that problem at AKL).
- If you are in a rush to get to the park, download the Lyft app and order a “Minnie Van.” It is the only rideshare that will take you right to the front entrance of MK. We used it twice for $40 each way, so yes, it is expensive, but it can add some “valuable” time to your park days.
- At AKL you are very close to the Animal Kingdom (AK) - a 10-minute bus ride. We did not do Epcot or Hollywood Studios since we didn’t feel we would get much out of it with a 20-month-old. However, we plan to return in late 2020 with Ryker (almost 3 at that time) and our “arriving soon” son who will be 1.
Cost: $2,072.76 -This included park passes for three days as well (no park hopper option and no meal plan).
The drink tab was low since my drinking partner is carrying our 2nd baby currently, but the food topic is a whole new world is Disney. The main topic is “meal plan or no meal plan?” After reading from the experts, most said no meal plan, so I took their advice. Now that I have had a chance to crunch the numbers, I feel that was a good choice. However, it was close enough that I can understand why this is such a hot topic.
Here was our food game plan:
A week before we arrived, we ordered groceries via Garden Grocer. Wow, these guys and gals have it down. It is a super-easy-to-navigate app; you pick what you need, pay on the app, pick the date and time you want it delivered and boom. Groceries delivered. We pulled up to the hotel and got an email and text from Garden Grocer that our food was delivered to the hotel and was being stored properly (fridge/freeze). I called the bellhop, and 15 minutes later it was delivered to our room (no delivery fee, but I did tip him).
This was my first time, so I didn’t know what to expect. Next time I will use this for even more items.
We ordered a case of water, Gatorade, Chex Mix, diapers, baby wipes, yogurts and PBJs for Ryker.
Total was $112.49 delivered.
Next time I will order more food for the breakfast meal. In my opinion, you need to get the Mickey Mouse waffles once to say you did it, but after that breakfast seems to be the most overpriced meal at Disney. I will likely add Cliff Bars, bagels/cream cheese, and fruit to the order next year and skip the Disney breakfasts. Plus, most mornings we wanted to get to the park as soon as possible, so breakfast seemed rushed.
We did not have a meal plan, but I made sure we used our MagicBands for all purchases so that I could track everything. On a side note, the MagicBand is dangerous — it’s like a credit card on Red Bull: you tap it, enter your code, and feel no pain (until you check out), so proceed with caution!
Total Food/Drinks Spending (4 days): $768.94 (this DOES include the $112.49 from Garden Grocer)
Character dinners were very cool, and the look on my son’s face will forever be a memory of mine, but it comes at a cost. For two buffet dinners it was $150 each meal. And Ryker was eating free! Now that does include a 20% tip and two beers each meal (don’t judge me, it was 100 degrees and humid - I earned those beers), but $150 is a costly dinner no matter where you live.
My best tips:
- Garden Grocer for sure! Whether you are looking to save on packing (diaper/wipes) or to have some meals/snacks replaced, this was by far a fabulous decision.
- If you go with a meal plan, it does NOT include tips, so you are still tipping $20+ for dinners assuming the $100 bill range.
- If you are looking to go to Disney, keep an eye out for free meal plans. They seem to offer it once or twice per year on select dates. They have a few coming up at the end of 2019. I hope to take advantage of this for our trip in late 2020.
- Meal plans make sense if you can eat like Joey Chestnut or eat red meat every meal. However, with that said, I either want the free meal plan in late 2020 (if we can make the dates work), or I may purchase a meal plan. Part of me thinks it can be conquered. I think (for most) it is close enough that not having the meal plan removes the stress of not having to pre-plan eating.
- Mobile ordering! The lines can get long, very long - like wait-45-minutes-for-tacos long. The Disney app allows you to order food from your phone and pick it up. Very cool, and very efficient.
- Disney Springs is awesome. We did dinner at the Boathouse our first night and then dinner at Terralina Crafted Italian the last night. Food prices are better since there is more competition, and the area is beautiful. If you like to shop, this is your place. Going forward, Mari and I both said we would plan to go Disney Springs for a few meals. It was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the parks.
- The biggest downside to booking last minute was dining reservations. You can book up to 180-days in advance if you are staying at a Disney World resort. I know what you’re thinking: who the hell books out food reservations that far in advance? Well, based on the options I had 60-days in advance, a lot! So if you’re planning your trip in advance, add a calendar reminder 180-days from your arrival date and book those tough restaurants. All we wanted was Chef Mickey’s (which we did not get)!
Ryker meeting Mickey at his first character dinner at Tusker House.
Parks & Other Notes of Interest
We had three park days with a 20-month-old and opted for 1 day at Animal Kingdom and 2 days at Magic Kingdom. We did not get the park hopper option (allows you to visit as many of the parks in one day as you please), because we knew we had a mid-day nap with Ryker and we knew if we tried to do everything we would be overwhelmed and not enjoy it.
If you are a nursing Mommy or just need some air condition/shelter for the little ones, find the Baby Care Center in each park. These truly saved us hours! Animal Kingdom’s was amazing, and we had a private room where Ryker slept on Mari for 1.5 hours.
Let me set the scene: Ryker was not sleeping (this is day 1 at AK). We “hoped” he would fall asleep in the stroller, but in his defense, it was 100 degrees, humid, and it’s freaking Disney - what kid wants to sleep? So then Mari tried to rock him to sleep (usually works like a charm), so now we have a 6-month prego Mommy rocking a screaming toddler, and neither were willing to budge. Dad then calls it and says we’re going back to the hotel because it is not safe for anyone at this point. Mari then says, “look up those Baby Care Centers.” And as always, Mari saved the day. We walked in a nice air-conditioned building with a play area, a baby changing area, and then a few private rooms for nursing (or a napping Ryker). Ryker fell asleep, I ordered lunch for Mom and Dad via the Disney mobile app and the day was saved by a smart Mommy and Disney World, which has truly thought of everything.
The Magic Kingdom’s Baby Care Center was a bit more dated than Animal Kingdom’s, and it didn’t have private rooms. They had one Mommy’s-only nursing room with 4 or 5 nice rocking chairs. No Dads allowed, so I hung out with the other cool kids and Dads and watched cartoons for an hour or so the 2nd day. On the 3rd day, my in-laws saved me and took me out for a few beers while Mari & Ryker rested.
I can’t thank Disney & Huggies (host) enough for their Baby Care Centers. Without them, we would have lost 3 hours or more each day with commuting back and forth plus nap time.
In spring, fall, or winter, I don’t think it would be an issue, but in the middle of summer in Florida, Ryker was not feeling the stroller nap.
For out next trip, we will likely stay closer to the park at either the Disney Beach Club or Polynesian. Probably half days at each park, then back to the hotel/pool for naps and then walk to another park for dinner. Plus, we will have two kids (3-year-old and 1-year-old) at that time, so efficiency will be key.
FastPass: You can book rides 60 days in advance (assuming you are staying at a Disney Resort hotel, Disney Springs Area Hotels or other select nearby hotels)! If you want to ride the popular rides and not wait for 3 hours, book them as soon as possible in that 60-day window. This feature allows you to “skip” the line (there is usually still a small wait but drastically lower than the standby lines). You are able to select three riders per day, and after you redeem your initial 3 picks, head to a mobile app or kiosk where you’ll be able to make another selection.
Park Costs: Our park tickets with FastPass were included in the hotel costs noted above.
Used the FastPass to meet Mickey & Minnie at Magic Kingdom. By far one of my favorite memories from this trip!
We flew Frontier, and while I know many say they will never fly Spirit or Frontier, I thought “how bad could it be?” Holy sheesh, it was bad. I didn’t pick Frontier for the prices, I chose them for the timing of the flight.
Fun side story: My last flight with Ryker (pre-Disney) scarred me for life. It was a mid-afternoon flight, and he didn’t take a good nap that day (every flight before that – 6 flights or so – he was great), but the kid hit his limit. It was the first time as a parent that I thought about jumping out of the plane. The boy was screaming, crawling through the aisle, over seats, under seats, untying random civilians’ shoes, you name it, he tried it. Mari and I tried everything — snacks, iPad, toys, arts/crafts, season tickets to the Bruins — nothing was working.
Long story short, Frontier snapped his food tray off his stroller and ripped his sunshade. We realized that we have 3 days in Disney without a food tray while our son battles the Florida summer sun. Before we left the Orlando airport, the Frontier rep gave me a slip of paper and said call them within 7 days. She didn’t even care to look at the stroller. The pilot also saw Mari’s face when I brought the mangled stroller out. He was a very nice guy to ask if everything was okay and then said to file a claim, as this happens “all the time” and it’s sad. I then emailed Frontier about 36 hours later and they respond with this, “Please be aware that Frontier Airlines requires that passengers report damage to their checked luggage within 12 hours of arrival at their destination. Our records indicate that you traveled on Flight-1163 on July 7, 2019. There is no indication that we received communication about the bag within the required time frame. Regrettably, we must inform you that your request to be reimbursed or compensated for the condition of the bag cannot be fulfilled.” You know, because most people going on a family vacation plan to contact the airline within 12-hours of a trip to report that their stroller was destroyed. Mind you, we did report it twice at the airport. However, there was a happy ending as Frontier did send us a check to cover both the broken seat and food tray.
On the way home, they didn’t destroy anything, but the strangest thing happened. The one pilot came out three separate times during a 2-hour flight to use the bathroom and get a coffee. I know what you’re thinking - no big deal - but it was. They blocked off the front bathroom with the drink cart and a flight attendant each time so that none of the passengers could use the front bathroom. We were in row 2 and Ryker just blasted one in his diaper. We asked if we could use the restroom soon, and she rolled her eyes and said whenever the pilot is done. I have a short fuse; Mari does not. She is the one that calms me, but when the flight attendant said that to my pregnant wife, I feared for her life. So after waiting 10 minutes while Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can”) was still flirting with his flight attendant, I had to carry my son 30 rows to the back restrooms with a diaper that smelled like rotten feet. Every poor soul on that flight lost some of their nasal ability that day.
So now that I am done with that rant, we will never fly Frontier again.
Cost: $991.20 (Ryker flew free) + $239.98 to fix Ryker’s stroller (I won’t include this in final cost)
We used the Minnie Vans twice and Uber twice to Disney Springs, and we used the free bus transportation the rest of the time. If you fly into Orlando, Disney will pick you up in their Magical Express bus for free, and they will also take you back to the airport.
The total cost was $4,035.47 which includes everything noted above (airfare, hotel, park passes, food/drinks, Uber/Minnie Van). I did have a $100 gift card that I used to buy Ryker a toy, Mari’s Minnie Mouse ears, and an Alex & Ani bracelet as a keepsake for this trip, which was not included in the cost. I also probably went through $100 or so in cash that is not included (Mickey Mouse balloon was $13 and Ryker screams for balloons, so it was a must).
My top tips before you head to Disney:
- Don’t go in summer with infants, toddlers or pregnant women (or both, in my case).
- It is really a lot to handle with the heat, humidity, and constant movement.
- If you can go during a free meal plan promotion (next ones are late 2019), do it! That will easily save you $1,000+ on food/drinks.
- Download the Disney World app as soon you book; this was the hub for everything we did.
- 180 days from arrival: Book restaurants
- 60 days from arrival: Book FastPass
- Get an autograph book for the characters to sign. A client suggested this, and it was a great!
- I like this one because you can add pictures as well for an even better memory!
- Provide flight number(s) for arrival and departure for Magical Express at least a month in advance
- They will mail you bag tags and luggage straps with your hotel name. It can take a few hours to get your bags to your room if you opt to have them take your bags (aka you walk off plane and right on to the bus). We decided to get our own bags and take them with us.
- If you go in Summer:
- The Florida heat is no joke, especially for 12+ hours. We walked 18.6 miles in 3 days or 47,100 steps.
- Order a spray/mist fan and cooling towels from Amazon; both were awesome and lifesavers. Order a case of water/Gatorade from Garden Grocer - Disney allows you to bring them in with you.
- Bring a refillable water bottle. The Disney restaurants offer FREE ice water and numerous water fountains which you can use to fill up. If you walk up to counter and ask for a water, they will likely hand you a water bottle and expect you to pay. Ask for a cup of ice water. It was so hot when we were there that many of the restaurants had them prepared and waiting.
- My best tip: DO NOT TRY TO DO EVERYTHING. Disney is too big with too many moving parts. Slow down, enjoy the most magical place on earth and create memories. Keep a flexible agenda and don’t book everything back-to-back-to-back.
- If you are traveling with a toddler:
- Your kid is still your kid, even in Disney. They still like to take naps and eat at the same time. Do your best to stick to their schedule. Understand that their little brains are going a million clicks per second with excitement.
- Allow them to have breaks, even if they don’t seem to need it. Head to the Baby Care Centers, head to the hotel pool, head to Disney Springs for lunch. Just give them (and you) a chance to catch your breath.
- If you are a nursing Mommy, pregnant Mommy or a Mommy with a crazy toddler (sometimes more than one of those!), use the Baby Care Centers. My wife will be the first to tell you how vital they were not only for Ryker but also her being 6-months pregnant and walking over 6 miles per day.
I loved Disney and plan to make it an annual or bi-annual trip for our family. The look on my son’s face when he would meet characters, even the look in my wife’s eyes when we walked into to the Magic Kingdom, made it a trip I will never forget. For me personally, I was amazed by the details Disney provided, and the amount of moving parts makes me want to get better and better each year.
Listen, I get it, Disney may not be for everyone, and it’s not a “budget-friendly” vacation, but for us it was spectacular and a trip that I plan to budget for each year.
Written by Chad Chubb, CFP ®, CSLP