6 Questions to Ask When Planning A Disney Budget: Part 3

We’re back with the next part of our Disney vacation planning series. The oh-so-important question this time is, “When should we go to Disney?” There are several factors to consider when deciding on the time of year to schedule your trip. Hopefully you have some flexibility in planning and can take advantage of our tips!

Weather: As I’m sure you are aware, central Florida can have some pretty extreme weather. The time of year you choose to go can make or break your trip. We have a zero tolerance policy for humidity and daily rainstorms, so we know to miss June-September. We always strive to visit from early November to December, and have been very fortunate to have wonderful weather.  Highs most days were in the 70’s and low 80’s on our recent trips, and lows were in the 60’s.  On our last two trips there were only 2 days when we needed to wear long pants to the parks during the day. Prices are lower during these times, due to school being in session.

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Photo credit: Benjamen Benson via flickr

School Holidays: I’m assuming that there are a few of you out there that are interested in sharing Disney magic with your children. If your children are school-age you may immediately think of visiting during major breaks such as Christmas, summer or spring breaks.  You have to remember that the rest of the nation has the same breaks more or less, meaning the crowd levels are insane and since those periods are in high demand, prices are sky-high. Only you can decide if you want to battle crowds and pay more, or take your kids out of school to visit during a slower time of year.We have taken our daughter out of school in 2nd and 3rd grades, and got her homework for the week before she left. We enjoy special discounts since we are traveling at slower times of the year, and to us that’s worth it. As our daughter gets older, we will have to re-think when we go, since taking her out won’t be an option. Long weekends with teacher work days are an option for shorter trips.

Crowds: Spring break, summer, Christmas, Independence Day. I strongly advise you to avoid these times when planning your trip. The prices will be crazy. The crowds will be crazy. The wait times for rides will be crazy. Get the picture? Besides bad weather, nothing ruins the magic more than large crowds. Yes, I understand the allure of wanting to spend holidays at Disney, but it’s just…not…worth…it. Our top recommendations for low crowds are January-February (excluding holidays), October-November (not Thanksgiving!) and early December. (You can still experience all Disney’s Christmas entertainment in early December.) If you choose to go on the busy times, proceed at your own risk!

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photo credit: Brett Kiger via flickr

Special Offers: If you are looking for discounts for your Disney trip, there are some that become available throughout the year. Disney usually releases their specials 4 to 6 months ahead of time. This means if you want to travel in May, start looking for offers in December and January. The most common discounts are room only and package deals, and the free dining offer. Disney Tourist Blog has a  great post that talks in-depth about each discount offered. Do the math on any special offer to make sure it works for your situation. We prefer free dining to a room discount, because we stay at moderate or value resorts (which only get a 10-15% room discount) and it saves us more money to get 3 free dining plans for the length of our stay. If you are traveling as a couple and plan to stay in a deluxe resort, the room discount would be a better deal.

As you can see, the timing of your vacation has a big impact on how much you will shell out for your big trip, and how much enjoyment you will get out of your time in the parks. It will be one of the most important decisions to make about your trip so plan wisely. Use our pointers to help you plan for a trip that makes the most sense for you and your budget.

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6 Questions to Ask When Planning a Disney Budget: Part 2

Hello again. We’re back to discuss the second question we think is crucial to planning your Disney budget. The focus of this post is “Where to Stay?” Lodging will be one of your biggest expenses, along with food and park tickets. This post aims to help you look at your choices and decide what the best fit might be for your situation.

Orlando Florida is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. In 2015 alone, 66 million people visited this mouse mecca! There are over 150,000 hotel rooms to choose from. That means lots of options, but it can get overwhelming to try to find the perfect room that fits your budget and your travel plans. Some things to consider are: will this be a Disney only trip or will you be visiting Universal Studios, Seaworld, and the other myriad attractions in central Florida? Are you okay with eating out for most of your meals or would you like to make your meals in your room? Do you have a car or will you be depending on public transportation to get you to the parks? These are all important questions to ask while searching for that perfect room.

There are several reasons we like to stay on property at Disney. We are a small family, so we can make a modest room in a value resort work pretty well. We spend most of our vacation time at the Disney parks, so we don’t need a lot of amenities or a kitchen in our room to cook food. Disney provides excellent free transportation, and when we feel like driving to the parks, staying on property means parking is free (staying off-property means adding $20 a day to your budget if you will be driving to the parks.) We like the perk of having access to Extra Magic Hours (a time period before the parks open or after they close, that is only open to resort guests.) We also love being in the “Disney bubble.” This is the feeling that you have left the real world behind and all your worries drift away. The omnipresent theming envelops you in a world of magic from the moment you pass under the arch that proclaims you are entering a land “where dreams come true.”

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That being said, there are situations where it would make more sense to stay off-property. If that’s the case for you, here are a few choices to consider.

  • Airbnb: Choose your size and style of housing. We found a room to rent, a stone’s throw from the Magic Kingdom for $60 per night. The total for a Sunday to Friday stay was only $373 with cleaning fee and taxes! Or you could rent a whole condo for $192 a night. The great thing about Airbnb is that it is a trusted source of vacation rentals, and you can find something to match your budget and needs in almost every neighborhood of Orlando and the Disney-area. Airbnb is ideal if you are willing to take an Uber to the parks, want to be able to cook your own food, and are on a super-tight budget.
  • Resorts: There are tons of non-Disney owned resorts to choose from in the Orlando area to fit all budgets. If you are not planning to go to the parks every day and want a more relaxing trip, with some outlet shopping thrown in, you may want consider an off-property resort. Just be sure to look at the extra charges that most resorts tack on. Many hotels I’ve looked at sound great, until you find that they charge a daily resort fee of $12 to $30! And as stated above, you will have to pay for parking at the parks unless you Uber, or the resort offers a shuttle. Our favorite website to search for hotels is tripadvisor.com and you can always check out the Priceline  site, which guarantees that their rates are the lowest prices you can book.
  • Vacation Home Rentals: If you have a large family, or are doing a trip with a few families, it probably makes more sense to go in on a house. Having a kitchen will save you a lot of money and you can have food delivered through Amazon prime pantry. We searched online and found houses that sleep up to 8 people for a weekly rental of $850. Check out vacation home rentals by tripadvisor or VRBO.

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  • Camping: For the more adventurous among you, Orlando also offers some large campgrounds in the area. You can still experience the Disney bubble while you camp, by reserving a site at Disney’s Fort Wilderness campsites. Rates vary throughout the year from about $53 in January and the summer months, to over $100 during the spring and holiday season. If you’d like to explore the wild part of Florida on your trip, floridarambler.com has a list of campsites within a hour of the parks.
  • DVC rental: There are a few reputable sites that allow Disney Vacation Club members to sell their points to you. What does this mean exactly? DVC members who can’t or don’t want to use their points on a Disney vacation every year, use the web to rent them out. If you thought staying at Animal Kingdom lodge was outside your budget, think again! Depending on the time of year you’re planning to go, staying at one of the studios (or villas if you need more space) at Disney’s deluxe resorts may be within reach. For example, staying at a standard studio at Bay Lake Tower in value season would run you $840 for 5 nights through David’s Vacation Club Rentals (a reliable site for renting points.) Compare that to Disney’s official price for that same room of $458 a night! You can still use the Disney website to check in online just as if you booked through Disney, and use magic bands for Fastpasses, etc. You can’t however, take advantage of special offers like free dining or any other discount where it is necessary to book a package through Disney. And maid service is not provided daily, but will happen once or twice throughout your stay.

Hopefully this post has helped guide you in deciding on the best accommodations for your family’s vacation. Although there are many things to consider such as size, amenities, price, and proximity to the parks, Orlando has, quite literally, something for everyone! So have fun researching and dreaming of your sunny vacation!

Photo credit title photo: Joe Penniston via flickr

Do Meal Delivery Services Save You Money?

A couple of weeks ago I started getting really curious about these meal delivery services such as Blue Apron and Hello Fresh. My Facebook feed must have felt it because all at once I had adverts for 5 different companies offering $30 off! First 3 meals free! Etc, etc. So, what does a curious-minded budget blogger do? She takes the bait and dives in head first, all for the sake of her dear readers (all 10 of you.)

I got an account with Blue Apron and signed up for 4 family meals a week (each meal serves 4) with a $30 coupon, my total was a little over $100. It seemed pricey to me until I reminded myself that I now had no need to go grocery shopping for the week, except to pick up a few breakfast and lunch items. I tend to buy higher quality meat and produce, which adds up quickly at the old Whole Foods. The other benefit was no meal planning! I was honestly getting in a dinner rut. Mexican night was happening all too frequently and it wasn’t much of a fiesta anymore.

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So when my delivery date arrived and I pulled into my driveway, I was ecstatic to see my meals waiting for me in 2 cardboard boxes. I quickly unpacked everything, looked over my recipes and put all the perishables (kept nice and chilly in an insulated liner and ice packs) away in the fridge. The meals looked delicious, and I immediately picked a Shrimp and Udon Noodle salad to make. These meals are more complicated than what I assume most people with kids are used to making. This is actually a good thing, as meal time has become something to look forward to, knowing I’ll be having a well thought-out, flavorful meal with quality ingredients, with little work on my part. You do still need to prepare and cook these from scratch. The veggies come in their natural state, so get ready to slice, dice and grate.

If you go for the family plan, you will be paying $140 for 4 nights of meals for your family or, just under $9 per serving. Unless you eat at a sit down restaurant almost every night, you probably are paying less than that to currently feed your family. If you would rather receive meals less frequently, it is so easy to change your plan or skip a few weeks. I’m currently trying a couple of different plans to see what works best for us (the 2 person plan might work since my husband rarely has dinner with us, but I like having leftovers)

When you factor in the time you are saving going food shopping every week and meal planning, and the quality of the food, which is probably better than you normally allow yourself to buy if you’re on a budget, it starts to make more sense. I am sticking with Blue Apron for the time being and am really happy with it. Cooking is fun again, and we are eating out much less frequently than we used to. If you use one of these services, let me know what you think! Cover photo courtesy of Basheer Tome via flickr

Should You Buy a Dining Plan?

Disney is an expensive place to eat at. Many people think purchasing a Disney Dining Plan (DDP) will save them money, and that may be true in many cases. There are many opinions on whether it is better to pay out-of-pocket (OOP) or use one of Disney’s many dining plan options.

Here’s a quick rundown of each plan and what is included. The Disney Dining Plans have several tiers with increasing prices.

  • Quick Service Plan– This plan entitles each person in your party to two counter-service meals, and one snack per night, and one refillable drink cup. If you are staying at a Disney resort for 5 nights, you will have 5 days of meals, even if you’re in the parks 6 days. Get it?
  • Standard Dining Plan– With this plan, each person will have one counter-service meal, one table-service meal (including character dining,) and a snack per night, and a refillable cup. This is the plan we get and have been really happy with it.
  • Deluxe Dining Plan– Each person gets three meals per day. That can be a counter-service or table-service, and appetizers are included. You also get two snacks, and a refillable cup.
  • The Premium Plan is the same as the Deluxe except that for signature meals that would normally take two dining credits from your bank of credits, every meal is only one.
  • The Platinum Plan basically entitles you to the first born of any Disney cast member. But seriously, if you’re getting the Platinum plan, you don’t need to worry about budgeting for Disney.

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Getting silly at Chef Mickey’s
Each meal takes a credit out of your allotment of dining credits. Now, if you are set on dining in the castle at the Magic Kingdom and get an ADR to Cinderella’s Royal Table, you should know that it will cost you two of your credits. So, you will have to skip a meal on another day or pay OOP.

There are so many fantastic signature restaurants and dinner shows (all 2 credits) on which you might want to splurge (we always do.) California Grill is a favorite of ours, and the view from the top of the Contemporary resort is worth 2 credits alone. I usually schedule a reasonably-priced meal on another day that we can easily pay out-of -pocket, like a breakfast buffet at Crystal Palace or lunch at the Plaza restaurant in the Magic Kingdom.

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Hanging with Dale at the Garden Grill at Epcot
So, back to the question of “should you or shouldn’t you?” In my opinion, if you are going to do a lot of buffets and character meals, the dining plan is probably a good idea. Let’s look at some numbers. For an adult, the standard DDP costs $63.70 per night in 2016. Dinner at Akershus in Epcot, which features all your favorite princesses is about $45-$50. The New York strip steak, Olaf cupcake and fountain drink on the menu at ABC Commissary totals almost $23. Add $4 for a Dole Whip float and you’ve spent in the area of $77.

If you’re a light eater, you might balk at the idea of all that food. If splitting meals and grabbing a hot dog for dinner is more your speed, the Dining Plan will almost certainly be too much food for you. Save the money for a few special souvenirs or upgrade your resort room. Take a moment to peruse the menus on Disney’s website to get an idea of what your family would order. You’ll quickly see if any of the Disney Dining Plans make sense for you.

The Best Ways to Save Day to Day

We talk a lot about budgets and saving here. Well, sometimes it’s hard to know where to begin when you want to put aside extra money for a trip, car or house. Luckily, a vacation is more within reach than saving for a house. Here are some really simple ways we have adjusted our daily lives to allow us to save over time.carousel

  1. Have a set goal. It is really hard to sacrifice lattes and date night for some unknown future reward (at least in my case.) Set a concrete date of when you would like to travel. Go online and research resorts, the parks, anything to get you motivated. Watch videos! Youtube is chock-full of parades, walk-throughs of all the Disney parks, and more. Sometimes we just listen to the background music of Main Street U.S.A or Tomorrowland (check it out here.) Staying motivated will make saving less of a chore and more like a game!
  2. We eat (and drink) at home. This one is tough I must admit. We live in “Foodtopia,” Asheville NC. So much food everywhere. Great coffee, artisan doughnuts, more tacos than you can shake a stick at. But wow, can it add up quickly! Making food at home is way cheaper and healthier, so we try to stick to that at least 5 days a week. And all coffee, iced tea, cold brew, is made at home. The one area we luck out in is beer. My husband works at a brewery, so he gets freebies. It’s nice.
  3. Entertainment. Do you have to see that movie in the theaters in 3D or will Redbox suffice? I only see movies that really benefit from a big screen (For example, “The Force Awakens” in 3D changed my life.) There is a $5 movie night at the theater close to us, so if we need to see something, that’s when we do it. Did you know there is a place that will lend you books for free? We love our library, and even check out digital books, magazines and movies!  We also realized that Cable TV was a luxury we could do without, and now we stick to HULU and Netflix for much less money per month.
  4. Use rewards credit cards (wisely!) We use the Disney Chase Signature Visa, which gives 2% back on groceries and gas. You can use the rewards on any Disney purchase including vacations. There are many credit cards that offer reward points, but it only works if you pay off that balance monthly. We use ours like a debit card to pay for daily expenses and then save our rewards for a special “free” treat during the trip.
  5.  Put that change to good use. Any extra change laying around or stray bills found in the wash can all go into a container. Make a fancy label for it if you’re feeling creative. You would be surprised how much you can save with that simple, painless act. We put our “jar money” directly into our vacation account. It’s fun to watch the account grow this way!

Following these tips is a good start to getting that vacation. It’s not always easy, but just keep focused on your goals (we’ll cover ways to stay motivated in a future post) and all the work will be worth it.