So hopefully by now you’ve realized that I’m definitely not a packaged tour or resort type person. When it comes to travel I like to make my own itinerary, book my own lodging, stay in air bnb type rentals, and generally DIY. Plus you usually spend a lot less money that way. When it came time to book a Disney trip back in 2015 however, I actually let a AAA travel agent book it for us.
Prior to this trip I had been to Disney about 6 times when I was a kid in the 80’s. We stayed both on and off property. I remember back then loving the “on property” Disney hotels. They felt like an extension of the park themselves, especially with the monorail to get you there. Fast forward to 2015. A LOT has changed in Disney over 30 years, which I realized when we went. To prepare for this trip I did my due diligence and read countless WDW blogs, which all seemed to say the same thing: 1) stay on property if you can and 2) get the “meal plan,” because in the long run you’ll save money on food. I will be discussing each of these points in detail shortly, however since this post is “Disney by the numbers,” I want to break down how much that costs (vs going “off property”) and then in part II, once we get back from our recent trip, I will compare and contrast the two types of trips (both in cost and quality of experience).
So since the blogs told me we should stay on property with a meal plan, the only thing to do next was to give Disney more of our money by calling a Disney travel agent and having her book a package (room, tickets, meal plan). That takes all of ten minutes (and for me, all the fun out of planning a vacation! Although then I could turn my attention to obsessing on our minute-by-minute daily park attraction itineraries – more on that in part 3).
This experience of having everything completely packaged for you is quintessential Disney. As we arrived in Orlando and were shuttled right onto our “Magic Express” bus to our hotel (again, a service Disney provides if you stay on property). They literally get you on a bus as soon as you land, and then you do not leave the “Disney Bubble” until you get back on the plane to go home, as your only mode of transportation between the parks and various WDW hotels is on Disney buses, trains, and boats. I joked to my husband that Disney is making sure to take all the anxiety out of traveling for you. Which is funny to me, because I actually think one of the most valuable experiences of traveling is learning how to manage anxiety.
But I digress. So, to get back to the numbers, I am going to break down for you what we spent that year. Here is the breakdown:
Flights: $220 each for 4 people
Lodging (Wilderness Lodge), meal, plan, and tickets for a 7-day vacation (6 days in the parks): $5,484.66
Incidentals bought off our magic bands: $600+*
*another typical Disney feature is just like an all-inclusive hotel, they don’t want you to carry around any money (for the illusion that you have a unlimited amount of it?) and instead link your credit card to the “magic band” you wear on your wrist, that they can simply scan at all the shops and restaurants. I can’t find my original receipt but I think when we checked out the total was a little over $600 for souvenirs, tips at the restaurants, booze (not covered on the meal plan), the kids club (babysitting!) and other incidentals.
Anyway, this year we really wanted to go back to Disney, but I just couldn’t stomach spending that much money and having Disney curate everything for us. For one thing, I was really annoyed by the meal plan. Here is why. The typical meal plan that most people get (and most Disney blogs recommend), gives each person 1 “quick service” (like fast food); 1 table service (sit-down restaurant), and one “snack” per day. Here are 5 reasons why I hated the Disney meal plan.
- What about breakfast? I am a huge proponent of eating a big breakfast with lots of protein, especially on a vacation where you are going to be walking around a lot and need lots of stamina. On Disney’s meal plan if you want a real breakfast at your hotel (like eggs and bacon), you have to use one of your QS credits and then have nothing left for lunch. A lot of people use their “snack” credit to get like a muffin, but that is NOT going to cut it. Even though you get 1 QS, 1 TS, and 1 snack per day, you don’t have to use them all that day, you can save or “bank ” them. So then you have to spend half of your trip solving a puzzle in your head, like “if we use a QS service credit for breakfast and one for lunch today, we can have a TS for lunch tomorrow but then we won’t have a TS credit on Thursday…” etc. It is exhausting.
- The food sucks. Ok I may be slightly exaggerating here, but as one blogger put it, if you like Burger King every day for lunch and Applebee’s every night for dinner, the meal plan is for you. We were constantly underwhelmed with the food at Disney (with a few exceptions). Now, they do have some amazing, award-winning restaurants, but here is the catch: for these places, other than having to book them 6 months in advance, you have to use TWO TS credits for one meal (which means you take one away from your other days). Again, this takes a bit of finagling in your head (and you can’t use your kid’s TS credits because their meals are counted differently), you can make it work. Nonetheless, I was able to save 2 TS credits and make a 6 month advance reservation for California Grill, one of their premier restaurants at the Contemporary Resort for myself and my husband. We do say that was one of our best meals, not just at Disney, but ever, so there’s that. But I would say I was pretty “meh” about the food at the other TS restaurants.
- The service sucks. This seems contradictory to the “amazing customer service” that Disney is known for, but other than at maybe two restaurants that we visited that trip (California Grill and Tusker House in Animal Kingdom), the service was awful. For example, we ate at an Indian-themed restaurant in the Animal Kingdom Lodge one night and my husband and I had to wait probably 90 minutes to get our main course. Our kids ate their main course and dessert before we got our food. And it was just curry! I’m sure they had a big pot of it sitting somewhere. This kind of thing was status quo at almost every restaurant.
- I don’t want a dessert at every meal! The Quick Service credits and the Table Service credits include a main course, entree, and dessert. Which means in order to “take advantage” of what you paid for the plan you feel compelled to get everything, so that means two desserts per day. We really don’t need a brownie at lunch and then cake at dinner, but you end up eating this because of the plan. Plus the kids figure out pretty quick that they always get a dessert, so good luck telling them no sometimes.
- It’s too much math. At the risk of sounding redundant, I felt like I spent a huge amount time and energy trying to plan out when we were going to use which credits for which day for what meal. In the end it all worked out but it was too much to keep track of.
So why do people do it? The main reason people seem to buy the meal plans is because the food is so over-priced in the parks and hotels, that if you eat all your meals only in the parks, you are getting a deal. Believe me, there are many blogs that actually have calculated out how much you would spend on meals in the park out-of-pocket vs how much you would spend on the meal plan, and it always comes out to be a better deal with the meal plan. Disney bloggers also find amazingly creative ways to use the plan to get the most bang for their buck, including publishing a list of places to use your snack credit that might be more like a meal, for example getting an egg roll or chili cheese fries (which count as a snack credit, but don’t seem like a full meal to me). That said, all of these blogs count on one thing, that you will be eating all of your meals in the park! This makes sense because if you stay on Disney property, it’s virtually impossible to leave the Disney bubble, lest you should invest your money elsewhere. So yes, if you are staying on property it does make sense to get the meal plan, but since this left me feeling trapped and annoyed, I decided to try off-park lodging for our next trip so that I could have some more freedom of choice. Because the thing is, once you are off property, you don’t have to settle for Applebee’s type food at every meal. You can actually leave the Disney bubble and visit the many fine dining establishments (I hope!) in the greater Orlando area. Also the off-site hotels often offer free breakfast (and in the one where we are staying, free dinner on weeknights). In part II of this blog post I am going to actually log the costs of all of our meals and do a review of eating off property vs eating on, so that you can see the differences not just in cost but also quality and experience.
As far as the lodging goes, it’s pretty clear that you save mega money staying off-site. Disney properties often cost 2-3x as much as an equivalent, off site property. The hotels off property (of which there are many), are often relatively inexpensive and offer deals and perks such as shuttles to the park and free breakfast to try to lure people out of the Disney bubble. The main benefit (as I see it) of staying on site, is the transportation to and from the park. But honestly, unless you are paying MEGA BUCKS to stay at one of the poshest resorts (Contemporary, Grand Floridian, or Polynesian, where rooms start at $400 a night) to catch the monorail to Epcot and Magic Kingdom, you end up taking a bus back and forth to the parks, which can be annoying and frustrating with all the waiting around and stops that the buses make. The other reason to stay on property is that, because they are Disney, the hotels have all these “magical” touches (like a geyser that goes off every 90 minutes at the Wilderness Lodge) and really nice pool complexes. The employees are all Disney so they do have that amazing customer service, and some hotels, including where we stayed, have “kids clubs” where you can pay for your kids to stay for the night so you can go out and enjoy the parks without them.
A major downside is the cost and size of the rooms. In 2015 stayed at the cheapest of the high end resorts, The Wilderness Lodge. It was a beautiful resort, with amazing attention to detail. There was a humungous Christmas tree in the center of the lodge, a stream that ran from the lobby to the pool, and a great pool with a waterslide for the kids. You also did get to take a boat from the hotel to Magic Kingdom, which was a lot of fun. BUT, at $300+ a night the rooms were TINY. You barely had enough room to maneuver around the two double beds. When we travel we like to stay in a suite, but at over $1000 a night that was just not an option to stay on property at Disney. So we made do with out teeny tiny room at the beautiful resort.
For these reasons, and because I wanted to try to use points and miles to save money on our next trip, we decided to stay off property in 2017. Here is a breakdown of what we spent so far. I will then explain how I accrued enough points and miles to get there.
Airfare: FREE with 100,000 Delta skymiles (25,000 per ticket)
Lodging: FREE at the Homewood suites, Lake Buena Vista, with 238,000 Hilton HHonors points.
WDW tickets: $1700 park hopper tickets for 5 days
Universal Orlando tickets: FREE with Bankamericard travel rewards points
FOOD: Total will be forthcoming.
Rental car for 7 days: FREE with Ultimate Rewards points
Parking at the parks:
TOTAL SO FAR: $1700
Airfare: Delta is the main carrier for MCO so I knew ahead of time that we would likely be using them to fly. I therefore took out an Amex sky miles credit card with 50k bonus points and had my husband do the same. Voila! Within a few months after reaching the minimum spend to get the bonus points we had the tickets booked.
Lodging: This was a little trickier and took a lot of advanced planning. First I looked at the off-park resort properties that are part of rewards programs (most hotels are part of some larger hotel group such as Hilton, IHG, or Starwood), and looked at the reviews on tripadvisor. I wanted a place that offered free breakfast, had a decent pool, had a suite with a kitchen, and free parking. I ended up settling on a few that use Hilton Hhonors points. I calculated how many Hilton Hhonors points we would need for a week and I think it was about 240,000. Now to get to work. I took out the Hilton Hhonors amex for 60,000 bonus points and then the citibank hilton hhonors card for 75,000 bonus points. In bonus points alone that got me to 135,000 points. For the rest, I simply kept trying to rack up points any way that I could. That included booking a couple stays at Hampton Inns for other trips for double points (they are part of the Hilton Hhonors group), using my card at restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations for 6x points per purchase, and referring a friend (e.g., my husband) for another 10,000 points. It took a few months but as soon as I hit the magic number I booked the 7 nights at the Homewood Suites. I liked this hotel because they got good reviews, it’s a suite, they have a free hot breakfast and they have a manager’s reception Mon-Thurs with a hot dinner and free wine and beer! What parent couldn’t use that after a day at the parks?
Tickets to the parks: I’ve done a lot of research on this, and there seems to be only one way to get free tickets to amusement parks such as Disney and Universal. That is to take out a Bankamericard travel rewards card and use the bonus points to pay for the ticket. This is because this is the only travel card that will code “amusement park tickets” as travel. I knew that for the four of us a 5 day park-hopper ticket to WDW would be about $1600 and I couldn’t conceive of any way to earn enough bankamericard points to pay for that (I now think it’s possible, but you would have to use that card for every single purchase you made for probably about a year to cover it). So I figured we would just pay for the WDW tickets ourselves, and set our sights on getting the Universal tickets for free. For this trip we definitely wanted to hit Harry Potter world at Universal Orlando because the kids are into HP this year and it’s supposed to be amazing. Of course, Universal knows that this is their main attraction so they take advantage and make sure you have to buy the park-to-park ticket to get to all the HP attractions. I figured out ahead of time that one day park hopper tickets at Universal will cost $600 for all four of us. I know. It’s crazy. Which was why I was determined to get them for free. I had my husband and I each take out a Bankamericard travel rewards card, which as no fee and gives you 20,000 bonus points once you reach the minimum spend, and then 1.5x points per purchase after that. To redeem the points for travel you just buy the purchase (in this case the tickets) on the card, and then once you have enough points to pay for it (in this case it would need to be 30,000 for each of us, if we each bought 2 tickets), you apply it to the purchase and get a refund. Since we got the 20,000 bonus points we just have to keep using the cards for everything to get another 10,000 points. Easy peasy. The cool thing about this card is that you have 12 months from when you make the travel purchase to ear the points to erase it. So we could buy the tickets in December 2016 and have until December 2017 to keep accruing points to cover it. If you use the card for every purchase you make, you would be surprised at how fast those points add up.
Transportation: Because we are staying off property this time, we need to rent a car. Many of the off-site hotels do offer a shuttle (including ours), but after doing a bit of research you will find that their timetable is a lot more limited than the Disney bus system, so you would really need to be beholden to their schedule. I like the idea of being able to come and go when we wanted, so we decided to rent a car. Car rentals in Orlando are pretty cheap – about $120 for 7 days, but I wanted to challenge myself for this trip to see how much I could get for free, so I used my Chase Ultimate Rewards to book the car rental. That cost me about 13,000 UR points. But I have over 100,000 (and my husband has over 70,000), so I figured I could afford to use some. The Chase UR system is one of the best points and rewards systems out there and most travel hacking bloggers recommend starting with their cards first. If you plan on travel hacking with cards where you are going to take out a lot of cards, you MUST take out all of your Chase cards FIRST before you get any other cards. This is because Chase has a 5/24 rule, where they won’t approve you for any card, no matter how good your credit score is, if you have taken out 5 new credit cards in the past 24 months (with ANY company – amex, citi, etc). So if you take out their cards first you will at least get them before the 5/24 rule will apply to you. There is more of a system to understand with the Chase cards, including how to maximize points with the “trifecta” of the Sapphire, Freedom, and Ink, but if you want to read more about that I recommend you google “chase trifecta” and start there.
Food: I will have to report on what we spend on food post-trip, but I am hoping it won’t be that much. We will have breakfast at the hotel every day for free and plan on taking advantage of their free dinner a few times in between visits to the parks. We have a full kitchen in the suite so we can get some stuff at the grocery store and make our own lunches a few days and bring them in. I’m usually not that cheap but honestly the lunch places in the parks are really just fast food burgers and such. You end up waiting on line for an hour that you could be going on rides! No thanks. I would also like to go off-site to some restaurants that I have been reading about on Yelp and tripadvisor, which seem to have better food for much cheaper than Disney prices. We are going to have a couple meals in the park because we did love one restaurant at Hollywood Studios and I feel like we should at least eat one meal at World Showcase. I will report back a full meal report with total cost in Part II.
I will also be buying Disney gift cards at BJs or Staples before we go because with my Chase credit cards I can get 5x points per dollar at either place (and at BJ’s you get $5 off a $100 gc). We will use those for food, souvenirs, and parking. So even though we can’t pay with points, we will be earning them on our purchases.