Back in November, Grant and I celebrated our first anniversary at the happiest place on Earth – Disney World! We’ve had the opportunity to go three times together (2015, 2016, and 2018), and each time it gets even better! This was our second time with the “Free Dining” promotion, and this time, we tracked all of our spending to see if it actually saved us money. And after tallying every dollar spent on our resort, tickets, and food, the grand total was over $1,000 in savings compared to if we had paid for every thing at full cost! And if you include our flights that we paid for with points and a gift card, that total goes up to nearly $1,400 that we saved!
So, how did we do it? Unlike grocery shopping or online shopping where you can use a myriad of coupons or promo codes to get some great deals, Disney itself really only has a few ways for you to save on a vacation: a room discount, package discount/special offer, or by using your Disney Visa card rewards. But there are a few other tips and tricks to save and stretch every dollar for your next Disney vacation!
Here are the steps we took to build up these amazing savings:
- “Free Dining” Promotion – The first time we took advantage of the “Free Dining” promotion was in 2016, and we stayed at the Caribbean Beach Resort. We stumbled upon the promotion when were were planning our trip and were lucky enough to snag a reservation with the offer. This time, we knew to be on the lookout for it, especially since it’s historically been offered for the same time of year (promo becomes available in late April for bookings in the fall/early winter; I like to keep track of historical promos here). We managed to book at Coronado Springs this time for a few days after Thanksgiving, the best time in my opinion to get in the Christmas spirit and go during a cooler time of year. TLB Tip – there are rumors that “Free Dining” will be going away after Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge opens. BUT if you are looking to plan a Disney vacation this summer, they have “Free Dining” available July-September, so book while you can! The promotion nearly always sells out, but make sure it’s the right choice for you and your family:
- Ticket Requirements – There are ticket requirements (Park Hopper and typically at least 4 days) and you aren’t able to bundle with other offers, so sometimes a room only discount can be better (deluxe resorts sometimes have discounts up to 35%!). For us, we knew we wanted the Park Hopper option and planned to be there 5 days and 4 nights, so the promotion fit perfectly for our vacation. When looking at the room only discount for the same time period, a 20% discount at Coronado Springs would only save us about $200, so we opted for the free dining package instead.
- Different Meal Plans Included – Only the Deluxe resorts get the full Disney Dining Plan (1 quick service, 1 table service, 2 snacks per person per night); Values and Moderates get the Quick Service Plan (2 quick service, 2 snacks per person per night). With this trip being an anniversary trip, we definitely wanted to make sure we had some table service options. Although we were staying at a Moderate resort, Disney allows you to upgrade your meal plan for the difference in cost, which was well worth it to us! This way, it basically feels like an all-inclusive vacation (aside from tips). If we hadn’t had free dining this trip, it still would have been worth it for us – we would have saved a couple hundred dollars by purchasing the meal plan this trip.
- Make Dining Reservations Early! I cannot emphasize this one enough, especially for the Disney Dining Plan with table service restaurants. Disney opens the booking window 180 days out for dining reservations, and if you are staying on property, you can make reservations for all days of your vacation at that 180 day mark. And if you want to eat at some of the most popular restaurants like Be Our Guest, you’ll want to be on the computer right at 6 AM EST to book those! Keep in mind that the cost of the Disney Dining Plan is $75.49 per person per night, so if you really want to maximize the benefits of “free dining,” you’ll want to look at menus and plan to try to spend over $5 per snack, $18 per quick service meal, and $41 per table service meal (the break even amounts if you paid for the plan out of pocket). We highly recommend Cape May Cafe at the Beach Club (all you can eat crab legs!) and Boma at the Animal Kingdom Lodge for some of our favorite table service meals. And Be Our Guest is the only quick service location that requires reservations for breakfast and lunch, so we love being able to plan for a great meal for less time than a typical table service meal.
- So. Much. Food. So would we really eat this much food if we weren’t on the dining plan? Probably not. The two snacks per person each day was a bit aggressive, and we ended up using quite a few on our last day with the Goofy candy to take home. But it was great to be able to try some new restaurants and food that we wouldn’t normally order. TLB Tip – Starbucks drinks count as a snack credit, so go ahead and order that $7 Venti Frappuccino that you know you can’t resist! And new to the 2018 (and still for 2019) dining plan was the addition of a specialty beverage with each meal. It made every meal feel like a special treat, and definitely not what we would have done if we were paying a la carte!
- Sam’s Club Gift Cards – One of our top travel hacks for planning and paying for this trip was purchasing discounted Disney gift cards from Sam’s Club. When you make your initial reservation, Disney only requires a $200 deposit that is refundable up until 30 days from your check-in date, which gives you a ton of time to save along the way and pay as you go. Sam’s Club currently offers discounted gift cards that save you about $7 every $150 in gift cards you purchase. When we paid with our Discover card, there was a 5% cash back bonus for purchases at club stores, so we were able to save even more! We booked our trip in April, so we had about 7 months to save and purchase gift cards along the way. Disney’s website makes it very easy to use gift cards and make payments along the way, with only a $20 minimum on payments.
- Disney Chase Visa Card – While definitely not the best card in terms of the cash back (1% on all purchases), cardholders sometimes get access to longer promotion windows or other perks. We put some of our work and personal expenses on this card and pay it off every month, so over the past few years it accumulated to a nice amount for our souvenir and extra expense bucket. Cardholders also enjoy 0% APR on Disney vacations booked with your Disney Visa for 6 months.
- Airline Points – Orlando is a fairly easy drive from Atlanta, but still would take up a good bit of our vacation just in traveling back and forth. With some of our work travel over the past year, we were able to accumulate enough points to book Southwest flights for our trip – about $400 if we had paid out of pocket. With just an hour flight between the cities and having access to Disney’s Magical Express, transportation was a breeze and at no additional cost to us!
Interested in seeing our cost breakdown? We would have spent a whopping $3,400 if we paid out of pocket for everything included in our last trip (resort, tickets, food costs)! Here’s how things broke out if we were to pay completely out of pocket with a meal plan and no discounts versus a room only discount versus what we actually paid:
|Cost completely out of pocket||$3,433|
|Cost with no discounts & Disney Dining Plan||$2,969|
|Cost with 25% room only discount & Disney Dining Plan||$2,708|
|Actual costs (with “free dining” & all savings)||$2,263|
So what are your favorite ways to save for your Disney vacation? Comment below for any other ones we should consider for our next trip!