We Saved Over $1,000 on Our Disney World Vacation – And So Can You!

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!  

Thanks for reading more tips and tricks from our Disney trip to come! Be sure to check out our Instagram for more: www.Instagram.com/TheLocalBells.

Tiki House Beach Getaway Part 2 – Food

You can’t go to the beach without enjoying some amazing seafood, so we made it our mission to find some great places for dinner the three nights we were on our beach vacation last month.

One of the best parts of visiting the beaches on the Florida Panhandle is the distance from Atlanta. We made the trip down Thursday morning, and arrived before lunchtime to explore the Rosemary Beach area before checking into the Airbnb. Our first stop was  the Havana Beach Rooftop Lounge at The Pearl hotel. With the breathtaking view of the Gulf Coast, it was the perfect spot to toast to the start of vacation! They have a great happy hour starting at noon ($5 glasses of wine and $5 beers), but their food menu was quite pricey.

We continued our quest for seafood the first evening by visiting Pompano Joe’s Seafood House at Pier Park. The Pier Park area is home to a variety of different restaurants and shops – perfect if you’re not sure what you want to do that evening! The best part is that it’s right across from the beach. We had a nice table outside, away from the loud hustle and bustle inside the restaurant. We had a reservation at 5:45, and it was already slammed by the time we got there! While slightly more expensive than your typical beach dive, Pompano Joe’s had great portion sizes. With a fish entree, you got vegetables, another side like rice and beans, and hush puppies.

Our second night, we went for the views at Barefoot on the Beach, rather than solely food. We sat outside on their huge patio with an awesome view of the beach and ocean. The service here was a little sub-par, but if you are there to just relax and take in the views, it’s a nice place to still enjoy the beach without being on the beach and covered in sunscreen. They had a few Happy Hour drink specials and a good selection of seafood options on the menu. We highly recommend doing one of their seafood baskets, either blackened or fried. You start off with a side salad, get a large portion of shrimp, and another side, so you definitely won’t leave here hungry!

Our best dinner hands down was at the Saltwater Grill. Unlike most places that typically only had Happy Hour drink specials, Saltwater Grill also had specials on some of their most popular entrees before 6 PM. And best of all, your order just had to be in by 6 to get the deal. The food was so good that we honestly didn’t snap too many pictures before digging in! We recommend the Creole Redfish, the Prime Rib, or the Seafood Cappellini if you are there for their early bird specials – and you end up saving up to $10! They also had some great drink specials, with $6 martinis, $5 glasses of wine, and $4 mixed drinks. And while this restaurant wasn’t on the beach, they had a huge aquarium that wrapped around the bar area, so you still got the tropical feel of being at the beach.

And to end our vacation, we couldn’t leave without visiting Thomas’ Donuts for some of the most incredible donuts! Well worth the long wait in the sun to dig into these.

Any places we missed this trip that we should put on our “must visit” list for next time in the Panama City Beach area? Share with us below in the comments! 

Follow along with us on Instagram at www.Instagram.com/thelocalbells 

Tiki House Beach Getaway Part 1 – Accommodations

After a very busy May and most of June, we are back from a much-needed beach trip for some rest, relaxation, and vitamin “sea.” Grant and I had talked about taking a trip to the beach this summer for a few days, but initially ran into issues because most beach rentals only rent by the week during peak summer season. After scouring VRBO and Airbnb, we finally found a house that checked all the boxes for our group of 6: 3+ bedrooms, walking distance to the beach, and budget-friendly for a 3 night stay. And best of all, the owners didn’t have weekly rental restrictions, so we booked it and waited with anticipation for the trip to finally arrive!

TLB Tip: Airbnb now has a rental split feature that allows you to divide the cost of the rental across all people in your party. It makes it so easy to get everything paid for without the hassle of Venmo requests. If you are a new user, be sure to use our link to sign up and get a $40 travel credit!  

After a quick lunch and trip to Publix, we finally arrived at the Airbnb, fondly dubbed the “Tiki House of PCB.” In actuality, the house set in between Panama City Beach and Rosemary in the quieter Laguna Beach area. The Airbnb hosts, Jeff and Ana, were there to greet us and give us a quick tour of the house. We were impressed by how clean the house was, and Jeff let us know he had just finished cleaning the pool as well. For a ranch, the house was surprisingly big with 4 bedrooms sleeping up to 11 total people. A major plus was the fact that there were two King beds and two Queen beds – we’d had a hard time finding homes that had this many “normal” size beds! The house was decorated in a “tiki” Polynesian style, with the garage converted to a Tiki game room and the outside pool shed also incorporating many of those island vibes as well.

Having a pool in the backyard was an awesome addition to the property. When it started to get too hot at the beach around 3 o’clock, it was the perfect spot to come back to. And if you ask Grant, his favorite part was the color changing pool lights for the evening swims! It was great to have access to a beach cart and beach chairs through the Airbnb, which helped considerably to tote everything to the beach. For $150 a week, the hosts also had a golf cart if you preferred a faster mode of transportation. TLB Tip: If you prefer to sit in the shade, be sure to bring your own umbrella! We only lasted a few hours at a time in the direct sun, so an umbrella would have helped tremendously.

The location was great, just a 10 minute walk to public beach access. We got down to the beach around 10 every morning and never had a problem finding a spot, even at the peak of summer. The house was only a few miles away from the Pier Park dining and shopping – but be warned – traffic could make the short 5 miles take 30-45 minutes during the dinner rush.

All in all, we had a great stay at the Tiki house! Size, location, cleanliness, access to a full kitchen, private pool, beach chairs, and keyless entry were huge positives. A minor inconvenience was a problem with the water and septic in the Master bedroom, so we had to make due with only one bathroom and shower for the entire weekend. Additionally, while it was great to have access to a full kitchen, there was kind of a hodge-podge cookware. If you need a frying pan for eggs, we recommend bringing your own! And be sure to pick up a bag of ice on your way in, as the freezer didn’t have a working ice maker. Check-out seemed a little early too (10 AM), which made it tough if you wanted to enjoy a little more beach time before heading home. Other than that, we would definitely recommend this home for groups that are looking to have a low-key vacation with all the comforts of home just a short distance to some of the most picturesque waters and delicious seafood.

To see the full Airbnb posting for the Tiki house, take a look here.

Stay tuned for more about some of the great food we had at the beach! Follow along with us on Instagram at www.instagram.com/TheLocalBells