A Giveaway! I have one $50 Disney giftcard (or Amazon–winner’s choice) to anyone who shares this post (once per day) or donates $5 to the Goocher Family, travelling soon. Donate $25 or more and I’ll double your entries, $50 will earn 10 additional entries. Giveaway will be on February 28 at 10PM EST by random number, so long as the Goocher family reaches $500 in their account ($10 gift card if they don’t). You must leave a comment on this blog entry or The Big Little Days Facebook Page for the free entry. Forward any donation receipts to biglittledays (at symbol) g mail (dot) com–no spaces.
My family and I just got back from a great week at Disney. We have 5 children, 8 and under right now, and a budget just rebounding from our daughter’s adoption and a house sale last year. I think it would be kind of tacky to tell you exactly how much we paid for everything, but I wanted to share how we made this trip happen more affordably than anticipated, though, being Disney, it certainly was not in the “under $1000″ category. I also wanted to share what we learned and where we wouldn’t spend our money again.
But first, I want you to say it with me: Big Families cost a little more than your old small family. It is OK. Feeding 6 people (not the baby) a complete, balanced fast food meal cannot be done for under $15. $25 is more reasonable if you’re getting 2 big people meals. It’s ok. You are not failing if you pay a little more. Your cost per person is lower, but the sum total will be more expensive. Embrace that, and you CAN have fun, and do things cheaper than most, but it is still going to cost some cash. Ok, now exhale.
This post is long, so skip ahead to what is relevant for your crew. Let’s break it down into categories:
Travel to Disney
There is no inexpensive way to fly 7 people to Orlando. This is especially true since nowhere on-site will accommodate more than 6 people in one room, so you must stay off site and get a rental car. That adds up quickly. For the cost of 3 airline tickets, we paid for all of our food, gas, lodging, and activities along the way on a 20 hour trip from Michigan to Orlando, and home again.
In order to travel that many hours with that number of little kids, you need to pony up some time and some cash to prepare. We don’t have a TV in the car, though we did have our smart phones. We gave each kid a busy bag, with about $10-20 of new activity books, books on tape, etc. And you absolutely must have at least one 2-hour long break. One thing I would recommend is buying an annual membership at your local ASTC museum, for the reciprocal membership benefits. (We used to do the zoos, too, but most now only honor reciprocal membership at 50% off, which still can add up fast at a zoo that charges $18/person to get in normally.) We stopped at these museums along our route and got in for free. Discovery Place in Charlotte, NC was especially awesome.
To make the trip doable, we also pack a three-tier Rubbermaid shelf system in the back of the Suburban. The top drawer is for diapers and first-aid. The middle drawer is for snacks (applesauce squeezes, peanut butter cracker packs, goldfish, basic kid junk-food that has some slight redeemable qualities). The bottom drawer is for baby formula gear (our daughter requires a home-made blend. An immersion blender is my new best friend), dinner supplies, and juice boxes. A medium sized cooler was perfect.
We ate a lot of fast food, but varied it, picking healthier options at Taco Bell (our kids love their pintos and cheese without the red sauce), Wendy’s (baked potatoes are their chocolate), and McDonald’s (hey, there’s apples in those kid’s meals, let’s call it a wash). Our hotel had free breakfast, and we only heard one murmured nasty comment, and got lots of smiles from everyone else.
We left at 5 AM that first day. The first day is never horrible. Do half of your drive, plus 2 hours that first day. Pre-reserve your hotel. You need to get a suite if you have that many kids (and let’s not go into the difficulty we had obeying the ethical requirements of the fire code–we did our best to comply, but there is no way to find an adjoining room and having kids in 2 different rooms would have been absurd). The second day was made to bite you in the rear. It’s miserable. Hit up the Krispy Kreme for a morale booster, and pack m&m’s. You’ll need them.
We stopped at the Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia on I-75. It was close to the highway, free, had lots of land to run, and a great little visitor’s center with a cheap gift shop (95 cents for a 24 pack of crayolas and $3.99 for an activity book).
The stretch from the Florida line to Disney World is LONG.
Hotel Accommodations in Disney
This is not going to come as a shock to any ethical folks out there, but you simply cannot reserve a room if you have 5 children and 2 adults in Disney. They won’t allow it. And I am not going to spend my vacation looking over my shoulder. As a result, I booked our hotel off-site. Sure, we missed out on the extra magic hours, and had to load a stroller on the tram in the parking lot, but avoiding waiting for those horrible buses, where the drivers now play a recording instead of telling you their years of accumulated Disney lore…is a vast improvement. Parking on-site is $15 for the whole day, and worth every penny in this regard.
We found a fellow fundraising adoptive family who had a timeshare to rent, so we had some pretty exceptional circumstances that let us stay the whole week in a 2 bedroom, 3 bath suite with full kitchen, and washer/dryer for less than $80/day. To find a deal on par with that, go to Vacation Rentals by Owner, and start looking. They all have 5 star ratings, which makes me think they delete the listing when they get a bad rating, so make sure you pick one that has a lot of 5 star ratings. You can easily find a condo with 3+ bedrooms, 3 baths, private pool, community pool, and full kitchen and washer/dryer approved for 8 or more guests for around $150 a night off season with taxes factored in. Compare that to the cheapest off-season Disney rooms that accommodate only six, and you are looking at a substantial savings.
I cannot overstate the importance of having access to a washer and dryer INSIDE our hotel room when traveling with littles. It saved us so much time, space, and money to be able to pack all of our clothes in 4 carry-on sized suitcases…and 7 winter coats that took up the same amount of room in the wayback of the ‘burban. We were at capacity.
The horrid, cursed stroller
Speaking of running out of trunk room, I got a sweet tip from my sister. Instead of renting one of those cursed Disney molded plastic strollers with no storage at $31 a day for the double, hop on over to the slightly spammy-looking website for Apple Strollers and get a city mini double for $7 a day. Not kidding. Picking it up took less than 2 minutes, and we returned it in seconds. The nice thing was we could take it all over, including uncollapsed on the monorail, it stored three times as much under the basket, and laid the kids flat for naps. I am thinking of buying one now.
We do a ton of babywearing, and you can’t bring strollers into ANY attractions at Disney. Your first line of defense if a good ergonomic baby carrier. At 4 or 5 months pregnant now (whatever–I don’t count anymore), I broke down and bought a new Beco carrier off Babysteals with a hugely adjustable waist, so I could wear it low on my hips. I wore Daisy 8-12 hours every day we were in the parks, with no problems. Andy brought our old performance Ergo and carried 2.75 year old Hoss in the long lines. Lumpy (4.75) even took an occasional ride when the day got too long. Definitely loved having both.
Let’s face it: there is no such thing as a cheap Disney ticket. Scour the internet all day, and the best you are going to get is about 5% off. We joined Mousesavers.com (free), and then got a whopping extra dollar off of our authorized tickets purchased on Undercover Tourist’s 5ish% off. I’m not linking to their sites, because honestly, it’s just not that much of a savings. Now that Disney fingerprints and everything, I wouldn’t risk someone sending me a bogus ticket from a site offering better rates than this.
The one thing that helped us out is that our two youngest are both two years old, so we didn’t have to buy tickets for them. Buying a 3 day park hopper threw on an extra day for “free,” so we went with that. We paid about $1600 for two adults and 3 junior tickets for 4 days in the park. That’s big money for us. Just wanted to give you a feel for the costs, and why we waited until we were in a much better position financially to do Disney on the cheaper side. There is no cheap way into the parks, except a timeshare visit of death designed to destroy your vacation. You are worth more than selling your time for two “free” one day tickets on a 90 minute tour that morphs into 3 hours.
Also, if you aren’t staying on Disney property, don’t waste your time trying to do FastPass online (getting to go to the head of the line on 3 rides a day). Even if your ticket is activated for it, it is not going to let you if you are not staying in a Disney hotel. When you get into the park, use the kiosks farthest away from the front gate and let the helpful gal at MuppetVision 3-D (HWS) or under the portico at Innoventions (EC) help you in 2 minutes flat.
The only day we went to more than one park was on the last day. I would not spend the money on the park hopper tickets again with little kids. They were so enamored with the wonders of one park, they were excited to go on their favorite rides twice in one day. We let them wait in one 60 minute long line, and they determined on their own that they never wanted to waitin a long line again. Simply telling them the wait times let them pick “It’s a small world” for a second time over the interminable lines of Peter Pan’s Underwhelming Flight. We stayed from Saturday night until Saturday morning, and 4 days in the park was definitely the max we could do. If it was significantly cheaper, I would just pick the 3 days ticket.
Here’s my experience: the real value is when you give your kids enough fun that they feel spoiled, and enough rest that they don’t melt down. We did two days from park opening to just around dinner, and two days with a 4 hour nap/break in the middle of the day. Both have their merits, but if you want to see a fireworks show, etc, go home and let even your big kids chill. They have probably never experienced such sensory overload and the amount of walking and waiting that you do in just one day of Disney. They will be miserable by 6 PM, no matter whether they napped in the stroller or went on the Carousel of Progress and Peoplemover twice to make their own “quiet time.”
Dining in the Parks
Unlike the otherwise reasonably priced and fun Dollywood, Disney surprisingly lets you bring your own food in. Sure, you can buy the Disney dining plan, but honestly, folks are reporting that the DDP is just a way to get you to eat food of decreasing quality. If you are doing the plan, you prepay for all of your meals, but you are also less likely to notice that instead of every counter service place being extensively a la carte, it is all packaged in 9 adult meal choices. Kids’ meals run about $6 each, and consist of an Uncrustable or hot dog, yogurt, drink, and apple slices. I can pack in the same meal for about $3 per kid, cheaper if I make my own PB&J, etc. Variations do exist, but some of the best food is going to be found away from the big commissary places.
The hands-down best meal we had was in EPCOT, and the best value, too. We did a progressive dinner, and had all the kids sample everything. Andy and I got enough to eat, too. We got fish and chips in England, egg rolls in China, frozen lemonade and coke in generic Africa, a to-die-for shwarma platter and hummus in Morocco, and 4 pastries in France for $50-ish. Considering the sit down restaurants are $20/adult starting, it was a pretty fantastic meal. So, that was our big splurge meal on-site. Everything else, we packed in, or went home during the break to eat. Stopping at McDonald’s or getting a pizza.
We did go to the T-Rex cafe in Downtown Disney, and the kids got totally overwhelmed by the constant dinosaur roaring which only improved slightly when we asked to move tables. My meal stunk so bad, I sent it back for all of the third time in my life, but cest’ la vie. We used gift cards from family Christmas gifts for that meal.
Outside the Parks Entertainment
One day is was sunny and bright, so we hit up Pirate’s Cove mini golf. Here’s a little hint for ya–just buy the kids’ rounds, because you will certainly not be playing at all. We skipped the last 3 holes, and called it a win. When you’re in Disney: Enough is as good as a feast. At the end of the course the owner gave each of the kids their own pirate loot bag. We went to Downtown Disney and the T-rex cafe, then the Lego store after, and the kids built and raced cars for free for about 45 minutes. We spent the afternoon napping the baby and Papa took the big 4 swimming at the hotel pool, courtesy of some swim lessons and 2 pairs of inflatable water wings. I made grilled cheese and tomato soup for dinner, and the kids were in heaven.
Eating at the hotel
Go for the full kitchen. Grocery shop. Cereal for breakfast. Use paper plates if you want. It’s just like home, but with a finite amount of laundry and dishes. Feels like you’re on vacation.
Our kids are not into the the “gimmee gimmees” too badly, but Disney is designed to whip your normally reserved child into a frenzy of materialism. This problem was solved for us by an awesome Auntie Beav who gave each kiddo a $15 gift card for Christmas. They thought they had died and gone to heaven. Cal got a music box, JR got a Lego guy then regretted his decision after seeing the swords at Pirates of the Caribbean (sorry dude), Lumpy got a Beauty and the Beast polly-pocket like set with gummy dresses and all, Hoss got a set of original Disney character bath toys, and Daisy got a toy story action figure set, perfect for chewing. That was it, the whole vacation. It was great, because they were so grateful and really played with their toys. I did also buy them Disney t-shirts at the Super Target where I went grocery shopping, because they were just so darn sweet while we were there. Guess the kids weren’t the only ones who felt the need to make a purchase to get the full Disney experience.
The best thing we did on the whole flippin’ vacation
When I was a kid, my sister got my dad on the now-defunct Superstar television, and he got a pie thrown in his face by one of The Three Stooges. It was a memory I will never forget. He just wished they had let him eat the pie. Once I got picked to receive one of the Japanese master-taffyman’s handmade whales. My 5 year old sister had her mumbled reply of “oh yeah, Cleveland!” chanted by a hundred guests in a game of “where are you from.” Disney used to be the place where you had a different experience every time, with the audience pulled into the story and street performances. It built the sense that Disney wouldn’t be the same place without you.
Most of those experiences have disappeared now, 15 years since our last great childhood vacation there. So, it was a real treat to find that the kids could sign up for Jedi training at the now watered-down Hollywood Studios. Without a doubt, the free Padawan Training (ages 4-12) was the best thing they got to do all week. In a moment of old-school Disney generosity, the kids were decked out in Jedi robes and light-sabers, and invited to learn a series of Jedi defense techniques. All 15 of them got to fight Darth Vader one by one. JR was as serious at a heart attack, loving every minute, and volunteered to go first. Cal and Lumpy mastered their routines. We did the late night session, because it was the only one left by the time we ambled to the sign ups 45 minutes after the park opened, and it was perfect for photos and visibility due to the lack of crowds.
Compare that to signing your kids up for the Pirate League in the Magic Kingdom, and paying lots of money for your kid to get dressed up like a pirate (Cal called it the Pirate Spa). At the final show, only a couple kids are chosen to spar with Captain Jack Sparrow. The Padawan training was truly a vestige of old Disney, with kids really having their dreams come true, just for volunteering–not littered with extra fees and waivers. If it was the only thing we got to do in Disney, it would have been worth the trip. They marched offstage as certified Jedis, and in my kids’ minds, they really are.
The very best CHEAP theme-park vacation
…is not at Disney. If, even with these money-saving tips, Disney is still going to be outside of your budget, I would offer you to go to the next best thing I have experienced. Dollywood, in Tennessee with Silver Dollar City in Missouri as a back up. Housing is ample for a large family and reasonably priced, crowds are low if you go anytime except late June through the first week of August, and the selection of fun things to do is vast and varied. Of course, you can go to Disney on credit cards, but a vacation that you don’t have to pay off is much more relaxing and fun…not to mention better for the bottom line.
Disney may have lost some of its shine from its glory days, but we had a great time on our first real, just us, family vacation. There were moments when the old Disney Magic came back to life, and I think our kids felt it, too. Seeing even our tiniest Mouseketeer light up all day long, only 6 months home, and getting to reward the older four for the time they gave up with us to get her home…made it worth the price tag. I hope you’ll find the same.
What did your family do to save money at Disney? I’d love to hear your tips and tricks-comment below. Don’t forget about our giveaway at the top! Ends Feb 28!