Sunday, June 4, 2017

Getting the Most for Your Money at Disney or Universal

These days tickets to major theme parks like Walt Disney World or Universal Studios can run close to or even over $100 per day.  There is just no way you can consider spending any amount of time at such a park to be a low-cost vacation.  Having taken several trips to the Orlando theme parks, I have several suggestions for getting the most for your money.

Compare Onsite and Offisite Hotels.

I know people will disagree with me on this, and I certainly encourage you to run the numbers, but for the most part, you will find on-site hotels to be more expensive than comparable off-site properties.  While  you have to factor in the fact that you will not be paying $20 per day to park and you do get extra park hours, you also have to consider that you will probably  be eating theme-park priced food all day every day.  

However, if you fly into Orlando rather than drive, staying onsite may be less expensive as you will not need to rent a car.  While offsite hotels do advertise free shuttles, people have told me that these are inconvenient and crowded and cannot be guaranteed to get you to and from the parks on your preferred schedule. 

Walt Disney World

As I am writing this article, Disney is offering a "Summer Special".  For a family of four to stay at the All Star Resort, get four day tickets allowing entrance to one park per day (and no park twice)  and to get a dining plan allowing two counter service meals plus two snacks would cost $2849.70.  That hotel room has two double beds.

How else could we enjoy this vacation?

We could stay at the Townbridge Suites, which is only 3.2 miles from the Magic Kingdom.  Our five nights there would cost $845.79, and instead of a small hotel room with two double beds, we'd have two queen beds, a double sofa and a kitchen.  We'd also get free breakfast.  

The four day four park tickets would be $1346.16. We'd also have to pay $20 per day to park the car, so getting in the door would total $1426.16.  

Since we had our free breakfast at the hotel, we only have to budget for lunch and dinner.  A counter sevice meal and drink is going to run about $15 per person, so if you eat them in the park, that is $120 per day or $480 in meals, and we'll round it up to $500 because you'll probably want snacks too.  
While the Disney package cost $2849.70 for our family of four adults, the family that stayed offsite only spent $2771.95 and got larger accomodations.  Further, they could have saved even more on food by going back to the hotel for lunch and/or  dinner, or packing their lunch, since they have a kitchen.  

Another choice is the  Park Inn by Raddison where two queen beds and breakfast but no kitchen costs $470.00.  This hotel has a rating of 3.2 (good) on Trip Advisor.  Assuming we eat our meals in the parks, staying here (within walking distance of Animal Kingdom) would cost us about $2400.  

None of these choices are luxury hotels, but all appear conveniently located and have good or better reviews.


Universal's lowest price resort is the Cabana Bay resort, and for a room with two queen beds on the same days as I priced for Walt Disney World, plus four day three park tickets (Universal, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay Water Park) I would pay $2226.31.  Add on $50 per day per person for food and the total package is about $3026.31.

If I stayed down the road at the Drury Inn and Suites, in a room with two queen beds, that room plus the tickets would cost $1711.38, and if you add $20 to park per day you get $1791.38.  Add $50 per day per person for food and you get $2511.38.  

Arrive Early

I know it is your vacation and that sleeping in sounds like a better plan, but the early bird gets to skip the long lines.  If you are staying onsite, take advantage of those early admission hours where you can basically walk onto the rides.  

Based on our experience, if you are lined up to enter the park when the rope drops, you can expect to walk on to one or two headline rides with less than a five minute wait (unless the headliner you choose is a character meet and greet).  The lines are worst from about eleven until the afternoon thunder shower or about six, whichever comes first.  

I recommend a subscription to which allows you to create touring plans that include the attractions you want to experience arranged so as to minimize either wait time or walking. For example, they have a pre-made plan for Universal Studios that you can edit.  If I optimize that plan for July 9 it estimates that to see the 20 listed attractions, I will spend 179 minutes in line, 316 minutes busy with the attractions, 236 minutes free and 55 minutes walking. As a comparison, if I head to the Harry Potter ride first, and then to the other activities in that area, I end up spending 317 minutes in line, 286 minutes on the attractions and 57 minutes walking.

Arriving early means that you have time to take a break in the middle of the afternoon when the weather is the hottest (or when it rains).

Go During the Offseason 

Both Disney and Universal engage in load-based pricing.  If you want to be there on the busiest days of the year you will pay more than if you are there when the kids are in school.  We got lucky this year--the only person in our family who is still in school graduated from our parish school, and therefore got out a week before everyone else.  We took our vacation the week before Memorial Day and it got us a four day Universal ticket for the normal cost of a two day ticket.

Disney often offers free dining packages if you stay onsite during the offseason.  You can find bargains at local hotels during the offseason as well.  

When Practical, Skip the Theme Park Food

As noted above, a counter service meal such as a hamburger, chicken nuggets or pizza will cost about $15 per person.  If your family includes children, they may be able to split these meals as portions are generous, however, it is still basically fast food.  If you upgrade to something with vegetables, you upgrade the price as well.  

If you are staying offsite, particuarly in a room with a kitchen, if the hotel does not offer free breakfast, make or buy your own.  Many hotel rooms have small refrigerators that can hold yogurt, milk, cheese and fruit.  If your kids eat cereal at home, they can eat it at the hotel too.

If your family can be at the rope drop and last until the fireworks end, more power to you.  You probably will be eating theme park food because leaving and returning will cut into your fun..  However, if you head back to the hotel for an afteroon swim or rest, include you lunch in the break, or take sandwiches with you.  The parks allow you to bring in food and water, just no ice chests.  

Even if you can't fix food in your room, you can save money and/or get some variety in your diet by patronizing offsite restaurants.  

Shop Around for Tickets, But Be Careful

The major theme parks make it clear that multi-day tickets are for use by one person.  If I buy a four day ticket, I can't let you use one of the days.  They enforce this by scanning a bar code on the ticket (or checking the magic band) and comparing it to a fingerprint scan.  

There are people who try to sell unused days or counterfeit tickets.  All I can say is "let the buyer beware" and "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is". 

That being said, Undercover Tourist  is a reputable ticket broker that often offers tickets at a lower cost than the parks themselves do.

When you start planning your trip, start keeping an eye on ticket prices and deals.  As I said above, the "rack rate" seems to be about $100 per park.  I say "per park" because if you buy a ticket that allows entry into more than one park per day, the price goes up subtantially, unless you buy multi-day tickets.  

As I am writing this, on the Undercover Tourist site, I can get a 1 day 1 park ticket to Universal for $132.06. If I want to make that a 1 day 2 park ticket it goes up to $175.73.  If I do a 2 day 1 park per day ticket it is $209.71.  2 day 2 park is $263.62. If I want head of the line privileges at all the major Universal attractions, another $50-60 will give you that.

Both parks offer deals of one sort or another frequently , the trick is to get the best deal for what you want to do when you want to do it. Both Disney and Universal now charge extra to hop between parks.  Disney is offering a deal right now--$79 per day, but you have to buy four day tickets and you can only visit each park once (in other words you can't skip the park you aren't sure is worth it).

We recently got four day tickets to Universal for $200 each--but the reality is we wouldn't have paid to return to either park for a second day.  Since they gave us two days "free" we did return, did pay parking, and did buy overpriced food.

If you are willing and able to dedicate part of your vacation to listening to a hard-sell sales pitch for a vacation condo, you can probably score a free ticket or two, but you will almost certainly be there for half a day or more.  

Decide What Is Important to You and Your Family, and Focus Your Spending on That

Everyone has a different idea of what is "fun" or "worth it".  For some people, an integral part of the Disney experience is staying onsite, and they absolutely would not be happy with a generic condo three miles away, even if that condo gave them more space and allowed them to cook.  For others, being trapped in a small hotel room with their kids is something worth paying to avoid.  

The theme parks try to reach adults with dining and entertainment choices that go beyond chicken strips and french fries.  While the food is not inexpensive, eating in unique restaurants can be fun for some people, while others would be better off going back to the condo and popping a Lean Cuisine in the microwave.

Ways to reduce the overall cost of a theme park vacation include making a one-day visit part of a vacation in Florida, rather than making your vacation a week-long trip to theme parks.  

Figure out your budget and figure out how to give your family the most fun for that amount of money.  

*Part of Financially Savvy Saturdays on brokeGIRLrich.*

1 comment:

  1. I think it's interesting how how much you might save can be a tipping point. As I read your breakdown above for the one that saves a little over $100, I thought "I'm not sure that's worth it to exchange all the little conveniences (like shuttles to the theme park from the hotel)" but as it increased to like $400/$500 with the next hotel you compared, I thought "now we're talking, that much might be worth all the little hassles of staying offsite."