By KIM POINDEXTER
When you step into the enchanting world created in 1971 by Walt Disney, on what was once an expanse of uninviting swampland, you can literally leave behind whatever troubles you have, if only for a few days.
For a growing body of Americans, it’s well worth the money. And that’s why they keep coming back, year after year, to capture another piece of the magic.
My sister moved to Florida from Oklahoma years ago, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious to me why she did so. The perpetually balmy climate and the proximity to beaches is a major factor for her. To me, the presence of Walt Disney World would almost be enough. With its four theme parks, two water parks and various other attractions, WDW is a community unto itself, and one to which the rest of us have a perpetual invitation.
My husband and I enjoy spending our anniversary there, and many other couples do the same. When we were there a few weeks ago, we seemed to notice more couples our age (and even older) than ever before. WDW, in other words, isn’t just for kids these days, although families are still the main focus of most attractions. But the world-class golf courses, stellar attractions, exceptional restaurants and convenient means of getting from point A to point B are also enticing to empty-nesters.
Because I’m such a Disney enthusiast, I’m often asked by friends and Daily Press readers to detail highlights and reveal my personal must-do list. It’s important to have some information in hand before you arrive, because unless you are blessed with an unlimited amount of time to spend there, you can’t possibly do everything. Indeed, I’ve been there several times, and still haven’t scratched the surface. I do try to do a few new things every time we visit, along with some long-standing favorites.
If you’re looking to vacation on the cheap, WDW is not for you. However, by planning ahead and saving your pennies, it’s an achievable goal even for folks on the most modest incomes, and yes, even in today’s shaky economy. I once figured out for a friend that if she and her husband would quit smoking for about four months, they could take their child to WDW for a week. Tickets for both WDW and airlines have risen in price since that time, but then again, so has the cost of cigarettes. Making a few sacrifices, and taking a couple of other key steps, can get you there in no time.
Here are my top 10 suggestions that will save you money:
1. Join AAA. I tell people this all the time, and they are astonished to learn they can save enough on one night’s stay at a WDW resort to pay for their annual membership. You can get an entire WDW vacation package from AAA at substantial savings, but you can also call WDW direct and just book your resort only, and get a considerably cheaper rate.
2. Stay plugged into informative websites to keep up with discounts. The official site is disneyworld.disney.go.com, and you’ll find everything you need to know there. You can look for different themes and attractions according to the time of year, plus book dining reservations and tours and other fun events. However, also check independent sites like www.laughingplace.com, www.allears.net, www.wdwinfo.com, and www.mousesavers.com, where you can quickly access the best deals. If you’re in the military, active or retired, you can often score discounts of as much as 45 percent on the “rack rate” (the resort room rate) at any given moment. My husband is retired from the National Guard, so this has helped us tremendously. Other money-saving suggestions are also offered on these sites, so check back regularly during the planning stages.
3. Choose an economical time of year to visit. WDW divides its years into various seasons like “value,” “fall,” “peak,” etc. Resort prices are substantially lower during the non-peak times, and there are still plenty of things to do. We like to attend the Food and Wine Festival, which this year started Oct. 1 and runs through mid-November. Some of that period falls within a more economical time frame, although take note that holiday rates are often higher. We have friends who like to go during the spring, because of the Flower and Garden Festival, but rates are higher then than in the fall. You can check the website to determine rates for the time you’re planning to travel.
4. Book early. As with anything else, the earlier you make your reservations, the less expensive your trip will be. This applies to WDW resorts as well as airline tickets. If you fly Southwest, you can always look for “ding” rates, but since those are always offered very close to your travel date, you’re taking a big gamble. The best alternative is to compare airline rates, look at what Disney’s offering, and plan accordingly. In the past 10 years, we have yet to find any airline that beat Southwest or American on rates, and those tend to vacillate between the two. Southwest will let you rebook with no fees if you have to change or cancel your vacation; American will make you pay to switch. Also, American charges for your luggage; Southwest doesn’t. Disney will refund any money you’ve paid, up to the last week, if things fall through. (If you are driving, that opens up another can of worms, and that’s another thing I don’t recommend unless you have a large family. Parking fees and fuel costs make it almost as costly as flying.)
5. Book directly with Disney and with your airline. My travel agent friends will not like my saying this, but a Disney vacation is one of the easiest to do yourself. Once you’ve decided when you want to go; where you want to stay; and how you’re going to get there, it’s simply a matter of going online and clicking your mouse. Some of the independent websites also encourage you to use a certain travel agency to book, but you don’t necessarily need to bother with that. If you must use an agent, use a local one. (One thing about WDW that has often puzzled me is the lack of an 800 number. However, booking online is free, and now you can also book your dining reservations online. More on that later, because those reservations are essential.)
6. Don’t automatically buy trip insurance. As I’ve said elsewhere, if things don’t pan out, Southwest Airlines will let you rebook for no fee; Disney will refund your money if you cancel more than a few days out, although depending on the time frame, they may charge you a small fee. From my experience, most airline insurance isn’t worth the price.
7. Stay in a Disney resort. Although the nightly rate might be higher – and in some cases, considerably higher – than you would get at an off-site hotel, the proximity makes it worth the extra money, mainly because you won’t have to rent a car. There are three levels of resorts, grouped according to price: value, moderate the deluxe. We always stay at one of the deluxe resorts, although they cost more, because three of them – the Grand Floridian, the Polynesian and the Contemporary – offer access to the monorail system, and convenience is very important to us at our age. We like the Polynesian best, because the rooms are bigger than any others; the complex is “spread out” and thus the rooms are quieter; and the resort is right next to the ticket and transportation hub, which means better access to Epcot and the other parks. The other two deluxe resorts – Wildnerness Lodge and Animal Kingdom Lodge – are not on the monorail, but are beautiful (in fact, my husband would prefer Wildnerness if it were on the monorail). Moderate and value resorts depend largely on the bus system for transportation around WDW, but all are very nice, and the value resorts especially will fit a modest budget. Early booking is a key to getting a less expensive room!
8. Use WDW’s transportation system. I can’t stress enough how convenient and economical the Magical Express is. It takes you – and separately, your luggage – from the airport directly to your resort, then picks you up and takes you back to the airport at the end of your stay. Unless you’re going somewhere else besides WDW during your trip to Florida (and I don’t recommend that, especially for first-timers, because there’s too much to do at WDW), don’t bother renting a car. And don’t worry about getting from park to park; the monorail, boat and bus systems are extensive and will get you anywhere you need to go. Be aware that no system is without its flaws, and the bus system does experience occasional glitches. Even though buses supposedly come along every 20 minutes for every destination, sometimes they’re late (or one breaks down), so you’ll want to plan accordingly. (We did learn from some accommodating cast members – Disney employees! – that if you’re late for a restaurant reservation, they’ll still hold them for you.
9. Consider buying the Disney Dining Plan. We did that for the first time this year, and you’ll almost certainly save about 30 percent if you like eating in the parks and at the resorts. The regular Dining Plan wouldn’t really work for us, because it gives you one snack, one counter service meal, and one table service meal per person per night of your stay. We typically don’t go for counter service, but rather eat two table service meals per day. Disney doesn’t have a plan like that (and I wish it DID); the next best thing is the Deluxe Dining Plan, which gives you three table service meals, plus two snacks per night of your stay. Another factor for us was that the regular dining plan gives you a non-alcoholic drink, entree and dessert for each table service meal; we prefer to have an appetizer and an entree, and substitutes weren’t allowed. The deluxe plan gives you an appetizer, entree and dessert with every meal, plus the (non-alcoholic) drink. We didn’t even come close to using all our credits, nor did we consume all the food available at each meal – that’s a lot to eat! – but at about $72 per day, we still saved money.
10. Buy water, alcohol and beer, and keep them in your room refrigerator. You can buy a high-end dining plan that includes wines, but not cocktails. When people ask me about that, I usually tell them to buy a bottle, and have a drink in their room before going to dinner. But the experience of enjoying a specialty cocktail at one of WDW’s bars can’t be underestimated, either. The water, especially if you don’t have the dining plan, will save you plenty.
Coming up: My top attractions, both shows and rides; my favorite places to eat; and my hidden gems.