It takes a high savings rate to achieve financial independence and retire early. A visit to Disney World requires a significant output of money.
Nevertheless, if visiting Mickey Mouse is a high priority for you or your children, there are strategies that can help you fit a Disney vacation into nearly any budget. We’ll approach it from the barista FIRE, leanFIRE, FIRE, and fatFIRE perspectives.
If none of those acronyms made sense to you, fear not. All will be explained below. I’ll also share some general Disney tips based on my experience visiting all four major Disney plus the waterparks with my family of four in September of 2018.
Walt Disney World for the FIRE Crowd
We’ll start from the lowest budget version of FIRE and work our way up.
Walt Disney World for the Barista FIRE Crowd
When you’ve saved enough to be well on your way to financial independence, but choose to keep some sort of employment for the extra income and perhaps more importantly, the health insurance and other benefits, you’ve got what some call Barista FIRE.
Disney World does have a number of actual Starbucks outlets, but you don’t have to serve venti lattes to Barista FIRE at Disney. Any Disney job will do.
As a Disney
employee cast member, you won’t get paid much, but you do get some great perks, and that includes free admission to the parks nearly any day when you’re not working.
Now, after spending 8 hours selling Mickey-shaped pretzels with gooey cheese in the 92-degree heat, you may not be thrilled about spending another 8 hours with those people, but you’ll have that option. Maybe wait until your next day off.
The best part about this option is that you’ll be in no hurry to cram as much in as you possibly can like the typical vacationer who is there for four to seven days. You can wait ’til it’s cool(er) in the evening and just go for a couple hours. It’s not like you’re “wasting” a day’s admission by only going to the theme parks for a short while. You have nearly unlimited admission (blackout days may apply).
Walt Disney World for the leanFIRE Crowd
You’re not a cast member, you’re a guest! A frugal guest in the happiest and most expensive place on Earth! Not so fast, you say. You’re going to enjoy your Disney vacation on the cheap.
You’re leanFIRE. You don’t have to work again as long as your retirement budget doesn’t exceed $40,000 a year or so. You’re going to save as much money as possible while still enjoying yourselves.
You’ll stay off-site in a condominium where you can prepare meals. You might share a larger place with another family or stay in a friend or relative’s timeshare for a song.
You’ll need a rental car, but Orlando has five million of them, so it doesn’t cost much. Parking at the parks is expensive, but you figured out that you can park free at Disney Springs and take complimentary Disney transportation everywhere from there.
The basic one-park-per-day pass is your pass of choice. The most affordable round-trip flight only gave you four days and there are four major parks, so it actually worked out perfectly. Who needs a Park Hopper pass when there’s more than you can see in each theme park in a day, anyway? One can easily spend a whole day at the Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot Center, or Animal Kingdom.
You get up early each day, make breakfast, and pack a backpack with snacks, sandwiches and water bottles. You squeeze as much as you can out of every minute at the parks, and either grab a quick bite at Disney Springs or head back to the condo to prepare a late dinner.
You skip the souvenir shops; you picked up all the Disney gear you need beforehand at Walmart or Amazon.com.
Walt Disney World for the FIRE Crowd
Technically, all categories featured today are part of the FIRE crowd, so you all might employ many of these strategies. You’re going to enjoy a more expensive experience than those above, but you might actually be paying less.
FIRE types like to optimize while getting the most bang for their buck. Sometimes this means spending freely; other times it can mean redeeming valuable travel rewards.
You fly the family down for $22 a seat, paying only the federal taxes while using an airline rewards or flexible travel reward card‘s welcome bonus to cover the point cost. Rather than getting a companion card for your spouse, you each applied for and used your own card to earn two full bonuses.
For lodging, you do one of two things.
You can do like we did, paying to stay in an onsite Walt Disney World resort hotel while getting excellent perks for off-season travel, like a free dining plan for your entire family.
The other great option is to leverage your hotel miles, again earned via a flexible rewards or hotel branded card, to stay at a high-quality, onsite non-Disney hotel. Examples include the Swan and Dolphin hotels (Westin / Marriott properties), several Hilton properties (Hiltons, Doubletree, and Waldorf Astoria), and a Holiday Inn at Disney Springs.
Hilton, in particular, has several great cards for earning bonus points (see offers here).
You can’t redeem points for Disney tickets, but if you want to leverage your credit card knowledge to the max, you can purchase tickets via an agency that the credit card company will consider “travel” and use a card that reimburses travel costs, like the Capital One Venture (compare this card). More simply, you can use a cashback card.
Of course, money is fungible, so using a travel reimbursement or cash back to buy the tickets just gives you less cash or travel credits to use elsewhere, but if you’d like to account in a way that makes you feel like you paid for very little of this trip, knock yourself out.
You’re more interested in the best value rather than the cheapest option, so you opt for the Park Hopper Plus pass. Each additional day after the first four days only costs an extra $10 to $15 a day, so you get the ten day pass.
You can visit the water parks Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon at any time in the first two weeks after you start using your pass. You might stay with a friend or move to a lower cost housing option like the leanFIRE folks stayed in after your points have been used up or your week at a Disney hotel is over.
If you got the free meal plan, you visit the souvenir shop the last day of your hotel stay to use up all your leftover snack credits on bags of candy and trail mix. And you realized early on that you can order an alcoholic drink with every meal in most parks (with the exception of quick service dining at the Magic Kingdom where alcohol is not available). You’re going to get your money’s worth!
Walt Disney World for the fatFIRE Crowd
You’re rich! Your annual budget is six-figures and your vacation budget is five (figures, that is). You’re going to do Disney like a true VIP. You are fatFIRE. And Disney loves you for it.
It’s a suite life. As in, you stay in a suite in one of the upper tier Disney World resorts. You opt for the Disney Deluxe Dining Plan, which is a ridiculous amount of food, but it’s the best way to ensure you get a good reservation at the top restaurants like Le Cellier Steakhouse in Epcot’s Canada and Be Our Guest in The Magic Kingdom.
You might as well buy an annual pass since it doesn’t cost that much more than a 10-day pass, and who knows? You may be passing through Orlando again before the year is out.
The bummer about being just another annual passholder is that you have to play the FastPass+ game like the rest of the commoners, even if you do get to pick your rides and times 60 days in advance by virtue of your Disney hotel reservation.
You may decide to schedule some VIP time to avoid the lines and not have to bother with the FastPass+ system. Sure, you’ll pay an extra $425 to $625 an hour for the privilege, but remember… you are fatFIRE.
For transportation, you could take advantage of the monorails, buses, and boats that interconnect the Disney parks and hotels for free, but how convenient is it to wait for the bus to load the motorized carts that a surprising number of people seem to rely on at Disney World?
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The Physician on FIRE Walt Disney World Trip
With FinCon being held in Orlando, we made a family vacation of it. We spent 7 days at Disney World, hopped on a cruise to Cuba, and followed that up with four days at FinCon. It was a busy couple of weeks and I went back to more than full-time work through the end of the year immediately upon our return.
We’re planning on a fatFIRE retirement, but not that fat, so our trip looked more like the optimizers’ of the FIRE crowd above.
I started pricing out packages and learned that September was a great time to do Disney for two reasons. First, the place was half-empty. As an optimist, I really should say half-full. The bottom line is that we never waited more than 30 minutes for any ride, and usually had lines of five to fifteen minutes.
The other reason it was a good time to be there were the incentives. By booking a Disney hotel for at least 5 days at an off-peak time, we were given a free family dining plan. For a family of four, the quick-service dining plan carried a value of nearly $200 a day. We wouldn’t have spent that much on food and drink if not on a plan, but it was great to not think twice about grabbing snacks and meals (with drinks!) whenever we wanted.
With the International wine and food festival happening at Epcot, we used a bunch of snack credits to try anything from cheese plates to seafood gumbo to lamb chops. It was fun to eat our way around the world.
Our entire Disney package for the four of us, including 7 nights at the All Star Sports Resort, four 5-Day Park Hopper Plus passes, transportation from the airport, and the dining package cost us $3,129.
The tickets alone would have cost around $1800, and the hotel and dining packages would have cost $1,200 or more apiece, so it’s like we got either the food or the hotel for free.
My Top Walt Disney World Tips
Book through a travel agent.
You’ll either get a discount or perks that aren’t available when booking direct via Disney. I booked through Small World Vacations. By doing so, we paid the same but got some extras like passes to mini-golf that we never actually found time to use and a one-year subscription to touringplans.com that we absolutely used.
Start planning months in advance.
If staying in a Disney Hotel, you can select the attractions and times for your three FastPass+ tickets each day 60 days in advance of your visit. These allow you to bypass the regular line.
Touringplans.com has a crowd calendar that predicts how busy the parks will be on particular days and has suggestions for how to use your FastPasses on which rides. The people behind this site have also written the bible for Disney World — The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. We bought that, too.
For physicians and spouses, there’s a Facebook group called Disney Planning Doctors. There are a bunch of other groups websites devoted to all things Disney. The MouseSavers newsletter is great for getting the most for your Disney dinero.
If you do get the dining plan, use the mobile app to order food and drink when you’re 5 to 10 minutes away from the quick service dining counter and look over the menus in advance so you know where your best options will be. If you’ll be sitting down for dinner, make your table service reservations well in advance.
Arrive first thing in the morning and visit the most popular rides first.
You can get all sorts of detailed touring plans from — you guessed it — touringplans.com. But the gist is to hit up the popular rides right away in the morning before the lines get long. Exceptions can be made for rides you have a FastPass for.
When it gets busy late morning into the afternoon, go back and visit the rides that are less popular, the sit-down shows, etc…
Most parks open their doors and let you into the first part of the park up to about an hour before the official opening. Don’t arrive as early as possible or you’ll be waiting around. But do arrive 15 to 30 minutes ahead to get through the bag check, visit a shop or two, and be ready to find your first attraction when the park is fully open.
Pack a bag every morning.
We had one small backpack that went with us everywhere. We used it for water bottles, small snacks, and some days our Unofficial Guide. It’s a thick book, so we started leaving it behind, but I did always pack our printed out touring plans. They may have been overkill and we didn’t follow them precisely, but the planning involved helped me know what rides to hit up first.
Wear comfortable socks and shoes.
My wife and kids all wear Garmin Forerunner watches, so we know exactly how much wear we put on the soles of our shoes. We walked seven to ten miles a day at the parks, and we only went to one park per day. We didn’t actually use the “park hopper” option, but it was good to know that we could.
Wait until your kids are old enough to enjoy, appreciate, and remember it.
This will be a controversial recommendation, but families pushing strollers and handling tantrums of kids that were clearly overdue for a nap did not seem to be the happiest people on Earth.
Our youngest was seven years old and exactly 48″ tall, which meant we could go on nearly every ride together. Personally, I was glad we waited until they were of a certain age and size before our first big Disney trip. We did spend a day at the two parks in Disneyland Paris the year before, but that was a one-day whirlwind tour, not a full week immersed in Disney World.
It’s supposed to be the happiest place on Earth, so don’t stress too much. It won’t all go as planned, you won’t squeeze in every experience you had hoped for, and at some point, you’ll have to schedule in a little downtime.
What are your top Disney tips? What version of FIRE did your last Disney trip look most like?