How We Saved Money On Our Disney World Vacation (and Had a Great Time As Well)

Disney Bucks

Some years back we needed to figure out where we wanted to go on vacation.

It was my wife, our 7-year-old daughter, our 7-month-old son, and myself.  Since our son was so young we wanted to keep the flights short.  (Back then there were four of us, now there’s six if you’re trying to keep track.)

We decided now would be a great time to go to Disney world!

Read on and you’ll find out why Disney World was a great destination at the time and how I went about researching the best prices and activities.  This is valuable stuff you’ll want to bookmark if you think you’ll ever go to Disney World.

Why Go To Disney World With Kids Those Ages?

Our daughter grew up on everything Disney.  It was almost disgusting (but in a good way, if that’s possible?).

There was a point when she was young when there would always be some Disney princess on the TV.  We knew she would have a great time and she was old enough to truly appreciate Disney World.  We were afraid that if we took her when she was younger she just wouldn’t appreciate and remember everything.  Sure it would have blown her delicate little mind to go there younger but we thought 7 was a better age to get around and to take it all in.

With our son we figured he was old enough to take on vacation but young enough still that he would spend most of his time in the stroller and not want to run around on his own.  Maybe that sounds strange but toddlers have varying moods of staying quietly in a stroller and being fiercely independent.  No, he wouldn’t really remember the trip but we didn’t think he’d appreciate it until he was older anyway.  The Summer of ’07 was our best window of opportunity to go to Disney World (at least until the little guy was older).  And besides, at that age most things were free for him anyway.  We weren’t spending money on something he was likely going to forget.  (OK, he was basically just coming along for the ride.)

Research, Research, and Some More Research

We knew Disney World could be expensive so we needed to do some research. 

OK, a LOT of research.  I spent many hours checking flipping through sites for info on where was good to stay and what was the best deal.

We started off with a recommendation from a friend: The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids.

I checked it out on Amazon as well as at the local bookstore.  The book gives a nice detailed review of each park and their rides in DW and provides itineraries that you can use based on your children’s age.  It also gives suggestions on what rides to go on, when to see attractions, and general tips for having a good time in Orlando.

What I also liked was the reviews of all the local hotels, Disney and otherwise.  (There are a lot of hotels in the area to choose from!  You don’t have to stay at a Disney resort)  We compared the guide to similar books and liked this one the best (they also have The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World that doesn’t focus on kids).

We bought the book and I went into devouring all of the information. 

There is a LOT to see and do in Disney and the surrounding areas.  Having a guide book helped tremendously.

A big decision to make for a Disney World trip is whether to stay in a Disney resort or stay off site.  I had an idea of a couple of places where I wanted to stay.  Now to find rates!

I have to jump in for a second and tell you about a great resource site I found: Mousesavers.com

This site really gave us great info for Disney.  They tell you all about the different parks, hotels, vacation packages, various discount codes, freebies, specials, ride closings, etc…

If you plan on going on a Disney trip you should check out the site and sign up for their newsletter which has exclusive discounts.  The site really helped me get my head around all of the choices in a Disney World vacation.

Really, I can’t say enough good things about them.  They are a must-read if you plan to go to Disney World.

We used three main sources for our flight and hotel.

First we went to Liberty Travel agency to see what deals they have.  I like starting with them since some of their sales people are real knowledgeable on different vacations and occasionally they get really good packages.  Yes, travel agencies still have real value.  Sometimes.

Unfortunately the person we dealt with didn’t know a lot about Disney and couldn’t really tell us much.  Too bad for them.  (And travel agents wonder why their services are dying.)

Next was to look online.

We flipped back and forth between Expedia, the official Walt Disney World site, and Jet Blue.

Would the official Disney site be more expensive?

Not always.  And at least you can get an idea of what they are charging versus what other travel sites charge.

Originally we planned on Expedia for the hotel and Jet Blue for the flight (we heard so many good things about them, we wanted to try them).  I actually found a good deal for one of the Disney resort hotels on Expedia.  We were trying to book it but there was a computer glitch that wouldn’t let the reservation book.  Disappointed I poked around the Jet Blue site looking at flights.

I noticed that Jet Blue also had vacation packages!

I never knew that before (we never even flew them previously).

I started looking up the hotel I found on Expedia.  They had a similar deal but I actually found one that was better!  I found a great deal for the Hyatt Regency Grand Cyprus.  This is a four star hotel with a ridiculous amount of things to do including a giant pool with two waterslides (this will be important later on).

We jumped on the package which was 6 nights at the hotel and flights for the four of us on Jet Blue.  (When I checked into the hotel the clerk was actually surprised at the price we got the room for).

The hotel was in the Lake Buena Vista area.  They had some transportation to Disney parks but our best bet would be to rent a car.

Believe it or not the four main Disney parks aren’t all connected and next to each other.  Go figure!

A car would help us get around as well as give us more choices for eating.  The area we stayed had a number of other hotels and lots of food choices not Disney.  For example we actually went to Dunkin Donuts a few times to cut down on breakfast costs.  A car would also give us the opportunity to go to Target or Wal-Mart a few times to buy water and snacks (rather than buy them at the parks for much, much more).

So where to get a car?

We actually found some great discount codes on the Mousesavers site.  The one we ended up using was a flat fee for a mini-van at Dollar car rental for American Express card holders.  We paid less for a mini-van than we would have for many smaller cars.  Now we wouldn’t have to worry about installing our car seat (no climbing into a compact to figure it out) and we knew we would have enough room for our luggage and stroller.

This was really the best deal for us out there.

If you ever use Dollar I would suggest signing up for their Dollar Express program.  It can save you time at the rental counter as you get your own line (very important with two kids in tow)!

Let’s recap: Hotel – check; Flights – check; Car – check…what’s missing? 

Disney tickets!

Disney World is made up of four major theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and Animal Kingdom), two water parks, and a lot of other stuff!  We wanted to see the four main parks and we were considering the water parks.  Since our hotel had such a great pool with water slides we decided we could do without the water parks (wise decision since we would have seen less of the main parks if we went to the water parks).

So we needed tickets for the main parks.

There’s a lot of ticket options that I won’t go through here.  The option we did pick was the Park Hopper option which allowed us to go to more than one park a day (definite plus for us).  Again Mousesavers was a great help for ticket advice and discounts.  Through their newsletter you can get a code for a discount on the site Undercover Tourist which sells tickets to many different attractions.  We saved a lot through Undercover Tourist.  Their great price included taxes and were shipped free.

Did we have fun at Disney World?

Growing up I was never a Disney person.  Back then is was all classic Disney.  They didn’t have Star Wars or Marvel yet.

I always preferred Bugs Bunny to Mickey Mouse.  I figured we were going to Disney World mostly for our little princess.

But you know what?  It was a blast!  We went on roller coasters, rides, attractions, ate, swam…we really had a great time!

With two more kids in the family now we definitely want to go back.  We know they’ll have a great time.

The next time though, I would cut out Epcot (was kind of boring; the international food was interesting but not enough to carry the park) and Animal Kingdom (if you have a good zoo in your area, like we have with the Bronx Zoo, then you aren’t going to see too much new).

We would have spent more time at Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios (maybe my favorite – Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Muppets, stunt show).  We would have also spent more time at the hotel.  We didn’t even get a chance to take advantage of all of the activities in our hotel.

Was it the most frugal vacation we could have gone on?

No.  But it was well worth the money for the experiences we had (like my daughter saying “I lived!” after coming off of Space Mountain) and we found ways to save along the way.

Things to consider/to do if you’re planning a Disney World trip:

  • Check hotel/flight/car prices in a number of different places for the best price/package.
  • Check out Mousesavers.com – They really helped save money and they have great advice.
  • Get yourself a guide for the parks – There’s so much to do you really want to make sure you spend your time in the right places.  These days there are apps that can help you plan and keep track of the parks.
  • Consider renting a car and staying off the Disney resorts – You can get some great hotel deals and having a car gives you a lot of flexibility on food and supplies.  You can even add in attractions like Universal if you have a car.
  • But don’t think Disney Resorts are not worth it.  You can find great deals there from time to time and their meal packages are pretty decent.
  • If your child still uses a stroller bring along one that folds and rolls easily (we borrowed one from a neighbor).  Even with a car you’re still going to have to use Disney transportation to get from the parking lot to the park.  If your child is old enough for an umbrella stroller consider buying one in Orlando at Target or Wal-Mart.  You can rent a stroller in the Disney parks but I think it’s better to have your own.
  • Buy water and snacks at Target or Wal-Mart and bring it with you to the parks.  It gets hot and humid fast in Orlando and you need to keep hydrated.
  • Plan your day ahead/build an itinerary – Know where you want to go and what rides you want to go on for each day.  Some shows only play at certain times and some parks have later hours on different days.
  • With a Park Hopper pass you can split your day up and see one park in the morning, go back to your hotel and rest a bit, then see another park in the evening.  One night, after a nice afternoon siesta, we stayed until closing and got to see the last park parade of the day.  It was so much emptier than the earlier parades and we got to sit right up on the parade route.  Ursula, Little Mermaid for those not in the know, made my daughter jump about ten feet back when she talked right to us.

Finally

Disney World was loads of fun and the place is super efficient.  Really, I found the people working there to be some of the nicest I’ve seen (though the visitors aren’t always as nice).  Disney can be expensive but there are plenty of ways to save if you do your homework.

And the memories will last a lifetime!

Do you have any Disney World tips?

photo by idogcow

15 Things To Do With Your Economic Stimulus Check

The government Stimulus checks started going out on April 28th. If you are expecting one you should start looking for it in May (here’s a post listing the dates).

So what are you going to do with the extra money? Here are a list of ideas for using your stimulus check:

  • Pay off credit cards – If you have any credit card debt the stimulus check will be a great way knock some of that out! Paying off the debt gives you an instant return in savings of whatever you would have paid in interest fees. Psychologically, you will help in getting the debt monkey off your back.
  • Contribute to a Roth IRA – You can take your money and put it into your Roth IRA. For 2008 the contribution limit is $5000.
  • Start an emergency fund – If you don’t already have some sort of emergency fund (three to six months expenses seems to be the conventional wisdom) then your stimulus check is a good way to start one. Even if you have one you can use the money to increase your fund. A great place to start one is with ING Direct (you can even get a $25 bonus by opening your account with $250).
  • Contribute to a 529 college savings plan – You can use the money to help save for your kid’s education by putting the money in a 529 plan. Not only do you help save for college but you might get a tax break as well depending on your home state’s plan.
  • Pre-pay your mortgage – Take the money and make additional payments to your mortgage. By making additional payments you will own your home faster and pay less in interest. Just make sure the payments go towards the loan principle and not next month’s payment (also check that your lender will accept pre-payments without fees or penalties).
  • Go on vacation – You may have been planning to do this anyway so here is a good way to fund the vacation. Go and do something that will be a great experience for the family that you will all remember.
  • Improve the house – If there’s something you’ve needed to improve on your home, such as a furnace, you can use your stimulus check to pay for it (or at least help). Other options could be new paint job, carpet, furniture, appliances, etc…
  • Car maintenance – Have you been putting off a car repair? Need new brakes? New tires? Your stimulus money can fund it. If your car is about to go kaput your stimulus check could help pay for a new car (or a good new used car).
  • Learn to invest – Do some research and take the money and start investing. Companies such as Sharebuilder and Zecco offer low-fee investing. You have to do your homework with this option but it might be just enough money to start investing but not so much that you will be crazy worrying if you lose it. If you invest through Sharebuilder you can buy partial shares of Berkshire Hathaway B class shares. I hear that Warren Buffett is pretty good at investing.
  • Pay off student loans – If you have high interest student loans then your stimulus check can be a great way to help pay your student loans off. Just like with credit cards paying off your high interest student loans give you the instant return in savings of what you would have paid in interest.
  • Have a nice evening out – Take your spouse out to a really great meal. Get babysitting and go to that great restaurant you wanted to try. Go see that new show that everyone’s talking about. Make an experience you will always remember.
  • Get physically fit – The stimulus check should be enough to pay for a year’s gym membership (or more than a year). Use the stimulus check as a catalyst to get in shape and make your life healthier. Not sure about a gym? Find a class such as yoga or martial arts to join. Not into that? Buy a new bike and go riding. Or get yourself some good running sneakers and running attire. Join your local running club and enter a few small races. You never know, you may one day run a marathon.
  • Go to school – Use your stimulus check to enroll in a college course or two. This can be toward a degree or just continuing education. Hey, you can take a personal finance course. Maybe learn a second language?
  • Do nothing – This is the easiest of them all. Put the money in your savings account and forget about it. You don’t have to spend it or find any particular purpose for it. It doesn’t have to burn a hole in your pocket. One day you might find a good use for it but for now it adds to your savings.

Personally, we’re closer to the Do Nothing suggestion. Our stimulus check will come via direct deposit right into our ING account. We have no specific plans for the money so it will be added into our savings. Our check may pay parts of many of the suggestions or for none of them. Either way it will earn interest until it finds a home somewhere else.

Do you have any other ideas for using the economic stimulus check?

photo by Argenberg

Best And Worst College 529 Plans From Morningstar

Morningstar has released their picks for the top five and worst five 529 college-savings plans. To make their choices, Morningstar “focused on diversification, fees, flexibility, and the underlying funds.”Here are the top five:

- Illinois Bright Start College Savings Program
- Maryland College Investment Plan
- Virginia Education Savings Trust
-Virginia CollegeAmerica 529 Savings Plan (broker sold)
- Colorado Scholars Choice Savings Program (broker sold)

The worst five:

- Ohio Putnam CollegeAdvantage (broker sold)
- Mississippi Affordable College Savings Program
- Mississippi Affordable College Savings Advisor Program (broker sold)
- New York 529 College Savings Program
- Nebraska AIM College Savings Plan (broker sold)

I’m a little concerned that New York’s plan is considered one of the worst. Not only do I have two funds under the plan (one for each child) I also said recently that it’s a good plan. The main criticism from Morningstar is that the plan doesn’t have any exposure to international funds so it’s been missing out on international gains and it’s not hedged against US economy downturns. Other wise Morningstar says it’s moderately priced and they like that it’s made up of Vanguard index funds.

Many people, like myself, contribute to their own state’s plans since it’s likely they get a tax break. But depending on the plan and state you may be better off contributing to another state’s plan.

The Wall Street Journal suggests the following when considering a 529 plan:

“• When shopping for a 529 plan, you should consider costs, investment options and asset-allocation strategies.

Weigh any tax advantages of investing in an in-state plan against the plan’s total costs.

Look for annual asset-based fees of less than 1% for direct-sold plans and less than about 1.3% for broker-sold plans.

Compare state plans at www.savingforcollege.com, www.collegesavings.org or www.morningstar.com.”Hopefully Morningstar’s review will prompt the New York 529 plan to consider some international exposure otherwise I may have to look into some of the better plans.

Do you contribute to a 529 college-savings plan?

Emotions Got The Best Of Us At The Picture People – Review

Baby pictures at The Picture People

So this past weekend my wife and I took the kids to get their pictures taken at The Picture People at the mall. We had a coupon for a free 8×10 portrait and since we hadn’t had pictures taken of our children together we thought we’d go (the little one is an infant).  We figured we’d go in, get our picture and get out.  Far from it!

Baby pictures at The Picture PeopleThey have some marketing plan set up there! We got there and checked in.  When it was our turn we were brought to a curtained off area to take pictures.  The photographer is a young guy with a digital camera.  He took all sorts of pics with each child separately as well as together.  When the picture taking was over we told to wait a bit and we would be helped.

Here is where they get us:

  • They show you about 20 pictures, all which make you say “awwwww.”  Now we want all of the pictures.
  • The sales person says “wouldn’t this be nice” and takes out a large, vertical, black and white portrait already framed.   It looks amazing until we’re told it costs about $150. He also produces a large horizontal frame with three photos.
  • When we seem like we’re not so sure he tells us there’s a way he can get us the three pic frame as well as some others in a great package that will save money. Sounds interesting. Oh, the package costs $249!!
  • When we’ve finally decided what we want (much more than what we planned) and we’re ready to pay we’re told about a membership club we can join that will make one of our pics cheaper and entitle us to some free pics throughout the year.
  • They also ask for your email address so you can view your photos online. They encourage you to send the site to friends and family so they can see if there’s pictures they want to buy (you can put a picture on anything from a mug to a mouse pad or just order copies).

Suffice it to say we spent way more than we intended to. The pictures do look great (including the three picture frame we got) and they have everything done for you within an hour.

Pros and Cons About The Picture People

Pros

  • Convenience – We made an appointment and went to the mall. We didn’t have to schedule a photographer to come to the house.
  • Ease of Service - The people were friendly and you walk out with your photos within an hour.
  • Price – Although we spent more than we wanted to it would have cost more to hire a photographer.
  • Quality – The pictures really do look great!

Cons

  • Atmosphere – It’s a bit of a mad house there with all of the families coming and going, many with small children.
  • Price – Yes it’s relatively inexpensive but the photos and packages still come out to a hefty amount (at least to our liking).
  • Emotional Factor – It’s really tough to say no to all these great pictures of your children. You see them and want them all.   I jokingly told the sales person that it would be on his conscience if we couldn’t afford to put our kids through college.

Overall we’re happy with the product and we will be going back to get our free pictures (yeah we signed up for the membership). Since we now have some nice photos we won’t be needed large packages and we intend to only go for our promotional photo.

The big lesson here is that spending is emotional and we have to be careful not to let our emotions get the better of our budget!

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