Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Driving to Disney (and all the joy that goes with it!)

As a frugal family going on vacation to Walt Disney World, we found the least expensive way to go for our family of four is to drive. We live in central North Carolina and the drive takes anywhere from 10-12 hours depending on how we break the trip up.

The first time we drove down, we stayed with friends before hand (1998 trip). Other times that we went, we've gone and stayed with my in-laws who live about an hour North of Orlando - we'd visit with them for a few days and then on our first Disney day, we'd leave their home at around 7:30 in the morning, drive to Disney and be able to get a full day in at the parks.

Now I know that we are fortunate because we are a one-day drive there. We prefer to do the drive in one day. On our 2001 trip we left here at around 8 in the morning (we had family members traveling with us so we were 7 in the van!). The adults all shared driving duty and we switched it up in each state so no one was driving for more than 3 hours at a shot. We had made reservations for an inexpensive motel right outside of the entrance to Disney and paid only $29.99 for the night! The number was great, the hotel? Not so much.

Our thoughts in doing it this was was so that we would get the big drive out of the way, get a good night's sleep and then get up refreshed the next morning and ready to enjoy a full day at whatever park we chose. Our reservation at the on-site Disney hotel is good no matter what time you arrive on your first day and even if your room is not ready for you, they will store your luggage and give you your passes in to the parks and you are on your way. So again, on that 2001 trip, we were checking in to the All-Star Movie Resort at 8:30 in the morning and there was one room ready (we were a large group and needed 4) so we stored our luggage in the one room and headed out to Hollywood Studios where by lunchtime, we met up with the other 6 people we were vacationing with.

Now I have friends who prefer to do the drive in two days - but with the bulk of it done in one. So from North Carolina they'd drive in to Northern Florida, stop for the night and maybe only have a 2-3 hour drive the next day and then they are in the parks either by lunchtime or right after lunch.

So okay, you can drive there but how do you survive the drive?? On our first trip, my son was 6. We packed him up everything that we could find that would entertain him - books, games, walkman's (it was 1998!), a Gameboy, etc. We listened to the radio, we talked about all of the things that we were going to do. He was an AWESOME traveler. We packed up a big cooler of sandwiches, snacks and drinks and really, we only stopped for gas and the bathroom. In 2001 when we did the drive with my sister-in-law and her husband and 6 year old daughter, my older son was 10 and I had an almost 2 year old. We were crammed in the minivan and the kids essentially entertained themselves with books, games, and the like. We stopped a bit more often but again, had a huge cooler full of sandwiches, snacks and drinks and everyone seemed happy. The kids even napped a bit.

As my boys got older, we invested in the portable TV's and DVD players for the car and it became a ritual where they would - in the days leading up to the trip - each pick out 4-6 DVD's that they would bring with them and we even had one of those plug in type games that had all kinds of Sponge Bob video games to play. We load up the cooler and really, I think I have a harder time with the drive than they do! I wish I could sit in the back and watch the TV for a little while!

The key to a smooth car ride on a long-distance drive is to be well prepared; have more stuff than you'll need and think of every possible scenario so that you won't be surprised. I pack a very intensive first aid kit so that should anyone have any issues - cuts, nose bleeds, splinters, rash, heartburn, headache, cough...I've got it covered. I pack enough food for at least two full meals plus 3 snacks per person and at least 4 drinks per person (I limit how much they can drink otherwise we'd be pulling over every 30 minutes!).

As a frugal mom, I buy a lot of my supplies at the Walmart or on sale so that packing my cooler is a way cheaper alternative to stopping for fast food. Plan as far in advance as you can so that when your local grocery store is offering buy one-get one deals on juice boxes, snacks or soda, you can start stocking up for your trip.

Also, it is important to make sure that your car is in good condition and that your tires are in good shape otherwise you risk breaking down on the road. That happened to us once and that took almost $300 out of our vacation fund. True, it was a water pump and we had no way of knowing it was going to go, but if you know a good mechanic, let him check your car out before you go.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Benefits of Staying on Disney Property

When most people start planning their Disney vacations and are on a budget, they immediately believe that they need to stay outside of Disney at a cheap hotel/motel. Nothing could be further from the truth!

For starters, you need to consider more than the price. At certain times of the year, you just might find a hotel that is only 5 minutes from the entrance to Walt Disney World for $50 a night and compare that to the $89 a night for a Disney Value Resort. A first glance would point to the obvious: The outside hotel is a better deal. But is it really?

When you stay at a Disney resort there are several things to factor in to the price:
1. Free parking/free transportation. When you stay at a Disney resort, you get free parking at your hotel and at the parks. If you stay at an off-property hotel, you will have to pay up to $14 a day to park your car! Plus, while staying on Disney property, you have free transportation from your hotel to all of the parks via their buses, the monorail and boats. If you chose, you don't have to get in your own car for the duration of your stay.

2. Location, location, location! When staying at a Disney Resort, you are always in the middle of the magic. The value resorts are brightly themed with larger-than-life icons and the Disney theme is carried throughout. Even when you leave the parks, you are still surrounded by the festive atmosphere. Disney transportation gets you to and from the parks with bus service that will arrive every 20 minutes (excluding high attendance days). At an off property hotel, you are going to have to drive yourself from the hotel on to Disney property, to the park of your choice, find and pay for parking and then walk to the park entrance. That can take 30 minutes to accomplish, cutting in to your day. Some local hotels offer shuttle service in to the Disney complex, but sometimes it's only twice a day and it takes you only as far as the TTA (Transportation and Ticket Center) and then you have to take Disney transportation to the park of your choice.

3. Service. Disney resorts have it all; their level of service is amazing. They take customer service above and beyond the typical hotel clerk.

4. Amenities. Each of the Disney Value Resorts hosts a gift shop, arcade, pools, and a food court. With the giant sized icons around each resort's property, and their wonderfully themed pools, you could spend an entire day at the resort and be thoroughly entertained.

So if you took your $50 a night hotel, added your $14 a day parking fee, then added all of the convenience of staying on property you would find that the $25 more a night you pay at a Disney Resort could really still make it quite a deal for your family. With four value resorts to choose from - All-Star Music, All-Star Sports, All-Star Movies and POP Century, you have plenty of rooms to choose from!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Our First Trip to Disney: A Poor Mom's Testimonial

Back in 1998 I decided to plan our first family trip to Walt Disney World. Actually, it was probably late 1997 that I started to plan. My husband had never been to "the World" and although he admitted that it really held no interest to him, he agreed that we should do it. Our son (we only had one at the time) was 6 years old and we thought he would be the perfect age to take. So I started a journey that started a hobby that has helped us have some awesome vacations.

I was a stay at home mom and my husband was a self-employed painter. We rent our home, we drove a really, really, REALLY old car...we were so not living the dream, but I was totally determined to have this vacation. I took a job cleaning houses once a week, we started a change jar, we booked our trip for five days/four nights at a Disney Value Resort. We even took on the meal plan which, at the time, was not free, you had to pay a set amount in to it and you could spend it as you wanted.

The change jar paid for 25% of our trip that first time. We were very faithful about not dipping in to it and made sure that money went in to it daily. We asked for Disney Dollars for holidays and special occasions. We cut back on some of the spending that we did. That first trip cost us $1,532 and that included our resort/hotel room, theme park tickets with the park hopper plus option and our meals for five days.

We were there from December 1-5; we spent my 30th birthday in the Magic Kingdom. We drove down to Florida from North Carolina and spent a couple of days with friends who lived about 90 minutes south of Disney and then arrived there early on the Tuesday morning. On the Saturday that we checked out, we spent the entire day in the parks and then stayed overnight at a local hotel right in Orlando that cost us something like $49 a night. We packed up a cooler for the drive down, we brought snacks to keep in the room and because we still had money on our meal/food plan account, we filled up our cooler before leaving our resort on that last night and had enough food for the ride home!

We stayed at the All-Star Music Resort in the Rock N Roll complex and it was amazing. The bus service was good, the room was great...I mean, we really were comfortable and pleased with the accommodations.

With the food plan we had an amazing dining experience. We ate the first day at Toy Story Pizza Planet for lunch and The Brown Derby for dinner. Our second day we at breakfast at the Main Street Bake Shop, lunch at the Crystal Palace and dinner in the castle at Cinderella's Royal Table. I got free desert at both places because it was my birthday. Day three we were in the Animal Kingdom and ate lunch at the Flame Tree BBQ...I honestly cannot remember where we ate dinner! Day four we were in Epcot and had lunch at the Garden Grille and had dinner in World Showcase in Japan. On our final day we sort of park hopped around. I remember eating on Tom Sawyer's Island at Aunt Polly's for lunch and then we went back to Hollywood Studios (MGM back then) and ate at the Brown Derby again. The funny thing was, they sat us outside and it was beautiful but they forgot about us and we got dinner for free! It was a problem for us because we wanted to use up our food account because you don't get a refund on unused funds. That $75 that we saved on dinner stocked our cooler for the ride home!

So you see, we didn't skimp on anything. We ate at wonderful restaurants. We went to all of the parks. We stayed on property. Growing up, when I went with my family to Disney, we never stayed on property so this was a HUGE treat for me. I would never opt to stay outside of Disney again.

And so my family's love affair with the Happiest Place on Earth Began...

Picture of the Day: Can you find the Hidden Mickey?

On our trip back in 2007, we had gotten off of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and were sitting and trying to decide what to do next when my husband asked "What's with the Mickey?" I had no idea what he was talking about so he took this picture and sure enough, there was Mickey's head on my pants! It came from getting wet on the small water fall/drop on the ride! How cool is that?

What time of year should you go?

This is an age-old question: When should we go? Well, this will, of course, depend on when you CAN go, but if you have the freedom to plan for whenever, you will find that you can save yourself a LOT of money.

Most people who go to Disney World have children. Of course, you can go even if you don't have kids, but a majority of those going will have their kids with them. Because of this fact, we tend to plan our vacations around school vacations. The problem with this is that you end up being in WDW at the busiest times of the year or the hottest time of the year.

For example: The majority of the population has off for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those are two weeks that you want to avoid at all costs. The actual COST of going on those weeks is higher than others and the attendance rates are at their highest. You also want to avoid Easter week due to Spring break for the same reason.

Then there are the summer months. These are the worst because of the oppressive Florida heat and the high crowds. Your wait time on most rides will be close to an hour and you will spend most of that wait hating yourself for ever even THINKING of going on this vacation! That is so not necessary!!

Most teachers will want to smack me for saying this but the best times to go to Walt Disney World require taking your child out of school for at least a week. We have gone in late September, early October, the week before Thanksgiving and the week after Thanksgiving and they have all been delightful because the crowds are low and the temperature was great. The bonus to going the week after Thanksgiving is that the parks are all decorated for Christmas and you've missed the masses that were there for the holiday.

If at all possible, make the sacrifice. You will find that you will enjoy yourself so much more and you will save on your total over-all vacation cost. "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World" is a great resource to use to show you the charting of the traffic patterns for different times of the year. "Tour Guide Mike" is a website that you need to pay to have access to ($19.99, I think) and he will give you the most amazing details on the best actual DAYS to visit down to which parks on which days! A great resource but not if you are looking to save money.

Getting Started!

When most people think of a trip to Walt Disney World, the first thing that they think of is the cost. The fear of the expense can keep you from planning your dream vacation. While it is true that a vacation to the happiest place on earth is not cheap, it is possible for any family on any budget. The key to making the most out of a trip to Walt Disney World without breaking the bank is planning.

I first went to Disney World as a child with my family when all there was was the Magic Kingdom. I still remember that trip: Walking down the street with Mickey Mouse, riding the Tomorrowland Transit Authority (previously known as the WEDway People Mover) with my mom and aunt while my dad and uncle took my sister on to Space Mountain. It truly was a magical trip.

Over the years I have gone back over a dozen times and have had every kind of travel experience. I have gone and stayed off property at small, chain-style hotels/motels, I've stayed on property at value and deluxe resorts, I've gone for day trips, and I've gone just for a special event. The common thread through each stay is that they were all wonderful! It didn't really matter where I stayed or for how long, a visit to the Walt Disney World Resort is something that always guarantees a great time and great memories.

I have helped many friends and family members plan their trips as well as co-lead a seminar on how to make a Disney trip affordable. It always strikes me as funny how people automatically assume that a trip to Disney is out of their reach because of the cost. After much research, discussion and personal experience, I have learned that that just is NOT the case! We live on a very low income. My husband is self-employed and there are times when there is just no work but even under those circumstances we have gone to Disney as a family four times without breaking the bank.

I hope that this blog will be a helpful resource for you and that you will come back and visit soon.

Have a magical day!