Disney World raised the price of park tickets a few weeks ago, as it does every year. As usual, a barrage of “Disney is too expensive” and “Disney World has outpriced middle-class families” comments follow on social media.
But are those things really true? Is Walt Disney rolling in his grave at the high cost of his theme parks that exclude middle-class families because of the price?
With the recent price increase, the cost of a one-day ticket starts at $109 for adults and goes up to $159 during a peak week. It sounds high, but a day at a Disney park includes a lot. In the summer, the parks are generally open 12-15 hours a day. The price of admission includes character greetings, shows and unlimited rides.
I’ve gone to the Texas state fair and local carnivals and paid almost as much for rides and shows that aren’t nearly as good. I see middle-class folks (defined as household income in the range of $40,500-$122,000 per year) not batting an eye to buy concert and play tickets in the $100-$200+ range for a show that lasts just 3 hours.
Since I’m a big Disney fan, I’ve thought about this a lot. Why all the fuss about the price of Disney World? I’ve determined that what makes Disney World so exorbitantly expensive is the way advertising, social media and influencers have shaped our vision of how families should do Disney World.
I see it all the time in various Disney Facebook groups as well as in moms’ groups. “To have the best experience at Disney World, you must do this.”
However, I firmly believe that Disney World is still accessible to the middle-class. Families just have to understand how to keep costs in check while still having a great time.
Myth: You have to stay at an on-site Disney resort to have the best experience. Reality: Many off-site hotels have better amenities and space at a much lower price.
Repeat after me: “My kids will still have a great time at Disney World if we stay in an off-site resort.” Recommending an off-site resort in a moms’ social media group is like the kiss of death. Swarms of well-meaning moms chime in with why that’s not the best option.
I’ve been to Disney World 20+ times over my life, starting from the time I was a baby. My family has stayed in cheap motels in Kissimmee to on-site deluxe resorts and everything in between. We had fun every time.
Last year, I took my kids to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. We stayed a few nights for free at the Hilton Buena Vista Palace using Hilton points. The hotel has a fabulous lazy river, and we were across the street from Disney Springs. We took the hotel’s free transportation to the park. Our hotel came with some on-site Disney World benefits, like Extra Magic Hours and 60-day FastPass+ reservations. Did my kids complain that we weren’t staying on-site? Not once!
I understand that not everybody has the desire, inclination or credit score to apply for credit cards to earn free hotel points. But there are still so many affordable options for off-site lodging that don’t cost an arm and a leg. With a quick look on hotels.com for a peak summer week, I found plenty of hotels with decent reviews near Disney for less than $100 a night. Some include free park transportation.
Condos on vrbo.com are an even better deal! I found over 300 condos with a price of $110 or less. Most of these rentals are far larger than hotel rooms and include kitchens, pools, and other fabulous amenities.
Myth: You have to stay at Disney World at least a full week to enjoy everything. Reality: A long weekend is easier on the feet and the budget.
Contrary to popular belief, a trip to Disney World doesn’t have to last a full week. You don’t have to visit every park twice to get your money’s worth. True, the per-day cost of a ticket goes down the longer you stay. But, the price of a 2-day ticket is $259.33 with tax, while the price of a 6-day ticket is $494.43. When you multiply that for your entire family, that’s quite a big price difference.
Instead of wearing yourself out by going to the parks every day for a week, pick your top two parks to visit and stay for a long weekend. Plan a relaxing hotel pool day in between your park days.
If you’re dead set on staying a full week, fill your other days with other free or low-cost activities. For example, you can ride the monorail for free without a park ticket. When my kids were younger, we would do that on our non-park days. A ride is a ride!
Many places outside of the parks offer great fireworks views. On our trip last year, we took a bus from Disney Springs to the Grand Floridian hotel. We walked to the hotel’s boat dock, sat on some benches, and had a fabulous view of the Magic Kingdom fireworks. Free!
Myth: You must buy the Disney Dining Plan and schedule character meals to have the best dining experience. Reality: The Disney Dining Plan is never “free”, and it’s too much food.
Disney World offers “free dining” promotions. People go crazy over it! But, the cost of the dining plan isn’t free. It’s baked into the price of the on-site hotel, and you will pay the rack-rate for that. My family got the dining plan once, and it was way too much food.
There are so many ways to save on food costs at Disney World. If you stay in an off-site condo, you can eat 1-2 meals in your condo each day. You can also bring food with you into the parks. Order some food from Garden Grocer to be delivered right to your condo.
In the parks, counter service locations typically allow folks of any age to order a kids’ meal, which is much cheaper and still plenty of food. Most restaurants also let you share an entrée. While a character dinner is convenient, you don’t need to book one to snap a photo with most characters.
Myth: You must spring for PhotoPass. Reality: You can take your own photos and skip the expense.
I haven’t ordered PhotoPass in years. The price for the unlimited Memory Maker starts at $169.
At character photo spots, just hand your camera to the character handlers, who will snap your picture. In other locations around the parks, ask other park guests to take your family photo. Most are happy to do that.
There’s no doubt that a Disney World vacation is expensive. For most families, a Disney World vacation requires months or even years of savings.
However, don’t get caught up in the hype of how people say you should do Disney. I hate to see middle-class families get discouraged that they will never be able to afford that ideal Disney World vacation. Or, that they have to forgo going to Disney World during prime vacation years because they think they have to save up enough money to do Disney “the right way.”
The best way to do Disney World is any way you can. If you can afford to splurge on an on-site resort, go for it! But if you can’t, don’t be shamed into skipping a visit to Disney World just because your hotel isn’t one you want to feature on Instagram. Kids don’t care, I promise. They will be having too much fun to notice!
Do you think Disney World has outpriced middle-class families? When you vacation at Disney World, do you feel pressure to stay or eat at certain places?
Nancy lives near Dallas, Texas, with her husband and three kids. Her favorite vacations include the beach, cruising and everything Disney.