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Visiting Walt Disney World on a College Student's Budget

June 9, 2015, 12:35 PM · Kaitlyn Lannan is a student at Northwestern University.

Planning a trip to Walt Disney World as a college student? It’s possible to create an itinerary filled with fun that doesn’t break the bank! Doing some thorough planning before you leave will help you to minimize your costs while allowing you maximize your fun. Read on for some tips to guide you through the process.

College students at Disney
A couple of other one-time Northwestern University students, visiting Walt Disney World, long, long ago. (Go Cats!)

Getting There

One of the very first things to consider when thinking about a trip to Walt Disney World is whether to drive or fly. While this obviously depends on how close you live to Lake Buena Vista, I personally prefer to fly in part due to perks like Disney’s great Magical Express bus system from the airport. Also, flying can be much quicker than driving from many parts of the country, and if you book far enough in advance, you can often find cheap flights. One great new resource for booking low-cost air travel is the app Hopper. (It even tells you when the best time to book your flight would be for the lowest cost!)

If you choose to drive, make sure to work out the details, like how you will split the gas costs in your group, before you go to avoid any conflicts. Make sure to add these costs into your budget (more on this later!) Also, if you are thinking about renting a car, know that many rental car companies have strict policies for people under 25, sometimes including hefty extra fees. If you drive, check out the Roadtrippers website and app — you plug in your itinerary and it gives you recommendations of nearby attractions to check out on your drive if you need a break.

Hotels

One of the biggest questions that everyone has when planning a trip to Walt Disney World is whether to stay at a Disney-owned hotel property. While off-property hotels can be substantially cheaper than some of the Disney hotels, Disney has a fantastic range of value resorts with a variety of different themes that come with some great amenities, such as free transportation to the parks and access to the Magical Express service mentioned above. These resorts include Disney’s Pop Century Resort, Disney’s All-Star Sports Resort, Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort, Disney’s All-Star Music Resort, and the newest addition: Disney’s Art of Animation Resort. While Disney’s Art of Animation Resort is the most expensive out of these options, some rooms here can accommodate up to six adults, making this choice perfect for sharing with a group. As an added bonus, staying at a Disney property gives you the bonus of Extra Magic Hours—extended park hours where only guests staying at Disney properties are allowed in the parks!

However, if you have a car at your disposal, you might decide that you would prefer to drive to the parks from an off-property hotel instead of relying on the public transportation. Having a car at an off-property hotel would also allow you explore other nearby parks and attractions, which could be harder to do if you are solely using public or Disney transportation. Also, if the Disney-owned hotels aren’t for you, staying off-property can be a great way to save money that you might want to spend elsewhere. Doing some research of the area could help you find you a cheap property that is central to everywhere that you want to visit.

Park Tickets

The tickets to the parks themselves are likely to be one of the most expensive parts of your trip. It is pretty difficult to find discounted tickets to the parks, so be wary of any deals that seem too good to be true, as it could be a scam. Joining a community that focuses on Disney news (such as ThemeParkInsider.com!) is your best bet for finding these deals.

Meals

Dining at Disney doesn’t have to break the bank — there are a variety of strategies for saving money that are worth looking into. For example, if you do end up staying at a Disney resort, it can be worth taking a look at the Disney Dining Plan to see if you think your eating habits align with any of the offered plans. If you do some number-crunching and you decide that it wouldn’t be worth it, try to come up with an alternate plan before entering the parks. For example, you might decide that the more expensive Table Service restaurants aren’t in the budget for you, and decide to only eat at Quick Service Restaurants. Look up the restaurants beforehand so you know what’s available to you!

Also, there’s a common misconception that you aren’t allowed to bring any food into the Disney parks. The only food-related items that aren’t allowed to be brought in are alcoholic beverages or anything in a glass container. Packing some snacks or sandwiches to eat at the parks instead of going to a restaurant can be a great way to save a substantial amount of money! Most of the classic Disney foods like the Mickey Ice Cream bars are relatively inexpensive, so bringing your own food and splurging on small treats is a great strategy.

Extras and Creating a Budget

Lastly, don’t forget to plan for the little purchases! One of two big souvenirs can really add up quickly. If you are on a strict budget, try to remember your money-saving goals. Creating a budget to keep track of all of these purchases might sound intimidating, but it can be very simple! As early as possible, create a spreadsheet with categories like Hotels, Transportation, Meals, etc. and then list as many costs as you can think of and how much you are willing to spend in each area. Don’t forget the smaller, easy to overlook things, like gas, airport transfers, and an emergency fund. Also, during the planning process, it might seem like a great idea to go with a huge group of your friends and acquaintances. However, coordinating everyone’s budgets and goals can be very difficult. Stick to a smaller number of close friends, and the budgeting aspect of the trip will be easier for everyone. Finally, try to book everything as far in advance as possible — the closer it gets to the dates that you want to visit Walt Disney World, the more the prices go up.

Good luck on planning your trip, and let the magic begin!

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Replies (14)

June 9, 2015 at 12:43 PM · Thanks Kaitlyn. Welcome to Theme Park Insider!

A few more tips, from someone who visited and worked at Disney while in college:

1) Know who among your friends works at Disney in the summer. Even in schools as far away as Chicago, there are students who are cast members and might be persuaded to give or sell you some comp tickets.

2) Check your student union for discounted tickets. (Not just for theme parks, but for anything.)

3) Know anyone who lives in Orlando? Their parents might offer you a free place to stay, especially if you bring that Central Floridian along for a trip back home.

4) Take advantage of quirks in your school's schedule. If you can avoid the big summer, Christmas and spring break crowds, do. Some schools have breaks in their schedules during non-traditional vacation periods. If you can get away from campus and to Orlando then, you might be able to avoid the largest crowds. At Northwestern, we had something called "reading week" the week before finals when there were no classes and students were supposed to be studying. Of course, I would never recommend that students skip studying to visit Orlando, but when I was a senior... well, let's just say that I found a more relaxing way to spend some time than hanging out in the library with everyone else that week.

June 9, 2015 at 1:19 PM · Staying off-site, plus rental car or your own car, is the best way to save a lot of money. You don't need a nice place to crash. You don't need nice amenities. You might not even need a pool. However, don't be too thrifty by having 4 in a room. It will be a crowded hot mess. Eat cheaply. I am sure you'll want to visit a nice table service restaurant on occasion so bring enough cash.

DON'T think of this trip as charity. Never bring a friend that can't afford it. They are likely already poor from the college experience. A really poor kid will require numerous opportunities for you to bail them out of the restaurant checks or other expenses.

If you know a friend's parent that owns a timeshare, take advantage. They might even let you stay for free.

If ticket expenses are a problem, try a non-Disney vacation. Well, consider it.

June 9, 2015 at 1:21 PM · Or... Do the college internship and go on a paid "vacation" for 4-8 months, and see the entire resort on a budget that's much easier to manage. ;)
June 9, 2015 at 1:41 PM · One nice program just started is the Disney Vacation Account. It's a neat idea and allows one to put back a bit at a time. There are some advantages and some caveats of this type of account, so read the info well, but for many this is a new good thing!
June 9, 2015 at 2:19 PM · One great money saver not many people talks about: eat or buy food at the Gas Stations! There is a great Hess gas station right outside Magic Kingdom (and there is one in Downtown Disney and one near Epcot and Hollywood Studios). The one at MK has some tables and they have pizza, subs and even salads for really cheap!
My husband and I also bring a small toaster oven when we stay in the value resorts and we make sandwiches or frozen pizzas there...
June 9, 2015 at 7:16 PM · This is probably a no-brainer, but if you're staying on-site, taking advantage of the several free transportation services that Disney offers is a better idea than driving around in your own car. Not only will it save gas money, but, if I'm correct, most WDW parking lots have a parking fee so...yeah.

While this second and final tip might not save money, I still thought it worth mentioning. If one of your close friends has a developmental disorder, such as Autism, you can get a special needs pass. Just go with your disabled friend to Guest Services, bring some form of identification, put it under his/her name (or anyone willing to take responsibility for him/her) under it, give some other info (address, how long you plan on staying,etc) and there you got the pass. If you've ever used Universal Express, it's basically the same thing. Combine that with FP+ and you can hit all the must-do attractions in MK while there's still daylight. However, two things to consider before trying this. If your friend's disability is very severe, don't bother with them as they'll probably be too dependent on you. Also, keep in mind that he/she might not wanna go on every ride. People with Autism in particular filter sights, sounds etc. differently than people who don't have it, so some certain rides, namely thrill rides, might give them sensory overload. If there's a certain ride that they don't feel comfortable with, don't use the special-needs pass as that would just make you a selfish jerk who uses their friends.

June 9, 2015 at 9:14 PM · Need to make a little adjustment to my previous comment. I stated that the special-needs pass is the same thing as Universal Express. Well, there are two differences. With Universal Express, there are certain rides that don't apply. With Disney's special-needs pass, every attraction applies (as long as it's not a street performance, parade or fireworks show, that requires FP+). Second, you have to pay for Universal Express. The special-needs pass at Disney is free.

NOTE:The two differences with Universal Express don't apply if you're using that resort's special-needs pass.

June 10, 2015 at 1:18 AM · That picture, wow! We were all so young once upon a time... it's wonderful you have a picture together like that to reminisce on as the years go by. You should update it every ten years with rides on the carousel.
June 10, 2015 at 1:57 AM · Excellent contribution! Good topic and well-written. A quick note to Ms. Lannan, you shouldn't spend too much time worrying about money. Everyone who graduates with a degree from Northwestern quickly becomes a multi-millionaire.

;o)

June 10, 2015 at 4:32 AM · I totally disgree that renting a Car is the cheapest Option.

For Example if you stay at Econo Lodge in Kissimee it's that easy:

6:57 Bus 56 to Ticketing from 5000 Us 192 Hwy and Polynesian Isle Blvd
7:27 ariving TTC switch to Disney Bus/Monorail/Ship

Bus Shedules: LYNX Orlando on google or just type in the Hotels Address on Google Maps - it is very CHEAP! And they also have DAYPASSES and 7 day Passes that can start also during the week

June 10, 2015 at 7:23 AM · Exactly how does one get from the airport to the hotel in Kissimee cheaply?

For a party of 4, one way airport transfers are the equivalent of a 2 day car rental. The return back is equivalent to another 2 day car rental. Why not just rent the car for a week?

I don't exactly recommend using public bus service in the late evening after the fireworks. Not only is there the potential of your bus ride not arriving or being full or being late (or you will be late), it isn't the safest.

In this case, penny wise, pound foolish.

Alternatively, maybe find a travel agent that can book your party on a WDW trip on-site for a short trip (5 days or less) with everything inclusive. A no hassle trip. Consider booking an Universal trip (no car needed) and make a side trip to Disney.

June 10, 2015 at 3:21 PM · Look into Disneys YES (Youth Education Services) programs. They have stuff for college students as well and give some pretty huge discounts on tickets in exchange for participating in one of their 3-hour programs. See http://www.disneyyouth.com/our-programs/education/?CMP=KNC-WDWYouth-Branded|G|4150023.SL.SM.01.07&keyword_id=sansbPfNX_dc|disney%20y.e.s.%20program|45294229832|p|1540hvi14032
June 13, 2015 at 5:13 PM · RE: the comment about parking fees at the parks if you stay on-site.

If you are staying at ANY WDW resort, parking is free at the parks, you do not pay the fee.

June 16, 2015 at 6:19 AM · I worked at Disney in my early 20's and I definitely understand trying to do Disney cheap. The tickets are your biggest expense... there are ways to cut back on everything else. If you have a big enough group, there are lots of condos and timeshare rentals right off property that may be cheaper than hotel rooms. (Plus you have the added bonus of a kitchen so you're not eating every meal out.) Otherwise, split the cost of a Value Resort... you're on property and those hotels aren't much more than your typical Holiday Inn. Avoid Kissimmee... it's just... no.
Renting a car isn't that expensive... there are always deals and if you're splitting the cost with at least one other person, it's worthwhile if you want the freedom to explore other parts of Orlando. If you're ONLY doing Disney, a car really may not be necessary since Disney transport will take you anywhere you need to go.
Safe Travels everyone! :)

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