Is your dream theme park vacation really affordable?

October 2, 2018, 12:03 PM · Is a Walt Disney World vacation affordable?

How about a trip to Tokyo Disney? Or to Efteling in The Netherlands? How about the new Warner Bros. World park in Abu Dhabi?

I bet that most of you answered with a "no" somewhere along the way there. But maybe some of you didn't. Or perhaps you answered "no" to all of those options. My point is... affordability is a personal standard. That's why I hate getting dragged into debates about the affordability of specific travel destinations. Those debates always start with the assumption that there is some objective standard for "affordable" and the question is whether the destination — Disney, Universal, Six Flags, etc. — falls within or beyond that standard.

If all you want to do is argue about theme parks, that's great. Go ahead and debate away. But if your real goal is to actually visit some of these parks, I think a shift in focus is appropriate.

Forget about whether a park is affordable or not. That's a false equation. Instead, ask yourself if a park is something that you could cover the cost of visiting right now. If not, then ask yourself what you would need to do to be able to visit that park some day.

Don't settle for emotional responses like "win the lottery" and "inherit a million bucks." It's completely free to go to Google Flights and start plugging in dates and destinations to find what it would really cost to visit far-flung destinations. Price tickets from official websites or reputable discounters. Look up hotel rates. If prices are in other currencies, do the conversion. Get real answers on what visiting dream destinations would cost.

Again, don't dismiss places forever just because those numbers exceed what you have in the bank right now. What I am hoping to encourage you to do is to decide which destinations are worth saving to visit. If you know the real cost of visiting Tokyo Disney or Abu Dhabi's Yas Island, for example, maybe you decide to forgo a Disney World trip or two to help save for a vacation abroad. Or you decide that upgrading to a top-level annual pass at Cedar Fair or SeaWorld parks helps you to afford a summer theme park roadtrip. Or that a trip to Williamsburg sounds like more fun that a trip to Orlando this year, and saves you a few bucks for future travel. It's all about gathering more information, shaking things up, then deciding if you want to start making some changes.

Maybe you don't. That's okay, too. But you will have had some fun researching some fresh destinations and you will be able to enjoy the vacation you do take knowing that it really is the very best option for you and your family. It's a win either way.

Let's throw out some numbers to get you thinking. How about a mid-January trip?

Round trip airfare:

Theme park tickets:

Nightly hotel rates (from Hotels.com, mid-January dates):

Of course, prices will vary (perhaps wildly!) based on where you are traveling from, how many people you will be traveling with, how fancy a hotel you want, and your available dates for travel. But I wanted to throw out some numbers to show that ever far-flung destinations don't necessarily have insane prices attached to them.

It's like power-walking through the Magic Kingdom on a summer afternoon. You don't slice your way through the crowd by looking only at the people directly in front of you. You must look far ahead to see the gaps that create your easiest path forward.

Ambitious travel planning is the same. Look far ahead, at a wide variety of options, to find the trips that most excite you and your family. Don't get dragged into someone else's debate whether specific destinations are "affordable." Decide what you're willing to go for and how you can get there, carving your way through your expenses and income to find the best path forward.

Again, even if you don't change a thing about your travel plans, broaden your searches can be a lot of fun... that doesn't cost you a thing. So why not? You might just discover some great new destinations along the way.

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Replies (7)

October 2, 2018 at 1:48 PM

I think there is a standard for "affordability", and some of the vacation destinations that are criticized for not being affordable are not solely based on stereotypes, but instead based on an overall lack of budget-based options. I'll admit that I was pretty surprised to see how affordable it was to visit the UAE, but many other locations simply are not affordable even from major American metropolitan centers. I would definitely encourage people to take a look at the costs to travel to different places around the world, but don't be surprised to find the places that are truly "affordable" are quickly declining.

I would say that the travel industry needs to be more aware of the "affordability" of a destination based on the median income, which in the US is just over $60k. Now, if you subscribe to a standard budget, the average American spends @$20k of their income in taxes, and another $20k on housing. That leaves $20k to cover everything else in their lives (food, transportation, savings, retirement, entertainment, etc...). So if you think about "affordable" for the "average" American family, you're talking about perhaps $2k/year that they will have to spend. Perhaps they save some or all that $2k to take a bigger trip 3-5 years from now, but I think there's still a standard here that certain destinations fail to meet when considering the average financial means of Americans. Obviously, those that have a higher median income will have more to spend on vacations, but you can see how "affordable" a vacation is for the average American.

Frankly, Orlando (and WDW more specifically) is quickly becoming one of those locations that is getting out of reach for the average American. The travel costs to get to Orlando have been slowly rising over the past 10-20 years. A decade ago, east coasters could easily find flights to MCO well below $150/person. Those fares are a rarity anymore, and go up to over $300/person if you want to travel during peak times. Travel from a smaller city or the west coast, and those costs could soar to over $2,000 for a family of 4 just to get from their home to Orlando (that's the entire annual vacation budget for the median family). Add to that the soaring price of renting a car in Orlando (mostly due to taxes, but still increasing the total bill more than 300% over the past 10 years or so) along with the out of control hotel prices (not just WDW hotels, but even off-site hotel prices have skyrocketed along with the nuisance resort/parking fees), and just the logistical part of taking a vacation to Orlando (minus theme parks and other costs like food and souvenirs) can be out of reach for the average family without creating a dedicated vacation fund built up over years.

I've seen it in our own experience over the past 20 years as we have taken a trip to Orlando almost every other year. A trip that we used to be able to take easily for under $1,000 (including park tickets, though not including airfare since we almost always drive down to Orlando) is a struggle to fit into a $2,500 budget today even staying at off-site budget hotels (granted that's with a family of 3 now instead of just me and my wife), using long-ago purchased non-expiring passes for WDW, and leveraging virtually every discount we can find. Even when considering inflation, Orlando, and especially WDW, is not as affordable as it was just 10 years ago.

The increase in prices across the entire travel industry has been outpacing inflation and wage increases over the past decade, and more and more lower/middle income people are unable to afford vacations they used to take 10 years ago without making compromises or decreasing the frequency/length of the vacation. The shift in marketing and pricing further demonstrates that the travel industry understands that only the upper-middle class can afford regular vacations outside of their home region.

The affordability also depends on how you personally approach a vacation. Most employers these days have some type of rule that forces people to take a certain number of vacation days every single year, so it only makes sense for families to plan some type of trip every single year. Experts continue to say over and over that people need to "get away" from their job to improve their life, yet despite being given the time to take vacations, people can't afford to go as far away from home as they used to. There was no such thing as a "stay-cation" 20 years ago, because people could afford to take a vacation away from home, but that's not the case today with more and more people unable to afford to take a trip so they end up using their vacation to do projects around the house or take day drips in their local area.

Personally, my wife and I used to take 2 big vacations every single year (one in the spring and one in the fall), but as our son has gotten older, we've been more inclined to take one "big" vacation (a week or longer), and then a couple of smaller trips over long weekends. Those smaller trips can add up faster than you realize, and can make it difficult for families with lesser means to save up for that big trip even if it's only every 3-5 years.

It's a big conundrum, because "affordability" is becoming a big issue within the travel industry. Some places may be affordable to get to (drive or cheap airline fares), but may have expensive admission costs or high lodging costs (like New York City for East Coasters or LA/San Francisco for West Coasters) once you get there, while other places might be more expensive to travel to, but have relatively cheap entertainment and lodging costs (most cities in the Midwest and Texas. Nonetheless, the "affordability" of a vacation, particularly if you're going to spend a day or more in a theme park, is getting prohibitively expensive for the average American - there's no arguing that WDW is less "affordable" today than it was a decade ago.

October 2, 2018 at 2:04 PM

My childhood dream was visiting Orlando but we didn't had money and lived in The Netherlands. Although my parents told me realistically the money at the moment wasn't there but they didn't crush my dream and they thought it was a great idea.
As soon I cam out of the army at 21 I went to the US with Camp America. They payed for my return ticket from London to New York and I had to work in a boy scout camp for 2 month earning a few hundred box. I had saved 2000$ and was able to add a vacation after my 2 months of work.
I understand this isn't something anyone could or would do but I realized my dream (partially because my dream was to visit it with my parents).

Forward 15 years and my dad was told he couldn't work anymore and would end up in a wheelchair eventually. I asked him where in the world he wanted to go to and he said Florida. He wanted to see the whole state and all the parks. All those yours the stories of my vacation made him want to go too. So I took a month off from my work and my parents and I went for a once in a lifetime trip spending money we saved. His illness was much better in the Florida winter climate so they sold their home and came living with me in the summer. The rest of the year they stayed in Orlando. They (and I) had an amazing 11 years there until they decided to sell and move back to the Netherlands. What I try to say is that you only live once and if you have a dream you should go for it. Be creative and it will be very rewarding and who knows what it also brings you. We have amazing friends in Orlando and Egypt due to this.

October 2, 2018 at 2:23 PM

2012 was my last trip to Orlando with family, managed to fit in both Disney and Universal. My family has a deal for a discount at the Dolphin so we used that and my dad was at a conference for a place near Universal so used there and not too bad. However, it is true the costs are huge and increasing.

Now, if I was going solo, I'd stick to a cheaper place like All-Stars or such as I'd be at the parks almost all the time. Some folks would prefer a better place to relax in and enjoy down-time as people have different "speeds" for the parks.

If all you're doing is WDW and nothing else, you can save on car rental and just use their transport. You're doing more and you get higher costs and that's without Orlando prices. It's true they do take advantage a lot to overcharge for things there and rougher to figure things out. Again, it depends on what and how much you want to do and whether worth a splurge.

October 2, 2018 at 3:00 PM

Tokyo Disneyland is amazingly cheap. Only about $50-60 for a day ticket if you purchase online (third party site). Hong Kong Disneyland isn't so bad either and it's as humid as Orlando.

Orlando is so expensive in comparison although there is much more variety of hotel accommodations outside the Disney bubble. Tickets will cost you a bundle. You can't exactly separate out how expensive each park is. A day ticket is exorbitant. Orlando's daily rains, hot temperature, and extreme humidity makes a visit more ordeal than fun. Next time, I'll visit in January or February.

So I'll stay at home near Anaheim. The locals special is coming in January and likely the last time it's offered when Galaxy Edge opens. You won't get the bargain again for at least 3 years.

October 2, 2018 at 3:12 PM

What a brilliant story O T. Thank you for sharing.

I've been very lucky to have a job that takes me to different places, and have squeezed trips to parks in alongside that work. (And have on occasion taken jobs specifically so they'd get me near bucket list parks...) Not an option for most people of course, but it's always worth thinking if your job/company offers some kind of assignment or training that involves travel.

A big part of "affordability" - as Robert rightly identifies - is choosing to stay off site. The parks will try to convince you that your time won't be as "magical" sleeping elsewhere, but the truth is you'll save a heap of cash and get to have a wider variety of experiences. (Also, in Europe at least, you'll have *much* better quality, cheaper and more memorable eating experiences.)

October 14, 2018 at 11:33 PM

I remember taking our first family vacation to Disneyland. We rented a car and drove from Eastern Washington state to Anaheim. Stayed on site at the Disneyland Hotel during their 50 Anniversary for 6 nights. Including hotel, park hopper tickets, plus tickets to Legoland, Universal Studios and Seaworld the entire price was $1600. To stay on site today not including the other parks it is close to or over $3,000. It is SUPER expensive to fly from the pacific northwest anywhere except LA or Vegas, but we work hard and promised ourselves we would take a vacation trip every year. The key is deciding if it is a priority for you and if so set a goal to save up for it. Best investment we have made for ourselves. In fact, flying to LA in two weeks for Halloween Horror Nights and fingers crossed Orlando in December.

October 2, 2018 at 8:21 PM

Russell Meyer is right on the money regarding affordability (or lack thereof) and getting to Orlando. A casual look at my airport's flights tells me that there are maybe two good round trip deals that would be roughly in line with what it would cost me to drive to and from Disney World. But then I factor in the cost of an Uber or parking in a lot, and that competitive advantage virtually disappears. And that advantage also assumes I rely on Disney's Magical Express on transportation to and from Orlando International, so that means I'm staying at a select Disney resort, which apart from the value hotels are priced significantly higher than what I normally pay for lodging. Otherwise, using Uber or renting a car will hit me negatively no matter what "affordable" offsite hotel I choose. And getting to Orlando by car is a bore and a chore, no matter if you're taking I-95, I-75 or the Florida Turnpike. With all that in mind, don't expect me to be making a mid-January trip to WDW unless it's a long, non-holiday weekend where I can drive somewhat stress free.

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