Going in Debt for Disney? Try These Alternatives

November 19, 2022, 3:15 PM · Would you go into debt for a Walt Disney World vacation? Many Americans do, according to a new survey.

About in one in five families that visit Disney go into debt to pay for their trip, LendingTree found in a survey it conducted last month. A total of 18% of survey respondents who had visited Disney theme parks said that they went into debt to pay for a Disney trip. Nearly a third of those - 5% of respondents overall - said that they went into debt for multiple Disney trips.

Incurring debt is not automatically a bad thing. The most common way that people go into debt for vacations, such as Disney visits, is by putting charging the cost to their credit cards. If you pay off those charges by your next due date - and are not carrying a balance on the card - you typically won't pay any interest on top of the charges you made. Sure, you might pay an annual fee for the card, but if you are getting reward points and not paying interest, using the card for something big like a Disney trip can be smart use of your credit.

In fact, 29% of respondents who reported charging their Disney visit said that they paid it off within one billing cycle, according to the LendingTree survey.

The trouble comes when you don't pay your balance in full each month and interest charges begin to build. If you charged your Disney vacation because you couldn't afford to pay for it right away, you are now making that trip even more expensive by paying interest on top of the trip's cost, too.

That many people are willing to go into debt to pay for a Disney vacation makes it easier for Disney to raise prices and start charging for things it gave away before, such as Fastpass queue access. That creates a vicious cycle for Disney fans who borrow money to visit the parks, leaving them feeling frustrated and angry with Disney management.

But theme park fans can save their money and stay out of debt (and maybe happier as a result) by recognizing that they have reasonable alternatives to Disney. I'm not talking about settling for visits to local amusement parks that lack the theming and storytelling that fill Disney's parks. Disney fans can find other parks that deliver a top-quality themed entertainment experience, too.

Top Alternatives to Disney

The easiest substitution for a Walt Disney World vacation may be to head up the road to Universal Orlando. Universal is offering a "two days free" deal now with the purchase of a two-day ticket [here's the link], as Universal typically discounts its tickets more aggressively than Disney ever does. Universal's on-site hotels, run by Loews, are excellent and almost always priced below Disney's hotels. With The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Seuss Landing, and Jurassic Park, Universal offers richly themed lands. And Universal has four of our readers' top 10 rated attractions in the world - more than Walt Disney World has.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Photo courtesy Busch Gardens Williamsburg

If your family loves Epcot, consider Busch Gardens Williamsburg instead. A former winner of our Theme Park Insider Award for Best Park, Busch Gardens Williamsburg offer lands themed to several European countries, with an impressive line-up of roller coasters, shows, and festivals. Pair a trip to Busch Gardens with visits to nearby Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown, and you can enjoy an engaging get-away for less than you would pay to spend the same amount of time at Disney. [Here are links to discounted tickets to Busch Gardens Williamsburg and other local historic attractions.]

If you enjoy the shows at Disney, try Dollywood on your next vacation. Dolly Parton's theme park in the Smoky Mountains stages outstanding musical entertainment, along with fun rides, tasty food, and some of the most-praised customer service in the industry. Nearby Smoky Mountain National Park is America's most popular, which can make the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area a tourist traffic jam. But the region is so popular for well-justified reasons, including all those local attractions and less expense than a trip to see Mickey and Friends.

Disney fans, what are some of your other favorite, lower-cost alternatives for theme park vacations?

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Replies (15)

November 19, 2022 at 5:02 PM

Good article. As much as people complain about Disney's rising costs, the counter to this is overcrowding of the parks. Disney will continue to rise costs until crowds start to reduce and they find the optimal place on the supply/demand curve. Every company does exactly the same thing (yes, Universal too). By people voting with their wallets and going elsewhere, Disney will stop raising costs.

It's frustrating for us as Theme park lovers, but the upside is that by visiting alternatives it gives money to the "smaller guy" and allows them to develop their parks. This creates a more competitive market and ultimately Disney will lift their game.

We're a victim of Disney's incredibly successful marketing brand. "Everyone" wants to go to Disney, it's an aspirational product. This allows them to jack prices and underdeliver. Unfortunately these trends can be slow to correct, and hopefully Disney's response to a downturn will be to invest in what makes the parks great, rather than simply cut costs to maintain profits.

November 19, 2022 at 7:30 PM

My sister is planning a trip to Disneyland next March and already considering the hit to the pocketbook as much as I'd love to go.

November 19, 2022 at 8:06 PM

Sounds like a lot of people are breaking the first rule of vacations. Anyway...

For those that insist on still going to Florida, I'd highly recommend trimming the amount of time spent at Disney and instead check out Universal, SeaWorld, or Busch Gardens. I honestly find that if you're looking for a theme park experience and not specifically a Disney IP experience, these parks provide just as much enjoyment at a fraction of the cost. If you just can't go without that Disney magic, it's always possible to spend some time there, but the simple act of staying off site and doing two days at Disney instead of five is likely to cut your expenses significantly.

For those willing to go elsewhere, I highly recommend checking out some of the lesser advertised theme parks scattered across the country. I've been saying for years that those who call themselves theme park enthusiasts need to go to more than just Florida and California, and would nominate Dollywood, Holiday World, and Silver Dollar City as the best options for a family of mixed interests. These aren't quite as convenient to get to and can't be a vacation in themselves, but make them a focal point of a larger trip to other theme parks or non-park destinations.

Lastly, if you've got a passport, seriously consider an international trip. I did a three week trip to Spain and Germany last month, and it was less than $1,000 more than the two week Florida trip I did in August. If you are tired of IP and want some original concepts, the theme parks of Europe (or at least the ones I visited) exceed those of Orlando in many ways, and when looking at price it's no contest which is the better deal. Plus, you've got countless other things to go check out that just don't have a true equivalent in the United States.

November 20, 2022 at 8:19 AM

We live in the UK and are planning a trip to the US next year (its been postponed for a couple of years due to Covid). Whilst our original intention had been to go to Orlando and visit Disney and Universal(our last trip to Orlando was 2015) we are instead planning to do a mammoth (3,500 mile) US road trip taking in a number of regional parks which I have never visited or haven't visited for a while.

Below are the theme parks we are currently planning to visit (plus a couple of cities we want to visit). Not surprisingly this seems to align with many of the suggestions from Robert and AJ but I would love to hear any other suggestions for attractions or cities we should include in our plans.

New York (last visit 2016 - seeing Hamilton is a must)
Six Flags Great Adventure (last visit 2015)
Busch Garden Williamsburg (never been)
Colonial Williamsburg(never been)
Dollywood (never been)
Smokey Mountain National Park (last visited 2009)
Silver Dollar City (last visited 1993)
St Louis (never been)
Holiday World (never been)
Cedar Point (never been)

November 20, 2022 at 1:02 PM

I would also give the Legoland parks a shout-out. If you’ve got young kids who want a day full of fun without any crazy crowds, that’s the place to go to.

November 20, 2022 at 3:42 PM

If you're at BGW, might as well visit Kings Dominion and if you have time, drive to Charlotte and do Carowinds.

I live in Orlando, and this year I drove c3500 miles and visited, KI, Kennywood, Hershey, Knoebels, Dorney, SFGA, SFA, KD, BGW & Carowinds.
Then last month I drove up to Dollywood, and whilst there managed to ride all 7 alpine coasters in the area.
Both were fun trips.
I like the planning as much as the actual vacation.
Good luck

November 20, 2022 at 4:39 PM

That's a pretty awesome trip, Wizard! I don't know how long you plan for it, but I would seriously consider cutting out the Missouri stuff (Silver Dollar City and St. Louis) as those add about 800 miles and 12 hours of driving time to the trip. As awesome of a park as Silver Dollar City is, I'm not sure I'd say it was worth that kind of a detour, and St. Louis is lower on the list of America's big cities in my opinion.

Given the route of your trip (assuming it's a round trip), I'd highly recommend picking up a Cedar Fair Platinum pass and adding stops at Kings Dominion and Kings Island into your route as you'll be going right past them and they're included in the pass (if you keep Missouri, Worlds of Fun is also an option). St. Louis has a Six Flags park, though I'd consider that one optional. I'd also recommend stopping by Kentucky Kingdom while passing through Louisville. Lastly, Pennsylvania has some great parks well worth including as you return to New York: Dorney Park (optional, but covered by Cedar Fair pass), Hersheypark, Kennywood, Knoebels, and Waldameer.

For cities, the main one I'd suggest adding is Philadelphia. They've got tons of neat things to check out there, and it's probably my favorite of the East Coast cities. If you're going all the way to Missouri, I'd also suggest detouring up to Chicago, another city I really like visiting (this would give you the option to add Six Flags Great America as well).

November 20, 2022 at 4:41 PM

@Wizard: Maybe if you want, either King's Island in Ohio or Six Flags Great America outside Chicago. The latter is still a great park with some unique attractions (the first and still best, Batman roller coaster) and King's Island has the Beast, a must for any coaster buff. Just tossing them out.

November 20, 2022 at 9:54 PM

@wizard sounds like a great trip. Depending on what time of year you visit NYC, think about adding Coney Island to the list. Less theme park, and more collection of rides, the Wonder Wheel, Cyclone and Nathan’s on the boardwalk are old time fun. Also consider the Museum of the City of NY, too.

November 21, 2022 at 8:33 AM

Thanks everyone for the advise.
@MakoriderI hadn't considered the alpine coasters but that sounds like a great idea will definitely add it to the list.
@AJ, so many different parks to consider, will definitely look at the Cedar Fair platinum pass option as that seems to open up lots of possibilities. I hadn't even heard of Kentucky Kingdom before. I was already considering Philadelphia so will definitely add that to the list.
@Joseph, although I've visited NYC a number of times I've always been put off visiting Coney Island as I had the feeling it was rather run down and derelict (bit of a poor man's Blackpool Pleasure Beach.)
@Mike whilst Chicago has always been on my list of places to visit (I've flown through O'Hare but that is a s close as I've got)I think its just going to add too many miles to this trip. Maybe next time.

November 21, 2022 at 10:20 AM

"That many people are willing to go into debt to pay for a Disney vacation makes it easier for Disney to raise prices and start charging for things it gave away before, such as Fastpass queue access."

I strongly disagree with that statement. If your customers are going into debt (and not debt you're underwriting, like car companies), then you are at the mercy of interest rates and the availability of credit. That means your products are subject to the volatility of those markets, which are out of your control. A company with forethought and sound management would actually do the opposite when discovering that a significant percentage of their sales are being financed with debt. A smart company would see that and either stabilize prices, provide greater value in their products/services, or create other products that allow customers to connect with their brand without indebting themselves.

November 21, 2022 at 10:35 AM

@ wizard .... the single rail at Anakeesta was a bear to get too. I went on the ski lift, but I think you can catch a bus as well.
They're dotted all over the area, so you'll do a fair bit of driving if you do all 7 like I did.

I really like Dollywood, but as an RMC I wasn't overly impressed with Lightning Rod. Great ride, but nowhere near as good as Steel Vengeance or Iron Gwazi.

November 21, 2022 at 1:36 PM

@Wizard: Dollywood and Silver Dollar City are very similar as they are owned by the same company. I would rate SDC higher than Dollywood for rides (mainly for the Time Traveler coaster), but for the area around the parks, Dollywood in Pigeon Forge ranks higher to the much older buildings and roads around Branson near Silver Dollar City.

November 21, 2022 at 2:32 PM

So much anti- Missouri/ St. Louis rhetoric - but I’d seriously consider cutting out sugar tho, it’s so unhealthy!

November 24, 2022 at 7:58 AM

I Know Americans are not very used to traveling abroad. Still, Europe has many great parks, on par with Disney /Universal quality and nowadays, the costs to go to Germany or Orlando are even. The options are many: Phantasialand, Europa Park, Efteling, Tripsdrill, Hansa Park, Heide Park, Plopsaland de Panne, Tivoli Gardens, Walibi, Toverland, to name a few.

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