A week at the ‘most magical place on Earth’

How my family saved by bundling our Disney trip expenses – and racked up rewards

Wealth and Wants with Ted Rossman

Ted Rossman has seven years of experience in the credit card and personal finance industries as a member of the award-winning communications department at CreditCards.com and its sister sites The Points Guy and Bankrate.

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My wife Chelsea, daughter Ashleigh and I just got back from a week at Disney World. 

We had a great time celebrating Ashleigh’s fourth birthday and enjoying a lot of family togetherness. We met dozens of princesses, they coaxed me onto a few rides and we ate many delicious meals. We used our Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card to earn 3 percent cash back on all of our travel and dining expenses, and we earned a $300 sign-up bonus by spending $3,000 in the first three months.

By the way, I looked into the two Disney credit cards – the Disney Rewards Visa card from Chase and the Disney Premier Visa – but didn’t find them particularly appealing. The Disney Premier Visa is the better of the two, with a $250 sign-up bonus and 2 percent cash back on gas, groceries, restaurants and Disney purchases, but it charges a $49 annual fee and is pretty strict on how and when you can redeem rewards. Most people are better off with a different travel or cash back card.

Back to our trip: We bought a hotel, dining and parks package. It included four nights at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, two meals and two snacks per person per day, three one-day single park passes for each member of our family and the Memory Maker PhotoPass. We paid $3,097. I tallied up the à la carte costs and got an expected retail value of $3,538, so we saved 12 percent by bundling.

See related: Is a Disney credit card worth getting before theme park visit? 

Dining

The dining package was a much better deal than I initially believed. When we travel other places, we never spend $716 on food over four days (that’s the retail value of the standard dining plan we elected; we paid about $630). On a normal trip, we mostly eat at a family member’s house, pick up inexpensive takeout or cook in our hotel room or rental house. At Disney World, those alternatives weren’t readily available.

We were a captive audience, but instead of feeling overcharged, on this line item, I actually think we paid a fair price. The meals provided some of our favorite memories of the trip. 

For example, Ashleigh was overjoyed at Cinderella’s Castle when Cinderella and her friends Ariel, Aurora, Jasmine and Snow White stopped by our table for hugs, autographs and photos. We attended one or two of these character meals each day and the whole family loved them. Plus, the food was tasty, and if anything it was too plentiful.

The hotel

My other big surprise was that Art of Animation retails for $447 per night, including taxes. That seemed high to me. Chelsea thinks I’m undervaluing “soft” perks such as advance access to FastPass+ and dining reservations, Disney branding and the fact that we stayed in a spacious two-bedroom, two-bathroom suite that could have accommodated at least three more people.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice place and we enjoyed our stay. But it’s pretty far from the parks, and it's among Disney’s most basic properties. I don’t think it was worth a nightly rate on par with five-star hotels in expensive places like Manhattan. This was where I felt like the captive audience effect amounted to overcharging. 

At least we didn’t stay at one of the premium Disney resorts. The Contemporary is much closer to the Magic Kingdom, but it costs twice as much as Art of Animation.

See related: Rewards card tips to cut the cost of a trip to Disney World

But there’s more

While we could have saved a lot of money by staying in a non-Disney property, we would have had to compromise on key items. One is transportation, since Disney hotels take bus and monorail transit into their rates. If you stay at a non-Disney hotel and rent a car and park at Disney World, the standard daily parking rate is $25 (plus whatever you’re paying for the car, of course).

Also, you can’t sign up for the Disney dining plan if you stay off-property, which I think is a smart (albeit consumer-unfriendly) decision on their part. Our dining package was a lot cheaper than paying out of pocket for the same selections. The transportation, parking and food costs really add up if you go it alone.

Our park tickets – you know, the whole reason you visit Disney in the first place – were a comparative bargain. A one-day single park adult admission retails for $109, and it goes considerably lower if you buy multiple days. It’s a similar cost to attending an NFL game, yet you can spend a lot more time doing a lot more things at Disney World.

While the dollars and cents are important, the best part of the week was seeing Ashleigh’s excitement. In fact, the biggest question in my house lately has been, ‘When can we go back?’ We will, and all things considered, I think we’ll follow a similar blueprint to this visit.


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Updated: 02-21-2019