As a miles and points person, I find Disney completely unintuitive. When most people take a vacation, they just expect that it’s going to be expensive. But when you primarily travel using airline miles and hotel points, you get used to getting things for far less than retail price. That is to say that I was like a fish out of water on two Disney trips this year – one to Disneyland Paris in late September and one to Disney World in Florida at the end of November — and it shows in some of the newbie mistakes I made. Trips to Disney cost me far more than most of my other trips this year (e.g. I surely spent more on two trips to Disney than I did on my trip to 8 or 9 countries over 3 continents in our 3 Cards 3 Continents challenge). Disney vets will take for granted all of my observations here (and hopefully they will chime in with more info in the comments about how you can do better yet), but today I wanted to share some of the stuff I really got wrong on my two Disney trips this year in the hopes that they save some readers planning first Disney trips from repeating my mistakes.
1) Not spending months preparing
Richard Kerr recently tweeted about how you need to have a lot of time to put into planning a Disney vacation. In a conversation with folks who know a lot more about Disney than I do, a few Disney experts agreed that those who walk through the gates without a clear plan in mind in the morning are just lighting money on fire. I’ve always been the type of person to read the guidebook on the plane on the way to my destination, so my Disney preparation was far too light.
I don’t say that lightly though: my wife spent a good chunk of time reading blog posts and snippets of books and asking friends for advice. It wasn’t for total lack of effort that we went in underprepared, but I have to admit that the task of preparing properly for Disney vacations seemed tedious to both of us. I think that’s largely because neither of us are all-in Disney people. That might make you question the rest of this post since it is coming from admitted non-fanatics. In response, I would strongly encourage you to prepare for your own Disney vacation by reading as much material as you can that is written by Disney fanatics so you can avoid the same mistakes, but since Disney is a perennial favorite vacation destination, I thought it worth pointing out what I did wrong as someone who feels like an expert in saving on travel but a complete novice at doing anything Disney-related.
Preparing (or not preparing enough as the case may be) for our trips to Disney gave me more of an appreciation for folks who just don’t enjoy miles and points. When we write about our trips here at Frequent Miler, we sometimes get asked about how long it takes us to do what we do in terms of earning and burning miles and points (as in “How long did you spend searching for award X, Y, or Z?”). That question always feels so irrelevant for me because I enjoy searching for award space and making great redemptions, so it doesn’t feel like time wasted. But on the other hand, I don’t enjoy reading about Genie+ this and Lightning Lane that and so on. My wife generally hates having to use a mobile app for as many things as you need to at Disney World. Even just so simple a part of the process is loading Disney gift cards to our Disney account in order to combine the value to buy Disney tickets just isn’t something enjoyable for her.
There were a lot of silly little things we didn’t know. For instance, you buy tickets online, but the barcode you get isn’t your ticket. You need to either buy a Disney magic band in advance (a little watch that you can tap to terminals for park / ride entry, it costs about $20) and link your admission to that, or wait in a line to get a physical “ticket” at the park before you wait on line to enter the park. That physical ticket is a plastic key card. We didn’t realize that we should have linked admissions to subsequent parks to the key cards we got at the first park — so we didn’t bring those cards and wasted part of Day 2 waiting in line for new cards (before learning our lesson and linking admission for Day 3).
We also didn’t know how app-intensive the entire experience would be. My wife felt like she wasted half the day looking at her phone to check ride wait times or find directions to the next attraction or to make Lightning Lane reservations (when we decided to buy Genie+ for the last park we visited). If you’re not tech-savvy, Disney World seems like it would be an awful experience these days. We are tech-savvy, but my wife still doesn’t enjoy having to use an app for everything — so even though we were capable, it didn’t add to the enjoyment of the experience for us. I’m sure glad we brought a battery pack with plenty of juice to keep our phones charged!
And so while we were both excited to bring our kids to a place that we certainly expected would feel magical for them, we didn’t prepare as well as we could have, And I say that while emphatically recommending that anyone considering a first time trip to Disney World should indeed prepare relentlessly or be prepared to light money on fire. Or maybe prepare relentlessly and still prepare to light money on fire (Disney is still expensive any way you slice it).
2) Not knowing that Disneyland Paris tickets get more expensive same-day.
Tickets to Disneyland Paris are typically significantly less expensive than the usual cost of tickets to Disney World in Orlando, but five minutes cost us double.
The weather in Paris during our time there this year was cold and rainy. We kept wavering as to whether and which day to go to Disneyland Paris right up until late at night the night before the last day we could go. We finally decided to give it a go just before midnight in part because tickets were only about $60 per person (we needed 3 tickets since our two year old still gets in for free). Unfortunately, we dragged our feet until just a couple of minutes past midnight. Since at that point (i.e. after midnight Paris local time) we were buying tickets for same-day park entry, the price doubled. We went from an expected ~$60 per ticket to about $120 per ticket. We begrudgingly paid the price, but we weren’t very excited about lighting $180 on fire by procrastinating for a few extra minutes.
I’m not going to add a separate bullet point for this, but we also should have prepared for the weather a bit better. It was raining hard for the first couple of hours of our Disneyland Paris visit. Enterprising individuals were just setting up shop outside the park when we got there (before it really started raining hard) and they were charging 5 Euro for ponchos. I wish we had bought those rather than spending more than fifty dollars for four ponchos inside the park. Ouch. We did bring those ponchos to Disney World last week (believe it or not, we hit rainy weather in Florida also!) and I admit that I felt like we had some street cred wearing our Disneyland Paris ponchos at Disney World Orlando. It still wasn’t worth fifty bucks.
3) Not doing Disney Genie+ for our first full park day in Orlando.
Genie+ is Disney World’s system to cut to the front of the line. The “Lightning Lane” is a fast-track line onto a ride. You can buy Genie+ the day of your trip to the park (the price can vary, but on the days when we looked it was $29 for the day per person) and then use Genie+ it to pre-select an entry time for approximately one ride every two hours (the reality gets more complex, but there are Disney-specific blogs where you can learn more about it). Some rides are not part of Genie+ and rather have individual Lightning Lane entry, where you pay separately just for that ride. Cost varies for individual Lightning Lanes also, but my understanding is that the more popular rides are in the $16-$25 range for an individual Lightning Lane pass.
We went to Animal Kingdom (on the Monday before Thanksgiving) for our first full park day in Orlando. The park was an absolute madhouse with crowds everywhere. We spent half the morning debating what to do since the lines for everything were ridiculous (we quickly realized that the “My Disney Experience” app will tell you the wait for each ride before you walk across the park to find out). We eventually spent 2+ hours on line to do the Kilimanjaro Safaris. That Safari was certainly five or 10 minutes of fun, though I’m less convinced that it was worth 2 hours of our time in line. Apart from that ride, we only did one or two other things all day long in Animal Kingdom (other than stare at our phones and wait).
A couple of people in our group wanted to try the Avatar ride, but the wait was literally 4 hours long. Four hours! Four hours on line for a minute or two long ride after you’ve paid more than 100 bucks to get into the park is quite a shock to the system. It’s just absolutely bonkers and it flies in the face of stuff we do in our travel hacking hobby like spending 34,000 points for 7 or 8 hours in a lie flat business class bed to Europe. At ages four and two, my kids definitely don’t want to stand in a line for 2 hours or 4 hours and while we could have split up with me taking a ride while my wife did something with the kids and vice versa, that would have meant missing out on 4 hours of (hoping to be) watching my kids have fun in the park. Nobody really wants to spend Disney money just to stand in line all day. But that’s what you’ll do if you’re not prepared.
And again, that’s not to say we didn’t try to prepare, just that I don’t think we were ready for what that was going to entail for this trip and we weren’t in the mindset of adding the cost of Genie+ each day. We thought we could just wait in line here and there where necessary without a full grasp on what that would look like.
At the end of the day, the moral of the story is that you don’t want to spend all day long in line for two or three rides. I really feel like paying for Genie+ so you can skip the line (on at least some rides) is absolutely worth the money. To be clear, that’s not a perfect solution. Not all rides are included with Genie+, so if you have your heart set on a specific ride or two you may need to buy an individual Lightning Lane pass or you may not be able to get a pass like that at all (we wanted to do the Frozen ride, but it was never available on Genie+ and they don’t sell individual passes to it anymore). Further, you’ll still spend some time waiting in the Lightning Lane and you can only make one or two lightning lane reservations every two hours or something. It’s an imperfect system, but in my opinion it’s just not remotely worth the money you spend on Disney without Genie+ unless you know you’re visiting during a time of very low demand when the park is unlikely to be crowded.
We paid for Genie+ on the day we went to Epcot (a few days after our Animal Kingdom experience) and it was worth every penny of the $29 we spent on it per person. We did far more on our day at Epcot than any other day in the park and probably spent less time cumulatively in line over the course of the entire day than we did waiting for just that safari at Animal Kingdom.
Yes, it costs more for Genie+ and my understanding is that you won’t know how much Genie+ will cost until after midnight on the day you’re going to the park (you can’t buy it until after midnight the day of arrival apparently and then you can begin reserving Lightning Lane at 7am, so be ready to stay up late and get up early). But I think you might as well consider the cost of a ticket to Disney World as being cost of an entry ticket plus the cost of Genie+ because that’s really what it takes to enjoy the park. I talked to so many people (at the park and at my hotel) who said that Disney World just wasn’t enjoyable for them because they only got to ride two rides and they spent all day waiting in line for a lot of money. The problem is that when everyone pays for the Lightning Lane, it won’t matter anymore. I don’t know that there’s a great solution to this problem. Disney obviously has far more demand than they can serve. Usually the solution to high demand is to increase prices. That’s effectively what they’ve done with Genie+, and people are still paying for it. Still, if and when I go to the Disney parks in Florida again, I’ll be paying for Genie+ again too.
4) Not bringing more food.
It seems we could have really packed up and brought far more food than we did as Disney World allows guests to bring outside food and nonalcoholic beverages. That would have been smart. We brought the usual couple of snacks we keep in our diaper bag, but not much. We were aware that you could bring in food, but we really didn’t think to scale it much. We actually didn’t spend a ton of money on dining in the park, but I think being more prepared with extra food supplies would have saved us some money and a bunch of stress of dealing with kids saying “I’m hungry” when they’re really just bored because we’ve been in line for 2+ hours.
5) Not shopping in advance for Disneywear
This tip actually isn’t a mistake we made per se, but it quickly occurred to me during the trip that if you have a family, you could probably save yourself a bunch of money by shopping for things like t-shirts and mouse ears in advance. If you’re into the “magic” of getting your stuff in the park, have at it. But I’d at least guess that if you have a set of mouse ears on your kids when you walk in, you might be able to save a bit on paying the Disney price.
I saw one set of ears that were really cool (the ears were kind of like bubbles with red light-up Mickey ears inside of them – hard to describe, but they looked cool!). I asked the mother where they got them and she told me that there is a Disney outlet somewhere in the area and that they have a lot of stuff you won’t find at the park and for better prices. I don’t know if that’s true, but I know that in general stuff inside the park is so expensive that shopping for some of those souvenirs in advance could save you a few bucks.
In our case, my mother-in-law was excited to get personalized mouse ears for our second son at the same place in Disney Springs where she had bought them for our first son a couple of years ago, so I wouldn’t have changed how we handled that, but I think the tip of doing this kind of thing outside the park can save you a chunk of change.
6) Not maximizing Disney gift card offers / stocking up with a bit of extra credit.
We bought Disney gift cards in order to cover the cost of our entrance tickets (which was significant since we needed tickets for my family and a couple of additional family members who joined us on the trip). We purchased some of those gift cards at office supply stores to earn 5x. Others we bought from ShopDisney using Chase Offers for 10% back. But we didn’t do the best we could have.
We don’t have a supermarket in our area with great gift card promotions, but we probably could have looked to maximize some grocery gift card promos while traveling. And however we got our gift cards, we should have gotten a bit more than what we needed to pay for our tickets. You want to be careful not to overbuy and end up with gift card money you’re not going to use (or feel compelled to use), but you’re probably going to spend some money at the park. We stayed at a hotel with a shuttle to the parks (the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress), but we ended up deciding to drive to the park to get there and back on our own schedule. One morning, we paid for “preferred” parking ($50 vs $25 for standard parking). I wish we could have maximized some of that spend with discounted gift cards and/or increased rewards.
It’s worth a mention here that Bilt Rewards points can be used to buy Disney park tickets. I believe they are the only rewards currency that can be used to directly buy Disney tickets. While I think you’ll only get 1.25c per point in value this way, it could certainly take some of the sting out of the cost of a trip.
7) Not making our strollers distinctive
This tip has nothing to do with money unless you consider time to be money — and given how much time you’re already going to spend in line, you really don’t want to waste more of your time searching for your stroller at stroller parking. You basically can’t bring your stroller in line for any rides or inside entertainment venues, so you end up constantly parking your stroller in a sea of strollers. Strollers inevitably get moved (we were about 50/50 on actually finding our strollers where we left them — and out of the 50% of the time where they hadn’t been moved at all, we only remembered where we parked about 40% of the time.
I don’t know the rules as to what is allowed on your stroller, but whether with a Disney balloon or something brightly colored (or perhaps some sort of flag that stands above other strollers?), doing something to make your stroller stand out is going to save you some time and frustration.
These Disney revelations are not revolutionary. Many of them could have been alleviated by being better prepared. I think we are well-spoiled by miles and points and the way that luxury experiences like business and first class flight redemptions and luxury hotel award stays kind of fall in our laps in this game. The same just isn’t true of Disney — it takes preparation. Some things are simple (like making your stroller distinctive), but if you want to avoid walking out and wondering what happened to the contents of your wallet, it pays to be prepared. Read everything you can and be ready for Disney to be an experience far different from miles and points travel.