Disney Dreaming

Why I plan trips I can’t afford to the Happiest Place on Earth.

GIF: a tattoo of Walt Disney's face inside an animated rabbit hole.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Kyle Adamche.

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I love Disney. As I write this, I am listening to the Walt Disney World Official Album. A map of Disneyland hangs in my office space, park images scroll across my desktop, and I sport a tattooed portrait of Walt Disney on my upper arm. I love the films, the characters and, most of all, taking trips to the theme parks—Disneyland Resort (DLR) and Walt Disney World (WDW)—which I have done over a dozen times as both a child and an adult. Unfortunately, my last visit was 4 years ago.

My full-time job is writing for a university advancement department. I thank donors, recognize alumni accomplishments, and tell stories about the impact they make on our students. Some days the words do not come easily, or I’m not in the “mood” to write, so I indulge in my favorite form of procrastination: planning trips to Disney Parks that I cannot currently afford. But these aren’t wild fantasy trips involving luxury hotel rooms and rubbing elbows with Mickey while dining on steak and lobster; there are constraints! I keep my fantasies realistic and stick to a budget on the off chance that someday my family and I will have the extra money to return.

Trip planning sessions include researching the cost of park tickets, flight, hotel, food, and ground transportation. I price each item individually against the cost of packages on the official Disney website to determine the best deal, and I keep the results on index cards stuffed in the back of a Brave journal with a cover that reminds me, “Our fate lives within us. You only have to be brave enough to find it.”

I choose travel dates by figuring out when the parks have historically low attendance. Nothing is worse than huge crowds. DLR has this information on their “When to Visit” page. On the WDW website, each resort has a starting price point. Lower prices indicate smaller crowds. My favorite time to visit is the beginning of December when the weather is cooler and everything is decorated for the holidays. Surprisingly, this is a low-attendance time of year—just after Thanksgiving break and before everyone is out of school for winter break.

Park tickets are an expensive necessity. We’d want to spend three days at DLR and five days in WDW. Deals on tickets are hard to come by, but Mousesavers has a list of legitimate sellers who offer discounts. Travel sites aRes Travel and Undercover Tourist have a DLR three-day ticket with Park Hopper option for $302 (versus $330) and a five-day ticket with Park Hopper option at WDW for $464.23 (versus $500.55).

For flights, I check prices on Southwest Airlines (no bag fees!) daily. You should only purchase when the cost from Denver to John Wayne Airport is $500 or less, and around $600 to Orlando.

At DLR, our accommodation needs are simple—the motel must be located less than a half-mile from the park entrance, include Wi-Fi and a continental breakfast, and have clean rooms for around $100/night. Disneyland Express serves the area and gets you to and from the airport for $35/adult.

At WDW, it’s best to stay on-property at a Value Resort Hotel—rooms are $99/night and up—to immerse yourself in the Disney experience. You get to make Fast Pass + reservations ahead of time, access Extra Magic Hours, and have free bus transportation around WDW, as well as to and from the airport. There are seasonal promotions that add a FREE Disney Dining Plan to packages, covering the cost of food.

Speaking of Disney food … it’s pricey. I like reading the Disney Food Blog for reviews of food and the DLR Dining and WDW Dining sections of AllEars.Net for menus with prices. Want to know the cost of a hot dog and fries at Casey’s Corner in the Magic Kingdom? Or a famed Monte Cristo sandwich at the Blue Bayou? Being prepared ensures you don’t blow your daily food budget in one sitting by spending $29 on a sandwich.

I set aside $100 a day for food. Dining options in the parks include quick-service, table/buffet, and snacks. We stick to quick-service meals with no sodas, and I always plan for snacks like the fan-favorite Dole Whip, ice cream bars, and French fries with pulled pork and cheese.

At DLR, $30 a day per person covers the motel’s continental breakfast, lunch at Jolly Holiday Bakery Café, dinner at Flo’s V8 Café, and a Dole Whip. At WDW, it will pay for breakfast at the End Zone Food Court, lunch at Flame Tree BBQ, dinner at Columbia Harbour House, and Kaki-Gori shaved ice.

So, how much do we have to save to visit the Happiest Place on Earth? By my calculations, total cost for two adults—not including souvenirs—should run you:

Disneyland Resort | 5 Days/4 Nights
Priced individually: $2174
• DLR package: $1214.56 + Food + Flight = $2414.56

Walt Disney World Resort | 7 Days/6 Nights
• Priced individually: $2928.46
• WDW Package with free dining plan: $1925.52 + Flight = $2625.52
• Without free dining = $3325.52

Disney Parks make me happy. I experience a longing ache in my chest when commercials invite me to escape into a world of magic and fantasy. My favorite memories are of taking my son and husband to Disneyland for the first time. There is no better feeling than walking beneath the sign that states “Here You Leave Today and Enter the World of Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy” with the people I love.

It has been too long since our last Disney vacation, and I don’t know when we will go next. Planning these trips keeps me connected to the magic I miss so much. And until I step onto Main Street once again, I’ll hang my hat on a quote from Walt: “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”