The Disney Hangover: Are Brand-Name Vacations Worth the Price?

If you ask nearly any American kid about their trip of a lifetime, almost all will mention Walt Disney World or Disney Land. Obviously, my kids are no different. They’re both girls and ages 5 and 7, after all, which means most of their waking hours are spent daydreaming about princesses and different ways to have fun.

Even though they’d never visited either park until earlier this summer, they were somehow already well aware of Disney and its magic. Starting at around three years old, my oldest daughter began asking about it, almost as if it were a rite of passage.

When are you going to take us to Disssnnnneyyyyyy, Momma?” she would beg with a scandalous smile. My youngest child, who is seriously into Minnie Mouse anyway, got into the conversations shortly after.

She wanted to go to Disney World and eat in a castle with princesses, she once told me. And another priority – giving Minnie Mouse a hug – has also been mentioned ad nauseaum since she was around three.

I never planned to take my kids to Disney World, but I changed my tune when I ran into a work-related activity that would leave us with a few days in Orlando earlier this summer. Excited to surprise them, I dove right into planning.

But once I began digging into the details, yuck – I started questioning my thought process right away.

Disney World Costs How Much?

Scoring tickets into any of the Disney parks isn’t cheap, but the cost is exacerbated if you plan to visit only one day. A one-day ticket to the Magic Kingdom for anyone ages 10 and up costs $124 during peak season, for example, while someone under the age of 9 can enter the park for $118. Of course, add-ons like “park hopper” passes and water park tickets can boost the price tag of your visit even higher if you let them.

Multi-day one-park tickets ranged from around $96 per day down to $40 per day for a 10-day stay, but we didn’t plan to spend more than a day, nor did we see how spending more time at Disney World could possibly save us money.

And while it’s true there are any number of ways to save nominal amounts of money on Disney tickets – using the Disney credit card, for example or buying Disney gift cards at a discount – we were running out of time for this last-minute trip. As such, we bit the bullet, paying $515 for four peak-season tickets for one day at the Magic Kingdom. Ouch.

Assessing the Value of Our Day at Disney World

Since I was already planning our flights and hotels as part of my work stay, I only took them into partial account. Still, the other costs of our Disney trip added up quickly once we got inside the gates – like a $32 double stroller rental to keep my kids out of the 100-degree heat, for example. A round of so-so pineapple whips for around $5 per pop. An air-conditioned, sit-down lunch that cost around $90 with tip, but was totally worth it to escape the scorching heat outside. Souvenirs were cheap, but also musts considering I gave each child a $20 budget to spend at the park.

We saved money by bringing a cooler of water and lugging it around with us all day long. If not for that, we would have easily spent another $30 to $40 on ice waters to keep us from melting right into the steaming hot pavement.

In total, we wound up spending around $200 at the park that day – and that was only possible because we got too hot and left before dinner. In my eyes, that’s a huge amount of money for frugal people to spend at a theme park for lunch, a few snacks, and a stroller rental. But it gets worse than that.

Remember how my daughter wanted to hug Minnie so bad? We didn’t see the character all day, and when we finally did, the line to get that hug was around an hour long. We did see other Disney characters elsewhere, but the lines were long and cumbersome all around. As a result, my daughter never got that character hug from, well, anyone.

Eating in a castle with princesses was also out of the question. Cinderella’s Royal Table, which is the premier character dining event at Disney World, was not only sold out for our dates, but exorbitantly expensive. According to the Disney Website, meals range from $35 for kids to $59.99 for adults, which left me with a big fat, “nope!”

At the end of the day – and after around 10 hours at the park — we had managed to go on about 10 rides, eat a few snacks, and avoid melting in the summer heat. And while we didn’t get much “magic” out of the experience, I will acknowledge that there was something special about letting my kids see that giant castle for the first time.

My kids loved more than just the sight of Cinderella’s castle; they loved the idea of what might be lurking inside, as well as the way it towered over the entire park. Plus, there was something especially fun about going on rides that were themed with Disney characters they already know and love. All things considered, nearly everything about our day at Disney was fun and entertaining as well. As for the lines for the rides, they weren’t all that long, either.

But, will we go back? Heavens no. 

In total, we spent more than $700 for a single day at a theme park, and that didn’t even include the costs of airfare to get there or a hotel stay nearby. It was fun, yes, but it was also a horrible value – especially when you consider what you can get closer to home.

Comparing Our Disney World Experience to Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari

A subsequent experience that drove home the poor value Disney offered was our trip to a local theme park a few weeks later. Set in Santa Claus, Ind., Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari is a small, local amusement and water park that is a fraction of the size of Disney World — but also a fraction of the cost.

Tickets start at around $40, and you can ride a combination of water rides and roller coasters throughout the day since the two parks share the same entrance. Plus, the park offers free soft drinks and sunscreen all day, making it an exceptional value.

During our two days there, we literally rode dozens of rides – mostly the same ones over and over. My kids hugged at least five or six different characters and spent a lunch break speaking with Santa Claus to boot. None of the creatures my kids stalked around the park were Disney characters, mind you — but what’s not to love about a giant stuffed cat and dog?

Lunch and dinner, while basic, was also a much better value at around $30 for a four-person meal. And without the need to haul around a cooler of prepaid drinks to save money, we were a lot more relaxed and a lot less tired as well.

With no magic castle and without a single Disney character in sight, Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari was an absolute blast. Better yet, we left feeling as if we could actually afford to come back one day – instead of feeling ripped off.

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Final Thoughts

After visiting both a Disney park and a local theme park in the same month, I’ve reached a conclusion: In my eyes, Disney World is a fun “bucket list” place to take your kids at least once – but one where high expectations can easily leave you feeling underwhelmed.

For the price of one day at the Magic Kingdom or Animal Kingdom, I could take my kids to Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari for four days. That’s three extra days of laughter, a lot more rides, and a whole lot more memories to cherish forever.

And truth be told, it’s worth a lot more to us than the “oohs and ahhhs” of seeing one giant castle and a few Disney characters in passing. Plus, visiting a local park saves money on driving, hotels, and transportation costs to boot. When you add all of that up, what’s not to love?

If your family already loves Disney World or obsesses over Disney characters, then the price tag might be well worth it. But if your kids don’t care too much one way or the other, you might want to save yourself the trouble and hit up a cheap, local theme park instead. You’ll still have fun, but without the regret that comes with spending four times more than you really needed to.

Chances are, your kids won’t know the difference anyway.

Does your family love Disney World, or do they prefer local theme parks instead? What are some different ways you have saved money at Disney World in the past?

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Holly Johnson
Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.

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