Splurge or save? These moms share how they do both at Disney World

Eve Chen
USA TODAY
  • Families can experience Disney World on a budget, but for those looking for a little more magic, all they have to do is open their wallets.
  • The easiest way to see Disney World like a VIP is through a private VIP tour.
  • From private fireworks cruises to temporary nannies, families can splurge depending on their case.
Heather Hudson couldn't wait introduce her daughter to Disney World.

Heather Hudson had Cinderella's Royal Table on her bucket list for decades.

"I wanted to do that since I was a little girl," the Denver mom said, excited to finally try it with her husband and daughter. 

The restaurant inside Cinderella Castle is one of the most popular dining options at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. With prix fixe meals ranging from $42 to $62 per adult and $27 to $37 per child, it's also one of the more expensive.

There are many ways to experience Disney World on a budget, but for families looking for a little more magic, all they have to do is open their wallets.

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How to see Disney like a VIP

The easiest way to see Disney World like a VIP is through a private VIP tour.

The tours, which include a personalized itinerary and tour guide, cost $425 to $850 hourly, with a minimum of seven hours for booking – not including tips or required park tickets.

"The price tag is scary," said Christa Estrada, a mom of two from El Paso, Texas. "But when you break down how much you're able to get done, it really is worth it."

Christa Estrada strikes a pose at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

On a recent VIP tour with friends and family, Estrada estimates she saved three to four hours on Remy's Ratatouille Adventure and Frozen Ever After at EPCOT alone.

Disney tour guides can get groups to the front of lines and backstage to go from attraction to attraction and park to park quickly.

"We were able to get done three parks with all of the newest rides during our seven hours," Estrada said.

Up to 10 guests are allowed on each tour.

The best seats in the house

Instead of camping out along Main Street U.S.A. or around EPCOT's World Showcase to watch nightly fireworks, guests can secure seating through several premium experiences.

One of the most luxe is a private fireworks cruise on Seven Seas Lagoon, Bay Lake or EPCOT's International Gateway. Prices start at $399 for up to 10 guests on a 25-foot boat.

A slightly more affordable option, which Hudson booked, is a Ferrytale Fireworks dessert cruise on a Seven Seas Lagoon ferry. The cost is $99 for adults and $69 for children.

"That's something that I would only dream of," Hudson said looking back and now making it a reality.

She also booked a Fireworks Dessert Party, for another night.

Dessert Party attendees enjoy all-they-can-eat sweets and reserved seats for viewing Magic Kingdom's nightly fireworks. The cost is $114 per adult and $69 per child.

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"With having a baby and it's the night of (Disney Very Merriest After Hours) party, we knew it was going to be busy and packed," Hudson said. "We really wanted to get a good view of the fireworks and not have to sit for hours and hours on end and really tried to figure out what is our time worth."

Magic Kingdom fireworks can also be seen from the Contemporary Resort's California Grill, where the limited-time 50th Anniversary Celebration Menu costs $89 per adult and $39 per child. 

Fireworks dining packages are available at various restaurants around EPCOT's World Showcase, including Rose & Crown and Spice Road.

Dining with character

From socially distanced meet-and-greets to cavalcades and after-hours parades, there are multiple chances to see Disney characters throughout the parks, but one sure-fire way is to pay for it.

Even though guests can't get up close to characters for hugs or autographs like before the pandemic, Elizabeth Lin of Timnath, Colorado, still wanted to share a character dining meal with her family. 

"Tusker House breakfast was a great option because the characters came through the dining area and then they would stop at each individual table and let the kids come up – they would socially distance from them – and still take pictures," Lin said. "They were interactive, dancing, and that was a lot of fun, especially for my girls."

Elizabeth and Cy Lin juggled saving and splurging on their trip to Disney World with their daughters Cora and Abigail.

Lin also scored reservations for Space 220, which opened at EPCOT this year and is regularly booked up.

"I was so glad I got a reservation," she said. "It's a really cool experience. It definitely makes you feel like you're in space. The technology is so cool, and the menu is really great too, obviously space-themed."

Space 220's prix fixe meals range from $55 to upwards of $79 for adults and cost $29 for kids at both lunch and dinner.

Hudson was also able to snag several coveted reservations for her family's trip, with the help of a Facebook group dedicated to just that.

To save money, Hudson booked breakfasts instead of later meals, which can be more expensive. She was also able to save on her 2-year-old's dining.

Kids under 3 are free at Disney World. Ages 3 to 9 qualify for child pricing. Anyone older counts as an adult for meals and tickets.

"I told my husband, if we're gonna mark them off our bucket list ... better to do it now when we're only paying for two of us," Hudson said. "Had we been paying for multiple children, I don't know that we would do all of that."

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Saving on stays 

Accommodations can be one of the most expensive parts of any vacation. For guests who really want to live it up, there are suites that can cost thousands of dollars nightly at Disney World, like the Polynesian's over-the-water bungalows and Copper Creek Cabins at Wilderness Lodge.

Hudson chose a budget hotel, Pop Century, for her family's trip.

"Either we can splurge and stay at the Riviera or Grand Floridian and spend a couple grand there, or we can stay at a more cost-friendly hotel and put our investments into experiences," she said.

Heather, Peyton and Eric Hudson pause for a photo at Toy Story Land in Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Estrada has enjoyed numerous fancy stays over the years without paying full price.

"One of the things that we love to do is rent (Disney Vacation Club) points so that we can stay on Disney property at the deluxe villas," she said. "We've even done one of the lakeside cabins at the Wilderness Lodge that came with a hot tub and private deck."

The biggest perk for Estrada? In-unit laundry.

"Probably the most luxurious experience I've had in Orlando is having a washer dryer in our own unit and being able to wash our clothes after being in the park all day," she said. 

Renting timeshare points from Disney Vacation Club owners via third-party companies can offer substantial savings, but it won't include the privileges guests get booking Club Level stays directly through Disney. Those include personalized concierge services and private lounges with snacks and drinks.

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Lin used rewards points to stay at the newly opened Swan Reserve near EPCOT, which is owned by Marriott but shares many of the perks of deluxe Disney properties.

"You still get the early entry in the morning at the parks and also the extended evening hours when they have them," she said.

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The Lin family poses for a photo in front of Cinderella Castle in Magic Kingdom.

The self-identified planner was able to juggle splurging and saving with months of planning.

Before her trip, Lin purchased discounted gift cards at Sam's Club and then limited spending to whatever they had on hand.

"We didn't have to worry about just pulling out our credit card and then at the end of the trip we're like, 'Oh my goodness that's how much we spent.' " she said. "We had that set amount ... and when it's gone, it's gone."

A little outside help

Estrada invested in some extra help on a recent trip to Disney World.

She hired an outside nanny to help her and her friends with their kids at the parks.

"I think I'm ruined for life now after using Nanny-Land," the mom of two said. Her nanny even stood in line for her snacks while she rode The Jungle Cruise. "It was the most amazing experience I've ever had."

Christa Estrada's Nanny-Land nanny Hillary was a huge help on their trip

If money is no object and Disney doesn't offer a particular service, there are numerous outside businesses ready to step in, like personal shoppers to help snag high-demand souvenirs, makeup artists offering in-room makeovers while Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique remains closed and people who deliver groceries. Some are even former cast members who've been furloughed or laid off amid the pandemic.

Hudson looked into a princess makeover for her little one.

"She'll sit still for a minute, but I don't know," she laughed, choosing to DIY instead.

Even though Lin was able to save on certain aspects of her trip, she was realistic about the financial commitment. "Obviously Disney World is expensive. Everyone knows that going in."