Calum Carpenter, 7, with his sister Eden, 5, reads a guide map while visiting from New York City with his parents, Mike and Elaine Carpenter, at Walt Disney World on Nov. 19, 2015.
By Sandra Pedicini / Orlando Sentinel
ORLANDO, Fla. — Can you still get a deal on a Disney vacation?
Three families who traveled to Disney World this past fall tracked their spending, reporting it to the Orlando Sentinel and sharing their thoughts. Their accommodations ranged from the budget All-Star Music Resort to the top-of-the-line Polynesian Village Resort.
In 2015, prices for one day at the Magic Kingdom went past $100 and annual pass costs increased by triple digits. Joe DeFazio, a travel agent who worked with one family, says that hasn’t slowed interest in Disney. However, “I think what you’re seeing is people evaluating where they may stay or how they may approach their vacation a little differently,” he said. “It may be moving from a moderate to a value [hotel], that type of thing; 10 days to seven days.”
November is generally considered one of Disney’s less expensive months, although prices tend to increase during the week of Thanksgiving. The three families who visited in November are:
• Lynn and Daniel Wiltse of Hilton Head, S.C., are passholders who try to keep costs down because they visit a few times a year. Daniel, 38, is a fire marshal. Lynn, 33, works as a receptionist. They have three kids, ages 3 to 11.
• Elaine and Michael Carpenter of Pearl River, N.Y., made their first trip to Disney. Michael, 50, works in construction. Elaine, 41, is a senior caregiver. They have two children, ages 7 and 5.
• Kim and Blair LaCour of Avon Lake, Ohio, have taken several Disney trips and cruises over the past few years. Blair, 42, is a computer consulting manager and Kim, 36, is a stay-at-home mom who plans Disney-focused vacations for family and friends. They have three children, 5 to 9 years old.
One thing the families had in common: They visited during a time when they could get the Disney Dining Plan for free. That deal — often offered during the slower fall months — erases hundreds or potentially more than $1,000 from a trip’s cost. Quick-service or regular dining plans, each providing two meals, a snack and a refillable mug, cost $42 or $60 per day for adults, $16 or $19 for children. The Carpenters shifted their vacation time to qualify for the deal.
The Wiltses’ seven-day stay ended on Thanksgiving. They estimated their cost as $6,052 — $1,210 a person — including five annual passes.
They bought a package costing $3,990 that included a stay in a family suite at the All-Star Music Resort, two park hopper tickets and the dining plan. They paid extra to upgrade their quick-service dining plan that was offered for free at budget resorts to one that included sit-down meals, Mr. DeFazio said.
The family then used $1,260 credit from the two park hopper tickets toward five annual passes.
The Wiltses were able to renew four annual passes at the old rates, paying $590 apiece for four people. A brand new pass for their 3-year-old daughter cost $797. “It definitely can be frustrating when you see the price increase,” said Lynn Wiltse, who blogs about Disney but received no discounts. “I try to look at the bigger picture, of what you get in the Disney experience with your annual pass, and how many times we come a year.”
The family limited extra purchases, just a $15 stuffed animal, and kept travel costs to a minimum. They paid $150 for two tanks of gas and two meals, one on the way down and one on the way home.
The dining plan the Wiltses used ordinarily would have cost $1,530. A less-expensive one was included for free in their package, although Mr. DeFazio estimated the family paid $423 extra to upgrade to one that included table-service restaurants.
This time, the Wiltses chose to forego the extras such as Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. Between seeing the parks decked out for the holidays and a last viewing of the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, Ms. Wiltse said, “I don’t think we missed out.”
For the Carpenters, the trip from Nov. 13 to 20 was a once-in-a-lifetime deal. They signed up for credit cards that provided them with a perk: $400 in gift cards that offset their cost.
Once in the parks, “we really didn’t spend a whole lot of money there,” Elaine Carpenter said. “Everything was obviously very overpriced.”
The Carpenters reported their total cost at $5,200, or $1,300 a person. That included the gift cards they applied and $1,070 for plane fare.
Lodging at the moderate Caribbean Beach Resort and theme-park admission cost $3,085. To avoid buying extra food in the parks, the family spent $90 for extra food delivered from a service called Garden Grocer.
Gifts and souvenirs came to $145, including a $17 autograph book for 7-year-old Calum and a $20 stuffed animal for 5-year-old Eden. The Carpenters also sprung for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party tickets, another $300.
“No regrets; no need to rush back,” Elaine Carpenter said of the trip. “The free dining was a huge factor for us … so we felt we got a good enough deal.”
The standard dining plan would have cost the Carpenters about $1,110 for their weeklong stay.
Kim LaCour does not try to do Disney on a budget. “It’s not an inexpensive trip to begin with,” she said. “When we do it, we want to do it right. … We like to be right by the monorail and have that top-notch service and special touches.”
The LaCours spent $7,250 — $1,450 a person during their stay that ended the day before Thanksgiving. The bulk of that cost was a $5,257.58 package that included six nights of a standard room at the Polynesian and five days of theme-park admission. Ms. LaCour said she received no discounts but earned a booking commission of $477.20.
The LaCours spent $300 on tips, alcohol, sodas and coffee, and a few extra quick-service meals.
Expenses included $34 for boat rental at the Polynesian, $55 for stroller rental and $169 for advance purchase of a Memory Maker package of digital photos taken on rides and by Disney’s photographers. (Advance purchase since has dropped to $149.)
The standard dining plan the LaCours got as part of their package ordinarily would have cost about $1,066 for their six-night stay.
Ms. LaCour tallied the costs for herself, her husband and kids. Her father and nephew traveled with them but stayed in a separate hotel room.
“It’s a supply and demand thing,” Ms. LaCour said of the increasing expense of a Disney vacation. “For the experience that Disney gives, it does cost and also really in order to maintain the crowds … they have to make sure they price it appropriately. That means the prices do go up.”