The notion of a trip to Disney World is likely far from the minds of most Canadians right now, but if you’re an Air Miles member deciding whether to focus on collecting Dream miles or Cash miles in 2021, it’s good to be aware of the various travel reward options.
[UPDATE: See also Points Priorities for a Disney Vacation in the Genie+ and Lightning Lane Era]
Redeeming Air Miles for Theme Park Tickets
It’s long been popular to redeem Air Miles for tickets to U.S. theme parks like Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Universal Studios Orlando, Universal Studios Hollywood, Sea World Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.
This post is focused on Walt Disney World in Orlando as it is by far the largest and most complicated to plan a trip around and is the theme park of choice for many here on the east coast.
In the past, the main obstacle to using Air Miles for tickets was the sporadic availability. Inventory would fluctuate with periods when no tickets were available or perhaps just children’s tickets. The selection was often limited to 3, 5 or 7 day tickets and they seldom included the “hopper” feature that allows you to visit more than one park in a day.
Later, when tickets started having an expiry date, it became more difficult to redeem well in advance of your trip.
However, the value was pretty good, especially early on. Over time, the miles required went up coinciding with an increase in the cash price. Still, when Walt Disney World went to seasonal pricing, Air Miles continued to offer flexible tickets and the value remained reasonable, especially for high season visits.
Walt Disney World has since gone from seasonal rates to date-specific pricing and Air Miles consequently changed the format for redeeming Dream miles for tickets.
Air Miles and Redtag.ca
Now when you redeem Dream miles for theme park admission, you’re effectively buying your tickets from a third party travel agency. As with paid tickets, the price in miles will vary depending on the dates of your trip.
Visit the “How It Works” page for the U.S. theme parks FAQ to get all the details. You’ll be sent a confirmation number and voucher so you can set up your My Disney Experience account to make dining and fastpass reservations (assuming those come back after COVID). Bring the printed voucher to “Will Call” at the parks to collect the actual tickets.
Tickets are available from 3 to 10 days and come with options like park hopping or waterparks for additional miles. For the example below I chose the 4 day base ticket as that’s the one that would give you a day at each park (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom).
I checked dates in September which is typically a slower time at theme parks in Orlando. (Kids are back in school and weather is less than ideal.)
4 Day Adult Base Ticket (valid any 4 days between Sept. 13 and Sept. 19, 2021)
Paying with money: $439.64 USD tax included (around $560 CAD currently)
Paying with Air Miles: 5401 Dream miles
I was going to compare dates in early December 2021 as well but they are not yet available with Air Miles. Surprisingly, ticket prices are quite high this year in the typically slow period before the Christmas crowds arrive. Perhaps this is due to the upcoming 50th anniversary and new attractions set to open?
Are Disney Tickets Still a Good Value With Air Miles?
As with any Dream mile redemption, if the value beats that of Cash miles (95 = $10) then you can say it’s a good deal. You might even accept a less than optimal value if you’re just happy getting your tickets for free after saving those Dream miles for that purpose, and it makes the trip happen.
From the example above, 5401 Cash miles would get you $568 dollars worth of free groceries, so the redemption value for Disney tickets is in the same ballpark. And when you consider the 2.5% foreign exchange fee added by most Canadian credit cards on US purchases, the value of the Dream mile redemption increases slightly.
Alternatives to Redeeming Air Miles for Disney Tickets
If you choose not to redeem Dream miles for Disney tickets, you can still use them for your trip. You can instead redeem for accommodation (including Disney resorts), a rental car or plane tickets to Orlando.
Another strategy is to collect Cash miles and indirectly redeem them for Disney tickets by purchasing Disney gift cards. I say indirectly because it’s not expressly permitted to redeem Cash miles for gift cards, but if you add a gift card to your grocery order, you could attribute the grocery savings to the Disney gift cards.
The other approach is to simply use the savings from Cash mile redemptions to fund your trip. There is obviously more flexibility and minimal hassle that way but it requires some discipline to not touch the money earmarked for a Disney vacation.
The Potential Advantages of Not Redeeming Air Miles for Disney Tickets
In redeeming Air Miles for park tickets, you might not be able to take advantage other money-saving opportunities.
The true economic fallout of the pandemic remains to be seen, but during previous downturns Walt Disney World has been known to offer some enticing package deals. These usually require a minimum number of hotel nights or ticket days. For example, right now there is a promotion to get 2 extra days of admission on a 4 night/3 day package.
It’s also possible we’ll see the free dining offers of the past. Since park reopening the dining plan has been suspended and who knows if or when it will return. I believe the most recent version of “free dining” required a package booking that included at least a 2-day ticket. Over the years, the promos were gradually devalued but I suppose it’s not inconceivable to see a decent one return.
Disney has also released Canadian resident ticket discounts in recent years and Air Miles usually offers a corresponding reduction in the Dream miles required. I assume this new set-up will similarly provide discounts in line with Disney but it’s an unknown at the moment.
If you’re considering an extended Disney vacation you might want to research 14 or 21 day options from UK ticket agents that are sometimes also available to Canadians.
Finally, if you decide to go the Cash mile route, you obviously have more flexibility to opt out of a Disney trip in favour of another destination.
My Perspective on a Future Disney Trip
A trip to Walt Disney World is a complex and expensive undertaking. Sure, you could just roll up and buy a ticket and wander around the parks without having done any research, but you’d miss out on a lot and at the price you’re paying it would be very poor value. Although I look forward to returning someday (I’ve still got those old no-expiry tickets pictured above), my last three stays in Orlando were quick Universal trips where very little planning was necessary.
Due to the pandemic there have been many adjustments made at the Disney parks including the elimination of fastpasses, fireworks, parades, shows etc. The free transportation from the airport to onsite hotels (called the “Magical Express”) will be discontinued in 2022 and the “Extra Magic Hours” that allow extra park time for Disney resort guests will be replaced with a modest and logistically cumbersome half hour early entry before other visitors.
In light of the changes and potential for more cuts, I’m not sure I’d recommend redeeming Dream miles for park tickets. When international leisure travel resumes there is a chance that Disney will offer some package deals to encourage new bookings so I would keep my options open.
That said, if you have no interest in staying at an onsite Disney hotel and you’d prefer not to go the Cash mile route, then it’s not unreasonable to save your Dream miles for park tickets. There are so many great offsite accommodation choices, from the various chain hotels in Disney Springs (pre-pandemic these properties offered extended fastpass booking like the onsite resorts) or vacation rental homes with lots of space and maybe even your own pool.
With the flexibility to choose the exact type of ticket you want, redeeming Dream miles is certainly easier than it was previously even if the redemption value has decreased. Whether or not you redeem miles for park admission, any use of loyalty points to cover some of the high cost of a Disney vacation is helpful. And if a future trip to see a nonagenarian fictional rodent inspires you to stay on top of promotions and build up your balance wisely, then it’s a worthy goal.
If you’re new to Disney, the most important tip is not whether to redeem miles or pay cash for tickets – it’s that you need to do your research and have your ducks in a row before embarking on a trip to the happiest place on earth..