A trip to Walt Disney World in Florida (or Disneyland in California) is getting more expensive all the time. With the recent announcement of Genie, Genie+ and Lightning Lane, budget considerations have really taken centre stage. Even some Disney diehards are now saying they’ve finally been priced out. In this post I’ll share a few ideas on how to choose a Canadian points strategy to keep a Disney trip within reach without sacrificing too much on the experience.
The Increasing Cost of a Disney Vacation
Over the last while, corporate decision-makers at Disney have gradually stripped away many of the inclusions that guests had come to expect with their park tickets or resort stays. Hence, it’s more important than ever to have a good handle on what costs are involved and which add-ons are worthwhile if you’re contemplating a visit to the Mouse.
Please note that this is not a post on how to use points and miles for a cheap trip to Walt Disney World. While it’s certainly possible to do that, it’s a steep hill to climb and would involve a lot of effort to cover most or all of your travel.
Instead, I’m going to look at which loyalty currencies could be especially useful once you’ve decided on a specific priority for your Disney vacation, be it attractions, accommodation or dining.
But before I get to that, let’s explore the various expenses.
Park tickets comprise a large chunk of your trip cost, particularly in the case of Walt Disney World with its four separate theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom.
The price of a ticket is determined by the following:
- number of days
- calendar dates
- age of guest
- hopper or 1 park per day
A 4 day base ticket (age 10+) in mid-March is $534 USD with tax. The longer duration, the lower the price. For example, a 7 day ticket is $611 with tax.
In addition to the theme parks, there are two water parks you can add to your ticket for an additional cost called Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach.
Genie+ and Lightning Lane
In 1999, Walt Disney World park admission began including the ability to obtain a FastPass for certain rides to reduce the time spent waiting in line. When the original paper version was phased out, the new FastPass+ allowed guests to book rides online up to 60 days in advance for guests staying at Disney affiliated hotels.
FastPasses were removed during the pandemic and the change turned out to be permanent. Their replacement will be a paid system for skipping the line that revolves entirely around a new app called Genie and its add-on, Genie+ which is expected to roll out in October.
The free version of the app encourages guests to input their touring preferences to receive tailored suggestions for how to spend their day in the park. With updates on wait times for rides and available dining reservations, it’s designed to make your visit a little easier and more efficient.
In addition, if you pay for Genie+, you may choose one ride where you can access the “Lightning Lane” or what used to be the FastPass line. After you ride or when a designated amount of time has elapsed, you can choose another one, (similar to how MaxPass in Disneyland used to work). Genie+ will cost $15 per person per day at Walt Disney World and $20 at Disneyland. Most but not all rides will be available for Lightning Lane access.
Notably, a few highly popular attractions will not be included in Genie+. Guests instead have the opportunity to purchase Lightning Lane access separately for up to two of these so-called “individual attraction selections”. It’s not clear how much this will cost but apparently dynamic or surge pricing will be in effect so if it’s a really busy time, they will be quite pricey. At Disneyland Paris, a la carte ride selections are in the $9 to $18 range.
A couple of new attractions like Rise of the Resistance and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure have virtual queues so if you can’t manage to snag a spot, a paid Lightning Lane would be your only option to ride.
Check out the official Disney Parks Blog for more info on the new system.
After Hours Events
To complicate matters further, Disney also sells tickets to special events throughout the year. These purport to offer exclusive entertainment along with shorter wait times for attractions. Snacks are included as well. Prices for this year’s Christmas event range from $169 to $249 USD. Opinions vary on whether they are worth the high cost for the amount of time in the park so you’ll need to read some detailed reports from recent guests to see if you’d be interested.
Another big decision for your trip is whether to stay onsite at a Disney resort, a Disney Springs/Good Neighbour hotel or an offsite hotel or vacation rental. Obviously the price of lodging varies widely depending on where you choose to stay and the dates of your trip. For March break 2022 the cheapest onsite resort is All-Star Music Resort at $191 USD per night. Off Disney property there are a plethora of hotels to suit most price points but I’d expect to pay at as least around $100 for something reasonably decent unless you can score a deal.
Staying onsite at a Disney resort means you can pay for up to two of the high-demand Lightning Lane attractions at 7 am (the ones not included with Genie+) while other guests must wait till they’re inside the park. You’ll also get early entry into any of the parks a half hour before the general public along with guests from other select hotels. Guests at onsite deluxe resorts also get scheduled extended evening hours at Magic Kingdom or Epcot.
If you opt to stay onsite, you’ll have to decide whether or not it’s worth renting a car. While Magical Express (the free transfer from Orlando MCO) is going away, taking a ride-share or shuttle service to the resort could still save a lot of cash considering the cost of parking ($15-25/day) and the rental itself which would likely be several hundred dollars.
Onsite bus transportation isn’t always the greatest but it’s pretty decent, so you really don’t need your own wheels. And if you stay at one of the resorts connected to Hollywood Studios and Epcot by the Disney Skyliner gondola, you’ll have the added novelty of that form of transport as well.
Theme park food is expensive. A quick-service burger and fries will cost around $12 USD with entrees at table-service places typically starting at twice that. Themed restaurants with prix fixe menus or character meals are upwards of $50.
If you want to keep the costs down you can limit yourself to counter service places and split meals when portion sizes are large. Review menus online in to plan in advance. If staying offsite, you can more easily eat at establishments outside the parks or even pick up some food at the grocery store, especially if you’re staying at a vacation rental.
(For many years Disney offered a dining plan at a fixed price for onsite guests. Over time, its value diminished significantly and there’s currently no sign of it returning.)
Strategies for Saving: Priorities and Points
There are a lot of angry Disney fans at the moment. (Check the like/dislike ratio on the Disney Genie video.) Some view the introduction of paid FastPass as giving those with deeper pockets a more “magical” experience that conflicts with the perception of a day at Disney as an escape from such demographic divisions. Others lament the lost opportunity to lock in FastPasses up to 60 days in advance – now guests must sort all that out on the day.
I guess the bottom line is that if you want a Disney vacation, you need to know that it will be more expensive and complicated than ever before. And if you’re still interested, perhaps you ought decide which element of your trip has particular significance and gear your points and miles efforts toward that.
This may seem obvious – of course you want to ride the rides and see the shows – but just how eager you are to see and do as much as possible will influence your planning and budget. If you want to accomplish a lot, that will mean paying for Genie+ for every day at the parks. I’d say it also requires staying onsite so you’ll have access to the individual attraction selections at 7 am before the offsite visitors.
And it means rope drop. That’s not rolling up to the park entrance at 8:55 am for a 9 am opening – you’ve got to be there well in advance so you’re ready to speed-walk with the crowd to a very popular ride in order to save your Genie+ Lightning Lanes for other attractions. If you’re not into early mornings, you’ll need to be prepared to close the park and have a clear strategy for the busiest period of the day, focusing on less in-demand attractions or those that handle large numbers. Save the headliners till later in the evening.
Points Priority – Attractions
I’ve written before on whether redeeming Dream Air Miles for Disney tickets remains a good option now that it goes through Red Tag. Depending on the circumstances, it could still make sense despite not being quite the value it used to be.
However, one might instead choose to put Cash Air Miles toward Disney gift cards to use for tickets. Redeem for groceries, drugstore or gas purchases and use the savings to stock up on gift cards. You can avoid the 2.5% forex fee levied by most credit cards this way as well. Same with PC Optimum points. (Just be sure that a Disney trip is actually in your future before you start stockpiling these.) Use the Disney Gift Card website to combine them.
Alternatively, bank programs like TD Rewards or Scotia Rewards are another way to use points for tickets. With TD, you’d get them through Expedia For TD. With Scotia Rewards, you can purchase direct or through a third party website as long as it codes correctly as travel and then redeem points against the charge.
In a previous post I pondered how earning points and miles for a “fun fund” might motivate less engaged collectors. For Disney-goers, I’d say that Genie+ and the individual paid Lightning Lanes are prime examples where this strategy would be useful to avoid agonizing over cost while you’re in the park.
Standard of Accommodation and Amenities?
If staying at really nice accommodation is a deal breaker, such as a mid-range or upscale resort or a vacation home with private pool, then staying at an onsite “value resort” probably won’t cut it. You could save a bit by renting points from an owner to stay at a Disney Vacation Club resort but the cancellation terms on that type of booking would be relatively onerous.
I suppose that spending more time at your splendid lodging could lead to feeling compelled to pay up for Lightning Lane during your shortened time in the parks on some days. If that’s the case, your wallet needs to be comfortable with that possibility.
Points Priority – Accommodation
If you have Marriott Bonvoy points, consider redeeming for a stay at one of the three Marriott properties onsite, all of which are in the Disney deluxe category: Walt Disney World Swan, Dolphin or the soon to open Swan Reserve. These resorts are a little short on Disney theming but their proximity to the parks is excellent. You can convert Amex Membership Rewards points to Marriott Bonvoy as well. And if you stay 5 nights on points, one night will be free. And you may transfer up to 100,000 points to another member yearly.
If you choose on offsite resort that belongs to a chain, redeeming Scotia Rewards to cover some of the cost would be optimal as you can book direct and earn loyalty points at the same time. So, you can take advantage of any points-earning promotions that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to if you used a different fixed value reward currency. Further, you have up to 12 months after the charge to redeem points against it.
For Disney resorts or other non-chain hotels, you can redeem Dream Air Miles or any fixed value points through a bank reward program’s travel site. Consider also waiting for a promotion to redeem RBC Rewards for Hotels.com gift cards at a higher than normal rate. The advantage of using Hotels.com is the ability to earn a free night after you complete 10 paid nights. Just be sure the place you’re booking qualifies to earn stamps.
Vacation rental homes are very popular and give guests lots of space and privacy but they are tougher to book using points. Again, Scotia Rewards would be a good option for reservations through sites like Vrbo or Airbnb.
Table Service Dining?
If you’re mainly focused on experiencing the attractions, you’ll likely want to give table service meals a pass for the most part. They generally take longer and cost more. However, if food is a big part of your vacation, you’ll need to prepare yourself for the high prices and research carefully which restaurants hold the most appeal. Some are very well themed and make for a special experience in addition to the meal. If meeting characters is your thing, places that feature a few famous Disney personalities can help ensure that you get to meet them during your trip. Disney restaurants have a very good reputation for accommodating allergies and food sensitivities so that’s something to consider as well.
A pleasant sit-down dining experience can also be a welcome reprieve from the crowds or less than ideal weather. Many onsite Disney resorts have well regarded restaurants so it can be worth leaving the park to eat at one of those. Perhaps you could take a piecemeal approach by setting aside a couple of relaxing days where you spend time touring Disney resorts and trying interesting restaurants. Go to the Disney Springs shopping complex or check out Disney activities outside the parks. On these days you can forgo Genie+ and the Lightning Lanes (or park admission entirely) and spend that cash on dining experiences instead.
Points Priority – Dining
To ease the pain on your wallet for eats, a practical approach is once again accumulating Disney gift cards through the indirection redemption of Cash Air Miles and PC Optimum points. If you’ve diligently collected points for this specific purpose, it will be a bit easier to swallow the higher cost of theme park food.
Also consider that meals charged to the room will be added to the folio and form part of the hotel bill. If you redeem Scotia Rewards against the the charge, they will be included.
Other Cost Considerations
If you plan to fly to Orlando, Aeroplan points or WestJet dollars can help you save on the cost of flights.
Redeeming Dream Air Miles for car rental is worth exploring if you want your own transportation.
The last expense to consider is souvenirs. If you really want a lightsaber from Galaxy’s Edge, you’ll have to decide if you want a “real” one or the cheaper version. If you have anything left on your Disney gift cards you can deal with that conundrum then.
In my opinion, the best souvenirs (in addition to your memories) are the photos you take yourself. I am very thankful that my mother took so many pictures on our trips in the 80s and 90s because they have much more value than the bumper sticker and faded sweatshirt. I do love my kilted Goofy though…
Finally, considering the high cost, I don’t think it’s advisable to combine Disney with any other Orlando theme parks. If you want to go to Universal, I suggest doing it as a whole separate trip so you can take full advantage of all that it has to offer. My last three trips to Florida have been Universal only and were terrific.
Unless you’re made of money (in which case you’d probably book one of those VIP tours), a trip to Walt Disney World is definitely a splurge vacation. But if Disney is on your radar and you’re inclined to collect points and miles, you can certainly put a dent in the cost.
As I tried to emphasize, it helps to have a firm idea of which aspect of the trip is paramount and what you can forgo. What’s important to one person or group might not be so crucial to another. It’s a waste of energy, in my opinion, to rage about the ever escalating price tag of a Disney vacation. Consider all your travel options, decide what will make you happy and figure out if you can make it happen.