Nobody should have to go into debt over visiting Disney World. It's just not worth that. But don't feel like that means you can't go.
I love going to Disney, partially because it's an amazing and beautiful place with so much to behold, and partially because I live for the deal and finding good deals at Disney is a delightful challenge for my odd little soul.
And I have figured out how to stay there---and have fun there---for cheap without ever even entering the parks.
September is an amazing month to visit Disney. As you can see, Florida residents can stay at a Disney's Fort Wilderness campsite for as low as $39 before tax. 10 people can stay on a campsite. So if you're a family and you split the campsite with another family for one night, it'll cost each of you about $12 a day to stay at Disney. Or, if you're a single person and you can find nine other people who will go with you...you can go to Disney for less than $3 a day! I'm giddy with delight at the thought.
Or, if camping is a deal-breaker, you can stay at a value resort for $86 before tax (. Those resorts are fun and you can still do a lot of the same things I'm about to mention, but the hotel rooms are nothing special and you don't get the same experience.
When I'm looking at rates, I google "special offers Disney resort" and make sure I'm seeing the Florida resident discount. It's usually 30% off. But be aware that prices fluctuate immensely. At Christmastime, the cheapest campsite might very well cost $100!
Newbies to Disney might think that all the fun to be had is in the parks. I beg to differ! There is so much fun that's included in the price of staying at a Disney resort. And staying at Fort Wilderness makes it super easy.
So what would you do at Ft. Wilderness for two whole days?
I figured the best way to describe what you can do is by making a sample schedule (complete with meal plan!)
10 am - Arrive and park in the parking lot while you wait for your campsite to be ready. (However, it's possible you can check in early!) Take a bus to Disney Springs.
Visit Basin and try the different hand lotions. Visit Ghirardelli and get a free chocolate just for walking in the store. Check out the LEGO store and build stuff. If you want to eat out, Earl of Sandwich is reasonably priced and you can get coupons in your email if you sign up beforehand. If you want to see a movie, a matinee at the AMC Theatres Disney Springs 24 costs $5.49. There's plenty more to do, and Disney is expanding this area massively.
You can also take a boat from Disney Springs (for free) to the following Disney Resorts (all of which are really different and special in their own way and deserve exploration): Port Orleans French Quarter, Port Orleans Riverside, Saratoga Springs, and Old Key West.
1 pm - Take the bus back to Ft. Wilderness, check in, and ride your car to your campsite and set up. I recommend bringing twinkly lights or something with which you can personalize your site. Some people go all out, especially at Halloween and Christmas, and if your campsite is not decorated you will feel very Eeyore-ish.
2:30 pm - Hit the pool! Fort Wilderness has an awesome kids area as well as a decent water slide. They often have poolside crafts or activities too.
5:30 pm - Head back to the campsite for hot dogs or burgers from your grill. Oranges are great fruits to bring while camping.
6:30 pm- Check out Tri-Circle-D Ranch and say hello to the horses and ponies that are used in the Magic Kingdom parades!
Evening hours fluctuate based on season so these are tentative times:
8:00 pm- Go to Chip and Dale's Campfire Singalong. They have a cowboy leading in live music as well as the beloved chipmunks who dance and take pictures with everyone in the audience. It's an incredible experience of community celebration. They also have campfires lit so bring your S'more stuff! (Or pay $10 to buy theirs! Ouch!)
8:30 pm- Watch a movie by the campfire. The projection quality is incredible and of course they'll be showing Disney movies.
9:30 pm- Head to the marina and sit on the beach for the electrical lights parade. The music is dated and the floats are odd, but it's still a neat experience. I mean, you're seeing a parade in the water at night while you're sitting on the beach!? They also have tetherball nearby.
10 pm- While you're on the beach, enjoy an awesome view of the fireworks at Magic Kingdom! The everyday fireworks are great, but the fireworks during Mickeys Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party are exclusive to those who pay zillions of dollars to attend those events, but anyone watching from the beach gets to see them for free! The sound is even pumped in to the beach so you get to hear what they're hearing in Magic Kingdom.
One of my friends joked that he was sure he saw a firework shaped like a dollar sign, and Peter replied that "Disney is where your money goes to die," but hopefully this article is helping to disprove that theory.
10:30 pm- Go to bed!
Peter likes to stay up and go to the quiet pool (that doesn't close late at night) and sit in the hot tub and/or play Guitar Hero in the arcade. Or, if you're riding your bike, you can head to the Wilderness Lodge via a bike trail and enjoy their arcade. It's living the life for sure.
8 am - Wake up and grab some breakfast you brought from home. Orange juice + muffins will fill you up nicely. However, here are some eating-out options:
~Trails End buffet - For Disney standards, it's an excellent value at $20 per adult and $10 per child over 3 (and the price includes drinks, and there's a discount if you're an annual Passholder.) That's still really expensive and I've only been there once, but check out the menu. The food is so good.
~P & J's Southern Takeout - You can get some decent grub for affordable prices. A very filling breakfast "bounty" is under $10. See menu here.
~Take the boat to the Contemporary resort and eat at the bistro. A kids meal breakfast platter is $5 and has a decent amount of food.
~Take the boat to Wilderness Lodge and eat at the Roaring Fork. They have super-fancy waffles for about $8.
9 am - Ride your bike around the trails or take the bus to somewhere you can take a nature walk (there's a really lovely nature walk by the marina that gives you incredible views of the lake.) This might be your favorite part of the trip because there are some beautiful sights for a walk.
10 am - Start packing up your campsite as you must check out by 11 (though you can always call and ask for a late checkout.) Park your vehicle in the lot and head to the marina for another day of fun!
11 am - You can ride a boat to Disney's Wilderness Lodge or to Disney's Contemporary Resort (both are deluxe resorts.) Here's what you can do at each (all for free):
~Wilderness Lodge is something to behold. Outside they have an impressive geyser that goes off every hour on the hour. The landscaping is beautiful. Inside the lobby you'll be amazed by the architecture and theming. There's a huge lovely fireplace.
We also like to play at their playground and beach (though there is presently lots of construction transpiring, which might spoil those plans.)
We usually indulge and eat one meal out. At the Whispering Canyon Cafe, the servers yell at each other and show you lots of sass. It's really fun and the food is tasty.
But the Roaring Fork Cafe has delicious food too that costs about $10-12.
~I'm not sure why Disney's Contemporary Resort can charge so much money per night because, in my opinion, it doesn't have much to offer, besides one big thing: the monorail.
The monorail can take you to Magic Kingdom, the Ticket and Transportation Center (eventually to Epcot), Disney's Polynesian Resort, and Disney's Grand Floridian Resort.
Visiting Polynesian is my favorite thing to do when I camp at Fort Wilderness. Sure, it takes some effort to get there, but it's such a fun luau-ish atmosphere and you can get Dole Whip!!!
Dole Whip is dairy-free pineappley soft serve magic and a decent-sized cup of it is $5 (which, again, by Disney standards, is pretty good. And you just saved so much money that you can totally justify this!) I like to get my Dole Whip, sit on a swinging bench, and watch my kids play on the beach.
Do remember that this is the same lagoon (but different resort) where that terrible tragedy with the alligator happened. Keep a close eye on your kids and enforce the no-water rule. But the beach is large and fun for playing.
And lunch at Polynesian's Capt. Cook's restaurant is, in my opinion, a must. Their grilled chicken sandwich with bacon, cheese, pineapple salsa, housemade chips, and fresh coconut bread bun, is so amazing and $10. The other menu items are also incredible and decidedly pineapple-infused.
From Polynesian you can walk or ride the monorail to Grand Floridian. I love beholding this resort, especially at Christmastime, because it's so intricately fancy. Even going up the elevator is a treat. They also have a Basin store where you can try different soaps and hand scrubs. (Buying some soaps that are in the clearance pile makes great souvenirs! Their bath bombs are awesome too.)
From Grand Floridian you can take the monorail back to Contemporary and then take the boat back to Ft. Wilderness, but I think it's much faster to take the monorail to Magic Kingdom then the boat to Ft. Wilderness. (Longer, more enjoyable boat ride, and less walking around.)
The rest of the day is up to you!
Here are some other tips:
-You cannot use a car to get around Fort Wilderness. You must either walk, ride a bike, take a (free) bus, or rent or bring a golf cart. (We ended up buying one on Craigslist since we go to Fort Wilderness so often! We hope to eventually sell it for approximately the same price we bought it for, ha!) Especially if you're with friends and can split the cost or you can't ride bikes, paying $60 for a golf cart rental might be the best decision you'll make on this trip. :)
-Whenever you ride a bus, a boat, or a monorail, your child can ask the driver, captain, or attendant for a Transportation Trading Card for free. Collect all 12! :)
-I really enjoyed Disney Pin Trading as a kid, and now my kids really enjoy it, and you can partake with the Cast Members at the resorts. If you want a good deal on getting started, visit Disney's Character Warehouse at the Orlando Premium Outlets. It's where you can go to get clearance items from Disney World! I got a 2015 lanyard for $1 (originally $8) and a set of Monsters U trading pins that ended up costing about $2 each (pins typically cost at least $7 each.) Teaching my kids to trade pins with Cast Members has been a great way to introduce manners and approaching adults with respect. And they love it, even though I think the pins they choose are really odd. (Did you really just give up Tinkerbell for Hades on a necktie?)
-They have lots of playgrounds at Fort Wilderness, and they're really good! Check them out!
-Bring glow sticks and glow bracelets! Dollar Tree will give you 8 for a buck.
-Going with friends truly is more fun. See if anyone will go with you!
I hope you have a super fun time at Disney! Send me your tips if there's anything I forgot to mention. The awesome thing about Disney is that even though I've been so many times in my life (probably 50 or more), I'm always finding new things and there's always so much more to discover!
And now for some pictures from my trips! We've probably gone to Fort Wilderness at least 6 times in the past year. It's our favorite little family getaway.
Here are some other posts I've written about Disney or frugality:
8 Ways Disney Helps My Soul
How to Have Meaningful Conversations About Disney
How to Save Money on Vacation
We Thrived on Less Than $20k (and How You Probably Can Too!)
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My name is Hope.
I'm 25, married to a rad guy, and raising three little people ages 1,3, and 5...and I'm now expecting my fourth. I like lime green, Coke icees, and I wear my Crocs until they have holes in them...or melt.
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Articles I've Written on Other Sites:
Youth Ministry's Family Blindspot - Christianity Today