Friday, January 27, 2012

How to spend too much money taking your family to Disney World without regretting that you haven't any money left to jet off to Paris*

*not saying we accomplished this, just gonna tell you how we might have succeeded had we done a few things differently

First, how we spent our money:

1) Round trip airlines tickets: $158 x 5 = $790 + various unreasonable fees = $930

2) Six nights at a Disney hotel: $444

3) Five, 5-day park hopper tickets to Disney World: $1589

4) Five, 2-day park hopper tickets to Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure (where Hogwarts is!): $806

5) Four separate Cab fares to and from Disney and Universal: $150

6) Seven days worth of food for a family of five: $760

7) Souvenir money: N/A

8) TOTAL: $4,679 (or $935 per person, if you wanted to put that in perspective for your family)

We try to take at least one big family vacation a year to some place new. These trips cost us anywhere from $2,500-$4,000, the cheapest (and bestest!) being Washington DC. (I highly recommend pricing out DC for your family. Wait for a good deal on flights and hotel, and then enjoy lots of free entertainment. God bless America!)

Last year we decided 'twas time to travel to Disney World. But it is crazy expensive. We priced it at around $9,000 for our family of five. We could go to some place super exotic, like Burbank Alaska, for that price! So we decided to skip our "big trip to some place new!" in 2011 (although we did take driving trips to visit family and friends), save up our money, and wait for good deals to D-World in 2012. We ended up getting some good deals, making some good spending choices, and making some not-so-good spending choices.

So, analyzing the costs...

1) Airfare. This was our crowning achievement. That fare is freakishly low. It's lower than a double-jointed roller skater in a limbo contest. Trust me. I've regularly checked airfare from LV to Orlando for the last 3 years and that's the lowest I've ever seen it. Plus, Southwest, so no charge for baggage.

In booking this cheap flight, we had to take our kids out of school (which stresses me out, so I rarely-if-ever do this) and we accidentally picked "testing week" to leave town so Cord had to schedule make-up tests (ulcer inducing). But it meant we were also vacationing during Off Season, which was a plus for many obvious reasons that I will state anyway in great detail throughout this post to make myself feel better about the irresponsible parent stuff.

2) Hotel. We stayed at the infamous Disney's All Star Music Resort. This was our first mistake. The price was right (greatly reduced from the normal outlandish price, due to us traveling [brilliantly] during Off Season), but it wasn't worth the savings for the two following reasons.

First, to get that price, we booked a hotel room for 4 people (max) and we had 5 people.

We are horrible, horrible people who laugh in the face of fire codes and cheat hotel moguls out of extra-person fees. We always pull this trick. Sneak lil' Homey in. It's no big deal cuz we always do it and it's no big deal, right? Wrong. At Disney World, where every man, woman, and child are accounted for and billed accordingly, it is a big deal. You see, each person in your room gets his/her own "Key to the World" room key, which is Disney's way of making sure they charge 6-year-olds for sleeping on the floor. No one gets a free place to stay. You use your "Key to the World" key, along with your admission ticket, to get into the Disney parks significantly early/stay late, which is also the only reason you stay at a Disney hotel rather than book a cheaper/nicer hotel on Priceline.

We quickly realized our error while sitting on our double-sized beds with our legs crossed (so as not to take up all the floor space), reading the pamphlet they gave us. Our lil' stow-a-way did NOT get a "Key to the World" key, although he would always have the key to our hearts, even though we don't like paying extra for him. After a brief argument where Tony and I blamed each other for everything from the price of gas to global warming, we swallowed our pride and made an embarrassing phone call to the hotel concierge, admitting what we had done in an "aw shucks, we're jus' simple country folks, we mean no harm" kind-of way. They let us sweat it out for a good 30 minutes and bite our fingernails to the nubs, but they eventually agreed to let us stay in our $444, cramped, poorly decorated room-for-four (did I mention the double beds?), and gave Homey his own different-looking* "Key to the World."

*a constant reminder that we were cheating the Disney corporation.

Reason number two this hotel was a mistake, is that the hotel had a bad ambiance. That sounds stupid when I type it out. Anyway, it's hard for me to explain why the ambiance was bad, although the ghastly photos hint at the problem. I will say that our tiny room was clean, the hotel grounds were well-kept, and the staff was friendly. I just didn't want to be there, the same way I don't want to be at Chuck E Cheese's. And we were forking out so much for this trip... and staying at a no-good hotel??

I'm all about good deals, but I also think a bad hotel can make or break your vacation. Do I look forward to crashing at our hotel at the end of the night, or do I dread it? Does the location add an extra hour of travel time to our already long days? On this issue, Tony and I somewhat disagree. He's more interested in saving a buck, and only back-peddles after we check into the Happiness Hotel (<--thanks for the reference, HotPants) with the rest of the middle-class poor.

But especially when you're visiting the Magical Kingdom every day, where you “leave today and enter a world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy” (or some such quote as that), going back to your lame hotel every night is a mood-killer. At the All Star Resort, you leave the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy and enter a tacky baby shower where the expectant mother has decided to let the sex of her baby remain a surprise.*

The expectant mother is also fan of cartoonishly large, pastel rock instruments.

Anyway, just so it's clear, we regretted our choice in hotels. Depressing ambiance, uncomfortable, and it was too far away. Now, enough about hotels! Sheesh!

*I've given birth 3 times, and every time we decided to be surprised and find out the sex of the baby from our ultra-sound technician. Huge surprise! As a bonus, I would receive a second surprise on the day of delivery in the form of a hasty episiotomy. Double surprises!

3) Disney World Park Hopper Tickets. (Note that these tickets cost us more than our flights and hotel combined.) We made some mistakes with this purchase as well. Mainly, we shouldn't have spent money on the park hopper option, which allows you to "hop" from park to park throughout the same day, rather than stick to one park per day. This may work when hopping between Disneyland and California Adventure, but this is not a practical option when it comes to Disney World.

Don't be tempted by the different opening and closing times of each park. Just save your money and stay put. The parks are farther apart than it looks on a map. It takes about 15-20 minutes to travel to and from the different parks, not including the time it takes you to make your way to the exit, walk to the bus zone, and wait in line for a bus to come pick you up. You could easily waste a good hour "hopping" to another park, and torture your feet in the process, with all that extra walking. Or you could stay put, dust off one the seats in the Hall of Presidents and take a cat nap. If you aren't tired (You are, though! Think of your feet! Your poor, aching feet!), there's still Tom Sawyer's Island or a leisurely stroll through Liberty Square.

Adding the park hopper option to our tickets cost us an extra $335. We used it one time. One. Time. Not worth it.

4) Universal Studios Park Hopper Tickets. (Note that you can almost fly 5 people across the country for this price.) The only reason we (or anybody else) wasted time/money going to Universal when there was a Disney park in the vicinity was because we are Harry Potter nerds and we were dying to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (<--!) and choose our wands. It did not disappoint. It was the highlight of our trip. But more on that later.

Universal has two parks. Universal Studios, and Islands of Adventure. What I would have done differently here is only buy 1 day tickets (without the "hopper" option) to Islands of Adventure (where Harry Potter is located). Doing this would have saved us $356, plus $75 in cab fees, for a total of $431. So, that was spending mistake #3.

5) Cab fares. I already addressed this, but if we had only gone to Universal one day instead of two we would have saved $75 in cab fares. Also, I should say that the Disney hotels include transportation to and from the airport, which probably saves you at least $100 in cab fare. Something to ponder while perusing Priceline.

6) Food. I have to pat myself on the back for coming in way under budget here. You should always over-budget for food (we budgeted a whopping $1,000 this time, since there were theme parks involved) and then pat yourself on the back for coming in way under.

Generally speaking, we are cheap eaters. I actually hate spending money on food and would take a food pill instead if they were invented yet. But we could have done even better on our food budget if there had been a nearby grocery store. There wasn't. We had no options besides park food, unless we wanted to pay a cab to take us somewhere. I wish we would have thrown a few boxes of Poptarts in our suitcase. And some juice boxes, too.

A tasty yet reasonably priced place to eat in Downtown Disney that we highly recommend is the Earl of Sandwich. Best toasted caprese I've ever had. We went back three times.

7) Souvenir money. Here, I am sort of cheating. We do not normally purchase souvenirs, beyond buying a patch for our sweet travel quilt.* But this time, I saved some of my guitar lesson cash, along with the Christmas money our kids got from grandparents, and gave everyone $20 per (full) day to spend on snacks, souvenirs, tattoos, piercings, etc. I am not adding this money into our vacation expense because most of it was gift money, it was an optional expense, and I dunno I am just not counting it. None of it came out of Tony’s paycheck.

I got this idea from family vacations I had taken as a kid. My mom would sometimes budget in $10 or $20 per day for each of us kids to buy our own snacks, lunch, entertainment, souvenirs, tattoos, etc. To this day, those trips are the richest I have ever felt in my life. Simon would call it all a bunch of indulgent nonsense, and I’d agree and add that that is exactly what made the whole thing so awesome. Our kids learned a lot about money, the price of things, and planning and saving up to get what they wanted. But mostly, we all just strutted around like we were filthy stinkin' rich.

*We have a quilt covered in patches of all the exotic places we've been, like the Philadelphia Mint and the Denver Mint and the Nintendo store in NYC (<--my personal favorite). Trust me. This travel quilt/patch thing... it's less nerdier than it sounds. The idea is, instead of wasting money on a silly key chain or an etched piece of glass or a replica canon from Gettysburg that was made in China… we’ll only waste money on a patch.

8) Total money spent. Traveling during off Season made a huge difference. We saved about 50%. Though it could have been a lot worse, this trip was still expensive. We could have saved ourselves $766 in smarter ticket choices but I just would have put that money toward staying at a better hotel.

In case you're a little appalled by how much we spend on family vacations, I just want to clarify that we've chosen to spend our money on experiences rather than more things. We don't completely deprive ourselves, but we definitely choose to go without new stuff and things like lawn maintenance in favor of creating new experiences.

I had this epiphany about family vacations when Cord and Gus were little. I realized all of my own strong childhood memories are centered around family vacations (and doing lots of chores). But a few years ago, I heard about this study that backed up what I was feeling. Basically, it says that money can't buy you happiness, but how you spend money can. The study said that buying stuff can make you happy for as little as a few minutes, to a few hours, or up to a whole month if the thing is super awesome like a sweet new car*, but spending your money on new experiences creates feelings of happiness that last forever and compound annually like interest or something like that.

It's true, cuz I never sit on the couch we bought in 2003 and feel genuine happiness about the purchase, even though we like it and we use it a lot. But I do sometimes sit on that couch, snuggled under our not-nerdy travel quilt, and laugh when I remember the time we were at this random Olive Garden in Delaware in the middle of the night and we suddenly panicked, realizing we had to be to the Philadelphia airport in a few hours.

*I don't think this includes Apple products, because I still feel happy about my iPhone.

I'll post pictures of Hogwarts later. And our wands that we chose chose us!