Making Disney vacation magical (and affordable)

My oldest daughter will walk the halls of Greenwood Community High School in a few short months.

Her transition from middle to high school has been a bit of a wakeup call for us as parents. Quietly, my husband and I whisper to one another, “Four more years.” Four more years of school, obviously.

But also only four more years of spring breaks, fall breaks and Christmas vacations.

It’s a bit daunting at best and terrifying at worst. It’s hard to believe that time has moved so quickly, and over and over again my friends with older children confirm what I fear most. The next four years move so rapidly, you can barely catch your breath from the first day of freshman year until commencement.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those moms who longs for her kid to remain a baby forever. After all, my daughters are both well on their way to becoming pretty cool humans. However, it does mean that Brian and I have started to number the days and plan them well before we blink and it’s all over.

This means, we’re sinking time, money and energy into planning a few experiences that we pray make lifelong memories. But as college rapidly approaches, we know we have to be careful with every penny we spend.

Last year, we took the trip so many families cherish. We packed up the car and drove south to see the giant rodent and his girlfriend who live in lovely Orlando, Florida.

Planning a debt-free Disney trip is not for the weak of heart. Here are some strategies we employed to make our vacation a magical one without bringing home money baggage.

Save, save, save

We began piling our pennies into a special bank account months before we booked a single thing.

We decided to put aside a designated percentage of income from almost every check we earned.

As soon as the deposit cleared, I scooted the money out of our checking account and into an adjoining bank account established just for the purposes of paying for vacations.

You could definitely use a similar practice to begin stashing back cash. Or if you have enough lead time, you could even establish a Disney Vacation Account up to five years before you travel. You can be rewarded with a $20 gift card for every $1,000 you place in the account. While not a grandiose amount, it could help you pay for meals or a pair of ears to take home. If you don’t have any extra income to put toward a trip, consider having a yard sale (either online or in real life), consigning clothing or picking up a second job to finance your trip.

Gift card bookings

When you get ready to book your trip through the Disney site, consider using gift cards instead of your debit card. If you have a Sam’s Club membership, you can purchase $150 for approximately $8 less than face value which certainly adds up. If you have a Target Red Debit Card, you can save 5 percent or more on your purchase of gift cards. Or if you use the Kroger Fuel Card Rewards program, you can buy gift cards during a season when gift cards yield four times the points.

Pack your slow cooker

Most Disney travelers worth their salt know that you can bring a backpack or bag into the park filled with your own snacks, water bottles and even lunch items.

However, I decided to also throw the slow cooker in the car when we traveled, along with non-perishable items that easily allowed me to make soups in the hotel kitchenette during the day. When we came back to our room in the evening, we had a warm meal waiting for us to chow down.

Buy souvenirs off-site

Everyone loves to bring a bit of their vacation home with them. However, stuffed animals, apparel and autograph books are all priced incredibly high in the parks. If you can, cruise the clearance for weeks and months before your trip, purchasing items here and there for a fraction of the cost. Even if you can’t shop until your trip, consider visiting the Target or Walmart closest to Disney. Both have huge inventory of Disney and Universal merchandise. You’ll save enough cash to begin planning your next trip.

Set expectations

The longer you’re on vacation, the weaker your resolve becomes. The family who planned on splitting every meal, drinking only water, and purchasing just one T-shirt can get out of control faster than you can say, “See you real soon!”

This is why setting expectations for both you and your kids can be incredibly useful and powerful. Remind each other of the budget. Talk through what you will and won’t be doing each day as soon as you get up.

Carry cash to stick to those expectations, spending only what you budget specifically.

Getting away with your family provides the opportunity to make memories to last a lifetime. Just be cautious to keep all things in perspective. A trip placed on a credit card comes with a hefty price tag. Research as many ways as possible to save money and stay on track when you travel.