My Great Disney World Adventure
Yesterday I wrote about my recent business trip to Orlando. This is the “rest of the story”, a behind-the-scenes look at how I spent way too much money for a one-day vacation.
When Kris and I agreed to fly to Orlando for the unveiling of The Great Piggy Bank Adventure, we hoped to have time to explore the rest of EPCOT Center. But when we received the itinerary, it was clear that all we'd actually be doing was attending the opening ceremony. We were scheduled to fly in at midnight, attend festivities from 10am until 1pm, and then fly home at 5pm.
“That's a bummer,” Kris said. “You should ask the PR rep if there's any way we can stay an extra day.” Since the public-relations firm was arranging the trip (and presumably paying for it), we were at their mercy. But as many GRS readers have noted in the past, it never hurts to ask. So I did.
“I can delay your return flight by a day,” the PR rep said. “That's no problem. But you'll have to pay your way for the extra stay, including the hotel and meals.” So, in essence, Kris and I had a 24-hour vacation in Florida and didn't have to pay for airfare. (We also received a reduced rate at the hotel.) How expensive could it be?
While preparing for our visit to Orlando, we decided to put to use all that we've learned about traveling economically. We packed light. I took one pair of nice shoes and one pair of nice pants, but three of everything else. We shared one piece of carry-on luggage between us, and we each took a small shoulder-bag as well.
The travel and the time-shift were uneventful but exhausting. Our plane arrived in Orlando at around midnight, and Disney's Magical Express (aka The Bus) dropped us at our hotel an hour later. We awoke at the equivalent of 4am Pacific to prepare ourselves for the media event. Our introduction to The Great Piggy Bank Adventure concluded with a buffet lunch during which we spoke with two Disney Imagineers.
After lunch, we said good-bye to our host and to the representatives from Disney and T. Rowe Price. Under our original plan, we would have immediately returned to the hotel to catch the shuttle to the airport. But because we'd arranged for an extra night, we had 24 hours to explore the theme park. We stepped out of the restaurant and into…a torrential downpour!
A warm wet rain was falling on EPCOT. Tourists — most of whom were wearing identical $8 Mickey Mouse ponchos — waded through huge puddles or huddled together under the eaves of the buildings, trying to stay dry. Coming from the press event, Kris and I were not suitably dressed for that kind of weather. “Uh, what do we do now?” I asked. “I'm in my nice clothes. I don't want to ruin these shoes.”
“I don't want to ruin my shoes, either,” Kris said. “We need to get back to the hotel.”
We killed time until the rain let up a bit, and then scurried back to our room. Once there, we had a tough decision. Kris had a spare pair of shoes, but I did not. “I can't wear these shoes if it's going to rain,” I said.
“See if you can buy a pair of Crocs in the gift shop,” Kris suggested. “They were selling them in the park.”
I managed to find a pair of Mickey Mouse Crocs for $37. Though I had sworn never to own a pair of those hideous things, I bought them anyhow. They served me well for the rest of the trip. I also bought a $46 rain jacket. “So much for packing light,” I thought as I paid my $83. “But at least these will get lots of use back in Oregon.”
I changed into my rain gear (including a pair of shorts that Kris had packed for me) and returned to the park.
Living with the land
We spent the afternoon following tips from Get Rich Slowly readers. The highlight for us was the Living with the Land boat ride (it's like Pirates of the Caribbean — with vegetables!), followed by the “behind the seeds” tour of EPCOT's hydroponic gardens. The former was free, but the latter cost $32 for the two of us. It was well worth the cost, though, to see the amazing tomato tree (which produces over 1000 pounds of fruit in a season!) and to be snapped at by the baby alligators.
In the late afternoon and evening, we sloshed around the wet sidewalks, wandering the 11 countries of the World Showcase, trying to find things to do that didn't involve spending. There weren't a lot of options. Much of EPCOT consists of places to eat and shop; it's designed to part a tourist from his money.
We ate dinner at Edo, a Benihana-like restaurant in the Japan section of the park. (Benihana is Kris' favorite.) Moments after we entered the restaurant, the rain began to fall in torrents. It was even literally falling sideways at one point. “I'm glad I have my Crocs,” I muttered. After our $85 dinner, we stayed in EPCOT to watch the raucous fireworks show before turning in for the night.
In the morning, I was pleased to see that the sun was shining. Or trying to. There were clouds, but there were also patches of blue sky. “My shorts are still soaked from yesterday,” I told Kris. “I'm going to wear my nice pants.”
“You do that little thing,” she said.
We ate breakfast in the hotel ($45!!!) before heading back to EPCOT ($160!!!). “Wow,” I said. “How can a family afford this? We've got the money, but can you imagine some of our friends with kids? To spend a week here would be ruinous.”
We spent our morning looking at the butterfly garden (lame!), observing families at The Great Piggy Bank Adventure, and riding Mission: SPACE (we chose the “intense” option, which was a mistake — we're too old, and we felt nauseated for hours afterward).
“I'm glad it's not raining today,” I said as we headed to lunch in Morocco. We enjoyed our kabobs and lemon chicken ($48) and then decided to return to the hotel. We stepped out of the restaurant into…a torrential downpour!
“You've got to be kidding,” I said. Kris laughed. She pulled out her $8 Mickey Mouse poncho and I zipped up my rain jacket. We sprinted through France to England, where we joined a group of tourists under an awning. We watched the water cascade down the sidewalks.
“My pants are soaked!” I said as the rain began to fall even harder. I was happy to at least be wearing my Crocs. My shoes really would have been ruined by the rain.
“This is unbelievable,” said a woman next to us. Lightning flashed and thunder rolled. Everyone was drenched.
“We need to get back to the hotel,” I said after a while. “The Disney Magical Express leaves in twenty minutes.” We darted over to the ferry, but the captain told us he couldn't run the boat in the heavy weather. Instead, we ran down the sidewalk, exposed to the elements, sluicing through a couple of inches of standing water. We cut into the first hotel we saw (because all of them are basically interconnected). Disney employees were there to greet us and to hand out towels. We dried off as best we could, but we were both soaked to the bone.
“We're from Oregon, but we're not used to rain like this!” I told the hotel employee as I gave her my wet towel.
“This is unusual,” she said. “This is the kind of rain you'd expect with a tropical storm, but there just isn't any wind.”
As we gathered our luggage, I realized I had another clothing-related problem. “I don't have a dry pair of pants,” I said. “I can't spent ten hours on planes in wet clothes. I need to buy a pair of shorts.”
“Hurry,” said Kris. “The Disney Magical Express will be here in just a couple of minutes.” Fortunately, Disney stores are ubiquitous at the resort, and I was able to pick up a pair of “surf shorts” ($40). We changed into dry clothes and were out front to meet the bus just as it arrived.
$20 per hour
“You know, I've spent over $100 on clothes here,” I said as the bus left for the airport. “I bought almost as much as I brought.” We laughed at the irony of the situation, but agreed that we couldn't feel too bad about the clothing purchases. I chose practical items that I'll use for a long time. (In fact, I've practically lived in the “surf shorts” since we returned. I'm wearing them right now!)
On the long flight home, I contemplated how much I'd spent for that extra 24 hours at EPCOT. If I'd stuck to the original itinerary, I wouldn't have seen much (if any) of the park, but I also wouldn't have spent anything. In the extra day we stayed, my non-business expenses totaled:
- $160 for one night in the hotel
- $160 for a day in EPCOT
- $178 for food (oh, my frugal heart)
- $32 for the “behind the seeds” tour (money well-spent!)
- $123 for clothing
That last line-item is unfortunate, but acceptable. I'll use the clothes for years to come. But in retrospect, I'm not sure it was such a smart choice to spend $530 to experience EPCOT for one day. That's over $20 per hour! Plus, that's $530 from my vacation fund that could have been saved for a trip to Europe.
One of the first things I did when we returned home was to look up information on how to save money at Disney theme parks. It turns out that Nancy Benac has a recent article on this very subject that is making the rounds: “How to do Disney World on a Dime“. Benac says there's not much you can do to get around the high cost of park entrance, but there are other things that can make a family vacation to Orlando more affordable, such as:
- Use the web to find inexpensive lodging outside the Disney resort complex.
- Eat as many meals as possible outside of the theme parks. And pack snacks so that you don't have to buy expensive treats. (This is something Kris and I would have done under normal circumstances.)
- Set a budget for souvenirs.
Though this trip depleted my vacation sub-account at ING Direct, I do not regret the expense. I consider it a learning experience. In general, Kris and I take frugal holidays. During our five-day vacation to the San Juan Islands last fall, for example, we didn't spend much more than $530. Our EPCOT experience simply reinforces how much we prefer to take cheap vacations close to home. Disney may be fun, but it's too expensive — and too wet — for my tastes!
I feel like I've been spending a lot of money lately. It's money I've saved, true, but it still feels extravagant. It may be time to focus on frugality for a while.
Update: Several commenters have recommended MouseSavers.com as a great source of discount Disney ideas.