Feeding a family at the theme parks on a budget
In another post, I explained that the greatest way to save money on a Florida Disney Vacation was to keep food costs down. Here’s how we did it when our kids were young and money was tight!
The money you save on food alone can be enough to cover the cost of renting a vacation home!
When we are in Florida, we buy most of our groceries and other supplies either at ALDI (there’s one close by to the villa), or at a Wal-mart Super Center. We also buy better quality groceries at the nearby Publix store, and sometimes we make a trip to Costco, which we also patronize at home. (The Costco warehouse is quite a drive away, so I don’t recommend this for our guests, unless they are staying for a longer term and can lose a day to shopping for groceries and supplies.)
In order to make best use of our park tickets, when we travelled with our kids and money was tight, we spent our days like this:
- We get up in the morning and have a good breakfast together and prepare a great and complete lunch to take with us into the park, along with water in a few bottles and snacks.
- Freeze half-full water bottles in the fridge freezer the night before. Then top up with water before you leave in the morning. The ice melts through the day and keeps the water ice cold all day long. It can even be topped up from water fountains. If you have them, use the collapsible type drink bottles so they take less room as you consume the contents. The ice-cold bottles can also keep other lunch and snack items cool in your back-pack through the day. Use plastic bags to separate items so condensation doesn’t soak your backpack or get other items wet.
- We spread the load amongst a couple of backpacks so as not to burden anyone.
- Yes, Disney allows you to bring in outside food! Your bags will be searched at the park entrance, but the security personnel are very friendly so don’t be intimidated. They are there to make you feel welcome and safe. We have never seen any restrictions on what we can take in with us.
- SeaWorld does NOT allow outside food and drinks to be brought in, so don’t bother. Unfortunately, their food and drink prices are the highest in any Orlando theme park! They’re crazy! Plan on leaving the park to have a good lunch mid-day – just get a stamp to allow you to get back in afterwards.
- You can bring a lunch in a cooler that you leave in the car (we have coolers at the villas for this purpose) or go out to a nearby restaurant on International Drive – but there you will find ‘tourist’ restaurant prices, the kind you expect at the number 1 tourist destination in the world.
- Universal is sort of in the middle on bringing in outside food. A list of accepted and prohibited items is shown below, but I believe they won’t turn you away as long as you’re being reasonable. (If you hear or experience anything any different, please let me know!)
- During our day at the parks we will use our snacks when convenient; while waiting in line for rides, etc. We will grab a bench or an outdoor table and sit down together and enjoy the lunch we have brought, usually early in the afternoon.
- Don’t eat lunch at lunch time! That is what everyone else does, so there is a slight dip in the lines for the rides over the lunch hour. Take advantage of that to save time, and ride while everyone else is waiting in lines at the restaurants. Then eat later while the lines are longest.
- Often the lunch we take will consist of sandwiches cut from a huge submarine sandwich that can be purchased in the deli section of Wal-mart for only $5 to $7!! One of these will give us lunch for three people for three days!
- We will stay until the parks close, doing everything we love to do, enjoying the closing fireworks show (If there is any kind of closing show, see it! Trust me on this one) and head back to the house in the evening.
- When we arrive back at the home, we cook supper by heating up a completely prepared frozen meal (available at Costco and Wal-mart) and make a quick salad to go with it.
- We eat our fill at a cost of about $10 and then retire to bed, exhausted and ready to sleep and get up and do it all again.
- If we have the energy we may take a quick dip in the pool prior to retiring to bed.
For a family of five, while staying in the villa, we may spend around $30 per day on food. Compare this to $15 – $20 per person for lunch alone in the parks. Add supper and snacks ($4 for a single pretzel, $8 for a turkey leg drumstick, $3 for a drink, $4 for an ice cream bar, $2 for a single cookie), and the food bill can easily reach $150 per day. Such food expenses can be made necessary by staying in a typical hotel room, and avoided by staying in a vacation rental, where the kitchen facilities allow you to avoid the restaurants and take-out food.
Now, if you have the money and budget for your trip to allow for prepared food purchased on the go, wherever you are, and the thought of preparing food ahead of time and carrying it with you just sounds like a big headache that you don’t want, enjoy yourself and purchase food and dine as you go! You can lower the food bill for in-park dining by taking advantage of the special dining plan offers available from Disney and Universal. Just remember that the food selection, and sometimes quality, can be limited on these plans.
For fine dining, some of the restaurants in Disney parks offer exceptional food, in exceptional surroundings. The food and service is absolutely top notch, and well worth considering, as are many of the restaurants in the moderate to luxury resorts. Just set your budget and be prepared to spend accordingly. Prices are similar to what you would expect in any similar quality restaurants, with a premium of 25% – 100% more because of where you are.
There is nothing wrong with using these budget saving tips and also having a nice meal out or two. As we used to teach our own kids, you can experience nice things even when on a budget; “Skip the Cokes and have Champagne once in a while!” makes a lot of sense. The Cokes aren’t remembered, but the Champaign sure is.
So there you have it. The number one way to save on a Disney Orlando vacation is to cut your food expense by taking advantage of the full kitchen that comes with a vacation rental, and avoiding tourist prices for dining. If you are on a budget, or traveling with a kids, there is simply no better way to experience everything Orlando has to offer, without completely breaking the bank.
- Bottled water
- Small snacks that do not require heating
- Any food required for medical purposes and medically–indicated nutritional supplements
- Any food required for special dietary needs
- Baby food/baby formula
- Soft-sided insulated bags no larger than 8.5″ wide x 6″ high x 6″ deep
- Picnic lunches
- Food that requires heating or refrigeration
- Alcohol and glass containers
- Hard-sided coolers
- Soft-sided coolers larger than 8.5″ wide x 6″ high x 6″ deep
- Coolers, suitcases, and bags with wheels