runDisney on a Budget: Tips and Tricks

OK, I don’t actually have any tricks, but I do have some tips for how to runDisney when you’re pinching pennies.  We’re in the middle of paying off some serious credit card debt we racked up while we were having trouble getting and staying pregnant with our second child.  I self-medicated the pain of secondary infertility by traveling and eating out a lot.  We’re in year two of paying it all off and are making good progress, but don’t want to put our lives completely on hold even though we know it will take a little longer.

After a long discussion with Erik, we decided that it was worth it to us for me to keep running my runDisney and other races but that we needed to find a cheaper way.  Last year, we had annual passes to WDW and so for all my races we’d go down as a family and spend at least three days at an on site hotel, enjoying the parks and restaurants.  It sure added up and we ended up not making as much progress as we’d hoped on our debt paydown.  So this year, we’re doing it a little cheaper.

Here are some ideas for doing a runDisney race when your budget is tight.  A caveat: if a big part of your enjoyment of runDisney is being able to spend a lot of time in the parks and extending the race into a race-cation, many of these won’t work for you.  We live close enough to WDW that the idea of going to a runDisney race without actually going into the Magic Kingdom is bearable, if a bit painful.  If going to Disney is a once every few years event for you, you honestly should just save up and splurge on a full trip with park visits and restaurant meals.  And, most of these tips apply to WDW because I’ve only been to Disneyland once, so my only tip there is to stay offsite because it is really affordable and you can walk to the start.

My tips to runDisney on a budget:

  1. If at all possible pick a race that you can drive to.
    1. In other words, if you live in Georgia, pick a race at WDW.  If you live in Arizona, pick a race at Disneyland.  If you live in Canada or in the middle of the country, you’ll just have to keep an eye on airfare, use points/miles if possible and hope for decent rates.
  2. Pick an affordable hotel to stay at.
    1. Off site hotels in Orlando can be really cheap.  You can find rooms under $50 a night.  You give up some perks like race transportation and the extra Disney magic of staying on site, but if you’re really on a budget and you have a car, it’s an option worth exploring.
    2. On site hotels give you the benefit of race and park transportation, extra magic hours if you’re going to the parks and Magic Bands.  I also think there’s an extra something that you get from staying on site, that keeps the magic going even when you’re not in the parks.  It’s going to cost more than staying off site, but you can make it affordable.
      1. Make sure to use any discounts you’re entitled to.  Florida Residents, Disney Vacation Club members and Disney Passholders all have discounted rates fairly regularly.  Military can also get discounts at Shades of Green.
      2. Make sure you know which resorts are host resorts for the race.  Only host resorts will provide transportation to the race events including the race and the expo.  For the bigger race weekends, all resorts are host resorts, but for smaller races like Tower of Terror and Expedition Everest, only certain resorts are host hotels.  If you do not have a car, this will be critical.  If you have a car, staying at a non-host resort is an option to consider.
      3. Compare rates at the value and moderate resorts.  Sometimes a moderate can be very close in price to a value resort.  If you’re staying at a value, I prefer POP to the All Stars, but research and draw your own conclusions.
      4. Make sure to check rates at the Swan & Dolphin.  While not owned by Disney, they have all the same perks and are within walking distance to the Boardwalk and Epcot.  I have a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card and earn points that I can (and do!) use for “Free Nights” at the Swan & Dolphin.  I still have to pay for the parking and resort fees, but my last stay there for Expedition Everest ended up costing $39 including taxes.  Not too bad.  You can join the SPG rewards program even without the credit card and earn points from staying at any Starwood hotel. (No I’m not paid to say any of that, but I figured most people didn’t realize that the Swan & Dolphin are Starwood hotels with a rewards program).
      5. Even if you’re not a DVC member, you can sometimes find great deals on “renting” points for a stay.  This can get you a bigger room that you could share with other runners also.
  3. Stay the minimum number ofnights possible.
    1. If you’re serious about saving money, try to stay just the minimum number of days for the race.  For most races, if you’re just doing one race, you can manage just one night.  For Expedition Everest, we drove down Saturday morning, went to the Expo in the morning, went to the race in the evening and drove home after lunch on Sunday.
  4. Find roommates.
    1. If you can find friends who also are running the race, buddy up and share a room.  You might even be able to upgrade to a nicer room if you’re splitting it four ways.
  5. Plan to bring as many of your meals as possible.
    1. This is much easier if you have a car because you can bring a cooler or stop by Publix.
    2. Check to see if your room will have a refrigerator or a microwave.
    3. Bring water, breakfast bars, snacks, lunch meat, bread.  Pick one or two meals to splurge on and eat from your stash for the others. You can bring food and drinks into the Disney theme parks (just no glass or alcohol), so even if you’re visiting the parks, you can save big by bringing your own food.
  6. Sign up for the race before the prices go up and get your discounts.
    1. This is less of an issue now as most races sell out in hours or days, but runDisney races do have certain dates when the price goes up.  Don’t pay more for not planning in advance.  Know when the race goes on sale and sign up on the first day.
    2. Make sure you use any discounts you can.  DVC members sometimes get a discount and if you have a Disney VISA you can usually use the first four digits on your card to get a discount on registration.  Sometimes running clubs also offer discounted registration.
  7. Consider picking one race instead of trying to do multiple races in one weekend.
    1. It’s tempting to do all the races in a given weekend.  Only you know whether the extra races will add double and triple the magic to your experience.  For me, one race really is enough to make the whole trip memorable and fun.
    2. I like treating the multi-race challenges as a once-and-done experience.  I’d love to do Dopey, but not every year.
  8. Sneak away without your family.
    1. This one is hard, but it’s impossible for me to bring my family and not go to the theme parks, buy souvenirs, eat out and generally treat my race as a full fledged vacation.  It’s a lot of fun and I do it sometimes, but only when I plan the race as a vacation.  I runDisney too often to be able to afford to treat each race as a full blown family vacation.
  9. Resist the power of the Expo.
    1. Know in advance what you’ll buy (if anything).
    2. If you are not planning on buying anything, leave your money and credit cards in the car or at the hotel.  Avoid the temptation!
    3. If this is your first big race, you should budget for some mementos, like a pin, a car magnet and the “I Did It” shirt.  But remember, you’ll have your race shirt and medals to “collect” so ask yourself if you really NEED to collect the race pins (there are usually several to choose from) or stickers or I Did It shirts or little vinylmation medals or coffee cups or wine glasses (and so on) for ALL the races you run.  I held strong and didn’t buy anything at all at the last two Expos I attended.
  10. One other way to race at little cost to you is to run for charity.
      1. Often, if you meet a certain fundraising requirement, your race entry and possibly room may be paid for.
      2. The fundraising requirement may be rather high (some are several thousand dollars) and you’re often required to make up the difference after a certain date if you can’t meet the goal.
      3. You can feel good knowing that you’re supporting a charity.
      4. Just remember that fundraising can be a lot of work.  For me, I’d only do this if it was for a charity I truly believed in.
  11. If you don’t already have annual passes, consider not buying park tickets and just explore the free Disney activities instead.  Some of those include:
    1. Downtown Disney – browse the shops and grab a bite to eat at one of the counter service restaurants.  Ghiradelli is pretty awesome.  The Lego shop is fun to play in too.
    2. The Boardwalk – we love walking around the Boardwalk and the surrounding resorts (Swan & Dolphin, Beach Club & Yacht Club).  Just sitting on a bench and people watching is a lot of fun and there are some affordable places to get a bite to eat as well.  IMG_3050
    3. Disney transportation – from your resort if you stay on site (or from the Boardwalk or Downtown Disney) you can start a Disney transportation adventure.  Here’s one idea (We did this with Eli after the Enchanted 10 so we could have Disney fun while resting my legs for the PHM).  From Downtown Disney, take a bus to Wilderness Lodge.  From Wilderness Lodge, you can walk to the boat dock and take a boat to Fort Wilderness or to Magic Kingdom.  From Magic Kingdom, you can ride the monorail to the Ticket and Transportation Center.  From there, take the Ferry back to the Magic Kingdom.  Walk to the Contemporary and take a bus back to Downtown Disney.  The buses aren’t that much fun, but I love riding the boats, the monorail and the ferry.  And you don’t need a ticket for any of that. IMG_3052
    4. Do some warm up runs (or nice walks) – Use the transportation tips to get to the Boardwalk and you can do a great jog.  IMG_3043
    5. Disney also provides free outdoor movies (and sometimes campfires with s’mores!) at most of their resorts.  My favorite is at Fort Wilderness.IMG_3048

That’s how I do runDisney on a budget.  What tips do you have for being able to afford your runDisney addiction?

Updated:  I got lots of feedback and reader tips so I did a follow-up post with even more ideas.  Check it out here!

Want to know more about runDisney?  I have a series of runDisney Basics!


runDisney on a Budget: Tips and Tricks — 34 Comments

  1. Great tips, April! I usually runDisney sans family – I’ve only actually included my family on one of my runDisney adventures thus far. It’s definitely more affordable if it’s just me, as compared to bringing my brood.

    When it’s just me, I fly to FL or CA, stay on-site and only stay a couple of days. Last November during Wine and Dine we drove down (from New Jersey), stayed off-site in a town house (there’s a great place just a couple of miles away that we’ve stayed in more than once), and it’s always nice having a car to do meals and shopping. I can’t do every runDisney race, it’s not feasible for me so I try to rotate and pick different events each year so that I can enjoy new courses and experiences!
    Mer @ ScootaDoot recently posted…Let’s celebrate! Disney Social Media Moms On-the-RoadMy Profile

    • Going alone definitely makes a huge difference in the cost of the trip! We’ve stayed in a nice off-site two bedroom condo that was spacious and a great deal at about $100 a night.

  2. I was pretty surprised at the rates for the budget hotels in FL. I found that the All Stars cost about half of what a standard room in Las Vegas goes for, so that was a pleasant surprise, but I get what you mean about being able to find a place even less expensive.
    In CA, Ghirardelli is inside CA Adventure. FL is fortunate that it’s accessible in Downtown Disney!
    As far as the expos go, I’ve found that it tends to be the same vendors at Disney events. After a while, if there’s nothing new, there’s not as much temptation to spend money.
    Jen recently posted…Medal Display EvolutionMy Profile

    • I saved(and spent!) a ton of money at my first runDisney expo, but you’re right, as I get more and more races under my belt I’ve found it easier to resist. I came really close to buying a pair of NB Cindy shoes at Everest though. Luckily, they were out of my size, so I wasn’t unduly tempted!

  3. Great Tips! I think one of the keys is having a budget and sticking to it. I have found races without the family and roommates make things work quite nicely. Limit table service meals inside the parks too, they are good yes, but not cheap. Also I drink as the free water in the parks and take my own cocogo powder for pre and post race hydration rather than buying powerade. I wish I could do all the races, but alas I have limited funds, so I have to pick and choose. The good thing, if you miss a race one year, it will be there next year!

    • I’d love to get one of those big DVC villas and split it with a bunch of girlfriends at a race sometime! I bet it would be really affordable and a lot of fun! The cocogo is a great suggestion, just bring a water bottle and refill at the water fountains and then flavor to get rid of the “Orlando” water taste ;).

    • Oh, yes, volunteering is a great idea to get the experience and some free stuff! I think I’ll do a part II of this post and include all the tips you guys have added! 🙂

  4. Just wanted to add that if you are an SPG Rewards Member be sure to say so when you book the Swan or Dolphin. The hotels do offer some terrific perks – they are not all Disney themed – but the free bottled water will go a long way to keeping costs down.

    Excellent tips!

    • Yes, I’m used to giving my family strict orders NOT to touch the $5 bottles of water in hotels, but having four free bottles of water was a nice treat at the Swan last weekend. And even though we were using points for a free night, they upgraded us to a great room with a gorgeous view!

  5. Great tips!! The expos are always my weakest point… I do usually stick to my budget and plan what I buy, but I could spend all my money at the runDisney expos lol!

    Since we are doing Wine & Dine and Dopey, we are treating Wine & Dine as our vacation, and Dopey we aren’t buying park tickets. It will be hard but we are looking forward to exploring more of the resorts on property since we always spend all our time in the parks!

    • Thanks! I actually get a bit overwhelmed at Expos so I either spend too much or nothing at all! There are so many fun things to do at the resorts, when you take some time away from the parks you can find some hidden treasures. Animal Kingdom Lodge is definitely worth the trip to explore! Dopey sounds like a good trip to spend off your feet!

  6. Yes. Yes. and Yes. We drive down and have often stayed off property to save money. Except for the DVC and S&D resorts, we’ve done all the things you’ve mentioned. We even bring a little toaster to have warm bagels on race morning! One more thing that has worked well for us – is asking family and friends for Disney gift cards – for birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, or any gift-giving occasion in your life. We’ve used those to pay for food, expo merchandise, and resort stays. Great tips, April!
    @Disney_Bride of recently posted…Meet our new BRF (Best Running Friend)My Profile

    • I love the toaster idea! I do often bring my Keurig machine so I can have my own coffee AND a Brita filter pitcher to have good tasting water in the hotel. Thanks!

  7. A great way to cut costs is Prebuy Disney gift cards from Target using your Target RedCard. You get the 5% discount off immediately. Purchase a few here and there to go towards your budget and use them for your Disney spending. They can also be used to pay for your room. I would rather prepay with the discount then charge everything and worry about the bill & bs credit card charges.

    • I’ve seen them at Sam’s Club at a discounted price too. Great tip!

    • I’ve heard that the Chase Visa is a great deal! I think you get to register early sometimes and they have special photo ops in the park for card holders too.

  8. These are great tips! One other tip with regard to mementos, is if you have friends who live in Florida/Orlando they can always take a peek at the outlets a couple of weeks after the races. Lots of times merchandise shows up for much less!

    As for Publix-I recently saw a family who were feasting on fried chicken with the 10.00 family pack on Main Street at MK. The deal includes a whole chicken, two sides, and rolls. Great way to save on eating in the most magical park!

    • Yes! I got two I Did It shirts for PHM13 from someone who went to the outlets for a great bargain. I bet everyone was jealous of that Publix fried chicken! It is the best!! Those are great tips, I’ll add them to my followup part II. Thanks!

  9. Specifically for Disneyland, GET Travel is the official travel partner and offers discounted park tickets. Also, certain race weekends even offer runDisney discounted tickets (Wine & Dine, for example). Also keep up on social media for package deals–last year for the marathon, I was able to get a “general” Disney deal that saved money on hotel, tickets, and dining plan. I always make my reservation, which is fully refundable, but keep up with the deals and cancel my original reservation if a better deal comes along. Great post! 🙂
    Alyson recently posted…What’s wrong with me?!?!?!My Profile

    • Those are great tips! I’d heard of GET Travel, but since I’ve only been to Disneyland once, I didn’t really know how it worked. Thanks!

  10. Thanks!! This has been very helpful! I’m going right now to look into the points thing for the Swan. Thanks!!

    • Glad it was helpful! It’s awesome to get to stay at the swan for under $40!

  11. Thanks for the tips!

    One tip is military gets a pretty decent discount at all resorts for Disney World, not just Shades of Green. I have been able to snag a good deal on certain weekends.

    I love taking my own meals into the parks. We even made our own pasta dinner in the hotel room for marathon weekend.
    Angie recently posted…Catching up (picture heavy)My Profile

    • Thanks, Angie! I didn’t know that they did the military discounts at all the resorts. We really like staying in the cabins at Ft. Wilderness because they have full kitchens so we can eat in the cabin for many of our meals.

  12. These are great tips! I run Disney and I am in college so i’m always trying to figure out the best ways to save money while i’m there. I’m doing Tower of Terror in October and we just found out about the free dining plan!

    • We’ve never tried the dining plan (free or paid!). We had annual passes and it was hard to make the dining plan work with those and we get Florida Resident discounts on the hotels which impacts the math on the free dining too. If you’re planning to stay on site and buy park tickets and eat in restaurants, it can be a great deal.

  13. This was timely for me, since I’m trying to figure out if running Goofy is within our budget right now! Great tips–I love the Transportation Adventure–my 3 year old thinks the monorail and boats are one of the best things about Disney!

    • Yes, we have to tell “the monorail story” most nights which is a story about taking the bus, the boat and the monorail and then riding Dumbo and eating cupcakes and watching the fireworks. Hope you can work Goofy into your budget! 🙂

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