Walt Disney World is expensive. No two ways about it.
Thirty years ago, when I was a kid, you could get into the Magic Kingdom for just $18. Now, tickets cost $99 and up. But if you want to take the plunge, you might find that a few splurges are worth it.
If you can splurge a bit on the luxury details, you'll get the luxury benefits, which can really pay off.
Check in, stay in
It's long been the advice of every Disney travel guru on the planet that staying at a Disney World property improves your trip a thousand-fold.
You get early access to the parks and easy transportation there, plus you're eating and breathing Disney 24/7, that wraparound experience that really makes it feel like vacation.
Wanna go the extra step? Check out Disney World's newest on-site hotel, the Four Seasons Orlando. Opened in August, the gorgeous property blends Four Seasons luxury style and service with Disney fun. Rooms start at $545, pricey but only a small jump from other luxury Disney properties, and you're getting a much fancier room and hotel.
Plus, the Four Seasons hotel has arguably the coolest swimming pool complex in the resort. Forget paying extra for the water parks. As a guest of the Four Seasons, you can take full, and free, advantage of a family pool, a castle-like kiddie pool with shooting jets of water and other surprises, an 11,000-square-foot lazy river, two water slides and an adult pool.
There's also a supervised kid's club open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a clubhouse, well-thought-out games and activities and almost more staff than kids. My 6-year-old tried out the kids' program and didn't want to leave. And it's free with your stay at the Four Seasons. Book a stay before December 19, and you get your third night free. Certain restrictions apply.
Take advantage of valet parking
Maybe you can't spring for the Four Seasons or another luxury Disney hotel. But that doesn't mean you can't sample some of their offerings.
If you have a car, you can book a massage at the glorious Grand Floridian hotel (where room rates start at $488 per night) or maybe even a reservation for the resort's princess tea party. It costs $20 to park for the day with the valet, and then you get the treat you book, plus you can wander around the lush hotel property and enjoy its other wonders. Monorail, kids? For another window into Disney luxe experiences, you might try dining at Todd English's high-end bluezoo restaurant at the Dolphin Hotel and then check out the rest of the joint, which is near Hollywood Studios and Epcot (plus, Swan and Dolphin hotel restaurants will validate your parking, making that part free).
Take a private VIP tour
The cost of Walt Disney World is even more exasperating when you realize you've paid all that money just to wait in line for rides. The always-improving FastPass+ system helps, allowing you to make reservations for up to three rides per day.
But who wants to go on just three rides? Paying for a Disney World VIP tour gives you all kinds of perks: door-to-door transportation from your hotel, preferred seating during select entertainment options and parades, and most important, what amounts to unlimited FastPass+ entries onto rides.
Want to go on Splash Mountain six times? In a row? At the height of the season? Well, you can do it with a VIP tour.
The various Disney World VIP tour options start around $299 per person. But look at it this way: You could pay for theme park tickets for three days (i.e., $300-plus a person) to go on only nine FastPass+ rides (plus wait in interminable lines for whatever else you choose). Or for roughly the same amount of money, you could buy a ticket for just one day and, for instance, pay for the "Ultimate Day of Thrills VIP Tour" a group experience with a Disney VIP tour guide, lunch at a table-service restaurant included plus automatic FastPass+ admission to 11 of the most exhilarating rides across three Disney World parks. Universal Orlando also has great VIP tour offerings, starting around $229 per person. In addition to priority entrance to rides, my family enjoyed having a knowledgeable guide walking us through the park, showing my daughter exactly how to use her wand in Diagon Alley, for instance, or how we could meet the minions without going on the Despicable Me ride.