Let me start off with this statement: it is impossible to do Disneyworld/Universal Studios on the cheap. You just can’t. With park tickets for one child and one adult coming to $160 a day (for either set of parks) you are already in for it fiscally.
This does not mean you can’t be fiscally prude.
What I did:
I shopped around (full disclosure: I work for Expedia. This does not mean I didn’t shop around. On the contrary, Expedia is a great tool to START shopping, because it’s comprehensive and it gives you a lay of the land —maps, photos, links to Tripadvisor, etc.). I looked at packages because I happen to know package deals do offer savings over booking incrementally – if you don’t believe me, try it ;). I also did not leverage any employee deals). I ended up booking 6 nights, 7 days on Expedia, flying Alaska (my preferred airline) and staying at the WDW Dolphin. I booked ground transportation separately online.
We booked during hurricane season. It’s less expensive and warm rain beats oppressive sun and heat; plus the Disneyworld parks are geared for long lines – in shade, or indoors. It only rains about 30 minutes each day. We did buy rain slickers at Magic Kingdom before we figured this out, $15 not terribly well spent. If you’re really worried about moisture, go at another time or bring collapsible rain shells.
I stayed on property. My rationale was, should we choose to go to any of the Disneyworld parks (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood, the Water Parks, Downtown Disney) we could take the free busses to and from our hotel, and we wouldn’t have to pay for parking.
For Universal Studios, we rented a car. I had no idea how near/far it was, and so I paid for the prepaid gas option. I also got a Garman GPS because I hate getting lost. The option was between renting a car and taking a cab, and even figuring in parking at Universal ($15), it was still cheaper than the cab from our hotel (the Dolphin). Universal was worth it for Harry Potter, but note that most of the rides are for kids over 44” if they’re at all “fast”. (The kiddo could ride all rides at Magic Kingdom. He could ride only one of the two Harry Potters).
We went to the Magic Kingdom for two days, rested one day by the pool, and went to Universal for a day. We ate mostly at our hotel (lots of dining options) and took the free bus to Downtown Disney for dinners out like the Rainforest Café and Fuller’s Crab House. We also did a little shopping there (hello, Lego Store!).
What You Should Do/What We’re Doing Next Time:
I’m booking on Expedia again, and likely for the same property or one of the other properties. The Grotto Pool is a big seller here at the Dolphin, and it was great to have someplace fun to go and relax. I will leverage ground transportation that Disneyworld provides – they apparently have a mass transit system that includes MCO transportation. *AND* I’ll get the meal plan – we spent most of our time eating at WDW hotels/places, it’s likely going to be less expensive next time.
Go to Universal early on in your trip. Rent the car to do it, but DON’T pay for the full fill up at the end: Universal is like 10 miles away, and there’s a gas station (Hess) on the Disneyworld property that you can fill up your car before returning it. Use the car coming BACK from Universal to purchase things like sunscreen, drinks for your room (they have mini fridges), sundries, etc., because for example a bottle of sunscreen on property runs you $17. (Why didn’t I pack sunscreen? I carry on if I can help it. And yes, for a weeklong vacation with a child and my laptop for work, I carried on). Turn the car in same day – no point paying for parking on property. Oh – and don’t rent the Garman with the car. It’s absolutely useless. Rely on a map, or use your iPhone/Crackberry for GPS – more accurate and you’re used to it.
Stay on property if you can afford it. It’s better than the hassle of driving in and out of the park. You can book close to the park with a hotel that provides a shuttle, and that will likely offer you more dining options.
If you’re staying at the Dolphin or Swan, go to the Garden Café and do the Character Buffet. Worth it, as they have characters on the floor pretty much the entire time, and the food is really quite good. If you want a night out to yourselves, note that you get two free hours of Dolphin Kids Club (movies, videogames, crafts, dinner for kids 3-12 at $10/hour) PER ENTRÉE ordered at one of the nicer restaurants on property.
If you are going to have even the slightest inclination to visit more than one park (we didn’t, but I think next year the kiddo would like to) book your park hopper tickets in advance – they’re less expensive than at the gate. Note that Magic Kingdom has this process down more efficiently than Universal – you can get them off of a touchscreen machine, vs. Universal still has normal cashiers.
Take cash for contingencies – for example, the spray-on tattoo guy at Universal is cash only. And plan on buying more than souvenirs or food in the parks – the Pirate Adventure ($30) is well worth it (for kids and adults) but if you’re budgeting/watching expenses closely that (or the BibbidyBoppidyBoutique, which makes over your daughter/sister/wife/mother as a princess) can be an unforeseen one. Again, that cash is well worth it – you get take home souvenirs, usually personalized, and it provides constant entertainment for something like 30 minutes (or more, depending on which kind of makeup you get).
Remember that these parks are here to be fun, and clean, and make money. Every ride at Universal ends in a gift shop; while Disney’s don’t there are many shiny baubles tempting you as you meander through the park. The layout of Universal is also like a casino (weaving through the park, nothing is really interconnected in multiple ways) and Disneyland is like a wheel and spoke (so you can get from Tomorrowland to Adventureland without having to go up through Mickey’s Toon Town, Fantasyland, and Liberty Central first). If you are travelling with small children who have this idea that Mommy/Daddy is the Ultimate Credit Card, establish expectations early as to exactly what and exactly when souvenirs are purchased (at the end is best—you don’t want to have multiple bags on rides). Many souvenir items are available online for nominal shipping – did you really want to haul four wands through Universal Studios? What about that oversized Mickey plush?
Lastly, with your carefully crafted Excel Spreadsheet budget complete, add 10%. Seriously. There will be things you can’t plan for, like floaties or lost goggles or that really cool Quiddich t-shirt or whatever. And with that budget in mind, go forth, and have fun.
Because that’s what vacation is all about.