I’ve been kicking around the idea for this blog for a long time. I know other people have done it, but I wanted to do one myself, because I have experience in all three vacations.

So many times when I’m quoting Disney trip prices for clients, the response I get is that it’s just too expensive. And look, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not cheap to go to Disney. But compared to what?

When my family isn’t going to Disney, we have two favorite vacation destinations — the beach (any beach) and the mountains (preferably Smoky Mountains).

The first year we decided to venture away from Disney and do something else, we did so because, like so many of my clients, we thought it was just too expensive to do Disney. We wanted to do something a little cheaper.

Well, we quickly found out during that trip to Pigeon Forge that not only was it not any cheaper than Disney, when you started to look at it from a “more bang for the buck” scenario, Disney won out in most categories.

So, that’s what this blog will hopefully do, take a look at the three vacations and compare them.

The family taking this vacation is your typical American family, two adults, one junior (kid over 10 years old) and one child (ages 3-9).

Because not all flights are equal, we’re going to drive to each destination. Luckily for me, I live next to a beach, so that’s the cheapest option in terms of travel, but let’s pretend that we’re 8 hours away from all three locations.

We’re going to take a look at lodging at each, meal costs and entertainment options and costs.

We’re going to travel July 9-15, 2017. First up, let’s look at the beach:

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I quoted a couple of options, one for the budget-conscious and another for the family that wants to splurge a little and have a little luxury added to its trip.

I went with condos because I feel like if you’re going to the beach, you’re going to want to stay in a condo. At least that’s my feeling. I’ve done both hotels and condos and I like having a full kitchen to cut down on eating out.

I priced out a 2 bedroom/2 bath condo on the Gulf side of Pensacola Beach. For July 9-15, 2017 (7 days, 6 nights), it would cost $2,455 for the room. 

Since we have a full kitchen, I’m going to budget $450 for food for the week. That’s probably a little low compared to what you will typically spend, but I’m going to say $200 for groceries and then an additional $250 for dining out.

And the beach is typically our entertainment for the week, but sometimes you want to go play some putt-putt golf or maybe hit the go-kart track. Staying within a budget, I’m going to say $300 on entertainment.

So, for that trip, we’re looking at a total of $3,205.

Now, say you want to plus up your experience a little. I chose Portofino Resort in Pensacola Beach. It’s got all the luxurious amenities you need and I got us a nice 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom Gulf-facing room with a beautiful balcony view of the beach.

It’s going to cost us $3111.80 for the room. I’m going to stay with the original budget of $450 for food and $300 for entertainment, but admittedly if you’re going to splurge for Portofino you’re probably going to splurge a little for dinner and entertainment, but for this experiment, we’ll stick with those budgets.

All told, our week at Portofino would cost us around $3861.80 for the trip.

OK, now let’s move on to the mountains.

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We just recently did this trip (last summer), so it’s fresh in my mind. Again, same family as above. I did an average 2-bedroom, 2-bath cabin in the mountains near Pigeon Forge.

That cabin would run us $2287.83 for the week. 

I budgeted $250 for groceries and other dining experiences, figuring most of our meals will be cooked in the cabin or at dinner shows.

I’ve got us going to Dolly’s Dixie Stampede for $174.96 for our group and we also reserved one night at Hatfield and McCoy’s and that price was $171.80 for that dinner show.

I want to spend at least one day in Gatlinburg, so I went with the Ripley’s Aquarium plus three other attractions tickets for a total of $210.96.

That gives us one full day at Gatlinburg, two nights of dinner shows and I figure we’ll spend at least one day, probably two, at Cade’s Cove.

I expect we’ll spend at least one day at Dollywood, so I’ll throw in the $290.60 for theme park admission. 

That’s a pretty full trip, with very little downtime (but still some downtime built in) for a total of $3386.00.

OK, now let’s look at Disney.

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This is pretty straight-forward. I looked at a room at Pop Century with 5-day park admission and the dining plan and got a total of $3892.45.

That price includes the six nights at Pop Century resort (two queen beds, so definitely smaller than either the cabin or condo). It also includes daily admission to the four Disney theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, EPCOT and Hollywood Studios), as well as transportation to and from the parks.

The dining plan gives each person in the party one sit-down meal, one fast-food meal, and two snacks per night. It also includes the refillable mug that you can use during the length of your stay at your hotel.

Pros and cons of each

To recap:

Beach trip — $3,205 or $3,861.80

Mountain trip — $3386.00

Disney trip — $3892.45

Right off the bat, we see that the Disney trip is the most expensive. The cheaper version of Pensacola beach trip is the least expensive of the three.

One thing to consider is transportation/parking costs. I know a lot of places offer free transportation, but if you’re looking to get from Pigeon Forge to Gatlinburg, you’re having to drive. Same for Pensacola Beach to the mainland.

There are parking fees associated with a lot of these places too. For instance, Ripley’s Aquarium is $6 per day to park. But once there, you can take the shuttle all over downtown Gatlinburg (or you can easily walk). Parking at Dollywood runs $12 a day.

With Disney, once you’re on property (IE parked at your hotel), the only time you’ll need your car is if you want to leave property. Other than that, Disney will take you wherever you need to go. Disney Springs (Downtown Disney) is included in that price. If you do decide to drive your own vehicle to the parks (which I recommend honestly), parking is free as long as you’re staying on Disney property.

I should also mention that I was being very budget-conscious in regards to entertainment/food at both the beach and mountain vacations. I didn’t include things like souvenirs for any trips, because that’s different for everyone. We usually don’t do souvenirs. Just take a lot of pictures for our souvenirs.

Get over the sticker shock

So, which vacation is best for you? I guess that depends on your family. Are they OK with hanging around the beach all day? Are they fine with spending the day exploring and the evenings relaxing at the cabin? Do they seek thrills of roller-coasters?

I think with all three vacations, there’s some form of sticker shock. I think with Disney, it’s the main detractor. Disney’s prices are up-front, the mountain and beach prices are experienced on the back end.

But as someone who has experience with all three vacations, I still prefer the Disney trips (and that’s not just because I sell Disney travel, because I can sell the other destinations too).

I like the idea of no surprises. I like knowing beforehand that I’m going to have five days in the theme parks, a nice resort to go back to in the evenings and my meals accounted for (if you do the dining plan, which is not necessary).

Sure, there are some costs that come up while at Disney. But you can keep those costs to a minimum if you plan ahead. Our last two trips to the mountains, we ended up going way over budget because after that 5-minute run through the mirror maze that just cost us $6 per person, our kids were bored again. So we hit a putt-putt course that cost us $40 for our family to spend 20 minutes playing putt-putt.

It seems like small potatoes, but it adds up. We literally spent $200 one day doing just putt-putt golf and small museums that took literally 15 minutes to see everything.

With Disney, once you’re in the park, all the rides and shows are free. You want to ride a ride 20 times in a row? It won’t cost you a dime. You want to see the same Festival of the Lion King show twice? Doesn’t cost extra.

So, at the end of the day, when you get over the sticker shock (and trust me, that’s a tough thing for a lot of people), it’s easy to see that Disney vacations are, in many regards, much more of a “bang for the buck” deal than your typical family vacation elsewhere.

But again, it all comes down to preference. Either way, my advice to you is whatever trip you plan this summer, plan ahead. Find a travel agent you can trust (FTJBrady@gmail.com for a shameless plug) and let them handle the details. Because if you don’t know what you’re doing, that $3000 trip that you budgeted in your head can quickly turn into a $4000 trip.

Take care, thanks for reading and remember to always let your conscience be your guide.

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