For some people, a dream getaway might be a European tour. For others, it might be a trip to Australia. Still others may prefer visiting their family’s ancestral homeland. But nope, not me: my dream vacation involves a mouse, half a dozen princesses, and what amounts to the world’s largest golf ball.
Yup, I’m talking about Disney World. My husband and I have been planning our trip to the Orlando resort basically since our oldest daughter was conceived. We always planned on taking her right around her fourth birthday, and now, the time has finally arrived. Since she’ll turn four just a few weeks into the start of the school year this coming fall, we’ve planned our Disney vacation for the third week of August. I need a vacation – my freelance business has been growing faster than I could have ever imagined a few weeks ago – and leapt into planning this trip, taking travel advice from everyone from Frommer’s to Fodor’s to Birnbaum. My enthusiasm was unlimited: that is, until I tallied up our vacation expenses.
The Cost of a Dream
My husband and I have been saving up for our Disney trip for over a year now. Starting in March 2011, we began putting away $100 a month into our vacation money fund. A few months, we managed to sock away a little extra; today, we have a cool $2,000 in the bank; I estimate we’ll likely stash another $500 before we head to Disney.
But as I mapped out our vacation expenses – everything from travel costs to hotel reservations to park tickets – I started to panic:

  • Travel expenses: I used the fuel cost calculator on the AAA website to estimate how much we’d be spending to fill up our tank to and from Orlando. The site lets you estimate gas costs based not only on your route, but on regional gas prices and your vehicle’s make and model as well. The result? $210 round trip on gas alone; that doesn’t include the few toll roads we’ll encounter along the 1060 mile trek, nor does it factor in what we’ll spend on food along the way. Overall, I’m budgeting $250.
  • Hotel reservations: My parents taught me early on the necessity of staying on park property when you go to Disney. From the extended park hours offered only to resort guests, to the convenience of being so close to all the action, it’s a luxury I’m willing to pay for. We’ve opted to stay at the Port Orleans French Quarter resort. We’ll be there seven nights, with a total tab of $1,325.
  • Park tickets: Since we’re already staying at a Disney resort, we’ve bundled our park tickets in along with our hotel reservation. We’ve opted for 6-day park hopper passes, which give us access to multiple parks on the same day. We’ll be paying an additional $923 for those.

Fortunately, we’ve been able to take advantage of Disney’s free meal plan, which will significantly reduce our vacation expenses since we won’t have to pay for the vast majority of our meals. Still, if you add up all the above expenses, we’re looking at $2,498 – looks like we’ll have $2 for souvenirs.
What Could You Do With $2,500?
When I think about spending all our vacation money in one fell swoop, I get a little nauseated. I start thinking, what else could I buy with $2,500?

  • If we put an additional $2,500 down on our new house (assuming, of course, that our current home EVER SELLS!!!), we could reduce our monthly mortgage payments by $13, saving us nearly $4,700 over the life of a 30-year fixed loan.
  • If we put that $2,500 in my daughter’s 529 college saving plan, it would accrue more than $5,100 in interest alone before she heads off to college in another 14 years.
  • If we put that vacation money back into our household budget, it would give us enough to pay for all our expenses for a month.
  • We could use it to pay for our membership to the Y… for the next three years.
  • It would pay for my daughter’s preschool tuition, swim classes, and dance lessons for an entire year.

That $2,500 in vacation money could stretch so far if I used it for more practical purposes! Am I being irresponsible by blowing it all on a one-week trip to see Mickey Mouse and Cinderella in person?
Sometimes, You’ve Gotta Go For It
Typically, I’m a practical person. Sometimes, I’m too practical. I’m the type of mom who spends her birthday money on her children instead of herself. I’m the type who puts her own Christmas money in her kids’ 529 accounts.
But there is a time to be practical, methodical, boring, and there’s a time to have fun. My husband and I saved up that vacation money dogmatically, putting it aside bit by bit over a long period of time until we had enough to pay for everything in cash. (Actually, we’ll pay for it on our Discover Card, since July-September is 5% cash back quarter on travel expenses; however, we’ll immediately pay off the card with cash.)
We didn’t save this money with the intent to put it to our down payment (we have a separate account for that), nor did we stockpile it in order to fund our daughter’s 529 (we do that monthly, too). We saved it to take our daughter on a trip we hope she’ll always remember.
And that, my friends, is something on which you cannot put a price tag.