Why Middle Class Workers Can’t Really Afford Disney World Anymore

If you want a little Disney magic in your life, you better be prepared to open your wallet. The typical family of four can expect to spend $6,360 on a four-night vacation to Walt Disney World, according to Money magazine. Even budget-conscious travelers who stay at an off-resort hotel and choose cheaper ticket options will still spend $3,564.

For parents earning $56,516 a year — the median household income in the U.S. before taxes — the cheap Disney vacation will eat up about 6% of their total yearly pay, and the average trip will require 11%. After the bills are paid, mom and dad might find they just don’t have enough left over for a trip to the Magic Kingdom.

How did the happiest place on Earth become so unaffordable to so many Americans? From rising ticket prices to stagnant wages, here are eight reasons why a trip to Disney remains a dream for many middle class Americans.

1. Tickets are crazy expensive

Various Disney World Admittance Cards

Tickets to Disney World | iStock.com/Ben Harding

  • Ticket prices have increased from $3.50 to $124.

When Disney World opened in October 1971, a general admission ticket cost $3.50, or about $21 in 2017 dollars. (You did have to pay extra to ride the rides though.) Today, a one-day ticket to the Magic Kingdom will set you back $124 on peak days.

True, the per-day cost shrinks if you buy a multi-day pass. A four-day adult ticket that gets you into one park per day is $350, or $87.50 per day. But that’s still well above the original park admission, even after adjusting for inflation. It’s also a lot more than what the park cost just a few years ago. In 2006, single-day admission was $63, roughly half of today’s price. Has your income doubled in the past 10 years? We didn’t think so.

Next: Your paycheck is probably stuck in the mud.

2. Real wages are stagnant

duck tales money pit at D23

Scrooge McDuck may have had a pile of money to swim in, but most middle class Americans aren’t so lucky. | Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

  • You’re lucky if you’re getting 3% raises every year.

From ticket prices to food, you’ll need to spend a fair amount to spend to enjoy a Disney trip. But pricey meal plans and souvenirs aren’t the only reason many families find the Magic Kingdom a squeeze. They’re confronting higher vacation costs at the same time that wages have stagnated.

From 1979 to 2013, middle-wage workers saw their real hourly earnings increase by just 6%, or 0.2% per year, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Low-wage workers’ real wages actually fell over the same period. Even now, when unemployment is low and wages should in theory be rising, workers aren’t seeing big gains, which has economists baffled, NPR reported. Middle-class Americans, meanwhile, are just trying to figure out how to make the math work, as we’ll see.

Next: Everything will cost you extra.

3. The extras are over the top

Mickey and Minnie Mouse

Minnie and Mickey Mouse | MN Chan/Getty Images

  • Extra magic will cost you plenty.

Disney ticket prices are steep, but what some people are really complaining about when they lament the high cost of visiting the Magic Kingdom is all the extras. We’re talking about dinners with costumed characters, pirate cruises, special photos, princess tea parties, and special backstage tours.

All of these “enchanting extras” can add hundreds of dollars to the cost of your Disney vacation. Yes, they are totally optional. But parents might feel pressure to splurge on a princess makeover at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (starting at $59.95) or a pirate adventure cruise ($39 to $49). Want to experience a fairy tale breakfast at Cinderella’s Castle with appearances by Disney princesses? That will be $60 per adult and $35 per child. The proliferation of these add-on experiences has helped turn Disney World into “a playground for the rich and their kids,” critics have said.

Even families who say no to high-priced extras might find a Disney trip is out of reach once they consider all the other costs.

Next: Car prices are no joke

4. Getting around isn’t cheap

car agent congratulate the family in a car showroom

Buying a car is no small expense. | iStock

If you’ve got kids, then you’ve probably got some kind of SUV — or you’re going to need one. For a middle class family, a car can be a major savings drain. According to Kelley Blue Book, the average price of a new small SUV in 2018 is $26,000. Need something a little bigger? A midsize SUV is going to run you $33,000 on average.

That Disney vacation is suddenly looking a little less feasible, right?

Next: But what about fuel?

5. Gas prices are high — and going up

Empty gas tank

That’ll cost you. | joeshmo/iStock/Getty Images

Okay, so now you’ve got the car, but you’ve also got to pay for gas. The price of gas is always a major concern for your average middle class family. And lately, it’s been on the rise. In mid-May alone, the price of gas jumped up six cents on average, to a staggering $2.87. In some states, families are seeing even higher prices, like $3.69 in California, and $3.38 in Washington. With our political future uncertain, we could possibly see gas prices continue to rise.


Next: It’s expensive enough just to afford the essentials these days.

6. People are spending more money on essentials

Sad man looking at his wallet

People have less wiggle room in their budgets nowadays. | iStock.com/SIphotography

  • Your discretionary income is eroding.

Earnings have stayed flat for many Americans, but the amount people need to spend to stay afloat is rising. Housing, food, transportation, and health care took up a larger share of the average American’s income in 2014 than in 1996, according to Pew Research. With the cost of essentials going up, the amount of money people have left over to set aside for retirement, save for a child’s college education, or spend on other non-essentials isn’t much.

In 2004, the middle third of U.S. households had $17,164 of slack in their budget before taxes, according to Pew. In 2014, that fell to $5,944. Unsurprisingly, the less wiggle room in a family’s finances, the less they have to spend on extras, such as meals out or special activities for kids (e.g., a Disney trip). That’s especially true when you consider the cost of raising kids these days.

Next: Kids are already expensive without Disney’s help.

7. Raising kids is more expensive

family at disney world

A family at Disney World | Todd Anderson/Disney Parks via Getty Images

  • A kid could cost you $233,000; no Disney vacation included.

While plenty of adults spend their vacations at Disney, families with kids are the prime audience. And with the cost of raising kids going up every year, is it any wonder that some families have little left over for a Mickey-themed trip? The cost of raising a child from birth to age 18 jumped 41% between 2000 and 2017, based on figures available from the USDA. It now stands at more than $233,000.

Food, clothing, housing, doctor visits, child care and other expenses run the average middle-income family $12,980 per child every year. And that doesn’t include other costs, such as saving for college. When faced with all those other expenses, vacations might fall by the wayside.

One positive of putting off the family trip to Disney? It could help you avoid debt.

Next: Are you prepared to spend $178 a day on food?


8. All the other vacation expenses add up, too

Disney's Pop Century Resort

Disney’s Pop Century Resort | Matt Stroshane/Getty Images

  • Nothing magical about a stroller that rents for $15 a day.

Even if you can resist the pressure to splurge on premium Disney experiences, you’ll still be on the hook for lodging, food, transportation, and other typical vacation expenses. And those haven’t been getting any cheaper over the years.

A regular dining plan at Walt Disney World is $63.95 a day for adults and $24.95 for kids 9 and under. That’s close to $178 a day just on food for a family of four. Ten years ago, the plan cost $39 for adults.

Everything else adds up, too. While some rooms at Disney resorts cost a little more than $100 a night, many others are hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Parking is $20 if you’re not staying at a Disney hotel. Need to rent a stroller? That’s $15 a day. Locker rental is $7 to $9 a day, and towels at water parks, such as Typhoon Lagoon, cost $2 a day. A pair of iconic Mouse ears for your kid costs between $14.99 and $24.99, plus more for embroidery.

Airfares are the rare bright spot for Disney visitors. Average flights to Orlando now cost $265, compared to $300 in 1995, a considerable drop once you adjust for inflation. That’s good news, considering the average American’s wages have been stubbornly flat for years.

Next: You probably need to save more money anyways.

9. Savings accounts are empty

businessman pouring coins from piggy bank

Many people don’t have money to spare on a vacation. | iStock.com/dolgachov

  • Americans have less than $1,000 in savings.

Wages aren’t growing, and expenses are rising. So it’s not exactly a shock that many people have little or no money in savings. Sixty-nine percent of American have less than $1,000 in savings, according to Go Banking Rates. Roughly a third have zero set aside for future expenses. Americans of all income levels struggle to save. Two-thirds of those earning $75,000 and $99,999 a year – what many would consider a comfortable middle-class income – had less than $1,000 set aside.

With little extra money to spare, many end up turning to credit cards to finance a getaway. Seventy-four percent of people LearnVest surveyed have gone into debt to pay for a trip, putting an average of $1,108 on plastic. Disney even has a special credit card to help you finance your magical trip. Yes, you’ll earn Disney rewards for your spending, but they’re hardly worth it if you can’t pay the bill at the end of the month.

Next: You have vacation days, but you’re afraid to take any time off.

10. People are afraid to take time off

young businesswoman looking stressed

Many Americans are reluctant to use vacation days. | iStock.com/gzorgz

  • Do you actually use all of your vacation time?

Some Americans are splurging on vacation, but some aren’t taking one at all. That’s because they don’t believe they can afford to take any time away from work.

Study after study has shown Americans are vacation-starved. We forfeit vacation days, bring our work with us on family getaways, and take short trips rather than long ones. One reason? People are afraid of returning to a huge pile or work, don’t want to be seen as replaceable, or think no one else can do their job, which makes them reluctant to use all their vacation days, a 2016 Project: Time Off survey found. Half of workers feel they have to justify their time-off requests to their employer, and a similar share feel guilty for the extra work their absence creates for co-workers, an Alamo Rent A Car survey found. In a high-pressure, anti-vacation environment, a week at Disney World with the kids might seem like an indulgence some workers bees just can’t afford.

Additional reporting by John Wolfe

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