With the average cost of a Disney vacation for a family of four topping out at over $5,000, many people have decided that visiting Mickey Mouse and company is just too darn expensive these days.
As a retired travel agent, I have many years of practice recommending Disney alternatives to people looking for family fun without blowing the family budget. Here are some of my favorites right now…
Cheap Family Vacations That Can Rival a Trip to Disney
Coasters & More: Branson, Missouri
Branson, Missouri, might be the top destination in the country for active families. You name it, it’s here — the outdoor White Water park, amusement parks, theme parks, a scenic railway, the World’s Largest Toy Museum, family-friendly theater and shows, a butterfly palace and lots more.
One of the top attractions is the 1880s-style theme park, Silver Dollar City. The park has more than 40 rides, live shows and concerts, 60 shops, 18 award-winning restaurants and 100 resident craftsmen demonstrating America’s heritage crafts. It’s also home to the Time Traveler Coaster, the world’s fastest, tallest and steepest spinning coaster.
One-day park admission is $71 ages 12-64; $61 for ages 4-11. Occasional flash sales can bring the price down to about $45 a day. The website offers 20% savings when combining tickets and lodging.
Also, don’t miss a night at Dolly Parton’s Stampede, a theater extravaganza of horse stunts, musical productions and special effects with a home-cooked dinner. Adults are $49.99; it’s $29.99 for kids ages 3-11.
One popular accommodation choice is Marriott’s Willow Ridge Lodge, with one-bedroom villas from $155; two bedrooms from $228. Another great spot located five miles from Branson in a forest setting are the Cabins at Green Mountain, offering two-bedroom cabins from $160 per night.
Sweet Stuff: Hershey, Pennsylvania
Head to the “Sweetest Place on Earth” and a stay at the Hotel Hershey, located 12 minutes from Harrisburg (MDT airport). The hotel is a 10-minute walk from Hersheypark amusement rides and a mile from the 11-acre ZooAmerica (home to more than 75 species and 200 individual animals).
Celebrate the holiday season at Hersheypark’s Christmas Candylane, with more than 50 rides and six coasters — plus a choreographed light show with four million lights. During the year-end holidays, Santa, his elves and live reindeer make an appearance at Hersheypark. Nearby, families can drive through Sweet Lights – a display of nearly 600 illuminated displays.
For a Howling Good Time: Great Wolf Lodge (Various Locations)
Take the kids to a Great Wolf Lodge. Known for the indoor water parks, the Great Wolf transforms into Snowland from November until the New Year. Entertainment includes festive family movies, a Snow n’ Glow dance party when it “snows” in the lobby, and visits from Santa Claus. For something extra special, book a Snowland Suite complete with an in-room tree and holiday decor.
The Great Wolf brand has 18 locations and counting. Each features a water park, restaurants, arcades, spas and so much more. One of the more popular locations is in the Wisconsin Dells on the Wisconsin River, home to numerous theme parks like Noah’s Ark Water Park (the largest water park in the U.S.) and Mirror Lake State Park, a forested reserve known for nature trails, fishing, camping and nearby lodging.
Dinos!: Various Locations
The Jurassic World Live Tour takes the live show experience to a whole new level with an original story that brings human and dinosaur characters together in an all-new production in a town near you in 2020 and 2021. The live show features more than 20 characters, including nine dinosaurs — the mighty T. rex, Blue the Raptor, Triceratops, Pteranodons, Baby Stegosaurus among them — as well as hero and villain characters. Ticket prices range from $15-$80 (age 2+ require a ticket). Check out this short YouTube video.
Christmas Year-Round: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
You don’t have to wait to decorate cookies or sing with Santa when you visit The Inn at Christmas Place in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The Bavarian-style inn throws their biggest celebration in, wait for it — July. November and December feature one of the biggest animated light displays in the Great Smoky Mountains. Hot breakfast and visits with Christmas characters are complimentary. Onsite are two pools, an indoor pool with a hot tub, a seasonal outdoor pool with a 95-foot water slide and landscaped gardens with a pond. Nightly rates start range $114 to $290, depending on room type and season.
Dollywood, the family-fun theme and water park, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are both within a quick drive.
Fun + History: Williamsburg, Virginia
The AAA Four Diamond Kingsmill Resort at Williamsburg is a great year-round family destination. This refined golf resort is just two miles from Busch Gardens amusement park, five miles from the Colonial Williamsburg Historic Area and nine miles from Jamestown Beach. The resort’s Christmas Town Package includes accommodations from $272 a night for two beds, breakfast, plus tickets to Busch Gardens (complimentary shuttle bus service). There you’ll find a holiday train ride, festive shows and over 10 million lights lighting up the park.
Single-day admission tickets to the living-history museum and the authentic 18th-century city of Colonial Williamsburg that let you explore all of the historic sites, trade shops, two art museums are $44.99 for adults and $24.99 for kids ages 6-12. From spooky ghost tours to a public trial, you can find an array of nightly performances in the Historic Area.
Go All-Inclusive: Florida
Did you know there’s a Club Med in Florida between Orlando and Miami? Club Med Sandpiper Bay overlooks the St. Lucie River on the Atlantic coast and features a sandy beach, spa and fitness center, tennis, multiple pools (including an adult-exclusive infinity pool with a dedicated bar, complimentary golf and Club Med Spa by l’Occitane, all-day gourmet dining (buffet-style to a riverside grill), unlimited water and land sports, open bar and snacks, and day and night entertainment.
The big attraction is the circus-style trapeze with lessons. This European-style all-inclusive resort offers room choices from standard to deluxe accommodations with separate living spaces and with multiple bedrooms. One downside: a minimum 7-night stay. A family of four can stay the week for under $2,000.
Get Outdoors: Tentrr and Under Canvas (Various Locations)
Tentrr is a camp-your-way concept with more than 700 campsites across the states (Tentrr plans to launch more than a thousand new campgrounds in California alone through 2020). Choose from fully-set-up Signature Sites to Backcountry Sites for the experienced camper or backpacker with gear. Many of the listings are on private land. Rates vary by location and season.
Another newer source for family glamping is Under Canvas. Luxury safari tents rival hotel rooms with the bonus of being in the great outdoors. Locations include Moab and Zion, Utah; Great Smoky Mountains; Grand Canyon; Mount Rushmore; Yellowstone; Glacier and Tucson. Rates are under $200 a night and it’s $10 for a full-size cot (can sleep anyone up to 6’2” and 300 lbs).