One thing that surprised me in a very good way while I was in Disneyland earlier this month was how well Disney treats passholders in its California parks.  Every time I purchased something, I was asked if I had an annual pass so that I could get a merchandise or food discount. It turns out that Disneyland has nearly a million passholders, so they’re that resort’s bread a butter, a real part of the Disneyland family.

Passholders are more rare in Disney World, so rare in fact that you’ll occasionally get a cast member who doesn’t even know about the passholder discount when you ask for it.  We still get room and merchandise discounts, we just have to ask for them. Discounts on food, which is such a nice bonus in Disneyland, are more uncommon in Disney World.  I’ve been a Disney World passholder now for three years and I can’t see not having a pass in the foreseeable future. It gives me the occasional discount, but not only that, it allows me to visit more often. So is a pass for you? You might be surprised.

How many days will you need to spend in the parks to break even?

Conventional wisdom says that you should buy an annual pass if you’re going to spend more than ten days per year in a the parks, but this isn’t a guaranteed formula for every guest.   Disney World tickets, as you may know, go up to ten days in length. After that you’ll need to start over, and since your tickets are pricier on the “front” end, this can be a very expensive option. So, say you’re visiting for twelve days. You’d buy a ten-day base ticket for $338.67 and then you’d need to add an additional two-day ticket for $187.44 to get all your park days.  That’s a total of $524.11, well under the cost of an annual pass, which costs $611.31. In fact, you’d need a ten-day and a four-day ticket to equal the cost of a regular annual pass.

An annual pass actually works for fewer days in the parks if you go more than once that year. It doesn’t even need to be a long trip.  So say you visit once with the family and go into the parks for seven days. That will cost you $306.72. Now, say you’re lucky enough to go back one time for a quick weekend and this time, you’re with grown ups and you want to park hop. Adding the hopper option to a 3-day ticket will cost you $318.44, well over the price of an annual pass.  So don’t automatically assume that “ten days” is the magic number. I tend to go on multiple weekend trips and even without considering that I always park hop, the annual pass saves me money.  Well, at least according to my “Disney math.”

Get Park Wise:  You can upgrade any Magic Your Way ticket to an annual pass, just make sure you have at least one day left on your ticket. Your effective date will be backdated to the start date of your ticket, not the day you got the pass, so do it at the beginning of your trip so you can use it for discounts right away.  You can only use one type of media (or entitlement) to upgrade, so multiple tickets can’t be combined for an upgrade.

Should I buy an annual pass for the room discounts?
Again, I’m going to go against conventional wisdom and say yes, but with a strong caveat: Only purchase a pass for room discounts if you aren’t planning a trip around free dining or if you suspect that other discounts won’t be available.  In these cases, you will only need to buy one pass.  Annual pass room discounts tend to be some of the more reliable discounts Disney offers and while they no longer tend to come out sooner than general public discounts, they often cover more days and are slightly better than those offered to the general public. In addition, I have found that it’s much easier to get a passholder discount closer to travel than it is to get a general public discount on short notice. So if you’re like me and you’re a bit more spontaneous with your Disney travel, this can be a nice option.

You have to be very careful with room discounts in general. For example, under the general public discounts, you’ll see advertisements promising up to 30% off deluxe rooms, but what you’re not seeing is that that rate is for a very small category of rooms at that resort and that many rooms are discounted as little as 5%.  This can be confusing for guests, so you’ll want to ask what percentage you’re saving. I don’t find this to be as common with annual pass discounts, another reason I consider these discounts more reliable. You can read more about how room discounts work here.

Get Park Wise:  You don’t need an annual pass to book a passholder discounted room, but you can’t book it online without a pass. Instead, just call  Disney directly and ask for the “AP rate” and it will be applied to your room. Once you get to Walt Disney World, you’ll be required to show that you have a pass within 24 hours of check-in, otherwise the price of your room will revert back to the dreaded “rack rate.”

The passholder can book two rooms with his annual pass discount, so if you’re traveling with friends or family, you can book their room as well. This means the entire family doesn’t need to have a pass if you’re just buying it for the discounts. Keep in mind you’ll need to be present when they check in and it will need to be at the same resort.

Get Park Wise:  One thing I don’t like about annual pass room discounts is that they tend to have very few standard rooms available under these offers, so you’ll often end up having to move up to a higher room category. That’s fine if the view is important to you, but if saving money is a bigger deal, you will want to make sure you get your discount the day they become available.

Watch out for these pitfalls.
Probably the most obvious problem with buying an annual pass is that it requires you to plan your vacations out a year in advance. If something comes up and you can’t travel again that year, you’ve lost money. But a less obvious problem with having an annual pass is when you start doing “Disney math” and convince yourself that an extra trip is a good idea–even when it’s not. So make sure before you buy your pass that your schedule–and your wallet–will allow you to come back within the next twelve months.  No matter how tempting it is to be part of the passholder “club,” it’s only a good deal if you’ll actually use it.

Other passholder benefits.
In addition to the room discounts mentioned above, passholders can usually count a few perks. A basic pass will get you 10% off on merchandise, which can add up.  In addition, you can expect discounts at most World Showcase restaurants for weekday lunch.

Benefits also go beyond discounts. In addition to a quarterly newsletter, passholders have been the first to enter new attractions. In fact, we’re hearing that passholders will be able to enter the Fantasyland Expansion before the November 19th soft opening. For some of us (okay, me) that’s reason enough to become a passholder!

Have you done the “Disney math” and decided whether or not buying a Walt Disney World Annual Pass  was right for you? If so, how did you come to your decision?  Has it paid off for you?