Will a trip to Disneyland torpedo your retirement?

I apologize for the disruption to our regularly scheduled programming over the last couple of weeks. An unexpected opportunity came up for my wife and I to take the kids to Disneyland, so we took it!

I am very glad we did, but it was (unsurprisingly) not cheap. While my wife Rochelle correctly reminded me that this is a lifetime experience and will probably live in our memory bank forever, I couldn’t resist doing the math on how much a Disney vacation actually costs. Both now and in the future.  

And that got me thinking. There is a hazy but nonetheless widespread idea that every kid should get to go to Disneyland at least once. Rochelle and I were able to pull it off for our kids, but is it realistic for the average American family? I wanted to find out.

The average cost of Disneyland

The obvious first step is to determine how much a typical trip to Disneyland costs. Comparing that cost to, say, median household income or average retirement savings can then show us how a trip to Disney fits into a long-term financial plan.

This is difficult, however, as that cost involves a ton of variables. How long is a typical trip? What time of year is it? What admission package do you go with? How many of the bazillion possible extras do you shell out for (souvenirs, FastPass, churros, etc.)?

In the interest of simplicity – and stacking the deck a bit in favor of smaller pocketbooks – let’s skew our hypothetical budget towards the lower end of average. What would a family of four likely pay for 3 days at Disneyland during the kids’ spring break, with a travel day at either end and just a few extra goodies?  

Airline tickets (round trip)$5004$2000
Park admission$1304 tickets x 3 days = 12$1560
Lodging$6301 room x 4 nights = 4$2520
Food$185 days x 4 people x 3 meals = 60$1080
Airport transportation$702$140
Line-skipping privileges$154$60
Random souvenirs$354$140
Photos w Mickey$251$25

The cost in context

So we can roughly estimate that even a small, cost-conscious family will easily spend $7500 or more on a trip to Disneyland. Meanwhile, in 2021, the median income for households with children clocked in at $84,200.

So here’s a question: would you consider it worthwhile to spend tenth of your annual income, once a decade, on lifelong memories for your kids?

Many parents would, and I do not blame them. But for young savers in particular, even small amounts now can make a big difference later.

So here’s another question: how big of a dent might a Disney trip put in a retirement account?

Imagine a couple who, when they are both 30, start putting $7,500 away each year. The one blip is the year they are both 34, when they instead use that money to take the kids to Disneyland.

Assuming a 7.4% annual rate of return, and adjusting for inflation, how big of a difference does that missing contribution make?

 I ran the numbers and found that, had they instead invested and compounded that $7,500, the couple would have almost $20k more in real savings at age 60!

Is Disneyland affordable?

Suddenly the cost of Disneyland looks far more intimidating. And it really is unfortunate that the “happiest place on earth” is expensive enough to force such difficult choices. But at the end of the day, any big expense early in life has the risk of similar consequences. If it’s not Disneyland, it will be something else.

Maybe the opportunity to give your kids lifelong memories is worth $20k in potential retirement savings. After all, you have thirty years between now and retirement – you may very well make it up in that time. Some will decide that such costs and risks are worth it, and others will not.

The question, once again, is about having a rich life, not just having a lot of money. And that looks different for everyone.