Disney World is a great vacation spot, but over the years it’s become more and more fair to say that it’s not really a cheap vacation spot. What did a Disney World vacation cost in 1971 though?
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Today most people going from New York to Orlando would probably fly. It’s cheap. It’s safe. Most importantly, it’s fast. However in the early 1970s flying was still somewhat of a luxury. It wasn’t until the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 that we really begun to see airfare drop to levels that allowed for it to be a reasonable option.
The drive from New York to Walt Disney World is around 1,100 miles, depending on where you start. That’s about a 17 hour drive. In 1971 the average station wagon got a whopping 12 miles to the gallon, yikes, and at that point the national average for a gallon of gas was 36 cents.
With about 91 gallons needed, the cost of gas on the trip down would come out to $32.76. Now 17 hours driving means in all likelihood our family is going to need to spend the night at a motel along the way, and spend one more night at a motel at the end of their journey, so they can start their day at the Magic Kingdom bright and early.
The average motel room at the time ranged from $12 to $15 a night, so we’re going to go with $13.50. For two nights that comes out to $27.
Now let’s consider food. To keep things simple, I’m using McDonalds prices from the early 70s. Not healthy, but it was cheap. A cheeseburger, fries, and a soda ran about $1.20 per person. That’s $4.80 per meal for our family, or $19.20 for the four meals.
Our family here had two options when it came to hotels at Walt Disney World in 1971, the Contemporary and the Polynesian. Rooms at the Polynesian and Contemporary back then ranged from $29 a night to $44 a night, with a middle $36 option. The rooms were all the same, but the different prices reflected the room’s locations. We’re going to go right down the middle and pick the $36 room.
In 71 Disney didn’t have general admission the way it is today, where you paid a flat price to enter the park and had free reign to ride whatever you want as much as you wanted. You had to buy tickets or ticket books, similar to most carnivals or amusement parks at the time.
Our family is spending two full days at the park, so rather than buying tickets a la carte, they’re going to get ticket books. For an adult, the “7 Adventure Ticket Book” cost $4.50. The ticket book for one of our children, who is between the age of 12 and 17 will cost $4.00, and the ticket book for the other child, who is under 11, will cost $3.50. Total cost for all four ticket books? $16.50. Doubled for the two days they go? $33. Total vacation price so far: $147.96.
Now let’s consider food for these two days. Using the Town Square Cafe prices on Main Street from 1971, the average entree was $1.75 and a soda cost 25 cents, making the meal for one person $2 even. Each meal for a family of four? $8. Three meals a day? $24. Two days? $48. All in all the 6-day road trip vacation to Disney World for a family of four in 1971 will have cost $279.72.
Now, what about inflation? Well adjusted for inflation, that $279.72 cents would be $1,675.28 today. Not so cheap anymore.
Still though, what really interested me was seeing how inflation reflected on prices for the specific parts of the trip. Take the Contemporary resort for instance. Adjusted for inflation the mid-tier room we booked at $36 in 1971 would be $215. However in actuality that room at the same resort costs around $450 today.
Similarly, ticket prices have changed a lot. Adjusted for inflation the two days worth of ticket books for a family of four would cost $197. Today, two days of passes for the same family would cost $784. Yikes.
Food was surprisingly alright. With inflation the two days worth of meals cost our family $287. Using average quick-service ballparks, the same number of meals today would cost them around $360. Still higher, but not four times higher.
So how does all of this compare to the same trip today? Well, the biggest catch with that question is that today airfare is much much cheaper, and the advantages it offers by making the journey a few hours instead of a few days almost offsets the crazy price hikes over at Disney.
For a family of four to fly down to Disney, spend a night at the Contemporary and two days at the parks before flying back, would cost about $2,200. Compared to the 1971 cost adjusted for inflation, that’s only about a $250 difference.