Having trouble saving money for a big vacation? A cartoon mouse and a brainy pig want to help you get it done.

If a Disney vacation is on your wish list, you might want to consider the Disney Vacation Account program, which lets guests budget for an upcoming trip and schedule automatic contributions into an FDIC-insured savings fund. 

Account holders can cash in their savings for a vacation at a Disney theme park, Disney Cruise Line, Adventures by Disney or at Aulani, Disney’s plush resort in Hawaii. [pullquote]

“It is hard to save for anything — no matter how much you make — if you’re going to wait until the end of the month, when all the bills are paid, and then try to save what’s left over.”

- Janet Bodnar, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids

The program sprang from guest feedback. “We heard from people wanting more tools to help them plan for a Disney vacation,” said Pete Davison, director of Disney Gift Card Services. “And we heard that sometimes a vacation doesn’t happen because there was no opportunity to save for it.”

Saving for vacations is never easy. “In the travel industry, we know that saving can be a real challenge,” said Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, citing his organization’s “Overwhelmed America” study from last summer. “Of the millions of American workers who do not use all of their paid time off, for example, about a third say that it’s because they don’t have the money to go on vacation.”

Yet few travel brands have taken steps to change their customers’ behavior. Sure, some travel companies — including British Airways, Sears Vacations and Gate1Travel — let customers put their vacations on layaway, and many travel agents allow clients to pay for trips in installments. But Disney’s approach is different. While layaway eases the pain of making a large lump payment at the time of purchase, Disney’s program encourages customers to save for a future vacation.

“It sounds like the old Christmas club accounts that banks used to offer,” said Janet Bodnar, editor of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine and author of Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. “You’d put in a certain amount of money every month and then you’d take it out at the end of the year, and that’s what you would use for your Christmas shopping.”

Christmas clubs worked because they put savings on autopilot, outsmarting our inclination to spend as much as we have, Bodnar said. “It is hard to save for anything — no matter how much you make — if you’re going to wait until the end of the month, when all the bills are paid, and then try to save what’s left over.”

Instead, she recommends following a proven system. “Set up a savings account earmarked for your vacation and make regular, automatic contributions,” she said. “You want to make sure funds are held in an FDIC-insured institution, and compare interest rates to what you’d get at a bank — though interest rates at banks are so low right now it’s almost shameful.” (The average savings account interest rate in the U.S. is currently 0.6 percent.)

Contributing to a Disney vacation account does not yield interest, but guests receive a $20 Disney Gift Card for every $1,000 they spend — the equivalent of 2 percent of the purchase, more than three times what banks offer.

“You can set up the account for a minimum of $10 and contribute at any frequency and any dollar amount that you want,” said Davison. “The money belongs to you. There’s no penalty for taking money out early, and no fees involved along the way.”

What’s in it for Disney? “It sounds like a smart marketing move because Disney wants to make it easy for people to visit the parks,” Bodnar said. “And it also looks like a smart move for people who want to take their families on Disney vacation.”

And if Disney isn’t what you have in mind, you might consider opening an account with SmartyPig.com, an online piggy bank that lets you set a savings goal and a target date and make recurring contributions. Your money earns interest in an FDIC-insured bank to the tune of 1.0 percent annual percentage yield (APY), considerably better than the national average. 

Mike Ferrari, SmartyPig’s co-founder, said 17 percent of the company's customers are saving for a travel goal, and the “average travel goal is $5,400 accrued over a period of 13 months.”

Socking away $415 a month for a vacation sounds painful, “[b]ut what we hear from SmartyPig customers is that their vacation was more awesome because they are coming home and the whole thing has already been paid for,” Ferrari said. “The worst thing about taking a vacation is coming home with a debt hangover and wondering how you’re going to pay for it. We often hear from customers how SmartyPig has turned them into savers, and how they feel emotionally rewarded because of that. People say it’s changed their lives.”

“Try not to think of saving as being restricting,” said Bodnar. “It’s also very freeing. If you know you’re setting aside money for a goal, then you know you’ve taken care of it and don’t feel guilty about other spending decisions you make.”

Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is the family vacations expert at About.com.