Walt Disney World is the vacation destination of choice for many families (and with good reason!), yet it’s slowly but surely becoming very expensive for the average family to afford. The intermittent increasing cost of park tickets, rising on-site room rates, high-priced food and souvenirs — and all on top of your airfare and other travel expenses — can make a Disney vacation seem financially out of reach for budget-minded travelers.
However, what many aspiring Disney-goers don’t realize is that there are dozens of ways to save hundreds of dollars on a Disney vacation. There’s no way I’d be able to go often as I do (1-2 times per year) without some of these tried-and-true tips and tricks to save money while visiting my favorite mouse.
Food, that is. Instead of investing in the Disney Dining Plan or spending money on theme park food, consider that by having breakfast in your hotel room (think cereal, bagels, and granola bars) and toting your own lunches into the parks, you can quickly and painlessly save hundreds of dollars on your trip. For the most part, Disney turns a blind eye to guests who bring their own sandwiches and snacks into the parks, and when a single bottle of water costs almost $3, you can save big just by bringing your own and refilling at the water fountain.
Nobody loves Disney dining more than I do, so I book one table-service meal per day, but I never spend money on counter-service lunches. While it’s certainly worthwhile to experience a character meal or two — and there’s no way I’d ever advocate not enjoying at least one Dole Whip or Mickey-shaped pretzel or ice cream bar — you’ll save a significant amount of money on meals if you pack some food from home, take advantage of nearby convenience stores or grocery delivery sites, stay at a hotel that offers free breakfast, or grab a couple of your meals outside of the Walt Disney World resort.
The times you choose to eat can also save you a nice chunk of change. If the kids are begging for a character meal, book a breakfast at Chef Mickey’s or The Crystal Palace when prices are lowest. Instead of booking dinner reservations for 6pm, plan to nosh a little earlier; most of Disney’s table service restaurants switch to dinner pricing around 4pm, so if you make a reservation for 3:30 and eat your big meal in the middle of the afternoon (and carry snacks for later on), you’ll get to fill up on the cheaper lunch price. This trick works especially well for buffets, which typically don’t change their offerings much between lunch and dinner but may charge $20 or more per person to eat after 4pm (plus, you will be full for the rest of the night, trust me).
4. Stay off-site
I’ll be honest. These days, I never stay off-site. Mainly because I can’t stand the idea of not being completely immersed in the Disney experience. But my family used to hunker down at Holiday Inns and Best Westerns in Orlando all the time. When you compare budget motels that are just minutes from the theme parks but can cost at least $100 less per night than a stay at a Disney resort, it seems like an obvious choice. Just be sure to add in all of the costs like airport transfers or parking at the theme parks that are included when you stay at an on-site Walt Disney World Resort.
If you’re on a budget (or have a family or five or more), there’s no shortage of motels right outside the gates of Walt Disney World that will allow you to save hundreds of dollars just on your choice of lodging. Be sure to take a look at Disney’s Good Neighbor Hotels; you may still get a touch of Disney magic, and you’ll likely have access to complimentary shuttles to and from the Disney parks.
If you’ll have a car with you during your trip, check hotel discount websites for chains in nearby Lake Buena Vista or Kissimmee and you could save a bundle on your stay. Don’t forget to take advantage of your AAA memberships or military discounts when it comes time to book your room, and always ask about any special promotions or deals specific to your hotel.
3. Do some digging
My number one piece of advice on how to save big on your Disney trip? Do your homework. Many Disney-goers don’t even realize that there are an abundance of discounts, coupons, and promotions out there if you take the time to find them. In fact, there are countless websites and books devoted entirely to helping Disney fans save money on their next visit.
A few times each year, Disney releases various hotel room, dining, and other package discounts via its website. Since they often wait until the last minute to share the best deals, if you’ve already booked your room, give Disney or your travel agent a call and ask if any current promotions can be applied to your vacation; they’ll gladly offer the price adjustment whenever possible.
Disney’s all-inclusive “Magic Your Way” packages can be enticing — and certainly convenient — but for the budget-minded traveler, it sometimes pays to price out your hotel, park tickets, and meals separately. Don’t be afraid to consult a travel agent for assistance in scoring the best deals.
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2. Plan an off-peak visit
For adults with flexible schedules or parents who are willing to allow their kids a few days off from school, there are hundreds of dollars in savings just by visiting at a less busy time of year.
Not only will your flight probably be cheaper, but Disney’s room rates can drop significantly in the “off season,” which includes slow months like January or September. The same rule applies for most local hotel chains, in addition to other travel expenses like car rentals. You’re also more likely to have access to the best promotions and other deals if you plan your visit outside of the busy summer months.
But the benefits don’t end there. By visiting in the fall, not only will you be able to tour the parks in cooler, more comfortable temperatures, but you won’t have the hassle of fighting wall-to-wall crowds at the Magic Kingdom or suffering through two-hour plus waits for attractions like Avatar Flight of Passage or Slinky Dog Dash.
1. Consider an annual pass
Why am I advising you to fork over close to $900 for an annual pass in an article about saving money? Because I’ve crunched the numbers. Of course, this particular money-saving trick only works for Disney fanatics like me who visit more than once in a 365-day period, or who plan one extended trip of 10 days or more.
Let’s say your family plans to stay for six nights in September this year, and then returns next summer for a four-night stay. If you plan to visit a Disney park each of those days, an adult will pay almost as much in Magic Your Way park tickets as they would to spring for the annual pass, which expire one year from the date of purchase. By upgrading Mom or Dad’s ticket to an annual pass, you’ll be granted an array of money-saving perks for the entire family, including free parking at the theme parks (which will save you $25 a day right there), up to a 35 percent discount for on-site hotel rooms, specially-priced tickets for events like Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, spa and recreation discounts, and 10 percent off merchandise and select table-service meals.
If you’re a Florida resident, Disney Vacation Club member, or seasonal/annual passholder, you’ll have access to even more savings by investing $150 (DVC & Passholders) or $175 (Florida Residents) in a Tables in Wonderland membership. The card entitles you to receive 20 percent off all your sit-down dining — including alcoholic beverages — for a full year. Considering the fact that a typical buffet dinner can run a family of four close to $200, the Tables in Wonderland card can pay for itself very quickly…leading to nothing but savings for you.
If you do plan to buy individual Magic Your Way theme park tickets, consider buying in advance to save a few bucks. There are a handful of reputable ticket brokers that offer discounts on tickets, such as Undercover Tourist. Depending upon your family’s itinerary, another way to save money on tickets is to plan one park per day and skip the Park Hopper (and other add-ons like the water parks), which will save you at least $60 per person.