Planning an affordable family vacation to Disney World is a challenging proposition for any family. Tally the costs of park fees, restaurant meals, souvenirs, plane tickets, lodging and other extras, and the total price of your Disney family vacation becomes downright exorbitant. What’s a parent on a budget to do? Consider these secrets to saving big at Disney World.
1. Stay Near the Parks
Staying as close as possible to the parks is a great way to maximize time, but you’ll be paying a little extra for the close proximity. Want to save money and still be close? Try staying at one of the Disney Springs hotels. All of the Disney Springs hotels are within walking distance to Disney’s dining and entertainment district, and many offer complimentary shuttle service to and from the parks.
If you’re looking to save at an official Walt Disney World Resort hotel, you might want to consider one of Disney’s Value Resorts, which include Disney’s All Star Sports Resort, Disney’s Pop Century Resort, and Disney’s Art of Animation Resort. Note that at these resorts, you can apply any annual pass and Florida resident discounts, along with other special discounts throughout the year. For the most up-to-date discounts, be sure to check the official Walt Disney World website or call the Walt Disney World reservation line to talk to a Cast Member.
2. Share Accommodations with Extended Family or Friends
Plenty of Disney World resort hotels and nearby hotels cater to large groups with spacious suites or apartments that have multiple bedrooms. Just 2 miles from Animal Kingdom, Silver Lake Resort offers large villas with three bedrooms, three bathrooms and full kitchens (which means extra savings on meals), as well as two swimming pools. Another reliable option is Marriott’s Grande Vista, which sleeps up to 12 guests.
Inside the parks, there are a plethora of options for large groups, such as Disney’s BoardWalk Villas, Disney’s Old Key West Resort, Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Animal Kingdom Villas (Kidani Village and Jambo House), all of which sleep up to eight guests; the TreeHouse Villas at Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort can sleep nine.
You might also consider an Orlando vacation rental or a rental outside of town. “Renting a house can be a great fit with space to gather, relax and cook up your own healthy meals” explains Lisa McClintick, mom of three. “We once rented an older home on a canal in Daytona, which kept us close to the beach, but also within driving distance of Disney World. Many rental homes in Florida also have their own pools.”
Related: 16 Best Orlando Hotels and Resorts for Families 2020
3. Get Groceries Delivered
Whether you’re staying at a Disney Value Resort or a Disney Vacation Club Villa, getting groceries delivered (or shopping for them on your own) is a huge money saver. Buy any drinks you might want in the room, breakfast cereal or granola bars, and even ingredients for full meals you can make in a slow cooker and enjoy at the end of the day. Eating a few meals in your room can save hundreds of dollars on food costs, and can definitely save some time in the morning as you’re trying to get to the next big ride!
4. Share Meals
If you’ve got little ones or picky eaters (or both) in tow, consider sharing some or all of your meals. “The portion sizes offered at many restaurants throughout the park are quite large. Sometimes our family of five (with three boys ages 7 and under) can get by just fine with sharing just two or three adult meals,” says Sara Wellensiek. Don’t rule out shared meals at hotels either. “We stayed at the Art of Animation Resort and got dinner at the Landscape of Flavors Food Court. Our family got a large pizza (which was only about $15), plus a side salad and a fun dessert to share. The total bill wasn’t even $30!” she says.
Another idea: seek out restaurants that offer toppings bars where guests can make their meal a little more customized. Currently there are three restaurants at Walt Disney World that offer toppings bars: Peco’s Bills Tall Tale Inn and Cafe (Magic Kingdom), Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe (Magic Kingdom), and Restaurantosaurus (Disney’s Animal Kingdom).
The toppings bar at each of these restaurants typically includes grilled veggies, lettuce, chopped fresh vegetables, cheeses, sauces, and more, and is a great way to add more substance and stretch a meal that you’re sharing.
5. Plan Character Meals for Breakfast
Your child wants to dine on fare cooked by Chef Mickey—with the Mouse himself, of course—and you want to save money. The solution? Book your character meal early in the day for breakfast or lunch, and avoid the costly character dinner. Character meals, which are priced per person, can cost hundreds for a family of four or five. But you can cut costs by choosing the least expensive time to eat, which is generally breakfast. For example, at the Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom, where Winnie the Pooh poses for photos with families and food is served buffet style, breakfast and lunch prices range from $15 to $35 per adult, whereas dinner prices range from $35 to $60.
“If you have some extra time and flexibility, you can gain significantly reduced (and even free!) admission by participating in Disney World’s volunteer and group programs,” says Jackie Perrin, a regular at Disney World. “In the group division, of note is the Disney Y.E.S. (Youth Education Series) Program, which has an individual enrollment option. On select dates, you can sign your school-aged kids and yourself up (an adult chaperone is required if your kids are ages 12 and under). The purchase of a Y.E.S. package includes an education session and your choice of Disney theme park admission packages, including multiple-day and park-hopper options, at a fraction of the regular price. Special pricing for accompanying family members is also available.”
Also consider volunteering a few hours at a local sporting event. “If you have some time to spare and specific event timing works into your travel plans, you can earn free admission to a Walt Disney World theme park by volunteering at one of a number of Disney-run sporting events,” Perrin continues. “Rules vary according to event, but it’s possible to earn a complimentary one-day one park pass by filling a single shift for an event, such as Disney’s Princess Half Marathon.”
7. Manage Your Time Wisely
Time is money, and since there are so many things to do at Disney World, planning is important. Be sure to download the My Disney Experience app to your phone before headed to Orlando. The app will show all of your FastPass+ reservations, dining reservations, where characters meet, and where the nearest restroom is.
Speaking of FastPass+, another way to save time is to make a fourth FastPass+ reservation after you’ve used your allotment of three for the day. To do this, you go to the FastPass+ area of My Disney Experience and make a FastPass+ reservation for whatever ride is available with the closest time slot to the current time. You can keep doing this all day until FastPass+ reservations for rides are gone for the day. Staying out of as many stand-by lines as possible is a huge time saver and money maximizer.
8. Set a Souvenir Budget
“Establish a budget for souvenirs ahead of time,” suggests Diana Lambdin Meyer. “Discuss it with your children in advance and help them understand the limits. Allow them to make one purchase on their own, whether you agree with the purchase or not.” Wendy Irvine, on the other hand, buys the souvenirs AHEAD of time. “It’s so much cheaper to buy the Disney items online before a trip than to pay store prices inside the park. And if my boys get to wear a Disney hat or tee or carry a stuffed Disney character, they’re content and I don’t have to hear ‘gimme’ all day.” Better yet, Wellensiek has MADE her own Disney-themed paraphernalia. “I made my boys matching Mickey shirts and autograph books for some of our trips—they were a big hit!”
If you’re choosing to let your kids buy their own souvenir with a set budget, give them a Disney gift card with a limit on it. Pro tip: Ahead of your trip, purchase a Disney gift card at Target with your Target RED Card and get 5 percent off the paid amount for the gift card, but still enjoy the full value.
9. Go at a Less Crowded Time
There’s no “off-season” at Walt Disney World anymore. The once quiet January and September are now even busier than ever. The real tip here is to go at less crowded times of the day, no matter which park you’re planning on visiting. Get up and get to the park about 30 to 45 minutes before the official park opening. This will help you get on those priority rides that you weren’t able to score a FastPass+ reservation for, like Avatar Flight of Passage at Disney’s Animal Kingdom or Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The parks are also less busy during the first few hours after opening, so you could get on more than one ride while some people are still in bed.
If you’re staying at a Walt Disney World hotel, take advantage of Extra Magic Hours whether they’re in the morning or at night. This time is dedicated to resort guests only and is much less crowded than during the day.
Related: 13 Non-Disney World Owned Resorts with Extra Magic Hours Benefits
10. Consider Buying an Annual Pass
Buying an annual pass to Walt Disney World is a big money commitment and one that should be taken seriously. There’s a major trick to knowing when your money commitment has broken even, and you can actually start to save money while on vacation. The average number of days your family would need to enter a Walt Disney World theme park to break even on an annual pass is eight days.
The benefits of buying an annual pass include free parking at all of the parks, discounts on dining and merchandise, room discounts, special event ticket discounts, and more.
11. Avoid Bottled Water
Buying water at Walt Disney World is one way to deplete your budget quickly, especially since a bottle of water is well over $3. To get around this, you can always bring in your own bottled water, or any drink for that matter, as long as they’re not in glass bottles. Bringing in refillable water bottles is the easiest way to keep your family hydrated and on the go. The other option for free water is to go to any quick-service restaurant and ask for a cup of water. They will give you as many as you need at no cost.
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