Update (5/23 10:15am): Disney recently announced a host of new attractions coming to its Orlando theme parks this summer. Are you planning a trip? Let us know in the comments!
The happiest place on earth is home to iconic theme parks, world class hotels, top-shelf food and, of course, Mickey Mouse. It’s become almost a rite of passage for kids to make a pilgrimage to Walt Disney World in Orlando Florida, but all of those pixie dust encrusted accommodations and entertainment options can get awfully pricey.
The good news is that there are many ways you can save significant amounts of money throughout your Disney trip. As a former Florida resident and annual passholder, I’ve been to Disney World more times than I can count and have spent way too much time on Disney fan boards, as such I’ve learned all the ways to trim your ticket, hotel and food costs. Continue on for a roundup of my top tips to save on your next trip to Walt Disney World.
This guide is going to focus on Walt Disney World resort in Orlando, Florida but many of the tips are also applicable to Disneyland in Anaheim, California and the other Disney resorts around the globe. With Disney’s recent acquisitions of Marvel and Star Wars properties, demand for its theme parks has been through the roof, resulting in increased costs for its millions of visitors. Whether you’re looking to stay at an amazing hotel and eat some of the best food in the US or just trying to get by with the bare necessities (pun very much intended!), there are lots of ways you can save money during your trip.
One of the biggest costs of your Disney World trip is going to be park tickets. Purchasing tickets used to be pretty straightforward once you understood the idea of park hopping and such. But Disney recently introduced seasonal pricing for one-day tickets, which adds a whole new layer of complexity and strategy to the ticket buying process. Again, this only applies to one-day tickets, so if you’re going to be staying for a longer period of time you can skip this section. Seasonal pricing means that ticket prices fluctuate based on the individual day you plan to go to the park. The higher demand for a specific day, the higher the individual ticket price will be. If you have flexibility in the day you plan to visit Disney, make sure you check the ticket calendar before going so you can take advantage of lower pricing.
Disney offers significant discounts when you purchase multi-day discounts. The only catch is that the days expire 14 days after the first date of use. So unlike the old days when Disney sold non-expiration tickets, all multi-day tickets are pretty much only good for your stay. Outside of Florida resident discounts, there aren’t too many other ways to save on tickets from Disney. However, all Disney Vacation Club members (except for recent members who bought through the secondary market) are eligible for discounted Annual Passes. Even if you don’t qualify for a discounted annual pass, it may be more cost-effective for you to buy one at full-price if you’re planning a long stay or multiple trips. Be sure to do the math and plan in advance!
In most cases you should avoid ticket resellers at all costs, except for Undercover Tourist. I’ve purchased tickets from them on several occasions and have never had any issues. They offer small discounts on tickets, but every bit of savings helps!
Whichever route you end up going, make sure you buy your tickets in advance so you can book FastPass+ ride reservations.
You can either stay on-site or off-site at Disney. Both options have their benefits and drawbacks. Basically, staying on-site generally costs more but gets you transportation to and from the airport (Magical Express), Extra Magic Hours (extended park time!), bus rides to the parks, free parking and more. Staying off-site opens up a ton of less expensive hotel options, but you’ll need a rental car and you’ll miss out on all of the other Disney perks mentioned above.
There are more than two dozen different on-site resorts at Disney World, which are broken down into three categories: Value, Moderate and Deluxe Villas. Purchasing directly through Disney is typically the most costly option. Sites like hotels.com and Expedia also offer Disney World resort reservations so be sure to price check with them as well. You can also use coupon codes for those sites to double up on your savings.
The best way to save on your hotel is to rent DVC points from a current member. Sites like David’s Vacation Club Rentals and DVC Rental Store coordinate these transactions and can really save you a significant amount of money. The only downside is that popular DVC rooms book quickly (especially at “monorail resorts” like Bay Lake Tower and Grand Floridian) and you need to pre-pay for your room. So if you have advanced notice and have the cash to front your hotel costs, this is the move to make.
Another big cost of your Disney trip is going to be food. First off, you can book Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs) 6-months in advance and the most popular options (Be Our Guest, Victoria and Alberts, California Grill, etc) fill up quick, so be sure to put a reminder in your calendar. You can either pay out-of-pocket for each meal or buy a Disney Dining Plan. The Disney Dining Plan is a complex beast that is tough to really nail down how much/if it offers any savings but most research I’ve read says that unless you are really big eaters and plan out every meal to maximize overall value, it’s better to pay for meals individually. Disney also typically offers free dining dates during the fall, but you’re forced to pay full price for your room and tickets, plus other restrictions, so your mileage may vary concerning overall savings. Here’s the info for this year’s free dining offer.
If you’re planning to pay out-of-pocket for food and are a Florida Resident, Annual Passholder or DVC member, you should consider purchasing a Tables in Wonderland membership. For $150-$175, you can save 20% on nearly all Disney food and beverage (including alcohol!) for a year. Those savings add up quickly if you’re traveling with a large group or eating at nice restaurants. Passholders and DVC members are also eligible for smaller discounts even without Tables in Wonderland.
You can save a ton on food by bringing your own snacks into the parks with you. Things like granola, protein bars, nuts, chips and some candy travel well and are definitely a healthier option than a Mickey ice cream bar. Also, instead of paying $2.50 or more for a bottle of water, just get a cup of (free!) ice water from any food stand that sells fountain beverages. You can also request that some sides (french fries, chips, etc) are left off meals as a way to cut down on food costs.
There’s no doubt booking a Disney trip is requires a ton of planning, especially if you’re looking to save some money! Above all, if you have some room in your budget, I’d recommend going on one of Disney’s historical tours like Keys to the Kingdom to get a better appreciation of Disney magic.
Packing List Essentials:
A trip to Disney is not easy on the wallet; especially when you get there and realize many of the items you are being overcharged for in the gift shops are items you could have purchased ahead of time and brought with you. Here is our list of essential items to buy ahead of time that will save you a significant amount of money and allow for a much more enjoyable vacation:
- Brita Sport Water Filter Bottle $7.95 – $2 per Dasani bottle adds up quick and the water fountain water doesn’t have the most pleasant taste
- 5 Pack One Size Fit All Ponchos $9.99 – for the price of 1 poncho from the gift shop you can outfit your entire family
- Anker 13000mAh 2-Port Power Bank $25.99 – Don’t miss a photo opportunity because of a dead phone; stay charged all day long
- Waterproof Plastic Pouch Utility Bags $9.60 – Keep your valuables dry during rides like Splash Mountain where getting wet is inevitable
- Cooling Towel $7.99 – Florida is hot almost year round so you’ll want to keep cool as much as possible
- Knit Gloves $2.99 – One might think the need for gloves is crazy but during the winter months the temperatures can drop pretty low at night and you’ll be thankful for these
- Travel Size Hand Sanitizer 5 Pack $9.29 – With 50,000 plus guests a day germs are everywhere and a family member getting sick can be a real damper on your trip
- Starbucks VIA(R) Instant Coffee $10.99 – Don’t let waiting in the long Starbucks lines slow you down or drain your wallet; pack some energy on the go
- Neutrogena Sunscreen SPF 45 2 Pack $12.74 – Long lines means lots of sun exposure, don’t let a sunburn ruin your trip
- Tide to go Instant Stain Remover 3 Pack $10.29 – Tasty treats can be messy so be prepared for an unexpected mess
- Anker 6 Port USB Charging Hub $36.99 – Don’t fight over the sparse outlets in your hotel room, charge everything at once
- Drawstring Backpack $8.07 – Carry all your essentials around in a lightweight backpack easy to take on and off for rides
All images provided by Benjamin Hendel Photography.