I’m not going to waste time saying how expensive Disney is, because everyone already knows it is. Instead, without further ado, here are some tips on how an Intelliguest would go about saving money at Disney World.
- Choose food purchases wisely. There is a wide variety in the proportions and quality of food at the various restaurants within the park. Best value I’ve seen? The half chicken meal at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café in Magic Kingdom. Depending on how much you eat, this is enough for two people. As a bonus, there is an open toppings bar for burgers that includes tomatoes, lettuce and more. If you’re still a bit peckish after the chicken, you can fill up on some free veggies. As a general tip, lunch prices are often cheaper than dinner, so if you want to go to a special restaurant, consider lunch instead of dinner.
- Bring your own food. Because of the inflated food prices within the parks, this is a great way of saving money at Disney. You are welcome to bring food and drinks into the parks, although alcohol is not allowed. See the official rules here. I’d suggest food that doesn’t need to be kept cold, and there is no way to heat food (frying eggs on the hot pavement is generally frowned upon). PB&J sandwiches are an easy choice, while carrot sticks and apples are easy healthy snacks. Granola bars are a favorite of mine. Beware of chocolate though- melty puddles of molten Mars bars are a no-go.
- Avoid buying necessities in the parks. Think you might need sunscreen, ponchos, water bottles, sunglasses, etc.? Yes, you can get all that and much more in the Disney parks, but at the Disney markup. Try to think through the different kinds of weather you may experience- sun, rain, and cold come to mind. Either bring those items from home, or pick them up at the local Wal-Mart.
- Don’t buy pins to trade in the parks. You can get official Disney pins (which are the only ones you’re allowed to trade) at the Disney Character Outlet. With this method I’ve had pins to trade for as low as $1 a piece- now that’s saving money at Disney! It won’t help you get the more expensive pins that people aren’t going to trade, but it’s a much more affordable way to build your traded pins collection.
- Buy Disney gear elsewhere. There are several other sources of Disney clothing, accessories and home ware outside the parks. My favorite is Wal-mart (yep, keeping it classy). I have found many affordable treasures there and the best part is, no one but me knows I didn’t spend the big bucks to get them in the parks! Except the whole internet now… oops. I like shopping in the one in Orlando, but your local Wal-Mart probably has some choices. I also found many tempting items online simply by searching “Disney” on the Wal-Mart website (close the tab Tiffany, CLOSE THE TAB BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE). For the more purist shoppers, the Disney Character Outlet has markdowns on official Disney merchandise too.
- Don’t pay for PhotoPass pictures or Memory Maker. Any Cast Member will be happy to take pictures with your own camera. Free pictures vs paying $100-plus for Memory Maker – that’s definitely saving money at Disney! True, you will find it difficult to take the amusing on-ride photos, but if you get one you can’t live without you can always purchase it individually. Take note: selfie sticks are not permitted inside the parks.
- Know your discounts, and use them wisely. There are many discounts for Annual Pass holders and DVC members, as well as some discounts for military personnel, and random discounts now and then. These change often, so it’s worth checking back before each trip. Trying to choose a nice restaurant for one splurge dinner out? Narrow it down to the ones that give you the highest discounts. Looking at staying on property? Check when you could get the best discount. Here’s a list of current discounts.
- Don’t stay on property. Possibly the #1 technique of saving money at Disney is to turn a blind eye to the allure of the gorgeous resorts and all the benefits they offer. For years my family has rented condos or houses in nearby Kissimmee. You can find ones where a week costs the same (or less) than a single night at the deluxe Disney resorts. “But I don’t want to stay somewhere cheap,” you say! I’d respond, but I’m too busy relaxing in one of 3 bedrooms after swimming in the private pool in my rental home. The catch? You will probably need to book the condos/houses for at least a week, and longer for the best prices.
- Stay on property. Wait, you can save money by not staying on property AND by staying on property?? “Tiffany, you’ve gone crazy” you say! Maybe, but I’m only crazy about saving money at Disney. Depending on your trip, staying on property could actually save you money. For example, if you are just flying down for a weekend trip, if you book a stay at one of the Disney resorts you will get free pickup from the airport, and free transportation to and from the parks. The savings on car rental and Disney parking could make your Disney accommodation worth it, especially if you stay at one of the budget resorts (the All-Stars resorts and the Art of Animation). You could also take advantage of Extra Magic hours to get a little more time in the parks! If you decide to stay on property, be aware that there are “seasons” with different pricing, from less outrageous in low season to ultra-outrageous in high season. I wish Disney posted information about when exactly each season is, but that does not appear to be the case. The most expensive times to stay at the resorts will be in the summer and the holidays, other than that I’d suggest plugging in some possible dates and seeing the best prices you can get. Good luck!
- Camp. “What, 3 options for where to stay? Now you truly have gone mad,” I hear you say. And you’re right- I’m mad about savings! If you don’t mind the Orlando humidity and communal showers, you can save a lot of money by camping. Disney even has its own campground, Fort Wilderness, that offers all the benefits of a resort (apart from luxury). It will still cost you a minimum of $55/night, but if you want the Disney resort benefits, it’s the cheapest option. Otherwise you can save some big bucks and camp off-property.
- Bring your own car. This one depends on many factors. Obviously, you need to have enough time and vacation days to drive instead of fly to Disney. Also, if you’d need to stay in a hotel on the drive, that will add to the cost of driving. But if you can make the drive in one day, it will save you the cost of renting a car. Sadly you will still have to pay parking fees at the parks. Take the time to add up the costs, it’s worth it to end up saving money at Disney.
- Know the different ticket options. This is one of or maybe the single biggest expense of the trip. However, there are ways to make it slightly less expensive. There are a variety of ticket options, which you can find here. The more days you stay, the cheaper it is per day. There used to be a way to get tickets without expiration dates even after you first used them, but sadly that has gone to the wayside. Now, you will need to use or lose all the days on your ticket within 14 days of the first use. With this in mind, you could consider planning a 2 week trip every two years instead of a 1 week trip every year. Or, you could focus on spending every minute of the days you go to the parks in the parks themselves, and have off days in between where you do other, cheaper activities. If you can avoid park hopping, that will save you money. But, if you only need half a day in each park, it could save you buying 2 day tickets and make it worth it. It all depends on how you want to spend your trip. Figure it out in advance, then find the option that’s right for you.
- Get an annual pass for one member of your party. This one definitely involves some math, and I’m afraid I don’t love you quite enough to do the math for you. But especially if you’re staying for a longer period of time, the savings can add up. For example, if one member of your party holds an annual pass with parking benefits, you can park for free! That’s about $20 savings per day in the park, which is already $100 for a 5 day trip. If you’re going to be eating and sleeping on property, AP’s can save you up to 30% in some resorts and restaurants. If you’re a big shopper, AP’s get a 10% discount in many Disney stores. My advice is, figure out what you’re going to be doing, then do the math to figure out if it’s worth it. Remember, only one person in the group needs an AP to get the benefit, although that one person will need to be present to get the discounts. If everything adds up, the very expensive AP might actually be saving you money at Disney.
- Get annual passes for your whole party. This is only worth it if you’re going to be in the parks a bunch of days, either a very long trip or multiple trips in a year. Where the breaking point is depends on how much you eat and stay at Disney and what your preferred style of park enjoyment involves. Planning 2 trips of at least 5 days each? AP might be the way to go. Like to go in and out of the park at your leisure, and plan to spend 2 weeks in the parks? AP could work to your favor. Like to eat and sleep at Disney? The AP discounts could save you money.
A lot of people think Disney is unreasonably expensive, and that may be true, but the above tips will make it just a little (or a lot!) less expensive.
What are your favorite ways of saving money at Disney?