Ways to Save Money at Walt Disney World
Stay off-site, bargain-buy souvenirs and vary your eating habits to keep hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in your pocket.
Whenever I’m traveling, it’s a safe bet I’m going to Disney World, near Orlando, Fla. I’ve averaged four to five trips a year over the past decade, and I’ve learned a thing or two about saving money. There’s no reason anyone should spend a fortune to see Mickey & Co. Here are my secrets.
Stay Off-Property. There are certainly affordable rooms on Walt Disney World property. At Disney’s All-Star resorts, standard rooms go for as low as $96 per night during off-peak times. But it’s important to consider just what you get in most of Disney’s value hotel rooms: two beds, a bathroom and a TV. If you don’t plan to do anything in your room except sleep, and you want the convenience of staying on the property, check out the “value” tier Disney hotels for the lowest prices.
The biggest bang for your buck, however, can be found off-property in surrounding Lake Buena Vista, or neighboring Orlando and Kissimmee, where there’s an abundance of affordable chain hotels. Consider a room similar to the one described above at a local Holiday Inn Express. An overnight stay there in early November would cost around $85 including breakfast, compared with $110 to $133 at the All-Star Disney hotels, no food included.
Check out the certified Walt Disney World Good Neighbor Hotels for off-property options, all of which also provide transportation to the parks.
Visit at Off-Peak Times. Crowds change with the seasons at Disney World. So do room rates. That $96 “value” room costs $198 during the Christmas season. Likewise, a standard “moderate” tier room jumps from $198 on an off night to $284 on New Year’s Eve.
Generally, Disney’s off seasons fall between holidays and school vacations. The easiest way to see when the hotels will be at their cheapest is to consult the online pricing calendar. First, select a hotel on Disney’s booking Web site. Then pick a room type. To the right of each, under the price, is a blue link to “view price per night.” Click that to reveal a pop-up window, then click on “view seasonal pricing” in the lower left. This calendar will let you view room prices through December 2014.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled for Savings Promos. Disney World runs a number of promotions for money-saving vacation packages throughout the year. So, if you're set on staying on-property, try to snag one of these. Right now, the offer is for a five-night/six-day package for a family of four that includes tickets, the Disney Dining Plan and a standard room at select Disney moderate resort hotels for $2,606. When compared with the same trip a la carte, that’s up to a $600 savings. Check back with Disney’s Web site periodically to stay on top of new deals.
Visit Only One Park Per Day. Whether you stay on or off-property, you’ll save money by dedicating a whole day to each park. A three-day ticket, which allows admission to one park a day, costs $262, or about $87 per day for an adult (when booked separately from a hotel room). Purchasing the park hopper option, which lets you go into and out of each of the four parks as you please, adds an extra $59 per ticket or $84 if you want to tack on the water parks.
There’s no real need to be able to hop, aside from a bit more flexibility in scheduling. And you will be able to go into and out of the same park throughout the day if need be. Just note that on major holidays and some days during the summer, one or all of the parks may close due to capacity crowds. In that case, you won’t be able to get back in until some people leave.
Consider the Disney Dining Plan. Disney travel experts are split as to whether the DDP is a good value or not. I say, if you're set on staying on property, and you're healthy eaters, go for it. First, the basics: There are different DDP levels with varying meal allotments, and they are only available to guests staying at one of the Disney resorts. Adult prices apply to anyone 10 and older, the children’s rate is for ages 3 through 9, and those under 3 can share food at no cost. Kids must order off the children’s menu. The most basic (and cheapest) plans are the Quick-Service Dining Plan and the Dining Plan.
The Quick-Service plan includes credits for two counter-service meals and one snack per person per night of your stay. The Dining Plan includes credits for one counter-service meal, one table-service meal and one snack per person per night of your stay. One meal is defined as a full buffet at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or an entrée, dessert and non-alcoholic beverage at lunch or dinner, and an entrée plus non-alcoholic drink at breakfast.
Note that you may use more than one day’s worth of credits in a day, and that some dining experiences will require two meal credits. Gratuities are not included. All dining plans also include a souvenir mug that can be refilled for free, as often as you like during your stay, at your resort only.
According to the rates on Disney’s Web site, a family of four, with two adults and two children on the dining plan, can expect to pay $155.08 per night’s stay, or $58.66 per day for an adult and $18.88 for a child. If your family is going to order an entrée plus dessert plus a soda at every meal and eat two full meals plus a snack each day, then this is probably the way to go, especially if you gravitate toward pricier items. But if you’re the kind of folks who only eat one full meal per day, don’t eat dessert, order the cheapest entrees and drink water, this may not be the best deal. (Downgrading to the quick-service plan costs $110.78 per day, or $39.64 for an adult and $15.75 for a child.)
Consult Disney’s Web site for an overview of all plan levels, as well as which restaurants will cost extra credits. You can also check one of my favorite resources, AllEars.net, to see menu pricing for all Disney World restaurants.
See the Characters at Breakfast or Lunch. If you want to get up close and personal with Mickey Mouse or Cinderella, go for breakfast or lunch. According to AllEars, the price for dinner with the princesses at Cinderella’s Royal Table is $67 to $72 per adult and $41 to $43 per child. Compare that with $53 to $58 per adult and $35 to $37 per child at breakfast, and $57 to $62 per adult and $36 to $39 per child at lunch. (The best way to see princesses at a bargain price, though, is to eat at Akershus in Epcot, where the meals can be $10 to $20 cheaper.) Likewise, dinner with Pooh and friends at the Crystal Palace will clock in at $39 to $44 per adult and $20 to $21 per child. However, breakfast will only run $24 to $29 per adult and $14 to $16 per child, with lunch ranging from $27 to $31 per adult and $15 to $17 per child.
Character dining not your thing? You can see many characters free at designated character greeting spots throughout the parks. (Tip: Wait by the Magic Kingdom carousel just after park closing for a fun character surprise.)
Don’t Eat Every Meal on the Property. One of the easiest ways to save money is to eat off-property. Options abound in the surrounding area, where you can find all manner of restaurants, from fast food and casual chains to local mom-and-pops. You could spend $26 for a plate of lasagna at Epcot’s Tutto Italia, or you could get it for $14 at the Olive Garden. Even a pizza is going to run you $28 at Via Napoli, versus $13 at Pizza Hut. If you don’t want to leave the park in the middle of the day for lunch, you could always bring a small lunchbox with sandwiches and such into the park, or leave a larger cooler in the car and pop out to eat. Even if you have lunch and dinner on the property, pack your own snacks to save a few bucks between meals, and stash non-perishable breakfast foods like peanut butter and jelly in your hotel room. Use the savings to plan one or two special Disney dining experiences.
Don’t Sit Down for Every Meal. We’ve already established that breakfast is going to be the cheapest meal of the day. But when it comes to non-character lunch and dinner, there’s generally little or no difference in price between the two. In fact, many restaurants have combined lunch and dinner menus. If you want to save money but still enjoy the convenience of Disney’s dining options, explore the less-pricey counter service and food cart options. You can save even more money by sharing meals, which are often quite generous. Items such as the Anchors Aweigh tuna sandwich ($9) at Columbia Harbour House, the fish and chips ($9) from Yorkshire County Fish Shop or the half-chicken meal ($10.50) from Flame Tree Barbecue can easily be shared by two people. Another option is to order off the kids’ menu, even if you’re an adult. Heck, even one of those famous jumbo turkey legs ($10) could feed two adults.
Save on Souvenirs. Like food and hotel rooms, souvenirs are least expensive off-property. There are, of course, the local souvenir shops that are chockablock with tchotchkes, and the local big-box stores, especially Wal-Mart, have a nice selection, too. To get your hands on discounted merchandise directly from Disney, rather than Disney-licensed products, head for one of the two Orlando Premium Outlets locations, where you’ll find Disney’s Character Warehouse. Autographs from characters are a great free souvenir; just be sure to bring your own pen and notebook to the park. (Pro tip: It’s hard for the characters to hold skinny pens. The thicker the better.)
Inside the resort, kill two birds with one stone by ordering food and drinks in souvenir containers for a small upcharge. At the popcorn stands, have your snack served in a reusable decorative bucket. At Epcot, drink your beer from a stein stamped with your favorite country’s flag. And at the hotels, purchase the hot/cold mug, which can be refilled with soft drinks, tea and coffee as often as you’d like during your stay. You can also go retro with a collection of pressed pennies at 51 cents each. Find them all on a map from www.parkpennies.com.
Celebrating? Visit a guest services location for a free commemorative button to remember your trip. These might say “Happy Birthday,” “First Visit” or “Happy Anniversary.” Some full-service restaurants give out birthday cards signed by characters, too. Ask about this when making a birthday dining reservation.