It’s no secret that a trip to Disney World isn’t cheap. Even if you’re lucky like us and don’t need to worry about airfare (we live in metro Atlanta), the cost of dining, hotels, park tickets, and souvenirs can add up fast.
Fortunately, there are a whole lotta ways to do Disney, and some of them can be cheaper than others. Here are 13 great money-saving tips to help your family’s Disney World trip fit into your budget. And hey — if you have a generous budget to begin with, maybe you save a few bucks to start saving toward your next vacation!
1. Skip the Park Hopper tickets
Currently, a 3-day Magic Your Way Base Ticket is $346, while a 3-day Magic Your Way Hopper Ticket is $415. Is it really worth the $69 (per person) for the privilege of visiting two different parks in one day?
I would argue that it isn’t. Each individual park has plenty to keep you busy. (Yes, even Animal Kingdom, which I often feel gets a bad rap, but I’ll save that for another post.) We got the Base tickets for our first four family visits, and I never felt deprived or wish we had sprung for Hopper passes.
I will say that sticking to the Base tickets requires a little more thought and planning (as opposed to being able to jet-set over to another park on a whim whenever you want), but that’s a small price to pay to potentially save a few hundred dollars.
2. Consider staying off-property
I have mixed feelings about this one, because the last time we went to Disney World, I swore that we would never stay off-property again, even if it meant having to wait longer before we could go back, and I stick to that.
But on our very first Disney trip (when our girls were four and two and my son didn’t exist yet), we got a condo with my parents and had a wonderful vacation off-property. We purchased three days of tickets for the parks and had one day where we just hung out at the pool and went to Disney Springs (which at the time was called Downtown Disney). On the way home from the park, we either stopped at a restaurant in town or picked up Publix deli sandwiches and brought them back to the condo.
Did we experience everything Disney World has to offer? Not even close. But we didn’t really miss it. (Although I do distinctly remember being envious of the people who hopped off the monorail to go to the Polynesian resort.) With the girls being that little, just going to Disney World was incredibly exciting for them. They had no idea that they “should” be going to character meals, and they happily called our condo “The Disney House.”
Oh, and the interesting part? My girls loved the entire trip … but they said that playing in the pool at the condo was their favorite part of the vacation. Just something to think about.
Note: If you do stay off-property, you can get discounted park tickets from Undercover Tourist.
3. Spend a day away from the park
This easily goes hand-in-hand with number two. Our “down day” at the pools and Disney Springs not only saved us money, but was a relief, as we needed a break from the lines and the more frantic pace of being in the parks.
4. Consider camping instead of getting a hotel room.
Ha ha ha ha ha — that’s a good one!
Oh, wait — you were serious? People actually do that?
I feel the same way Jim Gaffigan does about camping, probably because I’m a city girl from a city family who born in the Bronx and vividly remembers walking to Shop Rite with our own grocery cart.
But hey, if you’re gonna camp, what better place to do it then Disney World? Disney’s Fort Wilderness Lodge can sleep up to 10 people for $50/night, which is an amazing deal, especially if you can vacation with another family. Best of all, you get all the perks (Extra Magic House, free Magic Bands, et) from staying at any other Disney resort.
5. Skip the PhotoPass — but do use the photographers.
We’ve never even considered paying the money to get the PhotoPass photos. Fortunately, you don’t really have to. During the character meet and greets, just give the PhotoPass photographer your phone or camera and they’ll be glad to take a photo for you. I’m guessing we didn’t know this at the time, since Robert’s not in the photo.
6. Take advantage of the free stuff
Don’t you dare buy a bottle of water while at a Disney park. You can get free ice water at any counter service restaurant. And if you’re dying for a soda and happen to be at Epcot, head over to Club Cool and drink as much you want of your favorite Coke product and/or one from another country. And don’t bother packing Band-Aids; you can get them free at the medical centers at any of the four Disney parks.
And I didn’t know this until I was researching this article, but if you’re staying at an on-property resort (other than Animal Kingdom resort), you can stop at the front desk where you check in and get a couple free balloons. These are particularly handy is you’re using strollers or wheelchairs at the parks.
7. Go right before a child’s third birthday
We did this without even trying. Conveniently, Rebecca was exactly two and a half when we went our first time, so she got in free. Fortunately for us, she was the kid who was potty trained herself fast and early (she just decided one day that she wanted to wear one underwear like her big sister), so diapers and changing tables didn’t have to be an issue.
8. Bring your own stroller.
I wouldn’t personally recommend renting the strollers at Disney World — at $15 a day, that can get pricey, and they looked bulky and cumbersome. We brought two cheap umbrella strollers at the local drug store and were fine.
There are two things I would have done differently regarding strollers, however. For one thing, I would have gotten a stroller like this Winnie the Pooh one that has a canopy to provide some shade.
Even better is this Mickey ears umbrella stroller that has both a canopy and a basket. We could get away with not having a basket because 1) I tend to travel light in general, sometimes to a fault; and 2) Like I mentioned earlier, both our girls were out of diapers by then. But if you’re bringing a diaper bag and want to have a place to carry multiple water bottles, sunscreen, and snacks … yeah, I’d definitely get a stroller with a basket.
Make sure you mark your stroller so you can easily find it each time you park it to ride an attraction. Etsy has some cute personalized stroller signs for as little as four or five dollars. . Of course, you don’t have to be that fancy; you could simply tie on something like this or attach the free balloon you got from your hotel lobby (see #4).
9. Bring your own rain ponchos.
After being caught in a sudden downpour on one trip, I decided to get smart on our next trip. I ordered this pack of ten rain panchos that are densely wrapped individually so you can easily tuck them into a diaper bag or purse.
The only problem with my plan was that I didn’t think of it until a few days before we left, and the rain ponchos arrived in our mailbox hours after we had left for Disney. And guess what — it started pouring, and we sucked it up and spent $27 on three ponchos for five people to try to share. Dum dum de dum.
Don’t make our mistakes. Order your rain ponchos now!
10. Bring your own glow sticks.
Whether it’s for the evening parades or fireworks or just riding the Prince Charming Regal Carrousel at night, you definitely want to be at the parks after dark — and when you do, your kids are going to want something that glows in the dark. I couldn’t find the exact cost of glow sticks and necklaces in the Disney parks, but “a lot” would be a good guess.
You can get a this pack of 100 for under ten bucks. I like to have extras because I enjoy handing out some out to nearby kids and see how happy it makes them, and glow sticks never go to waste at our house.
If getting a bajillion glow sticks isn’t your thing, you can easily get the right amount to meet your needs at your local dollar store.
11. Be smart when ordering counter service meals and snacks.
You probably don’t need (or want) an entire meal for yourself (especially if you’re planning to ride Space Mountain or the Mad Tea Party shortly afterward).
Some people swear by only ordering kids’ meals. We’ve always been pros at splitting things, whether it’s a cream cheese pretzel (the family’s favorite snack) or a counter service meal. The combo meals are Cosmic Ray’s in Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland are perfect for splitting.
Another neat trick at Cosmic Ray’s is to order one burger or sandwich for two people to split and then go to town at the toppings bar. Toppings include not only things like lettuce tomato, and pickles, but also sauerkraut and even mushrooms. If you like veggies, you create an entire separate meal just from the toppings.
Tortuga Tavern in Adventureland and Pecos Bill at Frontierland also have these toppings bars, but I prefer Cosmic Ray’s. It has a nicer, less crowded atmosphere, plus they have Sonny Eclipse. (That’s not a menu items, but rather the animatronic entertainment.)
12. Bring a backpack cooler into the parks.
I’ve got to be honest; the idea of hauling a backpack around the parks at Disney makes my skin crawl. But you gotta do what you gotta do, and if you want to save a boatload of money by bringing food and drinks for everybody, a backpack cooler like this one is the way to do.
Need some ideas of what food to pack? Here are some ideas to get started:
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
Meat and cheese sandwiches
Bagels and cream cheese
Apples and grapes
And you don’t need a big backpack to bring your own food into the parks, either. This is my Disney park bag of choice, and I’m still able to put in packs of trail mix and fruit strips.
One warning: if you don’t bring a cooler and just stick food in a regular bag or purse, don’t pack anything like, say, chocolate-covered granola bars, because you’ll end up with a mess. Ask me how I know.
13. Have a plan for souvenir buying.
Some people like to save money on souvenirs by secretly buying Disney stuff before the trip and doling them out to their kids a little at a time during the vacation. You can look for clearance deals on Amazon’s Disney page or at your local Disney store to get good deals.
A great souvenir that makes the entire trip more fun is to get a pack of Official Disney trading pins before the trip. (Make sure they’re official pins.)
Rebecca and I split this pack on our last trip and had a great time being always on the lookout for cast members and looking for pins we wanted.
Not only is pin trading a nice way to chat with the cast members, but it gives you the feeling that you’re constantly getting new souvenirs. And when you consider that buying just ONE pin at Disney world can cost ten dollars (or more!), it’s a great deal to do it this way.
Note: I would highly recommend buying these butterfly clutch pin backs to replace the backs on the pins you buy in bulk. Otherwise, you’re almost sure to lose one of your pins — or at the very least, spend half your vacation worrying that you might lose one.
If you want to get a Disney lanyard for your pins, you can get this set of two lanyards — a Minnie and Mickey — for the price of what one lanyard in the parks would cost.
I think Rebecca just keeps her pins in a drawer, but you make a nice room decoration by hanging a small cork board on the wall and displaying your pin collection on it. Etsy, of course, also has some nice board just for displaying pins.
Another trick for keeping souvenir costs down trick is to put the responsibility on your kids: Buy each child a $25 or $50 Disney gift card to spend how they wish. (You can buy discounted Disney gift cards at eBay, Gift Card Granny, Sam’s Club.) Now only does that give you one less thing to worry about and have to keep track of, but it’s a really good exercise in them managing their money and making decisions.