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The ultimate guide to planning a budget Disney World vacation, for cheap

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Published: February 13, 2013 at 12:44 PM

How can you visit the Walt Disney World Resort for cheap? What's the secret to an inexpensive Disney World vacation? How do you get Disney tickets, hotel and transportation on a tight budget?

Advice on doing Disney cheap litters the Internet. That's because Disney World is wildly popular -- and can be wildly expensive. People want to find ways to cut the cost of visiting the world's most popular theme park resort.

Visiting Walt Disney World
With some planning and the right know-how, your family could be here, too.

But too much budget travel advice relies on tricks and cheats that, frankly, don't apply to most visitors. Have you seen them? Sorry, but most people don't have a vast reservoir of frequent flyer miles to dip into for free tickets to Orlando. Or the sterling credit that enables them to open up another credit card account to snag more free miles. The worst piece I saw bragged that they've gotten a "free" room on-site at Disney World by… using their DVC points.

You've got to be kidding me. (For those who don't know, DVC stands for the "Disney Vacation Club" and is Disney's time-share business. While DVC can be a great deal for devoted Disney fans, buying into a timeshare isn't something that a family looking for a budget vacation ought to have to do.)

If you want a trick like that to save money on a Disney vacation, you might as well go for the best one: find a Disney World cast member who can sign you into the parks for free, then let you stay over at his or her house while you're in the area. That's the ultimate in getting into Disney on the cheap.

But let's get real. Let's look at how a family can enjoy a Disney World vacation for the lowest possible price -- without resorting to frequent flyer miles, timeshare points, credit cards or knowing someone who can get you into the parks for free.

Step One: Getting to Orlando

You drive. If you've got more than two people in your family, driving's likely going to be cheaper than buying plane tickets for everyone to fly to Orlando. Plus, you'll have a car with you when you get there. Orlando is not a good city for walking or mass transit. A car is essential for getting around. Sure, Disney will pick you up at the airport and you can use its free transportation system if you stay at one of its official, on-site hotels. But you're on a budget and need a cheaper place to stay. Having a car with you allows you to stay off-site in a budget-priced hotel.

What about the time, and the cost of gas? If you live outside the United States, your best bet for a discount Orlando vacation is to book through a tour operator that's working with Disney to package low-cost Orlando vacations. (We'll have an article about that next week, so you can skip the rest of this piece.) If you live in the Mountain or Pacific time zones in the US, you'll be better off driving to Disneyland instead. It's closer and cheaper than Disney World for you.

If you're worried about road conditions, postpone your trip until a time of year when the weather's clear. We're talking about doing Disney cheap here. Convenience costs money. And if you can't afford to drive because you've got a gas guzzler, well, you're not helping yourself by looking at your vacation costs to save money. You'd do better to save money every day by trading in for a fuel-efficient car instead. Do that, then plan your Disney roadtrip.

Step Two: Find a hotel

Disney's got some great on-site hotels, with free transportation to and early admission into the parks. But they cost more than other hotel rooms in the area. We're talking cheap, remember? So we're going to look off-site.

You can search website such as Hotels.com for low rates on hotels near the Walt Disney World Resort. But if you want cheap, try bidding for a room on a blind-bid site such as Priceline. Here are the areas you want to include:

  • Disney Maingate - Celebration
  • Downtown Disney - Lake Buena Vista
  • Sea World - Intl. Drive - Convention Center
  • West Disney Area

Don't go elsewhere, or you'll be wasting too much of your vacation time driving in traffic. Now, what to bid? I'd start with $20 a night. Yep. Twenty bucks. Believe it or not, unless you're visiting during Christmas week or over the Fourth of July, you can find hotel rooms in the Disney World area for that little each night, especially if you wait until the last minute to bid. They're not luxury rooms -- far from it. But you'll have a roof over your head, a bed to sleep in and a bathroom and shower for the morning. And you'll cram your entire family into it, even if the kids have to sleep in sleeping bags on the floor.

And if a hotel's too rich for your taste, there's always Couchsurfing.

Step Three: Buying Disney tickets

Do not, repeat, do not wait until you get to the park to buy your tickets. For best deal, you're going to buy your ticket in advance. Start with the Disney World website to see your options and find what's Disney's charging these days. The Walt Disney World Resort has four theme parks and you'll want to spend at least one full day in each. Don't bother with the "park-hopper" option. That costs more, and you're looking for the lowest possible ticket prices, remember? Notice that the price per day of Disney World tickets drops with every extra day you add. Decide how many days you can afford, but don't buy your tickets yet.

Disney's website is your worst-case scenario. Keeping that price in mind, it's time to shop around. Check with your local auto club, your human resources office at work, or your student union at school. (If you're in the military, check with your base, too.) See if any of them sell Disney World tickets, and if they can beat Disney's price on the ticket you want. Finally, look online at Undercover Tourist. Do not look at Craigslist, eBay or other online ticket brokers that sell unused days on someone else's Disney ticket. They won't work, and you'll lose your money. (Disney scans the finger of whoever who uses a ticket and won't let anyone else use that ticket to get into the park.)

Step Four: Inside the park

Bring everything you need from home for your vacation: toiletries, sunscreen, plastic bandages (for blisters and such), snacks for the road, refillable water bottles, etc. You'll be in your car, so there's room for your stuff in back and no TSA "security theater" rules to follow. Never buy anything in a theme park that you can buy outside the park and bring with you.

Parking at the parks will cost you each day, unless your hotel provides free shuttle to the park, or you sneak into the Magic Kingdom parking lot. (Officially, I am telling you: "Don't do that.") Remember that once you pay to park for the day, your parking ticket allows you to come and go into any other Disney World theme park parking lot for no additional charge for the rest of the day. So you can leave and come back, if you'd like.

Get the most from your theme park tickets by arriving at the park before it opens in the morning. You're paying for every minute that park's open, so start at the beginning of the day, before crowds and lines have a chance to build. It's fine to take a break in the middle of the day -- when heat and crowds are at their worst -- then come back to the park in the evening, when the temperature and the lines start coming down.

You can bring food into the Disney theme parks, if you'd like (though no coolers, just in backpacks). But you can save money by ordering wisely and splitting meals in the parks, as well. Remember, you can't take the leftovers home in a doggie bag here. If you're not certain you'll finish it, don't order it. Stick with free water to drink and lay off the sugar. It'll just burn off quickly and leave you hungry again.

You're not buying souvenirs on your budget Disney World vacation, either. That doesn't mean you can't take home some mementos, though. Photos make great souvenirs and those Disney employees trying to take your picture so they can sell you a copy will be more than happy to snap a shot with your camera, too -- for no charge. I always pick up a couple of park guidemaps. I use one during the day and then pick up another (unwrinkled) one as I leave, for a souvenir. If you're celebrating a birthday, anniversary or any other occasion, many parks will give you a free button to wear around the park -- ask for it at the guest relations desk near the front gate. Bring a blank notebook and pen from home and characters will sign autographs for you, too.

So there you go -- those are the "secrets" to a cheap, inexpensive, budget Disney World vacation. Now that you know what's involved, you can ask yourself, "do I really want to go that cheaply?" Start with this plan as a base, then plan to spend more to get more comfort and enjoyment from your trip, as your budget allows.

First step, just man up and pay for the parking, if you can't get a free shuttle. Then consider upgrading the quality of your hotel, by restricting your bid to a higher star rating (and bidding more), or booking directly with a specific hotel. If you can visit during the school year, go ahead and take a look at Disney World's special offers page. For stays during the fall and spring, Disney often offers discounted hotel rooms and even free dining plans for people who stay on-site. Those might bring an "official" Disney hotel within your budget. Finally, think about setting aside a budget for souvenirs (stick to stuff that's unique to the parks, though), or even considering a budget airfare, if you can find one and really hate the idea of a long roadtrip.

Ultimately, you've got options here. If you want to go with a more expensive vacation, Disney would be more than happy to accommodate you. But you can keep your costs down, too. You can plan a Walt Disney World vacation for cheap. Without cheating.

Please share your favorite budget travel tips, in the comments.

Readers' Opinions

From 71.193.230.11 on February 13, 2013 at 12:58 PM
Be careful with Priceline; they only guarantee bedding for 2 adults, and they cannot promise 2 beds. So if you are a couple it's great (we've gotten some amazing hotels and some real dogs in Orlando on Priceline)but if you are 2 friends or a family with kids it can be problematic. Hotwire allows you to put in the number of people traveling, so you do not have to worry when you show up with a group of 4.
From Brandon Mendoza on February 13, 2013 at 1:35 PM
Definitely a fan of budgeting for the most basic trip and as cheap as possible. That gives you a baseline to work upward from as I tend to enjoy eating at the restaurants in Disney Parks. They offer food that may be different from the outside world, and the experience is what I'm paying for. Hotel? I'd say that it's not that important for me as most of the time is spent out in the parks. Plus I don't care to be pampered and all that jazz.

That being said, cutting out soda and bringing your own water makes things a bit cheaper. Better for your health too. But if that's not gonna fly, then try eating at least one meal at the hotel if you have a fridge or cooler where you can keep food from a Super Market.

From Becky Lee on February 13, 2013 at 1:50 PM
My mom's a Wyndham owner so we like to use her points at Bonnet Creek but my brother did go the free route one year by using Mom's points for Star Island & then having a cast member get them into the parks. My favorite cheap souvenirs are the pressed pennies. $.51 gets you a penny with a unique design. I say cheap unless you're trying to get all of them. I spent over $40 in quarters getting as many of the pennies as I could our last trip. We have also resort hopped. It's a lot of fun to go & look around at the different resorts.
From Jay R. on February 13, 2013 at 2:28 PM
"If you live in the Mountain or Pacific time zones in the US, you'll be better off driving to Disneyland instead. It's closer and cheaper than Disney World for you"

LOL! Team Disneyland for the win :-)

Good advice, but for many, Disneyland is seen as the next tier resort. As you said WDW is the theme park resort to beat.

Maybe those from far away can combine the WDW with a road trip. If there are any friends or family along the route, maybe stop by (and spend the night :-) & see America on the way to Orlando!

From Matt Smolsky on February 13, 2013 at 2:49 PM
Good advice all around. As far as buying souvenirs, consider going to Orlando area malls and flea markets. You can read about a few here. Also, if you're traveling with a large group -- say your siblings and their kids -- consider using this planning tool. It let's you save searches from all different kinds of lodging options from all over the Internet, so you can discuss them with your travel buddies.
From Matt Smolsky on February 13, 2013 at 2:55 PM
Sorry, forgot to include the links. The planning tool is Plan with Friends -- again, use for any kind of property you're considering. Some of the info on Orlando area shopping for less expensive souvenirs can be seen here.
From 148.168.40.4 on February 13, 2013 at 3:13 PM
Use Orlando Theme Park Shoppers to help you save money on fresh fruit, water, pop, and other items you will get ripped off by buying on site.
From Anon Mouse on February 13, 2013 at 4:51 PM
I commend your advice. For once, a Disney junkie does not suggest the guest stay on-site and use the free transportations system to save on the rental car, or use Disney Dining since eating on-site will pay for itself.

Going cheap means exactly that; however, there are limitations. It is hard to get Disney tickets cheaply. That's why you should buy only enough tickets that you can go at any given moment. Best to buy a 7 day ticket with no park hopping. The price difference between a 4 day ticket and a 7 day ticket is barely $20 based on how Magic Your Way works. Even if you don't use it up, you have the option to go more frequently later in the week. Nonetheless, the sweet spot for Disney ticket is in the $250 range. This is pure Disney profit. Disney has got you from day one.

Staying off-site with a rental car gives you plenty of options. You eat breakfast and dinner where you live. (Try to stay at a hotel that gives you free continental breakfast like Best Western.) You bring your lunch. Only occasionly will you find yourself buying an expensive on-site meal.

Buy your Disney souvenirs at the outlet stores on International Drive.

Watch your wallet. The less you pull it out, you succeeded in going cheap.

From Anthony Murphy on February 13, 2013 at 5:38 PM
While Robert has given some fantastic tips, I would recommend "splurging" in one of the areas. You are on vacation after all! If you seriously are trying to squeeze that last penny, Do as Robert said.

I am still a little weary on the Theme Park tickets. Disney really does not like to give discounts on tickets for Walt Disney World (Disneyland is a different story). AAA and Military appear to be the areas where you can get some significant cash off.

The true way to save at Disney is to make investments for future visits and to find the value in what you are paying. I will elaborate:

1. Defending my DVC honor (LOL), DVC members technically end up getting their rooms for free after some time due to value and investment. I will not mince words, DVC is incredibly expensive up front, but as long as you go at least once a year using the points, it will pay off in no time. While my family put up the cash in 92, we are now staying at Disney world for about $200 a week. Is this for the once in a lifetime traveler? No, but if you know that you wouldn't mind visiting once a year or going on a cruise, its a good option.

2. Getting value: Robert did touch on this with the pictures, but if you know that you at least want 15 of the photos, then getting the Photo CD would be a great return on investment. The CD costs about as much as 14 regular priced photos at Disney World. They also throw on some extra professional pictures.

The meal plan also falls under this. For the amount of food you get and the price they charge for food, it is worth it.

From Deidre Dennis on February 13, 2013 at 7:41 PM
While I understand how important it is for families to get the most for their buck, we personally believe that it's all about planning. Sure it may be cheaper to stay off site but there is something truly awesome about staying on site. We price everything out at least a year in advance and save up to pay for it. Like the previous poster stated, it's vacation and we work hard to splurge for the experience. If you can commit to saving and planning, you can get what you want, perks included.

Of course I don't recommend breaking the bank but through sites like themeparkinsider.com, I've learned to have it all with proper planning.

From Kelly Muggleton on February 14, 2013 at 6:35 AM
In Orlando dont neglect to look in the Disney Character Warehouse (10 mins from Downtown Disney in the Premium Outlets). Some of the exact same merchandise is being sold in here as in the parks for 20-30& off sometimes (prices/discounts do vary!).
I always find it worth a look, especially if your favourite characters arent in the parks mainstream - you could find them here!

...this sounds like I work there - I dont! (I live in UK and just know a bargain when I see one!)

From Anon Mouse on February 14, 2013 at 8:29 AM
"Like the previous poster stated, it's vacation and we work hard to splurge for the experience."

Sometimes it isn't an issue of saving and planning. What if you can't save enough to stay on-site for that exclusive Disney experience. A once a year extravagant vacation isn't possible for many people. I will not do that even if I can afford to. A dollar saved will be spent on other more important things.

Theme park vacations are not yearly things. They are once in a few year trips. However, for some that do want to do it yearly or a few times a year, doing the budget cheap trip is the best way.

From Barbara Sims on February 14, 2013 at 10:56 AM
In my leaner days we still stayed on site and my tip is to put the first night's deposit down which is all they require anyway and then pay a little on it as you go. The Value resorts are still affordable for any budget. I still do it to this day. I've stayed at enough cheapo motels and have become spoiled by the Disney cleanliness and guest service.
From Anon Mouse on February 14, 2013 at 12:03 PM
"The Value resorts are still affordable for any budget."

Correction "The Value resorts are affordable for some budgets."

If you want to go cheap, you CAN do better. Disney's Value resorts are at the upper end of the budget resort category. You can stay at an off-site budget resort for half the price of the Value resorts. The savings can be substantial and can offset the price of park admission.

From Russell Meyer on February 15, 2013 at 8:38 AM
"You can stay at an off-site budget resort for half the price of the Value resorts. The savings can be substantial and can offset the price of park admission."

True...But you do need to perform some calculations to ensure you're getting the best deal. A lot of guests do forget to include parking when camparing on-site and off-site hotels. Even though on-site guests do have access to the Disney Transportation System, they also receive free parking at all four theme parks, which can be a HUGE timesaver over the busses. Now, the price of parking is spread out over the numnber of people in the car, so it's more valuable to have free parking for a couple than it is a family of 4 or more.

It's also important to note that free WiFi is now part of Disney on-site hotels (used to be $10/day), and no longer needs to be considered when comparing on-site and off-site value.

In our most recent trip (October 2012), we were able to find a Hampton Inn near Universal for $50/night. However, that was a pretty low rate (discounted because of a recent renovation), and in general, guests are going to spend somewhere between $50-75/night for a budget off-site hotel. A lot of hotels do advertise shuttles to and from the parks, but my experience has found that those shuttles are more annoying than they're worth. They rarely get you to the parks before rope drop, and always require you to leave the parks before closing. The also run few and far between over the course of the day, meaning you have to eat lunch on Disney property. Therefore, even if I'm staying off-site, I assume that I will drive to the parks each day, and add the parking fee to my nightly hotel rate. We only stayed at the Hampton during the non-Disney portion of our vacation, and actually stayed at Port Orleans French Quarter at $129/night with free dining (effective cost of $47/night after subtracting food costs).

So, if you're staying in an off-site hotel at $50-75/night that has free breakfast, the savings in the meal is probably offset by the cost of parking at Disney each day. An on-site Disney Value hotel is going to cost somewhere between $75-100/night. However, if they're running a free dining or 30% off promotion, the cost is probably on par or even a little lower than an off-site hotel. Plus, on-site guests have the advantage of being right there, saving an extra 30 minutes each day of not having to drive on and off Disney property.

However, if Disney is not running a promotion, it's almost always cheaper to stay off-site.

From Marie-Eve Landry on February 15, 2013 at 2:29 PM
Here are my tips:

-(Anon Mouse will hate me...) I would definitely choose Value Disney Resort: it gives you free transportation from the airport, free parking if you have a car, free transportation if you don't have a car and extra magic hours so you can spend more time in a park with the ticket you bought.Also, they have wonderful activities for the kids as well as amazing pool, you can actually spend a whole day there and never get bored. All that for only 100$/night if you go on "lower seasons". I think that's pretty cheap.

-When we go in the seasons around halloween/christmas, we buy 1 park ticket + park hopper (very useful when the park you chose is too crowded or if you're done... and if you combine this with the Extra Magic Hours, you can get up to 16 hours in HS/AK/Ep!) On top of that,we buy a ticket for a special event like Halloween or Christmas Party (Free hot cocoa, juice, apple slices and cookies by the way!) at MK(that way you get 8 hours of Magic Kingdom for 30$ less than a regular ticket). I don't know about you but it's more than enough themepark for us!

-If you stay at the Disney hotels and you think you're going to spend more than 3 days in the park, buy your tickets online on the Disney website. After 3 days, the tickets only cost you 10$ each.

-I think the Dining plan (expecially the Quick Service Dining Plan) is cheap if you eat a lot because the meals are usually HUGE and it gives you more than you need. And sometimes they just give it to you for free when you stay at Disney hotels!

But if you don't eat big portions, I think it's easy to buy a meal in a QS and just share it with you spouse/friend/kid.

(So okay, to my opinion the Magic you way Package --Value Resort+QS Dining plan+type of tickets you want-- is the cheapest way to go)

-Plane tickets: Shop for it a long time in advance because the price changes a lot. Suscribe to newsletter so you know when they have sales. I've always done it with Air Canada because I had better quality for lower prices. I got YUL-MCO for 650$ the first time (I did not know the prices changed this much at the time), after that, I never bought it higher than 400$ to 425$...

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