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.
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.
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 North America, 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. *Update: Here's the link.) If you live in the Mountain or Pacific time zones, you'll be better off driving to Disneyland instead. It's closer and cheaper than Disney World for you on a roadtrip.
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:
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. (Here's another post about finding freebies at Walt Disney World.)
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.
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