First, you're smart to be thinking about this decision before you travel to Orlando. Of all the potentially bad decisions you can make when buying a ticket to Disney World, the absolute worst to is to wait to get your tickets when you arrive at Disney. You'll waste time in a long line at the ticket booths, spend the highest possible price for you tickets, and probably end up making a rushed decision about all the available options, anyway.
Instead, do your research and buy your tickets in advance, so you can go straight into the park when it opens on your first morning in Orlando, allowing you to hit many of the most popular rides before lines build up later in day.
The Walt Disney World Resort includes four theme parks (none of them named "Disney World," by the way - the original park with the big castle is called "The Magic Kingdom"), two water parks, an outdoor shopping mall, golf courses, and a bunch of hotels. It sells theme park tickets good for one to up to 10 days, with a variety of extra options we'll explain below.
And Disney isn't the only theme park resort in Central Florida. Up the road in Orlando, you'll also find the Universal Orlando Resort, which is home to two theme parks, an outdoor shopping mall, three hotels and a nearby water park. Between Disney and Universal lies SeaWorld Orlando, which offers its eponymous theme park, a water park, and "Discovery Cove" - an exclusive animal encounter experience where you can swim with dolphins in between noshing on gourmet food.
So you've got a lot of choices!
The first question you should ask yourself when thinking about your theme park vacation is How long do you have to stay in Orlando? Once you make that decision, you can begin to think about how many of these options you reasonably can fit into your vacation. I wouldn't recommend trying to do more than one park per day on your first visit. And many visitors decided they need more than one day at some of the individual parks, in order to get to everything in those parks.
So if you want to see all the theme parks in the Orlando area, you'll need at least seven full days in Central Florida. Throw in the water parks, and now you're talking about 11 days. Most families don't have that amount of time for their vacation, so they choose to focus.
That brings us to the second question: Will you be visiting Universal and/or SeaWorld? If your family includes big Harry Potter fans, you'll likely want to include Universal Orlando on your trip, since that's the home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. And if people in your family care more about seeing animals than going on rides, you'll want to include SeaWorld, too.
But if neither of those options really grabs you, you'll probably get the most value by restricting your visit to Disney. Disney prices its ticket packages in a way that makes it cheaper and cheaper to add each additional day to your visit. That often makes adding a fifth or sixth day at the Disney World theme parks less expensive that going over to Universal or SeaWorld.
Now, if your family really wants to see what's only available over at those parks, it's worth the extra money to include them on your vacation. But that's a decision you'll have to make as you plan.
Let's say that you've decided that you still want to include Walt Disney World on your vacation - and that you're not just going to opt for a Universal and/or SeaWorld-only vacation instead. The next question for you is Will you be staying "on property" in a Disney hotel, or not?
Staying in a Disney hotel gives you several additional benefits:
That said, Disney's hotels are often more expensive that comparable quality hotels "off property." And some of the Disney hotels (especially the less expensive ones) are miles away from the theme parks, requiring you to either drive your car or wait for a Disney bus ride to and from the parks - so you're not saving too much time compared with staying at nearby "off property" hotels.
If keeping your costs to an absolute minimum is important for you, you'll likely want to stay off-property. But if you're able to spend extra to get extra value, you might consider staying at one of Disney's hotels and buying a package deal that includes your theme park tickets. The Disney hotels are priced in three tiers - "value", "moderate" and "deluxe" - with room quality, available extra hotel services, and location relative to the parks all factoring in those designations. In other words, the more you pay, the more you get. Check Disney's special offers page to see what package discounts are available now, to help you get an idea about what you'd need to budget to stay on-site.
And if you choose to stay off property - remember that extra-hours benefit for staying in a Disney hotel? That's called "Extra Magic Hours" and if you're staying off-property, you'll want to avoid whichever parks have the Extra Magic Hours on a given day, since it'll be packed with Disney hotel guests. The best way to get value on your theme park vacation is to try to go where the crowds aren't.
A few more questions for you: Will you likely be returning to Disney World? Here's why this question is vital - Disney World tickets expire 14 days after you use the first day on your ticket. But you can buy a "no expire" option for your tickets, at additional cost, that keeps the unused days on your ticket good forever. That means you can go ahead and buy a 10-day ticket this year and keep all your unused days for a future visit, effectively locking in the lowest possible of today's prices, saving you the expense of Disney World's twice-annual ticket price increases in the future.
The "no expire" option makes each day of your ticket quite a bit more expensive, though - from $13-$28 a day more as of this writing. The real value in the "no expire" option is that it allows you to "buy in bulk." Since Disney lowers the per-day cost of your ticket the more days you buy, you get the best deal by buying a 10-day ticket. Adding the "no-expire" option allows you to buy the 10-day ticket even if you're not staying that long on this trip, locking in that price for your future visits, too.
As of this writing, a four-day Disney World base ticket - without the "no-expire" option - costs $64 a day for adults. But a 10-day ticket with the no-expire option costs $59.30 a day for adults. Throw in the fact that Disney typically raises per-day ticket prices a few bucks every year, and you can see how the "no-expire" option can help you save money in the future. This option works best for people who visit Orlando regularly but intend to visit Disney for fewer than four days on each visit. If you plan to spend five or more days at Disney theme parks on your Orlando visit, or aren't sure that you'll come back to Disney, it's better to stay away from the expensive "no expire" option.
Next question: Do you want to visit more than one park per day? For a flat extra charge of $57 (as of this writing) you can add a "park hopper" option for the all the days on your ticket, whether that's two days to 10. The "park hopper" allows you to visit as many of the Disney World theme parks as you want in a single day. Without it, you can visit only one park per day on your ticket.
If you're new to Disney World, and just getting a feel for the parks, I'd suggest spending a full day at each park and saving a few bucks by skipping the "park hopper" option. But adding it gives you enormous flexibility to get the most value from each day of your visit, allowing you to move from one park to another to take advantage of extended operating hours, or to move to a less crowded park as lines build up later in the day.
Finally, Will you be visiting a water park during your stay this time? Disney offers a "water park fun & more" option, also for a flat $57 per ticket, that allows you to use the resort's two water parks, mini golf courses, the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, the DisneyQuest indoor game facility, and to play one round at Disney's Oak Trail golf course during your visit.
You get one visit to a "water park fun & more" location for each day on your ticket, though you can use them on different days - you don't have to go on the same days you visit the parks. (And to get the most from the ticket, you probably shouldn't.) Note that if you do buy a one-day ticket with the "water parks fun & more" option, you get two visits, not just one.* (This paragraph has been updated to reflect a change in Disney policy from past years, noted in the comments.)
The water park tickets, bought separately, cost $52 a day for adults, so if you're planning to visit a water park for a second day, or to use any of the other benefits, it's probably worth it to add the "water park fun & more" option. But if you're just sticking to the theme parks, this is an easy add-on to skip.
So there you go. Once you're started thinking about your answers to these questions, you're ready to visit Walt Disney World's ticket purchase pages and to start pricing your options to find the best choice for your family's needs and budget.
If you're thinking about staying on-property, look at Disney World's available vacation packages, too.
And if you're considering including a trip to Universal Orlando or to SeaWorld, follow the links to price Universal Orlando theme park tickets and vacation packages as well as SeaWorld tickets and packages. If none of these package options appeal to you, go ahead and start pricing off-property hotels in the area as an alternative, using a service such as Hotels.com.
If you still want more information about putting together the best deal on an Orlando theme park vacation for your family, please take a look at the Theme Park Insider Discussion Board, where our readers are asking and answering questions about theme parks and vacation planning. We'd be happy to help you, too!
Good luck, and we hope you end up having a wonderful time in Florida on your next vacation. I'd like to invite Theme Park Insider readers to share their best tips and strategies for buying Orlando theme park tickets, in the comments.Tweet
To further back up my point, from http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/tickets-passes/noexpiration/ :
No Expiration* Option
With this option, your unused Theme Park days and Water Park Fun & More visits never expire.
As for the no-expire tickets... I have a 10-day, no-expire ticket that I've been using for several years, never for more than one or two days per Orlando visit. I often choose instead to stay at Universal Orlando to get the free front-of-the-line benefit with a hotel stay there, then use the 10-day Disney ticket to add a day to two at the WDW parks to my Universal Orlando hotel stay.
It's kinda backward to what most people do - adding a day or two at Disney to a Universal Orlando vacation, instead of adding a day or two at Universal to a Disney hotel stay - but it works for us.
For example a 14 day park hopper ticket inc. waterparks\hopper etc will cost approx UK £250 (approx US$375) if purchased in the UK before travel.
I much prefer the size, layout, and comfort of Disneyland and/or Universal Orlando. Two parks, on-site hotels, parking structures rather than huge expansive lots, and overall just a much cozier feel.
If you can possibly swing the cost, I would recommend either the Swan or Dolphin, or the Yacht/Beach Club, as they have boat service to both EPCOT and Hollywood Studios. And with a park-hopper, you can take the boat to EPCOT and then hop not the monorail from there to get over to the Magic Kingdom. You can visit 3 of the 4 parks without needing to ever ride on a bus or in a car.
By the way, all of Hollywood Studios' rides/shows are covered or indoors, so if the forecast calls for rain, it's your best bet.
Even if one is not a fan of the 10-day ticket, there is still no need to pay full price for park tickets. Many ticket resellers have "get a day free" specials or shorter non-expire tickets. Many businesses have discount programs for their employees which have Disney tickets. Just make sure to compare the total price, including tax and shipping, to Disney. I prefer sites which state the full price including tax and standard shipping up front.
The moral, plan ahead and do the math. Get what fits your budget and style of vacationing.
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For example, my wife and I have 10-day non-expiring passes that we purchased in 2005, but the last two trips we have planned (October 2010 and October 2012), Disney has offered a free Dining Plan promotion for on-site hotel guests. The promotion requires us to buy a minimum 1-day park ticket, which we all know is a waste of money, so we have purchased enough days to cover our anticipated stay (without the non-expiring option) since the price per day ticket is lowest as you increase the number of days on the pass. So we have days stacking up that we'll eventually need to use, and we make sure to keep all of our unused Disney passes in a "safe" place.
Before the biometrics, you could just hand off or sell your passes to friends of family, but with the new technology, you've got to be the one to use the ticket.