Since my first child was born, Walt Disney World has been one of my family’s favorite places to vacation. It isn’t the cheapest vacation spot, but there many are ways to save on a Disney vacation and still have an awesome, magic-filled experience.
Growing up in Orlando, I feel like Walt Disney World has grown up with me, and my family has made many awesome memories there as my kids have grown up too.
Over the years, we’ve done of variety of different things to save on our Disney visits. Some have been awesome, and some have been total flops! After almost thirty years of trial and error, I wanted to share with you some of my favorite tips for visiting Disney and ways to save on a Disney family vacation.
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Visit Disney during the off season.
This is the best and easiest way to save on a trip to Disney. Spring Break, the summer months, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are all busy times at the parks. Not only will the waits be longer on the rides, but the hotel, food, and airfare prices go up significantly during the peak seasons too.
If you can manage to visit Disney during the slower months you will find great savings on a hotel (in all of Orlando).
You will also get more done at the parks since they won’t be as crowded. Not to mention the fact that the weather in Central Florida is far more tolerable in February than in August!
Stay at a Disney resort.
The absolute best place to stay at Disney is Cinderella’s Castle, but since that isn’t something you can book, the next best place is a Disney resort. 🙂
It took me a while to believe that staying at a Disney resort was more economical than staying off property, but unless you have family in the area with an extra bedroom, I highly recommend staying at a Disney resort.
Disney has several value resorts (Art of Animation, All-Star Music, All-Star Sports, All-Star Movies, and Pop Century) which are comparable to other Disney area hotels. These hotels are equipped with mini fridges, which which makes eating some meals in your room convenient and less expensive.
There are no microwaves in the room, but there is a microwave in the cafeteria you can use at the value resorts.
So, why pay more to stay on Disney property?
1. Extra Magic Hours:
The Disney parks are open earlier and later on select days for Disney resort guests. This is a great time to ride some of your favorite rides without waiting in long lines.
When you are a guest at a Disney resort you also have free transportation via bus, boat, skyliner, or monorail to the Disney parks. You can also park at the parks for free which is a savings of $25 a day!
3. Fun resort activities:
All of the Disney resorts offer fun activities like free movies, activities, and games depending on the resort. If you are staying on Disney property, it is easy to bring a child back to the room for a nap or a swim and then go back to the park in the evening when it is cooler. We learned that around 1-2pm is when all the children in the theme parks collectively begin to melt down, and you’ll do a lot better letting your exhausted toddler nap instead of spending your photo-op sobbing in Mickey’s arms.
Camp at Disney.
Did you know you can camp at Disney and save a ton? Fort Wilderness offers campsites for RV’s and tent campers for significantly less than a Disney resort.
Fort Wilderness offers four types of campsites to accommodate everything from tents to 45-foot and longer RVs, with a maximum of 10 Guests per site. Each campsite is equipped with privacy-enhancing landscaping, water, cable television and electrical hook-ups, a picnic table and a charcoal grill. Most campsites also include a sewer hook-up, and some even permit pets. For guests who stay on a campsite, parking is complementary.
Fort Wilderness also has a great pool with a water slide, complimentary transportation to the parks, and high speed internet! Campsites start at under $100 a night.
Bring your own food.
Like any theme park, the food at Disney can be pricey. We usually eat at least one meal in our hotel room and also bring snacks with us into the park. We like hearty snacks like granola bars, peanut butter crackers, applesauce pouches, and lots of goldfish. Also, I like to bring snack bags of popcorn (we like Smartfood or SkinnyPop) to satisfy my kids’ longing for popcorn when we pass the delicious-smelling popcorn stands in the park.
No hard sided coolers are allowed in the parks, but we’ve never had problem bringing water bottles or snacks in a backpack. Most Disney hotels have a small store that sell milk and other cold products, so even if you are flying you can pack a suitcase full of snacks and buy a few refrigerated staples once you arrive.
You can also order grocery delivery from Instacart and have food delivered right to the hotel.
If you are driving to Orlando, bring a cooler or stop at the grocery store on your way into town and pick up some meals and snacks for the trip.
You can also use a service called the Garden Grocer which will deliver groceries to your hotel. The prices are higher than a typical grocery store, but less expensive than eating all your meals out.
Character Dine for breakfast.
There’s no way around it: character dining is expensive! But if you have your heart set on dining with the characters consider, making breakfast reservations to save money.
Breakfast is the cheapest option for character dining and you can make reservations for breakfast as late as 10am, so it can almost be a brunch for your family for additional savings. Some of the restaurants are buffet-style, and your family can fill up on as much food as they want before you go enjoy the park.
Bring your own water bottle, poncho, stroller, etc.
Disney World is located in Central Florida, which means it will probably rain at some point during your vacation. Florida is known for its afternoon thunderstorms, especially in the summer.
The good news is that these storms cool the air and usually clear out the parks. Disney sells ponchos at almost every gift shop, but you will save big if you bring your own from home.
Disney also rents single and double strollers. You can save a little by renting them for multiple days but you will save the most by bringing your own stroller to the parks. We personally prefer using umbrella strollers like this one when we go to Magic or Animal Kingdom, because they fold quickly and don’t take up much space when you board the parking lot tram
There are several local companies in Orlando that rent strollers. They drop them off and pick up at your hotel, for a little less than what Disney charges (especially if you are renting for several days). Google “stroller rental Orlando” to find the companies and compare prices.
Another way to save is to bring your own reusable water bottles with you. Florida is hot and humid and it is easy to get dehydrated! You don’t want to spend your vacation in the ER, so bring your own water bottle and fill it up at the numerous water fountains at the parks and hotels. If you’re traveling from out of town, consider using collapsible water bottles like these that don’t take up too much space in your luggage:
Also, a cup of ice water is free at Disney restaurants with your meal, so it’s easy to stay hydrated and save money when you dine.
Buy souvenirs before your trip.
The toys, clothes, and trinkets at stores inside the parks and resorts are expensive. You can find similar items at Target, Walmart, and Kohl’s in your local town. Buy items before you go and give them to the kids while you are visiting the parks. Here are some of our favorites:
This bubble wand bought us an extra four hours in Magic Kingdom when my granddaughter was melting down.
Listen, your kids will definitely hit each other with these, and it will end in tears, but at least you won’t be crying over spending over a hundred dollars per lightsaber!
This six pack of mouse ears is still cheaper than one set inside the parks! (Also, if you want more personalized ears, you can shop Etsy for a deal and support a small business at the same time.)
I don’t know why, but my kids always went crazy over the oversized lollipops that ended up stuck in their hair five minutes after opening, but it happened nearly every time.
If you do your shopping beforehand, the kids can still have fun Disney-themed merchandise, but you will be paying about half the price. And you don’t have to worry about losing time waiting for them to pick out the perfect souvenir when the wait time for Peter Pan has finally dropped to forty-five minutes!
Think everything at Disney costs money? Think again! You can get samples of sodas from around the world at Club Cool in Epcot.
It’s located in the World Celebration area of Epcot, in the breezeway across from Connections Cafe and Creations Gift Shop.
Celebration Pins and Stickers
Another underutilized freebie at Disney is the celebration pin! If you’re staying at a resort you can ask the front desk for one, and they’re at all Guest Relations buildings inside the parks. They have birthday pins, anniversary/wedding pins, first visit pins, and “I’m celebrating” pins for any occasion, and Cast Members will write your name on the button. I still get excited when a character or Cast Member sees my pin and wishes me a happy birthday by name.
Most parking attendants, greeters, and photographers working in the parks carry stickers with them. If you strike up a conversation with them and are polite and friendly, they’ll likely share one with your children. They’re themed differently at each park, so see how many different ones you can collect!
Disney Credit Card
A few years ago when we were planning a Disney vacation we stumbled across the Disney Visa from Chase. Now, I’m not a big fan of credit cards and have only had one credit card for years. However the Disney card has some cool benefits for Disney fans.
- Character Meet ‘N’ Greet at our private Cardmember location*
- 10% off select merchandise purchases of $50 or more at select locations at Walt Disney World® Resort, the Disneyland® Resort, Disney’s Beach Resort Destinations and Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa, Ko Olina, Hawaiʻi*
- 10% off select dining locations at Walt Disney World® Resort and the Disneyland® Resort.
- Special character photo ops for card holders.
- Cardmembers save 10% on select merchandise purchases of $50 or more at Disney Store and DisneyStore.com*
- Earn 1% in reward dollars on card purchases*
- Earn an additional 1% in reward dollars on card purchases at gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants and most Disney locations for a total of 2% in these categories*
- There’s no limit to the number of reward dollars you can earn.
During our recent trip to Disney we saved at almost every place we shopped using our Disney Visa. There are two Disney Visas — one has no annual fee, and the premiere card charges a $49 fee.
You’ll need to thoroughly compare the two cards to find what is best for your family.
Walt Disney World at Christmas
If you have never experienced Walt Disney World at Christmas add it to your bucket list. The holidays are my absolute favorite time to visit the parks.
Walt Disney World puts up their Christmas decorations in mid November, so you can visit before the Thanksgiving crowds.
My favorite time to visit is the first two weeks in December when the Florida weather is mild, but before the holiday travelers hit the parks and the crowds are insane.
The Disney resorts offer discounts for Florida residents during this time, so if you want to stay on property take advantage of these deals of up to 30% off.
Here’s a summary of all the magic happening at the Walt Disney World theme parks during the Christmas season.Space Mountain was our favorite. Instead of being completely dark, red and green lights flashed the entire ride. Christmas music blasted through the speakers. You could actually see the track for most of the ride which my girls loved. There’s also a DJ in Cosmic Rays Starlight Cafe and shows throughout the evening at the stage in Tomorrowland. One important thing to note if you are going to any of the parks during the holidays. People dress up in Christmas clothes and I’m not talking about a Santa hat or reindeer ears. We’re talking Christmas pajama’s, matching t-shirts, even Christmas suits. The more holiday cheer the better, so if you are headed to the parks I recommended getting the whole family dressed in holiday apparel. There are usually two shows each evening at the Tree of Life. Make sure you see one of them! The Tree of Life is transformed into a holiday wonderland for the animals while Christmas music plays all around. The show doesn’t last very long, but get there early to make sure your little ones can see the tree. Holidays at Animal Kingdom also means extended hours. I highly recommend getting a fast pass for the Safari right around sundown. The animals are all being fed and are super active.
We had a rhino and giraffe just a few feet from our tour. I’ve been on the Safari dozens of times and have never seen the animals as active and as close as we did during the sunset ride.
Christmas Activities at EpcotEpcot is decorated beautifully for the holidays this year. However, there is a ton of refurbishment going on in Future World. Future World West is undergoing a major renovation right now and much of the area is blocked off. That doesn’t mean there isn’t tons of enjoyment to be had at Epcot’s International Festival of the Holidays.
Explore Central Florida while you are here.
If you have time to get away for a week or more, consider spending three or four days at Disney and then exploring other parts of Central Florida.
The beach is less than an hour away, there are numerous springs, lakes and rivers to explore, we have a bustling downtown area with both kid and adult-friendly activities, Legoland, Universal Studios, Sea World, Gatorland, the Space Center, professional sports teams, and tons of free or very cheap activities on the weekend throughout the area.