Saving at Disney Do's and Don'ts
A Disney vacation doesn't come cheap. With ticket prices exceeding $100, plus accommodations, souvenirs and dining, a family of four traveling to a Disney park could easily spend $2,000 on a week-long trip.
But before you scrap your plans to visit the Happiest Place on Earth, don't fret: There are ways to save, shaving hundreds off your final bill.
With Disneyland reopening on April 30, 2021, and Disney World already having reopened in July 2020, you can start planning a cheap Disney trip by following these do's and don'ts.
DON’T: Book a Moderate or Deluxe Resort
Growing up in Florida, I've visited Orlando's Disney World every year of my life — sometimes multiple times a year — and Disneyland in California many times as well. We had a system down pat to help us visit the parks, without breaking the bank. This included being careful about accommodation.
Yes, Disney World has some nice properties to stay in. Its moderate-tier hotels and camping cabins (including Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort) give you a health club, playgrounds and a dine-in restaurant.
Deluxe resorts and villas, including the Grand Floridian, are even nicer, with spa services, bike rentals, water recreation and a ton of dining options.
But unless you have lots of money to burn, these properties are way too expensive to justify.
Potential Cost: Moderate & Deluxe Resorts
Potential cost: ~$200-600/night
Caribbean Beach, a moderate resort, costs $208 per night, while deluxe resorts can reach up to $600 per night. Add that to steep ticket prices, and you’re facing down a pretty frightening bill.
At Disneyland, there are only three resorts connected to the park. The most expensive is the Disneyland Hotel, which starts at $445 per night, with the Grand Californian just a step cheaper at $417.
DO: Book a Value Resort
Disney World's cheapest accommodations are its Value properties:
- All-Star Movies Resort
- All-Star Music Resort
- All-Star Sports Resort
- Art of Animation Resort
- Pop Century Resort
Though these are less pricey than the deluxe and moderate properties, they come with many of the same perks, including extra Disney hours (meaning you will have an extra hour in the park before it opens to the public) and transportation to each park and between the airport.
Potential Savings: Value Resorts
Potential savings: ~$100-$500/night
The Value tier of resorts will cost just $121 per night — nearly $500 per night cheaper than the Grand Floridian!
At Disneyland, Disney's Paradise Pier is the cheapest, again with all the same perks, at $337 per night.
Given that you'll be getting most of the same perks and that you likely will be spending much more time at the parks than at your hotel, this strategy is a no-brainer.
DO: Stay Off Property
Even better than booking a Disney Value resort? Not booking a Disney resort at all.
By the simple nature of not having the Disney logo, off-property hotels and Airbnbs tend to be cheaper. Airbnbs can be particularly comfortable if you're traveling with a big group, since you can rent an entire house rather than multiple rooms.
Worried about the cost of transit? Don’t be. Many off-site properties in Orlando provide transportation to the park, included with your stay. At Disneyland, many hotels surrounding the theme parks are within walking distance, so you don’t have to worry about transportation at all.
Potential Savings: Staying Off Property
Potential savings: ~$200-$400/night
An Airbnb Plus home for eight guests near the parks is around $233. Considering that a group that large would need two or three rooms, which can run that same price per room, the savings are huge.
Not only are off-site properties typically less expensive, but you’ll be saving on meals as well. Many off-site hotels offer complimentary breakfasts and kids-eat-free amenities. To save even more, you can book an off-site hotel with a kitchen, head to the local grocer and stock up on some items to eat meals in your room.
DO: Consider Camping
If you absolutely must stay within Disney property but have a tight budget, you can stay at the 750-acre Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. Here, you can select from tent or pop-up camper sites or full hook-up sites for RVs. (There are also furnished cabins, for those who don't want to rough it.)
Sites offer grills and picnic tables so you can save on food, free high-speed Wi-Fi, and even TV hookups.
There is also a pool, horseback riding, canoeing and other outdoor fun that won't cost you very much to enjoy.
Potential Savings: Camping
Potential savings: ~$150-$550/night
With rates starting as low as $56 per night, camping at Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground is the cheapest way to stay at a Disney resort. Even at this price, you still get the extended hours and shuttle service available to Disney Resort guests!
Camping is also a unique and fun way to experience the magic of Disney. You can make it a game with your kids and have them feel like intrepid adventurers.
DON’T: Dine at the Park
Dining at Disney comes at a cost. While the parks has some gourmet restaurants, including an exclusive one inside the Cinderella Castle, most dining options are buffets and the food is sub-par.
Sure, eating a burger with a Mickey face stamped on it is cute, but definitely not worth it when you realize it's overpriced and doesn't even taste that good.
Potential Cost: Dining at the Park
Potential cost: $15-$60/person/meal
According to USA Today, as of 2018, prices at sit-down restaurants ranged anywhere from $15 to $60 per plate. For a family, that can add up extremely quickly.
Quick-service places are cheaper — typically under $14.99 per dish — but still marked up to a pretty significant degree. Especially if you're going to be eating at least twice a day.
DO: Dine Off-Site
You may be opposed to the idea of leaving the park. After all, you spent good money to enjoy it and want to make the most of your time!
But there are plenty of restaurants just outside the parks that have significantly cheaper prices and no lines. Restaurants within Disney parks usually have long lines so you might as well use that time to go somewhere cheaper and with better quality food.
Potential Savings: Dining Off-Site
Potential savings: $5-$55/person/meal
In Kissimmee, Florida, which is along the Magic Kingdom's Main Gate, restaurants tout meals under $10 per person, free dining for young kids and buffets to lure you away from Disney's dining options.
The lesson? You can save a ton by eating outside the theme parks.
DO: Pack a Bag
Many don’t know that Disney allows guests to enter the parks with their own food and snacks. If you are visiting with kids, definitely bring a backpack filled with juice boxes, snacks and refillable water bottles.
This option is also perfect for people who are completely opposed to leaving the park but who still want to make the most of their money.
Potential Savings: Packing a Bag
Potential savings: ~$10-$55/person
You can easily buy ingredients for several sandwiches at around $10 — $20 if you want to bring extra snacks and drinks. That means you would pay for food for the entire family for less than what a single meal would cost within the park.
Lockers are available to rent for $7 to $10, so you don't have to carry your food all day.
DON’T: Buy Full-Price Tickets
In late 2018, much to the chagrin of travelers, Disney World bumped up prices on its already-expensive tickets even more, as it introduced a date-based pricing structure.
This means that a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth costs more now than ever before.
Potential Cost: Buying Full-Price Tickets
Potential cost: $436-$516 for a family of four
A one-day, one-park ticket now ranges from $109 to $129. At Disneyland, you'll spend $97 to $124. Multiply that by the number of people in your family and group, and try not to faint.
DO: Look for Discounts
Disney ticket deals are hard to come by, but there are ways to save:
- Have AAA? They may have discounted tickets available. Disney also offers deals and specials on rare occasion, which you can find on its Special Offers page.
- Buy in bulk. If you plan to visit Disney more than once in the year, consider an annual pass. Good for 365 days from purchase, you could use it for two trips over two different summers. It's also cheaper to purchase multi-day tickets.
- Resident deals. If you are a resident of Florida or California, you can get resident discounts at the parks in your state.
- Time it right. Visit in the summer for better bang for your buck. With longer days, the Disney parks are open later than they are in the winter months, sometimes by as much as 3 hours!
- Avoid the crowds. With Disney's new pricing structure, its cheapest tickets are during non-peak travel periods.
Potential Savings: Looking for Discounts
Potential savings: ~5-15% in discounts on tickets, hotels, food and merchandise
Whether you can take advantage of discounts depends largely on your personal circumstances.
People who live in Florida and California, for example, can buy an annual pass, the fanciest of which is about $1,300. That may seem like a steep price, but it's basically the cost of 12 one-day tickets at Disney parks. If you are nearby and love Disney, it can absolutely present a cost, especially since you get discounts and special prices on hotels, food and merchandise.
Other options, like AAA Membership and booking off-season are free of cost and can represent costs of 5 to 15 percent.
DON'T: Buy Park Hopper Passes
Speaking of tickets: Disney Park Hopper passes are not a steal. It takes a lot of time to get between parks, so after spending more to purchase this option, you'll just end up feeling burned out and tired.
It's better to purchase a single-park ticket and enjoy that park fully. Use the extra money on something that'll make your experience better.
Potential Cost: Buying Park Hopper Passes
Potential cost: $164-$199/person
Park Hopper passes range from $164 to $184 for one day at Disney World, and $172 to $199 at Disneyland. Again, considering that rushing from one park to the next will make your experience less enjoyable, it's really not worth the extra $55 to $90 compared to regular tickets.
DO: Look for Other Deals
You can also save big by keeping an eye out for steals and deals. For instance:
- Free water. All Disney parks will give you free water (with ice) at the fast-dining eateries.
- Free dining plans. Keep your eyes peeled for free dining plan offers. Disney will offer special packages with this tempting deal during off-peak travel times in the fall.
- Credit card. If you want to dine at Disney, consider a Disney credit card through Chase, which gives you 10 percent off dining at the parks and hotels.
Potential Savings: Looking for Deals
Potential savings: $5-$20/person
Water bottles cost about $2 at Disney parks. It's not a lot, but it can add up when you're a group, especially in the hot summer days where each person will go through several bottles.
Free dining or a 15 percent discount can also be huge savings, especially for larger groups.
DON’T: Book a Character Meet-and-Greet
You love your kids and your kids love Disney princesses, so it makes sense that you'd want to give them a moment that will give them joy for the next few years.
However, you should consider how much this fleeting experience is actually worth it. Could you use the money to do something more worthwhile for your kid?
Potential Savings: Booking a Character Meet-and-Greet
Potential cost: $58-$100/person
Character breakfasts can cost as much as $58, while the Disney Princess meal can cost more than $100 — per person! If you have more than one kid, this can quickly add hundreds of dollars to your vacation expenses.
DO: Meet Characters for Free at the Parks
Characters roam the theme parks and are available for free photos and autograph-signing. You can get a schedule of the designated spots and times characters will be out and about.
Potential Savings: Meeting the Characters for Free
Potential savings: $58-$100/person
Given that this option is completely free, you would save 100 percent of what you would have spent on a character meet-and-greet.
DO: Meet Characters Off-Property
By the way, some off-resort properties in Orlando, such as the Four Seasons and Wyndham Lake Buena Vista, feature their own Disney character breakfasts.
Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace Disney Springs offers a breakfast every Sunday between 7 a.m. and noon, with three hours dedicated to meeting the characters — every child can take a picture and get an autograph.
Potential Savings: Meeting Characters Off-Property
Potential savings: $45-$73/person
The price tag for the Hilton's character breakfast? It's $26.95 for adults and $12.95 for kids — much cheaper than what you'll find at a Disney park!
DON’T: Pay for Souvenirs
Disney created the concept of having to pass through a souvenir shop after disembarking from a ride — all of Main Street is one long exit past multiple souvenir shops!
And since they know people will want the bragging rights of buying these trinkets at the parks themselves, prices are usually way up-marked.
Potential Cost: Paying for Souvenirs
Potential cost: $20+
The most expensive Disney souvenirs can cost multiple five figures, but even the trinkets for regular folks cost a pretty penny.
In 2018, Disney raised the prices on many of its top-selling souvenirs. Ear headbands will now set you back $27.99, misting fans $22 and bubble wands $27.
DO: Look for Freebies at the Parks
Disney does offer some freebies — shocking, yes, we know! Consider these options instead of a costly souvenir:
- The professional photographers walking about the parks will take photos of your group using your camera or phone.
- A Disney driver's license is available from Disneyland's Autopia when you ride. And if you ride a monorail, ferry or bus, be sure to ask for the collectible transportation cards they provide.
- If you meet with the captain of the Mark Twain Riverboat and steer the ship, you'll receive a Pilot Certificate.
- Free pins to celebrate an anniversary, birthday or first visit are available at City Hall at Disneyland and Disney World.
- Just like a true park experience, kids can get a free sticker certifying them as Senior Wilderness Explorers when completing the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail in California Adventure.
- Is it your birthday? Disney restaurants provide free dessert when you are celebrating it or an anniversary. (Although this means eating a full meal first!)
Potential Savings: Looking for Freebies
Potential savings: $20+
All of these freebies are, well, free, which means you can still get unique Disney park memories without dishing out $20 for a fan that will break in a week.
DO: Come Prepared
Everything inside a Disney park costs more than outside, so you can save a lot simply by being prepared.
- Need a stroller? It'll cost you to rent one each day, so bring your own.
- If it looks like rain, grab a poncho at a local Walmart.
- Bring a hat, sunglasses, sunblock and all the items you think you'll need, preparing as if you are going to the beach for a day.
- Staying through the night for the illuminated parades? Pre-purchase glow sticks and similar items at a local store, rather than purchasing these items at the park.
If you don't want to carry it all, store your gear in a Disney locker on Main Street.
Potential Savings: Coming Prepared
Potential savings: $5-$30
Coming prepared with your own things that are of similar (or better) quality can help you save a lot of money on renting or buying within the park. Savings depend on the item but are significant enough that you'd want to consider this option, particularly if you're visiting multiple days.
DON’T: Go to a Disney Park Every Day of Your Trip
Yes, you want to get in as much Disney as you can. But taking off even one day could save you big.
And even Disney diehards need a breather sometimes.
Potential Cost: Going to a Disney Park Every Day
Potential cost: $327-$436/person
The average Disney vacation is around six days, of which three to four days are usually spent at the parks. With each ticket being around $109, you could be paying $327-$436 per person just to get into the parks. And this doesn't take into account the other costs we've discussed, like overpriced food and souvenirs.
DO: Enjoy (Cheaper) Nearby Attractions
There are tons of other attractions to enjoy near Disney parks.
- Daytona Beach is less than an hour away and great for a free day on a beach, playing in the waves and building sand castles.
- International Drive in Orlando offers fun attractions that won't cost an arm and a leg, including the 400-foot-tall observation Wheel at ICON Park, Madame Tussauds, Ripley's Believe it or Not, the uber-cool interactive WonderWorks and tons of mini golf.
- Kennedy Space Center, also about an hour from Disney, gives you a chance to see actual space shuttles, artifacts and, if you're lucky, watch a launch.
- Wilderness Preserve by Disney features an 11,500-acre area to explore and hike Kissimmee.
- Huntington Beach offers a free shuttle between Disneyland and its sandy shores, so you can check out one of the most stunning beaches in Orange County, nicknamed Surf City.
- Knott's Berry Farm, in neighboring Buena Park, is a less-expensive theme park with plenty of cool and thrilling rides.
Potential Savings: Enjoying Nearby Attractions
Potential savings: ~$109/person
How much you actually save depends on the alternative non-Disney attraction that you choose. But you will be saving $109 per person for each day that you skip a park visit. Given that the attractions previously listed are all incredibly fun and much cheaper (or in the case of Huntington Beach, free), the savings are bound to be huge.
DO: Enjoy a Resort Day
You should also spend a day enjoying your hotel's amenities, especially if you choose to stay at a Disney property.
From oversized swimming pools with lazy rivers and water slides, to kids' clubs, spas, and special activities and entertainment, you can wile away an entire day without having to stand in long lines, surrounded by crowds.
Potential Savings: Enjoying a Resort Day
Potential savings: ~$100+/person
Disney resorts also offer biking trails and bicycle rentals, as well as kayak and boat rentals for properties on lakes for a small rental fee for the gear. Some properties, including the Wilderness Resort, offer free tours of the property as well.
Plus, you'll save money relaxing outside of the parks!
DO: Take Advantage of Resort Freebies
Other special amenities you can enjoy at Disney resorts that won't cost extra?
- Scavenger hunts. Disney Resorts provide free scavenger-hunt maps, and if you complete them, you can get a free souvenir pin.
- Tours. Disney Resorts offer free tours, even for non-hotel guests. You can take one at Animal Kingdom Lodge, Wilderness Lodge and the Art of Animation resorts.
- Classes. You can take a free art class at the Art of Animation Resort.
- Princesses. At the Grand Floridian, the princesses make their way down the grand staircase every day at 3:30, and Cinderella will dance with the girls at the end. (You need to visit the M. Mouse Mercantile at the hotel to register for this free event, for kids ages 3 to 12.)
- Fireworks. In Florida, you can watch Disney's fireworks for free from the viewing area at Disney's Polynesian Resort — and you don't have to be a guest of the resort — as well as Epcot's Illuminations from the Disney Boardwalk. You can also watch the Electrical Water Pageant from the Polynesian.
Potential Savings: Taking Advantage of Resort Freebies
Potential savings: $50-100/person
Resort freebies, obviously, don't cost any money, so they always mean big savings. You can do the princess dance instead of a meet-and-greet at the park, or watch the fireworks for free rather than pay more than $100 to do so from within the park.
DON'T: Rent a Car
Renting a car may be convenient, but it can also end up being too expensive to be worth it.
You won't just pay for each day that you have the car but will also have to dish out money for insurance, gas, parking and other expenses related to having a car. (Say, if you're driving around during the Florida love bug season and your car ends up splattered with bug goo.)
Potential Cost: Renting a Car
Potential costs: $60-$75/day
Renting a car from Los Angeles International Airport costs an average of $60-$75 per day. We already established that most people do a six-day vacation when they come to Disney, so you're looking at about $360-$450 — and that's just for the rental itself, not including all the other costs mentioned above, like insurance and gas.
DO: Look for Alternative Transportation
Instead of spending a few-hundred dollars on a rental car you won't really need, consider booking an airport shuttle to get you to Disney-area properties.
Since you'll also be mostly walking around within the parks rather than driving, you can simply pay for an Uber twice a day, which tends to be cheaper than renting a car.
Potential Savings: Alternative Transportation
Potential savings: $15-$20/day
Super Shuttles from LAX will get you to Disneyland in an hour or less and start around $40 per person, roundtrip. (Shared rides are cheaper but make more stops.)
In Florida, Super Shuttles typically cost $56 per person, roundtrip. Plus, you can often find discounts and deals on these shuttles, especially with a AAA membership.
Although this is also what a rental car can cost per day, you still save money because you'll only be paying for the service on your way to and from the airport. You also won't be spending money on extra car costs.
Lastly, an Uber will cost around $40 to $60 for your entire group! Even at twice a day, it's going to be cheaper than both car rentals and shuttles.
DO: Use ART
In California, the Anaheim Resort Transportation (ART) offers shuttles from 70+ area hotels to the theme parks.
It will also take you to the Outlets at Orange, South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa Hotels, the City of Santa Ana, Knott's Berry Farm, Medieval Times, Angel Stadium and other Orange County attractions.
Multi-day passes make the rides even cheaper, with hop-on, hop-off service.
Potential Savings: Using ART
Potential savings: $54-$69
ART charges just $3 per ride. You would have to use it 20 times to spend the equivalent of the bare cost of renting a car. Even during a jam-packed day, it's unlikely you'll reach this number.
Even big groups can save big, with a group of five paying a total of $30 to get to the parks.
DO: Save on Parking
Many hotels offer free shuttles to the parks, and savvy budget vacationers always use them.
The shuttles often leave you closer to the entrance of the park than if you park, and you don't have to worry about driving back to your hotel after a long day of adventuring.
Potential Savings: Saving on Parking
Potential savings: $25/day
Parking at Disney World or Disneyland is $25 per day — that's $100 in savings if you visit the parks for four days!