Top ways to save on your Walt Disney World vacation

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Disney bags
Top tips to save at Walt Disney World

Is a Disney trip in your future this year? It’s been a while since I wrote an updated “Tips and Tricks” post for Walt Disney World! We love spending time at the Disney Parks, and we’ve had many great vacations there over the years, so I’m always happy to answer questions on where to stay, resort amenities, dining, attractions — you name it! 

I’ve collected some of the questions readers have sent since my last Disney trip-planning post, so I’ll do an overview of resorts, tickets, and dining, then answer your questions too. Read on, or jump to your topic of interest.


 

Tips, Tricks and Ways to Save on Your Walt Disney World vacation

Is it possible to do Disney on a budget? Absolutely. There are a wide range of accommodations, dining options and ticketing options that can easily push the cost of your trip from reasonable to what I’d consider budget-busting. Some of my not-quite-as-budget-minded friends recently called to share that they were headed back to Walt Disney World for a three-day weekend. I can’t wait to hear all about their trip! However, if you do what they did and simply pick up the phone and book a trip at rack, full-price rates, your trip could look like theirs:

  • Two nights at Disney’s Yacht Club resort: $465/night
  • Two 3-Day Magic Your Way Park Hopper tickets: $338.95 each

Their 2-night, 3 day trip for two is over $1500 already, and they haven’t eaten a thing. Ouch. Certainly, plenty of people book their Disney trips this way, but if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’d like to spend less, save more, and still have an outstanding time at Disney. (We do!) 


Disney's Yacht Club resort

Where to stay: On-property or off-site?

If you’ve read any of my previous Disney posts, you already know that I’m a huge fan of staying on-site at Walt Disney World. There are so many perks and benefits to being on property:

  • Free Magical Express transportation to and from Orlando International Airport
  • Extra Magic Hours: Bonus time in the theme parks before and after regular operational hours
  • Complimentary Magic Bands: These contain your park tickets, FastPass info, and they act as your room keys too at Disney resorts
  • Free parking: If you do bring a car to the parks, you’ll enjoy free parking at the theme parks and resorts. Otherwise, parking is $20/day.
  • Guaranteed Park Entry: In the event that the parks fill to capacity for the day, Disney resort guests are still admitted. 
  • Free transportation around the Disney property to and from resorts and parks — take a bus, boat, or monorail. Some resorts are within walking distance of the parks too.

For these reasons, if you can afford to do so (and especially if it’s your first-ever trip) I highly recommend staying on-site. Your trip is surrounded by Disney magic from start to finish, and that’s a huge factor in keeping the stress level low and the relaxation level high. (Travel with children, and they’ll love getting wake-up calls from Disney characters and having Disney bedtime stories read to them each night in your room on the TV!) 

It may be tempting to see lower hotel rates around the Orlando area advertising themselves as “one mile from Disney.” Walt Disney World is enormous — it covers 40 square miles. It’s twice the size of Manhattan. It’s as large as the entire city of San Francisco. (Really.) To be “one mile from Disney” can mean that a hotel is one mile from Disney’s furthest border in any direction. Do you want to endure renting a car, piling the kids in the car each morning, driving 20-40 minutes to the parks, then paying another $20 each day on top of your daily car rental to park that car? Our family would rather stay as close as possible to all the action — there’s serious value in that. 

 

There are 20 different resorts on Walt Disney World property, and they’re categorized as Value, Moderate, Deluxe, and Villas depending on price and amenities. Rates typically rise on the weekends, so mid-week per-night rates are lower.  Disney has three seasons of pricing: Regular, Peak, and Value. The Value season is the lowest-priced time to go, and the Peak season will be the most costly. 

For 2016, these are the non-discounted rates for a standard room in each category:

Value Resorts (I checked prices at the All Star Music)
Value: $101/night
Peak: $186/night

Moderate Resorts (I checked prices at Coronado Springs)
Value: $191/night
Peak: $268/night

Deluxe Resorts (I checked prices at the Yacht Club and the Polynesian, as the monorail resorts cost more:)
Yacht Club Value: $400/night
Yacht Club Peak: $601/night
Polynesian Value: $508/night
Polynesian Peak: $706/night

Villas (I checked prices for a 1-bedroom villa at Saratoga Springs)
Value: $508/night
Peak: $659/night

Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground is categorized as a Value resort, but I’m giving it its own price breakdown here:
Value: $58/night tent campsite
Peak: $112/night tent campsite

These are only guidelines to get you started, and of course, rates can change at any time. The thing to keep in mind, again, is that these are non-discounted rates. I’ve never gone to Disney and not had some kind of discount. Disney often releases discount codes both to the general public and as personalized PIN offers to people on their mailing list.

If you’re not on Disney’s mailing list, you can get on their list and in their system by requesting FREE vacation-planning information from Disney! (Trust me, your children will watch this DVD over and over…)


 

Walt Disney World Resort rooms under $100/night

New for 2016: Undercover Tourist is an authorized reseller of discounted Disney park passes (more on that in a bit) and this year, they’ve also partnered with Disney to offer discounted room rates on official Walt Disney World resorts too!  For example, right now through June 11, 2016, you can get 30% off most Deluxe and Villa rooms, 25% off most Moderate rooms, and 20% off most Value rooms — I found the All Star Sports for $85/night and Pop Century for $93/night for May 2016.  Definitely check out whatever offers are running at Undercover Tourist, as a discounted room is always better than a full-priced room.

If you happen to be attending a work-related conference at Disney, and your conference is hosted on Disney property at one of the resorts, your per-night rate will likely be much lower than the regular rack rate at the same resort. I’ve had the opportunity to attend two conferences hosted at Disney resorts, and with each, we were given the option to extend our stays a few days before and after the conference at the reduced resort rate — a great way to tag a family vacation on to a conference. Convention-goers may also have the opportunity to buy Disney park passes at reduced rates too.

However, do not search the web for random conferences taking place at Disney, then book yourself a vacation with those conferences’ reduced hotel rates. Disney is very good about verifying that people using convention rates are actually attending the conference in question and checking into the convention each day — if you successfully book a convention resort rate and simply use it for a cheaper room, you’ll be in for an expensive surprise at checkout: Your entire per-night stay billed at the resort’s full, rack rate.

If you have friends or family members who work for Disney, they may have opportunities to book discounted rooms for you too. A friend’s daughter went through the Disney College Program and now works in the parks. Her family now takes numerous WDW trips each year to visit her… and Mickey.

Downtown Disney Hilton Lake Buena Vista

 

If you absolutely have to stay off site — where?

Again, I can’t recommend staying on-site enough. We love, love, love staying on site. That said, if you read my 2015 Disney trip report, you know that we split our stay between the Yacht Club and the Downtown Disney (now Disney Springs) Hilton. I felt a little like I was cheating on Disney for the three nights we spent at the Hilton, but we did so as I had enough Hilton HHonors points to make our stay free, so it’s tough to beat that. I have seen this hotel as low as $79/night, which makes it a great buy as it’s extremely close to the action — it’s a one-minute walk to the Disney Springs bus stop.

(UPDATE: As of Fall 2016, the Disney bus stop has been moved to the center of the Disney Springs area as part of the Springs expansion, and the former bus stop is now a cab stand. The entire area is still walkable from the Hilton thanks to the set of over-the-road enclosed bridges.)

Do keep in mind that Disney’s free Magical Express bus service will not take you from the airport to the Hilton, so you’ll need to rent a car or take a paid shuttle to and from the airport. If you’re interested in staying at this Hilton, I’ve got many more photos of the property and our thoughts on it in this post. 

There are also two non-Disney hotels located on Disney Property: The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin. This pair of resorts are situated between the Yacht Club and Boardwalk resorts and are within walking distance of both Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios — that’s some prime Disney real estate! Again, Magical Express won’t take you to and from these resorts, but their room rates are often much lower than the Disney resorts they’re shoulder-to-shoulder with. (How close are they? Look at this photo!)  

I saw discounted rates of $169/night for the Swan and Dolphin for March 2016 while I was writing this post. Guests of the Swan and Dolphin cannot utilize Magical Express either, but they do get to participate in Disney’s Extra Magic Hours – bonus park time before and after that’s only available to Disney resort guests.  I have not (yet) stayed at the Swan or Dolphin, but I have stayed next door at the Yacht Club, and this entire area is so convenient to quickly get to two Disney parks. Plus, Disney’s Boardwalk is right next door, and it’s got lots of great dining and free entertainment options too.

Other discounts:

Updated 3/22/16: Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort and the Walt Disney World Swan popped up on Groupon with discounted room rates into 2017. Check them out if you’re interested!

Mousesavers.com is a great trip-planning resource too, and this link will give you info on Disney-area hotel discounts available to the general public. 


All about Disney park passes 

Disney's MagicBand

Prior to 2015, my best-prices-on-park-passes strategy was this: Buy a 10-day, non expiring Park Hopper pass, then use it for multiple trips. Unfortunately, in February 2015, Disney phased out non-expiring park passes. If you have old passes, you can continue to use them for park admission — we still have days left on a set of 10-day non-expiring Park Hoppers + Water Fun passes that I purchased in 2005 for an incredible $324 per pass — that works out to about $32 per Disney day, not counting the bonus water park visits. (Oh, those were the days..!)

If you’re without passes, you’ll need to purchase some for your trip.

To save the most money, decide how many days you want to spend in the parks. (Walt Disney World has four — the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, the Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.) The number of days in your trip does not necessarily need to equal your number of park pass days. For example, we have taken seven-day Walt Disney World trips in which we only went into the parks for three out of the seven days. There are so many things to do around the resorts and around the World that we’ve found that we do not need to go into the parks every single day. If you don’t plan to go to the parks on the day you arrive or the day you are traveling home, you could get by with a shorter length of pass. However, the cost of each Disney day also drops with the number of days you purchase on a multi-day Magic Your Way pass.

You may have seen recent news stories about Disney charging more for park admission on Peak, Regular, and Value season days. The media has made a big deal out of this, but the reality is that it really will only affect people who buy single-day park passes. This is the most expensive way to visit Disney, and unless you truly only have one day to spend in the parks, you’re likely not going to be affected by the single-day ticket rate changes.

Limited time offer: Buy 4 Day Disney Park Passes, Get the 5th day FREE! That’s $64.59/day!

Discount Disney Tickets

Did you know you can buy authorized Disney park passes at a discount? I’m not talking about buying used or partial passes at resale — something I’d never advocate. However, Disney does work with authorized resellers, and you can often get great deals with them. Undercover Tourist is a reputable reseller that we’ve used before. At the time of this writing (March 2016) they are offering Disney Magic Your Way Park Hopper passes at 2015 prices — not only will you purchase them at a lower price than you would at the resorts or parks, they’re currently selling a 5-day Magic Your Way pass at the 2015 4-day price of $322.95! You get one free bonus day, and this drops your per-day price to $64.59!

If you prefer to park-hop (visiting multiple parks in the same day) Undercover Tourist also has a 5-day Magic Your Way Park Hopper pass at the 2015 4-day price of $382.95 – still a significant savings over the gate. These passes do not expire until 14 days after you activate them. 

3/4/16 UPDATE: I got an email today from Best of Orlando, another ticket broker — they too are running a special on the 5-day Magic Your Way pass at the 2015 4-day price for $299 – this works out to $59.80 per day! (Note that I personally have not purchased through Best of Orlando before, but that’s also a great price.)

magicbands

MagicBands and FastPasses

MagicBands are RFID wristbands that contain your room key information, charge-to-room ability for resort hotels, and of course, your theme park tickets.  If you make a reservation at a Disney resort hotel, your MagicBands will be complimentary, and you’ll have the opportunity to select the colors of your MagicBands before you arrive at the resort. Once you’ve made a reservation at a Disney resort hotel, you can log on to My Disney Experience to view details of your trip.

You can attach your park tickets (purchased either at Disney or elsewhere, like Undercover Tourist) to your MagicBands by entering the code on the passes into your My Disney Experience account once you’ve got a resort reservation. My Disney Experience is also where you’ll set up your FastPasses for your tickets before you arrive at Walt Disney World. These are your ride reservation times. Each person gets three each day, and once they’ve been used or expired, you have the opportunity to load more the same day if they’re available. 

If you stay at a Walt Disney World resort hotel, you can set your FastPasses up 60 days prior to your trip. If you’re staying off-site, you can set them up 30 days before your trip. I would recommend setting them up sooner than later, as early slots for the popular rides do go quickly. 

If you are staying off-site, you can purchase MagicBands in the parks for $12.95 each. You do not need a MagicBand to enjoy the parks though — your ticket card has an RFID chip that can be used at the FastPass scanners too. 

My best tip: Even if you are not a morning person, it is worth being at your park of choice before they open. We regularly knock out many rides in the morning before the parks fill up, and then we can use our FastPasses which are scheduled for later in the day when the crowds are heavier.


Trattoria al Forno

Dining in Disney

Walt Disney World is just as much a dining destination as it is a theme park and attractions destination. There are so many amazing restaurants both at the parks and at the Disney resorts. We love visiting the different resorts to eat — there are as many unique options as there are in the parks! That said, dining in Disney isn’t cheap. The cost of eating three meals a day in the parks or at the resorts adds up quickly.

We love eating in Disney though — any time we start planning a Walt Disney World vacation, our children start talking about where they want to eat — often before they start talking about rides and attractions. So, how do we save money on food?

When we’re eating out, we usually make lunch our biggest meal of the day, when possible. Many restaurants serve both lunch and dinner, and at some restaurants, lunch costs less than dinner. If a restaurant we’re interested in is serving both lunch and dinner and they’re priced differently, we’ll go for lunch to save money.

Some of our favorite dining destinations don’t serve lunch though (‘Ohana at the Polynesian, I’m talking to you! Mmm.) So, if we choose a more expensive dinner, we’ll try to keep the rest of the day’s food budget in check. Here are some of the ways to do that…

Your dining budget (it can be done!)

pack food cereal pack food pack food oatmeal

 

We rarely have breakfast in a restaurant, because breakfast is one of the least expensive and easiest meals to pack in your luggage and eat in the room or on the go. Especially on those theme-park-commando days when we’re heading to the parks a half-hour before opening, a quick breakfast helps us stay on schedule in the morning and get out of our room quickly. Here are some bargain breakfast items:

  • Cereal
  • Granola or granola bars
  • Breakfast biscuits (like Belvita)
  • Oatmeal (use the coffee maker in the room to heat the water)
  • Toaster pastries (wrap in foil and heat on the base of the coffee maker)

If you take any of these things out of the boxes, you can pack the individual servings throughout your luggage. Removing one “eating-out” meal from each day of your trip is a serious way to save. On our trip to Disneyland a few years ago, we never ate a single breakfast in a restaurant..! This left a lot more room in our budget for dining in the places we really wanted to eat.

To save even more money, plan ahead and pack a few lunches or light dinners too. We don’t do this for every day, but again — every little bit helps. 

pack food pita

Pita or pocket breads pack extremely well, as they don’t get crushed in luggage. Pair them with tuna, ham or chicken pouches for quick, protein-packed meals that don’t require refrigeration. 

pack food pouches  pack food cup a soup

Plan to be back at the resort for a meal? We’ve even packed instant soups or noodles.

Packable lunch and dinner ideas:

  • Pita and pocket bread
  • Pouches of tuna, ham or chicken
  • Instant noodles or soups (use the coffee maker in your room to heat the water.)

I realize that packing some meals may not be for everyone, but there were some trips we took when our daughter was young (and we were on an severely strict budget) where we did all of these things every day, savoring that one amazing meal at the parks or a resort restaurant and eating the rest in our room or while walking around in the parks. I would bet you that she does not remember what we ate for every single meal on those trips — but she does remember that she went to Walt Disney World. 

Some Disney resorts (cabins at Fort Wilderness and villas) have full kitchens, while family suites at the Art of Animation and All-Star Music resorts have kitchenettes and microwaves. If you’re staying at a resort with a kitchen, you’ll have the ability to cook meals “at home!” The family suites have a lot of room, but they can be pricey too – often more than $300/night — so look for discount codes or consider another option for larger families: a cabin! 

One of my friends got a great deal on a cabin at Fort Wilderness ($233/night!) and the cabins have a full kitchen and a grill. She shared the cabin with her children and her brother’s family, and they used a grocery delivery service to have a week’s worth of meal ingredients shipped to the cabin. They ate every meal there and enjoyed dining outside on their deck in the woods too.

We stayed in a 1-bedroom villa at Saratoga Springs one year (it was a surprise upgrade after we’d booked at Port Orleans) and once we learned we’d have a full kitchen, we had local family members pick us up and take us grocery shopping — then we cooked most of our meals in the villa.

Other options for discounted dining in the parks: Keep in mind that children (in Disney’s definition) are ages 3-9. Children 10 and up will be charged as adults at a sit-down restaurant. However, if you go to a counter-service restaurant, you may order children’s meals for anyone. Many of them are $5.99, and they’re typical children’s fare – hamburgers, chicken strips, small pizzas. 

Marrakesh

It’s worth spending a little time browsing dining options before you hit Walt Disney World. The Disney Food Blog has photos and links to pricing for all of the dining options in the parks, and over the years, we’ve learned to seek out some of the best food at the best values. For example, we really like the Flame Tree Barbecue in the Animal Kingdom. A half-chicken platter is $12.99, and it comes with a side of beans and cornbread. My husband and I can each share a half-chicken with our children, and four of us can dine for $25.98 – not too bad! (It’s delicious too.)

As far as beverages go, they can quickly inflate your food budget too. Remember that cups of ice water are FREE in Disney — you can ask for a free cup at any counter service restaurant. I always pack lemonade mix on our trips too. If you’re a fan of water drop enhancers like MiO and Crystal Light, those also pack well.

No matter which theme park we’re headed to, I also pack an insulated water bottle like this one. I’ll pack a canister of lemonade mix in our luggage, as well as some Ziploc sandwich bags. Each day, I’ll portion out one quart’s worth of lemonade mix into the bags, then store the bags inside the insulated zipper bottle case. We fill the bottle up at drinking fountains, or we ask for ice water to fill it.  

(Don’t miss my post on my day-pack essentials for theme parks too — I’ve got the perfect packing list for a theme park day pack and a great, compact sling pack to carry everything in!)

Is the Disney Dining Plan worth it?

I’ve had quite a few readers write to ask if the Disney Dining Plan is worth it. It really depends on your definition of “worth it” — we had the DDP on one of our past trips when it was included as part of our resort and ticket package. If you happen to book when the dining plan is free, don’t turn it down — it’s definitely fun to know your meals are covered for the entire trip! Disney often offers free dining during fall resort specials. There are three different plans to choose from, and here are their prices for 2016:

Quick Service Dining Plan
Includes 2 quick-service (counter) meals, 1 snack, and 1 refillable mug (for soda at your resort)
Adults: $42.84/day
Children 3-9: $17.47/day

Regular Dining Plan
Includes 1 table-service meal, 1 quick-service meal, 1 snack, and 1 refillable mug
Adults: $61.84/day
Children 3-9: $20.96/day

Deluxe Dining
Includes 3 meals (table-service or quick-service, your choice), 2 snacks, and 1 refillable mug
Adults: $111.73/day
Children 3-9: $32.56/day

On our one trip with the DDP, we had the Quick Service dining plan. It was fun to eat whatever you wanted, but we also found that by the third or fourth day of our trip, we were faced with more dining credits than we would likely use by the end of the trip. Your experience may vary, but Disney’s portion sizes are pretty large. On the last day of our trip, we were spending our snack credits on cookies and muffins in the bakery, then trying to pack them in our luggage for the trip home. (Why waste them?)

The Disney Dining Plan must be purchased in conjunction with your park tickets, and it also must run for the duration of your pass. You can’t choose to buy just one or two days on the plan. While we enjoyed the plan for that trip, we haven’t purchased it on subsequent trips. For a 7-day vacation for our family of five, the least-expensive option, the Quick Service plan, would cost us $1321.81 ($1199.52 for myself, husband, daughter and son who are over 9, and another $122.99 for my eight-year-old.) We know we can eat for less than that per day in the parks and resorts, and we like to incorporate sit-down restaurants that the Quick Service plan does not include.


Final tips on saving and souvenirs:

If you’re a Target RedCard holder, you can buy Disney gift cards in store at 5% off the face value. Then, use them to buy your meals, souvenirs, and more.

If you’re a Disney Visa cardholder, your card purchases rack up points that can be transferred to a Disney gift card, then spent at the parks and resorts. You’ll also get a free character photo in Epcot when you show your Visa card. 

BEST tip for souvenir shopping: The Disney Character Warehouse! There are two clearance outlets for Disney Parks merchandise, and both aren’t too far from Walt Disney World. These are clearinghouses for Disney parks merchandise at steep discounts – think $4.99 T-shirts and great bargains on everything from purses to plush toys. I have a writeup on the Character Warehouse here

Disney Character Warehouse


More reader questions:

My daughters really want to do Bibbity Bobbity Boutique, but it is so expensive. Is there any way to get this for a lower price?

Bibbity Bobbity Boutique is an enchanted beauty salon located inside Cinderella’s castle at the Magic Kingdom. It’s extremely popular with little princesses! They can get their hair styled in a updo, their makeup done, and their nails painted. Prices begin at $59.95 and go all the way up to $194.95 depending on which options your child would like (and what you would like to pay for – some include princess costumes.)

If your child wants a costume, buying it before you arrive at Walt Disney World is more economical than buying it in the parks. If you’re planning a trip for late fall or winter, look for clearanced princess costumes right after Halloween! Kids can wear costumes into the parks, so your little one can show up already partially princessed. 

My best budget-minded tip though? Instead of heading to the BBB, take your princess to the Harmony Barber Shop on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. They’ll style your little princess’ hair into an updo, adding glitter gel and sparkles… for $5! (Check out this photo – so cute!)  Call 407-WDW-PLAY for a reservation.

Where have you stayed, and what is your favorite resort?

 I have stayed at Fort Wilderness, the All-Star Music Resort, Port Orleans Riverside, Coronado Springs, the Yacht Club, and Saratoga Springs. My personal favorite is Coronado Springs. It’s a Disney Moderate resort, but I consider it to be the “secret weapon” of the Disney resorts. The rooms have the largest square footage of all resorts in the Moderate price range – sizewise, they’re closer to the size of Deluxe resort rooms, and the resort landscaping, decor and amenities are lush as well. 

Coronado Springs is an enormous, beautiful resort (seriously, go look at the photo gallery at the top of their webpage.) It’s got a gorgeous lake with white sand beach areas and hammocks, landscaped walking paths and several fountains — it’s incredibly picturesque! (Can you tell I love it?) Their pool area is outstanding. It’s themed around a giant Mayan pyramid with a waterfall and waterslide, plus the largest hot tub on Disney property!  Its Pepper Market food court area has outstanding dining options (steak, Southwest grill.) It’s also got one of the best playgrounds for children on WDW property themed around an archaeological dig site. We’ve stayed at Coronado for three different trips.

I’ve also spent three WDW vacations camping at Disney’s Fort Wilderness.  Fort Wilderness is simply one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever camped. It’s a camping resort with all kinds of amenities (horseback riding, beachfront, swimming pools, fishing, watercraft rental at the marina) and an excellent location across the lake from the Magic Kingdom. While all of our more recent trips to Walt Disney World have been resort stays, I still build time into each trip to visit Fort Wilderness for at least part of a day when we go. It’s a wonderful escape for some downtime between park-time. 

What’s the lowest price you’ve ever paid for a Disney hotel?

My rule of thumb has always been to stay as close to $100/night as possible. In recent years, Disney’s resort prices have increased quite a bit, and my $100-a-night budget has been in place since, oh… the 1990s or so! It’s become harder to get the Moderates around the $100 mark, but you can get them for under $150/night by watching codes and deals.

I’m very flexible when it comes to Disney trip planning. Some of our best trips have been booked just four weeks prior to going! I’m very spontaneous and willing to jump on a good deal when something comes up. It’s worth reading some of the unofficial Disney forums and messageboards (I like DisBoards) prior to planning a trip just to see what news, discounts and offers other people are finding and sharing. 

The best deal ever: In late April 2006, I was browsing DisBoards and spotted a topic mentioning that Disney’s All-Star resorts were available on Priceline for an incredible $36/night! (To the best of my knowledge, this was the first and only time the Disney resort hotels have ever been available on Priceline.) Now, with Priceline, there are never any guarantees as to which resort you will get when you bid. However, enough people were getting one of the All Star resorts in late May and early June that I thought I would try too. I knew from reading the boards that once a bid is successful, Priceline was allowing users to extend their trips at the same nightly rate. I picked dates, bid $36/night, held my breath (you pay before you find out what hotel you’re bidding for on Priceline, and there are no refunds!)

all star

My bid came back successful, so then I had to book some flights! I called my husband at work and said “Guess where we’re going in four weeks?” We stayed at the All-Star Music for six nights for $36/night. Outstanding!

Other Disney-area hotels do come up on Priceline at times — the Walt Disney World Swan came up for $100/night in December 2015, a great rate. If you’re both a deal-hunter and a bit of a risk-taker, the website Bidding for Travel is a good resource to see what hotels people are getting and the steps and prices they used to bid. Again, though — I haven’t seen any Disney resort hotels on Priceline in ten years. 

Do you have any ideas for lower-priced character meals?

Dining with the Disney characters can be pricey, but when your children are young, how can you resist indulging? The least expensive character meal served in Walt Disney World is breakfast. I’d recommend the Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom — it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet, $24.99 for adults, $13.99 for children 3-9. Weekend prices are $4 more per person. You’ll dine with characters from Winnie the Pooh. Plus, if you book the 8:00am reservation, you’ll get into the Magic Kingdom an hour before it opens! Once you’re done having breakfast, you can take some amazing photos of the park with very few people in there. (Then, go wait by the closest rope-drop area so you can run and be FIRST on the ride of your choice! The Crystal Palace is close to Adventureland, so Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad are prime for the picking..!) Disney Food Blog has a nice writeup about the Crystal Palace character buffet.

Years ago, the Garden Grill in Epcot used to have a character Ice Cream Social for $6.99. It was my former “secret weapon” for having a character dining experience on a budget! (Yes, they only served ice cream, but sometimes that’s all you need on a warm Florida day. Mickey, Pluto, Chip and Dale would visit your table for photos and fun, just like other character meals!)  Unfortunately, the Ice Cream Social was discontinued in 2004.

It’s worth checking Groupon too. Some of the non-Walt-Disney-World-owned resorts also offer official Disney character meals (the Disney Springs Hilton and WDW Swan and Dolphin do.) The Swan/Dolphin’s character meals have been half-price on Groupon before, and they’ve also been featured at a discount on Restaurant.com in the past. You do not need to stay at the resort to enjoy a character meal there.

Give me some ideas of free things to do at Walt Disney World!

If you stay on property, Disney resorts have all kinds of family entertainment going on during the days and evenings — everything from poolside dance parties and bingo games to “drive-in” style outdoor movies and marshmallow roasting around a fire! The campfire movies have been a Disney tradition that began at Fort Wilderness in the 1970s, and they’ve since spread to all of the resorts Moderate level and above

Disney's Electrical Water Pageant

Disney’s Electrical Water Pageant has been running on Bay Lake since 1971! Visit any resort it stops at to enjoy this free musical light show on the lake:
Polynesian Resort – 9:00 pm
Grand Floridian Resort – 9:15 pm
Wilderness Lodge – 9:30 pm
Fort Wilderness Campground – 9:45 pm
Contemporary Resort – 10:00 pm

On our last trip, we watched the water pageant from the Fort Wilderness beach one night and the Contemporary beach the next. You can walk to the Contemporary’s beach from the Magic Kingdom, so we timed our exit from the park around 9:45 so we’d arrive at the beach before it started.
 

Visit the Tri-Circle-D Ranch at Fort Wilderness to see the horses of Walt Disney World! (Kids can take a pony ride for $8. Longer trail rides are $46, and horse-drawn wagon rides around the fort are $8.)

Visit Disney’s Boardwalk resort for all kinds of fun! There are street performers, magicians, jugglers and lots of dining options too — think Atlantic City boardwalk fun right in the heart of Disney.

Take a monorail ride or a boat ride! Transportation options around Walt Disney World abound, and the boat ride from the Magic Kingdom to Fort Wilderness is relaxing and scenic. The monorail rides from the Magic Kingdom to Epcot or to the monorail resorts are fun and free.

Visit Club Cool in EPCOT (Coca-Cola’s pavilion) to try Coke products from around the world. They’re FREE, and this is a great midday pit stop for a little sugar/caffeine rush too. 

Club Cool

I’m always happy to answer your Disney questions too – feel free to post any below!

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Comments

    • says

      Orlando or Hollywood? Most recently, we went to Universal Hollywood for a day after our Disneyland trip, and we bought a combo CityPass ticket that included both parks. The details of that trip are here.

      If you’re talking about Orlando, we haven’t been there since 2010 (a marathon of a Disney trip in which we spent 7 days in Disney, then headed over to Universal for Harry Potter, which had just opened.) At that time, we got a $129/night email code for Universal’s Royal Pacific hotel. This was a great deal because you get front-of-the-line perks for all the attractions if you stay on property.

      We had never stayed there before, but I had signed up for Universal’s email list and specials on their site — I’d recommend doing that if you’re interested as going to Universal wasn’t part of our plans until they emailed us that hotel rate code.

      Best of Orlando has discount Universal tickets – right now they have a 4-day pass that works out to $36.25 per day.

      Undercover Tourist also sells discounted Universal tickets. Right now, their 4-day pass works out to about $45.25 per day.

  1. Debbie says

    Great ideas! We are definitely checking out the discount travel sites you mentioned. I’d like to share something my daughters and I do to be able to afford an overnight stay at a Disney resort. We live only 10 minutes away from Disney and decided it would be fun to stay overnight at each of the resorts. We call it our “overnighters”. To pay for this experience we use visa gift cards earned on Swagbucks. Each swag buck is a penny and we earn them by watching videos. Doing this between the four of us we earn enough to cover our room cost for the night. We book and do the online check-in process a day or two before and arrive at the resort at 9 or 9:30 a.m. We have the day to relax by the pool, hang out and watch the Disney channel (that we don’t have at home) and enjoy the fact that we earned the pennies that paid for the experience. Not a single penny of our household budget is spent on room rates.

    To save on dining we pack our own mixed greens salad in a gallon size zip lock bag and bring our own water and little can sodas. We do order fries to go with our salads and a kids meal here and there if we feel like it. I realize we are fortunate to be able to take a break in our homeschooling schedule to do an overnight stay at a Disney resort but in fact if we were living anywhere else I would be doing the same thing to cover the cost of a weekend at a hotel with an indoor pool perhaps or near an attraction that my family would enjoy.

    We just stayed at the All stars Movie resort, this past Tuesday/Wednesday and my daughters took the complimentary bus transportation to the Hollywood Studios to catch Lights Motor Action before it ends in April. It’s all about making memories and yes it does take about two months to earn the cost of room rates, time to determine what resort we can afford and what works with our schedule and watching the videos can be tedious but we really do enjoy the ability to stay at the different resorts and use their amenities.

    We’ve only been doing this since March 2015 but we’ve stayed at the Pop Century, Coronado Springs, The Yacht Club and All Stars Movies. (and I agree with you, we were very pleasantly surprised at the Coronado Springs — great stay). We could have never experienced the amazing amenities such as the 3 acre pool at the Yacht club or the slide and atmosphere of the Coronado Springs if we didn’t find a creative way to pay for it. I say Pennies Pay Our Way around the “World”.

  2. Beth says

    Thanks for this great information! Question about meal plans? When do they generally have the free meal plan promo? Do they raise their prices for the hotel’s then? Can you just have the adults buy the plan and not the children? My 4 year old hardly eats. Thanks!

    • says

      The free dining plan is usually in the fall, which coincides with lighter park traffic (very nice if you can go then – shorter lines!) You do have to book a room at full rack rate to get the free dining (so really, it’s not “free.”) To get the most out of it, you may want to stay in the least expensive room. Also, in order to get the dining plan, you must book your room through Disney and buy your park passes through them too, not through a discounted reseller.

      Everyone staying in the same room must buy the plan too. They do not allow say, two guests to have it and two not to have it. Either everyone buys it, or no one does. You also all have to be on the same level of plan – one person can’t be on Quick Service with another is on the top tier plan.

      One tip though, that may sound crazy, but it’s true – you do not need to buy enough pass days to span the entire duration of your trip. On the one trip in which we had the DDP, we were using our old (non-expiring) park passes that I bought years ago. We stayed for a week, but we only bought a new one-day park pass for each of us as part of our room + passes + free dining plan package. The dining plan runs for your length of stay at the resort, so for us it was a better deal to use our pre-purchased pass for the other days (because the per-day rate was lower. Again, this will probably not apply to you unless you’ve got old passes lying around. I believe you now also have to buy a minimum of a 2-day pass with the DDP.)

      We were on the free Quick Service dining plan because we stayed at a Value Resort that year. When free dining is running, Values get the Quick Service free, Moderate and Deluxe resorts get the regular plan. The Deluxe dining plan is never free (to the best of my knowledge) – you always pay for that one or upgrade to it for a different rate when “free” dining is running.

      The dining plan also does not include gratuities, so keep that in mind too — remember to tip your servers if you’re on a sit-down restaurant plan.

      This site has a lot of pros and cons about the DDP:
      http://www.disneytouristblog.com/disney-dining-plan – pay attention to what they say about maximizing your credits. On the trip we had it, we never wasted a snack credit, say, on a bottle of pop when we could get fudge at the candy store on Main Street. We sought out quick-service restaurants serving steak (Pepper Market at the Coronado does!) If you’re going to get it, it’s worth researching your restaurants from a best-value standpoint.

  3. Rebecca says

    We are a family of 5 people like you but the less expensive Disney resorts seem built for 4. How are you staying in resorts with all your children? I know they have the family suites but they are more than just booking two rooms at the Values.

    • says

      If you have a child under 3, you can have them in the same room with your family of 4 in a crib/Pack & Play – no problem. Once they’re 3 and up, yes, you’ll be facing 5 “actual” guests in a room.

      Rooms in the Bayou area of Port Orleans Riverside sleep 5! It’s a Moderate resort, so you can grab this for around $150/night with a good discount code or rate. That’s cheaper than two Value resort rooms. These rooms at Port Orleans have a Murphy bed that pulls down from the wall for the 5th guest. It’s a little shorter than a regular twin bed, so put a child there.

      Port Orleans is a beautiful resort too with a great pool area and lots to do (boat rides to Disney Springs, fishing & more.) I’ve stayed here twice, and we really like this resort too. On our most recent trip, we even took the boat from downtown back to Port Orleans for a little visit (and beignets from the bakery!)

      Years ago, you could get a rollaway bed at Coronado Springs too for 5 in a room. They still offer rollaways, but the maximum number of people in the room still has to be 4, so basically you can get a rollaway if your kids don’t want to sleep together, but not to have 5 in the room. Coronado Springs does have Murphy beds in the suites so you can put 5 or 6 people in them, but the suites usually cost more than two regular rooms.

      Some of the Deluxe resort rooms also sleep 5 with a daybed along one wall — on our most recent trip, we stayed at the Yacht Club and our daughter took the daybed.

      If you camp at Disney, you can have up to 10 people on a campsite in Fort Wilderness! The Fort Wilderness cabins sleep 6 and often go for a lower price (with a discount code) than the family suites at the Value resorts do.

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