#1. STAY ON PROPERTY. Don’t be lured by cheap hotel rates “one mile from Disney” and all that. Disney encompasses something like 40 square miles of land, and being a mile away means from one of their borders, not from the parks themselves. Plus, there are immeasurable perks when you stay in one of the Disney resorts (there are somewhere around 17-18 resorts if you count the Swan and Dolphin hotels, which I’ll get to in a minute.) Staying in ANY Disney property guarantees you free transportation (Magical Express) from the Orlando airport to and from the resort, and free transportation all over Disney property, to parks, downtown, and other resorts. Staying on property also guarantees you admission to the parks if they are filled to capacity and closed to the general public (imagine attending on a high-capacity day when the parks are full? If you’re not staying on property, you won’t get in.) If you do have a car, staying on property guarantees you free parking as well.
One last great bonus of staying on property – 1-hour earlier admission to theme parks, and up to 3 hours late staying in the parks after they close to the general public. These are “Extra Magic Hours,” and you can get SO many attractions done during these times. There is nothing like strolling down Main Street in the Magic Kingdom at 2:30am with no one around, and being able to walk right on all the rides! So stay on property – for us, it is a MUST. :)
#2. NEVER pay full price for rooms. Disney issues -lots- of discount codes throughout the year, in many ways — email lists, postcards in the mail, and through 3-letter travel rate codes. To get the first two, sign up at Disney.com with just about as many email addresses as you can – the codes get sent out at random, so it’s nice to have more chances of getting one. As for the 3-letter general public codes, you can find out what’s out at any given time at Mousesavers.com – (link to current rate codes and specials.(
Also, don’t get trapped into buying passes, dining plan or any kind of “package” when you call to book a room without doing your homework. With rare exception, we have found that the Disney packages can be a waste of money versus pricing things out separately. More on this in a bit.
For us, personally, our last 4 trips haven’t been planned more than 2-3 months in advance — we always decide to go & book based entirely on what discounts are available — and most of them are put “out there” about 60-90 days out. For example, this is a current special Disney is running on an email code:
Disney Value Resorts $59 per night 8/9-8/18 and 8/22-10/1
Disney Moderate Resorts $89 per night 8/9-10/1
Disney Deluxe Resorts $139 per night 8/9-8/15, 8/21-8/23, and 8/28-10/1
January-August Savings of up to 45% Off
Stay dates: 1/1/10 to 6/3/10. Get a 25%-45% discount off regular “Rack” rates. Percent off varies by resort type and length of stay. Use code QNY. Some dates will be blocked out. Rates not available for all dates and resorts.
* Save 25% at Disney Value Resorts when you stay 1-4 nights; save 30% when you stay 5 nights or longer
* Save 30% at Disney Moderate Resorts when you stay 1-4 nights; save 35% when you stay 5 nights or longer
* Save 35% at Disney Deluxe Resorts when you stay 1-4 nights; save 40% when you stay 5 nights or longer
* Save 40% at Disney Deluxe Villa Resorts when you stay 1-4 nights; save 45% when you stay 5 nights or longer
Stay dates: 6/4/10-8/14/10. Get a 25%-40% discount off regular “Rack” rates. Percent off varies by resort type. Use code QNY. Some dates will be blocked out. Rates not available for all dates and resorts.
* Save 25% at Disney Value Resorts when you stay 1 or more nights
* Save 30% at Disney Moderate Resorts when you stay 1 or more nights
* Save 35% at Disney Deluxe Resorts when you stay 1 or more nights
* Save 40% at Disney Deluxe Villa Resorts when you stay 1 or more nights
You must book by 3/27/10.
Compare these rates with regular “Rack” rates:
Value resorts: $82 per night
Moderate resorts: $149 per night
Deluxe resorts: $240 per night
These are pretty good rates all around for the different categories. Disney has 4 categories of resorts:
Value are the least expensive and are about Holiday-Inn style in quality, with wild, vibrant, colorful kid-friendly theming and a central food court featuring cafeteria-style dining;
Moderates are the middle quality resorts — the rooms are only slightly bigger than the Values, but the hotels have many more resort amenities (several restaurants, spa, more ambiance, nicer pools w/ waterslides, etc)
Deluxe are the top of the line resorts, with all that the Moderates have, and then some.
The Disney Vacation Club / Home Away From Home resorts feature full kitchens and have villas that can sleep many people, depending on which size you book. They are the most expensive, usually starting at $400/night for a villa. Each hotel has a different theme.
We like the Moderates very much, and most of our trips have been to the Coronado Springs resort. We have never paid more than $89/night for Coronado.
On a trip in 2006 though, we stayed at the All Star Music resort, a value – because we got an amazing $36/night rate through Priceline & just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go on the cheap! The DIS message board ( www.disboards.com ) is a GREAT place to keep track of the best rates people are getting for certain dates — we saw that rate posted, decided to go, and booked our trip all in the same day — the trip dates were a month from the day we booked. BiddingForTravel.com is the site I originally discovered the All Star $36 deal on — it’s a website where people just post the prices and names of hotels they’ve bid on via Priceline.
Another option for saving money, if you have hotel points with Westin/Sheraton, are the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin hotels. These are official Disney hotels, but run by the above companies — so you get all the perks of being on property in a Disney hotel, but you can use hotel points to help pay for your room.
#3: TICKETS / PASSES
Don’t buy your passes at the parks, resorts, or the Disney store. You will pay more than if you buy through a Florida ticket broker. The Florida ticket brokers are licensed by the state, their tickets are provided by Disney, and they sell only new tickets, but they sell them much cheaper than Disney does. Her’s a good one that we’ve used:
Each base ticket can be purchased with various options:
The thing to remember is, the more you add to the ticket, the cheaper it is in the long run – IF you will use all the features. If you plan to go to one park per day and never “hop” (visit two parks in the same day) you can get by with straight-up base tickets.
But, there are many advantages to having park hopping — you can visit multiple parks in the same day, or take advantage of the extra hours before/after the normal operating hours.
Example: Epcot opens 1 hour early. You go there, play for a few hours, then hop over to the Animal Kingdom. Take a break, go back to the hotel, then go into the Magic Kingdom at night for the extra 3 hours they’re open after the gates close. That all only uses 1 day on your pass if you have a park hop option — we have found this invaluable.
Water fun and more: This adds “plus” options to your ticket to visit the Disney water parks, Disney Quest, Disney mini golf, and/or Wide World of Sports. These days do NOT count in your number of regular park days. So, if you have a 5 day trip, and you buy a 3-day base pass and add the water fun option, you would also add 3 visits to the water parks or any of the other activities listed above, for a flat rate (when we bought ours, it was $50.) And you would now have activities to do on the other days, without paying for additional “park” pass days.
Now here is where this option becomes a real deal – it’s typically a flat fee no matter how big your pass is, whether it’s a 2 day, or a 10 day.
Because we go to Disney almost every year, we buy a 10-day pass, then use it over several years. It’s MUCH cheaper to do this IF you know you will be returning. So for $50, when we bought our passes we each gained 6 visits to the water parks. With the water parks costing around $35 per person per DAY admission if you paid outright, this is a very good deal.
No Expiration: For the last 30 years, ALL Disney passes were automatically no-expiration. Now, they make you pay for the privilege. But again, IF you will be coming back, it’s still a good deal because the daily rate per park and per water fun option is significantly lower than the gate price, and you’re “locking in” the gate price at the current rate, then not paying ticket admission increases as they continue to rise each year.
Other things to remember: I know many people who will plan a “day off” to spend at their hotel, and then book a dinner reservation that night at an Epcot restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with this, IF you consider though that you are not only paying for dinner, but also paying for a day on your pass! So if you’re a family of 3, you would have paid about $150 just to walk into the park before even having dinner.
Schedule your in-park meals on days you’re already planning to go into the park, and eat at the resort hotels on non-park days. The Deluxe resorts have fantastic restaurants (the ‘Ohana restaurant at the Polynesian has a Hawaiian theme and is a personal favorite of ours) and many of them have character meals for kids too. You can travel to and eat in any Disney hotel restaurant on property — you don’t have to be staying there to use it.
Eating around the various resorts is a great way to enjoy some of the many resort amenities too – the Deluxe resorts have some fantastic restaurants, many with character or themed meals. (If you like wild, rowdy waitstaff who tease and pick on you, eat at Whispering Canyon at the Wilderness Lodge… make sure to order a LARGE Coke and ask for ketchup too, if you really like being embarrassed!)
So why aren’t packages the best deal? Because you end up paying full rack rate for your room, plus you’re paying for passes every single day of your trip, and they are “basic” passes, which mean you can’t park-hop. If you start your day at the Magic Kingdom, that’s the only park you can go to that day. We like the flexibility to start our day in one place, then if that park gets full or busy, hop to another. We may visit 3 parks in the same day, especially when the MK has Extra Magic Hours at night. All the other parks can be closed, but MK will be open until 2 or 3am – and we’ll hop back over there if the kids are still up for it, as the ride lines are almost nonexistent.
Because we might visit several parks in the same day, we may only use 3 park “days” on our passes during a 7-day trip. There is so much to do outside the parks in the resort too. Based on the number of days your pass is for, you will get extra “pluses” for free or minimal cost when you purchase it. These “pluses” are good at the two Disney waterparks, the Wide World of Sports, DisneyQuest, and the two mini golf courses on property — and their waterparks are so big that if you are into waterparks, you’ll want to spend a whole day at one. (If you have a regular inclusive package and choose to go to the waterpark, you’ve essentially “paid” for your regular park pass days that you won’t use that day, and you still have to buy the waterpark passes too.)
Now, the Disney Dining plan… again, when we’ve run the numbers, we’ve never found this to be more cost effective than doing it on our own. There are times of the year in which Disney offers “free dining,” but to get it, you must pay full rack rate for your hotel room. If you use a room discount code, you typically can’t also get “free” dining. And, to pay for the plan has never made sense to us financially (if you get a code for free dining, that’s another story!)
If you’re paying out of pocket per meal, one tip you can use as far as dining in the “expensive” restaurants — we make our “big” meal of the day lunch vs. dinner, because it’s the same food, but you’re paying a lot more at night. And we LOVE to eat in the many Disney restaurants, but again, we weren’t finding that we would be spending as much eating the way we do as the dining plan costs if you’re paying for it.
There are also lots of FREE things to do in Disney for some downtime. The Fort Wilderness Resort has outdoor “drive in” style movies that you watch from a blanket, or bleachers, outside each night. Before the movie, Chip & Dale host a campfire where kids can roast marshmallows, and sing songs. Fort Wilderness also has pony rides for kids that are around $5 – not free, but cheap! The Port Orleans Riverside resort has a fishing pond where you can fish for free. The Electrical Water Pageant is a water parade that shows nightly at the Polynesian, Contemporary, Grand Floridian, Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness beaches. Just show up at any one of the resorts and enjoy it.
Disney’s Boardwalk resort is themed like an Atlantic City boardwalk, and you can enjoy the street performers, jugglers, magicians, etc. for free. Or take the kids on a ride on the monorail between Epcot and the Magic Kingdom. It’s about a 20 minute trip, with great views.
Mousesavers has a list of even more free things here: https://www.mousesavers.com/freestuff.html
Other money saving ideas: Pack some canisters pre-sweetened kool-aid or lemonade mix & a 1-quart sport bottle (we do this on every trip — mix lemonade at drinking fountains and have that with us at all times to drink. We’d also mix a batch at the hotel before we went out, and we’d fill the bottle halfway with ice too so that first batch kept cold for most of the morning. I measure the mix into ziploc baggies and put them in our day pack, or you could use premixed Crystal Lite. Drinks get so expensive in the park.)
Other foods that pack well for cheapie meals in the hotel:
Instant Oatmeal (to be made at the hotel with water boiled in the coffee pot. We use all of these for quickie meals.)
Pop-tarts or toaster pastries (can warm them on the coffee pot hot plate by wrapping tart in foil and then flipping it once one side is heated – or, if you are the Value resorts, they have toasters and microwaves in the food court for guest use.)
Condiments (mustard, mayo) in foil pouches
The vacuum meats come in a foil pouch like the tuna-in-a-pouch, but they also have turkey breast and ham. They don’t need refrigeration until after they’re opened, but we’ll eat an entire pouch per meal. We also have taken mini pita breads to make sandwiches with these meats — the mini pitas are the size of a large cookie, and we just take all the supplies with us into the parks for lunch. Pitas hold up much better than bread, which can get crushed/flattened in a pack.
If you have any more questions, please feel free to ask. We are “old pros” at Disney – I think our last trip was my 14th time there.