13 ways to save money at Disney

So your kids are begging for a Disney vacation? Before you're blinded by dollar signs, read these helpful money-saving tips.

Photo: Courtesy of Walt Disney World News

I’ve lived in Central Florida for two decades, meaning my family has literally grown up at Walt Disney World. Thanks to annual passes, my husband and I have taken our two boys to Disney parks more times than I can count, so I know that a family day at the park can get pretty pricey. That said, there are ways you can shave some dollars from your Disney vacation and make Mickey more accessible.

1. Don’t buy your tickets at the front gates
To get the best deals, buy your tickets in advance. While you won’t find discounts at the park’s official website, you might want to consider getting a Park Hopper pass if you plan to visit more than one Disney park. For slightly discounted tickets (discounts are typically less than 10 percent and can range depending on the park and type of ticket), seek out reputable, authorized resellers, such as Visit Orlando, Undercover Tourist, and Kissimmee Guest Services (KGS). If you find a better discount than KGS offers, they’ll match it or refund the difference even after you have already used the ticket! If you live in the US, you may have some luck finding discounted tickets at local affiliations (such as a military base, an auto club like AAA or even your human resources office). Some Canadian employers also offer discounted tickets, so it’s worth asking around before you make a purchase.

illustration of the castle at disney How to do Disney (without losing your mind!)2. Avoid unauthorized online ticket sites
Stay away from sites like Craigslist and eBay, as they often sell fake or partially used tickets (when someone buys a three-day ticket, uses one day, and then tries to resell the remaining two days to someone else). This breaks park rules and could result in the tickets being confiscated. To combat the fake tickets circulating, Disney now uses fingerprints and photo identification to verify tickets at the gate (especially multi-day tickets).

3. Bring essentials with you
Sure, you can buy sunscreen, pain-relief medication, diapers and other necessities in the park, but there’s a hefty markup. Instead, pack anything you’ll need, including baby wipes, tissues, hats and sunglasses—it’s worth the extra baggage.

4. Avoid parking fees
If you’re staying at a hotel that offers free shuttle service to the Disney parks, take advantage of it. Disney hotel guests receive free standard parking at theme parks, but if you’re staying off property, daily parking fees start at $22 USD per vehicle.

5. Pack your lunch
Disney won’t allow coolers into the park, but you are allowed to pack snacks and lunch in a disposable or insulated bag. If you’re really worried about it staying cool, you can store a cooler in your car or place it in a locker (for an added fee) near the park’s entrance. When you’re ready to eat, take a break from the crowds and seek out a semi-secluded spot for lunch. At Magic Kingdom, for example, there are some shady picnic tables at the top of Tom Sawyer Island.

6. Bring refillable water bottles
Even when you’re not on vacation, there’s a huge markup on drinks when you eat out. Skip the sugary drinks and fill up on water at water fountains and self-serve soda stations throughout the park. Not only is this cheaper but it’s also healthier.

7. Split meals with family members
Since you can’t take home leftovers, don’t order something you won’t finish. Not too hungry? Order a kids’ meal for yourself or share an adult-sized entrée with a child.

8. Splurge on food you can’t get anywhere else
If you’re going to buy a park snack or meal, make it count. Forget the fried chicken, burgers and pizza you can find at home. Instead, opt for a frozen ice cream bar shaped like Mickey Mouse. Dining at one of Disney’s fabulous restaurants, such as the iconic Brown Derby at Hollywood Studios, is also an unforgettable experience.

9. Know your souvenirs
If all want is a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, don’t buy it in the park where it will likely cost you $25 to $30. You can find Disney T-shirts for about half price at area souvenir shops. If you’re shopping in the park, buy something special that you can’t get anywhere else, such as a limited piece of Disney artwork.

10. Opt for inexpensive gifts
Look for the coin-press machines throughout the park that allow you to “press” a penny into a special keepsake imprinted with a Disney-themed design. This costs less than a dollar. Other low-cost souvenirs include pens, magnets and keychains.

11. Photos make great memories
While the Disney photographers stationed throughout the park are there to sell you a commemorative photo, you don’t need to buy an official photo package. Instead, ask the photographers to snap a few photos of your family with your own camera. They’re happy to do it, and it costs you absolutely nothing!

12. Enjoy Disney from outside the parks
Surprisingly, the magic of Disney doesn’t only live within the theme park. Many Disney memories can be found beyond the gates. For example, grab an ice cream cone in Disney’s Boardwalk area and watch the Epcot fireworks from the wooden bridge—without paying theme park admission. Or ride the monorail between Magic Kingdom and Epcot for free, visiting Disney hotels and resorts at every stop. And don’t miss Disney Springs, filled with top-notch entertainment, shopping, dining and must-see attractions such as The Void’s “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire” virtual reality experience.

13. Choose the right park
This may be the most important tip of the bunch. With four major theme parks at the Orlando resort, you want to pick the one that best suits your family’s ages and preferences. Here’s a quick overview of each park and whom it might appeal to:

—Magic Kingdom: Disney fans of all ages will love the original theme park where the magic all began, complete with Snow White, Dumbo and Winnie-the-Pooh. With plenty of classic characters and rides for little ones, this is the perfect park for families with younger kids.

A new Belle topiary, based on the Disney animated classic, "Beauty and the Beast," graces the entrance of the France Pavilion at the 2017 Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. Topiary artists have found new ways to use a wider variety of plant materials to represent character topiary facial features, bringing Belle's face to life. The festival, which runs 90 days March 1-May 29, 2017 at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., features dozens of character topiaries, stunning floral displays, gardening seminars and the Garden Rocks concert series -- all included in regular Epcot admission. (Matt Stroshane, photographer)
Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival (PHOTO: WALT DISNEY WORLD NEWS)

—Epcot: Most of the rides are in the front of the park, with a couple more sprinkled in the World Showcase section, such as the Gran Fiesta Tour boat ride in Mexico and Frozen Ever After in Norway. If you love exploring the food, entertainment and traditions of different cultures, you’ll enjoy Epcot. My husband and I tend to like Epcot more than my kids do.
—Animal Kingdom: Got an animal lover in the house? Head to this park for a glimpse of creatures from around the world, animal-themed shows, and the amazing Kilimanjaro Safari that makes you feel like you stepped into the African Sahara. This park will also appeal to Avatar fans and rollercoaster buffs.
—Hollywood Studios: This park features movie-themed shows and attractions (like The Beauty and the Beast stage show and Voyage of the Little Mermaid) and a few thrill rides (such as The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster). Little ones will like Toy Story Land, which just opened, and tweens and teens will clamour for the thrill rides.

Read more:
Disney’s Aulani: A guide for families
How to plan a Disney vacation when your child has special needs

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