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The 10 Things You NEED to Know To Save Time and Money at Walt Disney World

Disney magic can get expensive.

The Most Magical Place on Earth can sometimes feel less-than-magical when cost comes into play. Walt Disney World has long been known as an expensive destination, but prices have soared to the point that many families may have written a trip off as unattainable. On top of this, crowds have increased, making time wasted in long lines seem less and less appealing…

That is unless you manage a little magic of your own.

There are, fortunately, ways to mitigate the cost of a Walt Disney World vacation—both in saving money and time. For Florida residents, this can mean taking advantage of Disney’s noteworthy discounts for locals, but you don’t have to be a Floridian to take the sting out of the price of a Disney vacation. You also don’t have budget the fun out, leaving your trip feeling threadbare and unsatisfying. The trick is knowing where to spend your time and money.

Maybe you’re planning your first Walt Disney World vacation, or it’s been a while since your last visit. Alternatively, maybe you’re a longtime fan who has friends and family wanting to go, and you wish there were some way you could quickly sum-up the key “need-to-knows” for an amazing Disney vacation.

This guide is sixth in a series here at Theme Park Tourist to fulfill that need—sharing the basics to make the most of a Walt Disney World vacation. Our goal is to prepare you for what to expect, as well as help you avoid the snags that spoil too many potentially great vacations.

In our first installment, we focused on what you need to know about Walt Disney World overall—give that piece a read if you haven’t yet as it covers the “big picture” facts about visiting The Most Magical Place on Earth. Since then, we’ve taken a look at all four Disney parks in depth: Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Epcot, Disney’s Animal Kingdom. We also spent some time in our last installment looking at Walt Disney World beyond the parks.

So what are the best ways to save time and money at Walt Disney World?

AN IMPORTANT NOTE: Take some time to research Disney’s latest pandemic policies. These are frequently changing, and many policies are still in place at the time of this writing, including that you cannot enter a Disney park without a Disney Parks Pass reservation. You can find information on the latest developments here at Theme Park Tourist and at Walt Disney World’s website.

1. Plan your trip during the off-season

Most Walt Disney World guests follow predictable patterns, particularly in when they choose to visit. There is a reason Disney parks see a significant uptick in crowds during holidays, special events, and whenever kids are out of school. The House of Mouse skillfully entices guests to visit during these busy seasons. Promotions and “special offers” abound, FOMO kicks in, and guests make reservations en masse for the busiest days of the year.

Fall for this trick, and the end result is usually both time and money lost.

It’s rare for guests to get a truly stellar deal on Disney tickets or accommodations during the busy season. Disney may make it look that way, but usually this is more marketing shenanigans than actual substance. You are also far more likely to spend much of your trip fighting crowds and standing in exasperatingly long lines during busy seasons.

Particularly for non-Florida residents saving up for a major vacation, your best bet is to try to visit during seasons when the park is less crowded. Not only will you save yourself some stress, but you may save money as well—Disney tends to put out much better deals and promotions to encourage guests to visit during these quiet seasons when attendance dips.

Crowd trends have changed significantly over the last two years (partially due to the pandemic, but also because of new draws like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance), and it is worth noting that it can be challenging finding a true “off-season” like in years past. There are, however, ways to improve your chances of enjoying lower crowds. First off, there are some times you will definitely want to avoid:

  • All major holidays, particularly New Year’s Day, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas
  • The week and/or weekend surrounding a holiday
  • Spring Break season (mostly concentrated in March and early April)
  • School holidays – Summer is the most noteworthy, though attendance has slightly decreased in recent years

Other times that fluctuate between moderately and significantly busy include August, October (mostly due to Halloween events), and portions of February (due both to President’s Day and RunDisney events). You can also expect special events to increase crowds.

Some examples of good times to consider include mid-January to early February (after the New Year’s rush), September (after Labor Day week has passed), and the space between Thanksgiving week and Christmas week (this is starting to get busier, but moderate days do still happen). If you have the option to take kids out of school and visit on a weekday, do so. Some schools and teachers will allow students to make-up schoolwork, opening up many possibilities for a vacation.

2. Make a budget (and don’t pay full price for tickets!)

If you want to keep costs under control for your Walt Disney World vacation, you’re going to want to put together some sort of budget. While this can seem intimidating, a good budget actually can actually reduce stress connected to a vacation. It doesn’t have to be overly constricting, but you do want to know what funds you will need to have a satisfying trip. The goal is to budget realistically—if you know you can’t resist a few impulse buys, take that into account so you will feel free to enjoy yourself within the boundaries you’ve set rather than expecting a miraculous supercharge of self-control in the midst of the endorphin haze of Disney parks.

One of the first budget areas to look at is park tickets. This is particularly important since at the time of this writing, you cannot enter a Disney park without a Disney Parks Pass reservation… a reservation you cannot get without a valid park ticket.

Buying tickets at the gate may be a tempting option for those who love flexibility (and those who hate fiddling with technology), but this is a bad idea under the best of circumstances. In the past, it meant paying Disney’s top prices for your ticket. Now, using this strategy may mean you may not even get into the park if reservations are full.

In general, the only people who might benefit from buying tickets directly from Disney’s website are Florida residents. Disney does offer residents some noteworthy discounts, particularly on Annual Passes (which can be paid for via an interest-free monthly plan), but even for residents, DisneyWorld.com isn’t always going to be the cheapest option.

There are a number of ways to procure discounted Disney tickets. Sure, you could take the squeeze-a-penny-‘til-it-screams route and sit through one of those sketchy time share presentations like those dubiously advertised on Florida highways, but there are less arduous options available.

The top place most experts recommend for buying discounted Disney tickets is UndercoverTourist.com. They’ve built a good reputation over the years for being the go-to place to save money on tickets, and they’re considered reliable. Travel clubs like AAA, as well as many employee benefit programs also offer competitive discounts on tickets. Members of the US Military can access discounts both on tickets and on accommodations by staying in Disney’s Shades of Green resort.

Another method is a little fiddly, but thrifty parkgoers swear by it—gaming Disney gift cards at Target. While this may sound sketchy, it’s actually completely legit. The basic premise is fairly simple: a Target RedCard is a credit or debit card that gives holders a 5% discount at Target. Use a RedCard to buy Disney Gift Cards in the amount you need, and you’re effectively saving 5% on part of your trip. You could get similar results on any rewards credit card that gives 5% cashback, but the RedCard is the most well-known way to pull this off, and the debit version of the card doesn’t require a credit check.

Travelers who use this trick suggest using prudence—it’s usually less hassle to get e-gift cards on Target’s site, but you can still get them in stores (experts suggest limiting each purchase to $500 so you don’t run into issues with wary Target employees). You can combine multiple gift cards into one at DisneyGiftCard.com. When it comes time to buy your tickets or resort room, just use the gift cards—instant 5% savings.

3. Choose your resort wisely

Another budget area you will want to consider carefully is where to stay. This can be one of the trickier questions to navigate as some seemingly cost-effective options may not be the best choices.

There’s no question that there are a lot of options to choose from in and around Walt Disney World. Many budget conscious travelers shy away from Disney-owned resorts due to their high price. There are definitely plenty of alternatives to choose from, such as the Disney “Good Neighbor” resorts (some of which offer unique benefits like transportation) and a thriving industry of Disney-friendly Airbnb’s. I tend to like Kayak.com and Hotels.com for finding low prices on rooms, but this approach isn’t your only option.

In truth, there are some significant benefits to staying on Disney property. For one thing, access to Disney’s transportation network is a big plus—boats, busses, monorails, walking paths, and the Disney Skyliner will save you time and reduce the need to have a rental car. Disney resort guests also get access to their own pool of Disney Parks Pass reservations, as well as early theme park entry (after October 1st) and extended evening hours certain nights. Disney’s resorts are also all impressively themed with excellent dining and recreation options.

Some visitors opt for Disney’s Value Resorts, such as the All-Star resorts, Pop Century, or Disney’s Art of Animation as low cost options. While these resorts aren’t terrible, they aren’t necessarily the best Disney has to offer—expect something equivalent to a Disney motel or Holiday Inn. For adventuresome travelers, Disney’s Fort Wilderness campground is a choice worth considering—it’s an excellent campground—but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. A step up are Disney’s Moderate Resorts like the Caribbean Beach Resort, Port Orleans Riverside & French Quarter, and Coronado Springs which definitely fit the bill for Disney magic.

What if you could get access to a Disney Deluxe Resort at moderate prices though?

There are two ways to do this. The first—and arguably the best—method is to rent Disney Vacation Club points. Disney Vacation Club villas are some of the best rooms in Walt Disney World, offering spacious family accommodations and kitchens. You can rent DVC points using a website like David’s Vacation Club Rentals, The DVC Rental Store, or DVC-Rental.com to save a significant amount on Walt Disney World accommodations—sometimes spending half what you would have to booking normally.

The other method isn’t quite as thrifty, but it still offers major value—stay at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin. These resorts are part of the Epcot resorts, but they are owned and operated by Marriott (formerly Starwood), not Disney, meaning guests get access to deluxe level accommodations at a somewhat lower price point.

While Swan and Dolphin guests don’t get all the same benefits as Disney resort guests (they get the same boat transportation as other resorts but bus transportation to Magic Kingdom involves a stop at the Transportation and Ticket Center), they get other benefits in their place, including access to impressive recreational facilities, free paddleboat rentals, discounts at the Mandara Spa, and easy access to one of the best resort dining selections on Disney property. When booking at the Swan and Dolphin, just take into account that the resort does charge a resort fee to cover the extra amenities, as well as extra to park a vehicle.

4. Milk reward points for all they’re worth

Remember that trick we mentioned with Target RedCards? It isn’t the only hack of its kind to save a little on your Disney vacation.

I’m always hesitant to point readers towards credit card-reward strategies for one simple reason: crippling debt is a lousy souvenir for a Disney vacation. If you are in debt or aren’t uniquely disciplined with credit cards, you’ll ultimately save money sticking to more traditional methods for saving money on a vacation. If you can’t pay off cards immediately, compounding interest will drain any savings you gain using a rewards credit card.

For travelers who are strict with their credit card usage, it is possible to use reward points to save money on your vacation. The first way to do this is to earn points towards your flight: popular options for this include the Capital One Venture Card, Chase Sapphire, and airline-specific cards like the Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa. Build up points over time by paying bills and expenses (followed by quickly paying off your balance to avoid interest), and eventually you will build up enough points to cover a flight.

Travel rewards can also help reduce the cost of a room. Points generated by cards like the Capital One Venture can be used towards some Disney expenses, but it’s tricky to line things up to pay for Disney-owned resorts. You can, however, use points to get free nights at the Swan and Dolphin. While Marriott’s credit card isn’t quite as helpful as it used to be, it is still a viable option to build up Marriot Bonvoy points. Other travel credit cards can also be considered to see which will give you the most bang for your buck. One blogger famously managed to take his family to Walt Disney World for almost nothing using credit card rewards and staying the Dolphin. Cashback cards can also prove beneficial for saving some money on Disney expenses.

Two quick notes: first, while the Chase Disney Rewards Visa is a nice card that offers a few good benefits, most experts agree it isn’t the best value for travel rewards cards. Final note: Don’t get into debt! It’s a lousy vacation companion. Better to save up over time than return from your magical vacation to a financial mess.

5. Skip the rental car

There are certainly benefits to having access to a vehicle at Walt Disney World—you can travel off-property more easily, and you may also be able to avoid occasional bottlenecks in Disney transportation by having a car. However, if you will be staying on Disney property or at a Good Neighbor hotel, it likely isn’t necessary. Using Disney (or your resort’s) transportation exclusively is often worth it for the savings of skipping a rental car.

If you do find yourself needing to get around without a rental car, you may want to consider using rideshare services like Uber or Lyft. Both companies have large networks of drivers who operate in and around Walt Disney World, and you’ll likely spend less on a rideshare than you will on a rental car or taxi.

6. Buy groceries

Another major budget item to consider at Walt Disney World is dining. Food is part of the magic at Disney parks, and you’re not going to want to skip some of their best options. You can, however, save big by bringing some groceries with you.

You’ll find when visiting the parks that many of the purchases you’ll be tempted to make will be related to convenience. You’re in the park and get hungry. You see a pretzel stand or a counter service restaurant, and even though it wasn’t on your list of must-visit spots, you end up spending money anyways just to deal with hunger and keep the day going (or the kids happy). The cost really starts to add up when you factor daily breakfast into the mix.

Buying groceries is a great way to save money at Walt Disney World. You can bring some groceries from home or have them delivered via a service, but you can also just use a rideshare service to visit one of the groceries stores near Walt Disney World like Walmart, Publix (a Florida favorite similar to Safeway), Trader Joe’s, or Winn Dixie (similar to Albertsons, King Soopers, Kroger, or Piggly Wiggly). Focus on two areas: quality snacks and breakfast.

Being able to cook a few meals is a huge benefit of staying in a Disney Vacation Club villa—it makes saving money on dining much easier since you can put together a few proper meals. Even without a kitchen, however, you can still stock up on simple breakfast foods. While Disney does offer a few nice breakfasts (and kids may want to enjoy at least one character breakfast), most of them are pretty similar—you’re not missing much by making your own oatmeal, pancakes, or bagels. You’ll also probably be able to find better coffee at a store than anything on property (the exception being the Java Bar at The Swan which is a gem of a coffeeshop).

Having some of your own snacks on hand is another area where you’ll save. If you have something to munch on, you’ll be less likely to cave to impulse buys every time you pass a snack stand. You can save your snack budget for something you’ll truly enjoy, ideally something you can only get a Walt Disney World.

You can also save by skipping bottled water in the parks. Either get a pack of bottled water at the grocery store, or before your trip, purchase a filtered water bottle like a Bobble (to help with Florida’s swampy water taste). Alternatively, you can get free cups of water at any Disney dining location with a soda fountain or a drink refill to go from any Disney table service restaurant.

7. Save your dining budget for the best Disney has to offer

Too often, guests looking to save money at Walt Disney World take a hard line on dining. The solution becomes we-will-eat-NOTHING-within-Disney-parks.

While there are some good arguments for packing a lunch at Disney (the parks have some nice picnic spots, for one thing!), there are so many wonderful dining experiences worth trying out at Walt Disney World that you may regret not taking advantage of a few. While most trips (particularly with kids) may include a few meals of familiar staples like burgers or BBQ, the trick to making the most of your dining budget is to plan for the experiences you will find the most memorable.

Spending your dining budget on corn dogs, chicken tenders, and vanilla ice cream isn’t an ideal use of limited dining funds. Instead, research dining options ahead of time and pick a few places that really sound magical. Throughout this series, we have highlighted some of our favorites at Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Bring a small supply of snacks to keep hunger at bay, then plan to hit some of the dining options you find the most interesting throughout the trip (remember to make reservations as early as possible for table service restaurants).

8. Get familiar with crowd trends

We touched upon this heavily in previous installments of the series, but we’ll mention it one last time: it’s worth it to know what crowds are up to in Disney parks before you visit.

This topic has more to do with saving time than money, but it will contribute to the overall satisfaction of your trip—spending all day in line is a depressing way to spend a Disney day. You can reduce time in line by familiarizing yourself with crowd trends in each park and breaking the traditional pattern most guests follow.

To review, for most parks this will mean arriving well before rope drop (perhaps with the exception of Disney’s Animal Kingdom). You’ll want to head to a different first attraction than everyone else heading into the park with you. If you’re visiting Magic Kingdom, don’t follow the traditional reverse-question-mark touring path most guests use (starting with Fantasyland)—mix it up. Websites like TouringPlans.com are well known for helping guests navigate the most up to date advice. We also do regular seasonal reports on all four Walt Disney World parks here at Theme Park Tourist.

For specifics on each park, check out our previous installments: Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

9. Outsmart Disney at the souvenir game

It takes a stalwart will to leave Walt Disney World without some sort of souvenir—particularly if you have kids.

You are going to want to allow yourself some sort of budget for souvenirs. Shopping is an integrated part of  visiting Disney parks, and avoiding one or two impulse buys will be a challenge. The key, like it was with dining, is to preserve your souvenir budget for something really worthwhile, whether it be a custom Star Wars lightsaber, a Banshee to take home from Pandora, or that Indiana Jones fedora you’ve always wanted.

A few souvenir budget-traps can be easily avoided by planning ahead. If you have kids, bring your own autograph book and a large Sharpie marker—autograph books and character-friendly pens are a major impulse buy for eager kids. Stuffed animals are another hit-or-miss area. You may be able to pick up a Disney stuffed animal you know your kid might like online and bring it with you, then pull it out as a surprise on the trip. Another major one is trading pins—pin trading is great fun, but the starter packs in the park are expensive. You can buy Disney pins online in large packs on Facebook, Amazon, or eBay (seasoned collectors will advise purchasing from a reputable dealer to avoid getting counterfeit pins. These won’t affect the average guest, but they’re a point of frustration for collectors.)

Other budget traps include essentials like sunscreen, rain ponchos, and cell phone power banks which are all cheaper online or at a local Walmart or Target than in the parks. Every impulse buy you avoid saves you a little more for something you really want.

A great trick you can try with kids is the “magic backpack”—we did this with my niece during her first Disney trip. Buy a Disney-themed backpack your kid will like before your trip and fill it with Disney-themed goodies your little one may want. Throughout your trip, as kids behave well, every day they get more goodies for the magic backpack. Items can include the aforementioned autograph book and pen, hats, stuffed animals, Disney sippy cups, trading pins… the sky is the limit!

10. Park Hopping: Worth it or nope?

We referenced park hopping throughout this series, but it’s worth revisiting one last time: is buying a park hopper option worth it for budget-conscious travelers?

It depends on the guest.

If you like variety and are somewhat familiar with Disney parks, a park hopper option can prove a worthwhile addition for your trip. The reason why is that you will be able to balance out the extra cost by visiting more parks per day. At the time of this writing, Disney is still limiting park hopping to after 2pm. This partially reduces the utility of a park hopper pass, but it is also the average time most seasoned park hoppers choose to visit another park. For those comfortable with this trip style, it can make for a very fulfilling Disney trip full of flexibility. You may ultimately save money by hitting more than one park per day.

For first time visitors or those who like to take their time, a park hopper is going to prove an unnecessary cost. You’re going to need a minimum of a full day to take in each Disney park (ideally, you’ll want multiple days)—the value you’ll gain from a park hopper won’t be worth it. In these cases, it’s best to leave it be. You can always add a park hopper option at the parks if you choose.

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