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Image: Disney

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.

Rise of the Resistance stormtroopers in Star Destroyer hangar
Image: Disney

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

Dad and daughter eating Mickey Ice Cream
Image: Disney

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.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster car with guests
Image: Disney

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!)

Gaston posing with his statue
Image: Disney

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.

Kids exploring Pandora at night
Image: Disney

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

Beach Club Resort at night
Image: Disney

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?

Animal Kingdom Lodge Savannah with giraffes
Image: Disney

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.

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