Courtesy of Walt Disney World Resort
When it comes to America's theme park capital, the sky's the limit on entertainment -- and expense. To avoid sticker shock and rein in spending, make a list of your family's priorities first, then do your homework and set a budget and itinerary.
School vacation weeks are the most expensive and crowded times of year, so if your schedule is flexible, avoid holidays and midsummer. The first two weeks of June and the last two weeks of August are better bets, though summer can be witheringly hot. "Fall and spring can be great as far as crowds and weather go," notes Kim Wright Wiley, coauthor of Fodor's Walt Disney World With Kids 2013. "If you're able to go in the off-season, you can stay fewer days but see just as much."
Where to Stay
You'll pay more to bunk down at Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando, but the perks, including great pools, early theme park admission, and free transportation, are benefits that may outweigh the cost for you.
Staying off-site, on the other hand, may save you up to half on lodging (one of the highest vacation expenses) and net you a bigger room, a kitchen (which can cut meal costs), and proximity to several attractions. "Families of five or more should look into staying off-property," says mousesavers.com founder Mary Waring. "Disney just doesn't have many moderately priced options for them."
International Drive, known locally as I-Drive, offers a central location for visiting a variety of theme parks (though traffic can be an issue), while Lake Buena Vista and Kissimmee are more convenient for reaching Walt Disney World. Just be sure your hotel is close to the attractions you want to see.
Many hotels offer free shuttle service to major theme parks, so you don't need a rental car unless you want to explore the area or don't like to rely on public transportation. If you're booking a stay off-site, be sure to ask if the hotel has a shuttle; if there's a per-person fee for using it; and where it goes, how many stops it makes, and whether it's shared with another property, which can make for a longer ride. If there's a per-person fee, using cabs may cost you less.
Where to Eat
The choice of restaurants at Walt Disney World can be overwhelming. To narrow down the selection, check out the reviews and photos on disneyfoodblog.com, which also has tips for maximizing the Disney Dining Plan -- and deciding if it's right for you.
At Universal, the restaurants in CityWalk, the shopping area connecting Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios, can be less crowded midday than eateries in the parks.
For off-site dining, head to International Drive, home to independently owned restaurants and such chains as Sweet Tomatoes, which offers a 45-foot-long salad bar, as well as other healthy, all-you-can-eat options (sweettomatoes.com).