Walt Disney World deserves its reputation as one of the most magical vacations on Earth, but it’s also one of the most complicated destinations you’ll ever experience. First-timers find nearly every element confusing, from which tickets to buy, to what to ride, where to dine, and how to get around. Seasoned Disney pros are always looking for ways to avoid frustrations, to try new things, and to enhance their enjoyment of the place they know and love. And everyone appreciates a good hack that will save them time, money, and stress.
Whether you try them all or select a dozen, use these hacks with confidence, knowing you’re not breaking any of Disney’s rules. You’re just working within the system to get the best out of your travel, your finances, and your time spent enjoying a truly memorable vacation.
Take Advantage of Off-Season Discounts
The best way to immerse yourself in the Disney magic 24/7 is by staying at an onsite resort. Periodic discounts are offered year-round, but the most reliable savings on resort rooms are the off-season discounts. Once upon a time, “slow seasons” were obvious at Walt Disney World. Now, there is no true off-season, but crowds do lessen during some months, and booking discount incentives are more predictable. If you are able to travel between January 4 and mid-April (avoiding holidays and Spring Break), start looking for big general-public discount offers in early October. If you can travel in early August through early October, start looking for discounts in late April. Florida residents and Annual Passholders will reap the greatest rewards with off-season discounts.
Grab Those Unique Offer Codes
You’ve scrimped and saved, but a Disney vacation remains just out of reach. Or you’re considering a Disney trip, but you’re holding back. You’re the ideal target for a Unique Offer Code, an exclusive discount so dramatic there is no way you’re not going to snap it up, pronto. Potential guests who have shown an interest, but repeatedly resist booking, might—just might—receive a coveted Unique Offer Code (first-timers, that means you). To maximize your chances, sign up for multiple (but accurate) Disney accounts, check “Special Offers” often, order a free planning video, and repeatedly utilize Disney’s online reservations without booking. In short, leave an algorithm trail showing you need a final incentive. Be sure to accept communications via mail and email during sign-ups.
Find Annual Passholder Perks
If you are visiting Walt Disney World for ten days or more within a twelve-month span, you will break even on the cost of an Annual Pass and receive Annual Passholder perks such as free PhotoPass downloads, free parking at theme parks, the ability to book FastPass+ times for seven consecutive days, and discounts on food, merchandise, backstage tours, special events, sports, and recreation. All of those perks apply over the course of the pass’s one-year time frame, no matter how many times you visit. Only one person in your group needs to be an Annual Passholder for the dining and merchandise discounts and the free parking and PhotoPass perks to apply, as long as that person is in attendance at the time of use.
Save for Collectibles
Orlando is all about having fun, letting go, being wacky, and even splurging on some fanciful item you will never, ever wear once you leave Disney property. It’s a vacation; it’s meant to be something special and out of the ordinary. But you’re looking to save money, too. By purchasing items such as rain ponchos, water bottles, and glow sticks at a discount or dollar store, you’ll have those few extra dollars to put toward a Goofy hat or an “I’m with Grumpy” T-shirt. Get even more bang for your buck by purchasing merchandise themed for festivals, special events, or land or attraction openings, especially if it includes a date. These items are highly collectible, and even more so when left in the original, unopened packaging.
Never Pay for Water
The only time you should purchase bottled water in the theme parks or water parks is during the heat of summer when you’ve forgotten your reusable water bottle and all the water mains are broken (meaning, never). All counter service restaurants will provide a small cup of water, with or without ice, upon request, even if you haven’t purchased a meal, food item, or other drink. Simply ask the cashier for water or ice water, and he’ll provide you with a receipt you can take to the food pick-up counter. Hand it to the Cast Member assembling food and drink trays, and she’ll cheerfully provide you with the aforementioned hydration. During really hot periods, ice water dispensers will be available at the parks, resorts, and Disney Springs.
Check Out Fort Wilderness Golf Cart Parades
The annual Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party are beloved seasonal additions, but they can also add over $400 to your vacation expenses for a family of four. If something a bit less taxing on the wallet is in order, you won’t be left out. Head over to Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground between October 30 and December 24 for the quirkiest, most imaginative guest-created holiday parades you’ll ever see. Campers decorate their golf carts with elaborate themes, such as the Millennium Falcon, Haunted Mansion, or Santa’s sleigh; Disney characters are on hand; and there are prizes for the best-decorated carts. Date and time are subject to change, so phone Fort Wilderness Guest Services at 407-824-2900 for current information.
Target REDcard Discount
When is $950 worth a thousand dollars? When it’s on Disney Gift Cards purchased with your Target REDcard. Each time you use your Target REDcard to purchase a Disney Gift Card you receive 5 percent off the price, and the cards can be used to pay for park admission, resort rooms, shopping, and dining all across Walt Disney World (with a few exceptions, such as some food and gift kiosks). The discount can be applied to all Disney Gift Cards purchased in-store or online, and they are a good way to help control the budget if you’re trying to avoid impulse buying or limit children’s spending on souvenirs. Use the $50 savings on another card, or as “mad money” for a family splurge in the parks.
Take a Fort Wilderness Rest Day
Fort Wilderness has so much going on you can easily make it a full day’s adventure. Purchase park admission for one less day than you have available and enjoy the free or inexpensive activities at Mickey’s campground. Take to the waterways in a canoe, kayak, or boat; try your hand at archery; tour the barns where Magic Kingdom’s horses live; stroll the walking trails; or rent bikes or a surrey bike. For a few dollars more, go horseback riding or take a wagon or sleigh ride. Treat children to a pony ride or time at the playground, then end your day with the free Chip ’n’ Dale’s Campfire Sing-A-Long. Grand finale? Watch the Electrical Water Pageant from the shores of Bay Lake.
Save at Character Warehouse
Authentic Disney merchandise for up to 50 percent off? Yes, please! Everyone likes to open gifts with a little “Disney” inside, but onsite prices can be hard on tight budgets. Save a few bucks with a trip to Character Warehouse in the Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets shopping center, just three miles from Walt Disney World. No car? A free Maingate Transportation shuttle serves more than forty hotels, or hire a taxi from Disney resorts. Another big bonus? Much of the merchandise is last-season or discontinued, so you might find that item you wish you’d bought during your last Disney vacation. Can’t find what you want? There is a second location at Orlando International Premium Outlets.
Use Your Costco Member Discounts
That Costco membership you use to purchase forty rolls of toilet paper, massive bags of tortilla chips, and meat by the ton should come in handy for your Disney vacation, too. Most Costco stores carry gift cards for discounts on Disney theme park tickets, or percentage-off cards for Disney resort rooms. For online discounts, visit www.costcotravel.com, and click on “Theme Parks & Specialty” to go straight to Walt Disney World for discounts specific to Disney and the surrounding area. Some package deals include extras, such as room upgrades or kids-eat-free discounts. Or click on “Hotels” and input your details if you don’t need add-ons such as theme park tickets or a rental car. Be sure to compare with other discount sites to find the best savings.
Find Passholder Snack Discounts
One of the big benefits of being an Annual Passholder is the discount you’ll receive at many dining locations, but what if you just want a small snack? You’re in luck. Annual Passholders receive a 10 or 20 percent discount on food and non-alcoholic beverages at Erin McKenna’s Bakery NYC; Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop; Häagen-Dazs; Joffrey’s Coffee & Tea Company; Joffrey’s Handcrafted Smoothies; Sprinkles; Vivoli il Gelato; and Wetzel’s Pretzels, all at Disney Springs, plus Beaches & Cream Soda Shop at Disney’s Beach Club Resort. You can also purchase snacks and drinks at select merchandise locations and receive the discount. Always ask if the Annual Passholder discount applies.
Eat at Themed Restaurants for Less
Your budget is tight, but you’d still like to see the wonderfully themed Be Our Guest Restaurant, with its ballroom, West Wing, and Rose Gallery rooms, which can only be toured by guests with a dining reservation. The prix fixe dinner costs $110 for two adults or $180 for a family of four, which isn’t exactly wallet-friendly. Instead, make an off-peak lunch reservation and enjoy the dramatic elements in each room without a hefty bill. It’s okay if you just order dessert or appetizers at Be Our Guest, or at any of Disney’s non-buffet or no-characters restaurants. Jungle Navigation Co. LTD Skipper Canteen, Black Spire Outpost’s restaurant, the space-themed restaurant in Epcot’s Future World, T-REX, and Rainforest Cafe have the best themed environments.
Do Deluxe Resorts on a Budget
Disney’s Deluxe-level resorts are spectacular, from their themes to their special amenities, and your dream is to experience one or more of them in your lifetime. Your budget, however, says otherwise. Don’t despair. While it may take a bit more saving, there is a solution. Book the majority of your stay at a Value resort, and book your final night at a Deluxe. Save money by purchasing one less day on your park pass than you otherwise would, and spend the day before your departure enjoying the resort. Stay offsite for the first part of your vacation for added savings and apply the difference to your Deluxe room.
Pro Alert: Discounts in Unexpected Places
Before purchasing park passes, hotels, flights, or a rental car, you’re going to do a lot of research to ensure you get the best deal possible. While large aggregators such as Expedia, Skyscanner, Travelocity, and KAYAK are obvious sites for price comparisons, there are a few less-obvious options worth exploring. Ask your employer if they offer member discounts through www.greatworkperks.com or www.ticketsatwork.com. American Automobile Association (AAA) members receive Walt Disney World discounts, usually on packages, either online at AAA Travel or by visiting your local AAA office. TripAdvisor often runs special discount deals for Orlando hotels on www.tripadvisor.com, and Disney-specific online sites with reliable reputations, such as www.mousesavers.com and authorized Disney ticket seller www.undercovertourist.com, feature theme park tickets and resort or rental car discounts.
Picnic in the Parks
Dining in the onsite restaurants is one of the great joys of a Disney vacation, but even purchasing quick-service meals two or three times a day can be hard on the wallet. Disney does allow guests to bring certain foods into the parks, and an impromptu picnic can be just as enjoyable when eaten in scenic surroundings. Sandwiches and other foods that do not need heating are allowed, as are snacks, chips, raw vegetables, and wrapped, prepared foods. Just be sure the items you bring don’t need refrigeration. Alcohol is not allowed, and glass containers other than baby food jars are also forbidden. You can bring a small cooler, but remember, you’ll be lugging it around all day or paying to store it in a locker.
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Upgrade to an Annual Pass
You’re at Walt Disney World and you realize that this “once in a lifetime” trip is really just the first of many. If you’re planning your next visit before the current one has ended, you have at least one full day left on your current tickets, fewer than fourteen days have elapsed since you first used them, and your next trip will be within twelve months of the date of first use, you can upgrade your current passes to Annual Passes and reap all the benefits. Ideally you will have purchased your original ticket at a discounted price, because the non-discounted value of your park pass will be applied to the cost of the Annual Pass when you upgrade in person at any Guest Services.
Excerpted from Walt Disney World Hacks by Susan Veness. Copyright © 2019 by Susan Veness. Used with permission of the publisher, Adams Media, a division of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.