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."
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.
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).
Although Walt Disney World rarely discounts its tickets, deals can often be found for other popular attractions, so shop around. Ticket sellers like undercovertourist.com offer discounted passes, but the parks themselves sometimes have the best rates. "Universal Orlando posts amazing deals on their website," says Bob Sehlinger, coauthor of The Unofficial Guide: Walt Disney World 2013. And SeaWorld Orlando offers $10 off if you buy tickets online. Bob's tip: Sign up for e-mail newsletters from the attractions you want to visit, and check their sites often.
Another money-saver: skip ticket add-ons. Unless your family can go, go, go all day, Walt Disney World's Park Hopper pass, giving you access to more than one Disney park in a day, may not be worth it. Same for the Express Passes at Universal Orlando, which offer front-of- the-line access to most rides (excluding Harry Potter).
1. At Walt Disney World, don't miss the Magic Kingdom's new Enchanted Forest, home to Beast's Castle and the Be Our Guest Restaurant. Down- load the free My Disney Experience app to locate characters, get wait times, and more. (Admission starts at $89 adults, $83 kids; disneyworld.com; 407-934-7639)
2. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is one of the most popular areas of Universal Orlando Resort, so when the gates open, head right to the Forbidden Journey ride to avoid long lines. (Admission starts at $88 adults, $82 kids; universalorlando.com; 407-363-8000)
3. SeaWorld Orlando's animal shows and splashy rides are awesome, but the smaller, interactive experiences, like feeding stingrays and dolphins, can make a big impression on kids. Other high- lights: the new TurtleTrek exhibit and the adventure ride Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, which opens this spring. (Admission starts at $89 adults, $81 kids; save $10 online; seaworld.com)
4. The recently opened Legoland Florida in nearby Winter Haven wows younger kids with amazing Lego creations and rides, plus an on-site water park (additional fee). (Admission starts at $75 adults, $60 kids; legoland.com; 877-350-5346)
Visitorlando.com: Trip-planning advice, links to apps, and a free discount card.
Mousesavers.com: Insider tips, hotel and rental-car deals.
Undercovertourist.com: Deals, apps, and a YouTube channel.
The Unofficial Guide: Walt Disney World 2013: Unbiased reviews with a hint of attitude. ($19.99; Wiley)
Fodor's Walt Disney World With Kids 2013: With Universal Orlando, SeaWorld and Aquatica: Cost-saving ideas and insider tips. ($18.99; Fodor's Travel)
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of FamilyFun