The cost of visiting Disney has skyrocketed over the years, making it unaffordable for many families. Here are some hacks to help you save money on a Disney vacation.

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An image of a family going into Walt Disney World.
Credit: Getty Images.

Taking a family trip to Disney World or Disneyland is practically a rite of passage for children in this country. Heck, for some families, visiting is even an annual tradition.

But in the years since Disney World and Disneyland were created, the cost of visiting has skyrocketed so much that it's no longer affordable for the average American family. A report earlier this year from Insider found that the total cost of a four-night visit for a family of four is a whopping $6,033. The report's price tag includes the costs of a budget hotel, a low-cost dining plan, and entrance tickets to the theme park. In other words, that incredibly steep estimate does not even include airfare, transportation, or such things as snacks, souvenirs, and parking. Yikes!

Still, plenty of parents want to give their children the special memories the come with visiting the happiest place on earth. To help you do so without going broke, racking up significant debt, or remortgaging the house, here are some budget hacks from industry insiders to help scale back the costs.

Stay at a non-Disney hotel

Lodging is easily one of the biggest expenses associated with a visit to Disney. The Insider report puts the price tag for four nights at a budget hotel at $2,617. How to avoid that cost? Stay off property, or in a non-Disney-owned hotel, says Dia Adams, family travel expert at Forbes Advisor.

"Disney World and Disneyland hotels have gutted their benefits to the extent that their value proposition has pretty much disappeared," Adams tells Parents. "Disneyland has many hotels within walking distance and Disney World has the Disney Springs hotels, which are on Disney property but independently owned. Staying at a non-Disney hotel could save you more than 50 percent on your lodging cost."

Eat a few meals in your room

To help cut down on the cost of food during your vacation, look for accommodations that include kitchens, says Kristin Luz, a travel advisor with Family Travels and Adventures

"Condo-style lodging is often already an affordable option and also increases the savings on food," Luz tells Parents. "Families can potentially save hundreds in food costs if they eat breakfast in, pack lunch and snacks, and cook dinner on the occasional early night in."    

Keri Baugh, creator of the website Bon Voyage With Kids, has visited Walt Disney World close to 100 times herself, and well over 20 times with her three kids. Her favorite hack for saving on food expenses includes having groceries delivered to the family's lodging.

"We order groceries to our room using Instacart from a nearby grocery store, and this saves us money because we can eat breakfast in our room, and pack snacks for the parks," says Baugh, who suggests looking for accommodations in Disney Vacation Club villas to make eating meals outside of the park more convenient. 

"Even if you aren't a member of the Disney Vacation Club, guests can pay to stay at a Disney Vacation Club villa, which often includes kitchenettes with fridges and laundry," explains Baugh.

Shop around for discount park admission

The cost of entrance tickets to Disneyland and Disney World is another prohibitive (downright shocking) cost for many families. A standard theme park ticket for Disney World, for instance, starts at $105 per day, for anyone 10 and over.

But there are ways to cut back on this cost. To begin with, you can save $20 per ticket when you purchase a three-day or longer ticket online—as compared to buying a three-day ticket at the entrance gate. That's just one way you might score some savings.

"There are several places to get discount Disney tickets, including AAA and Costco Travel," says Kirsten Maxwell, founder of Kids are a Trip. "Sometimes corporations have park discounts as well, so be sure to check with your employer in advance."

Members of the US military, both active and retired, also get discounted tickets, says Maxwell.

Skip the park-hopper tickets

Another note on ticket purchases: Park-hopper passes are more expensive than single-park entry passes. So, think carefully about whether you really plan to go from one park to another in a single day.

"The park-hoppers allow you to change parks midday. However, we often find that we don't end up changing parks and enjoy where we are staying (especially when traveling with toddlers," says Baugh, of Bon Voyage With Kids. "And rather than paying for something we won't use or get much out of (if you are only in the second park for a few hours), we save money by sticking to a single-park ticket."

For Baugh and her family, the same held true for the pricey Disney Dining plan that visitors can buy in advance. "We have used it in the past but found that we didn't use all of it. In the end, it was cheaper for us to dine some in our room, bring in our own snacks, and dine at Disney for a few meals."

Find ways to enjoy Disney without going into the park every day

Just because your family is planning a Disney vacation doesn't mean you need to purchase park entrance tickets for every single day you will be in the area.

"We actually only buy theme park tickets for three of our seven days, because there's a lot to do at Disney World that beyond what's inside the theme parks," explains Baugh. "This saves money by not over-buying theme park tickets. The Disney hotels often have tons of activities for kids, not to mention fun pools and splash areas."

There are other entertainment options as well, such as mini-golf, horseback riding, and beach activities at a couple of the properties, adds Baugh. In addition to all of that, there's also shopping, dining, and entertainment at Disney Springs, which is free to visit. 

"When my kids were toddlers, we would sometimes just ride the Monorail around, or take one of the watercraft boats from the hotel to the park and back again," continues Baugh. "They didn't realize the transportation wasn't a 'ride,' and it saved us the cost of a theme park ticket."

Carefully research transportation options—and costs

Rental car costs are often another significant line-item expense on a family vacation. And since the COVID-19 pandemic has created a shortage of rental cars, the price being charged by rental companies has skyrocketed. Before reserving a car for your visit, investigate the other transportation options available to determine whether there might be a cheaper alternative.

"Don't assume that renting a car is the cheapest option," Luz. "If your resort doesn't include transportation and it is not in walking distance, consider the cost of gas and parking on top of the cost of renting the car when deciding if it's your best option. Sometimes it's cheaper to use ride-shares to get around."

Use discounted Disney gift cards to make purchases

Another way families can save—both during a Disney vacation, and also upfront when paying for their vacation package—is to purchase Disney gift cards at local retailers and use them to cover costs.

"These can be purchased at Target at a 5 percent discount when using a Target Red Card, or for discounted prices at Sam's Club or BJ's warehouse," says Stacie Lowe, a travel advisor and Disney specialist with The Travel Mechanic.

The value of each gift card can even be combined using Disneygiftcard.com so you won't have to travel with multiple cards and keep track of them all. 

Purchase souvenirs before visiting the parks

Many a Disney expert will tell you that the most expensive place to buy your souvenirs is inside the theme parks. You can get around this by purchasing Disney gifts ahead of time at local department stores.

"Skip the overpriced souvenir t-shirts. Many Target stores now have their own 'Disney Store' within a store," says Brittany, of The Minivan Bucket List. "You can also find Disney gear at places like Amazon or Walmart. When we went to Disney World earlier this year, Baby Yoda was at the peak of his popularity—but we bought an $8 Baby Yoda t-shirt from Walmart instead of paying two to three times that amount at the park." 

You might even involve your child in the selection process, or alternatively, surprise them by giving them the items you purchased as gifts during your visit.

"You could leave a Disney stuffed animal on their bed at night or present them with a Disney t-shirt with their name on it and an autograph book before heading to the park," adds Angela Rice, co-founder of Boutique Travel Advisors.

Bring refillable water bottles from home

This may seem like a small thing, but bringing your own refillable water bottles will pay off in multiple ways. It will not only save you money (according to the Insider report, bottled water at Disney can be at least $5); it will also help save the planet from the never-ending stream of plastic pollution humans create.

"Disney visitors often underestimate how much water they need to stay hydrated, and the cost of keeping a family of four happy and healthy for the day could easily be $50," says Luz. "Bring your water bottles and use the refill stations located throughout the parks to avoid that unnecessary expense."

While you're at it, bring your own snacks and food too, in order to save even more money.

"Most people don't know you can actually bring your own food into the Disney parks," says Maxwell, of Kids are a Trip. "Consider bringing sandwiches, juice boxes, and snacks to keep everyone well-fed for the day and avoid the high prices and crowds at the Disney restaurants.

Visit off-season

It's hardly any secret among seasoned globetrotters that travel expenses are steeper during peak travel seasons. This holds true when visiting Disney as well.

"If you can plan a trip to avoid major events like Christmas, Halloween, and holiday weekends, you can save money on hotels and transportation—flights included," says Maxwell.

Lowe, of The Travel Mechanic, says the least expensive weeks in 2022 when you'll find the most favorable prices (and fewer crowds as an added bonus) include most of January, the first two weeks in May, and most of August.

"After mid-August, the parks get really quiet with kids back in school," explains Lowe, adding that the week before Halloween,and the first two weeks of December are also good choices.

Make reservations well in advance

One final tip for those looking to make Disney more affordable: Booking a vacation package as early as possible can be another money-saver. That's because if ticket or resort prices go up as the year progresses, you are already locked into your vacation package—and your price will not increase, says Lowe, of The Travel Mechanic.

"However, if promotions come out after you have booked, those can be applied to your vacation package for an even better deal," Lowe adds.

Bottom line? A little advance planning can be a win-win-win.