Visiting Disney World in Florida or Disneyland in California is practically a childhood rite of passage. The Disney magic isn't lost on adults either, many of whom enjoy returning year after year even without kids in tow. But no matter how fond you are of Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom, the steep cost of a Disney vacation can put a serious damper on the enthusiasm -- or send you to another park entirely. We spoke with Disney vacation experts and travel bloggers to identify the best ways to make a visit more affordable without forgoing any of the enchantment.
Raechel Conover contributed to this story.
Tickets are among the most expensive parts of any Disney visit, hovering around $100 a day at each park, depending on age and date. But there are several ways to save on admission. AAA sometimes offers member discounts, and Costco is known for extending deals on Disney tickets. Large companies, government organizations, and big groups such as unions also have occasional access to cut-rate admission. Disney offers specially priced tickets to active or retired members of the military and accompanying family and friends. It may take a little bit of shopping around to find the cheapest price, but it's worth the effort.
One of many costly mistakes you don't want to make at Disney, the advice to skip this option doesn't always go over well with clients, says Greg Antonelle, managing director of Mickey Travels, an authorized Disney vacation planner. But declining to buy a Park Hopper pass, which allows visits to more than one park in a day, is an easy way to save money. "It's an expense a lot of my clients don't need," Antonelle says. "If you end your day at a park early, then go enjoy your resort, check out the fireworks from the beach, catch an outdoor movie, or browse Disney Springs. All of these options are free and more relaxing than running to a second park."
Reduce ticket costs by buying multi-day park passes instead of buying tickets one day at a time. The price of admission decreases with each additional day purchased up front. When buying an adult ticket to the Magic Kingdom Park at Disney World, for example, the price during peak visiting time starts at $119 a day. But when three days are purchased, with admission to one park per day, the price drops to less than $97.
Lodging, another big-ticket item on any Disney vacation, also presents an opportunity to snag savings. At Disney World there are three categories of hotels: value, moderate, and deluxe. Antonelle of Mickey Travels recommends selecting the value tier for properties that are similar to "moderate" hotels except that they're generally located a little further away and require a free bus to reach the park. One of his personal favorites is Disney's Art of Animation Resort, where rooms start at about $127 a night.
Staying at Disney hotels certainly costs a bit more money. The flip side is that visitors who choose accommodations on Disney World property receive free transportation to and from the Orlando airport, which is no small savings, according to authorized Disney vacation planners Joanna Bistline and Lauren Lieberman. "We think this is a better value," Bistline says. "You don't have to rent a car and you get added perks, such as getting the Magic Bands (a bracelet device that enables access to parks, reserved activities, and Disney hotel rooms) which typically cost around $15, for free."
Off-property accommodations may be a trek at Disney World, but that's not the case at Disneyland, where several hotels sit just outside the park's main entrance, along Harbor Boulevard. These charge a small fraction of the cost of staying on-property, says Disney travel blogger Nathan Nelson. "And if you can get a room close enough, you don't even need a car to get back and forth." His recommendations for hotels within walking distance include Best Western Plus Park Place Inn, Anaheim Desert Inn and Suites, and Park Vue Inn.
Don't be shy about seeking savings. The parks are nearly always running a promotion or offering a special discount on hotel rooms, according to Megan DuBois, a Disney Instagramer and blogger. "Ask about them when you make reservations on the phone or check online," she advises. Typical discounts cover Florida residents, Disney Visa cardholders, and annual pass holders, as well as members of AARP, AAA, and the military.
Flexibility around dates should be a no-brainer for seasoned travelers, but Disney experts still find themselves repeating this advice often: Staying at a Disney hotel during the week (Monday through Thursday) typically is far cheaper than staying over the weekend. For those who have the vacation time, shifting a planned visit a few days can have a big impact on the budget.
Disney regulars embrace this trick: Ship things such as sports drinks and small snacks to the hotel before leaving home. Disney World and Disneyland allow visitors to bring in outside food, with the exception of a few items such as glass bottles and food that needs heating. Parcel out the goodies each day while at the park instead of buying them on the fly. The savings add up.
Some families with young children travel without a stroller only to discover how necessary one is once inside the sprawling Disney complexes. The parks, of course, realize this and rent strollers by the day, which is pricey for a multi-day vacation. Renting from a local company for the duration is probably cheaper. Many will drop off a stroller at your hotel room and pick it up when it's time to leave. Let's Go Strollers and Baby Wheels Orlando are two local options.
Buying souvenirs at the park is an expensive proposition that's best avoided. Disney blogger Nelson suggests purchasing Disney products at lower prices from a vendor like Target or Amazon or even sale items from the Disney store itself before leaving home. Stash the keepsakes in your luggage and hand them out to the kids after you arrive. "This not only lets them have some new fun things at a budget price," Nelson says, "it helps deflect squawking when passing merchandise stands."
Plan to stay for the nightly IllumiNations show at Epcot and take advantage of extended park hours for parades and fireworks. (Ask a "cast member" about the spots with the best views -- these folks are a wealth of knowledge.) To help keep everyone from tiring out early from too much walking, ride the Walt Disney World Railroad around the Magic Kingdom.
Separating from the parks for a day here and there during the course of a Disney vacation will lower the cost of a trip quite a bit. It also gives the group a break and opens the window to variety in the daily routine. Obvious substitute activities include relaxing by the pool or going shopping.
Get creative while visiting the parks, says Greg Nelson of Westgate Resorts, who has marketed Disney vacations for over a decade and lives in Orlando. Strolling Disney's BoardWalk is one of his favorite suggestions. Located near Epcot in the resort area, the boardwalk offers a peaceful, mile-long stroll around a small lake and a prime view of the fireworks over the park. Hunting for "hidden Mickeys" is another favorite. "The entire Disney property is like a giant playground for the game 'I Spy,'" Nelson says. "Disney's Imagineers have a long-running tradition of incorporating hidden Mickey Mouse head silhouettes into their designs and construction."
Simply walking around Disney World's many themed resort properties is a fun and free way to pass the time, particularly during the holiday season when they're decked out in their Christmas finery. Regardless what time of year it is, many resorts are filled with unique artwork, one-of-a-kind decor, and more. Highlights include the pools at Coronado Springs, which resemble a Mayan ruin, and the Grand Floridian, where a pianist may be hitting the keyboard. Take the free transportation from any of the four theme parks to the resort hotels or take advantage of the free three-hour parking at each property.
Disney World's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground offers an entire evening of free entertainment, including a campfire where visitors can roast hot dogs and marshmallows. There's also a sing-along led by a Disney cast member and Disney characters, and a free Disney movie under the stars.
MouseSavers, a site that provides loads of budget ideas for Disney vacationers, notes that several Disney resorts offer free tours. Animal Kingdom Lodge, for example, houses zebras, giraffes, Ankole cattle, and other exotic animals. And you don't have to be staying at the hotel to participate in the tours.
Spend an hour or a full day exploring Disney Springs at Disney World, where there's shopping, dining, free entertainment, and a free boat ride from one end of the complex to the other. Notable attractions include interactive fountains and a free Lego Imagination Center filled with thousands of Legos and Lego sculptures.
Sure, you may want to dine with Mickey and Minnie and the crew every day. But any seasoned Disney-goer knows that eating all meals at the park quickly busts the budget. Disney vacation planners Joanna Bistline and Lauren Lieberman suggest splurging on the meals most important to the family. All others can be quick grab-and-go from the hotel room or pulled from a picnic basket assembled beforehand.
Don't waste vacation time going to the grocery store. Contacting a food delivery service for in-room supplies can help reduce food costs before, during, and after each day's park excursion, according to experts Joanna Bistline and Lauren Lieberman. Local grocery stores, Whole Foods, GardenGrocer.com, and even Amazon are sources for breakfast foods, snacks, and perishables. Bistline says most hotels will refrigerate food and rooms often have a mini-fridge.
Disney offers a vacation-account program that includes online tools for budgeting, creating a savings plan, and tracking your progress. This doesn't yield direct savings on Disney expenses, but it helps vacationers set aside money and estimate a budget for the visit. There are no fees attached and a full refund is available at any time.
Preparing for a Disney visit includes researching what the family wants to see and do, reading advice blogs, and checking in with Facebook groups. All this effort helps ensure that time and money are spent wisely. Experts Joanna Lieberman and Lauren Bistline recommend the Disney Parks Moms Panel, a helpful question and answer forum on the Disney website.
Perhaps another no-brainer for the well-traveled: Visiting Disney during the slow season is the best way to protect the family's bottom line. Disney labels its seasons value, regular, and peak. Christmas, New Year's, spring break, and the summer months are peak times. Visitors generally get the best bang for their buck on tickets and accommodation from mid-January to early March and from September to early November, with the exception of holiday weekends. An added bonus: Off-peak dates usually are less crowded.
Disney typically raises the entrance fees for its parks each year. Buying tickets well before a visit is one way to avoid or preempt the latest round of price hikes. "A lot of times for Disney World, word gets out in advance of the price increase," says Beth Haworth, author of "The Ultimate Disney World Savings Guide." "If you know you're going to go that year, you can buy tickets before the increases take effect and use them later."
Nearly all the Disney budget experts suggest purchasing Disney gift cards at a discount. Megan DuBois notes that using a Target Red Card to buy Disney gift cards nets 5 percent off the purchase price. "That savings might not sound like a lot, but these gift cards can be used for everything at the parks," the Disney Instagrammer and blogger says. "So if you buy multiple cards, the discounts add up."
One last cost-cutting measure: Don't buy water in the park. Nearly every Disney regular points out that free water is available at all quick-service restaurants and Starbucks locations in Disney World and Disneyland. Even without a food purchase, the restaurants are happy to provide water. With bottles of water costing several dollars apiece and multiple family members hankering for a drink, the cost of water mounts pretty fast.
While Disneyland is much smaller than Disney World, the good news is that getting out of the park for a meal, shopping or a change of scene is that much easier. Downtown Disney has a Lego Store, Build-A-Bear, Sephora, Sanuk sandals, a surf shop and other options, plus Starbucks and a number of restaurants like Earl of Sandwich, Haagen-Dazs and more. The fountain at the far end of the shopping district is free entertainment, and the giant Lego sculptures outside the store are also free eye candy.