On top of being a household name and aspirational destination for children everywhere, remember that Disney is also a $152 billion juggernaut. From movie studios and television stations to merchandise and music, the global entertainment titan is a marketing master that is an expert at getting you to take money out of your pocket and put it into its cash registers. If you're a newbie to one of the world's dozens of Disney parks, you're likely going to make some costly rookie mistakes. And if it all seems too pricey, there are also cheaper family vacation alternatives.
At Disney resorts, it's almost impossible not to splurge on a few awesome things you want — and that's fine if it's within your budget. Don't, however, waste your money by paying theme-park prices for things you need and should have brought from home. Make you sure you pack — and don't forget at the hotel — sunscreen, sunglasses, device chargers, medicine, umbrellas, and extra clothing like sweatshirts.
When night falls in Disney theme parks, bright — and expensive — glowing toys emerge from kiosks everywhere. Kids love them, but the problem is they often find their way into the nearest trash can by the end of the night when the glow wears off. When it comes to pricey battery-powered light-up toys, they're likely to collect dust after the novelty of the trip is over. Expect to spend at least $25 for illuminated mouse ears. Want your kids to glow? You can score 100 glowsticks on Amazon for $10.
The "Star Wars" franchise is one of the greatest marketing juggernauts in history — and Disney owns it. That means everything "Star Wars" is oozing from every corner of Disney's parks. If you're in the market for a lightsaber or helmet that's exclusive to park shops, by all means — as long as you have the means. Otherwise, run a quick Google Shopping search before you swipe. Chances are you can get it cheaper at home or online. For example, you could buy a BB-8 Last Jedi LEGO figure from Disney for $110, or you could buy the same toy for Target for $100.
The Disney Dining Plan is wildly popular at least in part because it is brilliantly marketed as an exclusive perk available only to guests at Disney resorts. In reality, it can be a money pit. Although the addition of beer, wine and cocktails was a major upgrade in 2018, you still only get a single drink and you don't get an appetizer. Gratuity is still not included, but 18 percent is added to checks on parties of six or more. Bringing your own food and snacks can be a big money saver here — especially considering that you lose whatever you don't use.
The cost of visiting virtually all Disney parks -- at least those in the United States -- increases significantly during peak season. You can tell it's peak season if your kids are out of school. At Walt Disney World, the cheapest rooms in the parks' budget resorts can jump from less than $100 a night in off-peak times to more than $200 during the peak dates.
Disney resorts are conveniently located with immediate park access and they come packed with perks that many travelers consider to be well worth the money. You can likely spend much less per night, however, by booking a place through Airbnb or a similar site. Even better, you can cook your own food in your private rental. While Disney loyalists note that you can definitely land an off-site rental for less, but they're quick to point out that unless you drove to your Disney vacation, you'll have to rent a car or take an Uber or Lyft to and from the park, which can quickly erase any financial gains. Also, Disney resorts offer free shuttles and free breakfast. In the end, you have to strategize according to your situation.
It gets hot in Orlando. Likewise in Anaheim. Between the sun and all that walking, you're going to need plenty of water. There are two options at Disney resorts: get it for free or pay through the nose. Bottled water costs $3. Or, you could bring a refillable water bottle and fill up at any water fountain for nothing. Also, any quick-serve restaurant will give you a cup of ice water upon request.
Disney aggressively markets and distributes discounts of all sorts through a dedicated deals page on its website. Always check there before you buy anything. Right now, you can score deep discounts on rooms and vacation packages, authentic theme park merchandise and even Disney credit cards.
Despite the fact that it seems like everything you see at a Disney resort has a price tag attached to it, there's plenty of free stuff that newbies often overlook. Disney's Boardwalk at Walt Disney World, for example, is free with free parking. Parking and entertainment are also free at Disney Springs. The LEGO Imagination Center has a 3,000-square-foot outdoor play area that is, you guessed it, free.
Your kids have outgrown the stroller — or so you thought. Hoofing it through a Disney park can be surprisingly exhausting, even for many adults. Many travelers report walking as much as 10 to 12 miles per day. You're likely to find that your smaller so-called-stroller-outgrown children might be begging for a push before long. You can rent a stroller, but it will cost you $15 a day for a single or $31 a day for a double.
Park Hopper passes, which allow visits to more than one park in a day, can be valuable on multi-day trips to most Disney parks, but they're almost never worth the money if you're visiting a Disney park for just one day. It's common to underestimate how long it takes to move from one park to the next, and there's essentially no park you can completely knock out in a single visit — especially if you're carting children around.