A trip to Walt Disney World can really add up. We're talking thousands of dollars between the basics - park tickets, airfare, hotels, ground transportation and regular meals - and extras like character dining, bubble-blowing machines and line-skipping privileges.
"I often say that Disney is the very best company at getting you to spend money and be happy doing it," said Don Munsil, who runs the Disney discount site MouseSavers.com with his wife, Sarah Stone. "You're like, 'Oh, gosh, I can get this for this amount of money? Well, please, here's my money, take it.' "
Disney will definitely take your money. But the entertainment giant can take slightly less if travelers are savvy about their timing, strategic about planning ahead and decisive about priorities. A few in-the-know tips never hurt, either.
1. Find cheaper tickets in late summer.
Disney says its theme park tickets start at $109 a day for a one-day pass to a single park - but that price is valid only on certain low-traffic days, typically in the late summer when most kids are back in school. Which means those lowest prices are coming up on weekdays later this month and in September. Buying multiday tickets can reduce the per-day price, but the overall price tag will obviously be higher.
At busier times, prices climb as high as $159 a day.
While August and September in Central Florida can be hot and stormy, those lower-priced times are also less packed - a perk for those who can't abide peak crowds.
2. Consider sticking to one park a day.
Park-hopper tickets allow guests to visit multiple theme parks in one day; there are four parks at the Walt Disney World resort. But the cost of a one-day ticket with this option shoots up to $174 at a minimum.
Breeze Leonard, an affiliate manager and writer for TravelingMom.com, said she avoids the upgrade on trips with her three kids because of the cost and because there's plenty to fill a day in each park.
"You lose so much time going back and forth from the parks," she said. "I know we're going to have enough to do, and we're going to save the money."
3. Get a deal on gift cards.
Jackie Steele, who worked at Disney in Florida for several years and now writes for the Disney travel planning site MagicGuides, said some warehouse clubs like Sam's and BJ's Wholesale offer Disney gift cards at a slight discount - which he said "has always blown my mind as a way to save money on vacations." For Target shoppers who use a store-brand credit or debit card, the 5 percent discount on purchases also applies to gift cards.
Gift cards can be used for theme park tickets, dining, shopping, hotel rooms and more.
4. Buy your Disney gear and souvenirs elsewhere.
Leonard says rain ponchos are essential to pack for a Disney trip because of the inevitability of storms in Central Florida at certain times of year.
"A random rain shower shows up, and now suddenly you're in need of one," she said. "Now you're going to be paying an arm and a leg to get a poncho that you could have bought for a dollar had you packed it ahead of time." (In a 2021 story, the Disney Food Blog reported buying an adult-sized poncho for about $12 and rated the experience.)
After her first trip spending "way too much money" on bubble wands and other toys for her kids, Leonard starting buying cheaper versions of their must-have toys and secretly bringing them on the trip.
"I would give them one a day, like something new every day, and they would be able to take that into the parks," she said. "And so it was a fun way for them to still have what they wanted, but me not have to spend the money inside the park to purchase them."
The family will also visit Disney's Character Warehouse, an outlet store with two locations in the Orlando area, to buy discounted official Mickey Mouse ears, clothes or other items.
"When they have their souvenir money, we don't have them spend their money inside the parks," she said.
5. Bargain hunt for hotels off-site.
The Orlando area is full of places to stay: on-site Disney hotels, off-property chains, vacation rentals, timeshares and more. Consider the solution that works best for your family, and then comparison shop.
On-site resorts can come at a premium, but Leonard said one lesser-known solution that can save a significant amount of money is renting points for deluxe Disney Vacation Club properties, Disney's version of a timeshare. Vacation club members buy an interest in a timeshare and get points to use to book their stays, but they can rent those points out if they aren't going to use them.
"You're going to have all the same privileges or benefits of staying on site," such as transportation and early park access with no timeshare pitch, she said. Travelers are basically booking the rooms through owners, facilitated by companies like David's Vacation Club Rentals.
For members of the military, the Shades of Green resort at Walt Disney World offers rooms that are less expensive than comparable hotels.
6. Dine strategically.
There's no reason to buy three meals a day plus snacks at Disney parks. Visitors are allowed to bring food inside, which is exactly what Leonard does.
"We'll just fill our backpacks up with sandwiches and snacks," she said. "And, honestly, our kids are always going a hundred miles an hour when we're at Disney, and they want to see and do all the things. And so as long as we're in line waiting on rides and I can feed them occasionally with the snacks out of our bag, it seems like everybody stays happy."
But if the family wants to have a special dining experience with characters, Leonard said she recommends booking it for breakfast or lunch, which is less expensive than dinner.
One thing she will spend money on: refillable popcorn buckets. Standard ones cost about $13, according to the Disney Food Blog, and can be refilled for $2.25 over the length of a stay - a good deal over several days for a popcorn-loving family.
One thing no one has to buy at Disney: ice water. Most quick-service restaurants will provide cups of free ice water, a way better deal than $3.50 bottled water. There are also water fountains and bottle-filling stations for those who bring reusable bottles.
"When you've got a family of four that you're buying bottled water for two or three times a day, that turns into money really quick," Steele said.
7. Take a day off.
Munsil, of MouseSavers.com, said his family will often visit Disney for seven or eight days but only go to the parks for five or six. The site lists dozens of free or cheap activities on the resort complex, including riding the boats, rail system and the cable-cars that function as Disney transportation.
"There's plenty of interesting stuff to do," he said. One favorite is a monorail tour of the resorts near the Magic Kingdom.
"They're all a great place to grab a little bite or snack or just relax and enjoy or walk around or go to one of the lounges," he said. "It's just pleasant to sit there and people-watch and have a drink and enjoy all the ambiance and the decorations."
Steele said there's something "beautiful" about taking a day to rest.
"You don't feel like your vacation has absolutely murdered you by the time it was done," he said. "That's a great way to save a little bit of money."