A trip to Walt Disney World or Disneyland, or sailing on Disney Cruise Line, is a dream come true for kids. For parents, planning the ultimate family vacation is another story. There are thousands of "tricks" and "secrets" to visiting a Disney property. The challenge is sifting through them to figure out what actually saves money and works for your situation. Use these tried-and-true tips to help plan your next Disney vacation.
Don't pay full price for tickets.
Prepare for sticker shock: Daily admission to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World (Florida) is $105 for ages 10 and up and $99 for ages 3 to 9. Disneyland (California) is slightly cheaper at $99 for the older set and $93 for kids 3 to 9. Any way you cut it, this is a huge outlay for a family of four. Buying tickets for multiple days up front is cheaper than going one day at a time. AAA sometimes offers members
discounted Disney tickets, and large companies, government organizations, and big groups such as unions also have occasional access to cut-rate admission. "There is no frugal side when it comes to Disney," acknowledges Jonathon Rinehart, a father of two from Columbus, Ohio. "That being said, my Dad is retired [Marine Corps] and they have pretty nice discounts for military families if you qualify."
Think hard about a Park Hopper pass.
Don't spring for the Park Hopper option unless you're sure you will make it to more than one park in a day, advises Courtney Neri, an Ohio mother who has visited Disney World upward of 15 times with her two youngsters, taken two Disney Cruises, and also been to Disneyland. Otherwise the pass is a needless expense, and with so much to see, it's worth spending an entire day at each park.
Bring your own food.
The Disney discount site Mouse Savers
reports that Disney World has foresworn its "no outside food" policy to let visitors brown-bag it, with the exception of a few items (e.g., glass bottles, alcohol, food that needs heating). At Disneyland, the rule persists but is largely ignored. Hard-sided coolers are always forbidden. If you do buy food in the parks, hit the cheaper options. Disney World operates stands that sell fruit and giant pickles at lower prices than snack choices elsewhere in the park, and cups of water are free. Full meals are less costly at counter-service and cafeteria-style sites. Frequent visitors recommend a dining plan (part of a lodging and admissions package) if you find a discount deal and the agenda includes eating at any of the "fun" restaurants.
Consider the 'value' hotels.
In-park accommodation is available at several levels. For a family planning to spend the entire day at a Disney park, a pricier hotel is a waste of money. The "value" level is the most budget friendly, and those hotels will be discounted up to 15 percent from Jan. 2 to April 13 (Sunday through Thursday only Jan. 3 to Feb. 29). "We stayed at the budget resort and it was perfect for us," says Abbey DeHart, a mother of two from central Ohio. "The room wasn't spectacular, but it was a reasonable price and the pool area was amazing."
Bring your own souvenirs.
Do not -- repeat, do not -- buy the overpriced merchandise sold in Disney theme park stores. Head to a local store or shop online before the trip and load up on Disney memorabilia at far lower prices. Stash the items in your luggage and hand them out to the kids after you arrive. The Southern Plate
blog suggests placing the "souvenirs" on kids' pillows before heading out for the day and telling them their favorite characters left surprises at the hotel. That will help motivate kids to leave quietly and soothe the "want" of a high-priced keepsake as you pass by the shops.
Make the most of your time.
A trip this costly should be milked for all it's worth. A few tips: Take advantage of extended park hours and stay for the parade and fireworks. Ask a "cast member" for the spots with the best view (these folks are a wealth of knowledge). If you need a break, ride the train or people mover in the Magic Kingdom. Make a map of everything you want to see and do inside the parks on Disney.com and the company will mail it to you before your trip.
Bring your own beverages on a Disney cruise.
And that includes alcohol. Sealed alcoholic beverages packed in carry-on luggage may be brought on board, although a $25 wine corkage fee applies in the dining room. Be sure to bring bottled water, which is expensive on the ship and handy for shore excursions. Soft-sided coolers may be carried onto the ship.
Get more out of a Disney cruise.
Free activities, including movies and shows, are available throughout the ship. This gives the little ones a varied experience, keeps them occupied, and wears them out. To plan your day, Disney Cruise veteran Neri recommends using the Navigator, a daily on-board newsletter and free app. It details activities, the daily schedule, hours of operation, and characters available for autographs and pictures.
Start planning up to six months in advance.
DeHart estimates her family spent about $1,500 for three nights and four days, including one day at the Magic Kingdom, a meal plan for three, and lodging at a value resort. It was worth every penny, she says. "It's not cheap any way you look at it, but it was the best vacation ever." She also saved a few pennies by planning in advance. If you're giving your family a trip in 2016, leave plenty of time to shop around and find deals on admission into the parks, accommodation, and even dining. Free dining promotions and discounted meals with Disney characters occasionally surface online.
Go off season.
At Cheapism.com, we preach saving money by buying or going in the off-season, and Disney attractions are no exception. Christmas, New Year's, spring break, and the summer months are peak times. Everything is marked up, including accommodations and dining within and surrounding the parks. Generally rates are lower at both Disney parks in January and February, October and November, and the early days of December.