**UPDATE, August 2: Thank you to everyone who commented with your awesome ideas on how to save money at Disney World. The giveaway is now closed and I chose 2 winners at random…. congratulations to Aubrey and Ashley J — check your e-mail for a confirmation from me so I can get those gift cards to you! I can’t thank everyone enough for all the great tips. New readers: if my tips don’t apply to you, check out all the advice in the comment section…something for everyone over there!
**UPDATE, July 24: With the overwhelming response to this post, I am hosting a giveaway of TWO $25 DISNEY GIFT CARDS that can be used online, in stores, or at the parks. To enter, leave a comment telling me what YOU do to save money on Orlando theme parks, or, if you’ve never been, HELPFUL feedback on this post. On August 1st, I will pick two lucky winners! If you have previously commented you can drop me an e-mail and I’ll add you to the list!**
Since this is a food blog, I obviously don’t normally post about travel but, like food, it is another of my many passions! One of my favorite pastimes is finding ways to make travel as cheap as possible, and over the years I have picked up some great hints and tips! This past winter, my best friend and I went to Orlando to visit many of the area parks down there. We planned our trip very last minute, but we worked hard and put in a lot of research. The results were pretty awesome; we managed to each have a perfect vacation in Orlando for under $100 a day. Previously I would have thought this impossible, but when great information falls into your lap, you should always use it and, more importantly, share it. So for all of you upcoming mouseketeers out there, consider this when planning your next Orlando vacation:
Disney (and Orlando in general) is one of those places where visitors throw away thousands of dollars in potential savings for the convenience of getting one, simple, all-inclusive Disney sanctioned package. The theme parks do a pretty good job of making the prospect of not picking out an “authorized” vacation package scary and daunting. Even though Disney is one of the most popular tourist destinations on Earth, the amount of information about traveling “under the radar” is limited. It can leave even the most seasoned traveler asking questions like:
“If I don’t stay at a hotel on site, how will I get around? If I don’t buy my tickets directly from Disney, will I still be able to get in? Where will I eat in the area, should I just get a dining plan? Any “deal” when it comes to Disney World must be a hoax, no one does Disney for cheap, right? I can trust Disney, right?”
Well, let me break the news to you… you can’t. You can’t trust Disney. You wouldn’t walk into a casino and say that the house is on your side, would you? Like a casino, theme parks are trying see how much you’re willing to shell out for the thrills. There is no way to “win” against them, they will always be getting some of your money, but you can certainly lessen the blow by putting in just a little bit more effort. Here’s how:
When my best friend and I decided to trek down to Orlando for a much needed vacation, we committed to only letting the theme parks take our money for park admission and possibly parking. We weren’t going to sleep on site, eat on site, rent lockers, buy souvenirs (we failed on this last part), or any of the Disney jazz they try to sign you up for. Even though I spent the better part of 6 months traversing around Europe, planning an unsanctioned trip to Disney was one of the hardest trips I’ve ever had to plan. There’s just not a wealth of information out there geared toward people like us who don’t have families, are first timers, and probably won’t be returning year after year. A lot of the stuff we ended up doing to save money made me feel like we were “fighting dirty” against the theme parks, so I exercise you to use caution if you use any of my methods. They worked out perfectly for us, but results can vary. The following should be considered just a collection of “ideas” to consider when traveling down to Orlando, use your own discretion in following them.
1. Travel in the off-season.
If you don’t have kids, there’s pretty much no reason you should be visiting Disney during the peak season in the summer. I can’t see anything redeeming about it — everything is infinitely more expensive, lines are hours in length, and it’s sweltering hot. You really get a lot more value from your vacation by choosing to travel in November, December, or January (but not during the week between Christmas and New Years). Research your dates thoroughly and don’t assume that just because costs are inexpensive, you’re getting a good deal — as one commenter pointed out, prices for hotels in September might be cheap, but it’s also hurricane season and rain is abundant. Long weekends are also prone to big crowds, but in general it’s a pretty safe bet that attendance will be lowest in the “winter.”
We chose the second week in December and waited on very few lines, got premium parking spots, and really great deals on hotels and flights. Choosing when to go is probably the biggest factor in cheapening your vacation.
Taking it a step further, avoid the most popular parks on the busiest days, even in the off season. You can buy all sorts of guides and subscribe to numerous sites that have “insider information” about this, but it’s pretty basic logic…
- Crowds are usually lowest during the middle of the week (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) and highest on the weekends.
- The parks that immediately pop into your head when you think of Orlando are the most popular: Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Epcot (to some extent)
- The parks that are the least popular are the ones your probably forgot existed: Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Busch Gardens
- Universal, Sea World, Disney Hollywood are somewhere in the middle.
- Pair the least popular days of your vacation to the most popular parks to avoid the crowds.
This gets a little tougher when you consider that tickets are cheaper if you buy a block of days to Disney or Universal (3-day tickets to Disney are cheaper than individual day tickets), so just do the best you can. If you can avoid Magic Kingdom on a Saturday, you’ve already done yourself a great service in enhancing the value of your vacation by avoiding crowds and packing more into your day.
Once you’re inside the park you can download an app to your smartphone (for free) that will tell you the wait times for rides. This information is also posted throughout the park, but it sure is handy to have it in your pocket. Look for lulls in the lines for big rides around noon when everyone is settling in for a break. If you’re an adult child like me and insist on riding The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh before you leave the park, rides geared toward younger children seem to catch a break in the evening when families have taken their tuckered out kids home for the day.
2. Don’t stay on-site at a theme park hotel.
Use Priceline’s Price Negotiater to find a hotel and spend the time to bid slowly! There’s a lot of great information out there about how to effectively bid for travel. Peruse the web boards at Biddingfortravel.com and see what other people are paying for area hotels. My requirement was essentially a bed, a bathroom, and no bugs. I looked at hostels, too (hostelworld.com) but I wasn’t ready to settle on a face-value price just yet. I started my bid at something ridiculous like $15 a night at the one star level in any areas near Disney or Universal. I increased my bid, dollar by dollar, until finally something caught at $22 a night. I didn’t have high hopes for the quality of the hotel, but it turned out to be pretty awesome.
We booked a one-star national hotel chain in Kissimmee. No frills, no bugs, two beds, a TV… comfortable enough, and had a heated pool, a free shuttle to Disney, and was within walking distance of restaurants, stores, and coffee shops. It even came with a free breakfast, which was really just oatmeal packets and juice, but hey, free is free, and it meant one less meal we had to shell out our own money for.
[What We Paid: At $22 a night for 4 nights (plus tax) we paid a total of $107.52 for our lodging (split between the two of us) came to $53.76 a person ... about $13.50 a day per person.]
3. Rent a car, but rent it with discounts.
We came to the conclusion pretty early on that even with the free shuttle to Disney, we were going to need to rent a car if we wanted to visit all the parks. Orlando has unreliable public transportation and the theme parks are spread out over many miles. We knew this part was going to be a challenge because we’re both under 25 and most rental companies have steep daily fees for young drivers. I did A LOT of research to help us find the cheapest possible rate. Fortunately, there are many great internet forums that post corporate account codes (read: these are actual company accounts, not simply coupon codes) that you can enter online when reserving a car to get discounts and waive fees (particularly young driver fees). I picked one I knew we would be able to get away with, the University of California’s alumni discount code for Enterprise car rental.
You can find such codes at fatwallet.com, and there’s a pretty good list of corporate accounts and the perks of using each one. When we first picked up our compact car, they had not waived the young driver fee, but when I showed them our receipt and said the fee was supposed to be waived, they didn’t ask questions and just took off the extra expense.
[What We Paid: 5 day car rentel from Enterprise with discounts = $105.39 TOTAL or about $21 a day (split between 2 people = $10.50 per person per day)]
As for gas, we really didn’t use that much. I’d say it came out to about:
[What We Paid: $20 worth of gas and tolls, between two of us over 5 days was about $2 per day per person]
3. If you can avoid parking at Disney, do it.
Unfortunately, throughout the 5 days we were there, we paid for parking almost every day. This was one area where I didn’t do a ton of research before we went (and I regret that), but there are actually a lot of easy options for avoiding paying the steep parking fees at theme parks. As I mentioned, our hotel did have a daily shuttle to the main gate of the Disney World parks where you can get on the monorail; we only used it one day, but it saved us $15 in parking. As far as I could tell, anyone can hop on one of these shuttles and you don’t need to show proof of a reservation. If you’re staying at a hotel that does NOT offer a shuttle to the park you want to visit, look around and see if the nearby hotels do — you can probably just hop on their bus.
Another option is to park at Downtown Disney, which is free, and catch a Disney bus to and from the resorts. We kind of missed out on that opportunity, but it is possible to completely avoid paying for parking during the course of your stay.
I couldn’t find much information about avoiding parking at the International Drive theme parks (Universal, Sea World, etc.,) other than staying at a nearby hotel, but if you happen to know someone who lives in the area, drop off is free at Universal (you have to pay for Disney).
[What We Paid: Since we didn't do our research on this one, we paid $15 a day over 4 days = $60, split between the two of us over the course of our trip amounted to about $6 per person a day]
4. Bring your own food and water to the parks.
All of the area theme parks allow you to bring in your own food and beverages. The first thing we did when we got to Orlando was hit up the grocery store and load up on groceries. For 5 days we bought:
- 1 double loaf of bread = $4
- 1 gallon carton of goldfish = $8
- 1 palate of bottled water = $6
- 1 jar goober grape = $5
- 1 crate of clementines = $10
- 1 giant bag of carrots = $4
- 1 bag of Sunchips = $5
We took plastic knives from the deli section for spreading our sandwiches and my friend was smart and brought an entire box of ziplock bags for us to pack our lunches and dinners in. As I also mentioned, breakfast was free at our hotel, and we sometimes stocked up on extra muffins and oatmeal packets for use later that day.
We weren’t perfect. We bought coffee some days and ate dinner out one night. Sometimes we splurged on park snacks like butterbeer at Harry Potter World in Universal. But in theory, it was do-able to eat all your own meals for around $10 a day per person. When we did eat at Universal, we used coupons from a packet you can pick up once you’re through the gates at one of the gift shoppes. It actually had really great deals for City Walk and helped bring “park prices” down to normal.
[What We Paid: our total grocery bill was about $42, split between the two of us over 5 days amounted to about $8.40 per person per day]
5. Don’t be fooled into buying your park tickets ahead of time.
Park tickets are probably the toughest area to save money on. No matter what you do, you’re going to end up paying for them, and the system is not setup to benefit those who are visiting the park for only a few days. At Disney, Universal, and other area theme parks, the more days you commit to spending in the park, the cheaper your cost per a day becomes. The price per a day for a one day ticket to Disney is nearly 4 times that of a weekly ticket. It just ‘aint fair.
I’ve highly edited this section of my post because (as you may see from the comments), it has received a lot of feedback and I don’t want anyone to be misled. Before I launch into how we got our tickets, here are some easy ways to find discounts (many courtesy of those who have left comments):
- If you are a AAA member or know someone who is, discounted tickets are available for almost all of Orlando’s parks. These tickets are usually for multiple day passes and you must purchase them through your local AAA office.
- Buy an Orlando Entertainment book, which can offer about $20 off tickets.
- Discounts are available for U.S. military personnel and their families. Many large employers also have discounts available, but chances are if you work for them, you already know about it. Still, it never hurts to ask your HR rep. if they have any connections!
- If you’re staying off site, ask at your hotel! Talking to the locals is a great way to find out if anyone has connections, knows reputable places to get discounts, or has a trusted source. I firmly believe many people miss out on potentially great resources right in front of them because they never take the time to stop and ask.
- If you’re visiting Sea World and purchase tickets through their website, your ticket should be valid for TWO days. Here’s the trick: at the end of your first visit you need to go to guest services and ask for a return voucher. This is a very good option if you have an awkward half day with nothing to do before your flights and don’t want to pay for a full day’s admission somewhere else.
But there are other options. Throughout Orlando you will find numerous booths and signs that offer discounts — they’re in hotels, airports, restaurants, even our bus driver had a similar sign. More often than not, these are third-party brokers who resell tickets much like scalpers do for sporting events, at a very discounted cost. These ticket resellers buy 10 day passes to Disney (where the price per a day is about $25) and rent them to individuals on a day-to-day basis for a steeply discounted price, plus a small mark-up fee for their services.
This was our experience, and it worked perfectly for us, but it might not be for everyone. Others have had very different experiences, and the majority of information out there tells you to avoid using third party brokers, probably for good reason. I’m putting it out there just to stand up and say that it worked for me and many comments on this post suggest that it has also worked for others and can work for you too. On the flip-side, many readers have expressed upset that I would validate third-party brokers, and an entire moral debate has been struck up in the comments section. After much consideration, I have decided to keep this part of my post because it has otherwise become a taboo topic in the “Disney World” and very little information exists online about it. Whether I post about it or not, people are going to use brokered tickets, and I think I can offer some advice on how to protect yourself if you choose to, too.
Now please, be careful with this one; it worked out perfectly for us, but there are no guarantees. Do your research first! Our hotel has a kiosk right in the lobby offering these discounted tickets, with the same guy who manned the booth every day. He offered us two days worth of Disney tickets at $30 a day, compared to the $85 we were going to pay by buying a one-day ticket online. After talking to other hotel patrons who had purchased tickets from this guy and had success, we decided to give it a shot.
He was upfront about the risks. While it is not illegal to purchase these tickets, it is against Disney’s policy to share park passes. He made it known to us that there were no guarantees, and that it was entirely possible they would be confiscated and we would have to pay full price. He also let us know that it was not in his interest to deceive us, since a confiscation of the pass meant a severe loss for him. Weighing the options, we agreed that the potential pay-off was worth the possible risk and settled on paying him $20 cash upfront the rest only if the tickets worked out.
A little scary, but since his kiosk was based out of our hotel, I knew I’d be able to track him down the next day if we suddenly got denied from Disney. I also felt protected by the fact that he operated out of my hotel, a national chain. If we got “scammed,” I figured I had numerous options to recoup my losses, and if I couldn’t, well, live and let learn.
When we got to the ticket gates, I had brief reservations. You must go through fingerprint scanners to get into the park and I knew mine would not match those who had previously used the ticket. When I pressed my finger up to the scanner, the computer did indeed confirm I was not a match, but the turnstile opened anyway and there wasn’t even a question from the gate attendant. Other than a little heart racing, we experienced no problems both days we used the tickets; a big risk, but an even bigger reward: we saved about $60 per ticket per day!
If you choose to use this information, please be aware of the risks. The possibility for savings is huge, but it could also end up costing you money too. Park security won’t care to hear your sob story if your ticket doesn’t work out, but If you do choose to go this route, here’s some advice to consider:
- Buy from a reseller that you know you’ll see again. In our case, this was the guy who ran the booth in our hotel. Maybe you know someone who has a friend who sells tickets, either way, protect yourself by making sure you can find them again. In most cases, they’ll be wanting to track you down too, to make sure they get their pass back!
- Typically they’ll try to sell you the passes that have the fewest days left on them. Ask for newer passes if they have them, which will decrease the risk associated with the ticket.
- Get as much information as you can about the ticket, where and when it was purchased, how many people have used it before, and what parks they visited on what days. All this information is stored on the card, so if Disney knows it, you should too.
- Feel free to haggle. You can ask not to pay all the money upfront, you can ask for a ticket that hasn’t yet been used.
- Always remember you can walk away if you don’t feel comfortable. Until money changes hands, you’re under no obligation to accept a price or a ticket.
[What We Paid: $30 Per Person Per Day]
So there you have it. Adding up our lodging, car rental, gas, food, park tickets, and parking, our grand total comes to: $70.10 per day. With a little research and a bit of bravery, an affordable Disney vacation really is possible!