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10 Money-Saving Secrets For Orlando Family Vacations

If you're planning a family vacation in Orlando, there are many ways to stretch your family travel dollars. The Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau has provided us with many excellent suggestions and we have contributed a number of our own. Here are 10 great budget-saving family travel tips help you find deals, save money, and get the most out of your Orlando family vacation.

In addition to these vacation ideas, take a look at the nearly 40 special values on accommodations and attractions provided on the website of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, VisitOrlando.com. Also make sure to check out this story on The Family Travel Network, which provides more insider tips on how to stretch your family's vacation budget and save money when you travel.

1. When To Go:  Orlando has many different seasons, some of which offer more values than others. The shoulder seasons of April/May and October are excellent times to visit Orlando. Not only are there fewer crowds and a high likelihood of sunny and warm weather, but special deals tend to be widely available. The value seasons in Orlando generally occur after New Year's until mid-February, mid-August through early October, and from after Thanksgiving through mid-December.  Holidays, spring break and summer are considered to be high seasons and prices tend to be significantly higher during these time periods. Make sure to also consider the weather when you plan your vacation. July and August tend to be the hottest and rainiest months, November through January are the coldest months, and hurricane season in Florida generally occurs from July through mid-October.

2. Where To Stay: There are plenty of great places to stay in Orlando for families on a budget, and hotel specials abound. Options range from budget accommodations starting at about $50 per night to value-oriented hotels with rooms in the $80 range. Vacation homes, home exchanges, bed & breakfasts and campgrounds are other choices for families to explore. According to TripAdvisor.com, some of the favorite family budget hotels in the region include Disney's Pop Century Resort, Horizons by Marriott Vacation Club at Orlando, Disney's All-Star Movie Resort, Marriott's Grande Vista, Staybridge Suites Lake Buena Vista, Comfort Suites Maingate East, and Disney's All-Star Music Resort. The 24-acre Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn is also a great choice for families, with its 800 family-friendly suites featuring kitchenettes, a free breakfast buffet, and free shuttles to Walt Disney World. Make sure to look for accommodations that offer kitchen facilities, free breakfasts and/or "Kids Eat Free" deals. Larger families and those who would like more space to spread out should take a look at All Star Vacation Homes in Orlando, as well as properties available directly from owners on HomeAway or at VRBO.com. Timeshares available through sites like RedWeek.com can also be a good source of low cost accommodations. If you are a member of AAA and AARP, make sure to ask for your discounts. If you are not a member of one of these organizations, call the hotels directly and ask for a discount or the best possible rate. You might be surprised at how low the price goes. For a variety of value-oriented hotel plus theme park ticket packages, take a look at the VisitOrlando.com website, visit the Walt Disney Travel Company site or call them at 407-934-7639, and check out the "Stay 4, Play Free" vacation deals available at Universal Orlando

3. How To Get There: Airline tickets to Orlando can be expensive, so watch for sales, shop wisely, and try to be flexible on vacation dates and departure airports. A one-hour drive can often deliver savings of several hundred dollars on an airline ticket to Orlando. When looking for the best deals on airfare prices, make sure to check online with aggregator sites such as Kayak, Sidestep, Farecompare, and Farecast. Also take a look at sites like www.airfarewatchdog.com, Travelzoo and Cheapflights for information on airfare deals and specials from a variety of airports. You might want to subscribe to their free money-saving e-newsletters as well. In addition, make sure to check the websites of low-fare airlines such as Southwest, Spirit Airlines and JetBlue Airways. Be aware that these airlines will generally not show up on third-party provider sites such as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. Make sure to talk with your travel agent and search the Internet for money-saving Orlando vacation packages offered by airlines, tour operators, Internet travel agencies, theme park operators (Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, etc.) and others. Combining air tickets, hotel and theme park passes can often save a surprising amount of money. Also, if train travel is a possibility from your home town, take a look at the fares and schedules on Amtrak. Amtrak sometimes offers "Kids Travel Free" deals on their regular trains and on their Amtrak Auto Train from the Washington, D.C. area (Lorton, Virginia) to Florida. Many children love trains, and the excitement of the train trip can add an extra component of adventure to your vacation.

4. Eating Out: Meals can account for a significant portion of the family vacation budget. When selecting places to stay and eat out in Orlando, make sure to consider accommodations with kitchen facilities and look for "Kids Eat Free" deals. Hotels with "Kids Eat Free" dining programs during selected times of the year include Loews Hotels (during extra value weeks), Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn, Orlando World Center Marriott Resort, The Hilton Orlando Resort, Royal Plaza in the Walt Disney World Resort, Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Resort (as part of their "Summer Splash" program), Sheraton Safari Hotel & Suites, and many more. Orlando area restaurants sometimes offer these programs as well, including the Andiamo Italian Bistro & Grill, Gator's Dockside, Giovanni's Italian Restaurant, Lone Star Steak House and Roadhouse Grill. In addition, make sure to investigate the Dining Plan available with theme park packages at Walt Disney World. Look on the Walt Disney World site for more information on this package component to see if you will be visiting during a time period when the plan is offered. Families can easily save up to 40% off on the total cost of meals by using this plan. The Entertainment book for Orlando is another good source of savings on meals, as well as deals on attractions and other travel expenses. The Orlando "Kids Eat Free" card offers free meals for children at over 40 restaurants. Check out their website and restaurant listings for more details. These cards are included free with the purchase of every child's Go Orlando Card. Also, consider making lunch your big meal of the day when dining out. Lunchtime meal prices are often considerably lower than those at dinner. Many parents also carry a backpack loaded with snacks and drinks when they go to the parks.

5. Visiting Attractions: Theme park tickets are expensive, but there are many ways to enjoy the world-class attractions in Orlando without breaking the family vacation budget. One of the best ways to save money is to buy your theme park tickets in advance. Buying tickets online before arriving in Orlando can save not only money, but time as well. For example, purchasing Universal Orlando Resort 2-park, 7-day unlimited passes in advance can save from close to 20% to almost 35% of the ticket cost at the gate, depending upon where and when you purchase your tickets. In addition, you'll be able to bypass the long ticket lines at the gate. Walt Disney World also offers money-saving packages that combine theme park tickets with resort stays.

Purchasing theme park tickets can be confusing. Getting the best deal can be difficult due to the wide variety of offers available, so consider your needs carefully to determine what works best for your family. It's important to plan out your vacation in advance and think about how many days of admission you're really going to use, compare prices from a wide variety of sources, and buy your tickets in advance of your trip. Check directly with each theme park's online site to determine their best ticket values and ask about any special promotions. Then, compare those prices with other sources and online ticket sales sites. The Orlando CVB offers a timesaving one-stop for a variety of theme park ticket purchases, either in advance through their online site or at the Official Visitors Center. The site offers a tickets for a wide variety of attractions as well as the Orlando FlexTicket, providing unlimited admission to 5 or 6 parks for 14 days. Also check for deals from Costco or Sam's Club, as well as through credit card promotions. Members of AAA and AARP may be able to save money by purchasing tickets in advance through their membership organizations. The Go Orlando Card provides discounts to over 50 attractions, activities and tours. Make sure to check out their website before purchasing it to make sure these are attractions your family is interested in seeing. In addition, look for discount coupons on Orlando area attractions, restaurants, shopping and other items in free publications available in your hotel, such as I Love Orlando magazine. Some hotels, such as Floridays, give guests free "perks cards" providing automatic discounts to a variety of local attractions. Theme park information sites, such as those on About.com, are also good sources of information on special deals. Remember that at most Orlando attractions, children under the age of 3 are admitted free of charge.

6. Getting Around: Transportation to major Orlando attractions is sometimes offered by Orlando hotels as a free hotel or resort amenity, such as at the Nickelodeon Suites by Holiday Inn, Floridays, Embassy Suites Orlando International Drive, and other properties. If you are staying at the Walt Disney World Resort, the Disney transportation systems (monorails, buses and boats) provide free door-to-door access to all theme parks, water parks, Downtown Disney, and all 23 resort hotels. If you are staying at a Disney World Resort hotel, also consider using Disney's Magical Express, which provides free transportation from the Orlando Airport to Walt Disney World hotels. On the I-RIDE Trolley, a single fare is $1 and package deals are available for those expecting heavy usage. The I-RIDE Trolley runs daily from 8:30 a.m. until 9 p.m. and serves hundreds of destinations within the International Drive Resort Area. For visitors to downtown Orlando, a free circulating bus called LYMMO provides rides along a 3-mile loop in the downtown area. Service is provided every five minutes during office hours and every ten minutes in the evenings. See their website for daily schedules.

7. Taking Advantage of Freebies: Entertain the kids at the Peabody Orlando hotel, where twice a day visitors can watch the March of the Peabody Ducks. Resident ducks walk a red carpet to and from the Royal Duck Fountain. Kids will love making their own Lego creation at the Lego Store at Downtown Disney, and best of all -- it's free. Just stop by the brightly colored bins just outside the store and enjoy. Admission is free to the Harry P. Leu Gardens on every Monday morning from 9 a.m. to noon. This 50-acre botanical park features a butterfly garden and the largest camellia collection in eastern North America. The park also offers a free story time program for young children on the third Monday of every month. Order your free Orlando Magicard, which provides up to $500 in savings at 87 Orlando area establishments including restaurants, local attractions, and other sightseeing. The Orlando Magicard can also be ordered by calling 1-800-551-0181. Check out Walt Disney World Insiders site for more information on freebies in Walt Disney World.

8. Using Insider Secrets: If you are planning a theme park visit, staying at an on-property hotel can be a big plus. For example, guests at Universal Orlando's three hotels enjoy free Universal Express front-of-the-line access. This can be invaluable for families, especially in peak time periods. Guests at a Walt Disney World Resort hotel can take advantage of Magic Hours. Each day, one of the Walt Disney World Theme Parks opens an hour early or stays open up to three hours after regular park closing as part of the Magic Hours program. Most Walt Disney World Resort hotels also offer length-of-stay refillable drink mugs for $11.99, good for unlimited free refills of coffee, soda, iced tea and hot chocolate. At SeaWorld Orlando, kids can bring their own autograph book for Shamu & Crew characters to sign from 9 a.m. to noon near the front gate. Disney characters also sign autograph books at Walt Disney World theme parks, usually at the City Hall at Town Square and Mickey's Toontown Fair in the Magic Kingdom, as well as in a variety of other locations. If you have your heart set on getting an autograph from a particular character, ask the helpful Disney folks at City Hall at Town Square for assistance. They will be able to find out when and where your favorite character will be available.

9. Researching Your Stay:  Planning ahead will not only help vacationers find the best deals, but it will also ensure the most enjoyable vacation for the entire family. Advance research will also help you plan your stay, use your time wisely, and save money on unused attraction tickets. Think about the ages of your group and plan accordingly. For those planning on visiting the Walt Disney World Resort, a free vacation planning DVD and free customized maps are available for each park so families can identify the shows, attractions and rides of most interest. Go to www.disneyworld.com and click on "My Disney Vacation." This section of the site allows you to choose favorite attractions, create itineraries and create personalized maps. Maps are then mailed to your home address in full-color versions. Each of the Orlando theme parks also lists the height requirements for each ride on their web site; so checking ahead of time will help to avoid disappointments.  Staying on property at one of the theme park hotels will allow you to start out early, take a break during the middle of the day to relax and take a swim, and then return refreshed for evening activities. The extra Magic Hours available to those staying at the Disney parks are a great plus as well.

10. Saving Money by Packing and Shopping Wisely: Last-minute purchases of needed items can add up quickly. Make sure to pack plenty of sunscreen, Band-Aids, water bottles, rain ponchos, a backpack to take snacks and drinks to the parks, and maybe even a waterproof disposable camera or a stroller. Although many children over a certain age may resist the idea of a stroller, they may end up begging to be pushed along after a long day of walking. Also, to limit budget-breaking expenditures, try to avoid purchasing souvenirs at the theme parks. Many stores in the Orlando area offer discounted souvenirs as well as money-saving coupons on purchases. Some parents pre-purchase their character-related souvenirs before going to Orlando and give them to the children on the first or second day of their vacation. Stores such as Target, Kmart and Wal-Mart often carry stuffed toys and other items with characters on them, and they are much cheaper than what's available in the theme parks. Other parents give each of their children a set amount for souvenirs at the start of the vacation or have their kids earn souvenir money by doing extra chores in advance. Since the children have more “ownership” of their souvenir money this way, it usually helps cut down on tantrums and impulse souvenir purchases.

For more information on planning your Orlando vacation, visit the theme park websites and log onto Orlando's official website at VisitOrlando.com or call an Official Orlando Travel Counselor at 1-800-551-0181 (United States and Canada) or 407-363-5872. While in Orlando, visitors may stop by the Official Visitor Center located at 8723 International Drive, at the southeast corner of International Drive and Austrian Row. The Official Visitor Center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily. The Center closes at 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving, December 24 and December 31, and is closed on December 25.

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