Cheap Disney Family Vacations

By Nancy Schretter

Walt Disney World tops the family vacation list for many of our readers, but the big question is always how to go to Disney without breaking the bank. It's definitely possible to do Walt Disney World on a budget and still have a great family vacation. Here are 12 money-saving ways to make a Walt Disney World family vacation affordable for your crew.

1. Surf the Web

The Internet is full of information on Disney deals and discounts. Check out the Disney Parks website and sites such as theDisney Mom's Panel site, AllEars.net, MouseSavers.com, Disney discussion boards like DisBoards, and the Family Travel Network. Search these sites and others for discount codes before you book. 

In addition, use the Internet to check for deals on airfares, hotels and rental cars. Travelocity's flexible dates option can check airfares on a variety of dates, often saving hundreds of dollars for a family of four. Airfarewatchdog.com has an excellent newsletter with great airfare deals from your home airport and Yapta.com will track the price of your flights even after you've purchased your ticket, alerting you if the fare goes down. In addition, look into airfares from all airports within driving distance. Changing departure points has easily saved our family over $500 in airfares in the past.

2. Eat Breakfast In Your Room

It's important to eat a good breakfast, but at Disney, it could save money as well. Breakfast is the easiest meal to eat in your room, and filling up on a great breakfast will keep family members from being hungry at the parks later in the day. Bring along breakfast items such as granola bars, pop tarts, cereal and fruit and eat them on your own schedule in the morning. Other parents suggest going to an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet at your hotel or a character breakfast and then skipping lunch. By the time the family's getting hungry, it will be time to leave for dinner.

3. Reap Membership Rewards

Membership can provide big rewards when it comes to a Walt Disney World vacation. Check with your employer, credit union and credit card companies to see if they provide Disney discounts. If you're a member of AAA, AARP, Costco, Sam's Club or other buying cooperatives, call to see what deals they offer. For families that live close by, Disney pass programs and Florida residency discounts provide significant savings. In addition, if you or your spouse is an active or retired military member, you can take advantage of special Disney discounted pass programs. You can also stay at the Shades of Green Resort, a Disney hotel reserved for active and retired military members, Department of Defense civilians and U.S. Public Health Officers. You'll have access to some of Disney's largest rooms at inexpensive prices, as well as tennis courts, heated swimming pools and more.

4. Pack Your Own Food

Many Disney guests are not aware that they can bring their own food, snacks and drinks into the parks. This can be a big money saver over several days. You can pack a soft-sided cooler or backpack to bring with you to the parks and rent a locker, or simply store it under your stroller. According to Disney spokesperson Charles Stovall, coolers and backpacks must be no larger than 24" length x 15" width x 18" height (with or without wheels) to be brought into the parks. This size will allow your cooler to fit into the parks' largest lockers. No glass containers (excluding baby food jars and perfume bottles) or alcoholic beverages are allowed. At Disney's Animal Kingdom, straws and lids are also prohibited. Small lockers can be rented for $7 per day and large lockers for $9 per day, both with a $5 refundable deposit for the locker key. Readers also suggest bringing along your own water bottle and filling it at water fountains or quick service dining areas in the parks.

5. Buy In Advance

Souvenirs can be a costly part of the Disney vacation experience. Many parents have learned curb this problem by buying their souvenirs in advance. The Disney Stores in local malls and the Disney Store online often have discounts on merchandise that's comparable to what is found in the parks. Readers also suggest shopping on eBay and other online sites for deals. Buying Disney t-shirts, small stuffed animals and other Disney gear in advance will cost a fraction of what you'll pay in the parks. Give each child one new thing every day before going to the park to cut down on begging for high-priced souvenir items. Another suggestion is to wrap your pre-purchased souvenirs in Disney paper. If you plan on trading pins at the Disney Parks, buy some in advance on eBay. 

In addition, plan on purchasing your Disney park tickets before you arrive. You'll save money and won't waste time standing in lines at the gate. Look for vacation packages that include tickets and check the Disney Parks website, MouseSavers.com, and DisBoards for hot deals.

6. Score Suite Savings

Look for a suite, condominium or vacation home with a full kitchen. You can prepare all your meals there and can easily save over $150 per day in meal charges. On the Disney property, families can stay in a one-, two- or three-bedroom villa or in a cabin at Fort Wilderness. All Disney Vacation Club units include a kitchenette or a full kitchen. Outside of Disney, all-suites hotels such as Homewood Suites have full kitchens, a free full breakfast every day, plus a free light evening meal and beverages four nights a week. Nickelodeon Suites Resort offers special KidSuite rooms, Nickelodeon characters throughout the resort, and kids under three eat free.

For even more space to spread out, consider renting a vacation home near Disney. Check websites such as HomeAway,VRBO, All Star Vacation HomesRedWeek and PerfectFamilyVacation.com for more details. If you'd like groceries delivered to your suite or vacation home, check out Garden Grocer. They can deliver food, baby diapers and supplies, sunblock, and other items directly to you at prices comparable to what you'd find at home.

7. Enjoy Free Fun

There are plenty of other free ways to have fun at Disney if you know where to look. Autographs are the best free souvenir around. Bring along an autograph book from home and check for character appearances at locations listed on the park map. Fort Wilderness Campground also has a free petting zoo for the kids, as well as free evening movies and campfire activities. Similar free evening movie and entertainment programs are offered at the Disney's Beach Club Resort, Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, and Disney's Port Orleans -Riverside. Families can also take a free boat ride around Crescent Lake or watch the evening Electrical Water Pageant from lakeside locations at Disney's Magic Kingdom area resorts. Disney's BoardWalk often has street performers such as jugglers and comedians to provide free family entertainment. Readers also suggest having PhotoPass Photographers take pictures with your own camera as well as theirs, saving substantially on pictures and Mom-souvenirs.

Downtown Disney is a great spot for freebies. Visit the LEGO Imagination Center and let the kids play at the free 3,000-square-foot outdoor play area filled with thousands of LEGO blocks. Kids will also enjoy playing in Downtown Disney's interactive fountains, too.

8. Save On Tickets

Park Hopper tickets allow lots of vacation flexibility, but they're expensive as well. If you're working with a tight budget, this is one convenient luxury you may want to pass up. For a family of two adults and two children, Park Hopper tickets add over $200 to the total ticket price for a 7-day stay. Single park tickets require more careful Disney vacation planning, but it's definitely doable. Bob Sehlinger's Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World will be very helpful for Disney vacation planners. In addition, visit the Disney Parks website for customized plans and check TouringPlans.com and AllEars.net for more information. YouTube also has great videos that are useful for previewing rides and attractions. Those with young children may want to skip the parks on one day and play in the hotel pool. Passing on park tickets for the first and last day of your visit may be a good way to save as well, since you'll only have a few hours to spend enjoying the rides. If you find it hard to give up on Park Hopper tickets, check MouseSavers.com for discounts.

9. Avoid The Crowds

For budget shoppers, the best time to visit Disney is during their "value seasons." Typically, these tend to be the non-holiday periods from early January to mid-February and after Labor Day until right before Christmas. Sometimes free dining plans are included with Disney resort stays during this time period, so keep an eye out for special offers. Free nights at Disney resort hotels and other perks may be offered during these slower seasons and the lines for rides are shorter, too. Check theDisney Parks website, the Family Travel Network, and the other sites listed in Tip #1 for more information on off-season specials and deals.

10. Skip The Boutique

Kids love to dress up like princesses and pirates when they visit Walt Disney World. If you take your daughter to Disney's Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, a makeover will cost $50 and the complete hair and costume package could run almost $200. Instead, purchase a costume in advance on eBay or at one of the warehouse stores. Then, head straight for the Harmony Barber Shop on Main Street for some free pixie dust, a glitter and colored hair gel 'do for $7.50 or a haircut for children 12 and under for $15. You'll save a bundle and your pictures will be fantastic.

11. Focus On Value

Carefully evaluate your family's vacation style and choose the lodging and dining options that best fit your needs. It could save you money in the long run. For example, staying at Walt Disney World allows guests to purchase the Disney Dining Plan, which can help with budgeting and deliver savings of up to 35% on adult dining. Inexpensive lodging is available on the Disney property, ranging from $46 per night for an ten-person individual campsite to $82 per night for rooms at value resorts during Disney's low season. Disney guests also have access to extra magic hours in the parks, eliminating parking costs ($14 per day) and providing free transportation from the airport to your hotel aboard Disney's Magical Express and on buses throughout the parks. Those who have a car, however, may prefer to stay off-property where additional value-priced lodging and dining deals can be found. The key is to determine what works best for you. The online sources in Tip #1 will be very helpful in finding great deals. Getting a copy of the Orlando Entertainment Book will provide discounts on food and attractions. Obtaining an Orlando Magicard can also score vacation savings.

12. Stroll On In

Rent strollers and wheelchairs off-site or bring them with you to save money. Stroller rentals at the Disney Parks currently cost $15 per day for a single stroller and $31 per day for a double stroller. Wheelchairs currently cost $12 per day and guests are charged $50 per day for electric scooters. Readers tell us that they've been able to rent off-site for about half the price charged in the parks. Check Orlando Stroller Rentals for more details. Other parents simply purchase a cheap collapsible stroller locally at Walmart or another Orlando store. Off-site rental scooters are delivered directly to the parks and are available at check-in. Remember to tie something (like a bright scarf or tag) to the handle of your stroller or scooter so that it doesn't get taken by mistake.

To uncover more money-saving tips for your Disney vacation, read this companion feature on The Family Travel Network. The insider tips detailed in that article can easily save your family hundreds of dollars on your trip. If you're looking for ideas on doing Orlando on a budget, this The Family Travel Network story will show you how.

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