As a longtime Walt Disney World annual passholder, and a budget-conscious mom, I’ve learned a lot over the years about how to get the most out of a Walt Disney World visit. Many people consider this to be the family vacation of a lifetime, and they spend years saving accordingly.
Trip planning can be a daunting task and it can quickly become overwhelming, making your vacation more work than play. Maximize your enjoyment while getting the most for each dollar with these helpful insider tips to help you every step along the way.
DINING / REFRESHMENT TIPS
- For guests taking part in a Walt Disney World vacation package, there is the option of the Disney Dining Plan. The DDP gives each guest a daily dining allowance where you can choose between numerous table service and counter service establishments, as well as a daily snack. The meals are part of your overall package, and ultimately lead to an incredible savings (approximately $100 a day for a family of four).
- Florida residents and annual passholders have an additional dining option in the Disney Dining Experience, a membership-based plan that offers parking and dining discounts at many on-site restaurants. Membership is $85 for the first person, with each additional membership being discounted. This is perfect for the guest who wants the option to experience Disney dining without the full theme park experience.
- Disney resorts not only offer fantastic dining (which is often the same food at the parks, but at a slightly lower price), but they can offer endless savings on drinks as well. Huge souvenir mugs are available to purchase for only $12, and you can refill the mugs for free for the entire length of your stay at the point of purchase. While the initial purchase may seem steep, the mug quickly pays for itself with the savings on the refills.
- Disney has no rule in place prohibiting outside food and drink within their parks. Take advantage of this! A backpack packed with simple snacks and finger foods can save a fortune when your family experiences a case of the munchies. Choose snacks that are mess-free and able to withstand the temperatures. Pretzels, chips, animal crackers, raisins, sandwiches are some good ones. It’s also advisable to carry a few water bottles. You can refill throughout the day at water fountains. For a little flavor, don’t forget handy, individual-sized packets of mixable drink powders such as Crystal Light and Gatorade. Some backpacks come with built-in cooler systems, which would obviously increase the options available to you as well. Please note, all counter-service restaurants offer free water upon request.
- All Disney World table-service eateries offer call-ahead priority seating. Reservations can be made up to two months in advance, to avoid last-minute waits and disappointments. You can reserve by calling 1-407-WDW-DINE, or visiting a computer reservation kiosk within the Disney parks.
- Pre-packaged boxed lunches for children can be purchased at the on-site resorts. For approximately $5, the lunches include sandwich, chips, fruit and a drink. These can be helpful anytime that the mood strikes, saving money and time on in-park lunches.
- If character dining is something you want to take advantage of, keep in mind that these can be very expensive. Though many feel it is worth the cost (food is bountiful and characters offer one-on-one time at each individual table), some simply cannot afford it. One very popular alternative is the ice cream social at The Garden Grill in Epcot Center. For $6.99 per person, guests can enjoy fabulous sundae desserts with Mickey and friends. The ice cream social takes place daily at 3:00 PM, and advance reservations are your first priority.
- Take advantage of purchase pick-up/delivery as offered by all parks, as well as Downtown Disney. If you are staying on-site at a Disney resort, any purchases you make on Disney property can be delivered to your hotel. You can also have items held at the front of the parks for pick-up as you leave for the day. This will keep you from heavy shopping bags as you journey through the parks.
- If you have your heart set on catching any of the numerous parades within the parks, be sure to snag your parade viewing seat at least an hour in advance of the parade start time. Since a large number of guests do choose to watch the parades, this will also make for a golden opportunity for non-parade attendees. During parade times, attraction and dining lines are practically non-existent.
- Do not pass up the free Fast Pass opportunities! The most popular rides within all of the Disney theme parks are equipped with Fast Pass ticket dispensers. Insert your park admission ticket and out will pop a Fast Pass, assigning each ticket holder to a predesignated return time. Return to the attraction, with your Fast Pass during your designated window of time for a dramatically decreased wait time (if any wait at all) in a separate line for Fast Pass holders. Be aware, only a certain number of Fast Passes are released for each attraction each day, so it is a good idea to prioritize your Fast Pass route and tackle it at the beginning of your day.
- Most attractions offer single-rider lines that also minimize wait times. For groups including children, there is also the option of “baby swap”, to avoid waiting in lines twice when two parents want to ride the same attraction, but have the concern of leaving a child behind. One adult boards the ride, while another remains “on deck” with the child. Upon the rider’s return, the two adults swap: the ride seat for the child, therefore avoiding the hassle of starting the ride line all over again.
- Plan your visit to Animal Kingdom as your early day. Arrive as soon as the park opens and head straight to the Safari for the best animal sighting opportunities. As the day progresses and the heat sets in, the animals tend to seek cool shelter, disappearing from view and making for a dull safari.
- Many children fail to see the fun in Epcot’s World Showcase (a favorite for many adults). Jazz it up with a few surprises to keep the kids amused. Though not widely advertised, there are many child-oriented treasures hidden among the nations of World Showcase. Buy a visitor passport for less than $10, and as you travel from nation to nation, approach any representative Cast Member for an official visitor stamp. Oftentimes, they will sign a message in their native language as well, marking their visit. Each country has a special addition for the Epcot mask making project as well. Your child can make their very own customized mask, and add various decorative items along their worldwide journey. The new Kim Possible missions are certain to be a hit as well! Ask any Epcot Cast Member how to participate in a mission, or get their direction to the passport and mask making stations.
- Characters are a huge draw, for children and adults alike. You can determine specific character viewing stations and scheduled appearance times by picking up a park map as you enter each park. If you can’t find the character you seek, ask any Cast Member to call the CHIP hotline for location information. If a character will be appearing at any park that day, you can find out from CHIP!
- On-site guests have the ability to take advantage of many special ticket/admission deals. Length of stay passes allow guests to come and go from any Disney park at their leisure during the entire length of their stay. This option offers a sharp savings in contrast to purchasing “park hopper” tickets if you do want the freedom and flexibility of visiting multiple parks on any given day. On-site guests are also offered early admission and extended stay at the parks. These “extra hours” rotate from park to park, so be sure to check the schedules when planning your park visits.
- The “Magic Your Way” ticket packages offer a variety of add-on options. Not only do these packages offer up to a 50% savings on ticket prices, but your “ala carte” optional features include: park hopper option, “magic plus” (admission to water parks and other on-site attractions), dining package option and no expiration for unused days on your tickets.
- Flex Feature package plans offer numerous add-ons that you may want to add to your vacation package. Among these options: VIP tours, merchandise/souvenirs, meals and more.
- If you are celebrating a special occasion during your stay (such as a birthday, honeymoon or anniversary), make sure to mention this to front desk staff at the resort and guest services at the park. You will get plenty of surprises, including a free pin to wear!
- It’s wise to carry a couple of Ziploc-style bags to hold money, cell phones and other valuables when you plan to go on a water ride, or if it starts to rain.
- Make sure you have plenty of film, batteries and other essentials prior to arriving at the parks. Prices on these items are through the roof once you walk through the park gates.
- Take advantage of free Disney transportation! Monorails, buses and boats transport you from park to park within the Walt Disney World complex at no charge. If you are staying on-site, you even have Disney transportation to get you back to your hotel at the end of the day, leaving virtually no need to move your private vehicle once you arrive. For those coming into Orlando by plane, there is no need for the added expense of a rental car thanks to the Magical Express service that picks resort guests up from the airport and takes them to the Disney resort.
- The very best times to visit are when attendance is low. Historically, the least crowded times are January, Septemeber, October and the first half of December. The worst times to visit, based on attendance, are holiday periods (including Christmas through New Year’s, Thanksgiving week, Easter week, Fourth of July week).
- Baby-sitting services are available at some Disney resorts. “Clubhouse” sitting services are available at deluxe resorts starting at $10 per hour, and often include a meal. Private sitters are also available at higher rates. The Grand Floridian resort has a variety of Grand Adventure parties for children ages 4-10 for less than $30 and a Princess Tea Party with lunch and many extras for $200/adult $135/child (lower rates for additional guests).