Got kids? Chances are, you've probably either already visited Walt Disney World or it's high on your vacation wish list. It's hard to think of another family destination that has as strong an emotional pull or one that keeps 'em coming back year after year. The good news? If you're dreaming of a trip to Disney World, you can probably get there without cracking open your retirement account or dipping into the kids' college fund. In fact, Disney can be downright affordable with some smart planning and savvy deal snatching. Here are 10 easy ways to save a bundle on your next trip to the world that Walt built.
1. Go in the off season
Disney hotels generally have five pricing seasons. You pay the least during "value season," which comprises most of August, all of September, and from Thanksgiving through Valentine's Day, excluding the last week in December. The fancier your hotel, the more you save by traveling during value season. At Disney World's most expensive hotel, the Grand Floridian, the price differential between high and low seasons is $144 per night.
2. Be a happy camper
Got a tent or an RV? If your family likes to rough it — and in Disneyspeak, that can mean not only electricity and sewer, but even cable TV — you can cut your lodging bill to as little as $41 per night at the Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground. There's plenty of inexpensive fun to be had, thanks to two heated outdoor pools, tennis, horseshoes, shuffleboard, fishing, bicycling, pony rides and horseback trail riding, and nightly wagon rides around the resort. Hands down, the most beloved tradition is the nightly campfire sing-a-long and marshmallow roast with Chip 'n Dale, followed by a G-rated Disney double feature on a huge outdoor screen under the stars.
3. Want luxury? Look beyond hotels
If you're willing to splurge on posh digs, you'll get the most bang for your buck at the Disney Vacation Club resorts. These deluxe, condo-style resorts operate similarly to timeshare properties, but non-DVC members can stay here, too. The big upside? More space for your dollars than you'd get at a hotel. For the price of a standard hotel room with a lagoon view at Disney's upscale Polynesian Resort, for example, you could get a plush one-bedroom unit at with a fully-equipped kitchen, two TVs, a large marble bathroom with Jacuzzi tub, and an in-room washer/dryer. (To find out the cheapest way to nab a villa, see our lowdown article on the .) A bonus: Having your own kitchen can help you shave your food bill.
4. Snag a free lunch. And breakfast and dinner
Every once in a while — usually for select weeks in "value" season — Disney offers their dining plan for free. As luck would have it, this offer is on the table right now. Stay at any of the Disney resorts between August 26 and September 22, 2007, and for every day of your visit you'll be entitled to one sit-down meal, one counter-service meal, and one snack. This dining plan is good at virtually every restaurant within Disney World. It usually costs $38 per day for adults and $11 per day for kids 3 to 9, so this deal will save a family of four about $392 on a four-night visit. (Want to squeeze the most value out of Disney's dining plan? See our article on .)
5. Join the AAA
This one's a no-brainer. A standard membership costs $57 per year. During value season at Disney World, an AAA member can chop 20 percent off her lodging bill at any of Disney's moderate and "value" (read: budget) properties or 15 percent off at a deluxe or DVC property. Now, let's translate those percentages into dollar signs. Stay five nights at the moderately-priced Caribbean Beach Resort during value season, and you'd save about $140. Spend five nights at the deluxe Animal Kingdom Lodge and you'd save about $165. Outside of value season, the AAA discount ranges from 10 percent to 15 percent.
6. Curb your enthusiasm
When it comes to buying tickets, it's wise to temper your ambitions with a reality check. Let's suppose that you're a family of four, with two kids between 3 and 9. Basic three-day Magic Your Way tickets, which let you visit one of Disney World's four main theme parks each day, will set your family back $704. Then come those add-on options. Want to be able to visit more than one park in the same day? Add the Park Hopper option and the price jumps to $884. Want access to Disney World's two waterparks and one of Downtown Disney's attractions? Your tickets now cost $1,084.
Slow down. Disney World is twice as big as Manhattan. You'll be doing a lot of walking. It will probably be hot. Your kids will get tired. Buying a more expensive ticket doesn't mean that you'll be able to see and do it all. For most families, the basic Magic Your Way ticket will deliver more than enough fun, especially if you plan your days around which park is offering Extra Magic Hours. (Still feeling ambitious? Read our
7. Keep tabs on the usual suspects
The Disney insider sites and brim with tried-and-tested money-saving advice and frequently offer discounts to select Disney properties. Flying to Orlando? Check the major airlines' web sites for Disney vacation deals that bundle your airfare and hotel together
8. Go for refills
When you stay at a Disney resort, buy a refillable souvenir mug for $11.99 at the hotel's quick-service eatery or food court. For the duration of your stay, you can help yourself to free refills of the non-alcoholic beverage of your choice — coffee, juice, iced tea, soda, or hot chocolate. The longer you stay, the better the deal.
9. Buy the T-shirt before you go
The Wal-Marts, Targets, and Costcos of this world carry cheap Disney merchandise — caps, stuffed toys, T-shirts, sticker books, you name it — for a fraction of what you'll pay for similar items inside Disney World. Before you go, buy Junior something emblazoned with his favorite Disney character, but don't give it to him until you arrive in Orlando. Even if you choose to let him pick out one more small memento at the end of your vacation, your total souvenir spend will stay reasonably low.
10. Hitch a free ride
If you stay at any of the Disney-owned resorts, you can take advantage of a complimentary airport-to-hotel transportation service called the Magical Express. You should reserve this service at least 10 days prior to your arrival, either online or by phone. Disney will send special luggage tags in the mail, which you should attach to your bags. When you land at Orlando International Airport, you skip the baggage claim and go directly to the Disney Welcome Center. There, you'll board an air-conditioned motor coach that will bring you to your hotel. A sweet touch: Disney will collect your luggage and deliver it directly to your hotel room. No hassles, no schlepping, no cab fare.
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