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Disney World dealfest

Looking to load up the kids for a Disney World trip? A Disney vacation this year is cheaper than last year.
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What’s your top reason for wanting to go to Disney World in 2009? Maybe you’re dying to check out the brand new, OMG-inducing American Idol Experience. Or, if you’re a sucker for parades, it could be the Magic Kingdom’s new “Celebrate a Dream Come True” extravaganza.

Still, in this economy, most parents would say the very best reason to plan a Disney vacation this year is that it’s cheaper than last year. Like nearly everyone else in the travel industry, Mickey has been feeling the pinch. So, like nearly everyone else in the travel industry, he’s responded by rolling out some money-saving deals. In fact, there’s a once-in-a-blue-moon promo on the table right now — but hurry, it ends later this month.

The phrase “unprecedented deal” gets bandied around a lot lately, but Disney World’s “buy four nights, get 3 free” offer is exactly that. You can purchase a seven-night Disney vacation for the price of four nights, including lodging and park tickets. With this deal, a family of four can spend an entire week at one of Disney World’s budget properties (“value resorts” in Disneyspeak), complete with seven-day Magic Your Way park passes, for as little as $1,375. That works out to less than $50 per person per day. If you pay extra to upgrade to a posh one- or two-bedroom villa at Disney’s Old Key West Resort or Saratoga Springs Resort (see our review), you’ll also get a $100 Disney World gift card. The offer is good for travel through August 15, except for a two-week blackout in mid-April. Book by March 29.

Need plane tickets to go with your weeklong Disney getaway? Disney cites AirTran Airways as its preferred carrier for this offer, and JetBlue also offers a package that bundles the buy-four-get-three deal at hotels inside Disney World with airfare. Prices start at $525 per person for flights from New York’s JFK airport, which works out to $2,100 for a family of four. Book by March 29 and travel by June 27.

But what if you can’t get away for a whole week? Several airlines, including American, Southwest, Delta and United, are offering flexible Disney packages that not only bundle airfare and hotel stays — including free nights — but also let you score up to three free days of Disney park tickets.

The number of free days of park admission is calculated on a sliding scale. Stay five nights, get one free day of admission. Stay six nights, get two free days. Stay a week, and you’re back to Disney’s buy-four-get-three deal. For all four airlines, book by March 29 and travel by August 15.

The airlines’ packages tend to offer a similarly wide choice of hotels, both inside and outside Disney World. Yet be forewarned: While the packages look the same, the prices can vary substantially between airlines on the same route, or one airline may offer a better price but a more inconvenient flight schedule.

Bottom line: It pays to shop around. When we priced out a five-day mid-July vacation for a family of four from Chicago, both United Vacations and Southwest Vacations offered an air-plus-hotel package including roundtrip Chicago-Orlando flights (Saturday-Thursday) with a stay at one of Disney’s All-Star Resorts. Both deals included the option of tacking on five-day Disney parkhopper passes for the price of four-day passes.

United Vacations quoted $1,276 for air and hotel, plus $1,100 for park tickets, bringing the total cost of the five-day vacation to $2,386. Meanwhile, Southwest Vacations quoted $1,617 for air and hotel, plus $1,110 for park tickets, for a grand total of $2,734. As we all know, that difference of $348 can mean a helluva lot to a family in today’s economy.

Finally, there’s one more way to score a free Disney park ticket this year. Visit on your birthday in 2009 and you’ll get in at no charge. And who knows? If you’re lucky, you might also snag a birthday kiss from Mickey.

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