Whenever I'm traveling, it's a safe bet I'm going to Disney World, near Orlando, Fla. I've averaged four to five trips a year over the past decade, and I've learned a thing or two about saving money. There's no reason anyone should spend a fortune to see Mickey & Co. Here are my secrets.
Stay Off-Property. There are certainly affordable rooms on Walt Disney World property. At Disney's All-Star resorts, standard rooms go for as low as $96 per night during off-peak times. But it's important to consider just what you get in most of Disney's value hotel rooms: two beds, a bathroom and a TV. If you don't plan to do anything in your room except sleep, and you want the convenience of staying on the property, check out the "value" tier Disney hotels for the lowest prices.See Also: How to Visit New York City on a Budget
The biggest bang for your buck, however, can be found off-property in surrounding Lake Buena Vista, or neighboring Orlando and Kissimmee, where there's an abundance of affordable chain hotels. Consider a room similar to the one described above at a local Holiday Inn Express. An overnight stay there in early November would cost around $85 including breakfast, compared with $110 to $133 at the All-Star Disney hotels, no food included.
Check out the certified Walt Disney World Good Neighbor Hotels for off-property options, all of which also provide transportation to the parks.
Visit at Off-Peak Times. Crowds change with the seasons at Disney World. So do room rates. That $96 "value" room costs $198 during the Christmas season. Likewise, a standard "moderate" tier room jumps from $198 on an off night to $284 on New Year's Eve.
Generally, Disney's off seasons fall between holidays and school vacations. The easiest way to see when the hotels will be at their cheapest is to consult the online pricing calendar. First, select a hotel on Disney's booking Web site. Then pick a room type. To the right of each, under the price, is a blue link to "view price per night." Click that to reveal a pop-up window, then click on "view seasonal pricing" in the lower left. This calendar will let you view room prices through December 2014.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled for Savings Promos. Disney World runs a number of promotions for money-saving vacation packages throughout the year. So, if you're set on staying on-property, try to snag one of these. Right now, the offer is for a five-night/six-day package for a family of four that includes tickets, the Disney Dining Plan and a standard room at select Disney moderate resort hotels for $2,606. When compared with the same trip a la carte, that's up to a $600 savings. Check back with Disney's Web site periodically to stay on top of new deals.
Visit Only One Park Per Day. Whether you stay on or off-property, you'll save money by dedicating a whole day to each park. A three-day ticket, which allows admission to one park a day, costs $262, or about $87 per day for an adult (when booked separately from a hotel room). Purchasing the park hopper option, which lets you go into and out of each of the four parks as you please, adds an extra $59 per ticket or $84 if you want to tack on the water parks.
There's no real need to be able to hop, aside from a bit more flexibility in scheduling. And you will be able to go into and out of the same park throughout the day if need be. Just note that on major holidays and some days during the summer, one or all of the parks may close due to capacity crowds. In that case, you won't be able to get back in until some people leave.
Consider the Disney Dining Plan. Disney travel experts are split as to whether the DDP is a good value or not. I say, if you're set on staying on property, and you're healthy eaters, go for it. First, the basics: There are different DDP levels with varying meal allotments, and they are only available to guests staying at one of the Disney resorts. Adult prices apply to anyone 10 and older, the children's rate is for ages 3 through 9, and those under 3 can share food at no cost. Kids must order off the children's menu. The most basic (and cheapest) plans are the Quick-Service Dining Plan and the Dining Plan.
The Quick-Service plan includes credits for two counter-service meals and one snack per person per night of your stay. The Dining Plan includes credits for one counter-service meal, one table-service meal and one snack per person per night of your stay. One meal is defined as a full buffet at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or an entrée, dessert and non-alcoholic beverage at lunch or dinner, and an entrée plus non-alcoholic drink at breakfast.
Note that you may use more than one day's worth of credits in a day, and that some dining experiences will require two meal credits. Gratuities are not included. All dining plans also include a souvenir mug that can be refilled for free, as often as you like during your stay, at your resort only.