Straight from the Experts: How to Plan a Disney Vacation on a Budget
Planning a Walt Disney World vacation is hard work. You may think your family has to sacrifice either comfort or activities to save some dough, but there's no need to head into the Magic Kingdom with a checklist and twelve guides that make vacation feel like a chore. Even with four theme parks, dozens of hotels, and a zillion things to do at Walt Disney World, it's possible to see it all without blowing your budget because we've got the tricks to guarantee you some savings and sanity along the way.
The full Disney experience—without overpaying for anything—from one itinerary? Looks like that magical vacation planning won't take much effort at all:
Where To Stay
Pick A Hotel For More Than Just Price
Your Walt Disney World hotel is so much more than a room, so select your resort carefully. Disney-operated hotels tend to be pricier than off-property counterparts, but come with perks including complimentary transportation to and from Orlando International Airport, extra time within parks and early access for "skip the line" FastPass+ booking. (If opting for a non-Disney hotel based on cost, don't forget to factor in external costs like theme park parking.) For the best of both worlds, try the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin. Fresh off a multi-million dollar renovation, the sister hotels are higher-end than surrounding resorts and come with select Disney perks, but at a lower cost than the Mickey Mouse-helmed hotels. Even better? Both are next to Disney's Boardwalk—which hosts great dining, dessert and nightlife options—and a convenient boat ride or walk from Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios.
Wallet-friendly trick: Value resorts like Disney's All-Star Music or All-Star Movies are among the theme park's cheapest, but come with the exact same perks as luxury resorts.
Dining at Disney
The Disney Dining Plan is preferred by budget-conscious families for its prepaid ease, but if the stress of converting dollars into points and maximizing your spend sounds stressful, don't be afraid to wing it. Splurge on a few essential reservations — character dining at 1900 Park Fare, coveted in-park reservations at Be Our Guest or Cinderella's Royal Table or Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, which combines family-style eating with rowdy family-friendly entertainment — and dine at quick-service restaurants elsewhere. This way, you'll avoid family vacation feeling too "scheduled" and ensure you only pay a premium for best-of-the-best experiences.
Wallet-friendly trick: Utilize third-party grocery delivery services to have breakfast essentials delivered directly to your room upon arrival.
WATCH: 5 Money-Saving Tips for a Trip to Disney World
Tickets & Admission
Find The Cheapest — And Smartest — Way In
Don't trust "partially used" ticket resellers — you'll never make it past the front gate. Instead, use an eagle eye approach to sussing out how many days you actually plan to be in the parks before you purchase, and if it's essential to visit multiple each day, which costs more. If so, consider the "Park Hopper Plus" option, which grants multiple daily admissions to Disney's water parks for a nominal fee, extending a 4-day ticket into a week's worth of fun. Whichever you choose, be sure to buy Walt Disney World tickets well in advance of your trip. Admission is not only costlier when purchased at the parks, but ticket holders get to book FastPass+ reservations 30 days in advance and the selection of good rides dwindles quickly.
Wallet-friendly trick: Check Touring Plans' Ticket Calculator, which pulls rates from trusted vendors to find the cheapest package available.
What To Ride
Get the Most Out of Your Time
Book your FastPasses early and let the rest fall into place according to what fits your family best. Star Tours' Star Wars-themed spacecraft simulations, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror's (which is closing January 2nd, 2018) hefty drops and the upside-down inversions of Rock ‘n' Roller Coaster will fulfill thrillseekers at Disney's Hollywood Studios, but if you prefer a mix of attractions and experiences beyond rides, Epcot is the place for you. Budget extra time to be spent Magic Kingdom, where nearly every family-friendly ride is both nostalgia-inducing and delightful. In terms of rides, Walt Disney World's newest tend to be among its best, too, with Flight of Passage within the Avatar-themed land at Disney's Animal Kingdom garnering rave reviews from guests of all ages. (Do your best to grab a coveted FastPass time, as standby waits can be extraordinary.) And, since you won't incur a drastic time change while traveling, try embracing home court advantage and attempting at least one early morning park visit, when wait times can be significantly shorter.
Wallet-friendly trick: Visit Disney Springs on your arrival or departure date for hours of shopping, dining and entertainment that doesn't require park admission.
Entertainment Worth Seeing
There's currently only one parade—Disney Festival of Fantasy at Magic Kingdom at 2pm each day—but more than enough character appearances, interactive shows and performances to keep families busy. Keep some spontaneity in your plans by catching hourly outdoor shows that always have walk-up availability, like Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away at Disney's Hollywood Studios, which features the film saga's villains and heros (including BB-8!) and The Muppets Present Great Moments in American History and Mickey's Royal Friendship Faire at Magic Kingdom. Conversely, be sure to arrive early to grab a good spot for Happily Ever After, Magic Kingdom's new nighttime show combining fireworks, pyrotechnics and projections atop Cinderella Castle for a performance that's quickly become Walt Disney World's best.
Wallet-friendly trick: Catch nightly fireworks from nearby restaurants like Four Seasons Resort Orlando's Capa or Narcoossee's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort, or for free from the beach of Disney's Polynesian Village Resort.
Everything Else You Need To Know
Walt Disney World will always be more crowded in peak season, which is generally anytime children are out of school. A good way to cross-check your dates is by looking at one-day ticket prices, as "value" days often correspond to when there are less people in the park. Do a little pre-research if your trip requires a electric mobility vehicle or stroller — you may need one that collapses — and if traveling with a baby or toddler, ensure your hotel has laundry available on-site. Regardless of how boxed in or loose your itinerary becomes, even the little things, like preparing your fellow travelers for long days of walking and checking ride height restrictions prior to departure can help even the most loosely planned trip go smoother.
Wallet-friendly trick: Skip the guidebooks and download the official My Disney Experience app, which hosts maps, walking directions, real-time waits for attractions and many other worthwhile features for absolutely free.