When you travel matters. If you have flexibility with your vacation dates, see if there are any deals coming up before you book your trip. Thanks to tons of special events and festivals, there isn't really a slow season at Disney World, but they do still offer special discounts and packages to entice visitors during certain times of the year. January and fall are often times when when such discounts are generally available. The internet gives us all access to book our own vacations, but sometimes travel agents can help you score deals that pop up after you've booked your trip, so don't be afraid to contact one if you don't want to keep checking prices after you've already booked your vacation.
Consider your hotel. Disney has its own fleet of hotels, arranged in three basic tiers from least to most expensive: the value resorts, moderate resorts and deluxe resorts. Staying at a Disney hotel gives you some benefits-- you get a free shuttle to and from the airport, free transportation to the entrance of the theme parks, the ability to enter the parks early or stay late on certain days, magic bands that act as a combination room key, room charge key and park ticket, the ability to book dining reservations before people not staying at a Disney hotel and the ability to select fast passes (to cut down on your wait time) before people not staying at a Disney hotel.
But even the least expensive of the Disney hotels is typically more expensive than other hotels close by, and those non-Disney hotels may have better amenities. If you plan on renting a car, don't have a burning desire to eat at either of the restaurants inside Cinderella's or Beast's castle and have children that are too young to ride the thrill rides which get the longest lines, you might find that saving money by staying off property is a better choice for your family. But you will have to pay $17 for parking each day and it can take up to an hour to get from the parking lot to the parks, so you'll need to plan accordingly.
Tickets to the theme parks are expensive, there's no way around that, but multi-day passes offer discounts the more days you purchase. When you buy your tickets, you'll have the option to purchase extras like the ability to visit multiple parks in a single day that your family may not need. It helps to come up with a rough itinerary before purchasing your ticket. Be wary of seemingly deals like the dining package or soft drink mug. Unless you plan to visit your hotel food court every time you want a drink, the mug may not be a good investment. And while the dining plan is great if you happen to receive it as a free promotion, many who pay for it find they barely break even or lose money on it. The dining plan doesn't include tips for servers and only covers two meals a day and one snack, so it's unlikely to cover all your food expenses.
Speaking of food, this is a huge area where you can keep costs down while on vacation. I'm not suggesting you pack peanut butter sandwiches for the entire trip, unless that's your jam (see what I did there?) but you can save yourself a chunk of change and time by bringing cereal or breakfast bars. I even bring special snacks that my kids are familiar with but don't get often like a bag of mini Oreos or animal crackers. This way I'm not spending six dollars on a cookie and my kids are a little less likely to have a massive sugar crash or get sick to their stomachs after riding Prince Charming's Regal Carousel.
Drinking plenty of water is essential for staying hydrated in the warm Florida weather. Some families will pack cases of water, others purchase them from a local grocer and have them delivered to their room. Disney sells Dasani, so that alone is enough to make me seek other options, but even if you're cool with buying filtered tap water, paying $2.50 a bottle might change your mind. There are plenty of water fountains in the parks and ice can be obtained for free from any food counter. I'm a bit of a water snob, and I swear there's something swampy about the taste of Florida water, so I also bring along powdered flavor packets.
Sure, the real gift is the trip itself, but if you've ever been to a theme park before, you know that all roads (and most rides) lead to a gift shop. You can do a lot to prevent your kids begging for souvenirs by picking up some items before you leave, and either packing or shipping them to your hotel for arrival (you can ship non-perishable food to yourself ahead of time too if you're staying at a Disney hotel).
Disney is hungry for cash, which is bad because everything there costs a ton, but good because they've licensed their merchandise out to lots of retailers, so you can buy souvenirs before you leave for much less. On your weekly Target run, snag a couple Mickey Mouse shirts or a pair of pajamas on clearance then hit up the dollar spot. Grab a couple Frozen sticker books or a Doc McStuffins water bottle, and a $1 tube of glow sticks for firework shows. Not only will you save yourself about $20 not buying a glow in the dark item in the park, your child will have extra glow sticks to give to new friends. Maybe she can even bribe her way to a curb side view for the nighttime parade. Even if you pay to ship these trinkets to your hotel, chances are you'll still come in under the cost of buying things in the park-- in Disney, small plush animals barely bigger than a Beanie Baby start at a cool $17.95. Speaking of Target- if you have a Target credit card, you receive 5% off gift card purchases. Disney gift cards can be used to pay for anything on property-- including food, your hotel and tickets.
No matter when you visit or where you stay, Disney World is an experience you won't forget. Oh, and bring your own poncho. Disney may be the most magical place on Earth, but it does get a lot of rain and ponchos will set you back about $10 each.
( Photo Credit: Katherine Welles / Shutterstock.com)