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I go to Disney more than 20 times a year, here are my top 19 tips to save money and have fun

Oct. 10, 2022
21 min read
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When you visit Walt Disney World as often as I do — both for work as a theme park reporter and with my family for fun — you end up with quite a few tricks up your sleeve to make the trip as magical and affordable as possible.

From snagging hard-to-get dining reservations and finding secret eats to learning which rides to skip at rope drop (aka park opening) and where and when to do your character dining, these tried-and-true insider tips will save you time and money, and help you have the best possible Walt Disney World vacation.

Have an upcoming vacation in mind? See how close you are to paying for it with points with the free TPG App!

Save on snacks with $2.25 popcorn refills

Just like everywhere else on the planet, Walt Disney World has seen prices go up on everything from park tickets to food and drinks. One way we keep our snack spend down is by buying popcorn in a souvenir bucket as our first snack of the trip.

A souvenir bucket filled with popcorn starts at $13 (more for the extra elaborate buckets), but then you can have it refilled for $2.25 a refill for the length of your stay. We carry our bucket with us all day, every day, and keep it filled to stave off major snack attacks. Then when we do splurge on goodies like churros and Mickey pretzels with cheese, we buy less and share because we aren't super hungry after the affordable popcorn refills.

There are even two types of specialty popcorn that are eligible for the discounted refills. You can get maple popcorn from the popcorn stand outside the Canada pavilion at Epcot and Buttered Blue Grains (tastes like regular popcorn but with a green/blue hue) from Kat Saka’s Kettle in the Marketplace at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Related: I go to Disney World all the time, here's what I pack

Use secret menus

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Here's a secret that first-time or occasional visitors to Disney may not know: there are off-menu “secret menu items.”

While some spots, like Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto, Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, Jungle Navigation Co., and Ltd. Skipper Canteen are better known for regularly offering “secret” menu items, many restaurants around Walt Disney World have additional off-menu items available if you just ask.

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Sometimes secret menus can even save you some big bucks. A sneaky way to dig into one of Disney World’s most craveable carbs, ‘Ohana noodles, without paying the hefty prix fixe price of an ‘Ohana dinner, is to order a bowl from Tambu Lounge next door. They’re not on the menu — but you just have to ask!

One of my favorite spots to try rotating off-menu items is Nomad Lounge in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, where you’ll often find several options not listed on Nomad’s online menu.

Some, like The Land salad made with produce from Epcot’s Living with the Land attraction, come from Tiffins, the table-service restaurant next door.

Sometimes off-menu items are available to accommodate special dietary restrictions. Geyser Point Bar & Grill at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is well-known for its Bison Cheeseburger, but it also offers an off-menu vegetarian burger made with a plant-based patty.

Geyser Point Lounge. SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Eat at lounges, not full-service restaurants

The secret to a pleasant Disney World trip is striking a balance between going hard and maximizing your park time and taking enough breaks to remember you’re actually on a vacation. My favorite way to slow down is with a leisurely meal, but traditional table-service restaurants on Disney property can be very pricey.

Instead, most of my go-to spots for a relaxed lunch or dinner are Disney World’s many atmospheric lounges, where you’ll be seated (often in air-conditioning) and have a server, but can order from a menu of smaller plates, lighter bites and creative cocktails without feeling the pressure to order an expensive, multicourse meal.

For example, at Space 220 in Epcot, the set lunch menu costs $55 for adults and $29 for children. That's a hefty price if what you really want is a spot to sit and a chance to see the windows out into space. However, in the lounge you can still see the windows, and heavy appetizers are available for $12 to $18.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Some of my favorite lounges at Disney World are:

  • Nomad Lounge at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
  • Geyser Point Bar & Grill at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge.
  • Dahlia Lounge in Gran Destino Tower at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort.
  • Bar Riva at Disney’s Riviera Resort.
  • Enchanted Rose at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.
  • Steakhouse 71 Lounge at Disney’s Contemporary Resort.
  • Space 220 Lounge at Epcot.
  • Sanaa Lounge at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas — Kidani Village.
  • Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.
  • Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar at Disney Springs.

Buy Fuel Rods on Amazon, but swap them in the parks

A Walt Disney World vacation has become synonymous with being glued to your phone. You’ll need it to access My Disney Experience to manage dining, Genie+ and Individual Lightning reservations, the Play Disney Parks Mobile App and, well, all the other things you need your phone for.

While my first line of defense against a dead battery is a powerful portable charger like this one from Anker, I also recommend always having a Fuel Rod on hand as a backup in case you drain your first charging bank.

Fuel Rods are swappable at stations all over Walt Disney World theme parks and resorts. You can buy them in the parks for $30 each but you can potentially save a few dollars by ordering on Amazon before your trip.

BROOKE MCDONALD/THE POINTS GUY

Know the 'other' spot to get popular treats

Right alongside Disney World “must-rides” are “must-eats,” and Disney World pros know that the most popular spot isn’t always the only place to get some of Disney World’s best foods.

For Dole Whip, Disney World’s iconic frozen treat, ditch the Magic Kingdom crowds and escape to Pineapple Lanai at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. Swirls on the Water at Disney Springs also serves rotating flights, often with flavors you won’t find elsewhere. And since this Dole Whip isn't in the park, you can enjoy it on a day you aren't using a ticket, if you're planning a “down day” in your agenda.

Related: 8 Disney experiences that don't require a park ticket

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

It’s hard to miss the smell — or the queue out the door — for cult-favorite Werther’s Original Caramel Popcorn from Karamell Küche in the Germany pavilion at Epcot.

But did you know same caramel popcorn is also made fresh at Magic Kingdom? You can snag a bag at Big Top Souvenirs in the Storybook Circus area of Fantasyland.

BROOKE MCDONALD/THE POINTS GUY

Do dinner and a movie with table service to-go

When you can’t get a reservation, or just don’t feel like sitting down in a restaurant after a long day at the park, a great alternative dinner option is to order meals to go from some of Disney World’s most popular resort table-service restaurants. Just type “to go” into the search bar in My Disney Experience and you’ll see a list of restaurants where you can mobile-order a full meal.

Some of our favorites include Trattoria al Forno at Disney’s BoardWalk, Kona Café at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, Olivia’s Cafe at Disney’s Old Key West Resort, and Ale & Compass at Disney’s Yacht Club Resort.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

You can bring dinner back to your room or eat it at an outdoor table at the resort, but our go-to move is dinner and a movie.

Disney resorts show movies on giant outdoor screens most evenings (just check the schedule posted at each resort), and we bring a picnic blanket, and pick up dinner to go and watch while we eat.

Related: How to use points to get Disney tickets

Create your own DIY souvenirs

BROOKE MCDONALD/THE POINTS GUY

Recreation Cast Members at Disney World resorts run daily activities, from poolside trivia to evening s’mores around the campfire and movies under the stars. They also offer paid activities that make fun DIY souvenirs, like tie-dyed Mickey T-shirts.

One of our favorite DIY activities — a perfect break on a rainy afternoon — is making our own kukui nut leis at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. For $15 for kids and $20 for adults, you can choose your own colored nuts and string and learn how to make your own necklace.

Several Disney World resorts also have Community Halls where guests can watch movies, play games and make crafts, both free and for a small fee. My kids love to stop in on a rainy day and make sun catchers, mini canvas paintings, glazed ceramics and more.

Snag hard-to-get dining reservations

Disney World dining reservations are officially open for booking 60 days in advance, but guests staying on Disney World property with their stay linked in My Disney Experience can book reservations for the length of their stay. In other words, for a five-day stay, those guests can actually book some meals 65 days in advance.

This means that sometimes the most desirable reservations get scooped up more than 60 days in advance.

Oga's Cantina. SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

But don’t give up if you didn’t get that coveted Space 220, Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater, or Oga’s Cantina reservation. Disney World charges a cancellation fee for no-shows for reservations not canceled by 11:59 p.m. the night before, so if you check periodically the day before you’re hoping to go, you just might snag a table at one of Disney World’s most popular restaurants.

You can also use a tool such as Mouse Dining if you need a little extra help finding that tough availability.

Related: The $120 tour that gets you in the 'secret' Disney tunnels

How to get free ice water

It’s never a bad idea to bring a refillable water bottle with you to the parks, but if you do find yourself needing some water, you can ask for a free cup of ice water at any quick-service location that serves fountain drinks. Often, a Cast Member will be stationed at the door checking for Mobile Order return notifications, and you can just let them know you’d like a cup of ice water and they’ll direct you to a numbered pick-up counter.

Split your stay into 2 hotels

Nothing beats the convenience of staying on property, but all Walt Disney World resorts aren’t created equal when it comes to price or ease of access to the magic. Of course, the closest resorts to the theme parks are also the most expensive, but since time is money on a Walt Disney World vacation, sometimes it pays to prioritize location. However, other times, it makes more sense to stretch your budget. With a split stay, you can do both.

Depending on which park you’re visiting, some deluxe resorts will have you through the park gates faster than from your car or bus stop. If you’re headed to Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Bay Lake Tower are just a few minutes away on foot and even have their own security checkpoint. Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa is similarly convenient — an easy 10-minute walk along a beautiful new walkway.

Disney’s Boardwalk Resort, Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club Resorts, and the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin resorts are all walkable to Epcot’s International Gateway entrance and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Swan Reserve at Disney World. SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

While I don’t recommend switching resorts every time you’re headed to a new park, splitting a stay between the monorail resorts and the Epcot resorts can keep you off the buses for most of your trip.

A split stay is also a great way to experience a pricier deluxe resort for part of your trip while also keeping the overall cost down. Deluxe resorts are often $500 to $700 per night while more affordable resorts can be in the $150 to $300-per-night range.

Always dreamed of waking up to the animals roaming the savanna off your balcony at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge? Splurge on a few nights there while you prioritize visiting Animal Kingdom and take a bus or Minnie Van to Magic Kingdom, then hop to the more affordable value-tier Disney’s Pop Century Resort, which offers unbeatable Disney Skyliner access to Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Worried about the hassle of transferring resorts? Yes, you’ll have to repack and you probably will be without a room from check-out time (usually about 11 a.m.) until check-in time (usually about 4 p.m.), but you can leave your packed bags with bell services in the morning when you head to a park and they’ll transfer your bags to your next Disney resort while you’re out having fun. Then at the end of your day, head to your next resort and your luggage should be there waiting for you.

Related: These are our favorite Disney World resorts

Save on your trip by paying with Disney Gift Cards

THE POINTS GUY

An easy way to shave anywhere from 3% to 10% off the cost of your trip is to buy discounted Disney gift cards and use them to pay for everything — your Disney hotel, park tickets, merchandise, and dining. We even use gift cards to save on our Disney Vacation Club dues.

You can get them from Target (5% discount with a Target Red Card) or from Sam’s Club and BJ’s (3%–4% discount). Even if you don't get a straight discount, you can potentially earn bonus points on your rewards credit card by buying Disney gift cards strategically at grocery stores, office supply stores, etc.

Some cash-back credit cards also offer wholesale warehouses in their quarterly cash-back categories, boosting your overall savings. Chain retailers like Meijer, Kroger and Lowe’s also occasionally run promos that can nab you even more savings on gift cards, usually up to about 10% off.

Assume it will rain — and plan accordingly

This is Central Florida, so expect it to rain. Being ready for rain is a secret weapon of Disney World pros. The right preparation can mean letting a little rain roll off your (covered) back instead of drenching your parade. My tried-and-true rain-ready park tips are:

  • Wear waterproof shoes (read: no sneakers and socks to get soaked).
  • Bring a travel umbrella and a poncho or rain jacket.
  • Cover your stroller with a waterproof cover every time you park it and there’s even the slightest chance of a shower.
  • Consider the forecast when you choose what to ride first (aka outdoor rides).

Many of Walt Disney World’s outdoor attractions close temporarily during rain and lightning, so if you have your heart set on a top-tier ride like Slinky Dog Dash, Test Track, Expedition Everest or Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, don’t wait until the end of the day to try to ride — you could be out of luck.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Prioritize popular outdoor rides during the first half of the day, particularly in the summer when afternoon showers are almost guaranteed.

Related: What to do when it rains at Disney World

Plan a resort day — or 2!

There’s so much to do around Walt Disney World outside the theme parks that you could easily fill several days with activities without ever buying a park ticket. If you’re visiting on a multiday park ticket rather than an annual pass, consider loading the bulk of your non-park activities into a day (or days) when you skip the parks entirely — including your arrival and departure days.

Try a round of mini golf — or 18 holes of the real thing — in the morning, some pool time in the afternoon and a visit to Disney Springs for dinner, shopping and some Gideon’s cookies for dessert.

Another good time to plan a resort day is before a party like Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party or Disney After Hours, recently announced to be returning in January. Those go well into the night, so you'll need to save up some energy!

Save character dining for non-park days

Character meals tend to be a trip highlight, but too often guests make the mistake of trying to cram a morning character breakfast into an already full park day.

Instead, spend those valuable morning park hours crushing rides and save those character meals for a resort day, as a special dinner on your arrival night, or a farewell breakfast on your departure morning (one of our favorite, bittersweet traditions).

BROOKE MCDONALD/THE POINTS GUY

As an added bonus, the resorts are home to many of the best character meals at Disney World.

Some of our favorites are Breakfast à la Art with Mickey & Friends at Topolino’s Terrace at Disney’s Riviera Resort, Story Book Dining at Artist Point with Snow White at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, Best Friends Breakfast featuring Lilo & Stitch at ‘Ohana at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, and Chef Mickey’s at Disney’s Contemporary Resort.

If you do have your heart set on a particular in-park character meal, like breakfast with Winnie the Pooh and Friends, which makes its long-awaited return to Magic Kingdom’s Crystal Palace Oct. 25, book breakfast as late as possible and make it a brunch, saving your early-morning hours for when there are shorter waits on rides.

Don’t 'rope drop' the most popular ride

The replacement of FastPass+ with Disney Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lane in 2021 necessitated some serious park strategy revisions to figure out how to minimize time spent in standby queues, given that the new system typically allows for fewer Lightning Lane reservations per day.

One of the best ways to get a jump start on doing as many attractions as possible in a day is to rope drop — this means arriving at the park at least 30 minutes ahead of the official park opening (or the start of Early Theme Park Entry for Disney resort guests) and heading straight for your first attraction the moment the “rope drops” and you’re able to enter.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

It may seem intuitive to beeline to the most popular ride at the park, which is typically also the one that will cost you the most to skip the line by purchasing an Individual Lightning Lane. But, this isn’t always the best approach.

Two of Disney World’s most popular rides, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Avatar Flight of Passage, are two of the priciest Individual Lightning Lanes, but they are also two of the longest queue, preshow and ride experiences. This means that by the time you’ve exited either of these rides, your rope drop advantage is long gone.

My preferred approach is often to purchase an Individual Lightning Lane for those rides and then rope drop slightly less popular rides that are still on your must-do list. With that strategy, it’s possible to get two to three other rides done in the same amount of time before the crowds start to build.

Combine this with Disney Genie+ and you’ll easily knock out everything you want to in a day.

Related: We tried to ride every ride at Disney World in one day, here's what happened

Trade fireworks and parades for shorter waits

If parades and nighttime spectaculars aren’t a must-see or you have multiple days in the same park, skip the show and hop in line for a popular ride instead and you’re all but guaranteed a shorter wait.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Keep an eye on character meet-and-greet hours

Many character meet-and-greets start later and end earlier than park open and close, so if you have a must-meet character, be sure to check their times in My Disney Experience to avoid the heartbreak of missing out on a Winnie the Pooh hug or Wookiee fist bump from Chewbacca.

Order those fries in advance

Mobile Order is widely available at Disney World quick-service dining locations now (aka places where you aren't waited on by a server), and it can save you a ton of time. But on busy days at popular spots, like Woody’s Lunch Box at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Casey’s Corner at Magic Kingdom, the return times can get backed up quickly. Wait until you’re starving to place your Mobile Order and you could end up with a return time hours later and “hanger” to deal with in the interim.

SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY

Instead, avoid that whole situation by either placing your order early in the day for your ideal return time, or at least keeping an eye on return times and making sure you get your order placed before those lunchtime return windows are long gone.

Consider Disney Vacation Club — or renting points

I’m often asked how our family affords to go to Walt Disney World — and stay in deluxe resorts — as often as we do.

My top answer (other than having annual passes)? Disney's Vacation Club. This is Disney’s more flexible take on the traditional timeshare and DVC can deliver significant savings over the life of a membership for guests who regularly stay at Disney’s deluxe tier of resorts.

Being a Disney Vacation Club member also gets you discounts on everything from merchandise to after-hours events and access to exclusive spaces just for members like Top of the World Lounge at Bay Lake Tower and a Disney Vacation Club Member Lounge at Epcot.

But even if buying a whole membership isn't right for you, consider whether you can save some money on your next trip just by renting DVC points. If you happen to know someone who has DVC points they aren't going to use that they could rent to you, that's one option, but you can also turn to a larger service, such as David's Vacation Club, that can handle the logistics for you, too.

Related: You can rent DVC points via TPG's partner, David's Vacation Club

Bottom line

Between having the right gear in your theme park bag, knowing about the hidden layers of magic built into Disney that can make your trip feel more magical and these practical tips that will save you time and money, you're well on your way to being a Disney World pro.

Featured image by KENT PHILLIPS/DISNEY
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

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  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
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  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Apply for American Express® Gold Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3XEarn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees