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10 ways to save money on a trip to Disney World

Sept. 05, 2019
24 min read
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Whether your family goes to Disney for a much-anticipated, once-in-a-lifetime trip or heads to Mickey's kingdom as often as you can, the cost of the magic can turn into a nightmare if you're not careful.

But saving real money on a Disney World vacation is easier said than done. If you think you've found a simple pathway to save tons, make sure you aren't getting scammed. Frankly, big savings at Disney World usually requires stacking and digging, as there's no one trick to massive discounts.

Don't despair, though! You can still achieve your dreams of photos on Main Street, USA, and more affordable Mickey-shaped ice cream. To make your life easier, we brought together 10 of our favorite strategies to save money at Disney World in one place. Follow this road map to make your vacation more affordable for your family. Who knows? These tips may even help turn your once-in-a-lifetime trip into just the first of many return visits.

The "please bring us back to Disney" hug. (Image by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Save on park tickets

Shop for discounted Disney World park tickets

If you're using points and miles to defray airline ticket and hotel costs, Disney World park tickets may end up being your largest cash outlay. Single-day tickets start at about $100, though the price per day goes down based on date and ticket length. You don't have to buy your tickets directly from Disney to get a deal. In fact, Disney's price is frequently not the cheapest for tickets of three days or longer.

Sites such as Get Away Today and Undercover Tourist offer a variety of different discounted tickets. And when Disney World announces a price increase, sites like Undercover Tourist usually have inventory left over at the previous, lower prices. Don't sleep on those savings, though, as they disappear quickly. After the most recent price increase at Disney World, purchasing from Undercover Tourist can save you $20 per ticket per day on certain peak days.

Active-duty military members and their families can also enjoy significant savings on Disney tickets and more and there's even a Disney World resort just for military personnel.

Related: Best Credit Cards for Theme Parks

Use points to pay for Disney World tickets

A few of the credit cards hiding in your wallet can also help you pay for those precious park tickets using points, so you can conserve cash. As a general rule, purchasing just tickets from Disney won't code as a travel purchase on your credit card, but a room reservation that includes tickets as a larger package generally will. If you're purchasing Disney tickets from Undercover Tourist, those will generally code as a travel. There are a couple of cards that are a good choice for using points to pay for Disney tickets: one of which is the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which earns 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.

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If you have Citi ThankYou points at your disposal from cards such as the Citi Premier® Card, you can use them over the phone via Citi's cruise-and-vacation-package department to purchase tickets to Disney World at a rate of 1 point to 1.25 cents of value toward tickets. We've got the steps spelled out for you.

The Disney Visa also earns points that can be used toward most things Disney, including theme park tickets. Here's some information to help you determine if the Disney Visa is worth it for your family.

Right now there is also actually a very limited-time opportunity to use your Delta miles to pay for a Disney vacation.

Wait for ticket sales

Disney World occasionally offers unique types of tickets that can save you money if you can make them work with your plans. One recent offering was a four-park ticket that could save you up to roughly $30 per person per day. Multiply that across a family of four for real savings.

Enjoy partial park days on holidays

Holiday seasons at Disney World can be some of the priciest. Disney World has a liberal definition of the holiday season, with the Halloween season and Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party starting in mid-August while Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party starts in early November and goes through late December. Tickets for these evening events can be cheaper than a single-day park ticket (prices start at $79) if you're only looking for a bit of Disney park fun as opposed to a full day (and the parties themselves are pretty awesome). Holding a ticket to these special events generally allows you access to the Magic Kingdom a couple of hours before the start of the event, often at 4 p.m. with no separate theme-park admission required.

Plan your trip on (semi-) off-peak dates

There really is no longer a true slow season at Disney World. However, Disney did move to a date-based pricing system in the fall of 2018 that allows groups with a bit of flexibility to save some money by targeting less popular dates. The price difference between the most peak and most off-peak dates can be as much as $50 per day. Families can search the Disney calendar online to see which dates are the most affordable (and likely most enjoyable). Here are the best times to visit Disney World.

Price an annual pass

Finally, you might not think of a Disney World annual pass as a ticket in the traditional sense. But not only should you think of it as a ticket, you should think of it as a discount machine. Obviously, you can use it to enter the parks every day for a year (depending on which type of pass you buy), which is probably beyond the ambitions of most families. But you can also get up to a 20% discount at many of the purchases and restaurants your family will want to visit on the grounds for yourself and up to three guests. It only takes a few character meals to put a serious dent in the purchase price of an annual pass. You'll also receive up to a 20% discount on retail items, get free parking at the parks, special hotel discounts and many more perks.

(Photo by Melissa Ann Photography)

In almost all cases, just one annual pass purchased for one family member can save the entire family money throughout your vacation. Even if you can't visit weekly or monthly, if you time two multiday visits to Disney World just under a year apart, then you can really come out ahead with an annual pass.

If you upgrade your tickets on-site, consider price bridging to save you a few dollars on a Disney World annual pass.

How many park days do you need?

How many days do you need to purchase park tickets for? Consider the addition of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, Pandora: World of Avatar, Toy Story Land and all the exciting new things still to come in 2019, as you don't want to find yourself with too few days. But if you're staying at a Disney World resort, there are also fabulous pools, character meals and other activities (horse riding or archery, anyone?) that you may want to set aside time for.

Pony rides at Fort Wilderness (Photo by Melissa Ann Photography for The Points Guy)

There are plenty of things to do that don't involve a park ticket at Disney World, so plan on days to enjoy things outside the parks. Not only will this lead to a more relaxed vacation (yes to all the naps), but it may save you money on fewer days of necessary tickets.

Buy discounted Disney gift cards

Virtually everything you spend money on at Disney World can be paid for with Disney gift cards. This applies to hotel rooms, park tickets, meals, snacks, activities and souvenirs. Disney gift cards don't typically go on sale at a huge discount, but even a 5% discount can make a huge difference in your total bill. There are a number of places we've found discounts on Disney gift cards. Target and Sam's Club (where you can sometimes double-dip discounts) are two of our most reliable favorites. Those with a Target card can save 5% on Target purchases and Sam's Club members can always save money on Disney gift cards. Stay on the lookout for Amex offers valid at retailers that sell Disney gift cards to stack these savings further.

Image by Ross Binkley / The Points Guy

Skip Park Hopper

Park Hopper is a feature that Disney World sells that allows you to hop among parks on the same day. (Traditional tickets are only valid for one park each day.) Park Hopper prices depend on the length of your ticket but generally start at $60 or more extra per day. You can trim a significant portion of a ticket's cost by skipping Park Hopper, especially if you aren't sure that your family will have the stamina or pace to visit more than one park per day.

But if you can move at an inhuman pace, Park Hopper can actually save you money. A park like Disney Hollywood Studios (unless you plan to spend a lot of time in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge) can be accomplished in less than a day. For that matter, so can Animal Kingdom, if you're skipping Pandora: World of Avatar or are very strategic with your FastPasses and early mornings. If you think you can keep up a brisk speed and you don't mind missing a ride here or there, Park Hopper could help you reduce the number of days you need to visit the parks — if simply riding as many rides as possible is your goal.

Get groceries delivered or bring food to the parks

In the olden days, we used to recommend stopping at a grocery store on the way from the airport to your hotel. Most Disney rooms have refrigerators of some sort, and Disney Vacation Club rooms generally have a kitchen. That usually meant skipping the free Magical Express ride (more on that later) and hiring a car service or a getting a rental car. But there is now a great number of delivery services that can bring fresh groceries right to your Disney World hotel room.

Amazon Prime Now is so quick at times that some guests have reported placing their order when they land at Orlando International Airport (MCO) and having the order beat them to the hotel room.

Full kitchen in a Grand Villa at Bay Lake Tower

How much can you save? Consider that a case of 24 bottles of Dasani water is roughly the same price on sale from Amazon Prime Now as one bottle of water purchased inside the theme park.

Lunch for four at a quick-service restaurant in the parks can easily top $50 for a family of four. A loaf of bread and some lunch meats (or good old-fashioned PB&J) is more likely to be in the $10-to-$15 range for enough supplies to cover multiple days' worth of lunches.

Even if you don't want to make full meals, or even sandwiches, you can still save on drinks and snacks by placing an order and bringing those items with you into the parks. In addition to Amazon, popular grocery-delivery companies include Garden Grocer and Instacart.

Use points to stay off-site (without trading away perks)

The easiest way to save a bunch of money on a Disney World vacation is to use points to defray hotel costs, especially when Disney World Resort properties are pricey. However, that generally means missing out on two key benefits. For one, Disney World Resort guests get access to at least one park every day ahead of (or after) regular parkgoers via Extra Magic Hours. Extra Magic Hours rotate through the different parks and allow for smaller crowds for that extra portion of the day.

Disney World Resort guests also get access to the popular FastPass+ system 60 days ahead of time, a full 30 days earlier than folks who stay off-site (learn more about that here). Many of the most popular rides won't have advance FastPass+ availability 30 days ahead of time, as all the slots will have been claimed, so 60-day availability is important.

Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista Disney Springs (Photo by Dia Adams)

Instead of making a difficult decision between saving money and riding the best attractions without long waits, consider staying at some of our favorite points hotels at Disney World. There are a number that participate in the Good Neighbor program in the Disney Springs area and offer Extra Magic Hours and a 60-day FastPass+ window. The No. 1 overall hotel in our survey of more than 150 properties reviewed was the Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista, an easy (and free) shuttle ride from the parks. Use Hilton points to save money for other things.

Here are some credit cards that will help you increase your Hilton Honors points balance so you can do Disney for less cash:

  • Hilton Honors American Express Card: Earn 70,000 Hilton Honors Bonus Points plus a Free Night Reward after you spend $1,000 in purchases on the card in the first three months of card membership. .
  • Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card: Earn 130,000 Hilton Honors bonus points plus a free night reward after you spend $2,000 in purchases on the card in the first three months of card membership.
  • Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card: Earn 150,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first three months of account opening.

If you're willing to sacrifice access to a couple of key Disney resort benefits such as early FastPass+ and park access, there are hotels nearby that can help you control costs. The Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress is a solid choice to have a resort experience. The hotel can be booked for 12,000 Hyatt points per night in a standard room, or a room with Club Lounge access can be secured for 17,000 points. With this club access, your family could grab an easy breakfast at no additional cost and potentially even turn the evening offerings into a meal too. You can book this hotel with points or an annual certificate from the World of Hyatt Credit Card. Those with a credit card that earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points can also transfer those points at a 1:1 ratio to Hyatt to book their stay.

Here's a bonus tip: If you're up for just a bit of risk and want to stay at an on-site Disney World Resort for a fraction of the price, try this trick to decode the mystery of Disney on Priceline.

Rent Disney Vacation Club points

Disney Vacation Club (DVC) is Mickey's version of a timeshare. Most of the properties are integrated into a traditional Disney World Resort, while a few are solely composed of DVC rooms. The majority of these rooms have kitchens and more space to spread out (some have a second small pullout bed for a third kiddo).

DVC room at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort. (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Both of those elements can help save families money. By targeting a DVC property, you can essentially pay for the price of a moderate resort and enjoy the amenities of a deluxe resort.

Pools of Disney's Bay Lake Tower (bookable with DVC points).

But you can't get the best rates on these rooms by booking through Disney World. The big discounts require you to rent DVC points from a DVC owner. There are two paths to savings here. If you can find a DVC owner you trust, you can rent directly from them. You can also choose a service, like David’s Disney Vacation Club Rental, that rents out points on a large scale at a fixed price.

Take the Magical Express Bus

Disney World offers free transportation to and from Orlando International Airport if you're staying at a Disney World Resort. To use the Magical Express Bus, you'll receive special luggage tags in the mail before your trip and then head straight for the bus outside the airport. (There are lots of signs.) If you place the tags on your checked luggage, you can bypass baggage claim completely and head right to a waiting bus. (Mommy Points once checked a whole bag of water and snacks using free checked bags, and it was delivered to the Disney room via the Magical Express.)

Disney's Magical Express Bus will whisk you to and from MCO.

Some of the Magical Express buses are a straight shot to a Disney resort, while others make multiple stops (generally more common with the value resorts). When you're headed back to the airport, free buses are scheduled to take care of you, but you don't get to pick the departure time; one is assigned to you. You can use a special service with participating airlines to check your bags at the Disney hotel and bypass that line at the airport.

Magical Express may add some time to your journey to and from MCO, but it saves a bunch of money. An Uber ride for a family of four and luggage can approach $45 to $50 one-way when using Uber Family with a car seat, and parking fees for rental cars (between $13 and $24 for self-parking) continue to increase at Disney World resorts.

Note that the Magical Express bus service is not available to those staying at the on-property Swan and Dolphin, which are bookable with Marriott Bonvoy points.

Take advantage of a free Disney dining plan

Disney World offers optional dining plans for those staying at a Disney resort to fit various needs and appetites. When you break down the value, they're not going to be a fit for every family. But what if they were free?

For the past few years, Disney World has periodically run limited-time promotions where you can get a free dining plan for your family when you book a room at a Disney World resort. In this instance, "free" doesn't mean "no strings attached," as there are usually requirements for specific lengths of stay and park tickets. However, you can use discounted Disney gift cards on all of these expenses. If you were already considering a dining plan, keep an eye out for this annual promotion.

The free Disney dining plan can open up pretty desirable restaurant options, especially if you're booking at a deluxe resort or villa that usually includes the full dining plan. Some of our favorite one-credit dining experiences are ‘Ohana, Chef Mickey’s, Via Napoli, Storybook Dining at Artist Point (new), Boma Flavors of Africa and 1900 Park Fare.

Bring your own stroller or rent a stroller

Renting a stroller from Disney World in the parks will cost $15 per day for a single stroller and $31 per day for a double (with a small discount for multiple days). These are brown, hard-plastic strollers that get you from Point A to B but don't offer much in the way of comfort or storage. Your cheapest option is to bring your stroller with you from home. Even ultra low-cost airlines like Spirit and Frontier allow your little one to fly with a stroller for free, so just gate-check yours and have it for the whole trip at zero extra cost.

The Disney brown stroller is not always the best.

However, a middle-of-the-road option if you don't want to travel with quite as much gear is to rent a stroller from one of the many off-site stroller companies in Orlando. These are top-notch strollers that can recline to allow your kids to take a nap in the park and have plenty of storage underneath. Rain covers and coolers can sometimes be included for free. Five-to-seven-day rentals will generally cost less than $10 per day, and you have use of the stroller not only within the parks but for the entirety of your stay in Orlando. The strollers are cleaned between each use and will be delivered and picked up right at your resort.

Two of our favorite companies to use are Kingdom Strollers and Magic Strollers. (If saving money is key, we recommend avoiding this $240-per-day stroller rental!)

Lots of options for strollers at Disney. (Photos by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Buy souvenirs somewhere else

Whether it's a special stuffed animal, a Minnie Mouse sweatshirt, a custom lightsaber from Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge or a special balloon, Disney World souvenirs can dent your wallet. It's going to be tough to find that custom-created lightsaber or Mickey balloon somewhere else, but you'll find plenty of sweatshirts and stuffed animals at stores just outside Disney World property. A little shopping on eBay can also be your friend before a Disney vacation, especially if you're into pin trading.

Resident Disney discount guru and TPG Family contributor Dia Adams has the lowdown on scoring discounted Disney souvenirs on the cheap just by visiting Disney's Character Warehouse on International Drive, where $1-to-$5 Disney items are easy to come by.

Those little ones into picture-perfect princess dresses would be wise to order them ahead of time from Little Dress-Up Shop. Unlike many dresses sold in the parks, they’re not itchy but are affordable and machine-washable. (Don't let your young princesses learn of the existence of the Bippity Bobbity Boutique if you want to save money ... or just learn how to use points to pay for a very similar experience.)

A comfortable princess dress is key.

All that said, there are cool exclusive items to be found only in the park, so set a budget for your kids and then use your annual pass discounts and discounted Disney gift cards to save as much as possible on those must-buys. (And if you aren't paying with a gift card, charge all Disney purchases to your room to earn a bonus on the charge at the end to your go-to travel credit card, such as 3 points per dollar via the Chase Sapphire Reserve.)

Bonus tip

This is The Points Guy, so we can't talk about saving money on a big vacation without at least mentioning the role airline miles can play in getting you to Orlando. Not everyone flies to Disney World, but those who do can save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars by using airline miles to cover the cost of flights. We've talked about using points to cover the cost of tickets or hotel rooms, but one well-timed card welcome bonus could also potentially cover many of your family's flights to Orlando.

Here are our best credit cards for airline miles to help you rack up the miles needed to fly your family to Disney World for as little as 7,500 miles each way, such as with the Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW)-Orlando example below.

Admittedly, if you are traveling to Orlando during a peak family travel season, such as a school break, it can be tough to snag the lowest-priced award tickets, though we've got tips to increase your odds of success there.

Bottom line

The total cost of a family trip to Disney World depends greatly on what you want to do, where you stay, where you want to eat, how long you want to visit and how hard you are willing to work to secure discounts.

Perhaps you want to stay off-site using points but go all-in on a dinner in Cinderella Castle. Or you might trade away park hopping to buy up to special expanded early-morning ride access. Or maybe you need to use all of the tips and tricks out there at once to make it in the main gate. That's OK -- there are many ways to have a memorable Disney vacation, and these money-saving tips work for almost every budget. In the end, the details of a Disney trip will fade away, but some of the best moments will stick with you for a lifetime.

Ed Pizzarello covers family travel for TPG Family and also blogs at Pizza in Motion. You can find him podcasting at Miles to Go and eating doughnuts on Twitter and Instagram.

Featured image by (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
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.