My family vacations to Walt Disney World are still some of my happiest childhood memories.
But now that I'm planning a trip for my family, I realize how stressed out my parents must have been.
Thankfully, Disney World is one of the most-visited places on earth, and that means savvy parents have figured out how to save money on every part of their trip.
Follow these tips to have a blast at Disney World with your family, without breaking the bank.
1. Start planning right now
The best time to plan a Disney trip was last year, the next best time is today.
Because they book up so fast, Disney resorts and local hotels will usually offer a discount if you book your stay at least six months in advnace.
It sounds like a hassle, but getting the wrong hotel can seriously mess with your family's vacation fun.
And if you're more of a last-minute planner, keep reading on tips for other kinds of affordable accommodations.
2. Avoid special tickets
With all the add-ons and special passes, keeping track of your tickets can be seriously confusing.
The Park Hopper option is almost always a waste of money (families just don't do that much park hopping) and you can skip line-hopping tickets by getting to the park early for popular rides.
You shouldn't even buy full-priced regular tickets.
Start with these cheap tickets, and only get an add-on if it's really worth it for you. Then, it will still be an okay deal.
3. Small costs add up
Lodging and tickets will be the biggest expenses on your trip, but if you're not careful other fees and costs will eat up your budget.
Keep these in mind to avoid annoying day-to-day costs:
- Bring your own water bottle and use the park's free refilling stations. Bottled water can cost you up to $5.
- Buy an autograph book for your kids and let them decorate it at home with Disney stickers. They cost more than $20 in the park.
- Avoid buying souvenirs at the park. Local stores will offer Disney souvenirs and clothes at much more affordable prices.
- Pack your own stroller to avoid renting one. Disney allows strollers up to 36 by 52 inches.
- Bring your own camera to the park to avoid paying for Photopass.
- Take the Disney shuttle to avoid paying $17 for parking.
- Use the park's free WiFi network, Disney-Guest, to save on data charges.
4. Eat lunch at breakfast prices
Food in the park is wildly expensive (more on that later) but it's hard to pass up a meal with Mickey and Minnie at the character buffets.
Know that prices for these special meals are lower in the morning and most expensive at dinner.
Plan to enjoy a character buffet early, or schedule a meal 15 minutes before their lunch menu stars.
That way, you get to order off the lunch menu but still pay breakfast prices.
5. Skip meals in the park
Food at the Disney parks is actually really good, and there's something for everyone.
But the meals are so expensive you will definitely regret dining at the park every day.
There are local grocery stores that will deliver to your hotel.
Fill your mini fridge, then plan to take lunches, snacks, and even dinners into the park if you can, or make an evening meal back at your hotel room.
6. Get a discount
Disney offers a number of discounts for special group memberships.
AAA and AARP members get discounts on their resort stays. So do members of the military, who can also stay at the special Shades of Green hotel.
Not a member of any of these groups? Consider joining D23 Fans, which also unlocks other Disney-related savings year-round.
7. Avoid crowded times
Plan a trip at the wrong time of year - or day - and you could up spending hours waiting in line for the popular rides.
How does this affect your budget? The more time you spend waiting, the more likely you are to eat at the park or cave in for a line-skipping pass.
Here's the simple rule: when kids are in school, the park is empty.
Also, avoid parks on days with Extra Magic Hours, when they're swamped with special pass holders.
Just be careful about holiday weekends. Even Christmas and New Year's are busy days at Disney World.
8. Skip the hotel
Disney's Deluxe Resorts add something special to the trip, but you can visit Disney World for even cheaper if you avoid them.
Orlando is loaded with "vacation homes" and condos that are rented out at a discount to visiting families.
You can find them easily on VRBO, Airbnb, Flip, and HomeAway, and they can be even cheaper for last-minute bookers.
Don't assume they're grungy either. On my last trip, I stayed at an affordable vacation home that was in a gated community just a short drive from the parks.
If your family is more adventurous, look into the local campgrounds for even more savings.
9. Plan a non-park day
Here's the ultimate money-saving tip for visiting a Disney park: don't visit the part every day.
Plan to spend one day bonding with your family over free, outdoor activities. Spend time in the pool, touring your resort, or sight-seeing around Orlando.
There are a lot of handy lists of free Disney World activities specifically for thrifty parents.
What's your tip for saving money at Disney World?
Here are more helpful vacation tips:
- 12 vacation destinations for grandparents that aren't Disney World.
- 11 vacation safety tips you must remember.
- How many of the 20 most beautiful countries have you visited.