There’s no way around it — Disney vacations come with plenty of magic, but they don’t come cheap. The good news is there are lots of clever ways to shave a bit off the top of that final bill, both before you book your trip and while you’re there.
But, while we’re here to help you find ways to save everywhere you can, one thing to remember is that on a Disney vacation, when you’ve shelled out a pretty penny for your park tickets and hotel rooms, sometimes time IS money. When you waste time unnecessarily, you’re squandering precious minutes when you could be using those park tickets to their full advantage or splashing it up at your hotel pool. That’s why we’re also pointing out a few occasions when spending a little extra money to save time can make it well worth it in the long run.
Here’s how to maximize your time and money on your next Disney vacation.
Pay With Disney Gift Cards
This one is a no-brainer! There are a quite a few retailers that offer discounts on Disney gift cards, and buying as many cards as you need to pay for your trip plus spending money up front will help you shave from 3 to 10 percent off the cost of your trip.
You can buy these from Target (with a 5% discount by using your Red Card!), Sam’s Club or BJ’s (3–4% discount). Additionally many cash-back credit cards like Discover It and Chase Freedom will select wholesaler warehouses as one of their 5% cash-back quarterly categories, boosting your total savings. Chain retailers like Meijer, Kroger and Lowe’s have also been known to run promos that can get you even larger savings (up to 10% off).
You can use Disney gift cards to pay for every on-property portion of your Disney vacation (Disney hotel, park tickets, dining, merchandise), as well as Disney cruises and even Disney Vacation Club dues (more on that later).
Think Twice Before Getting The Disney Dining Plan
The Disney Dining Plan has its pros and cons. On the plus side, you know what you’ll be spending on food well ahead of time and can budget for that in advance with no surprises. For those who love to indulge in multi-course, table-service meals or lots of character meals on their trip, the meal plan can make a lot of sense.
But, for many families, particularly those with young children (or grown-ups) who are picky or light eaters, the meal plan is simply too much food, and you end up paying more than you would by just choosing what you want to eat and paying as you go.
Worth noting is a relatively recent update to the dining plan—the inclusion of an alcoholic drink with each meal. If you like to have an adult beverage with your meal (you are on vacation after all), this can make the dining plan significantly more cost-effective.
Buy Memory Maker
This one will cost you up front, but in the long-run could save you time and money. Disney has official Disney PhotoPass photographers stationed throughout the parks at key photo-op and character meeting spots. Purchase Memory Maker and you’ll get unlimited hi-res downloads of all the professional-quality photos you can possibly pause for on your trip, plus awesome souvenir photos from many of the rides.
You’ll save so much time and hassle not having to pull out your phone to take selfies or ask strangers to snap a pic of your group, plus your photos will be way better than any you’d take yourself. Do it right and you can skip the annual family portrait session for your holiday cards—you’ll come home with more professional photos than you know what to do with.
To take the portrait sesh to the next level, head to the Disney PhotoPass Service Studio at Disney Springs and choose from a range of backdrops and props for your own personal photo shoot.
Get An Annual Pass
Sometimes getting an annual pass—even if you’re only visiting only one time in a year—can be totally worth it. Hear me out: All you have to do is have ONE person in your party purchase an annual pass, and so long as you do things as a group, you’ll all reap the benefits.
At Walt Disney World, an annual pass will get you a hefty 20% discount on merchandise, unlimited free PhotoPass downloads (so you can skip purchasing the aforementioned Memory Maker), a discount at select dining locations ranging from 10-20%, and free parking at Walt Disney World theme parks.
Purchase Tables in Wonderland (more on that later), and you’ll save even more. A Disneyland annual pass will provide you with similar or, in some cases, better discounts.
Buy Groceries For The Room
This is one of the easiest ways to reduce your daily spend, no matter the size of your room. If you’re staying in a Disney Vacation Club villa (pictured), timeshare, Airbnb or another rental with a kitchen, buying groceries and cooking some of your meals in the room can be a great way to slash your dining expenses.
If you have access to a car, there are several nearby grocery stores. If not, Amazon Prime, Instacart, and several local options will all deliver groceries to you.
Note: Disney resorts have recently added a $6 charge to have groceries delivered to your room by Bell Services at your resort. To avoid this charge, you can meet your grocery delivery person and bring them to your room yourself.
Staying in a traditional hotel room and don’t have the means to cook? You can still get the basics, like cereal and milk for breakfast; PB&J, cold cuts and bread for lunch; granola bars and other grab-and-go snacks; and even a bottle of wine or two for grown-ups to enjoy after the kids go to bed. Not only will you save quite a bit of money when you replace a meal or snack with your groceries, you’ll save time by not having to waste precious minutes in the parks standing in line for a snack or sitting down for a meal.
Choose Your Resort Wisely
Deciding where to stay during your Disney visit is probably the biggest decision you’ll make when planning your trip and also the one that will have the most impact on the overall cost. For the most immersive, magical experience, nothing compares to staying on property, and you have 25 official Disney resorts to choose from at three cost tiers: value, moderate, and deluxe.
But you should know that things like amenities, dining offerings, and proximity to the parks do factor heavily into these categorizations, so you’ll need to decide where you’re willing to make sacrifices. If you want to save money and don’t mind spending more time on the buses to and from parks, a value resort can be a great money-saving option. If you’re looking to save time and also to really enjoy a top-tier Disney hotel, choosing a deluxe resort closest to the parks you plan to spend the most time at will cost more money, but will save you a ton of time and give you the best experience.
Plan A Resort Day
Disney resort hotels are so immersively themed and have such fabulous pools, restaurants, and recreation activities that they could all be destinations in their own right. Shave a day or two off the cost of your park tickets by designating “resort days” during your trip. Hit the pool (Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club pool, pictured, is a fan favorite), explore your resort, search for hidden Mickeys, and play games and do activities in your hotel’s Community Hall. Many Disney regulars enjoy their resort time so much that they’ll occasionally take entire trips where they never set foot in a park!
You can plan and budget for every meal and souvenir, but get your packing wrong, and you’ll find yourself throwing away your hard-saved vacation budget on things that are decidedly un-fun. Don’t be forced to buy $15 ponchos when you all have raincoats at home; diapers or wipes when you should have brought more; overpriced contact solution, sunscreen, pain reliever—the list goes on. When saving is the name of the game, your packing plan should never be “We can buy it if we forget it.” Save that spending money for the fun stuff!
Get A Refillable Popcorn Bucket
The best way to save on snacks at the parks is of course to pack your own, but it’s also fun and feels more special to indulge in the occasional treat at the park. On your first day, pick up a souvenir popcorn bucket for $10. For the rest of your stay, you can grab a refill at any popcorn stand for just $2. Pro tip: At Epcot, don’t miss the specialty flavors like maple, cheddar, and sour cream and onion!
Skip The Extras You Don’t Want At Meals
If you pass on the Disney Dining Plan, there are countless ways to cut costs at every meal. For quick-service meals, don’t be resigned to accepting the offered combination if it’s not what you want. If the menu offers a burger and fries but you just want the burger, tell them to hold the fries and in most cases, that will shave a bit off your bill. The same goes for snacks like Mickey pretzels with cheese or churros with dipping sauce. Skip the sauce and you’ll save some cash. The moral of the story? Don’t pay for (and throw away!) extra food you don’t want—keep it off your bill in the first place.
Bring A Reusable Water Bottle
One of the silliest money wasters to which you can allow yourself to fall victim is buying bottled water in the parks. Worst-case scenario, you can ask for a free cup of water at any quick-service fountain drink location. But do the earth a favor and bring a refillable bottle instead—future generations will thank you.
If you’re staying on property, some resorts, particularly in the deluxe category, are a lot more convenient to certain parks than others. Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Bay Lake Tower, for example, are mere minutes on foot from Magic Kingdom, and even have their own security line.
Disney’s Boardwalk Resort and Yacht and Beach Clubs are similarly easily accessible to Epcot and, to a slightly lesser extent, Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Compare this trip to traveling to Magic Kingdom from, say, Animal Kingdom Lodge, a whopping 12 miles from the park, or driving from an off-property hotel and parking, and you could be talking a 90-minute swing in travel time.
Save Your Character Meals For Breakfast
There’s no way around it — kids love character dining. But last time we checked, most kids don’t care which meal they’re sharing with Mickey and the gang. So skip the overpriced dinner buffets and book your character meals at the latest possible breakfast slot. Not only will kids be fresher and less likely to melt down than they are at the end of a long day in the parks, but if you have your meal late enough in the breakfast service, you can gorge yourselves on enough Mickey waffles to skip lunch and get by on cheaper snacks until dinnertime.
Join Disney Vacation Club
If you like to take Disney vacations annually, or even every few years, becoming a Disney Vacation Club (DVC) member can be a very smart move. Far more flexible than a traditional timeshare, DVC allows you to purchase a certain number of points per year (with contracts expiring between 2042 and 2070, depending on the “home” resort), which can be used across all DVC resorts and room sizes.
You can choose your number of points depending on whether you’d like to visit annually, or bank and borrow to utilize up to three years of points in order to get a stay every few years out of a lower total point purchase. Other big benefits to becoming a DVC member? DVC villas have kitchenettes or full kitchens, so you can save a lot by buying groceries and having meals in your room.
You’ll also get lots of perks like dining and merchandise discounts and access to special members-only events and spaces within the parks.
Rent Disney Vacation Club Points
If you plan to stay at one of Disney’s deluxe resorts at Walt Disney World, or the Grand Californian at Disneyland or Aulani in Hawaii, and aren’t ready to take the plunge and become a DVC member yet, there’s still another way to save some cash on booking at these resorts. Rather than book direct from Disney, you can often find significant savings by renting points from an existing DVC member. There are quite a few companies out there that help make the process smooth and easy for everyone on both sides of the transaction, like DVC-Rental.com, David’s Vacation Club Rentals, DVC Rental Store, and BuyandSellDVC.com. Go this route and you’ll almost always spend less than you would if you booked the room with cash direct from Disney.
Visit The Harmony Barber Shop For A Haircut
This place might be the best-kept secret at Walt Disney World. Tucked away just off Main Street is the adorable, old-timey Harmony Barbershop. Here, a haircut will set you back just $19 for adults, $18 for kids. The best deal at Harmony? The First Haircut package. Your little one will get their locks trimmed for the very first time by a licensed cosmetologist, who you’ll swear is also certified in kid distraction. They’ll masterfully diffuse impending meltdowns with Disney magic—bubbles, stickers, toys, the works.
For just $25, you’ll walk away with those precious strands tied up in a special pouch, plus souvenir Mickey ears embroidered with “My First Haircut,” and even a commemorative certificate. While this might not exactly be saving you money, you’re getting an experience, a souvenir, and a haircut you’d already be paying for at home, all rolled into one!
Head To Disney’s Character Warehouse For Souvenirs
When it’s time to shop for souvenirs, considering visiting one of two Disney’s Character Warehouse stores, located at Orlando International Premium Outlets and Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets. These stores are stuffed to the gills with deeply discounted official Disney Parks, Disney Store, and even Disney Cruise Line Merchandise.
Often, you’ll find past-season items or odd sizes that originated at Disney flagship stores like World of Disney (pictured), but sometimes you’ll even find the same merch that’s just hit the parks and they’ve simply ordered too much of it. Even if you don’t have a rental car to drive to the store, the savings can make it well worth the cost of taking an Uber or Lyft.
Become A Tables In Wonderland Member
Florida Residents, Disney Vacation Club members, and annual passholders are all eligible to purchase Tables in Wonderland. For $175 for Florida residents and $150 for DVC members and annual passholders, you’ll receive 20% off food and drinks, including alcohol, at more than 100 participating restaurants.
Depending on your dining habits, these savings can add up to cover the cost of membership very quickly. Only one person in your party of up to 10 needs to be a TIW member, so this is another place that strategy of having just one member of your family get an annual pass can pay off.
Travel During A Low Season
With crowd levels already soaring pretty much year round, it’s hard to call any time at Disney a “low season.” And, with the upcoming openings of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge on May 31 at Disneyland and Aug. 29 at Walt Disney World, we’ll likely be seeing those levels hit an all-time high for the foreseeable future.
But, in terms of hotel, park ticket, and airfare prices, there are definitely less expensive times of year to plan your Disney visit. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any times when schools aren’t in session, but ticket prices and crowds are also impacted by annual events at Disney like the Walt Disney World Marathon and Epcot Food and Wine Festival, so be sure to consult room rate and crowd calendars before you book.
Get A Disney Visa
Chase offers two types of Disney Visa cards with sign-up bonuses ranging from $50–$200 with qualifying initial spend. Your card then gives you access to a variety of cardholder discounts and perks, including: 10% off select dining locations at Disney World and Disneyland; 10% off select merchandise purchases Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, and the Disney Store; 15% off select tours at Disney World and Disneyland; 15–20% off select spa treatments at Disney World, Disneyland, and Disney Cruise Line; 10% select Castaway Cay (Disney’s private island, a stop on many Disney cruises) packages; special no-wait character meet-and-greets at Disney World and Disneyland (plus a free PhotoPass photo from the experience); and 0% financing on select Disney vacation packages.
Maximize Your FastPasses
If you don’t master FastPass, you’re definitely wasting time. At Walt Disney World, booking your FastPasses at the 60-day mark (only possible with a confirmed reservation at an official Disney resort) ahead of your trip is critical to securing your spot on the most popular attractions like Flight of Passage, Slinky Dog Dash and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Download the My Disney Experience app to manage your FastPasses on your phone. Another pro tip: aim to book your three advance FastPasses starting late morning, and as close together as possible. Arrive and rope drop, and you’ll be able to walk on many rides in the standby queue before your first FastPass window starts. Once you’ve used up your three FastPasses, immediately book your next one on your app.
At Disneyland, there’s no charge to pull paper FastPasses, but you’ll have to race around the parks on foot to grab them one by one. To save time—and your feet—spring for MaxPass, MaxPass, Disneyland’s answer to Walt Disney World’s FastPass+ system. For $15 a day, retrieve and redeem FastPasses from your phone, plus get digital downloads of PhotoPass photos. If this is more than you’re willing to spend, you might still consider getting MaxPass for just one person in your party just for the photo downloads.
Swap A Few Table-Service Meals For Quick-Service At Great Locations
Some consider signature table-service dining experiences to be an important part of their Disney vacation, but they sure don’t come cheap. Dramatically reduce the cost of your vacation by doing just one or two table-service and character meals and stick with quick-service for the rest.
Aside from saving a ton of cash, there’s another big benefit to going with quick service for your meals: location, location, location. The vast majority of WDW’s table-service restaurants have seating almost exclusively indoors. Chances are, you’re on vacation at least in part to enjoy the nice weather, and many quick-service locations offer fantastic outdoor seating with great views. If you want to soak up as much nice weather and park atmosphere as you can, quick service is the way to go!
Mobile Order Everywhere You Can
A huge time saver, many quick-service restaurants offer a mobile ordering service via your WDW or Disneyland app. Skip the line by ordering and paying for your food from your phone. Head straight to the pick-up window to collect your meal and you’ll be done eating before others have even made it through the regular line!
Pay Attention To Extra Magic Hours
Guests staying at official Walt Disney World resorts have access to Extra Magic Hours, windows when particular parks are open only to those guests. This can have the benefit of helping you extend your day and give you access to parks during times off-site guests aren’t admitted. It can also have the effect of making that particular park more crowded for the rest of the day, so if you’re not going for the EMH window, you might want to avoid a park that does offer EMH on that particular day.
If you’re hoping to experience Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge when it opens this fall at Walt Disney World, you’ll definitely want to take advantage of the extra Extra Magic Hours recently announced, if your resort qualifies. This will get you into Disney’s Hollywood Studios a whopping three hours before official park opening time.
Buy Official Disney Merchandise From The Disney Store Before Or After Your Trip
The Disney Store is a great source for high-quality, official Disney merchandise at much lower prices than similar (though usually not identical) merchandise sold in the parks, and there are deals and discounts available nearly all the time. For example, when the Disney Store is running one of their regular promotions, you can often get an almost identical stuffed Mickey Mouse or Winnie the Pooh to one you’d pay up to $30 for in the parks for as little as $10.
Buy your matching family shirts, toys to gift the kids during the trip, and souvenirs (order them to meet you at home) from the Disney Store instead of the park stores and you’ll save a ton.
Shop Around For Vacation Packages
Bundling your hotel and park tickets—and, in some cases, hotel and dining as well—can sometimes save you up to 30%. Look out for direct-from-Disney package promotions throughout the year. Also, be sure to check your local wholesale warehouse like Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s for hotel, park and flight packages.
Take Magical Express And Disney Transportation
If you stay on property, skip the rental car and relax knowing you don’t have to get behind the wheel or strap kids into car seats for your entire vacation. Disney’s Magical Express is a coach bus that will whisk you straight from Orlando International Airport to your Disney resort hotel at no additional charge. The best part? You’ll get special luggage tags that will check your bags straight through from your home airport to your hotel room, so you can skip baggage claim, hop on the bus, and head straight for the fun.
Use Disney transportation—bus, boat, monorail and soon Skyliner—to travel between your resort and the parks.
Use Points to Book Your Hotel
If you are part of a hotel loyalty program, a great way to save majorly on your hotel and also get some of the perks of staying on Disney property is to stay at one of a number of off-property “Official Walt Disney World” hotels. These include the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, the Disney Springs Resort Area Hotels, and my personal favorites, the recently renovated Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin (pictured).
All of these hotels are very close to some of the main Walt Disney World attractions and provide free transportation to the parks (though, be warned, no Magical Express), as well as access to Extra Magic Hours and 60-day FastPass booking windows. Use your hotel loyalty points to book these rooms and you’ll save a small fortune. Disneyland has even more conveniently located chain hotel options, so be sure to check out the Disneyland “Good Neighbor” hotels available to book with your points there.
Splurge on a Minnie Van
We’re telling you to splurge, so this one is obviously a time-saver rather than a money-saver. Minnie Vans are official Walt Disney World Lyfts and can whisk you all over the property quickly, and in style and comfort.
Open the Lyft app and order one from your phone while on property, just like you would a regular Lyft, and you’ll be picked up by a polite and knowledgeable driver who knows Disney World like the back of his or her hand. They’re also trained in correctly installing up to two car seats (provided at no additional charge).
The cost of a Minnie Van is mileage-based, and if you’re traveling from one end of the property to the other, it can add up, but they can save you boatloads of time if you’re traveling a route not easily accessible by bus (for example, from one resort to another for a special dinner). After you’ve spent a few days of your trip waiting in endless transportation queues and battling bus, boat and monorail crowds, give yourself a much-needed break and jet to your destination in a Minnie Van (warning: this could spoil you!).