Park Wise: 5 Ways to Cut Costs on a Disney Vacation

Written by Jessica Ma'ilo. Posted in Disney Parks, Features, Park Wise

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Published on April 11, 2013 at 3:00 am with 36 Comments

Most travelers keep their fingers crossed for the next great promotion and discounts to be released in time for their vacation.  While these offers can often save guests big bucks, there are a few little ways to cut costs while you‘re actually in the parks.

Disney Cost Cutting Tip #1: Bring Your Own Eats

You can bring your own food and non-alcoholic beverages into the parks.  These days I tend to just buy as we go, but during our stroller-touring days, we’d load our mini-cooler with bottled water and juice boxes and stash it in the storage basket along with a few quick snacks like granola bars, Goldfish, fruit snacks, etc.  I’ve even seen guests bust out a picnic on a bench complete with sandwiches, fruit, chips and drinks.  While we ate our main meals at the restaurants, both table and quick service, our rolling snack bar saved us time and money when we were ready for a little nosh.  I do suggest budgeting for some classic snacks, though.  It’s just not a Disney trip without a churro and a Mickey ice cream bar!

ŸGet Park Wise: If you’re feeling thirsty and not toting around a cooler or bottle of water in your bag, counter service restaurants will provide you with free ice water.

Disney Cost Cutting Tip #2: Customize the Dining Options Disney Gives You

If you’re stopping for lunch at Cosmic Ray’s, did you know that you don’t have to order the meals listed on the menu?  Disney offers up a lot of food in a quick service meal, and sometimes you don’t necessarily want to fill up before hitting the Magic Kingdom mountain range.  While a grilled chicken sandwich with a side order can cost around $10, opt for just the sandwich and knock a couple bucks off your total.  Double cheeseburgers the only thing on the menu board?  Ask for a single and save a bit on calories and coins.  If you still want some fries or apple slices with your entree, consider sharing your meal and splitting the cost.

ŸGet Park Wise: Check your restaurant receipts!!  I don’t know the rhyme or reason, but on several occasions over the last few trips to Walt Disney World, we’ve received coupons for 20% off our purchase at the “main” gift shops at each park and World of Disney in Downtown Disney.  The coupons had the odd caveat of having to make your purchase before 1:00 P.M., but if your little one has his eye on that monorail play set, this can save a nice little chunk-o-change.

Speaking of goodies for the kiddos…

Disney Cost Cutting Tip #3: Bring Gifts from Home

With flashing lights and bright colors luring you into the gift shops at every turn, it’s easy to get caught up in a buying frenzy, especially when your little ones are looking up at you with puppy dog eyes and Mickey Mouse plush in hand.  While we still pick up a few souvenirs at the parks, I tend to stock up on Disney treats before our trips (I have a sixth sense for Target clearance, and I kind of stalk our Disney outlet).  I leave them out after the kids have gone to bed, and they wake up to a new journal featuring the Fab Five or a Cinderella necklace.  I even really nerd out and sprinkle a little lime green pixie dust or Mickey confetti around their gifts.  They feel like rock stars getting special treats from the characters, and they’re not so into the stores because they’ve already gotten something new.  A little geeky?  Probably, but they and I are both milking this tradition.

ŸGet Park Wise: Pick up some glow sticks and light-up toys for after sunset.  Those rolling carts of seizure-inducing light-up toys are like kid magnets.  Luckily, mine are as mesmerized by the snap-crack-pop of a handful of glow bracelets.  Bonus!  They spend a good 15 minutes pre-parade or fireworks making all kinds of necklaces, crowns, bracelets and anything else they can imagine instead of asking me “How much longerrrr???”

Disney Cost Cutting Tip #4: Souvenirs on the Cheap(er)

We always like to bring back a little something fun for our friends and family back home.  Since I often bring back items for co-workers, I tend to get everyone the same type of gift.  I usually hit the consumables section of the gift shops.  You can always find a multi-pack of some type: flavored coffees, teas, chocolate bars, etc.  I buy a pack and split it up.  Add a Mickey lollipop (also sold in multi-packs) and a Disney Parks pen (yes, you guessed it, from a multi-pack), and you’ve got gifts for five friends for around $30.  Even better, your friends aren’t stuck with a dust-catcher from a trip they didn’t experience.

Disney Cost Cutting Tip #5: Regulate Spending with a Gift Card

I usually recommend this for parents asking about spending money for their kids, but it also works for adults who can get a little spend-happy.  Not that I know anyone like that.  Start with a gift card containing a certain amount on it for each day.  Leftover money can carry over to the next day and so on.  You could also do just one gift card with a set amount for the trip.  With kids, they’re often more picky with their purchases when they know they only have access to what’s on the card.  Maybe the same will apply to you.

ŸGet (Pre-)Park Wise: Many guests have had luck purchasing Disney gift cards at Target when using their Target credit or debit card to gain a 5% discount.  Some warehouse stores such as Sam’s also offer Disney gift cards at a small (think: a couple dollars) discount.  Not a huge savings, but those few dollars can start your next trip fund!

What are your best tips for cost cutting at Disney?

About Jessica Ma'ilo

Jessica is a special education teacher by day and blogger and Fairy Godmother Travel agent by evening. When not supervising play dates or sleepovers, she can be found creating, sewing or singing. She loves hitting the Disney Parks, and she and her family escape to the World and Land as often as they can. She can be contacted at [email protected], and you can also check out her family blog, Magic, Memories, Mayhem.

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36 Comments

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  1. Good ideas. What I do to reduce the cost of a Disney vacation:

    1) ask for tap water at restaurants. If in Orlando consider bringing your own lemon or flavor packets to cover the local water taste.

    2) Stay offsite. At DL there are some nice hotels within walking distance to the parks. A few even have views of the DCA & DL. In Orlando just rent a car and stay offsite. You will save hundreds and if you keep your parking receipt it can be used when you park hop. This way you can keep treats in your car. Just plan ahead about transit times, but make it part of the adventure. The key to staying offsite at WDW is to not go to a park that has extra magic hours for resort guests.

    3) If looking for park themed merchandise know that Disney.com often has deals on free shipping and discounts so buy before going or when you get back. Also the Disney stores located in outlet malls often have a little bit of theme park merchandise. The Disney Character store at Sawgrass Mills in Florida has a lot of park merchandise.

    • I definitely have to agree with the little packets for water from Orlando! I also have a filtering water bottle that has been perfect for this. I even use it to filter the water when I brush my teeth there. Hahaha!!

    • Good tips! Thanks!

  2. If I am in the mood for a snack, I order off the kids menu! At quick service locations they let you do that. It is the perfect size and usually contains a bottle of water that I refill later.

    • Great tip! If I’m traveling with just the kiddo and no other adults to split with, I go the kids’ meal route, too. Except the chicken nuggets. At least at WDW, those little rocks are not good.

  3. You focused on the food and souvenirs, but the other big ticket items are the airfare, the room, tickets, and transportation. The airfare is pretty standard. It is pretty cheap to fly to Orlando. That’s the good thing.

    There are many benefits to getting a good room. To save even more money, look for places that offer continental breakfasts and laundry areas. You’ll save money by not paying for breakfast and you don’t need so much clothing if you can do laundry at least once during your trip. It is important to time your trip to avoid the terrible summer crowds with the horrid humidity. Orlando is a swap so it is best to avoid the worst weather and worst crowds.

    The ticket media is the worst. Disney has got you. The sweet spot for tickets is the $250 range for Magic Your Way with no park hopping. You can add or subtract days, but the cost won’t deviate by more than $20 higher or lower. This high ticket pricing will crowd out other attractions like Universal. If you don’t mind cutting a bit more Disney out of your vacation plan like going to Disney for 2 to 3 days, the savings would be enough to add Universal, Sea World, and other attractions to your itinerary.

    You’ll need a rental car if you stay off-site. This is expensive, but you’ll have flexibility.

    My feeling about spending is you really don’t need it. To avoid buying, just don’t go to the stores. Less tempting.

    • You’re premature on this one, Steven. Check out the intro paragraph. This particular article is about small ways to cut costs while in the parks.

  4. 1. Easiest if you have a stroller, but throw some frozen water bottles in the storage area. As they melt, you have cold water to enjoy during the day and can always fill up at a quick service restaurant or water fountain.

    2. If you have the Target red card (I have the debit), you save 5% on your purchases. As I was saving up for our big Disney week last December, I would periodically purchase Disney gift cards. By the time the trip came up, I was well stocked on cards to pay for the entire trip (food, souvenirs, etc) and had saved 5%. Every little bit helps. Also if you find coupons from them (i.e. spend $50, get a $10 target card), the coupons will often exclude gift cards. However, the Disney cards are actually considered entertainment cards, so they won’t be excluded.

    3. My husband always brings Starbucks Via and asks for hot water.

    • Great minds think alike, eh? ;) Except I don’t do caffeine, so thanks for the tip for coffee (I’m guessing that’s what Starbucks Via is) drinkers.

  5. Just a note when you bring food or liquids into the park. Make sure you have nothing in glass or some sort of hard container because you will not get past security.

    • Thank you!! Completely slipped my mind about glass!! I believe the only exception is baby food jars.

  6. Good article, Jessica! Good to know I can skip the side at quick service restaurants and pay less!

    Now please write an article about saving money at Disney’s table service restaurants. :)

    • Wellllll…if you’re willing to spend the money on an annual pass and the Tables in Wonderland card at WDW, you can save 20%. ;) Of course, becoming a passholder really just ended up costing me more money in spur-of-the-moment trips.

  7. My favorite is getting autograph books 25% off from the disneystore online. They also recently had a “buy 3 get the 4th free” on their parks merchandise dated 2013. Since my Mom & I always buy the small photo album with the date on it, we were able to get those and a couple of kids t-shirts at a more reasonable price for our trip that is scheduled for later this year. We also buy flashy, spinny, glowing toys for the boys ahead of time, just like you. We tend to pull them out as surprizes while we’re wating for a parade or the fireworks to begin. Great Tips, really enjoyed reading the post!

    • Great ideas! We’ve never ordered park merch from online, but they’re always running great deals. I may have to poke around for upcoming trips.

  8. Golly, you guys sure eat a lot more than my human does! I wanna go with you and eat Chicken Rock Nuggets! My human says that the only way she ever saved money at DL was when she discovered the Vegetable Skewer at Disneyland’s Bengal Barbeque. A full, healthy meal and relatively inexpensive compared to anything else! She’ll probably make me eat that when we go instead of getting me what I really want…and then she’ll probably tell me that I’ve eaten enough spilled popcorn off the ground and don’t need dinner. So can I go with you, puh puh puh please?

    • Um, I’m not exactly sure how to respond to this.

  9. Here’s another tip: Eat a big breakfast at home or the hotel in the morning before you leave for the parks. Then have a late lunch/early dinner. Not only will you not have to deal with the crush of people at peak dining times, but you’ll also only pay for one meal. If you get hungry before/after have fun snacking.

    • Great tip! We tend to like to eat a little earlier or later than the peak times, too.

    • Eating a bunch will make me sluggish. Best to eat a heavy protein meal (mostly meat and vegetables). If hungry, snack on some carbs to keep your energy up.

  10. First and most obvious.. go during the off season. I second the “bring your own food”, but would not go so far as to bring an entire picnic lunch.. however “snack packs” are standard for us. Everybody gets their own water bottle (get one that can attach to you), drink mix packets, and an assortment of portable snacks (granola bars, snack size cookies or chips, rice crispies treats, etc) in a fanny pack which is refilled each day. Eat at quick service and split meals.. they are huge. Not only will this save if you are paying cash.. but also if you are on a meal plan since you can save up meals to go towards signature dining and get more bang for your buck. It’s also a much more comfortable way to eat when you are in the heat and being spun around on the teacups. Not sure if it is still there.. but there used to be a HUGE Disney outlet in a mall in Orlando, I spent about $100 dollars there on our last driving trip and brought home bags of stuff. Worth the drive if you have a car. Set up a spending plan BEFORE you go.. one T-shirt, one stuffed animal, and $20 of free spending cash was standard for our kids. Make sure the adults stick to their plans too! Watch out for “addictive” products like trading pins, vinylmations, etc. If you don’t start buying them you don’t have to stop. The pins are a great thing for kids though.. buy one starter set and maybe a few of the cheap grab bag pins and let them trade to their hearts content, keeps them getting new stuff the whole trip without it costing you anything.

    • We’re outlet fans, too! There are two official outlets within about 15 minutes (or less depending on traffic) of WDW. In fact, we tend to stock up on “addictive” products at the outlets. Haha! Of course, we don’t limit ourselves to the Disney outlets and often end up spending lots. But when you compare it to regular retails prices, it totally makes sense, right? ;)

  11. With the “bring your own food” route, make sure your food is already prepared before you go to the parks. I’ve seen guests try to bring in jars of peanut butter & jelly, mayonnaise and the like and security always confiscates those items. Make your sandwiches at home/at the hotel, people!

    Bringing your own water is a really good one though. I have a big refillable sports bottle that came with an insulated sleeve/attached carry strap. I’ll fill that up the night before with water and stick it in the fridge overnight. The sleeve keeps the water cold a good part of the day. And if I run out I’ll get a cup of ice water from a quick service restaurant to refill it as the majority of the fountains at WDW have horrible tasting water (though I’ve noticed some of the ones at Epcot aren’t bad).

    • I can’t imagine that sandwich construction is all that fun in the middle of a crowded park even if you did manage to get glass jars past security. Haha!

      I can’t say I’ve ever been thirsty enough to try a water fountain (developed an aversion during my first few years working in an elementary school…haha!), but Orlando unfiltered water is definitely not yummy.

    • There’s another way around it. Mayo, ketchup, mustard are in the parks as are plastic knives, forks, and spoon. You can also find jelly and honey in packets. All you need to bring are the deli meats, bread, and lettuce. Thus, it is best to bring some sandwich packs to store your bread and lettuce. Only buy enough meat for one trip.

      There is some benefit from making your sandwich when you want to eat it. The bread is less soggy.

  12. If you have an Annual Passport; A Disney Visa Credit Card; or are a AAA Member – be sure to use your Discounts. Annual Passholders will get 10% off of most dining (Fast Food; Buffeteria; Buffet; Table Service) and some Souvenier purchases. Other discounts can apply to the Disney Visa Card as well as the AAA Card. Also – if you can pre-purchase Disney Gift Cards at a Discount (see side-bar re: Target); by using a discounted Gift Card along with your AP or AAA Card, you can get double discounts! I realize that 5 or 10 percent discounts are fairly small, but over the course of an entire vacation, they can add up. From a 1 week trip, I calculated that for the 5 of us we can save close to $100 by simply using the discounts that are readily available to us. That can help pay for the Tickets, Gas and Room Costs. Everything helps!

    • I love a discount! I’m the gal asking each cashier if they do AP discounts or if I can use Tables in Wonderland here. Haha! Great addition, thanks!

  13. Thanks for the good tips. I will take issue about thing, though: I don’t equate a trip to Disneyland with churros. Total ripoff! hahahahahahahaha.

    • No waaay!! I will admit, they’re not as good as they were when I was a kid, but they’re still a stick of yummy, horrible-for-you goodness that we only get at the parks.

  14. Tip I picked up from friends who fly… these days a stroller can sometimes be seen as “checked baggage” depending on the airline and how much you pack. To avoid that don’t fly with a stroller… buy a cheap one (usually $15 or so) when you get to your destination. The “cost” of a stroller is cheaper than checked baggage and cheaper than a rental. Most individuals donate the stroller to a thrift store before leaving.

    Not sure if there is a place to buy a stroller nearby… check online for Target, Walmart etc. before you fly!

    • Before you plan to buy one (they’re available for around $40 on property if you don’t have means to get to a store nearby), just check with your airline. We’ve always been able to gate check ours at no cost (United, Continental, American, Delta).

      We liked having ours in the airport, but if you don’t want to bother with it and/or your airline charges (and if you’ll be renting a car anyway) this is a helpful tip. In this same vain, I’ve seen “stroller swaps” around the Disney online community where one stroller is passed from guest to guest as they’re checking in/out. Of course, this relies on the honor system, so one never knows when the stroller may go missing.

    • Check the airline. The stroller might not count as checked baggage. It didn’t when I flew one time.

  15. In terms of cost cutting tip #1, on bringing your own food, I thought they did not allow coolers full of snacks into the parks themselves.

    • As long as the cooler fits on you (I saw a couple people with cooler backpacks on our last trip) or in your stroller (or wheelchair or ECV, I imagine), you can bring it. Nothing with wheels or that would be a nuisance to other guests.