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Top 10 Ways to Save Money at Disney Parks

By: Rona Gindin and Michelle McCoy

We know what you’re thinking: Between hotels, park passes, meals, and souvenirs, a Disney vacation is going to put a significant dent in your vacation budget. While some expenses are unavoidable, savvy travelers can find serious savings if they know where to look. We’ve picked the brains of two Disney insiders to come up with the top 10 ways to save money at Disney parks that go beyond tried-and-true tips like taking advantage of hotel shuttles or visiting when kids are in school. From her home base in Orlando just a few miles from the parks, Rona Gindin has penned The Little Black Book of Walt Disney World: The Essential Guide to All the Magic, the restaurant section for Fodor’s Walt Disney World 2012 guidebook, and our very own Walt Disney World destination guide and Cheap Eats at Epcot. On the other side of the country, Michelle McCoy is the resident Southern California expert at family-oriented travel site Trekaroo, where she frequently covers how to get the most out of a Disneyland trip with kids while saving money at the same time. If you don’t want to return from the parks with an empty wallet, there’s no need to wish upon a star – just follow tips 1-5 for Walt Disney World and tips 6-10 for Disneyland!

See our Walt Disney World and Disneyland destination guides for general trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights, hotels, vacation packages, and more travel deals.

Eat Cheap at Walt Disney World

Theme parks have captive audiences and so their meals tend to be pricey. Here and there, though, Disney World visitors can pick up satisfying yet inexpensive food items for under $15. All four parks sell smoked turkey legs, and one tender Flintstones-sized $8 poultry limb is lunch enough for a mom and two kids. At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the quick-service eatery Starring Rolls stocks focaccia sandwiches and sushi. Pick up a Southwest chicken salad at the Backlot Express or a pressed turkey club at Studios Catering Co. A refreshing Dole Whip frozen concoction has a cult-like following at the Magic Kingdom. For more substantial grab-and-go, waffle sandwiches at Sleepy Hollow are filled with a sweet and spicy chicken, ham, prosciutto, or Swiss. Animal Kingdom wallet-watchers can fuel up on great shrimp po’ boys at Restaurantosaurus, beef lo mein at Yak & Yeti Local Food Cafes, or eggrolls and boneless chicken wings at kiosks in the Asia section. Epcot has a wealth of low-cost noshes, from edamame to seared tuna noodle salad. Quench your thirst with unlimited free samples of Coca-Cola products from around the world at Club Cool. Downtown Disney is loaded with substantial snacks, such as empanadas at Bongo Cuban Cafe’s take-out window, falafel burgers at Fresh A-Peel, and fish and chips, battered burgers, and Fisherman’s Pie at Cookes of Dublin.

See our Walt Disney World destination guide for general trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights, hotels, vacation packages, and more travel deals.

See Animals for Free

With its world-class collection of exotic creatures, Orlando’s Animal Kingdom can’t be beat for walkable safaris. Yet two nearby lodging facilities offer a mighty nice sampling of the sensations that roam the savannah. At Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge resort guests can step onto a platform called Arusha Rock to view up to 30 types of furry and feathered friends, which might include white-bearded wildebeest, Thompson’s gazelle, giraffes, and okapi. Schedule lunch at Sanaa, featuring flavors of the Spice Islands, and the view will be as special as the food. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows provide views of zebra, sable antelope, ankole cattle, and flamingos, among others.

See our Walt Disney World destination guide for general trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights, hotels, vacation packages, and more travel deals.

Hang at Florida’s Downtown Disney

Get a huge Disney infusion without paying a penny. Simply stroll around Downtown Disney, a sprawling shopping, dining, and entertainment complex. It’s loads of fun yet has no entrance or parking fee. Begin at World of Disney, a mega-retail complex. Each room is highly themed, so much so that visitors gawk at the humongous props, especially the princess and pirate novelties inside the girls’ and boys’ sections, respectively. When it’s time to get interactive, head outdoors. The Lego Imagination Center has stations loaded with little plastic blocks, and kids are free to build until bored parents haul them to the next freebie. Dotting the area are impressive Lego creations such as a water dragon in Lake Buena Vista. Nearby, Once Upon a Toy invites children to test out dozens of tempting playthings. Samples are set out generously throughout the retail area. Live entertainers often perform at the Waterside Stage, an amphitheater across the way. In two locations, water features surprise little ones as streams squirt randomly from a variety of spots. Be sure to pack the children’s bathing suits because there’s no keeping gigglepusses away from the jets and fountains. Price: $0. When you have a yen for sweets, head to the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop, where employees often hand out complimentary samples. Willing to dole out a couple of bucks? For $2, tots can ride the carousel and the “dollar train,” just the right size for preschoolers.

See our Walt Disney World destination guide for general trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights, hotels, vacation packages, and more travel deals.

Hotel Hop at Walt Disney World

The show doesn’t end when you exit the theme parks. Disney hotels often have entertainment of their own, and there’s no fee to walk right in and watch. Every evening at Disney’s Polynesian Resort, entertainers clad in South Seas attire light torches at the hotel’s entrance. They make an extravaganza of the ritual that includes thundering drum music and a man twirling fire-lit torches. Every hour at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, you can watch the manmade Fire Rock Geyser shoot water 120 feet in the air; it’s (almost) just like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. Yet for the best free and inexpensive hotel amusement, plan an evening at Disney’s BoardWalk area. From 7pm to 10pm nightly, a trio of entertainers takes turns gathering quiet crowds for alfresco shows. Generally, there’s a juggler, a comedian, and a magician, all enchanting onlookers with wholesome bits. For a reasonable tab, guests can pick up a to-go meatball sandwich, frozen mango margarita, or slice of pizza and play old-fashioned arcade games. Adults can boogie the night away at the Atlantic Dance Hall (no cover).

See our Walt Disney World destination guide for general trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights, hotels, vacation packages, and more travel deals.

Watch the Fireworks Someplace Else

Certainly nothing beats standing by Cinderella’s Castle to get a front-row view of the nighttime sky exploding with colors. But you can cheat and see the extraordinary show from spots outside the park. Drivers anywhere near the Magic Kingdom can pull off the road and catch at least glimpses of the pyrotechnics. For a more targeted approach, show up before the sparks fly at the Grand Floridian or Polynesian beaches, the Transportation and Ticket Center, or the Magic Kingdom bus depot. Time a boat launch to the Magic Kingdom from Fort Wilderness or the Wilderness Lodge for that time (check the daily schedule in advance), or take the monorail heading toward Disney’s Contemporary Resort (water taxis and the monorail are free for Disney hotel guests). If you’re at the Contemporary, go to the observation deck on the fourth floor. For a compromise, dine in a restaurant with fireworks views. You’ll get a full table-service meal for your dollar and, in some cases, hear the music piped in for an inspiring experience. California Grill and Narcoossee’s in Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, and ‘Ohana in Disney’s Polynesian Resort, are top choices.

See our Walt Disney World destination guide for general trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights, hotels, vacation packages, and more travel deals.

Eat More, Pay Less at Disneyland

When visiting the Disneyland Resort for the day, the key is to eat a big breakfast, bring lots of snacks, and plan on eating one big meal in the parks. Fill tummies at your favorite fast food drive-thru on the way, and then load bags with snack food and water bottles. (Disneyland does request that guests refrain from bringing in outside food, but it’s not outright forbidden.) When it’s time for that big meal, Rancho Del Zocalo Restaurante is a great place to get satisfying salads, enchiladas, burritos, and tacos. Families rave about The Hungry Bear Restaurant where kids’ meals for $5.99 can often feed two hungry tykes. Large groups can save money at Pizza Port by ordering a whole pizza for $32.99, which saves about $1 a slice when divided among six people. Always save some room for one fun snack, such as the famous Dole Whips next to the Tiki Room, or hand-scooped ice cream on Main Street.

See our Disneyland destination guide for general trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights, hotels, vacation packages, and more travel deals.

Save Money on Parking in Anaheim

If you are parking at the Disneyland Resort for the entire day, the easiest and best place to keep your car is at the Mickey and Friends Parking Structure. At $15 a day, it provides plenty of parking for vehicles of all sizes and has great access to the park via the tram. If you are planning on being at the Resort for seven hours or less, the most economical parking can be found at the Downtown Disney parking lot. The first three hours are free and two additional hours are validated by purchasing a meal at participating restaurants in Downtown Disney, or by seeing a movie at the AMC Theater. The hourly rate is $6. Park in the Downtown Disney lot and then hop on the Monorail with your Disneyland ticket and have a fun ride into the Happiest Place on Earth.

See our Disneyland destination guide for general trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights, hotels, vacation packages, and more travel deals.

 

Make a Souvenir Spending Plan

From the moment you walk into Disneyland, your kids will see toys, trinkets, t-shirts, and Mickey ears that they just have to get. Make a plan with your kids before visiting Disneyland to make the souvenir buying experience fun without leaving a huge hole in your wallet. Help kids save money before their trip to the park by offering them ideas to earn money or save birthday money. Set a limit with them before the day begins so that there is a clear idea of how much will be spent. Look through the stores during the day to see what they are interested in, but don’t make any purchases until after dinner. Then they can see all the fun things and choose their favorite and you aren’t left carrying the bag around all day. Participating Disney hotels offer bag delivery service to your room if you are a guest.

See our Disneyland destination guide for general trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights, hotels, vacation packages, and more travel deals.

 

Free Fun at California’s Downtown Disney

Though somewhat smaller than its Florida cousin, Anaheim’s Downtown Disney is the perfect place for an evening of free fun. It offers three hours of free parking, live music, a view of the Disneyland fireworks at 9:30pm (check disneyland.disney.go.com for specific times), and many unique shopping experiences. The Lego Imagination Center has been outfitted with brand new Lego structures that tower overhead and float along the ceiling. Get your picture taken next to R2-D2 and then let kids play with the Legos on the table. Watch cuddly teddy bears being created at Build-A-Bear, or custom design a model car and take it for a spin at RIDEMAKERZ. Stop in The World of Disney to see all the Disney souvenirs, clothes, and stuffed animals that one could ever want. With an ice cream cone in hand from Haagen-Dazs, the whole family can enjoy the party-like atmosphere of Downtown Disney.

See our Disneyland destination guide for general trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights, hotels, vacation packages, and more travel deals.

 

Nighttime Savings

When the sun sets on the Disneyland Resort, street vendors pull out light swords, magic wands, glowing Mickey Ears, and other light up toys. Kids and adults alike will be drawn to these high-priced souvenirs like moths to the flame. Plan ahead and save a bundle of money by purchasing a pack of glow sticks from an online company or the dollar bin at your favorite store. Skinny glow sticks can be transformed into necklaces, bracelets, headbands, glasses, magic wands, and more. For approximately $1 for a package of 10, you can save a bundle of money and will have a super fun way of enjoying the nighttime at Disneyland. As a bonus, glowing necklaces help keep track of your kids and each other.

See our Disneyland destination guide for general trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights, hotels, vacation packages, and more travel deals.

 

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