I can’t possibly put all of my Disney tips in one post so this covers the highlights! Feel free to add your tips in the comments section below.
Our family LOVES Disney World. I honestly don’t know who loves it more, me and Ricky or the kids. As much as the kids love it, I’m pretty sure we have them beat. We both actually tear up when walking through the magic kingdom gates for the first time. I often say “The only reason Ricky and I work and stay honest is so we can go back to Disney World.” I’m only half kidding.
Of course, we have an advantage over a lot of folks in that the happiest place on earth is within driving distance (12 hours by car), saving us a small fortune over having to fly to get there.
Today I thought I’d bring you my personal tips on how to go to Disney for a lot less and have a much better time of things once you’re there. There are lots of ways to save and have a better time on your trip so I’m just gonna dive right in here. These are not necessarily in order of importance, just in order that they came to me so be sure and read the entire list because the one nugget you need most may be towards the bottom. This post is going to be rather long but I could easily write ten more and still have more to tell you so bear with me and know that if you are going to Disney anytime soon with your family, I really think this information will be useful.
1. Buy this book.
Seriously. This isn’t a normal vacation, this is the trip of a lifetime and if you’ve never been before (or not in the last ten years or so) you are going to be overwhelmed by all that there is to do.
It’s best to get your game plan up ahead of time, know what all is there before you get there. This is where planners have the best time.
Honestly, some of the best things about Disney are things you’d walk right past if you didn’t know they were there ahead of time. This book is also very important if you have never been to Disney before and for those taking small children for the first time. It is divided up into sections and each park section has a ride section where each and every ride is described and age reccomendations are given. If a ride is listed as ages 7 and up, it will say “dark sections, younger children may not enjoy” or something like that. This is important for those of us with little kids because if you take a two year old on a ride that scares them, you’ll likely lose their trust and end up with a screaming terrified kid at the start of every ride. The last thing we want is an untrusting toddler greeting It’s a Small World with skepticism and tears.
They usually come out with a new edition each year and it is so helpful that whenever I find out we’re going to Disney, I go and get the latest one. Click on the photo of the book to be taken to the purchase page on Amazon.
2. Don’t go during peak season.
There are two main reasons for this.
- The heat. Even those of us from the South who have lived here all our lives have problems handling the extreme heat of Florida in the summertime. Walk around all day in a paved amusement park standing in direct sunlight and it takes on a whole new meaning. I could devote an entire blog post to the humidity but I’m hoping my heat warning will be enough. If it isn’t, you’ll learn about the force that is Florida humidity soon enough :).
- The crowds. Disney World costs a lot, but let me tell you, it is entirely worth it. There is so much to do, so much fun to be had, and so much to see that it will truly be a trip your entire family will remember the rest of their lives. This is the ultimate bonding experience for families where we’re no longer parents and children, us and them, we’re all together as playmates. Whether its waltzing in a restaurant beside Prince Charming and Cinderella (Katy and I did that this last time), riding on a boat through a mock Mexico, learning swordfighting tips from Captain Jack Sparrow himself, speaking with a native of Africa while he helps you design a mask, or just watching a parade of all of your favorite characters who stop and wave at you. There is no place like Disney. However, go during the summertime or another peak season and you could easily end up standing in line all day to get to ride four or five things in the extreme heat and then head back home disenchanted and disheartened – Not feeling altogether happy.
Peak seasons change from time to time at Disney but it is always best to check with them and go during an off season. See the book in my #1 tip for a listing of the current dates of peak and slow seasons.
Our personal favorite time to go is just before or directly following Christmas, anytime during February, anytime during October. The weather is beautiful and springlike and the parks aren’t very crowded at all. Some of these days it feels as if they’ve opened the parks just for us! If you time it right, you just walk right onto everythig you want to ride. Yes, the kids miss a few days of school but I plan our trips to take up at least one weekend and then we just miss three or four days of school at the most. I always check with the principal ahead of time, of course, and get his or her permission. A family trip is an educational and fun memory that your children will never forget. You’ll have to go with your gut on this one but I feel our time together as a family is fleeting and priceless and I aim to harness every moment I can get :).
If you MUST go during peak season, here is what I suggest:
- Rethink it. Seriously.
- Bring extra clothing. It’s gonna be hot in a way that only Florida can be. It is doubly important that you take some time out of your day midday and go back to your hotel room to help rehydrate, rest, and get out of the sun a bit (if you have young children, this will avoid Disney Meltdown later in the parks). This is a great time to refresh with a nice cool cloth and change into some fresh duds. You’ll be so glad you did!
- Stay hydrated – Every counter service restaurant in Disney World will give you cups of ice water with straws and lids (great if you have kiddies) free of charge. All you have to do is ask. This will save you a fortune and also make you feel much better in the heat and crowds. I like to carry those little Crystal Lite single serving things with me to flavor the water a bit for the kids (and sometimes myself!).
- Really, really, truly, truly, see if you can go at another time. If not, take your best attitude with you and keep the fact that you are in DISNEY WORLD with your family in perspective. This is a wonderful place to be and how blessed we are to be able to go any time of the year!
Remember, if you as an adult are hot and tired, your children will be doubly so.
Setting an example by having a positive attitude and finding joy in the moment will go a long way with everyone!
P.S. No matter when you go, it’s probably gonna rain at some point. I go to Wal Mart ahead of time and buy the little dollar and two dollar rain ponchos to keep in our backpacks. We just put them on and keep on going. They sell ponchos in the parks but you’ll save a lot of money bringing your own. Disney World is just like life, you have to bring your own sunshiney attitude and disregard the weather at times!
3. Wear Proper Footwear
– You will be walking, running, hopping, skipping, jumping, and likely dancing. I love you and just the thought of you in flip flops or high heels is enough to make my arches scream in anguish on your behalf.
This is especially important with children. Remember, their legs and feet are having to go twice as fast to keep up with you!
4. Ignore The World
– My best advice, although hard to follow, is to let the entire world know that you are in Disney World with your family and then pretty much ignore them as best as you can. It’s hard for me to do this having come off the Today Show and then two days later leaving for Disney. I had emails piling up and phone calls coming like wildfire. My answer: A great autoresponder and click to voicemail. I kept up on Southern Plate by working on posts and comments during our daily rest time (while the kids were asleep).
5. Stay on Property
– Staying on Disney Property is very affordable and offers lots of perks! There are three levels of Disney hotels or “resorts” as they refer to them. Value, Moderate, and Deluxe. As a family, we usually go for the value resorts and regardless of how much you are paying for your room, you are always treated as an honored guest anywhere on Disney property.
With a deal, I generally pay $50-$60 a night for value but have paid as little as $45. We have stayed at Moderate resorts twice when I managed to get a big room discount (I’ve never paid more than $85 a night for a moderate resort room). If you go during off season, you can usually get a room at a Disney Value Resort for fifty to sixty dollars a night. Later in this post I will tell you how I watch out and where I go to look for discounts.
Perks of Staying on Disney Property:
- Transportation – while staying in a Disney resort gets you free parking at all of the Disney parks (This can easily save $20 a day), the hotel transportation can’t be beat. There are special Disney buses that pull up right in front of your hotel at frequent intervals to take you to any Disney property you want to go to. When you’re ready to come back, hop on the bus again and you’ll be sitting by a Micky Mouse shaped swimming pool in no time. We drive on occasion even though we are staying in the resorts, but bus transportation is by far the easiest and most fuss free way to go.
- Package Services – You know that two foot tall Mickey Mouse stuffed animal you saw that exhausted dad carrying through the park all day? He obviously wasn’t staying on property. If you are a Disney Resort guest, whenever you purchase something in the park all you have to do is give the cashier your resort name and room number and it will be sent to your hotel. Packages are usually ready for pick up at the end of the day but sometimes it may be the following day.
- Cups – Resorts have these great cups that you can purchase for about eleven dollars each. That may seem steep at the start but you can use it to get free drinks at your hotel food court for the entire length of your stay. It really adds up! (By the way, I LOVE the coffee in Disney’s food courts). When you are done you also have a great souvinier travel mug from your trip. We have mugs we got ten years ago that we are still using at home.
- Extra Magic Hour – Each day one of the parks opens an hour early and one of them stays open a few hours late just for Disney Resort Guests. This can really be a wonderful time to be in the parks with the least amount of other people. We hop from ride to ride during extra magic hour, laughing and loving every minute!
Chances are you can stay on property for the same price or possibly even less than staying off property. The perks are plentiful, the hotels are always super clean and nice, and regardless of whether you stay at a value resort or a deluxe resort, ALL Disney guests are treated like royalty!
Note: You will only find Coca Cola products for sale on all of Disney property. Coca Cola has exclusive rights to sell their products there and even the gas stations on Disney Property will not have another brand. I take a case of Diet Dr Peppers with me to keep from going into withdrawal as there is not a drop to be had the entire time we are there. This is the one and only thing keeping Disney from being the happiest place on earth for me. 🙂 Also, if you are a gum chewer, bring your own. They do not sell chewing gum inside Disney Parks.
Interesting fact: Did you know that all of the Coca Cola products sold within the Disney parks are given to them free of charge by Coca Cola? That is how powerful the branding is to them!
6. Save The Money
Saving money at disney is easy if you know where to look and when to go. I generally start looking six months before I hope to go and am always flexible with my dates based on the best deals.
First of all, there is absolutely no reason to ever pay full price for a Disney Vacation.
There are a slew of websites but these are the ones I usually check out first:
DisneyWorld.com – Most of the time if there is a big special (free dining plan or major room discounts) Disney will have it right on their homepage so go check it out and nose around a bit!
WDWInfo.com is also a great site. This link will take you directly to their discounts page. Often you’ll need a specific code in order to get the discount and this page will tell you what that is.
MouseMisers.com is another great site and makes it very easy to find current discount codes.
Allears.net is an all around great site for any type of Disney information, including menus at all of the restaurants, latest news, and pretty much anything you can’t find on other sites.
If you are active or retired military, give Disney a call at (407) 939-7830 (this is a special number for military personnel only) and see what they have for you. There are always GREAT discounts available in this area as well.
Whichever deal or package you choose, once you book your vacation through Walt Disney World you can put down a deposit (usually $200.00) and make regular payments on your vacation until two weeks before it is time for you to leave. I love this option because it allows me to budget and pay for it over a period of time with no finance charges.
Not finding a deal you like?
At the time I am posting this, I have been glancing around for a good deal myself. I’d like to book a Disney vacation and pay the $200 down and make payments until time for us to go. However, there isn’t a deal that I like right now or that I think is good enough to justify me booking it so I am just going to be patient and continue checking back every few weeks until I find the one I like. The only months we go to Disney are between October – February (excluding holidays) so I’m looking out for a free dining deal during that time and they will most likely release some new free dining dates soon.
So what I’m saying is, if you are planning on going to Disney but are flexible on your dates, keep watch on the discount codes and be patient because this is Disney World – and your Prince will come!
My favorite deal is the free dining. We really enjoy character meals where we can sit at our table, enjoy our food, relax, and get periodic visits from Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto, Donald, and whatever other characters reside where we are dining. However, a character meal for the four of us can easily be over $100 dollars. When the free dining plan is offered, I book it fast! We upgrade to the table service dining and get one table service meal a day, one counter service, and one snack per person. Here is how that breaks down with a little more information:
- Table Service Meal – These are at the sit down restaurants. Some, but not all, of the restaurants offer a character meal experience. We tend to go exclusively with these because that is just what we like best. Note: Some character meals (Cinderella’s Royal Table) require two table service credits. Don’t worry because you’ll be told that when you make reservations. Most require just one. We tend to avoid the restaurants that require two table service credits but did eat in Cinderella’s Castle one time and honestly, the food was kinda bad. Katy wouldn’t eat a single thing they served her and for once I felt just about the same way. It was a neat experience but there are easier ways to meet the Princesses. Note: Most of the Disney food is wonderful and just about all restaurants offer kid friendly alternatives on their bar as well as fresh fruit, carrot sticks, etc.
- Counter Service Meal – This is any restaurant where you go up to the counter to order and then get your food and sit down. Starlight Ray’s in Tomorrowland is our favorite. They give you a TON of food and your dining plan includes dessert and a drink (I love the sugar free brownies). If you prefer, just ask if you can get a bag of grapes instead of dessert. They make a great snack later. We often split a dinner and save our counter service credit for breakfast. There is a LOT of food!
- Snack – A snack can be many things, from a 20 ounce coke to a full bowl of fruit salad. We tend to get fruit salad for breakfast at the hotel food court and use our cups to get free drinks in the food court as well.
Please note that there is another dining plan which includes two counter service meals and one snack per person per day. These are still great deals but we always try to upgrade to the one with a table service meal. You can usually do this simply by upgrading from a value resort to a moderate resort and just paying 20-30 or so more per day, which is a fabulous deal.
8. Take A Break!
My husband and I both love our parents dearly and consider ourselves very fortunate to have been born into the families we were born into . There, I got the disclaimer out. Now I gotta tell you that we both had dads with the vacation attitude of “You’re gonna go and you’re going to have fun whether you like it or not!”. They were the types who were at the gates when the park opened and stayed til it closed. I admire that drive and zeal to get yor money’s worth – BUT this is the first thing that we agreed we’d NOT do. It has been wonderful and helped us to avoid “disney meltdown”. Each day we go back to the hotel room around lunch time for a one to two hour nap. Even us. The kids sometimes say they aren’t sleepy and then five minutes later you have this…
Hey, There is a lot to take in and you’re probably going to have more fun in a few short days than you have in the past ten years. The need for a nap is understandable and then you can go back to the park in the afternoon refreshed and ready for more!
9. Bring your own food!
Disney is incredibly family friendly and has no problem with you bringing outside food into the parks. If we aren’t on the free dining plan I usually keep the makings for PB&J’s in our hotel room and make everyone sandwiches before we go. I pack them in those little rubbermaid sandwich containers and stick them in our backpack along with some granola bars and fruit.
You’re gonna get a lot hungrier in the parks than you would during the course of a normal day and the less “park food” you eat, the better you will feel for the duration of your trip. Plus, this is a great time and money saver! I have seen moms on more than one occasion sit down with their backpack and pull out entire jars of peanut butter and loaves of bread! Seriously!
Oh, while I’m thinking about it, bring a backpack to hold that food and anything else you end up needing.
10. Bring your own souvenirs!
This is something I’ve always done. It is inevitable that when you and your children get into the parks you’ll get Disney fever and want Disney merchandise and souvenir. Children are especially prone to this but adults are not immune by any means. A few months before our trip I start scouting out places like Wal Mart, Target, and even grocery stores for Disney themed things. You can pick up little Mickey Mouse ink pens, stickers, books, coloring books, stuffed animals, and even t-shirts. I once found Mickey Mouse iron ons and made us all our own Disney shirts before we left home! All of these things can be very inexpensive at home but worth a mint in the parks. The one thing I make an exception for is those little lighted spinning toys that they sell at the nighttime parades. They usually run about fifteen dollars each and I always try to allot the money for each kid to get one because, honestly, they’re just really neat!
Here is where I do something that may seem strange to you but it has saved us a lot of whining and money over the years. Each day when we come back to the hotel, we find that Mickey left the kids a surprise on their pillows. This is one of the things that I brought from home and I pull them out bit by bit during the trip. An ink pen one day, a small stuffed animal the next day, I never spend more than five dollars (max) on the “surprise” from Mickey but it is really something we look forward to and it gets the kids to go to the hotel for a little break during the day without whining about it. It is also great when they are asking for something they see in the parks and you can redirect them by saying “Oh, but I wonder what Mickey is bringing you today?”
……. But buy the Autograph book
Autograph books run anywhere from 6-10 dollars in the parks and are one of the best values around when it comes to spending your fun dollar! We get them each time we go and the kids have a great time getting autographs from every character they meet. Me and Daddy enjoy it, too!
You might want to take advantage of more extra magic opportunities, too.
As if Disney World and all it offers were not enough (it really is for us, though) Disney offers countless extra magical experiences which can be arranged ahead of time but can also be pretty costly. They may be worth it, though. We have done something special like this for the kids one time each as a special event but we don’t take advantage of them each trip as they just add too much to our vacation budget.
Here are a few of them but they change pretty regularly so be sure and consult the book back in #1 for the latest offerings:
- Pirate Experience. This is a two hour cruise for kids only (they are very well chaperoned) where they take a pirate pledge, get a special pirate bandanna and temporarty tattoo, then head off in search of real treasure! During their time away they go to a few different islands on a boat and enjoy a picnic lunch provided by the castmembers. Brady did this a year or so ago and had a wonderful time. *Must be scheduled ahead of time by calling Disney reservations.
- Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutique – This is a special boutique where your little princess gets a complete princess makeover. This can be pretty costly but it is possible to get out on the low end if you reign in your little Princess’s big dreams of buying everything the boutique offers. Princesses have a choice of getting just their hair done, nails, or can even buy a princess dress, crown, and shoes..oh and sceptor, too. You can buy one or all of them, there are various packages to choose from. *Must be scheduled ahead of time by calling Disney reservations.**Very expensive. Can easily top $100.**There is a cheaper option though, keep reading 🙂
- Pirate Makeover – Okay so they don’t really call this a pirate makeover but we’ve never done it and I don’t know what else to call it. Either way, it is the princess makeover but for boys. Can be very costly as well and can include pirate makeup (think Jack Sparrow when he has all those eyes painted on his face), pirate wig, hat, costume, and more. **No idea what this costs but is likely in the same price range as the Bibbidy bobbidy Boutique**Cheaper option below 🙂 *Must be scheduled ahead of time by calling Disney reservations.
- Main Street Barber Shop – ALAS! Affordable (and fun) magic! We LOVE going to the Main Street Barber Shop. As you walk in the gates of the Magic Kingdom, look on your left for the barber pole and head on in. No appointments taken so you may have to wait a few minutes but it is well worth it. Barbers may end up singing to your child as they cut their hair and they are PROS at entertaining them in so many ways. More about the Barber shop experience in the next paragraph…
A haircut runs around fifteen dollars and for kids it includes glittery pixie dust, colors sprayed into their hair, and all sorts of things that make it fun for boys and girls. Brady once had his hair spiked, confetti put in it, and a big red mickey mouse stamped on the back of his head with washable hair paint (and it really did wash out, with blonde hair you never know but I can vouch for this stuff!).
Katy Rose had her first hair cut there and they really make that special by giving you a certificate with a lock of hair and a special set of mouse ears that says “My first haircut” at no extra charge. My best advice for this is to get there when the park opens and go straight to the barber shop. Your kids will have a blast with their crazy colored hair all day long!
Enjoy the free stuff!
Everywhere you turn in Disney there are activities for family fun for everyone. Be sure and ask about KidCot Funstops and also keep an eye out for special stations in Animal Kingdom as well. Your Passporter (that book I told you to buy back at #1) will tell you all about these and the latest and greatest free offerings inside the Magical Kingdoms of Disney!
Character meet and greets are always special regardless of your age and characters are located throughout the parks. If you are looking for someone in particular, just ask any cast member (the name for Disney Employees) and they will be glad to help you!
- Ricky and I love Epcot. I especially love the World Showcase. Chocolate in Germany, shopping in Mexico, and Brady loves listening to the Beatle’s cover band in England. The boys really enjoy Test Track and Soaring in Epcot. Katy loves those, too. I’ve never been on either one and plan on keeping it that way ~giggle~. If you can get a night with just you and your honey, this is the place I’d go. I dream of taking a leisurely stroll through the world showcase one day. Favorite restaurants: the food in Mexico is excellent.
- Katy Rose and just about all kids young and old love the Magic Kingdom. This *is* Disney for all of us, really, with the other parks just being icing on the cake. She loves Dumbo’s flight but her daddy takes her on that because it makes her Mama waaaaay too dizzy. 😀 Brady says Thunder Mountain Railroad and Space Mountain are awesome (I’ve never been on those, either, but I take his word for it!). Katy Rose said to be sure and tell you about the Haunted Mansion and to tell you that it is really dark but it is a good ride and “the ghost doesn’t really come home with you, they just tell you that”. Be sure you arrive early enough to watch the opening ceremonies at the Magic Kindom one day and stay late enough to see the fireworks show. They will set the most wonderful tone for your entire vacation!
- Brady is a Hollywood Studios fan with the Star Wars attractions and Indiana Jones stunt show and all that and our entire family LOVES the Toy Story Mania ride there. That is my all time favorite ride, with Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin in the Magic Kingdom coming in at a close second. If you are lucky enough to go at Christmas time, check out the Osborne Spectacle of Lights and be prepared to experience all of the full blown wonder of a child again.
- None of us get too excited over Animal Kingdom but prefer to spend our time in the other parks instead. We’ll give Animal Kingdom half a day at best and then head back to our favorites. If you don’t live close to a zoo this might be different for you.
We often go to one park in the morning and another in the afternoon so Park Hopper tickets are a must.
Most importantly: WEAR THE EARS!
You don’t have to actually buy a set of ears (although it wouldn’t hurt) but you do need to shed that adult skin of stress and strain and let your carefree side come out.
This is DISNEY WORLD and it’s time for YOU to get out and play!
In the end, it’s not the vacation itself they will remember but the time spent with you so keep that all in perspective and have a Magical Time!
“The important thing is the family.
Keep the family together–and that’s the backbone of our whole business,
catering to families–that’s what we hope to do.”
Nice sharing. I also spent a really good time there about a year ago with my Uncle’s family.
This is so much great kind of stuff. i really like this and surely will share with mates.
I can’t believe I went to Disney and didn’t check to see that you had a post about it! I agree with every thing you said! Also change your shoes when you go back to your resort to rest.
I had no desire to go to Disney but my daughter had a cheer competition there so off we went. It was AMAZING and I hope to go back soon. I even had dreams about Disney when I returned home to reality. Love love love.
Oh, good tip on the shoes!!
Christy thank you so much for all your fabulous tips and ideas – I am super excited, we have won a holiday of a lifetime to Disney in May – we couldn’t afford tickets into a park for a day let alone flights, accommodation and 8 day park hoppers which is all included in our prize!! We are so super excited about our trip and I am doing a lot of planning ahead to get the most of every day of magic! We are travelling with our 11 year old daughter and 14 year old son, and I love your Barber Shop idea – even for my bigger kids, I think they’ll get a kick out of the singing barbers! I was thinking of splurging on the Pirates and Pals Cruise to watch the Wishes Fireworks as a finale treat – do you think this is an unnecessary expense or well worth it? Your blog is awesome!
can you tell me how you went about leaving out the “Mickey surprise” without the kids seeing you. I am going with my 3 God kids and their parents and we are staying in 2 rooms me with 2 girls age 5 and 11 and parents with the teenage son age 14. Trying to figure out how to hide these and how to get them put out each day.
I just want to dissent or at least temper the anti-summer sentiment. We just got back and it honestly wasn’t a big deal. Of course, there are lines and it’s hot, but it’s still a lot of fun! We did the parks from opening until close (or at least late) without going back to nap and our kids (9 and 4) did just fine. I think suggesting what works for your family is fine, but every family is different. My husband and I both work in the school system, so taking vacations during the school year isn’t really an option. I’m sure there are other families who have to do their vacations in the summer, and I feel like so many websites and blogs make it sound miserable to the point of not even being worth it. That was definitely not the case for us. We had an amazing trip and would not hesitate to go back in the summer!
I would agree..went in June before and it wasn’t that bad at all, it wS way better than the standard amusement park experience. Disney has it down in keeping the lines moving. The only line that doesn’t move continuously and seems like it takes forever is the jungle cruise cause it takes people so long to board and unload. I would have to agree that Xmas day thru New Years is probably the worst time to go especially Xmas day. My dad and I went from dec 18 to 27and it was great until Christmas Eve. Until then we walked on to about everything. On Xmas day you could barely walk thru the park much less ride any rides. Everything was a 2hr or more wait. Go about the 2nd or 3rd weeks of dec and get out before Xmas eve.
Not sure if this was already mentioned….
There are several Disney-affiliated travel agencies (I personally am using Destinations in Florida, no affiliation) who will do the work for you when it comes to finding the best deals, keeping up with discounts, etc. Disney pays the agents so their services are free to use. When you book with them, you pay the downpayment and make installment payments toward your trip just like Christy mentioned, but here’s the really cool thing: if discounts/specials pop up after you’ve already booked, the agent can apply those specials to your trip. So if you’ve booked already and three months later a free dining package offer pops up, you can still get it. The same thing goes for hotel discounts, ticket discounts, etc. This way you don’t have to waste your time and energy watching countless websites, looking for the best deals.