Frequent Flyer Club

How to Go Big at Disney Parks Without Going Broke

Even if the best things in life really are free, try explaining that to a 6-year-old with a Donald Duck nightlight. That kind of philosophical musing doesn't go over with someone whose entire life bucket list consists of "go to Disney World." So if it's a trip you can afford, at some point you end up having to go. And while the prospect of a Disney vacation might have you looking up second mortgages while looking up Park Hoppers, it doesn't have to be so.

Ian Ford, the founder and CEO of the Disney-specialized travel site Undercover Tourist, literally makes his living helping people navigate trips to the Disney parks. He has offered tips on how to eat cheaply at Disney parks, and now wants to save you money on a whole Disney vacation.

Have the photographers use your camera

Though you won't get the framable, Disney-embossed 5"x7", you can still get a picture of your entire family, from the same angle, without having to hand your phone to a random stranger. (Or, worse, using a selfie stick.) The official photographers will actually take the pictures for you if you ask. Because as cast members, their job is to say yes to pretty much any reasonable request.

Buy your souvenirs off-site

It's always fun explaining to your child why they can't go home with a souvenir because Disney thinks $45 is a fair price for a stuffed Goofy. Avoid standoffs by buying Disney merchandise in one of the gazillion souvenir stores in Orlando or Kissimmee. Or hit up a Target. Or the Disney Store -- even it charges less than the park, Ford says.

Split meals

"A lot of people going to Disney have young kids, and those kids don't really eat their whole meals," Ford says. So he suggests buying one or two things for the family and sharing them, so the kids can get back out on the rides, and you're not shelling out $65 for hamburgers and sodas. "Splitting meals is a compelling way to save money," he says. "It's not just being frugal, it's being smart."

Make a plan

Before you go inside, make a detailed to-do list of the rides, shows, and attractions you want to hit. "If my kids get to do all the things they want to do, they’ll be happy," Ford says. "And they love tracking it, and feeling like they’re part of the planning." When the kids are happy, and doing all they want, the trip runs more smoothly. Ergo you won't be stressed into eating in the most convenient (likely: more expensive) place, nor be saddled with unruly children you end up pacifying with a $30 T-shirt.

Get groceries delivered to your hotel room

Most hotel rooms in the greater Disney area have refrigerators. One of Ford's food hacks is simply to have breakfast in your room. But you can also buy for multiple meals without needing a car. Services like Orlando Grocery Express will bring food straight to your room, so you can make sandwiches and bring snacks for your big day in the park. You can also buy cheap flats of water to avoid buying sodas, and have stuff to refuel with when you get back after walking all day.

Buy tickets from an independent vendor

Buying theme park tickets at the box office is kind of like taking your car to the dealer for an oil change. Yes, you know what you're getting, but it's the most you can possibly pay. Third-party vendors like Undercover Tourist and its competitors sell passes for as much as 18% off the price at the front gate. That's like a free kid in a five-person family.

Go when school is in

Off-times are great for short lines and cheap flights. In tracking park crowds and airfares, Ford says your best bets are September and October, and mid-January to the end of February.

Tour the free areas

To save on a day's worth of park passes, spend a day walking through the resort hotels and Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney). "It's almost like being in one of the parks," says Ford. He suggests taking the free boat ride across the main lake, then spending time strolling through the marquee hotels like the Grand Floridian and the Contemporary. During the holidays, all of those joints go big on Christmas: lights, giant trees, and Christmas shows (the one at Disney Springs enlists 300 drones). "It's all a great distraction," Ford says, "and a wonderful way to disengage."

Pack ponchos

The words "Sunshine State" are misleading when describing summers in the great state of Florida. But then, "The Two-Hour Daily Monsoon State" doesn't travel so well on license plates. Disney takes some pity on folks who don’t know this, selling bright-yellow Mickey Mouse ponchos for only about $8. However, they're closer to ONE dollar at Walmart, and if you have a large family it can represent a decent savings.

Stay off-property

Nothing groundbreaking here, but staying at one of the hotels that surrounds the park can save literally thousands of dollars on a longer trip. And while these hotels all offer shuttles, Ford suggests renting a car, since the shuttles are often painfully crowded and stop at multiple parks and hotels en route. The added expense, even with parking, is still less than staying at an on-property hotel. And still allows you to make the most of your visit.

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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer with Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.