This might seem random coming from a personal finance enthusiast, but I love the Disney theme parks. The reason this may seem strange is because resorts like Disneyland and Walt Disney World are famously expensive and continue to raise prices. Despite those price hikes, I not only continue to enjoy what the Disney Parks have to offer but would still consider them a good value. That said, in order to find that value, you’ll have to sacrifice a few of the high-end perks that many guests think they need.
Lest you assume that this is going to be just another blogger’s guide to how to theoretically save money at Disney, let me list some of my credentials on the subject. First, I write for a Disney fan site, I’ve been to the Disneyland Resort easily upwards of 100 times, visited all six Disney resorts around the world (Anaheim, Orlando, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai), and I’ve also written a book about my Disney travels. Furthermore, I’ve honestly practiced all seven of the tips I’m about to bestow upon you. So, without further ado, here are a few ways you can save money on your next Disney Parks vacation and still have a great time.
Plan Ahead to Save Money on Your Disney Park Vacation
Travel during “value” season
There were always advantages to visiting the Disney Parks during the so-called “off-season” — cheaper airfare, better hotel rates, and (best of all) shorter wait times. Unfortunately, as the parks have continued to grow, that lattermost point is fairly elusive. At the same time, Disney has made it much easier to tell when they’re expecting fewer crowds and when the times to avoid are.
Back in 2016, Disneyland and Walt Disney World introduced tiered demand pricing for their one-day park tickets. This breaks the calendar into three categories: value, regular, and peak. With Disney announcing that they plan to expand this structure to their multi-day tickets later this year, it’s definitely in your best interest to travel during the value season if possible.
As a bonus tip for Walt Disney World travelers, the resort now offers a $20 discount on select multi-day tickets (three to 10 days) when purchased online. This discount will automatically — or automagically, if you will — apply when you check out.
Consider an annual passport upgrade
If you’re as big a Disney geek as I am, an annual pass can be a great value. That said, they can also be a major investment, with the top pass — the Premier pass, good for one year of admission to both the Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resorts — going for $1,579 plus tax. Of course, there are plenty of more modestly-priced annual pass options as well that might actually save you some money in the long run.
For those fortunate enough to live in Florida or Southern California, the respective Disney resorts offer special passes and pricing. In California, residents with zip codes between 90000 to 93599 can purchase a Disneyland Southern California Select Pass for $369 (the resort typically also offers a regular Southern California Pass with fewer blockout dates, but this option is currently only available for renewals). Additionally, SoCal residents have the option to buy one of the higher tier passes — including the no-blockout date Signature Plus Pass — via monthly payments after a $147 down payment. Deluxe, Signature, Signature Plus, and Premier passes are also available to all guests, although non-SoCal residents must pay in full at the time of purchase.
Over in Florida, residents have quite a few Annual Pass options to choose from, including the unique Epcot After 4 pass that’s perfect for those who like to dine around the world. Beyond the Floridian-exclusive passes, Walt Disney World also offers special pricing on a number of their premium pass types. For example, a Platinum Plus Pass can be purchased by Florida residents for $829 plus tax while out-of-towners will have to pay $949 plus tax.
Beyond the obvious advantages of Annual Passports, passholders can also enjoy various discounts. These include 10 to 20% off (depending on your pass type) food, merchandise, tours, and more. Some passes also include Disney PhotoPass downloads so you can get all of your on-ride and in-park photos. For frequent visitors traveling by car, it’s also worth noting that some of the upper-tier passes at both resorts also include theme park parking. This is a real steal as parking currently goes for $20 a day at Disneyland and $22 a day at Walt Disney World.
Stay off property
Like the Disney Parks themselves, Disney’s resort hotels offer top-of-the-line service along with themed amenities, activities, and more. Naturally, this all comes at a price. Although Walt Disney World does have a number of “Value” hotels in their line-up, these options are often still priced well above your standard room options. That’s why it may be worth staying off property for your Disney vacation instead.
At the Disneyland Resort, this plan is far more feasible. Harbor Boulevard (at the edge of Disneyland) and other nearby streets are home to a number of lodging options ranging from budget-friendly motels to four-diamond resorts. Many of these “Good Neighbor Hotels” offer shuttle services to the parks while others are just a short walk away. Personally, I’ve stayed at several locations within walking distance of Disneyland, but my favorite has to be the Portofino Inn & Suites, which proved to be a great value.
Thanks to its sheer size — equal to about two Manhattans — Walt Disney World makes it a bit more difficult to stay off property and still have an enjoyable visit. For one, most of the hotels in the area are a bit of a hike from the resort itself. For example, during my recent visit, I stayed at a hotel in Championsgate that was about a $15 to $20 Uber ride away from the parks. Some of the hotels in the area do offer shuttle services, although their pick up and drop off times may be limited. That said, a potential solution lies in the Disney Springs area hotels, which include a number of top brands.
Another wrinkle to the Walt Disney World off-property problem is that on-property guests enjoy priority booking for the parks’ FastPass+ offerings. Meanwhile, those staying elsewhere will have to make due with what’s left over — which usually means waiting in line for some of the top attractions. But there is a bit of good news here as the aforementioned Disney Springs area hotel guests recently gained the opportunity to make FastPass+ reservations 60 days in advance and enjoy the resort’s Extra Magic Hours offerings. Needless to say, this is a big win for Walt Disney World fans looking to save some money while also saving some time in line.
Saving Money at While You’re At the Disney
To hop or not to hop?
With the Disneyland Resort boasting two parks and the Walt Disney World Resort hosting four, both offer what they call Park Hopper tickets, allowing you to visit multiple parks in a single day. The catch is that these tickets cost a significant amount more ($50+) than those that are only valid for one theme park per day. So the question then becomes, is it worth it?
For Disneyland, I believe the park hopper tickets are definitely worth it if you’re only visiting for a couple of days. First, the turnstiles for the two parks are steps away from each other, making it incredibly easy to hop. Additionally, while Disney California Adventure has grown significantly in recent years, Disneyland still has more attractions and typically has longer hours of operations. Because of this, I think it’s better to pony up for park hoppers and enjoy both parks as much as you want instead of segmenting your vacation.
In Walt Disney World, the answer is once again far more complicated. For one, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is a park in flux as it awaits the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge late next year (although Disney would want me to tell you that Toy Story Land is opening at the park June 30th). Thus, without park hoppers, you’re left with the option to either spending a full day in a half-day park like Hollywood Studios or miss out on top attractions like Toy Story Mania, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith. Even with that conundrum, it’s difficult to recommend park hoppers at Walt Disney World — especially for those with longer stays or with young children. Moreover, the time it takes to get from one park to another in Walt Disney World can actually negate many of the benefits. But, if it’s in your budget, then go for it.
Unlike some of those stingy theme parks in the world, the Disney Parks are surprisingly lax about guests bringing in outside food or drink. This could be a major advantage for thrifty guests as you can easily store some snacks and other essential sustenance in a backpack or purse. It’s also not uncommon for parkgoers to pack sandwiches, sodas, etc. and get an entire meal on the go. You don’t necessarily have to go that far, but bringing in some treats can certainly save you money during your park adventures.
Counter service will do
The Disney Parks are home to some world-class dining locations, including a number of signature restaurants and fine dining experiences. For example, some of my favorites include Steakhouse 55 at the Disneyland Hotel and Teppan Edo at Epcot. Of course, enjoying these wonderful table service meals during your trip can add up in a flash. Thankfully both resorts also offer some counter service locations with their own perks.
You may remember the days when Disney counter service dining was mostly burgers and chicken nuggets. While those classic items can still be found, both domestic resorts have really made a point to add some diversity to their menus and bring in some interesting options. From bread bowl soups and barbeque skewers at the Disneyland Resort to spicy chicken and waffle sandwiches and even sushi in Walt Disney World, you may be surprised what affordable and filling foods you can find on a budget.
It should also be noted that Walt Disney World recently introduced mobile ordering for many of their counter service spots. As a result, you can now easily explore menus and place your order right from your phone! As for the Disneyland Resort, they may not have fancy ordering just yet, but you do have the benefit of additional affordable quick service options in Downtown Disney and on Harbor Boulevard. I’d recommend Earl of Sandwich or The Pizza Press personally.
Skip the souvenirs, try shopping online
Finally, it may seem like souvenirs are a must for any Disney Parks trip, but many must-have items are now available outside of the parks as well. In addition to the Shop Disney Parks app, shopDisney (which is separate for some reason) also carries a number of authentic Disney Parks items. Granted, buying your items online won’t necessarily save you money in and of itself, but you may be able to take advantage of various promo deals and discounts that shopDisney occasionally offers. Besides, after you come down from the magic high of a Disney vacation, you may decide that the pricey item you wanted wasn’t such a great buy after all.
As someone who’s visited all 12 of the Disney Parks worldwide, I definitely know how expensive they can be to visit. Luckily, in my many experiences, I’ve also learned a few ways to keep your costs down. While it’s always nice to enjoy the finer things that Disney has to offer — such as Deluxe hotels, fine dining, and more — I’ve found that going the thrifty route actually works out better in the end as you can afford to visit again and again! So before you drop a year’s salary going all out for your Disneyland or Walt Disney World vacation, take these seven tips into consideration and see how much you can save.
*Note: the pricing and other details in this article were correct as of publication but are subject to change.
Also published on Medium.