One of the top hurdles travelers face when planning a trip to Disneyland and Disney World is choosing from a dizzying array of accommodations, attractions and dining choices. While there are certainly can't-miss experiences in the Happiest Place on Earth, such as character meet-and-greets, thrilling rides and spectacular fireworks, even seasoned visitors make the mistake of wasting time and money in slow-moving lines and pricey establishments. To help you plan a dream Disney vacation that mitigates mini-meltdowns and disappointing experiences, we asked industry experts to share their money-saving tips and sanity-savers.
Follow these practical strategies to maximize family fun and dodge unnecessary costs and headaches.
8 Disney tips (US News article)
8 Disney tips (US News article)
Don't visit during peak times.
If your heart is set on visiting Orlando's Disney parks this summer, skip holiday weekends, suggests Doug Stallings, senior editor at Fodor's Travel. Meanwhile, Jason Cochran, editor in chief of Frommer's.com and author of "Frommer's EasyGuide to Disney World, Universal and Orlando 2016," says to avoid summer altogether. "The No. 1 way to dodge crowds is to not go when kids are out of school," he says. If you can, visit in September, when you'll find pleasant temperatures and still have access to water rides, he says. Also, as crowds start to dip, so do admission prices. In September, you can pick up "value" tickets, rather than "regular" or "peak" season rates.
Don't visit the parks during the midday rush.
To avoid never-ending lines at popular attractions like Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney World's Animal Kingdom, arrive early. Cochran advises taking into account "Extra Magic Hours," which are additional visiting times that are available through Disney-owned properties. You'll contend with shorter lines compared to when crowds are at full-tilt, he says. If you're staying on-site at an affiliated Disney property, enjoy three pleasant hours between 8-11 a.m., when it's not as hot and lines are manageable, Stallings says. Katie Dillon, travel writer and author of the site La Jolla Mom, also recommends utilizing the "Extra Magic Hour," which rotates between Disney's California Adventure Park and Disneyland Park based on the day.
Don't overpay for meals (or water).
Make sure to take refillable water bottles and pack snacks in a backpack to cut dining costs at Disney World, Stallings says. And if you do want to grab a bite in the parks, slash costs by ordering a counter-service meal at a quick service location, which costs around $11 to $13 for an adult meal and doesn't require gratuity, Cochran explains. Another insider trick: ordering a kid's menu item, which typically includes a good amount of food at a much lower cost than items on the adult menu, Stallings says.
Don't forget to use FastPass wisely.
At Disney World, it's critical to exercise a smart strategy to get the most out of your three allotted prebooked FastPasses, which grant quicker lines at top attractions, Cochran says. "If you use all your passes at minor attractions, it's a waste of time," he says, pointing to the My Disney Experience app (free on iOS and Android devices) as a resourceful tool for securing your place in advance. But keep in mind that FastPasses can run out during peak season (and you only have a one-hour window to use them), so if you and your companions are clamoring for a specific experience, it's best to utilize your passes early on.
Don't invest in multiday passes unless you're staying for three or four days.
"Disney rewards people who buy more days," Cochran says. While Disney will always charge less for the more days you buy, you'll reap the greatest deal on a multiday pass that's valid for three days or longer, he notes. Stallings cautions that there are some expensive add-ons that you may want to forgo, like "Magic Your Way" tickets with the Park Hopper option, which offer admission to all four parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. "Not all families are going to benefit from that," he says.
Don't overlook vacation rentals and other options outside Disney.
If you want the best value, don't restrict yourself to Disney-branded accommodations, Cochran says. Instead, you can snap up a bargain in vacation rentals through reputable management companies like All Star Vacation Homes, he says. Even better, at a condo, you'll have access to perks such as Wi-Fi and a kitchen, another enticement if you want to cut costs by dining in. Still, in the summer, you can take advantage of about 25 percent off luxury Disney resorts, Stallings says. And though they are an expensive lodging choice, they offer the added convenience of early entry and easy access to the parks if you're looking to reduce wait times.
Don't go on a goose chase for slashed ticket prices.
Let's face it: It's not easy to score discounted Disney tickets in peak season. While you can find bargain rates after the kids go back to school, there are only a few deals to keep on your radar. You can slash 10 to 15 percent off your tickets at Disney through AAA promotions, and at Universal Orlando Studios, you'll find summer deals that include free park admission, Stallings says. Meanwhile, at Disneyland, you may be able to score savings by purchasing tickets through Costco, Dillon says. And if you're planning a SoCal getaway, consider investing in a CityPASS, which affords lower rates at top attractions across California, including LEGOLAND, she adds.
Don't dine during popular times.
While it may be hard to avoid having lunch in the parks, it's important to time your meals wisely to prevent navigating through heavy crowds, Cochran says. "Time is money," he points out, so be strategic about when you eat and when you make your way to popular rides. He suggests dining at 11 a.m. or after 2 p.m. to beat the rush and unnecessary wait times. And if you're itching to get a seat at a specialty restaurant like Be Our Guest, try making a reservation at a less popular time, like 4 p.m., to optimize your chances of securing a table.