Disney vacations are magical, but expensive.

Between airfare, hotel rooms, park tickets, a trip to the Magic Kingdom can get quite pricey, and that's without getting you into the park or getting any food and fun souvenirs for your family. The memories you make here will last a lifetime, but that doesn't mean you need to spend a lifetime paying off its bill. There are many, many, many ways to save money in various ways on your Disney vacation, and while not all of them may fit your family or your style of vacationing, they are all worth mentioning, and we're about to mention some of our favorites.

Let's make some magic!

Hotels

Imagine looking out your hotel room windows at this…

When booking a hotel for a Walt Disney World vacation, you have several choices that fall under two categories: on-site and off-site. Staying on-site can be more expensive, especially at moderate and deluxe Disney Resort hotels, but there are significant benefits to staying on-site:

  • Access to Disney transportation to all four parks, both water parks, and Disney Springs saves you parking fees and time on parking and trams, especially at the Magic Kingdom.
  • Disney's Magical Express will take you from the airport to your hotel and bring you back at the end of your trip, allowing you to skip renting a car and save money.
  • Get into some parks early or late with Extra Magic Hours, allowing you into shorter lines in a less-crowded park during the more temperate hours of the day.
  • At Walt Disney World, Disney resort guests can use your MagicBand to charge your purchases to a credit card and leave your wallet in your room, which is especially handy if you intend to visit water parks and pools during your vacation.

If your family involves smaller children, staying on-site can allow you to easily retire to the hotel room for a nap or a splash in the pool during the busiest and hottest hours of the day. If your family includes teenagers who would like to split off and come back on their own time, especially during Extra Magic Hours, staying on-site means they'll be able to get back to the room without having someone come back to pick them up.

If your family is going to stick together, not going to need to go back to the room for naps, and isn't that interested in getting up early or staying up too late for Extra Magic hours, staying off-site can save you money, but keep in mind that you'll have to take extra time driving to the park, pay for parking, and taking a tram up to the park entrance. You'll also have to rent a car, which can sometimes offset the savings on an off-site hotel.

There is also a relatively new practice of "renting DVC points" from a Disney Vacations Club member. The way this works is you essentially use a Disney Vacations Club member as your vacation broker. They book the hotel reservation using their DVC points and then charge you according to the points they used. There are dedicated sites for matching DVC members with vacationers, but this is a practice based largely on trust, as the DVC member is the only one who can book your room and change your reservation.

If you're staying on-site, Disney usually has a handful of special offers for vacations at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. Membership clubs like Costco also offer vacation packages for Disney vacations with rooms on-site and off-site. They can be booked with or without airfare and with or without dining packages. These vacation bundles can save you by throwing in discounts on airfare, rental cars, dining packages, PhotoPass packages, free Disney gift cards to use on your vacations, and other benefits.

Park Tickets

Disney Park tickets come in a variety of options and from a variety of places. They're bundled in several vacation packages, which is one way to save on their often high prices. Disney also offers some discounts on specific park/day ticket combos, such as their '4 Days, 4 Parks' ticket, which offers a discount on a 4-day park pass without ParkHopper, which would work splendidly for families that go to a single park, stay all day, and then pick another park the next day. That said, remember that ParkHopper, while an upgrade, can give your vacation greater flexibility and let your family re-visit their favorite parks later in the day should they wish to take in evening entertainment or Extra Magic Hours (if you're staying at a Disney hotel).

ParkHopper or not, the longer your vacation, the cheaper your tickets get per day. If the cheaper flights are a day or two longer than you originally intended to stay, take the extra days in the park. And if you're going to be coming to the parks more than a trip, consider Annual Passes, as they can get you discounts on hotel rooms, merchandise, and more.

While there are reputable ticket vendors like Park Savers and Undercover Tourist, you should absolutely steer clear of any park tickets being sold on Craigslist, eBay, etc. Park tickets are non-transferrable, meaning once a person starts using a multi-day ticket, that same person is the only one who can use the ticket for the rest of its days. Multi-day tickets also have to finish being used within 14 days of their first day's use, so don't try to buy a 10-day ticket thinking you'll use the other five days on your next trip.

There's no worse feeling than showing up to your vacation, only to be turned away at the main gate because your tickets were fake or invalid. Don't let that happen to you.

If you purchase a Walt Disney World Annual Pass or are staying at a Walt Disney World Resort hotel, then your reservation will come with a solid-colored MagicBand for each person in your party, but even if you stay off-site, you should highly consider getting a MagicBand to link your park tickets too. MagicBands are easier to keep track of, easier to scan, and there are a variety of stylish MagicBands available for purchase inside the parks and online at DisneyStore.com. You can get everyone in your party a different color or pattern MagicBand to keep their tickets straight, they're waterproof if you're heading to the water parks (or just get caught in Florida's frequent afternoon storms).

MagicBands aren't available at Disneyland yet, and I can't wait until they are, because MagicBands are awesome, especially if you're staying at a Disney hotel and can use them to charge to your room.

Food

Eating at Disney is somewhere you can really and truly save money if you're so inclined. Disney allows guests to bring in snacks and "food items" that don't require heating into the parks, so if you want to brown bag it, you're welcome to. Keep in mind you'll have to carry around that food all day and you'll be missing out on Disney's excellent cuisine.

Disney has a variety of restaurant styles (and prices), from the almost reasonably priced quick-serve restaurants and stands to expensive, elaborate specialty sit-down restaurants. Most of the sit-down restaurants are worth their price tags, but there are a few overall tips to help you keep food costs down while making sure you have the fuel to face long days of walking around and standing in lines.

  • If you are going to buy breakfast in the park, go somewhere with ample portions, like the cinnamon roll at Gaston's Tavern. This roll can easily feed three or four, especially when augmented/offset by some healthy fruit.
  • That said, Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, cost wise. Bring breakfast foods from home like Pop Tarts, Cereal, granola bars and the like and eat them in your room. If you prefer something fresh, most Disney resort hotels have a cafeteria-style restaurant, where you can buy fresh pastries and fresh fruit for modest prices (well, Disney modest anyway). Grab a pastry and a piece of fruit and eat them in line for the bus to fuel up and get a quick jump on the day.
  • Packs some heat-stable, compact snacks in your bags for munching on in line or while waiting for entertainment. Bring some candy along, anything but chocolate, both to lure your family away from the candy in the gift shops and for quick energy boosts. Think of what snacks you'll pack for the flights and pack a little extra to carry each day in the park.
  • If you're wanting to eat at a table service restaurant, eat there for lunch. Lunch prices are always less expensive than dinner prices at table-service restaurants while most quick-service locations have the same menu (and same pricing) for both lunch and dinner. Eating lunch at a table service restaurant also gives you and your family a good break from the bustle of the crowd and the daytime heat.
  • Menus at most quick-service locations are arranged as combos, but you can order just about everything a la carte, meaning that rather than getting everyone their own combo you can order a couple entrees, a couple of a la carte sides, and serve it up family style.

Disney offers dining plans, and at certain times of year, promotions will get them added to some vacation plans for free. The Disney Dining Plan will give you meal and snack balances for you to blow through during your trip, and depending on how your family eats, a Disney Dining Plan can absolutely save you money on a trip, but only if you know that you're going to be eating at the restaurants at least two meals a day.

If you're eating at a sit-down restaurant, call ahead for a reservation and mention your dietary needs.

The biggest tip on using a Disney Dining Plan relates to the snacks: should you reach the end of the vacation without using them all, you can go to the food section in many of the Disney gift shops and stock up on shelf-stable, easy-to-pack snacks to eat on the way home (and once you get back). You can't cash in meals quite the same way, but you can absolutely do it with snacks, and you should. If you ended a Disney Dining Plan vacation with a snack balance above 0, you're doing it wrong.

Another important note for dining at Disney doesn't quite have to do with saving money so much as potentially saving lives: Disney's dining services are almost unparalleled in their attention to and ability to accommodate guests with dietary restrictions. Whether you have a life-threatening allergy to peanuts or more complicated dietary conditions like IBS, every restaurant has a food-allergy-friendly menu for you to choose from. If you're eating at a sit-down restaurant, call ahead for a reservation and mention your dietary needs. The server can have a specific menu waiting for you, or a chef from the restaurant can come to your table to discuss your options. When a meal can ruin your day or vacation (or worse), it's important to trust the food you're paying for, and you can absolutely trust the food Disney will serve you.

Merchandise

The term "kid in a candy store' really should be 'kid in a Disney store', because once your kids see the inside of the Emporium, they're gonna want something. Or everything. Park merchandise can be expensive, but there are ways to keep those souvenirs and other park items from breaking the bank.

It rains a lot in Florida, so if you're going to Walt Disney World, unless you're dying to buy a new umbrella, go ahead and pack an umbrella or some even easier to pack ponchos. In addition, if you're going in a colder month, carrying around a jacket all day may seem tedious, but it's absolutely cheaper than buying a Disney hoodie, or a big blanket for everyone to huddle under while waiting for the fireworks.

The Shop Disney Parks app for Android and iOS allows you to scan the barcode of any merchandise item at Walt Disney World and not only see the price of an item, but allows you to see every location it's sold at on park property. This means that you can scan that giant Elsa doll, see how expensive it is, and you can reason with your daughter that they can buy it at World of Disney later (or buy something a little easier to bring home that catches their eye later).

There are discounts on Disney Merchandise available for Annual Passholders and Disney Vacation Club members. There are also discounts for Disney Visa Cardholders for purchases of over $50, which is another reason to hold off on the souvenir shopping until you're buying enough to use your discount.

As someone who used to work glow merchandise at Walt Disney World, it holds a special place in my heart. It's also one of the easiest places to save money, because while that Buzz Lightyear spinner is 15 dollars, a package of glow necklaces and bracelets is 8 bucks at Target, packs well, and so long as you keep them inside a sturdy tube in your backpack during the day, they won't crack before they're needed. They're also easy to share, which is vital when corralling kids for an hour before the fireworks.