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6 Insider Secrets for Saving Time and Money at Disney

Pro tips and money-saving hacks for navigating Disney's sprawling parks.

U.S. News & World Report

6 Secrets for Saving Money at Disney

Disney character Mickey poses in front of the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland park as part of the 20th birthday celebrations of the park, in Chessy, near Marne-la-Vallee, outside Paris.

A Disney trip should be one to remember, not one to regret.(Getty Images)

Planning a stress-free Disney vacation can seem like an elusive task. Whether you want to visit Walt Disney World or Disneyland, there are plenty of factors to consider, from lodging and dining costs to wait times to strategic ways to snap up reservations at popular attractions. And with tools at Walt Disney World, such as the My Disney Experience app and the MagicBand (a wristband filled with sensors that allow you to hop to the front of attraction lines and access your Disney Resort hotel room), embracing the Disney magic can feel like a cinch or a challenge, depending on your comfort with the technology. So, if you want to experience the parks like a pro, follow these insider strategies to dodge hefty fees and other headaches.

Turn to Trusted Sites for Deals and Steals

To secure the best promotions, the key is conducting plenty of research and consulting reliable, deal-focused websites to get a sense of what's available for your desired vacation dates. Karen Cicero, a contributing nutrition and travel editor for Parents Magazine, points to MouseSavers.com as an excellent resource. "That's usually the first place I go when I'm trying to figure out any promotions and packages to save on," she says. According to Cicero, another excellent resource is David's Vacation Club Rentals. Unused time share points are sold through the site, allowing visitors to maximize savings if their heart is set on booking accommodations at Disney Vacation Club resorts, she explains.

"Contrary to popular belief, it is actually possible to get discounts on Disney admission," says Jason Cochran, editor-in-chief of Frommer's.com and author of "Frommer's EasyGuide to Disney World, Universal and Orlando 2016." For example, Disney offers an Armed Forces Salute military ticket option for discounts at Disney Parks, he says. Members of the military can score up to 30 to 40 percent off lodging costs, he adds. And Shades of Green, a Walt Disney Resort, also offers military promotions, with reduced-priced Disney admission tickets and free transportation to Disney attractions, he says. You can also secure Disney AAA discounts, he says, cautioning that promotions vary according to your local chapter.

Know When to Go

"The least crowded time to go is right after the kids go back to school," Cicero explains. For example, if you're traveling with preschool-aged kids, consider planning a trip from early to mid-November, when flight and hotel rates dip, she says. Or, if you're wedded to the school calendar, consider a vacation at the very end or beginning of their summer recess. Disneyland, at the end of August is crowd-free because California students are back in school, she explains. Conversely, mid-summer and peak winter months, between Christmas and New Year's Eve are the most popular – and priciest – times to plan a trip. "As soon as you have dates in mind, you certainly have to start thinking about where you want to stay," she says, advising it's best to start planning about nine months ahead of your vacation date. "The real mark is 180 days," she explains, pointing out that specialty meal reservations, including the in-demand Be Our Guest Restaurant at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, require reservations up to 180 days in advance.

Beyond securing dining reservations, Cicero suggests narrowing down your hotel options knowing you can always switch your reservations without a fee (typically within 45 days of your arrival date if you book a Disney vacation package and 31 days in advance for Walt Disney Resort properties) until you get closer to your trip. She also suggests booking an early departure flight and a late flight home. "If you can work your airfare around an early flight in, you'll get more time at the park at a much smaller cost," she says, emphasizing that the daily admission cost is steep (one-day Magic Kingdom Park tickets cost $99 for kids ages 3-9 and $105 for ages 10 and up), so you should maximize your time if you're planning a quick getaway. And chances are, it will be less harried, she adds. If you have some flexibility, Cochran also advises planning a midweek getaway for reduced pricing. "You can save 25 percent more on lodging costs by booking a midweek trip," he explains.

Strategize, Strategize, Strategize

To maximize your time at the park, it's best to make a game plan. Utilize the My Disney Experience app (free on iOs and Android) that is currently available for Disney World to sync your itinerary plans with relatives and friends and take advantage of prebooked FastPass+ reservations. "You used to go to the park, go to the ride itself and get on the ride in so many minutes," Cicero explains, but with the free FastPass+ (available at Disney World), which guarantees three rides each day, the process has become simplified. And with the savvy My Disney Experience app, if you use your three allotted Fast Passes, you can also easily book more passes on your phone or switch your plans swiftly, Cicero explains.

And to get the most out of your visit, once your vacation dates are set, Cochran advises logging into the app and reserving can't-miss rides in advance. "Booking them ahead of time means you're more likely to get your favorite ride," he says. The caveat with FastPass is that there aren't always enough passes distributed for the most popular rides, but on the upside, the new system allows visitor traffic to be stretched throughout the park, cutting down on some of the wait times, he explains.

Be Selective

"Try to get your Fast Passes all early in the day," Cicero says. Some rides that you wouldn't think would be popular end up having long wait times, she explains. The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and the Peter Pan's Flight ride at Magic Kingdom, for example, tend to have long wait times, she says. "Be realistic with what time you're going to get into the park," she adds.

"If there's a major ride you want to do, go there immediately after it opens," Cochran says. "Beeline straight for Splash Mountain at Walt Disney World or Space mountain at Disneyland," he adds. And keep in mind that newer rides are always more crowded, he says. It's also a good idea to hop on rides during Disney parades, especially kiddie rides, he adds. And "if you're with a group of grown-ups and you don't mind having your party split up, see if there's a single-rider line," he says, highlighting that it can trim wait times for popular rides, such as Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland.

Consider All Meal Options

If you want to cut dining costs, Cicero suggests grabbing a bite at spots away from popular Disney attractions. "The restaurants that are in the resorts are usually less crowded and cheaper compared to the ones at the parks," she explains, pointing to the cafe at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa in Orlando, Florida, as an easily accessible by monorail if you're staying at Magic Kingdom. If you're traveling with a group, getting groceries delivered is a smart idea, Cicero says. Many Disney properties offer mini-fridges, making it easy to get groceries delivered from places like Garden Grocer at Disney World, Cicero says. And don't forget to bring along snacks. "You can bring bottles of water and a backpack," Cicero says, pointing out that it's a good idea to stock up on crackers, dry fruit and other easy-to-pack items.

And if your heart is set on dining at Disney, keep in mind that at quick-service venues, you can ask for an a la carte meal, and shave an extra $2 to $3 off your meal by forgoing those side items when you place your order at a counter-service spot, Cochran says.

Skip the Pricey Gift Shops

"Try to rein in the souvenir cost," Cicero says. She advises giving your child a gift card with a fixed amount of money and forget about buying a costume at the park. Rather than paying two to three times the retail price at the park, pack up a costume purchased online and bring it with you. You can also pick up Mickey ears or an autograph book online before or after your trip. And as a keepsake of your trip, Cicero suggests picking up postcards. "They're great, they're cheap and you can make a scrapbook," she adds.

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