Splurge or Save: Which Disney Perks Are Worth the Money?

Enjoy a little Disney magic while stretching your dollars with these pro money-saving hacks.

U.S. News & World Report

Splurge or Save: Which Disney Perks Are Worth the Money?

Mickey and Minnie Mouse are seen walking through Sleeping Beauty Castle at the new Disneyland Park on September 1, 2005 in Hong Kong.
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Dodge exorbitant price tags on your Disney vacation with these insider secrets.

Let's get this out of the way: Between character meals, multiday park passes and stays at Disney-affiliated properties, visiting the Happiest Place on Earth isn't exactly geared toward the dedicated penny pincher. Even if you snag a package deal or plan a low-season trip, the price of a Disney vacation can soar quickly. But happily for budget-conscious visitors, there are ways to cut costs with a few insider tricks. To help you determine when to spring for extras, U.S. News tapped top Disney experts. Here are the perks and services you should – and shouldn't – splurge on to get the most out of your vacation.
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Save time and money by browsing reliable resources for discounts.

Disney often advertises discounted packages that bundle extras such as free meals and complimentary park tickets, says Jason Cochran, editor in chief of Frommers.com and author of "Frommer's EasyGuide to Disney World, Universal and Orlando 2016." Aside from searching for current promotions online from Disney, he advises checking sites such as AllEars.net to review menu prices and money-saving tips and Disney-planning site MouseSavers.com to look for available coupon codes. Don Munsil, president of MouseSavers.com, also recommends getting a subscription to Touring Plans ($12.95 per year) to get a customized plan for visiting popular attractions and rides at less-crowded times.
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Dodge exorbitant price tags on your Disney vacation with these insider secrets.

Let's get this out of the way: Between character meals, multiday park passes and stays at Disney-affiliated properties, visiting the Happiest Place on Earth isn't exactly geared toward the dedicated penny pincher. Even if you snag a package deal or plan a low-season trip, the price of a Disney vacation can soar quickly. But happily for budget-conscious visitors, there are ways to cut costs with a few insider tricks. To help you determine when to spring for extras, U.S. News tapped top Disney experts. Here are the perks and services you should – and shouldn't – splurge on to get the most out of your vacation.

Save time and money by browsing reliable resources for discounts.

Disney often advertises discounted packages that bundle extras such as free meals and complimentary park tickets, says Jason Cochran, editor in chief of Frommers.com and author of "Frommer's EasyGuide to Disney World, Universal and Orlando 2016." Aside from searching for current promotions online from Disney, he advises checking sites such as AllEars.net to review menu prices and money-saving tips and Disney-planning site MouseSavers.com to look for available coupon codes. Don Munsil, president of MouseSavers.com, also recommends getting a subscription to Touring Plans ($12.95 per year) to get a customized plan for visiting popular attractions and rides at less-crowded times.

Splurge on a Magic Your Way Park Hopper ticket.

When it comes to choosing how to get around Walt Disney World's four theme parks, it's often a wise idea to invest in Park Hopper tickets to get the best bang for your buck, explains Tom Bricker, the co-founder of Disney vacation-planning site Disney Tourist Blog. Consider your travel companions' ages and interest in exploring multiple parks, advises Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, a family vacations expert at About.com. If you're traveling with older kids who may want to explore different parks each day, the Park Hopper can offer added value, she explains. You'll maximize savings by booking a multiday option (a seven-day adult Park Hopper Ticket costs around $440, while a three-day ticket costs around $345).

Save on the Disney Dining Plan.

If you're the type of traveler who likes to pay for vacation expenses upfront, the Disney Dining Plan can offer added convenience, Munsil explains. But in terms of value, you won't scale back costs unless you're planning to dine on premium dishes (think: steak) everywhere, he says. While signature deluxe restaurants can cost up to $55 per person, table service restaurants charge around $35 per person and counter-service restaurants offer more cost-effective pricing, Munsil explains. "If you are trying to save money, pay a la carte," he says. Alternatively, quick-service meals can offer plenty of value and don't require purchasing a dining plan option.

Splurge on Disney-affiliated accommodations.

"Regardless of budget, it is always smart to stay on property at Disney," says Nanci Weinstein, a travel agent with Moments of Magic Travel, an authorized Disney vacation planner. With complimentary transportation to the parks and free transfers from Orlando International Airport, you can shave hundreds off your Disney World vacation, she explains. Plus, guests staying on property can secure FastPasses 60 days in advance, while those staying off property can book passes 30 days ahead of their trip. What's more, you can enjoy Extra Magic Hours in the morning before crowds arrive, Bricker says. There are fewer advantages to staying on-site at Disneyland, as many hotels are within walking distance, Bricker adds.

Splurge for Extra Magic Hours.

Walt Disney World resort guests are granted early park entry – an extra hour in the morning or up to two hours in the evenings – giving them extra time to enjoy top attractions (Disneyland Resort Hotels guests can enjoy an extra hour on select days). "Morning Extra Magic Hours make the biggest difference," Munsil says. You can slash wait times significantly at popular rides such as Peter Pan's Flight in Magic Kingdom or Frozen Ever After at Epcot. If you don't plan to get to Disney World within the first 10 minutes when the Extra Magic Hour starts, your best bet is checking out the other three parks instead for shorter lines, Munsil adds.

Splurge on specialty meals.

If you're traveling with youngsters, you'll likely want to spring for a character meal at Be Our Guest Restaurant or Cinderella's Royal Table at Magic Kingdom. While you won't snag many discounts for these experiences, you can increase your chances of getting a coveted reservation by staying at a Walt Disney World property, which allows you to book your table beginning 180 days from arrival, Cochran explains. Plus, if you decide to use a Disney Dining Plan, you can leverage value through credits, Weinstein says. Another pro tip: Log onto the Disney site at 6 a.m. EST 180 days out to secure your reservation, says Shannon Albert, author of Disney World Planning site WDWPrepSchool.com.

Save by visiting at off-peak periods.

Avoid crowds by planning a Walt Disney World trip when kids are back in school, Cochran says. Late August often offers reduced rates and fewer lines, he adds. But if you don't want to pay a premium accommodation rate or navigate through a crush of tourists, skip an August trip or popular travel periods such as Christmas, New Year's and long holiday weekends. And if you're planning a trip to Disneyland, keep in mind most visitors are local, translating to soaring crowds and prices during the weekends, Kelleher says. She advises seeking out weekday packages for lower rates and fewer tourists.

Splurge on a travel agent.

If you want to leave vacation planning to a pro, you can rely on the help from an agent without paying a steep fee. "They don't charge for their service, and there's simply too much for the first-timer to know to plan efficiently unless they make it a full-time job," Bricker says. Assistance, expertise and planning services "are always completely complimentary to my clients," Weinstein says. However, not all travel planners are created equal, Albert explains. "So be sure to focus on one that specializes in Disney World travel and is willing to book both dining and FastPass+ reservations," she says.

Save by securing your own transportation.

"While Disney's transportation is free and effective, it's not the fastest way to go," Munsil says. You're better off driving if your top priority is convenience. To eliminate parking costs, it can be a smart idea to stay at an affiliated Walt Disney World resort since many offer complimentary parking. Another bonus of bringing your own set of wheels is the chance to enjoy cheaper food just a mile away from the parks, Cochran says. And because Orlando sees millions of tourists each year, you can easily snag a car rental for around $25 a day, making a vehicle a cost-effective and headache-free way to get around, Cochran says. Plus, affordable car rentals abound in Anaheim, California. Kayak currently shows car rentals available for as low as $14 a day.
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