Family Finances: 4 Ways to Save Big at Disney

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The memories of going to Disney World are priceless and unforgettable. And not just for children. For parents, the cost of a family trip to the happiest place on earth could have its own unique set of memories – like giant credit card bills.

Adding up the cost of travel, accommodations, rental car, food, admission, souvenirs, and miscellaneous expenses, a trip for a family of four can easily cost $3,000 for three or four days at Disney World in Florida or Disneyland in California.

“A trip to Disney that is more than a day is really more of an investment,” says Nicole Hockin, who writes about travel at Travel Smart blog.

After talking with Hockin and others about how to best save at Disney’s theme parks, here are the best ways that Money Talks News found to save money on a trip that shouldn’t break the bank but should still leave plenty of great memories…

1. Plan ahead and go off season

Making reservations ahead of time – especially for airfare, rental cars, and hotels – will save a lot of money, especially in the off-season. Pulling the kids out of school for a long weekend or more in low seasons such as early May (after spring break has ended for most people) or in October or November (when students are in school) can save 50 percent on car rentals, hotels, and airfare.

“If you just show up to experience Disney, you’re going to spend a lot more than if you thought it out,” Hockin says.

Along with saving money on lodging and getting around, Disney often sells discounted tickets during low season. The crowds will be less too, making for a much more enjoyable trip.

2. Buy an annual pass

Like Apple Computer and its stable prices that the company sets, Disney doesn’t allow many ticket resellers, so ticket discounts are rare and small when you find them at Costco, AAA, or elsewhere.

An annual pass isn’t worth it if you’re going to a Disney park two or three times a year, which is more than enough for most people. But if you live within driving distance of Disneyland or Disney World, an annual pass can make it a worthwhile expense.

A Florida resident, for example, will pay $669 for a premium adult season pass, and $603 for a child, which pays for itself in about six visits. For $700 for any age, a Disney Premier Passport is good at both parks on all dates. At about $200 for a four-day park-hopper pass, the premier passport pays for itself in a little more than three visits.

For visits to Disneyland only, a premium annual passport is $459, which can pay for itself if you visit at least three times a year.

3. Stay off site

Staying at a Disney hotel on site is every kid’s dream, and it’s quicker to get in and out of the park than staying a few miles away. But it will cost at least $100 more per night on average. A recent night at Disneyland’s Paradise Pier cost $240, compared to $107 at a nearby Embassy Suites.

Taking a shuttle from a hotel to the park and back can eat up a lot of valuable time, but it shouldn’t add much more time than the shuttles guests have to take to the parks from Disney hotels.

4. Eat off site

Instead of buying meals at Disney restaurants or using its all-inclusive dining plan, Disney fan Kara Buntin says that even if her family is staying at a Disney property, they rent a car so they can go grocery shopping. They buy paper plates and a Styrofoam cooler and fill it up with ice at the hotel. They return to the hotel for lunch, then go back to the park and either eat out or go back to their hotel room for dinner.

You can also save $10 to $20 per person if the hotel includes a hot breakfast and the rooms have full kitchens, says Marianne Schwab, a TV travel show producer.

“We always pack healthy snacks and a lunch that won’t spoil so that if we spend a full day at the park, we’re only purchasing maybe one full meal and a snack,” Schwab said. “When it’s typical to spend $10-$15 per person or more on each meal at the park, you can see how packing your own food can save at least $60 or more a day in food alone.”

Coolers and outside food aren’t allowed in the park, but Schwab says she has discreetly packed food in backpacks without getting caught.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area who writes about family finances. He has a 6-year-old daughter who would go to Disneyland every week if he could afford it.