LeeAnn Petronsky, a Blasdell mom of four, knows how to pinch a penny until it screams. So, when she shared tips for a cheap trip to Disney, I listened. Her advice helped me save hundreds of dollars.
When to go: The parks are least crowded – and least expensive – the second week in January through mid-February, the last week in August to the third week in September, and the first week of October through the week before Christmas (minus Thanksgiving).
Getting there: Flying my family of four to Orlando would have cost as much as $2,000. Driving cost less than $600, including gas and hotels, and we were able to load the car with food. Plus, we got to stop in Savannah, Ga., and St. Augustine, Fla. – two places I've always wanted to see.
Where to stay: My first instinct was to find the cheapest hotel near Orlando and commute to the park, but Petronsky pointed out that staying in a Walt Disney World resort is a better value.
We stayed at Disney's All-Star Music Resort for about $90 a night. Because it was decked out in Disney themes and the towels came folded like Mickey ears, the day we spent at the giant, guitar-shaped pool counted as a day at Disney World as far as our 2- and 4-year-old were concerned. That saved us $100 each in admission.
Staying at the resort also gets you free use of the Magical Express shuttle, which will take you to and from the parks. If you do fly to Orlando, the shuttle will take you to and from the airport and will have your luggage delivered right to your room so you don't have to deal with the baggage claim. You'll also get free parking at the parks – which will save about $17 a day.
What to do: Admission to Downtown Disney and Disney's BoardWalk is free, and parking is free for resort guests. Depending how old and how savvy your kids are, you can skip the parks another day and spend it there instead. There's plenty to see and do at both – street performers, fireworks, live music, interactive fountains and a giant Lego play area. That's another $100 in admissions prices per person you'll save.
When you do hit the parks, skip the Park Hopper passes. One park per day is more than enough.
Where to eat: If you plan to eat most of your meals at the park and you have older kids who eat a lot, consider buying a Disney Dining Plan. But you're allowed to bring food into the park, so we packed sandwiches and brought refillable water bottles. When we did eat at a restaurant, the kids split one meal (and there were still leftovers).
What to bring: Kids always ask for those light-up, spinning toys that are sold during the parade (and are crazy expensive), so we bought two of them at the Disney Store in Fashion Outlets before we left and saved about $20. Autograph books are cheaper there, too, but my sister – the smart one – bought a blank Princess book from the dollar store that was just as fun. You can also buy discounted Disney gift cards at BJ's, ($96 for a $100 gift card) to spend at the park.
Best souvenirs: Hit the penny presses, which smoosh images of Disney characters into flattened pennies. They're fun and cost just 51 cents.
Handy Resources. “Birnbaum's Walt Disney World” is available at the public library. Sign up for the newsletter at Mousesavers.com for the most up-to-date Disney deals and discounts. The website also has a “Disney Freebies” section, where you can order a free, personalized stick figure family decal from BuildYourDisneySide.com.