How to Get the Most Value from Disney World

by | Apr 11, 2024 | WDW Blog

How much does it cost to go to Disney World, and is it worth the high sticker price? Our guide breaks down typical Disney World costs and offers tips on getting the most value out of your Disney vacation.

There’s no getting around it: Disney World is expensive, and it’s getting increasingly costly every year. The Florida resort still holds so much magic for new and returning guests, but is that enough to make it worth draining your vacation budget?

My take? Absolutely — if you plan ahead.

My family has gone to Walt Disney World my entire life, and always on a budget. As a travel and personal finance journalist (and Disney enthusiast) who focuses on seeing the world on a dime, I’ve come up with several ways to lower the cost of a Disney vacation and get the most bang for my buck when I visit Orlando.

19 Ways to Get the Most Value from Walt Disney World Resort

Here are my tips for keeping costs down, making my dollars stretch, and maximizing the value of a Disney World vacation.

1. Get an Annual Pass

Walt Disney World Annual Passes are expensive, and non-Florida residents are only allowed to purchase the most expensive, top-tier option (the Incredi-Pass). But if you plan to head down to Florida for a Disney vacation multiple times a year — or will be staying at Walt Disney World for multiple weeks — an Annual Pass could actually be cheaper than single-day tickets.

Plus, Annual Passes get you discounts on food and merch inside the parks — one of many ways to maximize the value of your Annual Pass to Disney World.

There’s a lot of math involved when determining if an Annual Pass makes sense, but no need to bust out the calculator. We got out our number 2 pencils and did the homework for you. Our comprehensive guide should help you determine if a Disney World Annual Pass is worth the price for your family.

We’ve even got a guide to determine if an out-of-state Disney World Annual Pass makes sense! For reference, I live in Ohio and have found my Incredi-Pass to be well worth the value. Bear in mind: I take two week-long trips a year, but I also travel down for short trips as a journalist throughout the year.

2. Monitor Discounts and Deals

Throughout the year, Disney will release a number of Walt Disney World discounts and deals that will help you save money on your trip, including options like:

  • Hotel discounts
  • Ticket discounts
  • Package discounts
  • Pass discounts

Bookmark our Disney World discounts and deals page to see what’s on offer currently, and follow our Facebook page for updates every time Disney announces a new savings program.

3. Use a Shuttle Service from the Airport

For a long time, guests who flew into Orlando International Airport (MCO) could board Disney’s Magical Express, a free shuttle service to their resort (and back to the airport at the end of their trip). However, Disney discontinued this service at the end of 2021.

Since then, guests have had to figure out how to get from the Orlando airport to Disney World on their own. Many now choose an Uber or Lyft to get to the resort for the speed and convenience, but this can get expensive. It’s much cheaper to book a shuttle through Mears Connect. You might not get to your hotel as fast, but you’ll save a lot of money by ditching the rideshare.

4. Fly into the Orlando Sanford International Airport

Of course, you’ll have to rely on a rideshare (or car rental) if you fly into the Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB), aka the other Orlando airport near Disney. You might pay a little more in transportation costs to and from Disney World, but flights into SFB might be significantly cheaper.

In fact, in a piece I wrote for USA Today, I found that the cheapest airport to fly in and out of is SFB. Routing your travels through here could save you a chunk of change — which you can, of course, use to splurge on more Mickey bars.

While I’ve never flown this way (I love my direct flights from Cincinnati to MCO), our operations director at the magazine, Brydie, swears by this. It’s the only way she flies to Disney!

5. Stay at a Value Resort

The best way to save money at Walt Disney World is to stay off property, at a nearby hotel or Airbnb. But then, you’ll either need to take an infrequent shuttle to and from the parks, pay for rideshare, or rent a car (and pay for parking at Disney World each day, if you aren’t a passholder). While I love saving money, I find it much more convenient (and magical) to stay on property at an official Disney World hotel.

There are three main tiers of hotels to choose from:

As you might expect, the Disney World Value Resorts are the most affordable. They have the fewest amenities and less ideal transportation options, but they still have magical theming and keep you in the heart of Disney World. If you’re on a tight budget, book a stay at one of these hotels.

6. Rent DVC Points

There’s an exception to every rule, even at Disney. Disney Vacation Club (DVC) Villas at Deluxe Resorts offer the most luxurious stays possible at Walt Disney World, but they’re also highly expensive (and typically reserved for people who belong to the DVC timeshare program).

grand floridian resort studio villa

A Studio Villa at Disney’s Grand Floridian. Photo by Danny Shuster

However, you can nab these rooms for a fraction of the cost by renting DVC points through David’s Vacation Club Rentals. Our staff editor, Morgan, loves booking through David’s Vacation Club Rentals — and uses the program to stay in luxurious resorts on a tight budget quite regularly.

Wondering just how much you can save on a luxurious Disney hotel room with Dave’s? Learn how the program works and book your resort now through Dave’s.

7. Rope Drop and Stay Late

Disney World ticket prices are the same whether you spend an hour in the park or all day. To get the most bang for your buck, plan to get there early and stay late. Resort guests get early theme park entry, meaning they’re allowed to enter the park and ride specific attractions 30 minutes before official park opening.

But there are a lot of people taking advantage of this perk, meaning you need to show up early for rope drop (the phrase for being at the park right when it opens). I advise getting to the park an hour before early entry, either by using Disney transportation or rideshare (in a pinch).

This is the best time to be in the parks. While they’re still busy, all the late-risers are still snoozing in bed, meaning you can get on some of each park’s heavy hitters without long waits.

One morning, I managed to ride eight attractions at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in an hour and a half. That meant the rest of my Animal Kingdom day was a lazy stroll through animal exhibits and enjoying shows and other live entertainment, without having to wait in long lines.

For a complete guide to rope-drop strategies, check out our recent park planning issue of WDW Magazine, with tips and insider secrets for each park.

Fuel up on coffee around Walt Disney World, though, because you’ll want to stay until the park closes. If you don’t care to see the fireworks at Magic Kingdom or EPCOT, you’ll be able to walk on some of your favorite attractions during the nighttime spectaculars, since most guests are lined up to see the show.

8. Use Genie+ Strategically

Genie+ replaced the FastPass system a few years back. The paid service allows you to book Lightning Lanes, which bypass traditional queues, to get on rides faster. On busy days, it’s a life-saver, if you know how to use it.

Unfortunately, there are important Genie+ strategies you absolutely need to know to get the most out of the service. If you don’t do your homework and learn how to stack your reservations, you might not think Genie+ is worth the cost.

And sometimes it isn’t. I find it more useful at Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, where I’m more drawn to rides. At EPCOT and Animal Kingdom, I’m more prone to walking around and looking at things, without worrying about the attractions.

Check out our comprehensive Genie+ strategy guide in our special technology issue of WDW Magazine, and brush up on some of these Genie+ basics online:

9. Wake Up for the Virtual Queues

Resort guests can book their first Genie+ attractions at 7 a.m., and you’ll want to be up earlier than that if you’re rope-dropping anyway. However, one of the best ways to maximize value at Disney World is to wake up and try to get a virtual queue for any rides that have them.

Virtual Queues are reserved for Disney World’s newest, most popular rides, and your first chance to claim a spot is at 7 a.m. It’s totally free to join, but if you don’t get a spot (everyone else is trying to get a Virtual Queue right at 7 AM as well), you can purchase access to the ride via Individual Lightning Lane — but that’s not ideal if you’re doing Disney on a budget.

That said, if you don’t get a Virtual Queue at 7 AM, you can try again at 1 PM. Unless this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, I advise getting the second Virtual Queue if you missed the first. Individual Lightning Lanes are expensive (and the cost can add up if you have multiple people in your party). For me, it’s hard to justify paying roughly $20 to ride one attraction.

10. Use Single Rider Lines

I often travel solo to Walt Disney World, and I love it. But even when I’m with friends or family, I love to use the single rider lines at Disney World. With one notable exception (looking at you, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster), single rider lines get you through the queue and onto the attraction much faster than traditional queues.

Just note that if you join a single rider line with other members of your party, you will be separated. You will not get to ride together.

At present, four attractions at Disney World offer single rider lines:

I’ve found the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster single rider line often takes longer than the posted wait time for the standby queue, but otherwise, these are all a smart strategy for fitting in more rides. Notably, Magic Kingdom does not have any rides with single rider lines.

11. Ditch Park Hopper

If you buy a Walt Disney World Annual Pass, you’ll automatically have Park Hopper, meaning you can jump from one park to another — and then some — as you please (bound by a few Disney rules). But if you’re buying a ticket or package, it’s an add-on.

It’s not super expensive in the grand scheme of Disney World costs, but the time you spend going from one park to another is critical. If you’re only down once a year (or once a decade), I recommend fully committing at least one day to a single park. The 30 minutes to an hour to hop from one park to another is time you could’ve spent watching a parade, riding an attraction, or even enjoying a sit-down meal.

Disney World transportation is super convenient, but it ain’t fast. Park Hopping wastes precious park hours. Unless you have a long trip that allows for leisurely days (and I do recommend these trips if you’re not on a tight budget and have the time), skip Park Hopper.

But pro tip, if you’re heading to Disneyland, absolutely get Park Hopper. It takes all of two minutes to cross the Esplanade separating Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure. It’s much faster to Park Hop there — and thus way more worth the expense when trying to get the most value out of a Disneyland vacation.

12. Pay Attention to Crowd Calendars

Sometimes, you’re bound by specific travel dates. Maybe you can only go to Disney when the kids are on summer vacation or spring break, or maybe you’re planning around major deadlines at work or an extended family’s hectic schedules.

But if there’s any flexibility to your trip dates, absolutely use a Disney World crowd calendar. These help you understand how busy it is at Disney World during different times of the year. If you want to get the most out of your Walt Disney World vacation, travel when crowds are lower.

Smaller crowds mean:

  • Shorter wait times for attractions
  • Better viewing for fireworks, stage shows, and parades
  • An easier time snagging dining reservations
  • An easier time getting the Virtual Queue you want
  • More open walkways (great if you’re agoraphobic like me!)
  • More free time to enjoy Imagineering details

All of those things add up to a more valuable Disney World experience, in my book.

13. Get After-Hours Party Tickets

After-hours parties, like Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, Jollywood Nights, and Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, as well as general Disney World after-hours events, are some of my favorite times to be at Disney. And they’re expensive.

But hear me out: Despite the high price tag, they are one of the best ways to get the most value out of a day at Disney. Because these are hard-ticket events, the crowds are much lower, meaning you can often walk right onto your favorite rides.

Plus, there’s unique live entertainment and fireworks, rare character meet-and-greets, free snacks, exclusive merch and menu items, and more.

If you have an Annual Pass, you can spend your day enjoying the parks, then stick around for After Hours. But if you’re not a Passholder, after-hours nights are perfect for resort days. Spend your day enjoying the pool, head to Disney Springs for lunch, take the monorail or other transportation to visit some other hotels, and then head to the park hosting the party. After-hours tickets usually let you into the park a few hours before the party begins — so you can get almost a full day’s worth of park experiences, without buying an actual park ticket.

This certainly isn’t a way to do Disney on a budget, but if you’re willing to splurge on one thing during your trip, this should be it. Trying to balance your dollars at Disney? Check out our Save or Splurge issue of WDW Magazine for tips on how to save money — and what’s worth the high price tag.

14. Skip the Disney Dining Plan

This may be a controversial statement, but I think the Disney Dining Plan is a waste of money. Some families appreciate it because it helps them budget for their trip, and they know exactly what they’re going to spend on food over the course of their vacation.

However, many guests leave Walt Disney World without fully using their dining plan, and many others use their credits without a strategy, meaning they’re getting less value for their money.

Like Genie+, successfully using the Disney Dining Plan requires an advanced understanding of the system — it’s one more thing to worry about on vacation, and it may motivate you to get a bigger meal when you might’ve been fine with a pretzel or a Mickey bar. To make it worth my while, I’d likely eat more than I would’ve otherwise, so I fail to see the value.

Plus, a tip for all you dads: My dining budget is usually reserved for booze on EPCOT days, and the dining plan isn’t really helpful there!

That said, I do acknowledge that it works for some families. If you want the plan, at least spend the time pricing out the various plans to figure out which Disney Dining Plan is right for you.

15. Pack Snacks and Water

Speaking of dining at Walt Disney World, you don’t have to eat what Disney’s selling in the parks and resort hotels for every meal. Mickey’s a nice guy and understands that budgets are tight, so you can absolutely pack snacks or full-on meals in your park bag or stroller.

One of my favorite hacks is to take lunch over to Tom Sawyer Island in Magic Kingdom, where I can enjoy some peace and quiet while munching on snacks at a picnic table in the shade. (Learn more about the history of Tom Sawyer Island in our Wild West issue of WDW Magazine.)

You should also pack a refillable water bottle. This helps you avoid spending money on bottled water in the parks (and you should drink a lot of water, especially if you’re not used to Florida’s heat and humidity) — and it also cuts down on single-use plastics.

16. Eat Quick-Service

That said, one of the best parts of a Disney World vacation is the food. The food at Disney is fantastic, and you don’t have to book a Table-Service meal to get in on the good eats. Quick-Service restaurants are more affordable, and there are still some amazing options across the resort.

Here are the best Quick-Service restaurants at each Disney World park, in my opinion:

  • Sleepy Hollow (Magic Kingdom)
  • La Cantina de San Angel (EPCOT)
  • ABC Commissary (Hollywood Studios)
  • Flame Tree Barbecue (Animal Kingdom)

EPCOT also almost always has a festival going on, where you can enjoy delicious food from around the world. Skip the sit-down meals on an EPCOT day and instead eat your way around the world.

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St. Louis BBQ Ribs from Flame Tree BBQ. Photo by Danny Shuster

Everyone’s palate is different. In case you aren’t a fan of my personal Quick-Service recommendations, check out these restaurant roundups for each park:

17. Find Off-the-Beaten Path Activities

Walt Disney World is a sprawling resort with far more to offer than simply four theme parks. If you have ample time to spend at Disney, you might find your trip more worthwhile if you wander off the beaten path and try something new.

The memories will be more unique, the crowds will be lower, and you’ll still be enjoying the magic of Disney. Here are a few things you might try:

  • Hiking, archery, or horseback riding at Fort Wilderness
  • Golf, mini golf, or even footgolf
  • Water park fun at Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach
  • A spa day at Grand Floridian or Saratoga Springs
  • A monorail bar crawl
  • Fishing or boating on the water
  • A nighttime safari at Animal Kingdom Lodge

You can even find unique experiences within the parks that most guests gloss right over, such as:

  • A haircut at Harmony Barber Shop inside Magic Kingdom
  • The Behind the Seeds tour at EPCOT
  • Droid building at Hollywood Studios
  • Drawing classes at Conservation Station at Animal Kingdom

18. Pack Smart

Knowing what to pack can save you from unnecessary expenses on and off property during your Walt Disney World vacation. For instance:

  • Pack a portable charger to keep your phone juiced all day, every day. While you can purchase Fuel Rods at Disney World, these are an unnecessary expense if you plan ahead.
  • It’s going to rain at some point, so bring a jacket, poncho, or umbrella, plus a spare pair of shoes and socks for each park day.
  • If you’ve got kids who are going to want all the toys and plushes they see, pack a surprise for them (like a Mickey plush from Target!) and give it to them as a reward for good behavior. They’ll be less likely to beg for the (more expensive) plushes they see in the parks.

19. Use a Disney Travel Agent

Using an authorized Disney travel agent adds no cost to your trip. Instead, travel agents earn a commission through Disney. They often know how to find the best deals to keep the cost of your Disney vacation down, and many also handle all the stressful bits of a Walt Disney World vacation — from Genie+ to Advance Dining Reservations — for you.

Make the Cost of Walt Disney World Work for You

No matter how you slice it, Disney World is expensive. But if you know how to look for savings and travel on a budget, you can minimize costs while maximizing fun. To truly make the most of your Disney World vacation, thoroughly plan the trip in advance, learn how to navigate the resort and its systems, and take advantage of every waking moment on property.

Have a magical trip!

Posts by Timothy Moore

epcot-clothing_creations-shop_chiu
Timothy Moore is the editorial director of WDW Magazine, DLR Magazine, and DCL Magazine. He has 15 years of experience in storytelling across roles in content marketing, market research, SEO, and journalism. In addition to running an award-winning Disney magazine, Timothy writes travel and finance content for sites like Business Insider, USA Today, and Forbes.
epcot-clothing_creations-shop_chiu

Authored by
Timothy Moore

Timothy Moore is the editorial director of WDW Magazine, DLR Magazine, and DCL Magazine. He has 15 years of experience in storytelling across roles in content marketing, market research, SEO, and journalism. In addition to running an award-winning Disney magazine, Timothy writes travel and finance content for sites like Business Insider, USA Today, and Forbes.
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