(Travel + Leisure) -- Mary Waring had just quit her marketing job in San Diego in 2001, so saving money on her upcoming trip to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, was a high priority. She found lots of resources online and posted links to coupons on a Web site.
Her brother, a Microsoft employee, told his colleagues about her savings tips -- and within six weeks, her little online scratch pad had amassed 23,000 page views. That's when Waring realized the country's insatiable appetite for Disney savings gossip.
"I often say Americans think it's their God-given right to take the kids to Disney World," she says. "For a lot of people it's part of childhood."
Waring's site has evolved into MouseSavers.com, a clearinghouse for scrimping Mouseheads, and it's her full-time job. Without assistance from Disney, she finds and posts more than 300 pages worth of coupon codes and money-saving ideas, and her site typically attracts at least 60,000 page views a day.
The attention shouldn't be a surprise. An estimated 17 million people visited Disney's flagship Florida property, the Magic Kingdom, in 2008, and even in the depths of this recession, Disney Parks has unfailingly turned a tidy profit.
Whereas Disneyland, in southern California, is often visited casually by people who live within driving distance, Walt Disney World in Orlando -- 47 square miles containing four theme parks, two waterslide parks, and nearly two dozen company-owned hotels -- is a destination unto itself. Trips can require planning akin to military invasions.
And with one-day adult ticket prices at $84, lots of money.
Until the economic downturn, Disney rarely publicized discounts. Disney phone operators will rarely share savings secrets unless vacationers are savvy enough to ask directly, and all too often, the temptation to give in to the seductive "Disney magic" -- booking a $600 room to be beside the parks, or staying a week instead of three days -- drags parents deeper into debt than they had originally planned.
"It's wildly expensive," says Waring. "It can cost you as much to go to Disney World for a week as it does to go to France. People have no choice but to find deals."
People are indeed looking harder for those deals, and with a little digging, deals can be found. For instance, the longer you stay, the less a theme park ticket costs per day; while that $84 charge covers a single day, a seven-day pass averages out to $35.60 a day. Another way to save is by avoiding the peak season. Disney's "Value" rooms start at $82 a night in low season, which is typically late August, September, and January.
Saving money in a world designed to make you spend it can seem like a fantasy in its own right. But these tips are a solid start to turning a Disney rite of passage into a positive family memory.
Check Disney for deals
The tip: Disney World used to avoid discounting, but these days it's aggressive about marketing packages that give you freebies, such as free park tickets or free food during your stay. Look at disneyworld.disney.go.com/special-offers and at sites such as MouseSavers.com, which share the latest coupon codes.
The trade-off: Lots of Disney package freebies usually require stays of at least four days, which may be longer than you want to spend there, and they're never good during peak season (July, holidays).
Buy a multiday Disney pass
The tip: Heavily discounted Disney theme park tickets simply aren't available, no matter who tells you otherwise. Consider those your only fixed cost. However, the longer you stay, the less you pay per day for your theme park tickets. An adult would pay $84 for a single day, but the equivalent of $35.60 per day for a seven-day pass.
The trade-off: Four days is usually enough to see the four major Disney theme parks, but that's when per-day prices sharply decline. Plus, staying longer means you're likely to ignore Central Florida's other worthy attractions, including Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, and the Kennedy Space Center.
Don't drive to Disney
The tip: If you want to leave the car at home, you can rely on the buses of the free Disney Transportation System (DTS), and if you're staying at a Disney-run hotel, the resort's Magical Express coaches will shuttle you to and from Orlando International Airport for free.
The trade-off: DTS can be slow and crowded, which is probably not what your family wants to put up with at the end of a long day of theme parking. Not having a car also means you'll be held prisoner to all things Disney -- food, music, endless souvenir hawking -- which, depending on your tolerance for pixie dust, may grate on your nerves.
Visit in the low season
The tip: The 8,640 rooms in the lowest-priced category of hotel rooms on Disney property, called Value, start at $82 a night in low season (typically late August, September, and January). Prices soar as high as $145 for a concrete-block room when the kids are out of school.
The trade-off: Value hotels are among the worst-situated on Disney World resort property, their DTS buses are among the most crowded, and they're really nothing more than glorified motels.
Rent a non-Disney house
The tip: The least expensive Disney rooms have a four-person limit, so families of five or more must pay double to rent two. But a few miles away, the whole family can have the run of one of hundreds of dedicated vacation McMansions complete with pools, grills, and big-screen TVs. Three-bedroom rentals cost as little as $140 a night through companies such as All-Star Vacation Homes and IPG Florida Vacation Homes.
The trade-off: You won't be on Disney property, which some diehards feel spoils the magic. If you can't define "Disney magic," you may not care if you're off-property.
Visit free Disney attractions
The tip: A few attractions cost nothing to enjoy: the monorail through the Contemporary Resort or over Epcot, the ferry across the water to the gates of the Magic Kingdom, and the illuminated water-borne floats of the Electrical Light Parade between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. nightly on Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake.
The trade-off: Unless you have dining reservations at a nearby hotel restaurant or take a bus from your hotel, you'll still have to pay $14 to park your car.
Buy the Disney dining plan
The tip: If you can stomach eating from fast-food counters, the quick-service dining plan gets you two full meals and two snacks a day for $30 (adults) or $9 for kids.
The trade-off: It pays off only for big eaters who never skip a meal. Plus, if you prepay all your meals with a Disney Dining Plan, you'll be less likely to strike out into Orlando to try anything else, which is a shame when you consider that Orlando has one of America's most vibrant districts for Vietnamese cuisine. Vinh's, for one, specializes in self-roasted pork barbecue.
Make your own meals
The tip: The famously huge turkey legs sold around the grounds have gone from $6 to $8 in a year, but you can make two $3.75 burgers out of a double cheeseburger at the counter restaurants by buying an extra bun for 80 cents. You can also save nearly $2 off meals by forgoing the French fries or the tiny bag of chips, bringing the cost down to about $4.50-$6.
The trade-off: You risk looking pretty cheap. And not getting as much to eat.
Do Disney dress-up yourself
The tip: Disney's kiddie salons (the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, the Pirates League) charge upward of $50 to make over your daughter or son as a princess or a mini Jack Sparrow, but the Harmony Barber Shop on Town Square in the Magic Kingdom will put glitter or paint in their hair for just $7.50. (Bonus: if you get glow paint, it will light up in the dark on the Snow White ride.)
The trade-off: Your kids won't indulge in the salon-style experience, and you'll have to bring your own costumes (the Disney ones are often scratchy anyway).
Get Disney hotel perks
The tip: Yes, Disney-run hotels -- the ones with "Disney" before their name -- are more expensive, but they come with extra perks. You get free parking and "Extra Magic Hours" access at the parks, which grants money-stretching bonus time either before or after the park is open to the general public.
The trade-off: Disney hotels are often two or three times more expensive than comparable hotels located just outside Disney's property line, and an extra hour of time in the parks may not be enough to compensate for that inflated expense. Some visitors, of course, consider it to be priceless.
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