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Disney Trips Are Still Worth It if You Use These Expert Tips

Florida Theme Parks Family Travel
by Jennifer J. Pontius Apr 18, 2023

I am not a Disney fanatic or a militant collector of “Star Wars” memorabilia. I’m not an annual pass-holding resident of California or Florida. My family loves camping, lakeside cabins, road trips, and traveling abroad.

But we also love Disney, and every two or three years, we return to the overpriced but somehow happiest place on Earth.

Rarely does a vacation provide the total immersion experience that Disney does. Most vacations feature real-world problems like mosquitoes, flat tires, broken tent poles, and cramped hotel rooms. But not Disney. Somehow, Mickey and his crew manage to keep the real world at bay.

At Disneyland in California and Disney World in Florida, every interaction and detail are carefully curated to make guests smile: fallen cherry blossoms are raked into the shape of Mickey ears, popcorn vendors will scout out the best parade-viewing spots just for you, and character interactions are sweetly personalized not only for kids, but for their parents and caregivers, too. Every painted mural, hidden Mickey, detail of a fountain, and pop-up quartet is designed purely to delight.

disney world tips - epcot at dusk

Photo: Matador staff

Disney even trains cast members in how to create special experiences for guests with cognitive differences like autism, and trains the staff who load groups at rides on accommodating everyone from plus-size guests to visitors with mobility issues.

Disney is also easy. If you want to go on vacation with someone who doesn’t like traveling, the parks have you covered. Your daily activities, food options, and transportation needs are all neatly contained. For multi-generational families traveling together, Disney has shows for little kids, roller coasters for teenagers, nostalgia and scooters for great-grandparents, and plenty of space to relax at most Disney hotels for when your group needs some downtime.

Still, there’s no denying that Disney vacations are crowded and expensive. But going to Disney is still a fun and worth-it experience that doesn’t have to leave your bank account empty. Just use the Disneyland and Disney World tips below to save money and avoid many of the problems that make some former travelers think the parks are no longer with it.

Avoid the busy season…if you can


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The best advice to save money and the hassles of huge crowds is to plan your Disney vacation at an opportune time. Avoid the school break months of February, March, and April. Consider the entire summer off limits. Don’t even consider the last two weeks of December. Dodge weekends and holidays.

Of course, that’s one of the hardest Disney World tips to follow for families with normal school and 9-to-5 work schedules. And as a public school teacher, I’d be remiss to suggest pulling your kids out of school for a week in October to avoid lines on Space Mountain.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to allay the frustrations caused by long lines, even for visitors who can only travel on breaks and holidays. And rest assured: my family always rides everything and rarely waits in line for more than half an hour.

Strategies for avoiding crowds

Disney world tips - long lines at a park

Photo: Matador staff

Disney parks have gotten crowded – really crowded. Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Florida reported 21,170,000 annual visitors in 2021; in 2000, that number was 15.4 million, and in 1990, well, you could basically walk on to any ride you wanted, provided you weren’t there on a major holiday. Disneyland (which was closed for more than a year during the COVID-19 pandemic) saw 18.6 million visitors in 2019, but just 12.3 million in 2001.

So even accounting for lulls during social distancing in 2020 through 2022, there’s no denying that the parks are far more crowded than ever before. And you can see that in person at places like the Magic Kingdom, where the ride lines are so long that employees have to create temporary lines that block some of the thoroughfares. If you’re planning a trip to Disney and not considering crowd-control strategies, you’re making a mistake.

Stay at a Disney hotel

Disney world tips - stay at the swan hotel

Disney hotel and resort guests get free transportation to the parks, plus early access. Photo: VIAVAL TOURS/Shutterstock

This advice will contradict with the money saving advice below, so pick your poison. It’s more expensive, but staying at a Disney hotel offers some excellent crowd-avoidance perks – notably, early admission to the parks; a benefit reserved only for guests at Disney resorts. Staying on-property also makes it easy to return to your room and relax mid-day when the crowds are at their worst since the parks offer free transportation to Disney hotels.

Wake up early

disney world tips - star wars rides

Wake up early for the best chance of seeing the parks’ most popular attractions without huge crowds. Photo: Matador staff

I mean, really early. Set that alarm for 6 AM, or maybe even 5 AM. Mornings are the best times to be in the park, and you want to be there a full hour before official opening time. If the park opens at 8:00 AM and early entry is at 7:30 AM, you’ll want to arrive at the main gate before 7 AM. And sometimes, cast members will open the gates even earlier than the scheduled opening time to let everyone onto Main Street, even if the rides and the rest of the park aren’t open.

If you do manage to get in early, there are a few good ways to take advantage of that time

    • Take photos in prime locations: If you want to take a picture with your family in front of the castle, this is the best time to do it.
    • Coffee: If you want a coffee, it’s now or never. Coffee lines, especially for those near the gates, get very long.
    • Prep for the rope drop: While Main Street opens early, the rest of the park is roped off until the official opening hour. Many early risers congregate at the ropes so they can hustle to the most popular rides before the lines get too long. You’ll want to get in on that.

By the way, after your first rope-drop ride, you’ll likely have an hour or two during which lines will be relatively short before the thick of the crowds arrives, so take advantage of the opportunity.

Use Genie+

Genie+ (called Genie Plus) has an extra charge, but using it is one of the most essential Disney World tips on crowded days.

In 2021, Disney replaced their paper-based Fast Pass tickets with Genie Plus, available at all the Disney World and Disneyland parks. Starting at $25 per person, per day (but potentially more expensive than that; cost is based on demand), the app-based system lets users reserve spots on rides for certain times, skipping most of the time spent in line.

However, learning to use the system effectively is a bit tricky as there are rules dictating when you can reserve rides. Essentially, guests can book their first ride of the day for 7 AM, but then can’t book another until they’ve checked into the first ride, or two hours have passed from the time they booked the first one. (So if you booked your first ride at 9 AM, you can’t book another one until 11 AM). Slots for popular rides fill up fast, so you’ll need to prioritize which are most important to you.

Watch this video on YouTube. The host breaks down the laundry list of the best Disney World tips and tricks for using Genie Plus during the holidays. You can also purchase purchase “Individual Lightening Lane” tickets for some often bigger rides (around $15-$20 per person), but if you get to the park early enough, you can run to those rides immediately after the ropes drop for the day and hopefully avoid that extra cost.

Leave midday and go back in the evening

disney world tips - hotel pool

Taking a midday pool break can give you the energy to stay at the Disney parks until close. Photo: alexmisu/Shutterstock

On most days, the chaos starts around noon. Lines for most of the rides are two hours long, the sun is beating down, and you’ve likely been up for a while if you arrived for early access.

Fortunately, another perk of staying at a Disney resort is that it’s a quick (and free) monorail or bus ride back to your hotel room. Then, you’ll have a few hours for lunch, napping, or relaxing at your hotel pool.

While it may seem like you need to maximize your time at the park to get your money’s worth, a midday break will make a huge difference and help you avoid getting worn out too early into your trip.

Plan to return to the park around 5 or 6 PM. Around that time, visitors who tried to fight the midday heat and crowds have realized the error of their ways and are hauling their exhausted selves (and their discomposed kids) off to the hotel, leaving the park slightly less packed for you and your refreshed family to enjoy.

As people peel off for their dinner reservations or start to stake out parade-viewing spots, lines for rides get shorter and shorter. When fireworks are going off, wait times drop dramatically. Try an outdoor ride like Big Thunder Mountain or Tomorrowland’s People Mover, and you might even see the fireworks from your coal cart or tram.

Tips for saving money at the Disney parks

Disney is expensive. Entry to Disneyland was $1 when it opened in 1955, plus somewhere between 25 and 35 cents per ride. By 2000, Disneyland was still a semi-reasonable $41 per person – but now, a one-day adult ticket is $164. And you can expect to pay rates for food, souvenirs, and additional experiences that match that high-spender profile.

In other words: going to a park is a very expensive vacation. But these Disneyland and Disney World tips for saving money can help.

Stay off-property

disney world orlando hotel

Photo: RAW-films/Shutterstock

The best way to save money is to stay at a non-Disney hotel, and it’s worth it if you don’t mind not being able to enter the park early and don’t care about easily getting back and forth from the parks to your hotel. Those are the main parks of Disney hotels, so don’t waste your money by staying at one if you won’t use them.

You can save money by staying a little further out. But be sure to book rides on Genie Plus during the morning so you’ll get to the park with some rides already reserved.

Check out Matador’s guides to lodging around Disney parks

Skip the restaurants

Some people rave about Disney restaurants, counting character meals and dining under the faux stars on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride as some of their favorite park experiences. But not being one of those people will save your family hundreds of dollars.

A few days before vacation, I order food from an Orlando or Anaheim grocery store and have it delivered to our hotel. The kids have milk and Cheerios each morning, or I cut up fresh fruit to take to the park (free hotel breakfasts are not a thing at Disney hotels). We have sandwiches and veggies for lunch during our midday break, and for dinner, we have snacks at the park.

While Disney’s sit-down restaurants are pretty “meh,” Disney sure knows how to make a snack. Snacking on churros, dole whips, and cheeseburger spring rolls while walking around the park is an excellent dinner alternative.

If you’re determined to dine at Cinderella’s Royal Table inside the castle at the Magic Kingdom, this may be the most important Disney World tip: some Disney dining reservations sell out faster than Taylor Swift tickets, so set a reminder to reserve your table 60 days in advance when reservations open. Luckily, Ticketmaster is not involved.

Let your kids allocate their own spending

disney world tips - gift shopping

Photo: J. Lekavicius/Shutterstock

This is one of the Disney World tips I learned the hard way. I’m not a shopper. I’ve never bought airport souvenirs for family members, I hate tchotchkes and magnets, and I pass up free T-shirts at 5K races. So my kids are used to hearing “no” when they ask to buy things.

So imagine my surprise when our family spent nearly $500 on Disney paraphernalia on our first trip. Somehow, my minimalist-self got caught up in excitement and blithely started buying mouse ears, lightsabers, t-shirts, lapel pins the kids could trade with cast members, and even a few motorized bubble guns. Don’t let this happen to you, and give your kids a set amount of cash before the trip and hold the line. They can spend it how they want. Good luck.

Other Disneyland and Disney World tips and tricks

  • Make sure you’re getting reward points and/or miles when you book your Disney vacation. Use a credit card or airline card if you can.
  • You can buy Disney gift cards ahead of time at a discount. If you have a “red card” from Target, you can buy them at a five percent discount. Sometimes box stores like Costco and Sam’s Club sell them, too.
  • If you must have a Disney T-shirt, princess dress, or mouse ears, buy them ahead of time and bring them with you. Alternatively, if you have friends who have gone, you may see if your kids can borrow their mouse ears. They can cost $30 (or more, for limited-edition ears) in the parks.
  • Be sure to make park reservations online – just having a ticket won’t always get you through the gates
  • Have a backup charger for your phone. Genie Plus is all via the Disney App, so you’re out of luck if your phone dies.
  • From May 2023 onwards, consider taking the Brightline train, Florida’s high-speed train service that connects Miami and Orlando.

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