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Disney on a dime: Yes, Mouseketeers, you can do it
Updated 5/20/2009 2:11 PM ET
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Disney World has been on our kids' minds this year, but it wasn't in our family budget.

What's a parent to do?

Approach a trip to the Magic Kingdom and the rest of the sprawling Walt Disney World Resort with the same mind-set as the old Midas muffler commercials: I'm not gonna pay a lot for this vacation. It turns out, you really don't have to.

With a disciplined approach to the Big Three expense categories — food, lodging and admission fees — it's possible to "do Disney" without piling up bills that are scarier than The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (a ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios that left my 6-year-old screaming to do it again, and me searching for my stomach).

With a little extra effort and planning, you can even avoid a lot of the killer extras — like $31 a day to rent a double stroller.

If the economic meltdown has a silver lining, it's evident in the deals to be found in resort areas like Orlando. Disney itself is laying on more discounts and specials for Mouseketeers than travel experts can recall in recent history.

"It's a great time to go," says Bob Sehlinger, author of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, which is not affiliated with the resort. "It couldn't be better."

But read no farther if your Disney vacation musts include first-class meals, brand-name Mickey and Minnie souvenirs and staying in the closest hotel to the monorail. This article is for penny-pinchers only.

Lodging

Figure out this piece of the puzzle first, since it will affect your strategy for the others.

Sehlinger's advice on this count is simple: "You're always going to save a lot of money if you stay in a non-Disney property outside of Disney World."

There are hotel discounts galore, thanks to the slow economy, and you can take your pick by shopping websites like roomsaver.com. Simply by poking around the Web, our family of four booked five nights in a sprawling two-bedroom suite at a beautiful new resort for just over $500 — and we didn't even have to listen to a time-share presentation.

There also is a plethora of fabulous private homes, often with private pools and amenities like home theaters, available to rent at tempting prices. Many are owned by Brits and other foreigners who fly in for weeks at a time and turn their vacation homes over to management companies when they're not around. Sehlinger cites allstarvacationhomes.com as one particularly user-friendly website. Another site —vrbo.com— lists homes being offered directly by owners.

If you want to stay at one of the more than 20 Disney owned-and-operated resorts — and they do come with perks such as extended theme park hours, free parking, free airport shuttle and free luggage delivery service — a handful fall into the "value" category. You can even pitch a tent at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, with campsite fees starting at $43 a night.

For most stays between Aug. 16 and Oct. 3, certain Disney resorts are offering a free Disney Dining Plan when you buy a five-night room and theme park package. (The package has to be booked by June 21.) There also some specials for members of the U.S. military.

To find the latest deals, your best bet is to go to Disney World's website —disneyworld.disney.go.com— and click on the "special offers" tab.

Food

Your lodging decision will have a big effect on your food bill: Book a private home or a suite with a kitchen, and you can more easily avoid paying amusement-park prices for food. Even a cooler in your hotel room (or the mini-fridge at a discount hotel, where it won't be stocked with overpriced snacks) for OJ, milk and lunch meat can work wonders at cutting breakfast and lunch costs.

The bottom line from Sehlinger: "The more meals that you eat outside of Disney World, the better off you're going to be."

Eat breakfast in your room, or snag one of the many hotel deals that include a continental breakfast.

Head into the theme park with a backpack stuffed with snacks, sandwiches and drinks, and you're good till dinner.

It really can be done: We prowled five theme parks over four days, and spent exactly $8.25 for three ice cream sandwiches.

Everything else came out of the backpack. (Which has the side benefit of allowing you to avoid those snaking food lines.)

Our kids didn't even mind, because we let them eat sugary breakfast cereals and snacks that they don't normally get at home.

One of my favorite moments at the Magic Kingdom was lunch on a picnic table under a shade tree on Tom Sawyer Island.

At dinner time, there are plenty of offsite restaurants to explore — and by then you may well be ready for a theme-park break anyway.

And if you're paying the $12 a day to park at Disney World, you can leave for dinner and come back without an additional parking fee.

For people flying in to Orlando and debating whether to rent a car, says Sehlinger, "the savings that you'll obtain by eating outside of Walt Disney World will probably more than pay for the rental car."

If you do opt to eat at the theme parks, there are a range of restaurants that run the pricing gamut. And Sehlinger says the portions are generous enough that in some cases two people can share an entree and not go away hungry.

Admissions

This is the toughest nut to crack: Nominal discounts are typically the best you can hope for on admission fees at Disney World.

You can score a coup if you time your visit to coincide with someone's birthday: You get in free on your birthday throughout 2009.

There also is a generous deal running for current and retired members of the U.S. military and their families and friends. Check out disneyworld.com/military.

If you're planning to hit some non-Disney attractions in the area, such as SeaWorld or Universal Orlando studios, discounts may be more plentiful.

The independent website mousesavers.com compiles one of the best lists around for reputable deals — at Disney and elsewhere.

Because Disney offers all sorts of ticket options — 1- to 10-day passes, no-expiration upgrades, annual passes, etc. — it's best to plot out how you plan to spend your time so you don't buy more than you need. In general, the longer you stay, the cheaper the tickets.

The website touringplans.com, affiliated with Sehlinger's guide book, has a free "least expensive ticket calculator" that will help you figure out the cheapest route.

Not-so-little extras

You can make all the right moves on the big-ticket items and still spend a small fortune at Disney World if you don't watch the extras.

Rides tend to dump you out in the middle of shops overflowing with tantalizing souvenirs. There's that pricey stroller rental fee. The refrigerator rental fee at Disney resorts. The locker fee at the water parks. Think it all through in advance, and you can hold down the add-ons.

At DisneyWorldMoms.com, a panel of Disney-wise parents offer tips about budgeting and other matters.

The unofficial Disney online guide at wdwinfo.com has good discussion boards for planning every aspect of your trip, including a "budget board" where you can get tips on everything from where to buy Disney souvenirs to deals on air fare. You can even orchestrate a "stroller swap" with other families — a stroller is donated and passed from one vacation family to the next.

The bottom line

How did my family do with the Midas challenge?

Even Sehlinger was impressed: We spent $200 on gas to drive from Virginia, about $510 on accommodations, and not much more on food than we would have spent at home. We'd paid for our no-expiration theme-park tickets five years earlier (and gotten a AAA discount, of course), so that was no hit at all. And the kids both stuck within their $20 budgets for souvenirs.

Ah, but there was that impulsive $8.25 binge on ice cream. Next time, I promise we'll do better.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Posted 5/20/2009 4:55 PM ET
Updated 5/20/2009 2:11 PM ET
Campsite fees at Disney World's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground start at $43 a night.
Disney
Campsite fees at Disney World's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground start at $43 a night.