What is often a dream vacation for many, a visit to Mickey and Minnie in Orlando doesn’t come cheap…or does it? We reveal how to get to Florida’s top travel destination without breaking the bank.
Orlando offers so much fun for the whole family. Once you’ve had enough of cuddly Disney characters, rushing roller coasters, fantastic movie sets and slippery slides, there are world-class themed hotels, unique restaurants, unparalleled shopping and beaches to enjoy the long hot summers and mild winters.
It’s no wonder that around 75 million visitors flock to Orlando each year – but a week’s holiday in the theme park capital of the world can cost a family of four around £10,000.
But fear not, there are many ways to make a dream Central Florida vacation more affordable.
In the words of one of Disney’s most famous villains, the key to saving money in the Sunshine State is to be “prepared.” So here are 10 areas where you can grow your money even further.
1. Perfect timing
The best (and cheapest) times to visit Florida are the spring and fall months, when the weather is slightly cooler and crowds are fewer. If you must travel in August, plan for the second half of the month when many American children are going back to school.
Midweek flights are often cheaper, while cheap last-minute deals are becoming rarer, so look for early-bird specials instead. From the UK, TUI flies to Orlando Sanford (SFB), while Orlando International (MCO) is reserved for Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Norwegian Air. Although Sanford is a smaller airport, flights here are cheaper and it can be quicker to get through customs and security. If you’re content with a road trip, Orlando is a three-hour drive from Jacksonville, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami — but weigh the rising costs of fuel and rental cars.
2. Take the main road
Do you really need a big, expensive gas guzzler as long as you have the right car for the number of passengers and luggage? Shop around looking for discount codes or cashback offers at car companies and don’t get ripped off by agents trying to upsell.
You’re bound to encounter toll roads during your vacation, so have coins handy or prepare to pay an extra bill when you return the vehicle. Those with young children should bring their own car seats and buggies, and if you’re staying at a Disney resort you may not need a rental car as they offer free transfers from MCO.
Parking fees (ranging from $25 to $30 per day at major parks) are a nightmare in Orlando, so consider Uber or Lyft, as well as the free shuttle and public buses. If you’re visiting a Disney park just for the fireworks, go after 8 p.m., when the parking lot booths are closed. Parking is free after 6pm at Universal.
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3. Room with a view
Not only are villas a more budget-friendly option, they also have plenty of space and the perks of a pool to relax in after a long day at the theme parks. If you’d rather stay in a hotel, you’ll find the best rates closer to Disney and SeaWorld than Universal. Staying on International Drive is a good choice for budget hotels.
If you have a large family, consider a condo to avoid booking multiple rooms. Sonesta Es Suites ticks most of the boxes — it’s reasonably priced and within walking distance of restaurants and bars.
Many families don’t make the most of their hotels or villas, but a day at the pool, an afternoon barbecue, or a movie night can be great fun and save you a few bucks. You can also cook your own food or order a takeaway.
READ MORE: How to save money on multi-destination US visits
4. Park Life
Get your theme park tickets in advance of your trip and compare packages – an all-in-one pass may not be as cheap as you first think. Plus, if you’re in a park from dawn to dusk, the Park Hopper option can be a waste of $25-$33 per ticket. If you need to buy tickets in Orlando, Undercover Tourist is a good site.
No one likes queuing, and the best way to get the most out of your days is to purchase Lightning Lanes (Disney), Express Passes (Universal), and Quick Queues (SeaWorld). After all, time is money. Disney and Universal are providing free lockers for roller coaster riders (for now). At SeaWorld, they’re $2 a ride, so the $7 for an all-day rental ($10 for a large one) is a good call. Lockers at water parks vary in price, but unless someone likes to sit and watch their belongings, these costs cannot be avoided.
5. Preparation is key
Planning a trip to Orlando can feel like a military operation, but the preparation will pay off. Things to buy and pack before you go include plastic ponchos, which cost £1 in the UK but can cost $10 in the parks. Plus, fans, water sprayers, glowsticks and autograph books cost a quarter of the price online compared to Disney World.
If you plan on wearing character t-shirts, buy them before you go, or head to Super Target, which stocks a range of Disney, Marvel, and Harry Potter merchandise. You can go without dollar bills in Orlando, and a good tip is to put your money on a credit card that gives you points or cashback. Also look for rewards for spending at the parks.
READ MORE: 7 ways to avoid paying too much for your vacation
6. Food for thought
Although you might get tired of it after an eight-hour flight, it’s worth heading straight to the supermarket to stock up. You can get 24 bottles of Publix spring water for about $3-4, which is less than a single bottle at Disney or Universal, who also have water fountains in their parks. You’re also allowed to take away food and soft drinks, so stock a backpack with snacks like granola bars, nuts and chips, and make sure you have breakfast in your shack — many hotel rooms have a fridge to store milk, so have some granola and save on the expensive breakfast.
Avoid expensive character meals and don’t go on the meal plans ($60 a day) unless you tend to overeat. Away from the parks, many restaurants have happy hours – check out Bahama Breeze and Applebee’s. After all, portions in America are notoriously huge, so don’t order multiple courses.
7. It’s a small world
Away from Orlando’s ‘Big Three’ theme park resorts, the city has many other smaller attractions that are much cheaper and can be just as fun. Legoland Florida offers more than 50 rides, attractions, and shows, as well as dozens of displays. See alligators up close at Gatorland and go on safari at Wild Florida. These and other parks give you the chance to meet locals and experience good old-fashioned Southern hospitality, refreshing between the big commercial attractions.
If you want to see more of the city of Orlando, an Explorer Pass lets you visit three or five popular attractions, including the Orlando Eye, Madame Tussauds Celebrity Wax Museum, Gatorland, Fun Spot America Theme Park, SEA Life Aquarium, Airboat Tour by Boggy Creek and Ripley’s Believe it or not!
READ MORE: Orlando beyond the theme parks
8. Shop til you drop
Gone are the days when you could take a suitcase full of shopping bargains with you on a trip to the USA. However, Florida has one of the lowest sales taxes in the US, and if you’re looking for cheap clothing, you can still shop for cheap items. The best brands to save on are American labels like The North Face, Converse and Levi’s, and the best place to look for them is at the Orlando Premium Outlets on International Drive.
Disney’s Character Warehouse is a great place for cheap goods and souvenirs. And if you don’t rent a car, some outlets offer free shuttle service. Finally, give your kids an allowance for souvenirs and keep telling them when their money’s gone, it’s gone.
9. A little free advice
Believe it or not, there are many free things to do in Orlando. Disney Springs is home to over 70 unique shopping, dining and entertainment venues, including the LEGO Imagination Center, World of Disney (the world’s largest Disney store) and Cirque du Soleil. One of the best free experiences is finding a bench to listen to the musicians outside of the House Of Blues.
Exploring Disney World Resorts can also be great fun when you hop aboard the Skyliner cable cars or monorail. Also worth a visit is Celebration, the beautiful town built by the Disney company, with tree-lined streets, inviting shops and restaurants. Over at Universal, CityWalk has its own shopping, dining, and nightlife. Finally, listen to live music while gazing at The Wheel at ICON Park on International Drive. Surprisingly, the parking garage there is free.
10. Engineer this
We all have smartphones with state-of-the-art cameras these days. So instead of buying professional photos or buying a photo pass, why not ask someone to take a picture of you for free? Also, make use of the free Instagram walls in the parks to spice up your social media feed.
Many of us have experienced high cell phone bills after a holiday. Although you may need to have roaming enabled for mapping and navigation purposes, one device in the whole group should be enough. For everyone else, Wi-Fi is plentiful around Orlando, and if you log onto the network at the main parks, you’ll have intermittent access throughout the day.
And something else…
If you’re celebrating a birthday or a special occasion, don’t be afraid to tell everyone about it. Go to Guest Services at Disney to get a free badge, bring it to the attention of the hotel and you may receive a free gift in your room. Mention it at the restaurant and you might as well be treated to a free dessert. Get all the freebies you can!
Main image: VIAVAL TOURS/Shutterstock
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