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Cory Disbrow—Flickr Vision/Getty Images

10 Secrets to Saving Money at Disney and Universal, According to Theme Park Experts

Jun 01, 2017

Dreaming of a Disney adventure? Want to cast spells at Hogwarts? These days, it doesn’t come cheap.

As our investigations estimating what it really costs to bring a family to Walt Disney World or Universal Studios Florida show, a family of four can easily spend $700 per day just on admissions and food inside the resort. Lodging, transportation, and assorted fun (souvenirs! VIP tours!) bring the tally higher still. How can you limit the damage?

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We asked theme park experts for their most practical tips to save cash no matter when you're visiting, and the best nuggets of advice are below.

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Crowds gather at the entrance to Disney Hollywood Studios, Orlando, Florida, February 2012.Alamy—Alamy

Never buy admissions at the gate.

Instead, purchase online via the resort’s website. You’ll save an easy $20 per ticket on passes good for three or more days at Disney. It saves time too, because you’ll get to skip the ticket-buying lines. To save even more, using reputable third-party wholesalers for multiday tickets can save you “up to $50 per ticket vs. buying at the parks,” says Len Testa, coauthor of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. Testa is a contributor to the theme park–focused site TouringPlans.com, which has a neat tool that finds the lowest prices on the kinds of tickets you want by searching deals from sellers such as OfficialTicketCenter.com, ParkSavers, and MouseSavers.

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James Kilby—Universal Orlando

Take a day off.

The simplest way to save is to buy an admissions pass with one fewer day than your vacation allows. On your day off, you can sleep in, hang out by the hotel pool, and maybe do low-key meals by hitting a supermarket—or dining at non-­resort restaurants that are always less expensive. Disney lovers often balk at this advice, but few who stay away from the parks for a day wind up regretting it. Not only will the strategy lower your admissions and food costs, this little vacation within the vacation is bound to be the most relaxing part of your trip.

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Volcano Bay water park, Universal Studios, Orlando, FLCourtesy of Universal Studios

Buy water park admissions separately.

Base entrance to the water parks is much cheaper than the main theme parks—$65 for an adult at Universal's Volcano Bay water park, versus up to $124 for the other parks. So if you want to hit the water slides, look into buying passes just for the water park. (Note: This generally only saves money if you're buying base passes with admission to only one park per day; if you're already going with a multi-day, multi-park ticket, it's probably cheaper to do water park admission as an add-on rather than separately.)

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The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando Resort.Kevin Kolczynski—Universal Orlando

Buy food a la carte.

The menus at quick-serve restaurants inside the parks generally list food in combo packages, with a main dish, fountain drink, and a side of fries or chips included for one price. “You don’t have to buy the whole package,” says ­Jason Cochran of Frommers.com. “Tell them you don’t want, say, the fries, and you’ll get a discount of a few bucks.”

The full meal is often too much for a child to stomach anyway, and the savings will add up when you use this strategy multiple times throughout your vacation.

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InstaCart employees fulfill orders for delivery at the new Whole Foods Market Inc. store in downtown Los Angeles, California.Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Order groceries to your room.

You’ll be saving money every time you can feed the family somewhere outside of a resort restaurant. Rather than gathering groceries during your precious vacation time in Florida, have an order ­delivered to your room by services like Instacart, ­Garden Grocer, or Amazon. First, double-check to see if your room has a refrigerator. If yes, find out how big it is, and order accordingly. Also, make sure that your hotel accepts food deliveries (most do), and ask if there’s a fee for the service.

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A Lyft Amp with driver and passenger on January 31, 2017 in San Francisco, California.Kelly Sullivan—Getty Images for Lyft

Use rideshares rather than rental cars.

If your hotel doesn't provide free transportation to the theme parks, consider using Uber or Lyft for trips to and from the gates. It's more convenient than driving yourself, and you'll save on parking, which runs $20 to $40 per day. Lower your transportation costs further by taking advantage of online promo codes for discounts on Uber and Lyft rides.

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Loew's Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando ResortKevin Kolczynski—Universal Orlando

Consider a higher-price hotel.

Express passes at Universal Studios, which allow you to cut the lines on most rides, cost up to $150 extra per day on top of normal admissions costs. "The better way to get Express privileges is to stay at one of the three original hotels: Portofino Bay, Hard Rock Hotel, or Royal Pacific," says Cochran.

They're all within walking distance of Universal's two main theme parks, and all guests at these properties automatically get Express passes for the duration of their stay. That alone could be worth the $100 to $200 per night premium you'd pay compared to Universal's mid-level Cabana Bay hotel, which doesn't provide guests with complimentary Express passes.

Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, Disney World, Orlando, Florida
Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, Disney World, Orlando, FloridaHelen Sessions—Alamy

BYO stroller

Disney charges $15 a day for a single-child stroller and $31 for “double” strollers, recommended for two kids. “That’s more expensive than a car rental in Orlando,” says Testa. “It would be cheaper if we all drove Chevy Aveos down Main Street U.S.A.”

The solution is to bring a cheap umbrella stroller from home, or even buy one in Florida just for the trip and donate it to Goodwill when you’re done.

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Francois Le Diascorn—Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Skip the souvenirs unless they're truly special.

Robert Niles, founder of ThemeParkInsider.com, says it makes no sense whatsoever to buy stuffed animals or other Disney toys and T-shirts that are readily available from Walmart, Amazon, or your mall’s Disney Store. “Never buy souvenirs in the park that you can find outside the park or online,” he says. “You’ll almost always find a better deal on merchandise outside the park than in it. Save your money for special things sold exclusively in the park.”

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Sailors from various U.S. Navy commands throughout Navy's Southeast Region march before Cinderella's Castle before entering onto Main St. inside Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.PJF Military Collection—Alamy

Use your military ID.

Active and retired military can get significantly discounted admissions at Disney parks by purchasing them at military sales outlets. For example, a five-day Park Hopper pass at Disney World costs as little as $224 with the military discount, compared with $445 normally. The discount is good for up to six family members too.

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