How to do Disney, Universal, and more Orlando parks on a budget

Theme parks run by Disney and Universal can be money-suckers if you aren't careful, but there are ways to enjoy all of the parks in Orlando, Fla. without throwing out dollars every time you turn around. 

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
A woman with a Mickey Mouse hat walks toward Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland, in Anaheim, Calif. Trips to Orlando parks, including those run by Disney, Universal, and Sea World, don't have to put you in the poor house.

It’s easy to think of Orlando’s theme parks and attractions as reverse-ATMs built to vacuum money from your wallet. However, that doesn’t need to be true. There are ways to enjoy the parks without throwing out dollars every time you turn around. Follow along as I provide all-encompassing tips to help you save inside the parks without diminishing the fun.

Bring the Essentials

You can easily save money by packing a few essentials in your day bag. Don’t pay double or even triple the cost inside the park on items like sunscreen. Bring a high SPF with you; your non-sunburned skin will thank you. A refillable water bottle is another must-have to avoid the high cost- of buying bottled water. One more thing—simply because this is Orlando—pack a poncho. Rain storms pop up, and you don’t want to be stuck paying $50 or more for your family to stay dry. As a bonus, they come in handy for the “wet” rides such as the Kali River Rapids at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Buy the Disney Dining Plan

At first sight, this may not seem like a money-saver for some. And, that’s true – it doesn’t fit all families. But, for big eaters who never skip a meal, it’s a built-in budget booster.

Expect to pay $41.99 per adult and $16.99 per child for the Quick Service Plan, which includes two counter-service meals (per night), one snack (per night) and a refillable drink mug (per stay). Prices vary, depending on the plan you pick, but this one is the best value.

Enjoy the Free Things in Life

Nothing is really free inside Orlando theme parks. That said, there are a few attractions that cost next to nothing. Universal Orlando Resort’s CityWalk is a vibrant, expansive entertainment and dining complex free to the public. Bonus: Parking is discounted from $17 to $5 after 6pm and is free after 10pm. There is also no charge to ride the Monorail at Walt Disney World, and you’ll be rewarded with cool aerial views of the Magic Kingdom. And here’s a special secret just for you—ask a Cast Member if you can ride up front with the monorail driver for an even better vantage point.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Exploring theme parks is sure to work up an appetite. Have money-saving tips in your back pocket to avoid hunger-induced, budget-busting decisions. Each theme park has eateries that are cheaper than the rest but still totally tasty. For example, Disney World Flame Tree Barbecue (Animal Kingdom), Studio Catering Co. (Hollywood Studios), The Plaza Restaurant (Magic Kingdom) and Tangerine Café (Epcot) have some of the most delicious (and sometimes shareable) options that are all $16.99 and under.

Keep meal times in mind while inside the park too. Breakfast and lunch are cheaper times to eat at table service restaurants like Be Our Guest and Cinderella’s Royal Table. Even character meals, such as the princess-filled Akershus Royal Banquet Hall, are cheaper earlier in the day.

Bonus tip: Pack a few snacks so you’re not tempted by all those delicious-yet-pricey theme park treats.  This is especially true if you’re traveling with kiddos.

Save on Souvenirs

At Disney World, SeaWorld, and Universal Orlando Resort, you’ll be bombarded with things to buy. Give yourself time to shop around and make smart shopping choices—no impulse spending allowed! Do yourself a favor and pack Disney-inspired gear too. Every little girl wants to dress up like a princess while at the Magic Kingdom. Having her princess dress with you will save a bundle. Wearing a favorite superhero shirt at Universal’s Orlando or a classic Mickey Mouse tee will make kids (and adults) feel a part of the crowd. Buy one online or at stores like Target and Wal-Mart to save before you go.

Want one more hint to save on souvenirs?  Make your own autograph book (or buy one online for about $7.95) to collect signatures from characters throughout the parks.  Kids of all ages get ear-to-ear grins when they meet their favorite character and score their signature, making it a low-cost way to make sweet memories!

Pack Your Own Stroller

It doesn’t matter if your kid hardly ever uses it anymore; pack your own stroller. They will get tired of walking and super cranky. The stroller will be a lifesaver—especially if it’s a double stroller since you’ve got extra storage capacity. At an average cost of $15 per day to rent a single stroller and $30 for a double, using your own stroller will save a lot. If you don’t think you’ll use the stroller all the time, don’t worry. You can park it at one of the many, many stroller lots and come back for it later. There must be something truly magical about Orlando theme parks as I’ve never had anything stolen before, so it’s not much of a gamble to leave it behind. If you’re really worried, bring a bike lock.

Ashley Dickey is Reserve Orlando's travel expert, visiting Orlando to find the best travel tips, money-saving deals and insider information. With over 10 years of experience in first-hand-travel adventures, she shares her stories, advice, and current events to help you stay in the know.

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