Robert Sullivan  /  AFP/Getty Images
Those fireworks look just as spectacular whether you're being frugal or a spendthrift.
updated 9/30/2011 8:22:04 AM ET 2011-09-30T12:22:04

Planning an affordable family vacation to Walt Disney World is a challenging proposition for the frugal parent. The park is notoriously expensive. Tally the costs of park fees, restaurant meals, souvenirs, plane tickets, a rental car and other extras, and the total price of your Disney family vacation can seem downright exorbitant. Oh, and the kids will probably want to buy Mickey Mouse ears, too. What's a parent on a budget to do?

One of the best ways to put together an inexpensive Disney World vacation is by planning a trip during low season, which is generally fall and early winter (excluding holidays), when resort rates fall and Disney deals abound. But pulling the kids out of school in order to save on a Disney vacation isn't an option for every family. If you must visit the Mouse during spring break or summer, there are still plenty of ways to plan a frugal, yet fun, Disney family getaway.

Story: Disney World at 40: What hath Walt wrought?

1. Forgo Disney Resorts during peak season
There are 24 official Disney Resorts at the World, which lure families with the promise of the full "Disney experience." We're talking on-site character meals, Disney-themed decor and easy access to the park. Don't get us wrong — we love Disney Resorts. And, on occasion, it's possible to snag rooms at Disney Value Resorts like Disney's Pop Century Resort or Disney's All-Star Movie Resort for less than $100 per night, especially if you're traveling during the off season. But during peak season, rates rise significantly, and Disney Resorts might not offer as much value as a parent on a tight budget would like.

During peak season, look for a low-priced resort set farther afield from the park. And by farther afield, we're talking roughly one to six miles, which, really, isn't that remote. Sure, you might have to spend a few extra minutes on the shuttle, but your savings will certainly make up for it. Your kids can still partake in a character meal in the park or at any of the Disney Resorts, too. (You don't have to be a guest to eat there.) Plus, many of the budget resorts in the Orlando area offer Disney-themed activities and other alluring amenities on site, like Disney movie showings, kids' pools, and organized games and activities.

2. Share accommodations
Go halves with another family, the grandparents, uncles and aunts — you get the idea. There are plenty of resorts near Walt Disney World that cater to large groups with spacious suites or apartments that have multiple bedrooms. We found a two-bedroom, two-bathroom deluxe villa with a loft, which sleeps up to 10 people, for just $169 per night at Westgate Vacation Villas — and that's the price during peak summer season. Split the room with another group and you're paying just $84.50 per night for your family's stay. Westgate offers a whopping 13 outdoor pools, activities like shuffleboard and bike rentals, and a free shuttle to the main attraction: Walt Disney World.

3. Deals, deals, deals
Did we mention deals? Whatever you do, don't call the Disney hotline and book your trip without searching around for a good bargain. Spend some time researching Disney World deals on the Web. Offers from discounts on accommodations to meal plans to ticket packages pop up often, and frequently feature big savings for families planning visits to the park. But the key is to be flexible. We recommend planning well in advance and keeping your eyes open for the right deal before you set your travel dates. (Most deals have date restrictions that are pretty much set in stone.) Once you decide on your dates and book a flight, it'll be harder to find a decent Disney travel bargain that works for you.

4. Pack it, don't buy it
Like many touristy destinations, Orlando is awash with supermarkets, drug stores and specialty shops that price gouge. Don't be surprised to see bottle of sunscreen that costs $7.99 at your local Rite-Aid on sale for $15.99 in your hotel gift shop. And these little costs can really add up. Make sure you pack everything you and the kids are going to need for your trip, and you could save quite a bit of money.

5. Bring your own food and drinks to the park
Disney World is packed with great restaurants, from dinner theaters such as Disney's Spirit of Aloha Show to character dining options like Cinderella's Royal Table. But meals inside the park and at the resorts are usually rather expensive. (That Spirit of Aloha dinner show? Prices range from $29.99 to $67.99 per person.) You can bring snacks into the park, and empty water bottles to fill up at the water fountains. And, for an easy and affordable lunch, pack some food in a backpack, then store it in one of the lockers available to rent at the entrance to the park — Disney doesn't prevent anyone from bringing food into the parks. Dine on sandwiches, salads or whatever your family likes, for a fraction of the cost of purchasing the same inside the park.

6. Have your character meal during breakfast or lunch
Your child wants to dine on fare cooked by Chef Mickey — with the Mouse himself, of course — and you want to save money. The solution? Book your character meal early in the day for breakfast or lunch, and avoid the costly character dinner. Character meals, which are priced per person, can cost hundreds for a family of four or five. But you can cut costs by choosing the least expensive time to eat, which is generally breakfast or lunch. For example, at the Crystal Palace in Magic Kingdom, where Pooh poses for photo ops with families and food is served buffet style, breakfast and lunch prices range from $15 to $35.99 per person, whereas dinner prices range from $36 to $59.99 per person. Really want to save money on a character meet-and-greet? Pay attention to the daily schedule to find out when characters will be out and about at the park. You could meet Pinocchio on Main Street, Minnie in Adventureland and a princess near Cinderella's Castle.

7. Hold off on the Park Hopper
When buying your Disney World tickets, you have the option to purchase a Park Hopper, which provides access to multiple theme parks on the same day for which your ticket is valid. A standard ticket will give access to one theme park. But with a park hopper add-on, you can visit multiple parks — Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom — in one day. Add a Water Park Fun & More option, and gain access to your choice of water parks, such as Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach, in one day as well.

These add-ons look like a bargain. As of this writing, the Park Hopper costs $35 per person and the Water Park Fun option costs $55 per person on top of your ticket price. But watch out — your family might not even need admission to the extra parks. Each Disney Park is massive — and certainly has enough attractions to entertain a family for the span of a day. Are you really going to need to visit two or three parks within eight hours? Hold off on the Park Hopper and buy it when you get there if you decide you really need it. The cost will be the same whether you order the add-on online ahead of time or not (unless, of course, you're booking some kind of special deal).

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Photos: Walt Disney World at 40

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  1. 40 and fabulous

    Fireworks explode above Cinderella Castle as dancers and Disney characters perform while taping a segment of "Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade" at the Magic Kingdom on Dec. 3, 2010, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The 40th anniversary of the opening of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort will be celebrated in 2011. (Mark Ashman / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Star power

    Musical artist Yanni, right, plays the piano as the "Yanni Voices" perform an arrangement of "O Holy Night" at the Magic Kingdom on Dec. 3, 2009, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Yanni was taping a segment for the "Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade" holiday TV special. (Mark Ashman / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'I'm going to Disney World!'

    Tom Brady, quarterback of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots, signs autographs at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom on Feb. 2, 2004, one day after leading the Patriots to a 32-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers. (Gene Duncan / Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. The first 25 years

    First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to a crowd as Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner applauds Oct. 1, 1996, during the rededication of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World on the 25th anniversary its opening. (Tony Ranze / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Royal fun

    Prince William, right, grimaces after he and friends of the royal family finish their ride on Splash Mountain Aug. 26, 1993, at Disney World's Magic Kingdom. Harry Soames, left front, was the prince's companion on the three-day vacation. Other passengers are unidentified. (Bob Pearson / AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Celebrating two decades

    The 20th anniversary rededication ceremony of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in 1991 brought legions of Disney cast members onto Main Street, U.S.A. (Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A world-class welcome

    Roy O. Disney, brother of Walt Disney, is joined by the beloved Disney character that started it all, Mickey Mouse, in welcoming the first guests to the grand opening of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on Oct. 1, 1971. (Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cinderella's future home

    In 1971, a blue-spired castle -- destined to become one of the world's most-photographed buildings -- rose in central Florida as the iconic centerpiece of the Magic Kingdom, which opened on Oct. 1, 1971. In the 40 years since guests first strolled down Main Street, U.S.A., Walt Disney World Resort has blazed brave new entertainment trails based on its founder's fertile imagination and vision that the resort would forever continue to evolve. (Disney) Back to slideshow navigation
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