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Take in Disney World — on a budget

The most important part of budget travel to Disney World is advance planning. Research and book your transportation, accommodations, meal plans, character dining, and theme park tickets as far in advance as possible for maximum savings — and to make your visit more pleasant!
Cast members from \"A Toy Story\" dance wi
Cast members from "A Toy Story" dance with children during a parade through Walt Disney World earlier this year in Lake Buena Vista.Robert Sullivan / AFP/Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

The most important part of budget travel to Disney World is advance planning. Research and book your transportation, accommodations, meal plans, character dining, and theme park tickets as far in advance as possible for maximum savings — and to make your visit more pleasant!

Let's start with air travel to Orlando and hotel. Airfares and hotel rates are least expensive from mid-January through February and September to October. Spirit Air, JetBlue and AirTran have some of the cheapest flights, but it pays to research and compare. (You may also see a bump in demand and prices during President's Day week, when some school districts are closed.)

Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground accommodates everything from RVs to tents; rates start at $41 per night. The value resorts (Disney's Pop Century and Disney's All-Stars Movie, Music and Sports) have rooms as low as $82 a night, and the moderate resorts (Disney's Caribbean Beach, Coronado Springs, Port Orleans French Quarter and Riverside) have rooms starting at $145. (These prices are for what Disney calls its "value season," as opposed to peak season; the next value season begins Aug. 5 for those resorts and July 29 for the campground.)

One advantage to staying at a Disney property is access to extra Magic Hours. Each day, one of the parks opens early or stays open later for resort guests only.

Disney's Magic Your Way package runs less than $1,600 for a family of four staying six nights, seven days, at a value resort, and includes theme park tickets. For vacation packages, call 407-939-7675.

The Disney resorts also offer Disney's Magical Express, which consists of free roundtrip transportation from Orlando International Airport, with baggage delivery. Hotel guests can continue with free transportation by using Disney buses, ferries and the monorail system to visit theme and water parks, and Downtown Disney.

Another possibility is to use a search engine like to book a package of airfare, hotel and car rental, depending on your needs.

For military personnel (both active and retired) and their families, there is the Shades of Green resort on Disney property. Room rates are determined by military grade. Details at or 888-593-2242.

If you're staying at a Disney property and driving to the theme parks, Disney will waive the $10-a-day parking fee.

AAA members who book a Disney vacation package through the automobile club's travel service can receive a voucher for preferred parking in the "Diamond Lot" at Walt Disney World and can get discounts at certain hotels and restaurants. Details at .

If you're driving to Florida along the Eastern seaboard, Amtrak's Auto Train departs from Lorton, Va. (off Interstate 95 just south of Washington, D.C.) at 4 p.m. and arrives at Sanford, Fla., (less than a one-hour drive from Disney World on Interstate 4) the following morning at 8:30 a.m. The train ride includes dinner, a movie and snacks, and a continental breakfast. There's a 10 percent discount for AAA members and you can use American Express Rewards when booking your Auto Train reservation. Amtrak has frequent specials, including kids riding free. I've booked an Auto Train round trip (11 months in advance) package for a family of five and a vehicle for $585. For reservations, visit or call 800-872-7245.

Check out the dining plan when you stay at a Disney World Resort. You can save 40 percent per person when you purchase the Magic Your Way Package plus dining. The plan includes one table service meal, a quick service meal and a snack, per person for each night of your stay. To book, call 407-939-7500. Disney is offering a free dining plan with a stay at certain resorts, Sept. 2-Sept. 22; go to and search for "free dining plan."

Dining with a Disney character like Cinderella or Winnie the Pooh is one of the park's most popular experiences. Character dining can be booked up to 180 days in advance. The meals sell out, so make arrangements as soon as reservations become available.

To make the most of your day, ask for the earliest breakfast seating and choose a restaurant in a park where you want to spend the day. Or pick off-hours for the meals, like lunch at 11 a.m. or dinner at 5 p.m. Most visitors break for lunch at noon and dinner at 6 p.m., so when you're done with your meal, there will be fewer people on line for rides. Character meals are also all-you-can-eat, whether they are with table service or buffet-style. For reservations, call 407-939-3463.

Disney's ticket options can also be bundled in a variety of ways to suit your preferences and schedule. You can add a Park Hopper option for $45 a person that allows you to jump from park to park. A Water Park Fun & More option runs $50 a person. You can also buy a non-expiration option that lets you use unused days from your original ticket at a future time. For ticket information, call 407-939-1289.

If you plan more than one Disney visit within a 365-day period, it might be cheaper for to buy an annual pass — $434 for ages 10 and up, $382 for ages 3-9. For comparison, a three-day ticket for guests 10 and up with a Park Hopper option is $237. Passholders get free parking at theme parks and are eligible for periodic discounts at certain hotels.

You can also earn Disney Rewards with the Visa card from Chase. Everyday purchases can be redeemed for Disney hotels stays and theme park tickets. Log on to for more information.

Disney Vacation Club members receive additional discounts on dining, theme park tickets and tours, shopping and recreational rentals. Details at or 800-840-3708.

Florida residents receive significant discounts on theme park tickets and on select resorts at different times of the year. Visit or call 407-939-7429.

Finally, is not an official Disney site, but it compiles all sorts of helpful tips, news about discounts and deals, and a basic rundown of choices at Disney, along with links to other helpful Web sites and a list of frequently asked questions: . Deals recently featured on MouseSavers include an Orlando Entertainment Book for $9.99, with discounts on other area theme parks including Universal and SeaWorld, along with coupons for car rentals and restaurants.