Disney World and Disneyland parks and resorts have long been called, collectively, “the happiest place on earth.” But the joy of Disney parks comes with a large price tag — at the time of print, Disney World Orlando’s Standard Theme Park Ticket is priced at $109.00 per day.

Because of the expense — the park tickets, as well as airfare, accommodations, dining, and souvenirs — a trip to this place is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many. 

I long believed that was true in my case. My earliest memory is that of waking up in my car seat between my mother and grandmother. I was four, and my parents and grandparents were taking me to Disney World. That cherished memory was my once-in-a-lifetime chance. Or so I thought.

Disney World's Magic Kingdom castle
Disney World’s Magic Kingdom castle

Fast-forward nearly three decades. My husband and I spent a week with family in Orlando, Florida. As fellow thrifty travelers, they showed us how to soak up some of the magic on a budget.

Visit Disney Springs

Disney Springs is a shopping, dining, and entertainment district nestled alongside Typhoon Lagoon and several Disney resorts. You’ll find shops with Disney-themed merchandise, including park exclusives. But Disney Springs is also so much more than that. In true Disney style, Disney Springs is an immersive experience. As you leave the parking garage, you may think you’re walking the streets of a seaside Italian village, especially if the sun is sinking low over the horizon. Walking on, you may find yourself at a classic Irish pub, a Louisiana bayou, or a Singapore food centre.

Disney Springs. Photo: Cara Siera
Disney Springs. Photo: Cara Siera

Parking and entry to Disney Springs are both completely FREE. Free live entertainment takes place daily. At the AdventHealth Waterside Stage, I’ve watched ballet and gymnastics competitions and danced to fantastic cover bands that rival ticketed concerts. Ragland Road often features Celtic music or Irish step dancing performances. Musicians of various styles frequently perform in the courtyard outside the AMC movie theater. 

Disney Springs can be a gateway to other free Disney experiences, and there are also a number of complimentary souvenirs you can pick up in at the destination.

Use Disney Transportation

Walt Disney World Resort has a free and efficient transportation system linking its properties. Park for free in the Disney Springs Lime, Orange, or Grapefruit garages, then head on down to the bus station. Select a bus to take you to the Disney resort of your choice.

Epcot Friendship Boat. Photo: Cara Siera
Epcot Friendship Boat. Photo: Cara Siera

Some properties are connected by truly unique transportation options that can be considered attractions in themselves. At the northeast tip of Disney Springs, you’ll find a highly trafficked boat dock. The captains are ready to take you on the twenty-minute ride to Port Orleans Resort. Some captains enjoy acting as tour guides, pointing out interesting sights such as the Treehouse Villas.

Take a bus to Disney’s Riviera Resort, and you can ride the Disney Skyliner aerial gondolas to Epcot. Once there, take a spin on the famous Monorail — you’ll have to go through security to board, but you can do so without actually entering the park. Finally, take a Friendship Boat from Epcot to Disney’s BoardWalk. The BoardWalk is like a smaller version of Disney Springs.

Tour Disney Resorts

Staying at Disney resorts is pricey, but you can enjoy some of their unique features or restaurants as a visitor. Here are some of my personal favorites:

Beignets at Port Orleans. Photo: Cara Siera
Beignets at Port Orleans. Photo: Cara Siera
  • Take the boat to Port Orleans Resort and enjoy Mickey Mouse-shaped beignets (fried doughnut-like pastries dusted with powdered sugar and dipped in a rich chocolate sauce) from Scat Cat’s Club, which features live jazz on select nights.
  • Visit the Animal Kingdom Lodge and head out back for a miniature safari, where you can view giraffes, zebras, and other grazing African herbivores. Inside, you can catch interactive presentations of African art, music, and culture.
  • Enjoy one of the free weekly drawing classes at the Art of Animation Resort.
  • Giraffe at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Photo: Cara Siera
  • Zebra and another herbivor at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Photo: Cara Siera

Collect Free Souvenirs

When you arrive at Disney Springs, head to the Disney Springs Welcome Center and ask for a Celebration Button. You can get a button for your first visit to Disney, wedding and anniversary visits, or customized to reflect whatever event you’re celebrating.

A number of shops within Disney Springs offer free items, including:

  • A free necklace from Luxury of Time
  • Samples of honey and cosmetics at Savannah Bee Company
  • Chocolate samples at the Ghiradelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop
  • A free keychain from the Lego Store when you sign up for a free Lego VIP account

When using Disney transportation services, ask the captains or conductors for transportation trading cards.

Savanah Bee Company. Photo: Cara Siera
Savanah Bee Company. Photo: Cara Siera

If you visit one of the parks, ask about free activity books for kids. For example, you can get a Lion King-themed scavenger hunt guide inside the Animal Kingdom or a guidebook to all the creatures of Star Wars at Galaxy’s Edge.

If you have kids or are a kid at heart, you may also buy some “souvenirs” in advance. For example, I purchased a gently used pair of Minnie Mouse ears, new with tags, for half the price on eBay prior to our most recent trip. Disney t-shirts and toys are available online and at various external retailers (such as Walmart or H&M) for a fraction of the price.

Disney Celebration Buttons. Photo: Cara Siera
Disney Celebration Buttons. Photo: Cara Siera

Enjoy the Fireworks

Epcot hosts a spectacular 20-minute fireworks event nightly. Amazingly, you don’t have to be on park grounds to see it.

  • Some of the rooms — including a top-floor display room that always remains open — at Wyndham Grand Orland Resort Bonnet Creek offer views of the fireworks. Every evening, the display room is crowded with resort guests eager to watch.
  • If you time your departure just right, you can view the fireworks from the Skyliner gondolas between Epcot and Riviera Resort. 

If you’re staying in the vicinity, ask about viewing locations at your hotel or resort.

Disney Skyliner. Photo: Cara Siera
Disney Skyliner. Photo: Cara Siera

Best Deals on Dining

Food at Disney is notoriously expensive. We like to cook at our accommodations and bring snacks along during the day, but we’ve found these restaurants at Disney Springs to be both delightful and affordable.

  • The “Create Your Own” pizza at Blaze Pizza costs about $10 and feeds two — it’s also my favorite meal in Orlando. The restaurant accepts in-app deals.
  • The “Fish and Chips One and One” at Cookes of Dublin can feed two and costs about $15.
  • Sandwiches from Earl of Sandwich range from $7.49 to $8.99. Might I suggest the “Holiday Turkey,” featuring cornbread stuffing and cranberry sauce?
  • Starbucks accepts stars and other in-app rewards.

Most restaurants on the property also accept Disney gift cards. 

Qualify for Free Tickets

Is it possible to get free tickets to Disney World? Yes, under certain circumstances.

Coverband Epic performing at Disney Springs. Photo: Cara Siera
Coverband Epic performing at Disney Springs. Photo: Cara Siera
  • Timeshares may offer free or discounted tickets in exchange for attendance at their presentations. Childcare may be available during the presentation.
  • Journalists can request two complimentary media relations tickets per 12-month period (note that this was suspended in summer 2020 due to pandemic-related occupancy restrictions).

You can also use Disney-branded credit card points or cashback rewards from any credit card to purchase tickets.

You can make the most of each day at the park by using the free My Disney Experience App to plan your day.