A few weeks before our family left for a weeklong Disney World adventure, I posted a meme. It read, “Vacationing with kids is just parenting in another city.” Now, a couple of months removed from our Florida trip, I began thinking back on a few things I learned along the way. My hope is these theme park hacks might save you some money and frustration during your next family trip.
Maybe skip the rental car
Most of us are programmed to rent a car when we travel simply for convenience. We experienced multiple issues on our trip with two different rental car companies. One was literally the subject of a Seinfeld episode (holding the reservation is the most important part of a reservation!). Then there was the dead car battery four days into our vacation. And, finally, the dead key fob that resulted in us being stranded in a Disney World parking lot for three hours.
My main takeaway from these incidents: maybe we didn’t need a rental car at all.
We spent most days swimming at our resort or visiting with family staying at their nearby hotels. On the other days, we went from our resort to the theme parks and back. The rental was basically parked most of the day in an overpriced Disney lot for $25 to $50 a day. That’s on top of the rental car fee that included 10 different taxes and fees not to mention fluctuating gas prices and tolls. In contrast, an Uber from our hotel to the parks was $15 to 20 one way.
So for around $40 a day, we could have been hassle-free. And we would still have our neck pillows which were trapped in our dead car and then lost by the rental company.
Get the “fast pass”
If you are doing Disney or any theme park thing, just go all in. Buying the “fast pass” (or the park’s equivalent) is well worth the extra cost per ticket (the Walt Disney World Genie+ fast pass costs $15 per person). It allows you to skip waits for several rides throughout the day. We used ours to focus on the rides that usually have the longest lines. Then you can save your actual waiting for other less popular rides with shorter or more reasonable lines.
Buy souvenirs before you get there
I have three kids, and I knew they would want souvenirs at Disney. So, we hit up a nearby Target and let them go nuts (not too nuts but enough to be happy). They got a branded water bottle from the $1 section at the very front of the store and then I let each of them pick three T-shirts (one for each park we were visiting). Buying nine T-shirts with their favorite characters on them for under $12.99 each saved us a bundle when shirts at the parks were $20 and up.
Pro theme park hacks: We also promised we would buy them their own “laser swords” on Amazon so they would be less inclined to want to build their own light saber in the Star Wars park at $150 per person. Not to mention, the more bought when you travel, the more to figure out how to bring back home.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner add up quickly. One way to save is to stay at a hotel that includes a free hot breakfast. (“Hot” usually means a waffle maker and a tray of scrambled eggs versus cold cereal and fruit). For lunch, many parks let you bring food in, so we hit a supermarket for cold cuts and snacks.
If you want to splurge, save it for dinner. While we would have saved more by eating outside of Disney, having a reservation for one of the themed on-site restaurants proved a fun experience. It also offered a nice time to recharge since those restaurants tended to be less busy and crowded than the walk-up restaurants.
If your hotel room has a kitchen, making a simple meal for one or two nights can really save you. Think pasta or hot dogs.
Pro theme park hacks: Bring a refillable water bottle! Many parks today have water fountains or refill stations. For example, concession stands at Disney World let you refill with ice and water for free.
Remember to have fun
You’ll have spent a lot of money just getting to your destination. You’ll spend even more when you get there. But don’t get so caught up in what you have spent that you forget why you are there: to make good memories with your family.
Make sure not only that kids are having fun but also that they are not so tired by day’s end that they won’t want to ever go to another theme park. At Disney World, for example, the parks are huge, and for much of the year, Florida is hot. And, don’t forget, kids love to complain. Be ready for that and be adaptable because kids will be kids.
Pro theme park hacks: Take the opportunity to teach your kids a bit about the value of a dollar. When they ask for some overpriced trinket, see how much they still want it when you tell them to use their allowance. That’s how you raise a smart consumer.