How to do Orlando on a budget

What's often a dream holiday for many, a visit to see Mickey and Minnie in Orlando doesn't come cheap... or does it? We reveal how to hit Florida's top destination without breaking the bank.

Orlando offers so much in the way of family fun. Once you've had your fill of cuddly Disney characters, rip-roaring roller coasters, fantastical film sets and slippery slides, there are top-class themed hotels, unique dining options, unrivalled shopping and beaches where you can enjoy the long hot summers and mild winters.

It’s no wonder around 75 million visitors flock to Orlando every year – however a week's holiday to the Theme Park Capital of the World can set a family of four back around £10,000.

But fear not, there are many ways in which you can make a dream holiday in central Florida more affordable.

In the words of one of Disney’s most famous villains, the key to saving money in the Sunshine State is to “be prepared”, so here are 10 areas in which you can make your dollars go further.

1. Perfect timing

The best (and cheapest) times to visit Florida are in the spring and autumn months, when the weather is slightly cooler and there are few crowds. If you do have to travel in August, aim for the latter half of the month, when a lot of American children are back at school.

Midweek flights are often less expensive, while bargain last-minute deals are becoming rarer, so seek out early booking special offers instead. From the UK, TUI flies into Orlando Sanford (SFB), while Orlando International (MCO) is reserved for Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Norwegian Air. Although Sanford is a smaller airport, flights here are cheaper, and it can be quicker to get through customs and security. If you are content with a road trip, Orlando is a three-hour drive from Jacksonville, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Miami – but weigh up the rising cost of fuel and car hire.

Orlando International airport (Image: VIAVAL TOURS/Shutterstock)VIAVAL TOURS/Shutterstock

2. Take the high road

As long as you have the correct car for the number of passengers and luggage, do you really need a big expensive gas-guzzler? Shop around and search for discount codes or cashback offers with car companies, and don’t get ripped off by agents trying to upsell.

You will inevitably hit toll roads during your holiday, so have coins ready or be prepared to pay an additional bill when you hand the vehicle back. Those with young kids should take their own car seats and buggies, and if you are staying at a Disney resort, you may not need a hire car as they provide free transfers from MCO. 

The cost of parking (between $25-30 per day at the big parks) is a bugbear in Orlando, so consider using Uber or Lyft, as well as the free shuttle and public buses. If you’re just visiting a Disney park for the fireworks, then go after 8pm when the car park payment booths are closed. At Universal, parking is free after 6pm.

Fireworks at Disney World (Image: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

3. Room with a view

Not only are villas a more budget-friendly option, you’ll have lots of space, plus the benefits of a pool to relax in after a long day at the theme parks. If you’d rather stay in a hotel, you’ll find the best rates closer to Disney and SeaWorld, rather than Universal. Staying on International Drive is a good bet for cheap hotels.

If you have a big family, consider a condo apartment to avoid booking multiple rooms. Sonesta Es Suites ticks most boxes – it is reasonably priced and within walking distance of the restaurants and bars. 

Holiday villa (Image: moreimages/Shutterstock)moreimages/Shutterstock

Many families don’t make the most of their hotels or villas, but a day by the pool, an afternoon barbecue or a movie night can be good fun, as well as saving you a few dollars. You can also cook your own food or order a takeaway.  

READ MORE: How to save money on multi-destination visits to the USA

4. Parklife

Organise theme park tickets ahead of your trip and compare packages – an all-in-one pass might not be as good value as you first think. Plus, if you’re going to be at one park from morning until night, the Park Hopper option can be a waste of $25-33 per ticket. If you do need to buy tickets in Orlando, Undercover Tourist is a good site.

No one likes queuing, and the best way to get the most out of your days is by purchasing Lightning Lanes (Disney), Express Passes (Universal) and Quick Queues (SeaWorld). Time is money, after all. Disney and Universal provide lockers free of charge (for now) for those riding the roller coasters. At SeaWorld, they cost $2 per go, so the $7 for an all-day rental ($10 for a large one) is a good shout. The lockers at water parks vary in price, but unless someone is happy to sit and watch your belongings, this cost can’t be avoided. 

SeaWorld ride (Image: SeaWorld)SeaWorld

5. Preparation is key

Planning a trip to Orlando can feel like a military operation, but the preparation will pay off. Among the things to buy and pack before you go are plastic ponchos, which are £1 in the UK, but can set you back $10 in the parks. Plus, fans, water sprayers, light wands and autograph books are a quarter of the price online compared to Disney World.

If you’re planning on wearing character T-shirts, purchase them before you go, or head to Super Target, which stocks a range of Disney, Marvel and Harry Potter merchandise. You can get by without having any dollar bills on you in Orlando, and a good tip is to load your money onto a credit card that will give you points or cash back. Also look around for rewards on spending at the parks. 

READ MORE: 7 ways to avoid paying too much for your holiday

6. Food for thought

Although you may not feel like it after an eight-hour flight, it’s worth heading straight to the supermarket for supplies. You can get 24 bottles of spring water from Publix for around $3-4, which is less than a single bottle in Disney or Universal, who also have water fountains dotted around their parks. You are also allowed to take food and non-alcoholic drinks in, so fill a backpack with snacks like cereal bars, nuts and crisps, and make sure you have breakfast at your digs – many hotel rooms have a fridge to store milk so have some cereal and save on pricey breakfasts.

Avoid expensive character meals and don’t go for the dining plans ($60 per day), if you don’t tend to eat a lot. Away from the parks, many restaurants have Happy Hours – check out Bahama Breeze and Applebee's. Finally, portions in America are infamously huge, so don’t order multiple courses.

7. It’s a Small World

Away from Orlando’s ‘Big Three’ theme park resorts, the city has plenty of other smaller attractions that are much cheaper and can be just as fun. Legoland Florida has more than 50 rides, attractions and shows, plus dozens of displays. You can get up close to alligators at Gatorland and go on a safari at Wild Florida. These and other parks give you the chance to meet local people and experience some good old-fashioned southern hospitality, which is refreshing in between the big commercial attractions.

Gatorland (Image: Gatorland)Gatorland

If you’re keen on seeing more of the city of Orlando, then an Explorer Pass allows you to visit three or five popular attractions, including the Orlando Eye, Madame Tussauds Celebrity Wax Museum, Gatorland, Fun Spot America Theme Park, SEA Life Aquarium, Boggy Creek Airboat Tour and Ripley’s Believe it or Not!

READ MORE: Orlando beyond the theme parks

8. Shop ’til you drop

Gone are the days when you could pick up a suitcase full of shopping bargains on a trip to the States. That said, Florida has one of the lowest sales taxes in the US, and if you are on the lookout for cheap apparel, you can still pick up inexpensive items. The top brands for savings are American labels such like The North Face, Converse and Levi’s and the best place to seek them out is at the Orlando Premium Outlets off International Drive.

Disney’s Character Warehouse is a great place for cheap merch and souvenirs. And if you’re not hiring a car, some of the outlets run free shuttle services. Finally, give your children an allowance for souvenirs and keep telling them once their money is gone, it's gone.

9. A bit of free advice

Believe it or not, there are plenty of free things to do in Orlando. At Disney Springs, there are over 70 unique shopping, dining and entertainment options, including LEGO Imagination Center, World of Disney (the world’s largest Disney store) and Cirque du Soleil. One of the best free experiences is finding a bench from where you can listen to the musicians outside the House Of Blues.

Exploring the Disney World Resorts can also be great fun if you hop on board the Skyliner cable cars or Monorail. Also worth a visit is Celebration, the beautiful town built by the Disney company with tree-lined streets, welcoming shops and restaurants. Over at Universal, CityWalk has its own shopping, restaurants and nightlife. And finally, at ICON Park on International Drive, you can listen to live music as you gaze at The Wheel. Amazingly, the parking garage there is free.

ICON Park Wheel (Image: ICON Park)ICON Park

10. Tech this out

We all have smartphones with state-of-the-art cameras these days. So, rather than purchasing the professional photos or buying a Photo Pass, why not ask someone to take a snap of you for free? Also, use the free Instagram walls in the parks to brighten up your social-media feed. 

Many of us have experienced high mobile phone bills after a holiday. Although you may need to have roaming switched on for maps and navigation purposes, one device between the full group should be suffice. For everyone else, there is plentiful Wi-Fi around Orlando, and if you log into the network in the main parks, you will have intermittent access all day. 

And one more thing…

If you are celebrating a birthday or special occasion, don’t be afraid to tell everyone about it. Go to guest services in Disney to get a free badge, make the hotel aware and you may get a free gift left in your room. Mention it in the restaurant and you could be treated to a free dessert too. Get all the freebies you can!

Lead image: VIAVAL TOURS/Shutterstock

READ MORE: How to do Vegas on a budget


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