LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida - Disney World has been on our kids' minds this year, but it wasn't in our family budget.
What's a parent to do?
With a disciplined approach to the Big Three expense categories - food, lodging and admission fees - it's possible to "do Disney" without piling up bills that are scarier than The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride.
AP file photo
Fireworks blasted and celebrants threw their mouse ears in the air as Florida’s Disney World joined other locations celebrating the Disney Global 50th Anniversary in 2005.
With a little extra effort and planning, you can even avoid a lot of the killer extras. If the economic meltdown has a silver lining, it's evident in the deals to be found in resort areas like Orlando.
"It's a great time to go," says Bob Sehlinger, author of "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World," which is not affiliated with the resort.
Read no farther if your Disney vacation musts include first-class meals, brand-name Mickey and Minnie souvenirs and staying in the closest hotel to the monorail. This article is for penny-pinchers only.
Lodging: Sehlinger's advice on this count is simple: "You're always going to save a lot of money if you stay in a non-Disney property outside of Disney World."
The slow economy has yielded hotel discounts galore, listed on Web sites like www.roomsaver.com. Our family of four booked five nights in a sprawling two-bedroom suite at a beautiful new resort for just over $500.
Fabulous private homes, often with pools and amenities like home theaters, are available at tempting prices. Many are owned by foreigners who turn them over to management companies when they're not around. Sites like www.allstarvacationhomes.com and www.vrbo.com are helpful guides.
If you want to stay at one of the more than 20 Disney owned-and-operated resorts - with perks such as extended theme park hours, free parking, free airport shuttle and free luggage delivery service - a handful fall into the "value" category, right down to pitching a tent at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground for $43 a night.
For most stays between Aug. 16 and Oct. 3, certain Disney resorts are offering a free Disney Dining Plan when you buy a five-night room and theme park package. (The package has to be booked by June 21.) To find the latest deals, go to disneyworld.disney.go.com/ and click on the "special offers" tab.
Food: Book a private home or a suite with a kitchen, to avoid paying amusement-park prices. Even a cooler in your hotel room or the mini-fridge at a discount hotel can work wonders cutting breakfast and lunch costs.
The bottom line from Sehlinger: "The more meals that you eat outside of Disney World, the better off you're going to be."
Eat breakfast in your room, or snag a hotel deal that includes a continental breakfast. Head into the theme park with a backpack stuffed with snacks, sandwiches and drinks, and you're good till dinner. This also has the side benefit of allowing you to avoid those snaking food lines.
At dinner time, there are plenty of offsite restaurants to explore. If you're paying the $12 a day parking fee, you can leave and come back without additional charge.
If you do opt to eat at the theme parks, a range of restaurants run the pricing gamut. Sehlinger says the portions are often generous enough to share.
Admissions: This is the toughest nut to crack: Nominal discounts are typically the best you can hope for on admission fees. One tip is to go on someone's birthday. You get in free on your birthday throughout 2009.
Disney offers all sorts of ticket options - 1- to 10-day passes, no-expiration upgrades, annual passes, etc. Don't buy more than you need. In general, the longer you stay, the cheaper the tickets.