There’s no way around it—upcharges have become a major pain in the wallet for families looking to visit Walt Disney World.
Free Fastpass+ is dead, replaced with Genie+ and Individual Attraction Access. Disney’s Magical Express is also dead, along with free MagicBands. It is admittedly getting harder to milk the most out of dollars spent at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, particularly for families on a budget.
What if you could upgrade your next vacation without an upcharge though?
Creativity, preparation, and a little old-fashioned know-how can go a long way if you want to add extra magic into a Disney parks vacation without going into crippling debt. Some of these tricks involve saving money so you can spend on the things you really value—others lean into a simple low-cost ideas that make for meaningful family memories. In either solution, here are eight ideas for how to upgrade your next Disney vacation without another upcharge…
1. Do your research
Time is often a currency more valuable than gold. Many families’ Disney budgets spin out of control for the simplest reason: a lack of research before your trip.
This is such a broad topic, we’ve dedicated entire series to it. A lack of research puts you entirely at the mercy of the Disney marketing machine. I love Disney parks, but Disney is foremost a business whose primary goal is to make money. It is to their benefit that you spend the most, visit during the busiest times, and find yourself repeatedly in situations that encourage impulse buys.
A little research can make a big difference: it can help you identify the best times of year to visit when crowds are lower, tickets are cheaper, and true sales are more easily found. From another angle, familiarizing yourself with the parks ahead of time can help you avoid pitfalls like spending your whole day in line or not knowing the best places for dining and rest breaks.
Even if you’re pinched for time, dedicating just a few minutes a day to get familiar with what experts say about Disney parks can make an incredible difference to upgrading your Disney experience by reducing stress and increasing the value of your time. You’ve already started this step by visiting us here at Theme Park Tourist. Embrace your inner Alice, start reading some guides and see where the rabbit hole leads.
2. Cut the fat (so you can splurge on the good stuff)
A substantial portion of many Disney budgets is eaten up by mundane things. These can be large issues like spending extra on tickets and lodging, or they can be the result of compounding costs from impulse buys like snacks for the kids, sodas, pretzels, bottled water, and popcorn.
You can often upgrade your trip simply by cutting some fat out of your vacation budget so you can redirect those funds to things that will be really special. We’ve written features about how to do this, but the basic requirement is simply to do some preparation and choose to direct your budget to special experiences that really stand out to you and are truly unique to Disney parks.
For example, don’t buy tickets at the park gate or assume Disney has the best deal—check sites like Undercover Tourist, AAA, or job benefit programs. You can also use a Target RedCard to buy Disney gift cards with 5% cashback, then use those gift cards to pay for tickets and lodging.
Minor changes make a big difference freeing up funds as well. Plan a grocery run to get some snacks to reduce impulse purchases if the family gets hungry. Make your own simple breakfast most mornings (if you really want to do a Disney breakfast, splurge on an excellent one like Kona Café). Get yourself a water bottle with a filter so you don’t need to buy bottled water in the park (or just get free water from anywhere with a soda fountain). You also can also save by purchasing high-demand items that Disney charges a premium for before your trip—things like ponchos, sunscreen, extra masks (if applicable), and even trading pins (you can find these online from reputable dealers).
By cutting excess from your budget, you can often make room to add special experiences only available at Walt Disney World, whether that be visiting a favorite restaurant, building a lightsaber, or buying a significant souvenir.
3. The Magic Backpack
The Magic Backpack (you can call it whatever you want) is a trick I once saw my mother use when we brought a five year old on her first Walt Disney World vacation, and I’ve been mesmerized by its genius for years.
Before your trip (or early in your trip) purchase a child’s backpack, ideally something Disney-themed. You’ll also need something to hide the stash meant to fill that backpack. Your goal is to be able to fill that backpack with all sorts of special things a kid may enjoy at Walt Disney World—ours included a Disney sippy cup, an autograph book and pen, a pin trading starter kit, coloring books, a stuffed animal, and other Disney treats.
On the first day of your trip (you can even start on the plane), give your kid the Magic Backpack and their first gift—something they can use immediately. Explain that as the trip goes along, more gifts will be revealed to fill the Magic Backpack, so long as they behave. At intervals throughout the trip, reveal more goodies for the Magic Backpack one at a time from your stash. These intervals will depend on your kid (once or twice a day may be enough). If they misbehave for a time, wait until the kid has leveled out before giving the next gift—the idea is for them to know a reward is waiting if they course correct and maintain a good attitude.
I absolutely loved this idea when I saw it. It’s also a great way to save a money on impulse buys due to to kids wanting everything they see in the parks. You will certainly want some sort of budget for souvenirs, but by being prepared with a few already in tow (almost certainly cheaper than what you’d find in the parks), you’ll both encourage good behavior and be able to direct that souvenir budget to something unique your child will really treasure.
4. Try Disneybounding / Batuu-bounding
If you’re a creative sort, you may enjoy dipping a toe into the fascinating world of Disneybounding / Batuu-bounding.
Disneybounding evolved as a fan-generated response to Disney’s restrictions on adult costumes—basically, no one over the age of 14 is allowed to wear a costume unless a Halloween event is going on (this is a safety measure to ensure children don’t confuse costumed guests as cast members). Fans figured out how to get around this by designing outfits inspired by popular Disney characters using vintage and modern clothing. The popular practice came to be called Disneybounding.
With the arrival of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Disney faced a unique puzzle: they wanted to make the land as immersive as possible, and Star Wars has a huge cosplay following, but they couldn’t just let guests go crazy with costumes. They chose to introduce special costuming rules for visiting Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge: guests can either Disneybound in outfits inspired by their favorite Star Wars characters or dress as a character of their own using creative clothing combinations that look like they belong in Star Wars. This option is sometimes called “Batuu-bounding” by fans, and it has opened the doors for some incredible creativity for fans visiting Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
There are still rules in place for both Disneybounding and Batuu-bounding, such as restrictions on masks, clothes that drag on the floor, extensive face-paint, or prop weapons, but Disney has been surprisingly flexible on what they will allow fans to do, so long as they don’t look like cast members. Both practices make for great photos and can be a lot of fun. In Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, dressing up a little can also act as a signal for cast members (who are all in character) to engage you in some in-world fun.
The great thing about both Disneybounding and Batuu-bounding is you can lean into it as far as you like—you can design a whole outfit or just do something simple like color coordinating your outfit or wearing neutral tones when visiting Galaxy’s Edge. I’ve even done it by accident before (on one trip, two different small children assumed I was Mary Poppins due to my hat, coat, and scarf). Give it a try!
5. Have a picnic in the parks
Not all Disney dining experiences require a restaurant reservation… as a matter of fact, families can make a bit of your own magic by planning a picnic in the parks.
While I’m not an advocate of skipping Disney dining entirely (the food really is part of the magic), Walt Disney World has some really great spots for a short picnic. Magic Kingdom takes the cake on these with both the firework-viewing greens in front of Cinderella Castle, as well as the picnic areas on Tom Sawyer Island. Epcot’s gardens, particularly the one in the Japan pavilion, are also ideal. Disney’s Animal Kingdom doesn’t have a lot of shade, but it does have a huge amount of space and plenty of out-of-the-way spots for a quick picnic. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is probably the hardest of the four to pull off this trick, but it does have plenty of picnic tables, particularly near Echo Lake.
A few important tips: keep your picnic simple. Guests are not allowed to bring large coolers (particularly those with wheels), so you’ll want to stick with a soft-sided cooler that is easy to carry (24x15x18” is the max). Alcohol is prohibited, as are glass containers, and loose or dry ice. Florida gets hot, so you’ll want to be careful not to rely on too many things that have to be kept cold (reusable ice packs are helpful in this regard). Also, consider picking up some sort of treat in the park to add a little Disney magic into your family picnic time.