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Disney/Theme Parks: Doing Disney on a Discount

My three used to complain that they were the only kids on the block who hadn't visited Mickey and Minnie or whooshed down Space Mountain or watched as Indiana Jones dodged arrows and vehicles in flames at Disney-MGM Studios. Well complain no more! We finally made it to Walt Disney World in Florida. We watched belly dancers and marble statues come to life at Epcot, cruised through the head-hunters' "jungle" in the Magic Kingdom, and endured the hour-and-a-half wait to plunge down the State's third highest mountain in the dark (or at least some of us did).

What surprised me the most about our visit was not the length of the line-ups (we'd been warned) or the cleanliness of the parks (we'd been told). Certainly the Disney people must be the world's most skilled people-movers. It was the cost! Taking three kids for a few days of fun at Walt Disney World is akin to buying stocks through the bank. I was shocked at the amount families were forking over for admission tickets and bags of mouse ears.

Let's look at a family of five on a three-day stint. A Four-day Park-Hopper Pass so they can roam the three parks at will, would cost about $763 US (kids over nine pay adult prices while kids under three are free). Check into the conveniently located value-priced All-Star Resorts to take advantage of early entry (about $79 for a small room times three nights) and a rental car at the cheaper weekly rate (Northern offers a basic Chevy Cavalier for about $130 with a CAA discount) in order to avoid the $35 taxi fare and stay within the food budget by driving to fast-food joints just outside the park. Tack on meals: a ridiculously low $5 for breakfast and lunch and about $10 for dinner. Don't forget the airfare (we paid a discounted $360 plus tax) and $10 for a poster of Goofy in his bathing suit. That brings us to a total of about $3657 Can. for a three-day vacation and we haven't even had breakfast with Pluto for another $100, or had a blast at the newest water park, Blizzard Beach (about $160). Add one good meal at Tony's Town Square Restaurant where the dogs shared spaghetti in Lady and the Tramp and you've topped the $4000 mark. For this, one could send the kids to camp for the entire summer.

Thankfully, there are ways to do Disney for less. For instance, how many people know that there is a 700-acre campground right on the Disney property? This is a fabulous place for kids. With a petting farm, evening hayrides pulled by Percheron horses, bike paths, and even a white sand beach that looks as if it was trucked in from Jamaica, Fort Wilderness tempers the action-packed theme parks with a quiet time out. RVs can hookup for about $35; after September 1, there's a weekly rate of $196 US plus tax. If you're a family group of 20 or more, you can pitch tents in the meadow for $6 each. We rented a trailer home offering a fully-equipped kitchen, a living area with a pull-down double bed and a separate bedroom for the kids. It cost about $185 US each night with our CAA discount; no more than most Disney hotel rooms and much less if you've got six people and a baby. The kids enjoyed the folksy atmosphere, the corny jokes from the bus drivers, and the boat ride to the Magic Kingdom.

There are other ways to cut costs. You can't bring food into the parks, but by staying on-site, you can go through the gates one hour (or more on busy days) before other visitors and then go home for lunch and a time-out. Groceries can be purchased at the Fort Wilderness trading posts or at the larger Goodings Supermarket, open 24 hours across from the entrance to the WDW Village. You may save money by buying an annual pass. We met one Florida family who came to Disney almost every weekend and sang the praises of their pass. If you come from Canada only twice within 12 months and stay for four days, you've saved with the $236 US Theme Park Annual Pass.

If you've got preschoolers, a one day pass at the Magic Kingdom ($32.86 US for kids over 3) may be enough. According to Bob Sehlinger, author of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, 50 per cent of preschoolers are intimidated by Disney characters and 60 percent said their favorite attraction was the hotel swimming pool! Avoid long line-ups by visiting between September and American Thanksgiving, Disney's quietest time.

Other tips from parents include carrying water bottles to fill at the water fountains, renting a $5 stroller so that kids last longer, enjoying Blizzard Beach after 3 p.m. when there's a hefty discount, or bypassing it for the much cheaper and simpler River Country water park with its tire swing, rope climb, and swimming hole atmosphere. Eating with the Disney characters can cost a kid as much as $22. But check around. It's only $8 to see Mickey swim with the fish at the Coral Reef Restaurant in Epcot or $7 to share pancakes with Pluto and Goofy at the WDW Swan Garden Grove Cafe (Wednesday and Saturday, 8 to 11 a.m.) Eating and singing with chipmunks Chip and Dale is free at Fort Wilderness.

If you want a hat with Goofy ears or a Mouse shirt, try The Character Warehouse in Mall Two of the Belz Factory Outlet World on International Drive. Some souvenirs are half the price, although selection is limited. You probably won't find the wonderful Murano glass items we discovered at the Italian pavillion at Epcot.

Finally, consider dipping into Sehlinger's unofficial guide published by Macmillan Travel before you go. It's packed with such information as the attraction fright level for four-year-olds, which kid's program gets high fives from the fives (The Neverland Club at the Polynesian Hotel) and what day would be best for a six-year-old to ride in a teacup. But be warned. Because prices, opening hours, attraction renovations are constantly fluctuating, call (407) 934-7639 before heading off to pitch your tent and experience the magic of Mickey's domain.





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