Everyone who has visited Orlando knows that Walt Disney World is all about the magic; the kind of magic that puts smiles on children's faces, and that makes money vanish from their parents' pockets. Between parking, park tickets, snacks, and souvenirs, meeting Mickey Mouse can cost you sizable chunk of cheese.
There's no way around some of the expenses associated with an Orlando trip, but there are little-known freebies around Walt Disney World that can help you save a few bucks. Believe it or not, Disney does actually give some things away for free! You just have to know the right places to look.
One word of warning: never try to save by buying deeply discounted park tickets from unauthorized off-property brokers. Some unscrupulous vendors try to resell partially used passes for "too good to be true" prices. If you buy one, you may be refused admission at the turnstiles, so don't take the risk.
Unless you have an annual pass or are staying at a Disney-owned hotel, parking at the theme parks costs $14 per day, which adds up quickly over a multi-day visit.
If you are visiting Epcot or Disney's Hollywood Studios, you can park at the Boardwalk hotel and walk (or take a Friendship boat) to either park. To get to the Magic Kingdom, you can park at the Contemporary Resort and walk to the gate. There is no easy way to park for free at Disney's Animal Kingdom, but you can park at the Animal Kingdom Lodge and take a bus to the park from there. Note that you'll need to show ID to the parking attendant (tell them you want to eat at the hotel), and that you may be refused entry during busy seasons or in the early morning; this trick works best for afternoon and evening visits.
Free busses are also available at Downtown Disney, but they only go direct to the hotels, making the journey to the theme parks from there more trouble than it's worth. And parking at Disney's water parks and mini-golf courses is always free.
The African animals seen on the Kilimanjaro Safaris are so awe-inspiring that you'll just want to stop the ride and stay staring at them. Some people pay big bucks to do just that, taking the extra-charge Wild Africa Trek or by staying in savannah-view rooms at the Animal Kingdom Lodge.
You can get a taste of that luxury experience without the expense. Just stop by the Animal Kingdom Lodge, cut straight through the spectacular lobby, and head out the back door. Behind a rocky outcropping you'll find an observation area ideal for eavesdropping on the giraffe, gazelles, geese, and other grazing creatures. As night falls, guides provide night vision goggles to give you an entirely different perspective on the wildlife's nocturnal activities.
Before departing, sit for a moment by the blazing campfire, and check out the exquisite cultural artifacts (like an enormous ritual headdress) found in the lobby.
Theme parks, which get the sweetened syrup that makes soda for pennies, make enormous profits selling the sugary stuff to thirsty tourists. So you certainly wouldn't expect them to give it away for free. Surprisingly, free soda is exactly what you'll find in Club Cool, a Coca-Cola sponsored exhibit at Epcot. Often overlooked in the rush to ride Soarin' or Test Track, Club Cool is a small pavilion near FutureWorld's central fountain that sells Coke-branded merchandise and frozen slushies in souvenir cups.
But the bargain-hunter's reason to hit Club Cool is the cluster of free drink dispensers, offering a half-dozen varieties of sodas. There are two catches, however. First, the complimentary cups are shot glass-sized samples, so you can't fill up your 48oz Big Gulp gratis. Second, there are no familiar domestic drinks like Sprite or Diet Coke on tap; in keeping with Epcot's international theme, all the brands offered hail from exotic corners of the soda-consuming world.
The real fun here is trying all the unfamiliar flavors, like Chinese watermelon soda, German orange cola, Israeli lemonade, and a Mexican apple drink. For a great practical joke, try tricking someone into trying the Beverly -- a bitter Italian aperitif -- buy telling them how tasty it is. The sour look on their face after the drink it will be worth the price of your park admission!
Free Collectible Cards
Part of the "NextGen" initiative that Disney has been busy spending big bucks on are interactive experiences designed to keep guests entertained while they wait to ride their next big attraction. One of the first examples to come on line was Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, a scavenger-hunt style game that utilizes projection screen cleverly concealed within building facades and windows around the Magic Kingdom.
Participants quest to aid Merlin (the wizard from The Sword in the Stone) in reclaiming the lost shards of a magical crystal that could give Disney's dastardly villains (including Ursula, Hades, and Cruella de Ville) the power to commandeer Mickey's kingdom. A treasure map leads players to secret spots around the park, where they challenge the baddies to wizardly duels by flashing playing cards imprinted with Disney heroes at hidden image recognition cameras. Show the correct card, and you'll receive a clue to your next destination.
The best part of the game is that the collectible cards used to play are available for free to every guest. Stop by either the firehouse on Main Street USA or the booth behind the Christmas shop in Liberty Square (usually the less crowded choice) and show your park admission. You'll get a starter pack of randomly selected playing cards, a map, and the identification keycard you'll use to track your progress. Each day you visit the Magic Kingdom, every member of your party can get another pack of cards for free. Collect them all, or trade with fellow players around the park.
Walt Disney World's day-ending grand finales are among the grandest in the business, and many consider Wishes the best of the best. This fireworks extravaganza, synchronized to heart-tugging Disney tunes and an irresistible original theme song, explodes nightly over Cinderella Castle, and is only exceeded by its seasonal siblings HalloWishes and Holiday Wishes.
Few guests know that you can get a great (if distant) view of the nightly festivities without paying for a park ticket. Just park at the Polynesian Resort and head past the swimming pool to the beach. There, you'll find a stretch of sand and beach chairs with a perfect vantage towards the castle across the lake. There are even speakers hidden around the area that pipe in the park audio once the show starts.
If you're early, stop in nearby Captain Cook's for a self-serve swirl of Dole Whip, the same beloved frozen citrus treat formerly found only in Adventureland. And stick around after the fireworks for the Electrical Water Pageant, a flotilla of boats festooned with colorful lights that blink in sync to a vintage synthesizer soundtrack. The charmingly mod display makes its way around the lake nightly, beginning at the Polynesian around 9pm (depending on when the fireworks start).
Free fireworks from the Poly, perhaps combined with a joyride on the monorail (also free) make for a great first-night activity upon arriving in Orlando when you don't want to burn a full park admission on a half-day of touring.