The modern theme park experience is due to undergo some drastic changes in the coming years. Universal Studios is reportedly testing line-free attractions utilizing a bracelet that will allow visitors to spend time in adjacent entertainment areas until their place in line is called up; Disney plans on a sprawling Star Wars landscape that will feel very Westworld, with the ability to stroll around and interact with familiar characters.
While engineers continue to figure those evolutionary plans out, there are some low-tech ways you can enjoy a theme park sabbatical while saving some money. Check out these 10 ways to make an excursion to the major Disney destinations lighter on your wallet and easier on your patience. (While we reference Disney World, most of these should be applicable to Disneyland, as well.)
1. BRING YOUR OWN FOOD.
Yes, those Mickey-shaped ice cream bars are delicious—but like virtually everything else available for purchase inside the park, they come with a little bit of sticker shock. Ice cream sundaes with character souvenir bowls are $23, while most full meals at Disney are $20 and up. To keep your energy up, consider bringing your own snacks into the parks. Anything that doesn’t require heating is fair game, so long as you tell a Security Cast Member about your edible contraband when you enter. If you have a lot of food for a large family, you can even rent a locker so you don’t have to tote it around. (Bonus: Those lockers will also have charging stations for your phone.)
2. BRING A CHUNKY MARKER FOR CHARACTER AUTOGRAPHS.
One of the great pleasures of Disney World is encountering men and women in hot, stuffy costumes who will refuse to speak but wildly gesticulate. If you or your child wants a John Hancock from Donald Duck or Buzz Lightyear, you stand a better chance of something legible if you’re able to hand said character a chunky, oversized marker. Those are far easier to grip with their enormous gloves and make signatures a breeze.
3. GET THE PARK (PRACTICALLY) TO YOURSELF DURING “MAGIC HOURS.”
If you stay at one of Disney’s in-house resorts, you’re eligible to get access to one of the parks either an hour before or up to two hours after their normal operating hours. (Disney refers to them as "Extra Magic Hours.") You can follow their schedule by using a Disney-affiliated travel agent or by checking the official Disney World site.
4. GO IT ALONE.
Some rides—like Test Track, Ride Everest, and Rockin’ Roller Coaster—have single-rider lines that are separate from the regular group lines. Typically, single riders are a rare breed, so single-rider lines shouldn’t be deep at all. If you don’t mind breaking from your pack, you can squeeze in one of these attractions without any idle time.
5. DON’T RENT A DISNEY-BRANDED STROLLER.
At $15 a day, they’re expensive. Instead, look for nearby companies that offer rental strollers you can take into the park with you. This gets more economical if you plan on visiting the park for more than three days.
6. LET THE DISNEY PHOTOGRAPHERS TAKE YOUR PICTURE FOR FREE.
Disney’s PhotoPass service involves many professional photographers patrolling the grounds, ready and willing to take your family’s photo and then download the images to a kiosk where you can browse through them later. Purchasing those photos involves a fee, naturally—but those same pros will more than likely use your own camera or cell phone to snap a photo for free if you ask (politely, of course).
7. USE YOUR BABY TO GET YOU ON A RIDE WITH NO WAITING.
It’s called the Rider Switch, and it works like this: Adult A hangs out with the baby (who doesn’t meet the height requirement) while Adult B whoops it up. When Adult B returns, the baby can change hands and Adult A can hop on the ride with no wait time at all. Ask a Cast Member if the ride you’re considering offers it.
8. SAVE ON A MORE EXPENSIVE RESORT BY HOPPING OVER TO IT.
Some of Disney’s more expensive resorts might not be affordable if you’re going to be there for several nights. Fortunately, the park has a little bit of a workaround: If you stay at a less expensive resort the majority of the time, Disney will transfer your bags over to the fancier room should you elect to reserve it for just a night or two.
9. ARRANGE FOR A CHARACER WAKE-UP CALL.
Lines to meet characters in the park can be long, but you or your child can still hear their favorite characters right in your hotel room. Just ask the front desk for a character wake-up call, which will be a pre-recorded voice. Try putting it on speakerphone if you want the whole room to listen in.
10. PASS TIME BY SPOTTING THE HIDDEN MICKEYS.
Navigating the park and waiting in line—or waiting for family members who are waiting in line—can sometimes turn into a chore, especially with summer’s rays beating down. To help pass the time, you can try to spot one of the “Hidden Mickeys” sprinkled throughout the park. A Hidden Mickey is a Mickey graphic that blends into a building, display, or other structure. Trying to find one is fun, and one of the added pleasures of the park that’s absolutely free.