How To Do Disney World For Free (Or Very Little Money)
Growing Up in a Disney Family
My dad has two big sisters. One has her name inscribed on a cobblestone in front of the Magic Kingdom. The other has a time share in the Disney Vacation Club. I'm pretty sure they both have annual passes to Walt Disney World. When it comes to Disney, they know EVERYTHING.
I have been to Disney World more times than probably most of my friends combined. But the thing is, just because I'm staying in Disney World, doesn't mean I'm going into the parks. Most of the time, we don't go into the parks. The tickets have literally doubled in price since the first time I can remember going to Disney, and it's not cheap.
I love Disney, and sometimes I would totally dish out the money to go in the park. But here's the thing...once you've crossed under the threshold of the "Welcome to Walt Disney World Resort" sign, you have entered a magic kingdom, where anything can be yours. Well...at least, you are entitled to take advantage of all the magic Disney has to offer.
Let me give you some examples.
The monorail is one of my favorite things in Disney World. When I was a little kid, I thought it was so cool that you could get on a ride at Disney without even going into the parks. Actually, I still think it's cool! Tired of walking in the hot sun? Hop on the monorail.
There are three monorail lines through Disney World, all of which can be accessed at the Transportation Station near the Magic Kingdom. From there you can board an express monorail, which will take you straight to the Magic Kingdom and back, zipping through the Contemporary Resort on the way. Not the monorail you want to be on if you are actually trying to end up at the resort.
But no worries, you can just jump off at the Magic Kingdom and skip across to the monorail on the other side and it will take you right back where you want to go. The resort monorail goes from the Magic Kingdom to the Contemporary Resort, the Polynesian Resort, and the Grand Floridian Resort, before circling back around the lake to the Magic Kingdom. It is a beautiful ride at sunset.
Riding the Rails
My family loves to ride the monorail to each of the three resorts and explore the different lobbies. When Disney decorates, they go all out. At the Polynesian Resort, you feel like you are in a jungle. At the Contemporary, in a modern art museum. At the Grand Floridian, you feel you are of the highest class, a member of high Victorian society, with servants and waiters at your beck and call.
Even the pools are decked out, and it's fun to just walk around the different hotels and enjoy the scenery.
And while we're at it, we take our collection of Disney pins to trade. You can get a starter set of pins for a pretty affordable price, and then you can trade any of them for any pins found on a Disney staff member or on a resort's "pin board." Just go to the desk and ask to see their pin board. It's fun and free, as long as you have some pins.
My parents like to pretend that they are guests in the Grand Floridian, so they take their trusty Disney mugs, fill them up in the restaurant, and chill in the lobby. What's that? What is a trusty Disney mug, and how can I get one? I'm glad you asked.
It used to be, one could purchase a Disney mug at the start of their vacation, and use that for the rest of their time there, filling it up in the food courts at any resort on Disney property.
Times have changed, but you can still make great use of your Disney mug. They are now equipped with a microchip in the bottom of the cup that needs to be activated in order for the pop (or as most of you call it, soda) machines to work. You can pay for one day, two days, or the whole trip. Then, instead of buying a new one on your next vacation, you can bring back this cup and reactivate it.
You do have to pay to activate the mug. But once you have, the world is yours. Meaning you can be like my parents and take your fancy schmancy mug to the lobby of a fancy schmancy resort and pretend you are staying there. Or you can just travel around to enjoy the different atmospheres, and when you get thirsty on your venture, fill up your mug. It's not free, but it is a pretty frugal way to get the most out of Disney.
Alternative Modes of Transportation: The Disney Boats
After exploring the resorts along the monorail route, there are many more to be discovered by riding the boats around the Disney waterways. Especially nice on those hot Florida days, a breezy ride around the water may be just the thing to take a load off your feet and help you regain your energy. Trust me, I know how draining vacation can be.
If you take the monorail back to the Contemporary Resort, there is a dock there with boats that travel between the Contemporary, the Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness. The Wilderness Lodge is an especially neat place to explore because every hour, "Old Faithful," a geyser imitating the one in Yellowstone National Park shoots off.
There are other lakes and other boats for explorers to discover. Any resort that's located on the water should have boat transportation. And to get to different resorts not accessible by your current boat, take a bus to any theme park gate or Downtown Disney, and take another bus to the resort to which you are trying to get.
Back to the Future
Back on the monorail, don't forget that this futuristic train travels right through the heart of the experimental prototype community of tomorrow. Better known as EPCOT. The ride offers great views of the park during the day, but for the best experience, ride it at night.
About 9:00 every night, there are firework shows across the kingdoms. If you are in the right spot at the right time, you can get a great view of these shows without paying a dime.
One of my favorite Disney memories is riding the Epcot monorail through the park right as the grand finale of their firework show was lighting up the sky. I only saw the lasers and sparks for a moment, but it was a magical moment. Seriously.
So keep track of your time, and board the Epcot monorail (which you can find at the Transportation Station) just before 9:00. Keep riding until you have seen one of the most incredible firework shows ever explode in your window.
Fireworks can also be viewed from the monorails around the Magic Kingdom, but if you want to stand in one place (and perhaps hear the sound of soft waves lapping against the sand while you watch), stop at one of the resorts near the Magic Kingdom. The fireworks are huge, and can be seen from all around the area.
I watched a show from the poolside at the Contemporary Resort, on the opposite side of the Magic Kingdom. For an even better view, there is an observation deck outside of the fourth floor, by the monorail stop. Or relax on the beach at the Grand Floridian and look up. How romantic!
The Water Parade
Before the evening ends, any resort on the lakes around the Magic Kingdom are treated to another show of lights on the water. Little boats travel around to each different resort and light up, complete with fun Disney music.
Check with the concierge for specific times. It is different for each resort.
A Few More Things
It must have been a long day of exploring and firework watching. But if you're looking for a little night life (or if you get bored during the day), Disney has several options.
Downtown Disney is free to get into and has a section of shopping and dining and a section of entertainment. Of course, you'll have to spend money once you get there, but it's cheaper than going into a park, and there is still plenty to see without buying much.
If you're feeling nostalgic, what better place to spend the night than on Disney's Boardwalk? There are stores open there during the day, but at night it really lights up! Games, jugglers, food stands, and a dance hall.
The Happiest Place on Earth
It may be a tad expensive, but Disney World is supposedly the "happiest place on earth," and I couldn't agree more. Just being on Disney property brings out a childish spirit and a magical feeling in all of us! So plan a trip to Disney, and enjoy as much of it as you can, while paying as little as you have to.