When taxes are toted up, the cost of admission to an Orlando theme park-the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios Florida, Animal Kingdom, Disney-MGM Studios, or SeaWorld-now amounts to a surprising $48.76 per adult, for one day. Children pay $39.22. While you can reduce the pain a bit by purchasing a multiday ticket, the outlay remains sizable-and unavoidable. Consequently, it has never been more important for a cost-conscious visitor (especially a family) to reduce all the other costs of an Orlando stay-airfare, housing, meals, local transport, and evening entertainment-as much as possible. And that's where we come in. One of us is an actual resident of Orlando, the other a frequent visitor. Together, we've been storing up those cost-saving strategies and tactics for more years than we care to remember, and here's what we've learned:
Note: unless otherwise indicated, you'll need to dial 407 before all the numbers below (even when you're in the Orlando area itself).
1. Timing is everything
The low-cost Orlando off-season is more complex and scattered than in other tourist locales. Lowest visitor figures (and therefore lowest general prices) are in the several weeks just after Thanksgiving and immediately prior to Christmas. The period after Labor Day and up to just before Thanksgiving is almost as slow. January, immediately after the New Year's holiday, is relatively quiet. But things pick up considerably in mid-February and zoom into high gear in March and April. May is so-so; June, July, and August are peak. Schedule your trip for the quiet times, and you'll pay way less than other visitors for rooms and more.
2. A timely package
The pricing of airline packages follows the ups and downs of traffic to Orlando, dipping considerably in quiet months. Thus, in the low-season month of May (and in later off-season times, too), a US Airways Vacations package (call 800/451-6767, usairwaysvacations.com) for round-trip air and six nights in an EconoLodge one mile from the entrance to Disney World, can cost as little as $346 per person from New York, $394 from Chicago, and $311 out of Nashville (many other gateways available on request). But the same air-and-land rates jump in June, July, and August, and then come down in fall.
3. Fly to Melbourne and save
The little-known airport at Melbourne, Florida, 75 minutes by rental car from Orlando, occasionally features airfares lower than those you'd pay to Orlando. We stress "occasionally," not always. It pays to check the fares to Melbourne (like those rock-bottom rates on Spirit Airlines from New York's LaGuardia, phone 800/772-7117, or on Delta Air Lines via its hub in Atlanta) whenever you plan an Orlando trip. And when you check airfares to Orlando, not Melbourne, you should always try the various cut-rate carriers flying there, not only Southwest (800/435-9792), AirTran (800/247-8726), Sun Country (800/752-1218), and the like, but also those low-fare subsidiaries of the biggies: Delta subsidiary Delta Express (800/221-1212) and US Airways subsidiary MetroJet (800/428-4322).
4. Come equipped with a discount card
Before your trip, send for a free "Orlando Magicard," which grants discounts (in some cases up to 50 percent) to parties of up to six people when presented at 83 businesses as far afield as Daytona Beach and Cape Canaveral, including attractions, accommodations, restaurants, car rentals, and shopping malls. Call 800/643-9492 or 407/363-5872 (or log onto Go2orlando.com), and the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau will mail you the credit-card-size Magicard along with lots of other useful information about central Florida.
5. The Good Book also saves
Another moneysaver, which costs $30 but can save you more than the Magicard and many times its purchase price, is the Orlando version of the Entertainment Book, a compendium (the size of a thickish guidebook) of coupons and a detachable card good for discounted dining, movies, attractions, shops, shows, and a few hotels. Examples: two-for-one entrees at downtown's chic Harvey's Bistro and various other fancy eateries; 20 percent off Budget rental cars; half off some hotel rack rates. Phone Entertainment at 800/445-4137 or 407/425-0057, or check out entertainment.com.
6. Head immediately for the real "Center"
Avoid the various "tourist info" and "welcome" centers that have set up shop along many a local road; some are excuses for a time-share come-on or some similar scam. Instead, head to the more helpful but much less high-profile Orlando/Orange County Official Visitor Center at 8723 International Dr. (at Austrian Row), where the very helpful folks can provide a slew of money-saving leads, as well as brochures, maps, and guidebooks.
What's more, the center can save you bucks in even more direct ways, such as its "Little Black Book," a looseleaf-bound listing of rooms that local hostelries are letting go at discounts of up to 50 percent. Every morning, Orlando hotels with upcoming vacancies phone in dramatically reduced room rates for that evening, which the Center's staff dutifully enters into the "Little Black Book." Orlando's savviest tourists check out that volume upon arrival, and thereafter rent their rooms at considerable savings.
Then, too, there are the center's racks of various coupon booklets offering slight to significant discounts on lots of lodgings and attractions.
7. Save, too, by staying in Kissimmee
Orlando proper is far from the only game in central Florida; in fact, just six miles south (and right near Disney's main gate) is the city of Kissimmee, a quaint small town (see below) whose "strip," U.S. Highway 192 (a.k.a. Irlo Bronson Memorial Parkway) is chockablock with the area's least expensive eateries and lodgings (boasting names like "Budget Inn," "Thriftlodge," and "Economy Motel," along with many nationally known chains). Good bets for $30 to $40 a night per family include Days Inn Kissimmee (2095 U.S. 192 E., 800/352-2192, fax 407/846-8423), Sleep Inn (8536 U.S. 192 W., 800/225-0086, fax 407/396-1971), and, just off 192, the pretty, old-fashioned-style Venture Motel (1307 N. Main St., tel./fax 407/846-6333).
Open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the Kissimmee-St. Cloud Convention & Visitors Bureau (1925 U.S. 192 E. at Bill Beck Blvd.) is an excellent resource, too. Visit for a wealth of free brochures, coupon books, and advice from clued-in staffers, or just use its phenomenal central reservations number (800/333-5477) to choose from a pool of 80 lodgings, from upscale to rock-bottom. Reservationists who answer that remarkable number (and you can call them before traveling here) will try hard to find you a room for the exact maximum price you specify; unlike some such bureaus, they represent everyone impartially and will search hard for a budget bed. Otherwise, contact the CVB at 407/847-5000 or floridakiss.com.
8. Use Orlando's discount hotel brokers
Orlando is also a veritable hotbed of clearinghouses for rooms that local (and often nonlocal) hotels need to unload by hook or by crook, and in general they provide good availability and rates sometimes discounted up to 50 percent. With Discount Hotels America (877/766-6787, 407/294-9600, discounthotelsamerica.com), for example, even at upscale properties like the Doubletree Resort Maingate you can save nearly $40 a night off the May/June rack rate of $110; or at the EconoLodge Hawaiian Resort, pay $40.90 instead of $95 this fall (caveat emptor: reservations agencies aren't inevitably the least expensive way to go; this same property recently advertised in the Traveler Discount Guide coupon book, available free at the CVB and online, for $29 a night).
Other recommendable locals include Accommodation USA (407/931-0003), Central Reservation Service (800/555-7555, reservation-services.com), Know Before You Go (800/749-1993, 407/396-5400; 1travel.com/know beforeyougo), Orlando Direct (877/466-3352, 407/390-7330, orlandomil lennium.com), Orlando Magic Vacations (888/399-2665, 407/390-7330), Vacation Relaxation (352/394-0018; experi enceorlando.com), and Vacationworks (800/396-1883, 407/396-1844, va cationworks.com), which also has four local walk-in centers.
9. Or Disney's budget-priced All-Star hotels
If you've just gotta stay with Mickey, his least expensive digs are at Disney's All-Star Sports, Music, or Movies theme resorts, a few minutes south of Epcot, with room rates starting at $74 a night and no charge for kids 17 and younger. These can provide a fun, bustling atmosphere, and rooms have private baths and various other amenities; they comfortably sleep four, with space to stow suitcases under the beds. Reservations/information: 407/934-7639, disneyworld.com.
10. Consider those new family hotels
Quite frankly, the word "family" is way overused hereabouts, but Orlando's newest bonafide boon for the "f" word is the Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort (18000 S. International Dr., off Rte. 536 just south of Disney World), a handsome complex with 800 units, many of them themed along lines ranging from the nifty ("Kids' Suites" with child-size bunk beds and "Sweetheart Suites" with big-screen TV and a heart-shape whirlpool tub) to the overrated ("Cinema Suites" and "Fitness Suites"). For nicely appointed single-bathroom units sleeping four to seven people with more than your average motel-room privacy, rates start at $89 a night. The value becomes even greater when you factor in a free and ample hot buffet breakfast and complimentary shuttle service to all Disney parks. More details: 877/387-5437, 407/387-5437, hifamilysuites.com.
11. Or try Orlando's private vacation homes
Would you believe a fully furnished house for as little as $89 to $149 a night? Private vacation homes are for rent within two to ten miles of Disney and Universal, most with private pools, cable TV, garages, washers, and dryers-pretty much all the conveniences of your own place. Brokers worth a holler: Families First (800/393-8800, 407/876-1868, fam iliesfirst.com), Vacation Homes of Orlando (888/714-6873, 407/932-1426, travelhomes.com), Florida Vacation Rental Homes (800/338-1452, 407/396-2628), World of Homes (800/551-7969, 407/932-4777, worldofhomes.net).
12. Low-cost car rentals
In the hypercompetitive Orlando market, don't assume that the mom-and-pop independents or an outfit like Rent-a-Wreck are the cheapest car rental games in town; furious competition translates to constantly changing rates and surprisingly good deals even from the biggies. Big and small, many of those most convenient to the airport are clustered two miles east of its entrance, on McCoy and Narcoossee Roads (it's a $6 to $8 taxi ride, but airport shuttles or pickups are often provided). While Magic Rent A Car (407/857-1999) at 2911 McCoy may get you behind the wheel of a compact for $149.95 a week with unlimited mileage, Payless, at 5301 McCoy (407/856-5539), can do it for $139.95. Better yet, the local branch of Alamo at 8200 McCoy (407/857-8200) comes in at $129.95.
So, unfortunately, there's no simple answer here, and no substitute for just calling around. Another major, Enterprise, at 7652 Narcoossee (407/281-3555, enterprise.com), usually doesn't go any lower than $159.95 weekly - but calling them at the right time (especially the first half of December and January, as well as August through October) just might snag you the best weekly rate in town: $69. Besides the nationals, additional local firms near the airport include Arrival (407/888-8232), Citywide (407/282-6100), Continental (407/380-3334), Florida Auto Rental (407/658-0023), and Specialty (407/888-4446).
13. And free shuttles to the theme parks:
One way to save on gas and parking costs is to make sure your hotel (like the above-mentioned Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort) has a shuttle service to one or more of the theme parks or to other areas like International Drive. Disney and Universal charge $5 to $7 a day for parking, and getting from the lot to the park and back again can mean a time-wasting hassle, so shuttles can indeed pay off. Many lodgings and even campgrounds offer them; to find out which do, check the free "Official Accommodations Guide," available from the Orlando and/or Kissimmee visitors bureaus.
14. Low cost transportation everywhere
We won't kid you: for those who want to try to dispense with a car altogether (whether due to budget or lack of license), it ain't exactly easy and can definitely be time-consuming-and time is of the essence when you're on a finite vacation. But with a little effort and a combination of public transportation, local transport companies, and taxi service, you can cover a fair amount of territory.
From the airport, to start with, Mears Motor Shuttle (407/423-5566) and Transtar (407/856-7777) will get you to International Drive or downtown Orlando for $23 per adult round-trip or $13 one-way, and to Lake Buena Vista and Disney's Main Gate area, it's $27 round-trip and $15 each way. Children age 4-12 receive discounts; kids under 4 ride free.
If you're staying in the International Drive area ("I-Drive"), the green I-Ride Trolley (407/248-9590, iridetrolley.com) is useful, covering 54 stops from Belz Factory Outlet World off Interstate 4 in the north to Sea World seven miles south. Running daily every 15 minutes or so from 7 a.m. to midnight, it costs 75[cents] a ride for adults, 25[cents] for folks over 65, and zip for the under-12 set (you can also get an all-day pass-$2.)
15. Budget buffets
For a wide choice of low- to moderately-priced, non-fast-food meals throughout the tourist-popular zones, you could opt for chain "family restaurants" like Perkins, Denny's, or IHOP. But the best bang for your dining buck comes from the "all-you-can-eat" buffets, charging adults $3.99-$4.99 for breakfast, $5.99 lunch, $7.49-$7.99 dinner; kids under 12 get breakfast for $2.50-$3.12, lunch $2.79-$3.12, dinner $3.12-$3.99). On top of that, some also offer senior citizen discounts, early bird specials, or discounts of 10 percent from coupon booklets available in local tourist offices and hotels.
Independently owned buffets (including those specializing in Chinese food) are scattered throughout the area. Among the chains, top picks include: Golden Corral (three in Orlando, two in Kissimmee); Ponderosa (four in Orlando and two in Kissimmee); Shoney's (three in Kissimmee and five in Orlando), Sizzler (two on International Drive, two in Kissimmee, one in Lake Buena Vista), Buddy Freddy's Country Buffet (four in Orlando, two in Kissimmee), Morrison's (two in Orlando, one in Kissimmee), and Piccadilly (two on East Colonial Drive, Orlando). While Morrison's and Piccadilly aren't strictly buffets, but ... la carte cafeterias, their rates sometimes compete with the buffets.
16. Fix your own food
Your best source for picnic fixings and self-prepared in-room meals is Gooding's, a supermarket chain with more than a dozen exceedingly well-stocked and reasonably priced locations throughout the area, including Lake Buena Vista (Crossroads Mall, off I-4, 407/827-1200), Kissimmee (7840 U.S. 192 W, 407/397-2210), and International Dr. (at Jamaican Court, next to the Mercado shopping center, 407/352-4215). Open 24 hours, Gooding's also carries sandwiches such as $6.99 foot-long subs that can feed a family of four, along with prepared meals you can microwave and eat at clean, well-kept tables right on the spot (for example: a substantial lasagna or "grilled mojo chicken with Latin rice" for $4.99).
17. Half price at the water parks
You've undoubtedly heard of the watery wonders of Wet 'n Wild. Well, you can cool off year-round at this well-known water park (6200 International Dr., 407/351-WILD, wetnwild.com) with more than a dozen really splashy rides for $10 off its admission after 3 p.m. When the discount kicks in actually depends on closing time; when the park closes at 6 p.m. in the off-season, it starts at 3 p.m.; when it's open until 11 p.m., 5 p.m. Regular admission is $28.95; $22.95 for ages 3 to 9.
A similarly priced competitor, 36-acre Water Mania at 6073 U.S. 192 W. in Kissimmee (407/396-2626, water mania-florida.com), goes a different route, offering a second day free and $5 off its admission ($27.77; $20.28 ages 3-9) for up to six people with a coupon from a booklet available at the local CVB or from their Web site.
18. Picnics in the parks
Families left gasping by a $9 tab for a cheeseburger and Coke inside some theme parks can save a lot by (discreetly) packing their own lunches (see Gooding's, above) and bringing them along in a day bag. There's no eagle-eyed, food-banning picnic patrol (yet) at the theme park gates, as far as we know.
19. For evening entertainment, there's cut-rate culture
Cut-rate to the tune of half-price, in fact. Every day of the year, the Orlando Visitors Center's brand-new OTIX! program sells reduced-price tickets to dozens of high- and middle-brow cultural events. How about catching the Orlando Philharmonic for $24 rather than $40 or the Orlando Opera's Madame Butterfly for $10 rather than $15 (or better seats for $32 rather than $55)? Those are the OTIX! reductions available from Orlando's Official Visitor Center at 8723 International Dr. (at Austrian Row).
20. Finally, find the nightspot deals
Again for evening entertainment, Universal Studios' 30-acre CityWalk (407/363-8000) and Downtown Disney/Pleasure Island (407/939-7801) are promenades with free nighttime parking and lots of restaurants, bars, shops, and nightspots. You can wander CityWalk and the ungated area of Downtown Disney for free, dining on a variety of low-cost eats at walk-up windows. But when it comes to concert and club cover charges, for up to three nights in a given week CityWalk wins hands down, hitting you up for just $7.95 a night (or $11.95 including a movie at the Universal Cineplex) for access to all of its 13 nightspots (including the ones with live music).