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If the cost of theme park admission, on-site hotel stays, character breakfasts and Mickey Mouse ears isn’t enough, Disney is introducing more add-on charges. Instead of collecting free FastPasses, visitors to the parks will have to pay for the new Genie+ service — $15 per day at Disney World and $20 per day at Disneyland — in order to skip lines at attractions. That’s on top of the regular admission, which can already top more than $100 per day.
Robert Niles, a former Disney World ride operator-turned-reporter, has covered theme parks for more than 15 years and now runs the Theme Park Insider blog. He says most people can expect to spend a few hundred dollars per day at Disney.
“Disney prices aggressively because they know they have a premium product right now,” Niles says. “And the market has told them that they can get away with pricing aggressively.”
According to MarketWatch, Disney World ticket prices have risen more than 3,000% from the time it opened its gates in 1971. We asked Niles what other theme parks he would recommend if a vacation to the “Happiest Place on Earth” is too expensive. Here are some of his alternative suggestions for theme parks cheaper than Disney.
Theme park vacations that cost less than Disney
Pick an alternative theme park without sacrificing your favorite parts of a Disney vacation.
1. Universal Orlando Resort — if you still want an Orlando vacation
Universal Orlando Resort in Florida is perhaps the most well-known theme park alternative to Disney, and it’s just a 15-minute drive away (and still in Orlando). You’ll still get three expansive parks, including one water park and themed lands like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
While still largely themed around movies and TV shows, Universal Studios encompasses more adult-oriented franchises (think fewer princesses and more superheroes). At Universal Studios, expect to encounter characters including Doc Brown from “Back to the Future,” the family from “The Simpsons” and classic comic book characters like Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor Man.
Teens and adults arguably have more thrill ride options at Universal than Disney. Thrill rides include the Jurassic World VelociCoaster, Revenge of the Mummy and The Incredible Hulk Coaster.
As far as the cost of Universal Studios goes, the actual Universal theme park tickets can be just as expensive as Disney, but Niles says the hotel savings is where Universal sets itself apart.
“You can get Universal Orlando's cheapest on-site hotel for probably 30 to 50% less than Disney's cheapest on-site hotel, and it's a better quality hotel as well,” he says.
Other perks of Universal’s on-site hotels, including Endless Summer Resort (Surfside Inn and Suites as well as Dockside Inn and Suites), are complimentary shuttles to the parks and early access to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
2. Legoland — if you’ve got kids under the age of 13
Legoland has mastered designing a park for kids, particularly elementary-school-age ones.
“My experience is that kids are a lot more comfortable there because things are scaled to them,” Niles says. “Attractions seem to be a bit more hands-on and interactive, as opposed to just ‘sit and watch’ things.”
Tickets for Legoland California start at $95 per day for adults.
3. Dollywood — if you love theme park shows and entertainment
Leave it to superstar Dolly Parton to put on a show. Her theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, has great rides, but the live performances — which usually run under an hour — are the real standout.
“I remember going to see just an absolutely wonderful show there last time. It felt like a Broadway musical,” Niles says. “It's not just country. You've got rock, you've got show tunes, you've got gospel. They have a wide range of musical performances there.”
Considering the cost of Disney tickets or even Broadway theater tickets, Dollywood could definitely provide some savings. Adult tickets are $84 per day, and child tickets are $74 per day.
» Learn more: 12 hotels with bunk beds to earn and redeem points
4. Busch Gardens Williamsburg — if you love Epcot
Epcot gives visitors a taste of culture and history from different countries, and Niles’ next pick can do the same. Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a Europe-themed park, so you can go to France to ride the Griffon roller coaster, then head to Germany for an Oktoberfest celebration. One-day adult tickets at the Virginia park can start around $50 and could be less when you buy multiple days.
“You get that [Epcot] World Showcase feel to it,” Niles says. “I know a lot of Disney fans love the Williamsburg area and Busch Gardens Williamsburg.
“Cheaper tickets. Great experience.”
In addition to the Busch Gardens theme park, visitors can check out the Water Country USA water park and get their history fix at colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown.
» Learn more: How to purchase theme park tickets with points
5. Disneyland Paris or Disneyland Tokyo — if you still want the Disney experience
For a few die-hard fans, nothing really compares to the Disney experience. In that case, you shouldn’t overlook a Disney park abroad.
“If you can get a cheap flight to Paris, you can sometimes price a Disneyland Paris vacation less than you could a Disney World vacation,” Niles says.
Not only are some of the food and attractions different, but tickets can be as low as $63 for a one-day, one-park pass.
Niles suggests turning it into an entire European theme park adventure by taking the train to Efteling in the Netherlands, another park with many rides based on fairy tales. Disney Imagineers travel to Efteling for inspiration, according to Niles.
Bonus pick: Consider a Disney Cruise
While not a theme park, you might consider a Disney Cruise to still have a Disney experience. NerdWallet analyzed hundreds of Disney Cruise versus Disney World prices and found that the average Disney cruise is typically cheaper than a Disney World vacation, especially for longer and more luxury-style vacations.
On a nightly basis, the average 7-night Disney cruise starts as low as $279 per person — just under the estimated $293 nightly price to spend seven nights at Disney World on a value budget.
And sure, a Disney cruise isn’t necessarily the experience that comes to mind when travelers think ‘Disney vacation' given there are no rides. That is, unless you count something like the AquaMouse on the Disney Wish, which is billed as Disney’s first-ever attraction at sea (but is really more like a water slide on steroids).
But in some ways, Disney cruises offer an even-better experience than the parks, such as through the shorter lines to meet characters (and more available time to spend with them, when you do).
» Learn more: How I did a $4,000 Disney trip for $1,600
Other ways to save on your theme park vacation
Choosing a different theme park is just one way to keep costs low for your next family or friends vacation. Other things you can do include:
Go on low-demand days. Many theme parks use a dynamic pricing system, and you’ll both save money and avoid the crowds when most kids are in school.
Beware of add-ons. Extras can add up. If you’ve got your heart set on a Disney vacation, pay the admission and say no to extra charges, like when your child asks for a princess makeover at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.
Consider alternatives to parking and theme park food. No matter which park you choose, parking and food can be hefty expenses. Check if there are free shuttles to the park from your accommodation or whether you can pack your own lunch to eat inside the park.
Skip the theme parks (and take advantage of the free things to do nearby): Some of the best, free things to do in Orlando exist on Disney’s property, but not actually inside the theme parks, including Disney Springs and Disney's Boardwalk (both of which are great spots for Disney nightlife). Check out this guide to the best free and cheap things to do at Disney World outside the parks.
Get a new travel credit card at least six months ahead of your vacation to give you time to earn a welcome bonus and redeem its stack of points.
Beyond saving on the entertainment portion of your trip, travelers can also book hotel stays and airfare with points. Joining loyalty programs or adding a travel credit card to your wallet can help with these expenses. If you’re new to points and miles, this beginner’s guide is a great place to start.
If you love Disney but can’t always afford it, you have alternatives
While your vacations won't be exactly alike, experiences at theme parks cheaper than Disney will put less pressure on your wallet — and still provide a lot of fun. Be it rides or shows, you can find a suitable, more affordable alternative that will still have you screaming (out loud or in your heart) with delight.
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