How we saved money - and our sanity - on our Florida theme park vacation

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by Ed and Robin

If you follow us on Facebook, you may have noticed we won some money.  On a whim, Ed entered a contest sponsored by a new website called Family Kitchen.  He wrote a quick description of why and how we cook with our kids; something we make time for and they enjoy like mad.

Turns out, the folks at Family Kitchen enjoyed his entry and he won the grand prize: $2,500 in grocery gift cards!  With our groceries paid for for a few months, we had some room in our spending plan to fit in a sunny Spring Break trip.


We have travelled as a family before and really enjoy it, but this trip had us a bit nervous. The source of our anxiety: theme parks.  We pictured 7 days of jostling crowds, endless lines, expensive greasy food...not our usual travel style.  Not by a long shot.  How were we going to make this trip work for us?  How could we make it:
  • Fun for kids and grown-ups
  • Active, but with some quieter days
  • Affordable

We ended up being wonderfully surprised. We all had a great time and we didn't have to spend a fortune to do it.

What follows is how we saved our money and our sanity on our Orlando theme park vacation...

Lots of folks in our area drive to Florida for Spring Break.  It's about 24 hours in the car.  And while we have great strategies for car trips with kids, we had a total of 9 days before we needed to be back at work and school.  We felt driving would shorten our fun with 3-4 miserable car-days, plus time to recover.  With gas, food and motels on the way - driving isn't free either! It wasn't the best value for us to drive.

With some careful searching, we found a great deal on a package of Airfare, Car Rental and a house with a pool.  We added combo tickets to SeaWorld and Busch Gardens and our planning got going.

You can do some Disney activities for free.  Don't miss these.

1. You can have a great time in Orlando without going to Disney.

Really, you can.  We all know Disney has amazing attractions, but so do many other places, with less cost and shorter lines.

We went to Sea World, Busch Gardens and Legoland.  Less popular attractions than Disney, but extremely popular with our family.  And we did all three of the above attractions for the price of a 1-day Disney "All Parks Access" pass.

We never waited longer than 15-20 minutes for anything (most, less than 5 minutes).  We had friends who went to Disney the very same week and spent over an hour and a half waiting for one ride.

Great advice for any theme park: get there when it opens.  Everyone says they are going to get there early, but judging by the parking lots, only 1 in 10 follow through.  Be in that 10% and the park will be yours for most of the morning.

If you must have a piece of the Disney experience, go to Downtown Disney - an outdoor Disney mall with a lake, Disney stores, restaurants, some rides, bands and characters that kids can get pictures with.   All for the great price of $free.

Downtown Disney has enough food, rides, stores and people to convince you (and maybe your kids) that you've been to the real thing. It doesn't have any admission charge, so let the frugal wandering begin!

2.  Coupon hunt ahead of time.

Most places give the best deals to folks who buy ahead.  This goes for everything from the place you park at the airport, to theme park admissions, coupons for kids' specials on the plane, discount accommodations and restaurant meals.  Print it all and stash it for when you need it on the trip.

Also, when you buy your tickets ahead of time, you get to skip the first of many lines - the ticket buying one - and go right to the park entrance.  More time savings!

Busch Gardens tip:  There is a Train and a Sky Tram that can get you around the park free of charge - learn where the stations are and if little legs are tired, jump on and get a great tour of the park while getting to where you need to go. Bonus Tip - the lineup for the Sky Tram at the top of the park was much shorter than the one near the front gates (by the Cheetah Hunt Coaster).

Arrive at opening wherever you go, and lineups can look like this for you too.

3.  Bring Snacks.

We have all heard (or have) horror stories about parents feeding their kids squished bologna sandwiches to avoid theme park food prices, but that doesn't mean the whole concept is bad.

While bringing food for the whole day likely isn't possible, we found all the places we went were OK with our stash of granola bars, water bottles plus fresh and dried fruit. Robin even brought in some homemade chicken and spinach pizza without any problems.

All of these smaller snacks allowed us to save on the smaller junk and buy one reasonable meal at each park we visited.  As a result, we could actually sit and enjoy a meal without stressing over the price - the previous savings helped.

Sea World Tip:  The shows are not to be missed.  Most of the shows let you in early - rather than take time to sit and eat on a bench, line up, get good seats and then enjoy a snack before the shows start. Two birds, one stone.

There is a lot of seating for the big shows but get there 20 minutes+ early and you will have the best choice. Enjoy a snack to pass the time and rest your legs.

4.  Make time for Nature - it will save your sanity and money.

We spent a day at Canaveral National Seashore. This was a "Down Day" for us.  Don't plan your Orlando week with full days every single day.  It will kill you and you will need a vacation to get away from your vacation. The traffic alone will make your blood pressure increase.

Instead, spend at least a day or two at low key, low cost attractions like this and feel yourself actually unwind.

We saw a manatee and pelicans in their natural habitats. The kids played on a gigantic beach, collected seashells and we watched surfers while braving the waves that crashed on the shore.

We observed (from a distance as we were too tired and sandy) the Cape Canaveral NASA launch pad. Total cost - $5 for Park Admission. Not each.  $5 for the carload of us.

If you go to Florida, don't miss the ocean.

 5.  The secret to gift shop survival.

Having allowances has been our key to gift shop survival.  Our kids have known about this trip for a while and have been saving the money they earn in anticipation. Our daughter also had some birthday money saved up.

This was their money - if they wanted something in a gift shop, it came from their budget (We surprised them on the last day buy letting them choose a t-shirt each, on us.) The kids got to decide what was worth their savings and we didn't have to fight battles with them over what to get. They ended up going nuts on Lego kits, but then being very content for the rest of the week.

We did not have a single gift shop squabble.  Once their allowance was spent, they knew they were done.  These parks are designed with a gift shop at every turn.  Believe me, managing the gift shop bit, saves a bundle.

Legoland Tip - There a lots of coupon codes out there, and the park gives a discount if you buy for a specific day, rather than open-ended tickets. Also, with some digging we found a "Legoland Buy 1 Adult Admission get a Child's Free" offer from McDonald's.  Get Googling!

Build your own characters!  Aren't you glad you saved your allowance?

6.  Don't over budget your time.  Save space for some spontaneity.

As mentioned above, fill up your time too much and you'll be stressed and exhausted and likely not enjoy things while spending more money. Use your downtime to explore and spend a little on some small fun things.

On a "down day," we visited Celebration (the beautiful, designed by Disney town).  We got ice cream and explored it on foot.  We had no plan, and we were happy we didn't.  We happened across the Celebration Surrey Company and rented a Surrey Bike for an hour for only $15. It was a cool thing we couldn't do at home and a great way to check out the town's lovely architecture. The kids had a blast too.  It was probably their favourite ride of the week - while they pretended to be our cheeky-not-very-helpful GPS.

Helmets, a map and an hour to ride a crazy cool bike, all for $15.

7.  Rent a house (or apartment).

Renting a house is our preferred way to travel.  It may seem a bit more expensive at first, but we find it saves us in the end.  The benefits:
  • Savings on food costs.  The entire week we were in Florida we ate 4 restaurant meals.  All the rest of the meals we prepared at home - whether we packed a lunch or made a meal on the BBQ.  Sure, it's a little more work to make your own food, but the savings are significant.  Even if our family of four ate just fast food for 3 meals a day - we'd spend about $100 day on meals. 
  • You can make nutritious meals with your family's preferences in mind.
  • There's a place for grown-ups to hang out after the kids go to bed.  We've tried sharing a hotel room as a family, at 9pm you'll find us parents huddled under the blankets with a flashlight app on our iPad, lighting up the books we can barely see to read.  A week of that nonsense would make Mommy and Daddy very grumpy.
  • Laundry machines = easier packing.
  • A pool to ourselves.  No awkward weirdos staring at you.  No negligent parent's and their offspring ruining your good time.  Not that either of those has ever happened to us (every time). 

Have you been to the Orlando area?  Have any tips to share?


  1. Thank you for sharing all your tips! We've been talking about a summer vacation with our 5yo girl and the newborn girl coming early May, and this is great food for thought. :)

    1. Thanks, Kelly! Wow. A family trip with a newborn. You are all kinds of brave. :)

  2. Thanks for the tips guys. We are attacking Orlando very soon.

    We are going to Disney (I know...not very frugal) but we are saving by staying with friends and because of the cost of flights right now we are driving.

    What does LegoLand have to offer??? It's on our list , but with three Disney Days I'm not sure it will workout. Am I missing a must see???

    I'll let you know we survive upon our return to reality.

    Take care

    1. Wishing you all the best with Disney. A coworker of mine loves it, but swears by the "Fast-Pass" system for lining up for rides.

      Legoland is clearly targeted at the 12-and-under set. A kid who loves rides and is at least 42" tall could have ridden everything there without a parent. They had many smaller rides and a few cool looking coasters. We didn't do the splash park part, but the idea there seemed the same - smaller scale waterslides for pre-teens.

      With three Disney-days, I don't know if I would do Legoland too (Unless you guys are super-Lego-fiends). It is very cool, but not a must-see unless your playroom is wall-to-wall Lego, like ours.

    2. Thanks Ed

      I'll let you know how we make out when we get back.


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