By Nancy Benac
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Disney World has been on our kids' minds this year, but it wasn't in our family budget.
What's a parent to do?
Approach a trip to the Magic Kingdom and the rest of the sprawling Walt Disney World Resort with the same mind-set as the old Midas muffler commercials: I'm not gonna pay a lot for this vacation. It turns out, you really don't have to.
With a disciplined approach to the Big Three expense categories — food, lodging and admission fees — it's possible to "do Disney" without piling up bills that are scarier than The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (a ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios that left my 6-year-old screaming to do it again, and me searching for my stomach).
With a little extra effort and planning, you can even avoid a lot of the killer extras — like $31 a day to rent a double stroller.
If the economic meltdown has a silver lining, it's evident in the deals to be found in resort areas like Orlando. Disney itself is laying on more discounts and specials for Mouseketeers than travel experts can recall in recent history.
"It's a great time to go," says Bob Sehlinger, author of "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World," which is not affiliated with the resort. "It couldn't be better."
But read no farther if your Disney vacation musts include first-class meals, brand-name Mickey and Minnie souvenirs and staying in the closest hotel to the monorail. This article is for penny-pinchers only.
LODGING: Figure out this piece of the puzzle first, since it will affect your strategy for the others.
Sehlinger's advice on this count is simple: "You're always going to save a lot of money if you stay in a non-Disney property outside of Disney World."
There are hotel discounts galore, thanks to the slow economy, and you can take your pick by shopping Web sites like http://www.roomsaver.com. Simply by poking around the Web, our family of four booked five nights in a sprawling two-bedroom suite at a beautiful new resort for just over $500 — and we didn't even have to listen to a time-share presentation.
There also is a plethora of fabulous private homes, often with private pools and amenities like home theaters, available to rent at tempting prices. Many are owned by Brits and other foreigners who fly in for weeks at a time and turn their vacation homes over to management companies when they're not around. Sehlinger cites http://www.allstarvacationhomes.com as one particularly user-friendly web site. Another site — http://www.vrbo.com — lists homes being offered directly by owners.
If you want to stay at one of the more than 20 Disney owned-and-operated resorts — and they do come with perks such as extended theme park hours, free parking, free airport shuttle and free luggage delivery service — a handful fall into the "value" category. You can even pitch a tent at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, with campsite fees starting at $43 a night.
For most stays between Aug. 16 and Oct. 3, certain Disney resorts are offering a free Disney Dining Plan when you buy a five-night room and theme park package. (The package has to be booked by June 21.) There also some specials for members of the U.S. military.
To find the latest deals, your best bet is to go to Disney World's Web site — http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/ — and click on the "special offers" tab.