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Disney passholder tips for saving money. Video by Luann Manderville Posted Feb. 9

Tips on food, rides and annual passes: Here's a guide to maneuvering the 'Happiest Place on Earth.'

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It covers 43 square miles. Welcomed about 54 million guests in 2015. On a daily basis, crowds teem with tiny princesses, junior Jedis and entourages ranging from huge school groups to families trying to snag prime fireworks viewing.

Welcome to the “Happiest Place on Earth.”

Yes, we’re talking about Walt Disney World: Magic Kingdom and sister parks Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios.

Given our proximity to Orlando, we Space Coast residents have the opportunity to frequent Disney more than most. Plus, at some point, we will probably be asked to show it off to a visiting friend or relative.

Covering more than one park over a couple of days usually means park-hopper tickets, parking money and funds for souvenirs.

[THINK YOU KNOW DISNEY? Take our Disney quiz]

But what’s the best way to tackle all things Disney? Thankfully, there are options and methods to maneuver Mouse madness.

From details on the passholder program to how to scope out an affordable meal, FLORIDA TODAY can help you find them.

Which annual pass is right for you?

Admission starts at $97 per person per park. An annual pass for Florida residents — which grants admission to all four parks and includes parking — ranges from $259 to $729 per person without tax.

Disney Platinum Plus: $729

• No blackout dates, discounts, admission to the two Disney water parks, Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex, Disney photo downloads.

Best for: Ultimate Disney fans. When they’re not at the four parks looking for Hidden Mickeys, they’re playing golf at the sports complex or chillin’ in the wave pool at Typhoon Lagoon. Every. Weekend. (Well, you get the idea)

Disney Platinum: $649

• Park-hopper, no blackout dates, discounts, Disney photo downloads

Best for: Disney fanatics who go to the parks at least once or twice a month. When there’s a festival or concert series, they’re there, too. Most likely, their social network feeds are Disneyfied.

Disney Gold Pass: $549

• Park-hopper, discounts, Disney photo downloads, (blackout dates apply)

Best for: Floridians who like to visit Disney on their own terms — when it’s slow season, shorter lines, less people. But they still want those Disney photo ops.

Recommended for: Parents with young children, couples, retirees

[ TUNE IN!  Our Disneyficinados give their money-saving tips ]

Disney Silver Pass: $389

• Park-hopper, discounts, (blackout dates apply)

Best for: Let’s call this “Disney lite.” Passholders go maybe once every 3 months. Or perhaps they favor discounts for the Disney merchandise more than the experience.

Recommended for: Parents with young children, couples, retirees, Disney memorabilia collectors

Disney Weekday Select Pass: $259

• Park-hopper, discounts, (blackout dates apply)

Best for: OK, this is “Disney super lite.” If you work on the weekends or you really don’t like long lines and crowds, this is for you. We’re guessing you make the most of your trip — and you usually know what attractions you’ll visit before you get to the park.

Epcot After 4: $249

• Discounts at Epcot only, no blackout dates (again, for Epcot only)

Best for: Fans of the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, Epcot Festival of the Arts. Also for those who prefer a quieter theme park experience. Lots of grownups.

Recommended for: Couples, hipsters, singles, foodies, art and wine lovers

Water parks: $115

• Unlimited admission to Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, however, no discounts on select merchandise and dining

Best for: Floridians who love Disney’s water park experience, from zippy slide rides to tanning on a Central Florida “beach.”

Recommended for: Parents with children ages 2-18, pool loungers, swimmers, water slide fans

Our advice

If you’re a Florida resident who plans to visit the parks at least six times in one year, consider a Platinum Pass. At $48.27 a month after a $112 down payment, you’ll definitely save over single-park admission.

Advice from a reader

On a FLORIDA TODAY Facebook post about the Disney passholder program, passholder David Saylor wrote: “We go to the (Epcot) Food and Wine Festival three to four times and the (Epcot) Flower and Garden Festival ... As often as we go, it works out to less than $20 a visit.”

 

This family of 11 has Disney passes

Dana and Jim Fox of Melbourne say they’d do anything for their nine children — seven daughters and two sons.

If “anything” means working a little harder to pay for Disney passes, well, welcome to the Magic Kingdom, kids.

It’s not cheap. They’re not rich. Dana is a stay-at-home mom and Jim works construction. They rent a home. With children ranging in age from 1 to 16, every day can be like a roller-coaster ride.

But Dana said they can’t put a price tag on the joy their kids experience on trips to Walt Disney World. Especially for their daughter Hannah, who is non-verbal and must use a wheelchair, the trips are like therapy. A trip to a place where fantasy blends with reality for a few hours.

So, the couple sets aside a not-insubstantial portion of their monthly income for passes. They spent Hannah’s 10th birthday at the Magic Kingdom.

“We make $386 monthly payments on our preferred passes, for two adult and six children’s passes,” said Dana. “It’s a juggle ... but the kids enjoy going from park to park. The memories — and smiles — on Princess Hannah’s face are priceless ... Everyone is different but for us, Disney is the place. Disney makes our dreams comes true.”

There’s something for everyone

If you have teens

Consider Epcot Seas Adventures — Aqua Tour or Epcot Seas Adventures — DiveQuest (some tours are extra).

If you have young children

Holidays Around the World at Epcot, Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (Mickey’s parties are extra)

If you’re into music

Night of Joy, contemporary Christian music festival (cost is extra). Epcot’s festivals typically feature concerts, from well-known bands to high school students.

If you like roller coasters

Think Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Space Mountain and Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom, Aerosmith’s Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios or Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom. (One of these goes backward)

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Check out the offerings at the first Epcot International Festival of the Arts. Video by Suzy Fleming Leonard. Uploaded Jan. 19, 2017.

If you’re a foodie

Hit up any of Epcot’s festivals, make reservations at one of the upscale restaurants at Magic Kingdom or Hollywood Studios. Epcot also has its World Showcase, so you can taste cuisines from different parts of, well, the world. Then there’s always the restaurants at Disney Springs ...

If you’re into running

If walking several miles during a Disney park visit isn’t enough, sign up for a marathon. Prices range, and there are no passholder discounts for these. But the medals – oh, the medals! Consider the Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend, Disney Wine and Dine Half Marathon Weekend, Star Wars Half Marathon — The Dark Side, and Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend.

If you’re a Disney nerd

Look up Adventures by Disney for vacation planning, or try any of the behind-the-scenes park tours. There’s also Savor the Savanna: Evening Safari Experience, Wild Africa Trek.

Play dress-up like a Disney princess or use The Force. “Star Wars” cosplayers, you can be among your people.

For a hefty price, extreme Disney fans can get married there.

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Disney CEO Bob Iger announced that Star Wars-themed parks at California's Disneyland and Florida's Walt Disney World will open in 2019. Posted 2-9-17 Wochit

One mom’s feedback

Joan Majid of Merritt Island would rather her son remember a happy day with his parents at the Magic Kingdom than to splurge on expensive baubles for herself.

That’s why she, her husband, Wally, and their 7-year-old son, Daniel, became Disney passholders. Yes, she considers it a luxury leisure item. But “it goes along with our values of preferring to spend on experiences and building memories versus spending on, and collecting, a lot of ‘stuff’ such as jewelry, high-end cars, etc.,” she said.

They opted for the less-expensive passes with blockout dates, at around $100 per month.

“My thought is that you can’t put a price on making happy memories. If we can afford it we will do it,” Majid added.

Tips from under those mouse ears

“It’s your birthday! Gonna party like it’s your birthday”: Whether you’re turning 5 or 50, celebrating an anniversary or it’s your very first time at the Mouse House, ask for a pin. Disney cast members will wish you well every time they see you. And if you ask, you may receive a small treat like a cookie or brownie. (We, um, scored an impressive amount of sweet treats and milked the “Happy Birthday” greetings.)

MagicBands, wristbands that do everything from get you in the park to pay for your merchandise if you’re a resort guest, know everything. So make sure the card your pass is billed to has enough to cover the payment every month. If your card doesn’t have enough bucks on it, or you’ve had a problem with the card and forgot to update your account, that chip in your band will know it. And it will blab when you touch your MagicBand to the sensor on the “touch point” at the park entrance, and you’ll be standing, red-faced, in another line to fix it.

Everyone loves FastPass, the system that allows reservation access to select attractions ahead of a park visit. Some passholders aren’t happy that they can only make selections up to 30 days in advance, while guests at resorts can start making reservations 60 days, plus the number of days they’ll be staying, ahead of time. A tip: You’re probably online a couple times a day anyway. Once you’ve made your FastPass selections, log in to your Disney account before and during your visit to see about modifying your selections. Other people could be canceling just as you’re grumbling about that line at the very popular Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. (We’ve checked FastPass as late as 11 p.m.)

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Highlights from Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party at Magic Kingdom. Video by Luann Manderrville, FLORIDA TODAY, Posted Nov. 13, 2016

Take your own snacks — ones that don’t melt, preferably! — and a water bottle. There are plenty of places to fill up the bottle. And have a snack before heading in. You’ll get so busy you might just forget to eat.

Restaurants are plentiful and diverse and if you’re set on one of the more pricey ones, go for it. But there are inexpensive choices where you can get a meal for two for $25 or less, and if you’re not that hungry, split a dinner for about $15 at one of the casual options — Cosmic Ray’s or Pecos Bill’s at Magic Kingdom, for example. Passholders get a discount at many of the table-service places — ask at the counter or check your app.

Are you a pin freak? Check out the clearance racks for the pins on discount, and then trade up. You’ll find pin traders around the park who just might have the ones you really want, and you won’t have paid premium prices. And though we know many people prefer the “real thing,” Disney merchandise IS sold at stores all over Central Florida, from Macy’s to Walmart. You can get your Minnie and Mickey on, literally, and often on sale, at retailers all over the Space Coast.

If you’re determined to buy souvenirs for several people and can’t spring for expensive ones, consider pressed coins with images of Disney characters and attractions. You can press pennies, dimes and quarters — the pennies, for 51 cents. Other cheaper souvenirs that people love, believe us, include magnet-sized photo frames. And if you’re a passholder, you’ll get a discount.

Burn rubber, baby: The Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant at Hollywood Studios has been called “the wackiest dining experience in any Disney park” — and it lives up to the hype. You’ll sit in a car-shaped booth (seating in the back and front) or table to eat. News reels, cartoon and clips from sci-fi, horror and monster movies — and those cool old drive-in ads — flash on a huge screen up front and car hops serve you. All in the “dark” and under twinkling stars on the ceiling. Oh, and the food’s great. Steaks, pasta, sandwiches — burgers and milkshakes just seem right here.

Get the mobile app. Definitely get the app. “My Disney Experience” organizes all your trip details, from those Dwarfs rides to dining reservations.

Britt Kennerly and Luann Manderville, FLORIDA TODAY

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The food

With almost 500 dining choices, eating at Disney is an experience on its own. Options, in the parks and at Disney Springs range from fine dining to fast casual.

There are inexpensive choices where you can get a meal for two for $25 or less, and if you’re not that hungry, split a dinner for about $15 at one of the casual options — Cosmic Ray’s or Pecos Bill’s at Magic Kingdom, for example. A meal at sit-down restaurants can cost upward of $60. Passholders get a 20 percent discount on select dining — ask at the counter or check the mobile Disney app.

Consider spending the day at one of the theme parks and eating breakfast, lunch and dinner there. Here’s a sample menu:

Breakfast: A chocolate crepe from Crepes des Chefs de France at Epcot costs $4.22. Add a café cappuccino for $3.76 and your total is $7.98 before tax. (Just FYI, the passholder discount is not applicable in this scenario).

Lunch: Grilled chicken BLT sandwich from Restaurantosaurus at Animal Kingdom, $12.99.

Dinner: A grilled wagyu beef burger from the Hollywood Brown Derby at Hollywood Studios costs $23 and items from the kids’ menu range from $7 to $15.

Non-passholders could spend anywhere from $30 to $100 per person for all three meals in one day. Said Nicolas Tomboulides of Melbourne, “As passholders, we’ve always found it to be a great value. ... The burger meals are $10; the drinks are $2-$3. It’s not unlike what someone would pay at a Ruby Tuesday or Chili’s.”

Did you know? Theme park guests are allowed to bring snacks and bottled water into the park. But bring snacks that don’t melt!

contributing: Luann Manderville, Tim Walters

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