It's no surprise that Walt Disney World Resort is the most visited theme park in the world. In 2017, nearly 20.5 million people visited the Magic Kingdom. If you add in the three other parks (Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, all four of which get a combined annual attendance of 56 million people), not to mention the waterparks, hotels and entertainment areas like Disney Springs, the numbers are staggering.
And it's about to get busier: The holidays are Disney's peak season, especially on Christmas Day, when the Magic Kingdom has been known to close after hitting capacity. But no matter when you go, there's a right way to do Disney, whether you want to save money or plan the most memorable splurge ever.
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Disney has more than 25 hotels, and staying at one of them gives you perks like early FastPass+ access, allowing you to book the most popular rides before anyone else. The hotels are broken down by price: A stand-out in the value category is Disney's All-Star Sports Resort, which has a pool shaped like a baseball diamond and rates that dip as low as $99 a night, depending on the time of the year. Another money-saving hack: You can buy points from Disney Vacation Club members, which help you save on rooms at member properties. For an affordable find beyond Disney, check out the Holiday Inn Resort Orlando, Lake Buena Vista, with rates as low as $71 a night, free dining for kids under 12, and a free shuttle to the parks, which are just a mile away.
Want to feel like you're staying at a national park? Disney's Copper Creek Villas & Cabins at Disney's Wilderness Lodge feels like an authentic lodge straight out of Yellowstone National Park, even though you're just a short boat ride away from the Magic Kingdom. Rates for studios start at $438 per night.
Or go glam at the Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, where a lazy river curls around the grounds, the sprawling spa provides serious princess-style pampering and the shop sells extravagant souvenirs like Missoni mouse ears. Prices vary based on the time of year, but the lowest starting rate is $529 per night.
It's not easy to eat on a budget inside a theme park. But there are ways to spend less. Go to one of the newer, less-known spots, like Satu'li Canteen in Pandora, the World of Avatar, which has healthy bowls starting at $12.49, or the Asian-inspired Yak & Yeti, near Expedition Everest in the Animal Kingdom, with dishes like wonton soup from $6.99. (You can order and pay for your restaurant food in advance on the My Disney Experience mobile app if you want to skip the lines.) Also, Disney Springs, a dining and entertainment area five miles from the Magic Kingdom (there's a complimentary bus from the parks), has affordable finds like the new Chicken Guy, a quick-service spot from chef Guy Fieri, with fried chicken and more than 22 different sauces (adult sandwiches start at $5.99).
You won't want to miss Be Our Guest, the Beauty and the Beast-themed restaurant set right in the Magic Kingdom that provides a fantasy scene right out of the movie (and books up far in advance), with prices starting at $60 for adults (ages 10 and up) and $36 for children (ages 3 to 9). At Victoria & Alberts, a hushed Victorian-style spot tucked into Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, there are tasting menus starting at seven courses for $185 per person and dishes like tagliatelle pasta with Italian white truffles (a $75 upcharge). Or take it to the next level by booking the chef's table at Victoria & Albert's and eating inside the kitchen. For celebrity-chef dining, head to Disney Springs, where world-renowned chef Wolfgang Puck just opened a refined restaurant with stand-out dishes like a 32-oz porterhouse steak for two ($84). On the horizon: Chef Jose Andres is about to open an outpost of his Spanish tapas spot, Jaleo.
Disney World's legendary fireworks display over Cinderella's Castle takes place most nights (times vary).
But don't make the rookie mistake of trying to find a spot to watch from the Magic Kingdom just minutes before the show starts. For great views with fewer crowds, jump on the park's monorail or take a complimentary boat (which sail across Seven Seas Lagoon) and head to the Polynesian Village Resort. It's a few minutes' walk from the Transportation and Ticket Center, and on the beach next to the overwater bungalows, and you'll get unrivaled fireworks viewing.
Want to do the fireworks in high style? From the Magic Kingdom, it's about five to 10 minutes by boat or 15 minutes by monorail to the Grand Floridian. You don't need to be a guest to have dinner at the fine-dining restaurant Citricos, where you'll get a spectacular view of the incredible display of lights, plus music to accompany the show. Another tip: From Capa, the 17th floor steakhouse at the Four Seasons Resort Orlando, you can get a panoramic view of not just one, but three sets of fireworks at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Animal Kingdom.
Disney has tons of interactive games that are available at no charge and allow you to discover the parks in a fun and immersive way. Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom sends you on spell-casting scavenger hunt. With Animal Kingdom Wilderness Explorers (based on the movie "Up") kids can get a field guide to roam the park and collect stickers. In Epcot, Agent P's World Showcase Adventure is a secret agent-style scavenger hunt. Or just go searching for Hidden Mickeys, which are located all through the parks (in bathrooms, on murals, even an electrical cable or an ice cream scoop could be shaped like a Mickey head).
If money is no object, take a tour on Walt Disney World's 52-foot Grand Yacht 1. This sleek Sea Ray Sedan Bridge Yacht accommodates up to 18 people, giving you a view of Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon like you've never seen it. You can even hire a private butler to serve meals on board. Rates start at $399 per hour.
Tickets and getting around
Save big by planning your trip dates wisely. Disney recently introduced a dynamic ticketing plan (you can search the lowest pricing for various months, for example), with prices ranging from $109-$129 depending on timing and demand. Visit Orlando offers discounted tickets to Disney if purchased through its site. Travelers can also have a live chat with an expert on VisitOrlando.com (it's staffed with knowledgeable vacation guides who can provide planning assistance with tips on what to do and how to save). The cheapest money-saving trick of all? Check out Disney Springs, a destination for shopping, restaurants and entertainment where you'll experience a lot of the magic of the parks with no admission charge.
Hire a VIP tour guide from Disney, who can help you jump the lines, get special character meetings and even get access to exclusive viewing spots for the daily Festival of Fantasy Parade in the Magic Kingdom and the nightly fireworks. Prices range from $425 and $625 per hour, depending on the season and not include park admission.
This story first appeared on CNBC.com. More from CNBC: