April 2012: Orlando’s major theme parks – Disney World, Universal Studios, and Sea World – offer a handful of small discounts that vary by season. But Orlando’s smaller parks, hotels, rental cars, etc., offer larger discounts if you know where to look. Since guests arrive in Central Florida to see Mickey Mouse or Harry Potter, smaller attractions must scramble to nab your one free day or evening – and they offer some kind of savings to make them seem more attractive that their equally small competitors.
Vacationers new to Central Florida don’t know a good restaurant from a bad one, and, if eating out three times per day, often make a decision based on a discount coupon. It’s at least one good reason to choose Restaurant A over Restaurant B. If you can’t agree on a dinner show at Medieval Times, Arabian Nights, Sleuth’s, etc., why not pick the one that offers a buy-one-get-one free admission?
Note: You can save a fair amount of money by relying on coupons and discounts. However, they still represent a small percentage of all Orlando attractions and restaurants. As such, the represent an additional constraint on a vacation. If it’s one parents job to study a coupon book and pick a place for dinner, expect that task to add an extra 15 minutes of study time and perhaps another 15 minutes of driving time. It also adds another topic for family fights, such as “I want pizza,” and “Well, we don’t have a coupon for pizza.”
Even families willing to trade convenience for savings sometimes nix the coupon-discount goals once they get to Orlando. Many leave a theme park hungry, figuring they’ll get something cheaper on the outside. But by that time, no one has the strength to study a coupon book. They say, “We’re on vacation,” followed by, “I’m too tired to think – let’s just go to the closest McDonald’s.” Other families use coupons religiously so they can afford more Mickey Mouse ears or Harry Potter capes. Be realistic before spending a few hours trying to find discounts that you might never use.
Discounts anyone can get
Entertainment.com publishes discount coupon books for most American cities, and buying the Orlando edition before arrival can save significant money. The 2012 edition sells for $22.75 plus shipping, which can be as low as $1. The coupons run through November of each year, and they usually offer a discount if buying in spring or summer. In general, the Entertainment Book has more restaurant coupons that other discounters; and they offer a greater savings. Many are the buy-one-get-one-free variety. Most allow only one coupon per party, so if traveling with a family of four, give the kids their own table and buy two Entertainment Books. Some Entertainment coupons – mainly small attractions – have a buy-one-get-one-free deal for an entire party up to, say, six.
Attractions: WonderWorks, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Old Town Amusements, Fun Spot (go-carts, etc.), Capone’s Dinner & Show, and many miniature golf courses.
Fast food: Pizza Hut, Popeye’s, Hungry Howies, Nature’s Table Café
Casual dining: Rainforest Café and T-Rex (15% – Downtown Disney), Steak ‘n Shake, Perkins, Odoba Mexican Grill
Fine dining: Jack’s Place (inside Rosen Hotel), Café Gauguin, Passage to India, Traders Island Grill
For an overview of other coupons, visit Entertainment.com’s website.
Like the Entertainment Book, the Orlando MagicCard offers a handful of good attraction discounts, though it’s thin for restaurant discounts – most are perhaps 10 to 15 percent off the check or a free appetizer. Still, this card published by the visitor’s bureau, “Visit Orlando,” costs nothing and can be printed at home, so there’s no reason not to order it. For more information and an overview of discounts, visit the Orlando visitor’s center website.
AAA, which used to be the American Automobile Association but now just means “AAA,” offers a number of discounts. While membership is required, anyone may join. A key advantage: AAA works with Disney World, so the card offers some onsite park and hotel discounts not available elsewhere. The cost and rules vary by club, however, and AAA clubs are somewhat autonomous groups located all over the U.S. and even the world, and costs vary. AAA’s corporate home is just north of Orlando – look for the big white building if driving I-4. While some attractions may offer a AAA discount just by showing a card at the ticket booth, Disney requires guests to buy a slightly discounted ticket from a local AAA office – there is no discount at the gate. For more information and to find your local AAA, visit the AAA corporate website.
Companies have started offering steep discounts to Orlando attractions via email, with Groupon and Living Social key examples. If you sign up for the Orlando edition a few months before arrival, a few of them might sound appealing. On the upside, you can save a bundle. On the downside, you must pay upfront, and it’s tough to commit to one great deal when A) you don’t know if a better one will come along tomorrow, and B) you don’t know if you’ll have time to do everything in only one week. (You won’t.) The deals tend to be unusual, however – the kind of stuff you’d consider if you knew they existed, but you didn’t. A recent Orlando Groupon daily ad, for example, offered 41% off skydiving ($130), 51% off a four-hour fishing trip ($24), 73% off go-karts ($22), and half-off a “laser-tag and bumper car outing” ($10).
Do a Google search for “Orlando theme park tickets.” Yeah, a lot of companies want to sell you tickets. Most are legit, but do a background check before buying anything, and avoid any website that seems to offer too-good-to-be-true deals. A scam can pop up overnight. In general, these sites offer a slight discount for tickets to Orlando’s major theme parks, but steeper discounts to secondary attractions and, perhaps, hotels. For the attractions, it’s a win-win. They might make half the amount they’d get if you paid full price at the gate, but these websites boost their presence online and get more people in the door.
Orlando area websites
Once you narrow down a place to stay in Orlando, do an online search for discounts by area. Some sections have their own promotions. The International Drive area, for example, hosts specials along this street that runs parallel to I-4 near Universal Studios and the Orange County Convention Center.
Buy one annual pass
If focusing on Disney for an entire week or more, it might save money to buy one annual pass for the person in the group who tends to pay the bills. Currently, a five-day pass to the parks with the park hopper option (ability to go from park to park) costs $324.36 with tax; a one-year annual pass costs $552.74, or $228.38 more. (Florida residents pay only $414.29, or $89.93 more.) However, Disney offers other discounts to annual passholders, and, depending on your plan, it could save money overall, especially if traveling to Orlando for more than one week and visiting Disney more than five days. If staying offsite, parking is $14 per day, for example, but free with an annual pass. If you plan to visit Disney for five days, that’s an additional $70. The annual pass also nets the owner discounts on some food. While the offers change, the passholder gets discounts on “dining, car rentals, merchandise, backstage tours, entertainment, sports, recreation, and spa treatments.” Again, however, it depends on your personal plans. Check the Walt Disney World website for more info.
Discounts some people can get
This is the granddaddy of all discounts for Universal Studios and Disney World. While Florida residents save little or nothing on a daily admission, annual admissions are a lot cheaper. Florida residents, for example, can get a “seasonal pass” to Walt Disney World, which allows park admission year round except for the high-travel times: two months over the summer, two weeks over Easter, and two weeks over the Christmas holidays. The seasonal pass costs only $286.49, though it doesn’t include other discounts or parking. The parks do demand proof of residency, however, such as a Florida driver’s license.
Large corporations can sign up with TicketsAtWork to offer discounted admission tickets to employees. It costs the corporations nothing beyond paperwork for their Human Resources department. For the Orlando attractions, it operates similar to a private travel club or AAA (listed above), giving them a way to get more people inside the gate by offering a discount behind closed doors. If SeaWorld drops its ticket price at the gate, it loses money on every sale. If it drops the price to a private group, other tourists pay the full load without complaint. Deals can be better in the off-season as parks try to maximize profit. TicketsAtWork even offers discounts to movies. While someone must be employed by a large corporation to tap into TicketsAtWork deals, that person can buy tickets for a friend who doesn’t work there. (Meaning for you if you didn’t read between those lines.)
Active duty military can get discounted tickets before traveling to Orlando through their base. Once in Orlando, discounted tickets can be purchase at Shades of Green, a hotel on Disney property almost – but not quite – within walking distance of the Magic Kingdom. Shades of Green is operated by the Armed Forces Recreation Center, a self-supporting operation. To get the discount, you must present a Military Identification Card or Department of Defense Identification Card. The deals vary by park, but assume about 10 percent overall. Visit the Shades of Green website for current prices.
Associations, insurance, airline, etc.
There are a lot of Orlando discounts out there. If older than 50, check AARP. Airline programs might offer something, as well as credit cards, insurance companies, etc. The discounts come and go as companies add and drop cozy relationships with Orlando attractions. Check your monthly bills and websites for more info. If you don’t know about any discounts, ask at every park’s ticket window when you arrive in Orlando. Make a list of your clubs, carry proof, and ask, “Do you offer a discount for AARP, AAA, USAA, US Airways, or State Farm customers?” Even if the park doesn’t include any of your groups, the ticket seller might suggest a few groups that do get discounts. Maybe you’ll be a member. Or maybe you’ll lie, and the minimum wage employee won’t care.
Almost every hotel and many restaurants have a rack of brochures touting everything from Key West trolleys to Kissimmee airboat rides, and almost every brochure has a “bring this coupon for a 10 percent discount for your entire party up to six.” This doesn’t work for the big parks, but it does for many smaller attractions.