Free and Disney are not normally words that you think of going together. Yet despite the generally pricey nature of Disney travel, there are plenty of free things to be had at Walt Disney World. Here’s a list of no-cost items both large and small that can enhance your Disney vacation experience.
- Sweets. More than 50% of the time I that I visit the Main Street Confectionery, there is cast member walking around with a tray full of samples for guest to try. I’ve tasted Krispie treats, cookies, bits of cake, and even cotton candy. Plus, there is almost always a tray of fudge samples sitting on top of the main display case. You won’t be able to fill up here like you might at your local Costco, but if you’re looking for just a bit of sweet to satisfy your palate after your meal, the Confectionery is the place for you.
- Soda. Stop by Club Cool at Epcot and drink your fill of eight flavors of Coke products from around the world. These range from the sweet Smart Watermelon from China to the bitter and, in my opinion, totally yummy, Beverly from Italy. The Club Cool drink stations are supplied with tasting-size cups, but you’re welcome to stay and taste as much as you want for as long as you want. I’ve even heard rumors about guests filling empty water bottles and taking their soda to go.
- Water. The water bottles sold throughout the parks cost about $2.50 each. If you want to hydrate for free, simply walk up to any counter service restaurant and ask for a cup of ice water. They’ll hand it over at no charge. Add a lid and a straw to your cup, and you’ve got almost the same level of portability as a bottle.
- Ice. When answering questions for the Walt Disney World Moms Panel, I have often seen questions from international guests asking if ice is available at the Disney hotels and how much it costs. They can rest assured that there are free ice machines at all the Walt Disney World resorts.
- Meals for infants and toddlers. Children under the age of three will not be charged for food at Disney’s buffet and family-style table service restaurants when dining with their families.
- Salad. Several of the Disney World counter service restaurants feature a “toppings” bar with lovely fixin’s for your purchased burger: lettuce, tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms, shredded cheese, and more. I’m not putting my personal stamp of approval on this one, but it is common knowledge in some circles that you can make yourself a substantial, and free, side dish for your meal from this quasi-salad-bar.
- Dining. Disney often uses free dining plan offers as lure to entice guests to visit during historically low-crowd times. If 2012 follows the pattern, it will be fairly easy to travel to Walt Disney World and receive free dining from mid-August through early October. However, there is a definite caveat emptor with this. Depending on your eating habits and where you stay, free dining might end up costing you. Check out Tom Bricker’s excellent analysis of whether free dining really makes sense.
- A cupcake. You say it’s your birthday? Yes, it’s your birthday (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). Tell your server at any table service restaurant and there’s a decent chance that she’ll gift you with a complimentary cupcake. No guarantees, but worth a shot.
- Celebration buttons. If you’re celebrating, be it a birthday, anniversary, first visit, family reunion, or anything else really, stop by the Guest Relations office at any of the theme parks and they’ll give you a free button with which to publicly proclaim your celebratory status.
- Stickers. If you spend a day a Disney World, a cast member will hand you a sticker, or possibly many stickers, white, round, and emblazoned with the smiling mug of Mickey Mouse. It’s just something that happens.
- Maps. You’re saying, “Yeah, so?” Well, park maps are a resource you shouldn’t overlook. Save them for your scrapbook. Frame them for playroom decor. Use them for small-item gift wrap. Turn foreign-language maps into a great teaching tool for your child’s school language lessons.
- Fireworks. You want to see the evening fireworks, but you don’t want to pony up for park admission? No problem, just head over to a nearby resort and watch from there. Great spots for Magic Kingdom fireworks viewing include the beach at the Polynesian and the bridge at the Contemporary between the main building and Bay Lake Tower. For Epcot fireworks, try the beach at the Beach Club or Boardwalk.
- Electrical Water Pageant. If you’re watching the fireworks outdoors at a Magic Kingdom area resort, stay after to watch the charming electric water pageant. This series of barges shows a sweet and simple light display synchronized to music while cruising around Bay Lake. Disney true confession time: This is one of my favorite attractions in all of Walt Disney World.
- Street performers. Weather permitting, you can find magicians, musicians, jugglers and more performing on the Boardwalk. Park yourself on a bench and enjoy the show.
- Campfire and movies. Again weather permitting, many resorts show free movies in the evening, often outdoors on the beach or by the pool. All are welcome, just give a call to your favorite resort and ask what’s playing. The most elaborate of these free movies is the nightly Chip & Dale campfire sing-along at Fort Wilderness. The chipmunks and a guitar-playing friend greet guests before the film.
- Holiday decor. From mid-November through early January, Disney is dressed in its holiday finest. Much of the best holiday decor is located in the resorts: a life-sized gingerbread house at the Grand Floridian, a train display at the Yacht Club, a tree decorated with African ornaments at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, and more. You’re welcome to stop and admire them with no charge.
- Play time. Do you have a Lego lover in your house? Stop by the Lego store at Downtown Disney. You can stay as long as you like, playing with unique Lego shapes and racing Lego cars.
- Animal viewing. If your kid is interested in animals, stop by the Animal Kingdom Lodge. There are many viewing stations where you can observe giraffes, zebras, and other exotic species for as long as you like. Come in the evening and you may be able to borrow night-vision goggles for viewing creatures in the dark.
- Park admission for preschoolers. The best reason ever to bring your two-year-old on vacation, kids under the age of three are allowed in the theme parks at no charge.
- Transportation to Walt Disney World. If you’re flying into Orlando International and staying at a Walt Disney World resort hotel, Disney’s Magical Express service is included with your room. This free shuttle to and from the airport offers a savings of about $75 over taking a cab to the World, each way.
- Transportation within Walt Disney World. Anyone who is partaking of any part of Walt Disney World is welcome to use any of the free on-property transportation, including, boats, monorails, and buses. You don’t have to be staying at a Disney hotel to qualify, you don’t even have to be visiting a theme park.
- Parking. Guests staying at Disney hotels can park for free at the theme parks. Off-site guests will pay $14 per day. Self-parking is free at all the Disney hotels and Downtown Disney.
- Photography. The PhotoPass photographers in the parks will take pictures with their cameras at no charge, but it will cost you big to actually buy the photos. Bypass this charge by asking the PhotoPass photographers to use your camera to take your picture. They’re happy to do it and most of them are pretty good at composing a shot; they do it all day long.
- Wi-Fi. This is a HUGE, HUGE, HUGE new development. There is now free in-room and public space wireless Internet service at the deluxe and convention center hotels. If your hotel hasn’t been upgraded to free Wi-Fi yet, feel free to camp out with your laptop or iPad in the lobby of any of the deluxe hotels. It’s a comfy place to get some work done.
- Package delivery. If you’ve taken the decidedly not-free step of buying merchandise in the parks, Disney will gladly take it off your hands so you can enjoy the rides, and more shopping, unencumbered. Packages can be sent for free to either a pick-up area at the front of the park, or even to your Disney hotel.
- Luggage storage. Check-out is at 11:00 a.m., but your flight’s not til 7:00 p.m.? No problem. Just drop your bags at the hotel Bell Services desk. They’ll hold your luggage in a secure location until your departure, at no charge.
- Luggage transfer. If you’re switching between two Disney hotels mid-trip, Bell Services will move your luggage between locales for you, for free.
So what am I missing? What have you found that’s consistently or surprisingly free at Walt Disney World? Let us know in the comments below.
UPDATE: We’ve complied an all new list of MORE free things at Walt Disney World. Check it out!