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Enjoy the Magic Kingdom on any budget

Last month while attending a tour operator’s winter 2012-2013 product seminar, a group of us slipped away to refill our coffee mugs in the hospitality area.

Gather a group of travel consultants together and guess what we talked about?

Travel-Disney vacations in specific!

Here’s an overview of the tips collected at this impromptu networking session.

Skip the Disney resorts during peak season. There are 24 official Disney World resorts which lure families with the promise of the full “Disney experience.”

We’re talking on-site character meals, Disney-themed decor and easy access to the park. I love the Disney resorts but we’re talking top dollar here.

It’s still possible to snag rooms at Disney Value Resorts like Disney’s Pop Century Resort or Disney’s All-Star Movie Resort for less than $100 per night, especially if you’re traveling during the off season.

But during peak season, rates rise significantly, and Disney resorts might not offer as much value as a parent on a tight budget would like.

During peak season, look for a low-priced resort off property. By staying off property I am talking roughly one to six miles away from WDW central.

Sure, you might have to spend a few extra minutes on the shuttle, but your savings will certainly make up for it. Your kids can still partake in a character meal in the park or at any of the Disney Resorts, too (you don’t have to be a guest to eat there).

Plus, many of the budget resorts in the Orlando area offer Disney-themed activities and other alluring amenities on site, like Disney movie showings, kids’ pools, and organized games and activities.

Whatever you do, don’t call the Disney hotline and book your trip without searching around for a good bargain. Spend some time researching Disney World deals on the Web. Offers from discounts on accommodations to meal plans to ticket packages pop up often, and frequently feature big savings for families planning visits to the park.

But the key is to be flexible. Plan well in advance and keep your eyes open for the right deal before you set your travel dates. Most deals have date restrictions that are pretty much set in stone.

Don’t be afraid to use the resources of a travel agent who specializes in Disney. Disney has a wonderful agent training program and these College of Disney Knowledge graduates strive to maximize your experience and investments.

Pack It. Don’t Buy It. Like many touristy destinations, Orlando is awash with supermarkets, drug stores and specialty shops that price gouge.

Don’t be surprised to see a bottle of sunscreen that costs $7.99 at your local CVS on sale for $15.99 in your hotel gift shop. And these little costs can really add up.

Make sure you pack everything you and the kids are going to need for your trip, and you could save quite a bit of money.

Bring your own food and drinks to the parks. Disney World is packed with great restaurants, from dinner theaters such as Disney’s Spirit of Aloha Show to character dining options like Cinderella’s Royal Table.

But meals inside the park and at the resorts are usually rather expensive. You can bring snacks into the park, and empty water bottles to fill up at the water fountains.

And, for an easy and affordable lunch, pack some food in a backpack, then store it in one of the lockers available to rent at the entrance to the park as Disney doesn’t prevent anyone from bringing food into the parks. Dine on sandwiches, salads or whatever your family likes, for a fraction of the cost of purchasing the same inside the park.

Have your “Character Meal” at breakfast or lunch. Your child wants to dine on fare cooked by Chef Mickey with the Mouse himself, of course and you want to save money.

The solution is to book your character meal for breakfast or lunch and avoid the costly character dinner. Character meals, which are priced per person, can cost hundreds for a family of four or five. But you can cut costs by choosing the least expensive time to eat, which is generally breakfast or lunch.

For example, at the Crystal Palace in Magic Kingdom, where Pooh poses for photo ops with families and food is served buffet style, breakfast and lunch prices range from $15 to $35.99 per person, whereas dinner prices range from $36 to $59.99 per person.

Really want to save money on a character meet-and-greet? Pay attention to the daily schedule to find out when characters will be out and about at the park.

You could meet Pinocchio on Main Street, Minnie in Adventureland and a princess near Cinderella’s Castle.

Hold off on the Park Hopper. When buying your Disney World tickets, you have the option to purchase a Park Hopper, which provides access to multiple theme parks on the same day for which your ticket is valid.

A standard ticket will give access to one theme park. But with a park hopper add-on, you can visit multiple parks Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom in one day.

I suggest avoiding the water parks. If this is a must visit one closer to home. You’ll save in the long run.

These add-ons look like a bargain. But watch out your family might not even need admission to the extra parks. Each Disney Park is massive and certainly has enough attractions to entertain a family for the span of a day.

Are you really going to need to visit two or three parks within eight hours? Hold off on the Park Hopper and buy it when you get there if you decide you really need it.

The cost will be the same whether you order the add-on online ahead of time or not.

With advance planning and solid research you still can enjoy a getaway to the Magic Kingdom and beyond. I’d also love to hear some of your Disney vacation planning tips too!