The charges to park at Walt Disney World’s theme parks have gone up every year (sometimes more than once a year) for just about as long as WDW has been around. For a long, long time, there were ways to sometimes avoid having to pay those fees – some 100% legit, others a little more questionable – but over the years, Walt Disney World has managed to squelch almost all of them.
Here’s the list of what used to be options to not have to pay for WDW theme park parking and what each situation is now, as well as what your options are nowadays.
Then & Now
THEN: Stay at a WDW-owned hotel and parking was free at your hotel and at the parks
For a long time, that was a perk that Disney used as a selling point for staying at one of their resort hotels.
NOW: In March 2018, WDW started charging overnight guests to park at their hotels (although guests from the U.K. got a reprieve until 2020). These charges are sliding scale and the amount varies based on the hotel (the more expensive the hotel, the more you can expect to make for overnight parking). Granted, these guests are still able to park at the parks for free, but that’s negated by the cost of overnight parking.
THEN: Use the “U-Turn”
This one was never super well-known, but it became available after the guard gate on Vista Blvd. (just east of the entrance to Fort Wilderness) became unmanned and was eventually torn down (I want to say the late ’90s or early ’00s?). If you entered WDW property such that you drove west on Vista Blvd. and followed the then-curve in the road to go north on World Drive, then made a left on Seven Seas Drive, went past the Polynesian Resort Hotel, and made another left onto Floridian Way, there was a U-turn approximately across from the WDW Car Care Center, which was AFTER the gates where you pay for parking, that was specifically designed to allow you to “re-enter the WDW parking lot.” Or, you know, just enter it ;-).
NOW: They closed that U-turn in 2017 as part of the construction/new roads around the WDW parking gates, and rebuilt it about a mile south of its original position. It now exists BEFORE the gates where you pay for parking.
THEN: Park at one of the hotels near the parks and walk over
If you parked at the Polynesian or Grand Floridian, you could take the monorail or a boat to the Magic Kingdom. Heck, you could even walk from the Contemporary! If you wanted to go to Epcot, you could park at Boardwalk or Yacht/Beach Club (the Swan and Dolphin always charged for day parking because they weren’t Disney-owned) and walk or take the boat (or…old timer here…the tram!) to get there. The same went for Disney’s Hollywood Studios (which was still the Disney MGM Studios at the time).
NOW: Depending on several factors, the guard gates often don’t always let people park at the hotels mentioned above during the day. There are also rumors that if they do let you in (i.e., to eat at a hotel restaurant, shop there, etc.), they keep tabs of cars’ license plates to ensure they don’t stay parked all day.
THEN: Park at Downtown Disney/Pleasure Island/Disney Village Marketplace and take a bus
In the days before Disney Springs, you could park at whatever that dining/shopping/entertainment complex was called at the time 😉 and take a bus from there directly to a park.
NOW: The Disney Springs buses don’t go to any of the theme parks. So you’d have to take a bus or ferry to a hotel and then get from said hotel to your park of choice (which could very well mean taking another bus, a boat, or a monorail, depending on your starting and ending point).
THEN: Park at one of WDW’s water parks, miniature golf courses or ESPN Wide World of Sports and take a bus
NOW: Technically, you can still do that. But again, none of the buses that service the WDW water parks or mini-golf courses directly service the four major parks; you’d have to take a bus to a WDW resort hotel and then make your way to your park of choice.
THEN: Buy an annual pass for your child age 3-9
Just as now, the AP holder didn’t have to pay for parking. On top of that, for many, many years, an AP for a child age 3-9 was significantly cheaper than that for an adult’s AP (for guests age 10+). You only needed 1 person’s AP to get the free parking, so if you had a 3-to-9-year-old in your party, it was sometimes worth it to get a kid’s AP (depending on the cost of the pass vs. day tickets for said child), so you didn’t have to pay for parking.
NOW: AP holders still get to park for free. However, a kid’s AP is the same cost as an adult’s AP.
So what can you do nowadays?
Well, some of the things we mentioned are still available. The first two are very viable and make perfect sense, but I don’t think the second two are really worth the effort:
Stay at a WDW hotel: Although overnight parking at moderate and deluxe WDW hotels are higher, if you stay at a value resort, the overnight parking fee is roughly half of the parks’ parking fee. Guest staying at a Disney Resort hotel still receive complimentary standard parking at Disney theme parks for the length of their Resort stay, so once you’ve paid to park overnight, you can park at the parks for free.
Get an Annual Pass: Select Annual Passholders still get free parking at the parks and only one AP holder in your party has to have an AP to do it. You have to decide for yourself if getting an AP vs. regular day tickets and parking charges is worth it (APs ain’t cheap), but if it is, you’ll be able to drive to the parks without paying for parking.
Park at Disney Springs and take a bus: Technically, this will work, but this isn’t the intention of the Disney Springs parking areas. So over time, WDW has made subtle changes to ensure this method will be inconvenient in that it’ll take a pretty huge chunk out of your day. You have to find a parking spot in one of the Disney Springs garages. Walk to the bus stop area. Take a bus to a resort hotel. And then make your way from there to a park via other Disney transportation. Granted, one-way bus service from the 4 Disney theme parks operates daily from 4:00 PM until 11:00 PM or 2 hours after theme parks close (whichever is earlier), so it should be relatively easy to get back to your car when you’re done for the day. However, you’re still going to waste a whole lot of time at the beginning of your day, trying to get to a park.
Park at one of WDW’s water parks, miniature golf courses or ESPN Wide World of Sports and take a bus: Again, technically it’ll still work, but not only will you waste a lot of time getting to your park of choice (see “Park at Disney Springs”), you’ll have to leave said park early because the water parks, mini-golf courses and ESPN generally close earlier than the parks. So you’d have to go from the park to a hotel early, so you can take a bus to wherever you’ve parked, while the bus service is still running.
Stay offsite and use your hotel’s shuttle/bus back and forth to the parks: Of course, you have to find a hotel that doesn’t charge for parking (or one that at least charges less than Disney does). That does negate the convenience of having your own car, but it will save you money on parking.
Stay offsite and use public transportation/taxi/ride-sharing: Some hotels offer free parking but no transportation between them and the parks. Central Florida has a reliable public bus system called Lynx, and you may be able to get from your hotel to/from WDW using the public bus. Here’s more info about it. Taxis and Uber/Lyft (<– this article includes links to price calculators about halfway down) might be options as well, but by the time you pay for round trip rides plus tip, the cost may be more than parking at the parks ;-).
Don’t drive/rent a car in Central FL: It’s kind of a no brainer, but if you don’t have a car, they can’t charge you for parking (well, technically they shouldn’t. But a whole bunch of people who didn’t drive to WDW have gotten charged for parking anyway). You can take Disney’s Magical Express in both directions between MCO and WDW and then rely on Disney’s transportation to go to and from the parks. Of course, that leaves you “stranded” at Disney (which is Disney’s ultimate goal LOL), unless you’re willing to pay for a taxi or Uber/Lyft to see the other cool things that Central FL has to offer.
Figuring out how to avoid WDW theme park parking fees is something like a cat and mouse game. For years the cats could win if they wanted to play the game, but nowadays it seems as if The Mouse has the upper 4-fingered hand. But seriously, if you’re going to spend however many hundreds or thousands of dollars to go to WDW, how much of a difference will parking fees make in the whole scheme of things? If it’s what you consider to be a significant difference, maybe consider cutting how much you pay for food or souvenirs or that special event you planned on. And if that parking fee will really make or break your trip in terms of finances, well, maybe you should rethink going to WDW, to begin with.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary