Disney World visitors say forget the expense, fun is more important

ORLANDO, Fla. - Darn it, isn't anyone scrimping on their Disney World vacation?

I'm here to look for families who can give cost-cutting tips.

Instead, I get, oh, gee, let's see ... the Sodrel family.

They've dropped $4,000 in a week visiting with their four daughters, staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge in a deluxe room. It's their sixth year vacationing at Disney World.

They love Disney World. They're crazy about Disney World. In fact, those are their daughters and niece over there in the red-and-black polka-dot $60 Minnie Mouse dresses and $18 white mouse ears with bridal veils, hopping the bus to Epcot.

"We're Disney veterans," says Noah Sodrel of Greenwood, Ind. "Yes, it's an expensive place. But for us, having fun is the issue. When we've tried to save money, it's not the same."

Well, OK. But does he have any tips for someone who might want to try?

"We try to come off peak, like now" in January, he says.

"And we got the meal plan. We worked it out. It's cheaper."

The most popular amusement park in the world, Disney World is a money machine. Every year, it relentlessly raises ticket prices. Single-day tickets are up 72 percent for children in the last four years (to $56). It now costs nearly $1,000 for a family of four who want four-day Park Hopper tickets that allow them to attend all four Disney World parks.

"The only thing in the same category with Disney price increases is gasoline price increases," says Bob Sehlinger, author of "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2007" (Wiley, $18.99.) "It's an incredibly aggressive pricing strategy."

But here's the weird part: Ticket prices don't seem to deter visitors. In the 2006, park attendance rose by 5 percent over the previous year. People spent 4 percent more at the parks, and they even spent 5 percent more at Disney World hotels, whose occupancy rates rose to 83 percent.

"We reward longer stays," says Rick Sylvain, Disney spokesman. "Focus groups continually tell us they feel they get a lot of value for the money. Compared to an NBA ticket or a night on Broadway, it's a value."

At the same time, Disney has figured out how to entice families to get better deals by a) staying longer and b) staying on the Disney World property.

Its value family package starts at $1,699 for a family of four per week, including park tickets. (Airfare is additional.)

Disney also offers a meal plan (about $39 per day for adults and $11 for children) to make food costs more controllable. At Disney resorts, where a bottle of water can cost $2, breakfast buffets cost $14 and dinner can cost $40 per person, it is a deal.

Also, Disney instituted "Magic Your Way" ticketing in 2005 so people could have more choice about which parks to visit and how long to stay.

So there must be people out there craving the deals. But where are they?

I head over to Downtown Disney, the shopping area of Disney World.

On this Saturday night, throngs are shopping their heads off, buying everything from $89 Cinderella castles to fine cigars. No scrimping there that I can see.

On a Monday morning, I return to visit the new Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique Salon inside the Disney store. It gives princess and little cool dude makeovers to boys and girls. The value is, you can get a $35 hairdo and sparkly makeup.

But there I meet up with Craig and Suzanne Vear of Yorkshire, England, who instead are treating their daughters Jessica, 10 and Emily, 7, to the ultimate princess makeovers - $175 per girl - including costume, shoes, updo hairstyle, makeup and princess magic wand.

Emily is in silver. Jessica is in pink. They look fragile and regal and a bit afraid to move their heads.

"This is our fourth vacation here, but we never discovered this place before," says Craig Vear, who says the family is spending 12 days at Disney World this time.

The money? It's not the issue, the parents say.

"I wish I could have done this when I was a little girl," says Suzanne Vear, looking proudly at her dolled-up daughters.

Then I run into Michael Wolverton of Milwaukee, whose daughter, Chastity, 5, is getting the same treatment, right down to gold sparkly shoes.

Cha-ching! Thanks, Dad.

OK, so maybe I'm looking in the wrong place. Admission ticket prices, can't do much about them . Kids, I guess parents will spend anything for their little princesses. And food - did I tell you about Jiko, the fine restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge with fabulous steaks and a $6 cup of coffee? You're not going to save much on food unless you eat Fig Newtons in your room for breakfast and maybe make peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.

That leaves accommodations.

Still scouting for bargains, I'm starting to feel like the miserly skinflint who saves dryer lint for pillow stuffing.

Then I meet Bill Schaper, guest services manager at All- Star Music Resort.

For families who want to stay on Disney property to take advantage of free shuttles, parking and proximity to all four Disney parks, he has one place to try.

Lodging. Disney has 6,000 All-Star Resort rooms that start at $79. They even have 214 brand new two-room family suites that look pretty family-friendly to me, with a queen bed in one room and a double and two single pullouts in the other. Depending on the season, suites run $179-$265 a night. They look worth it.

With just a food court and no Jiko restaurants, "We don't have all the amenities, but we have the Disney service," says Schaper. The All- Star Resorts rooms contribute 30 percent of the hotel revenue at Disney. So someone must want cheap (actually, never use the word "cheap" at Disney. Use "value.")

I just never met anyone.

I tried. I really tried.

I ask guidebook author Bob Sehlinger about it. Is there something about Disney that makes people want to splurge?

"A lot of people plan their trip years in advance," he says, "and they think, this is our vacation and we'll have the best of everything."

Then all of a sudden I meet three girls from Chicago near Downtown Disney. The college students are trying to sneak onto a free bus to the Magic Kingdom.

"Are you doing anything to save money?" I ask pitifully, hopefully. They laugh.

"We searched the Internet and paid $226.38 for our plane tickets," says one of the girls. They hope their total cost of the vacation is no more than $500. Whoa. $500? Where are they staying?

"My uncle's timeshare."

Good tip. Have an uncle with a timeshare.

Then over at the Magic Kingdom, I spot a friendly family posing in front of Cinderella's castle. It's the Tomkulak family from 100 Mile House, British Columbia, here for a week with their son and daughter.

"Anything you're doing to cut corners?" I ask.

"Sure," says Lee Tomkulak. He unzips his backpack.

"See? We brought sandwiches," says his wife, Deana, showing inside the backpack where lunch is stuffed inside. They eat breakfast and dinner in their rooms and bring sandwiches to the parks. They are staying free at his mother's timeshare. Before they left home, they bought some kind of fishy-sounding three-day Park Hopper tickets online that were upgraded to five-day tickets.

"How much will you spend on the whole trip?" I ask.

"From the beginning, we planned to be careful," he says, restoring my faith in the budget-conscious traveler. "I'm thinking about $2,500."

For Disney, that's a deal.