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· Get a new 2002 Orlando Magic Card, a money saving discount card good for up to six people, from the Orlando CVB, participating restaurants or by calling 800-551-0181.

· Visit the Orlando CVB's Visitor Center on International Drive and check out its black book of area hotels offering up to 75 percent off rates. First come, first served and you must visit in person to get the savings. Also pick up discounted tickets while here to Disney World, Universal, SeaWorld and other area attractions.

· If you're over 55, call 800-551-0181 for a free seniors in Orlando brochure and discount information. Be sure to always ask about senior discounts.

· If driving, visit the official Disney Welcome Center right off I-10 at the Ocala exit. A virtual clearinghouse for rooms inside the Disney complex, they offer discounted savings based on season and availability. You must appear in person.

· When booking a hotel, ask for the room rate BEFORE you tell them about your club, AAA membership, discounts, etc. Also ask about specials, and watch for coupons by mail and online.

· More than 25 Orlando hotels are offering "Family Spring Break" specials from $29.95 per person and up. Call 800-551-0181 for information.

· Get double membership rewords points for American Express card members for booking your vacation from May 1 through June 30, 2002. More than 50 participating establishments help you receive double points.

· Universal is offering several money saving specials online at, including a $100 savings on three nights or more at the Hard Rock or Portofino resorts. Another special is "unlimited admission" to the parks and CityWalk Clubs for $129 per person per night at selected on-site resorts, based on a three-night stay, from April 7 until Sept. 30, 2002.

· Holiday Inn Family Suites, 877-387-5437 or



By Carol Muse Evans

Orlando, Florida, is the American family's number one vacation destination, attracting more than 42 million visitors annually. And while Orlando is the favorite vacation spot, it can also be one of the costliest places to visit.

The sky's the limit on what you can spend on an Orlando vacation, but there are ways to make this dream a reality without blowing the savings account. Of course, a lot depends on what attractions are on your itinerary.

In Frontierland, you can rush down Splash Mountain in a log flume in pursuit of Brer Rabbit .
Orlando CVB photo

The Walt Disney World complex - quite possibly the most popular single destination in Orlando - now boasts four major theme parks, three water parks, two night-time entertainment districts and more than 25 on-site resorts/hotels on the Disney grounds.

An ongoing debate is whether to stay on the Disney property and be "in the middle of the magic" while visiting the Disney theme parks. Most die-hard fans think it's a necessity, yet it can be expensive. A room at the Contemporary Resort, famous for the monorail train that runs through its grand concourse, can start at $189.00 a night. The luxurious Grand Floridian has rooms starting at $200. Keep in mind that traveling in "value season," Disney's off-season (the week after labor day until Thanksgiving, then the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, then after New Year's until Feb. 15 is considered "value season"), may afford you from 10 to 20 percent off savings on accommodations, and be sure to ask about specials, as well. Still, the average American family my find the cost of the magic not so magical.

Traveling in öff-season"may mean facing inclement weather. The author's family takes it in stride.
Carol Muse Evans photo

In answer, the Disney Company has worked hard to make "staying in the middle of the magic" more affordable with such moderate-priced resorts as the Caribbean Beach, starting at around $105 per night, and the All-Star Resorts that begin at $79. While the less expensive rooms can be somewhat small and usually only accommodate four guests, keep in mind you probably won't be spending much time in the room, anyway. However, remember you are somewhat bound to restaurant and meal choices on the Disney property, which tend to be expensive. If you have your own car or a rental, you can always leave the Disney grounds, but if you are confined there because of travel arrangements, you may find it a problem.

One major benefit of staying in Disney hotels in the past has been the early admission to select parks on select days for Disney guests. However, since the economic downturn after September 11, early admissions have been cancelled until "further notice," so it may be worth asking before booking.

Another benefit of staying on site is free transportation in and around the Disney complex and to its theme parks by monorail, boat and bus for all on-site guests, but, depending on the time of year you visit, this can be a waiting game.

One tip: be wary of Disney package deals. Itemize the package and its offerings and compare to individual prices. You'll find a lot of extras you probably don't want and would be paying dearly for.

More and more travelers are discovering Universal Orlando, declared by "Fodor's" as the "best theme park in the world," as well as its new sister park, Islands of Adventure.

Universal Studios attracts people who want to go behind the scenes and straight into the movies. Thrills and chills are part of the rides at Universal, with such feature films brought to life as "Men in Black," "ET: The Extraterrestrial," "Back to the Future," "Twister," "Jaws" and more. There's even Barney's stage show and a theme area for the younger set, including a "Curious George" mini-water park and playground.

Then next door at Islands of Adventure, the Universal folks have brought "Spider-Man," "Dudley-Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls", "Jurassic Park" and "Seuss Landing," a magical tribute to the world of children's book writer Dr. Seuss, complete with carousel, play area and terrific "Cat in the Hat" storybook ride. Islands of Adventure also offers "The Hulk" and "Dueling Dragons" roller coasters.

CityWalk at Universal features the largest Hard Rock Cafe in the world.
Carol Muse Evans photo

CityWalk is Universal's own shopping, restaurant and club complex, offering 30 acres of entertainment "after hours." From the Hard Rock Café, to Emeril's, to Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville, there's something for everyone's taste here, before and after sunset.

Universal has its on-site hotels, now offering three Loew's luxury resorts: the Portofino Bay Hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel, and opening soon, the Royal Pacific Resort. Again, rooms in these hotels on-site usually start art around $200, but ask about specials and packages for possible discounts.

The advantage to staying on site here, other than the obvious being near the parks, is on-site free transportation and "go to the front of the line" passes for all resort guests, a real perk, particularly if you choose to visit during busy season.

Orlando is also home to Sea World, the new Discovery Cove, Ripley's Believe it Or Not! Odditorium and such museums and historical sites as the Orlando Science Center and the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Educational Center. There's also more than 44 million square feet of retail shopping paradise in Orlando, offering everything from outlet shopping to souvenir and upscale items.

If you choose to stay off-site, there are numerous choices, from the budget hotel to the moderate to the luxury hotel, and even condominiums offering a "home away from home." You can spend anywhere from an amazingly low $28 a night up, depending on level of luxury and season in which you travel. Decide what you need for your entourage, what features are important to you and the bottom line, what you can afford. Keep in mind that if you stay off site, you will need to pay a $6 parking fee each day at the Disney theme parks and $7 at Universal and Sea World, but these last for the whole day.

Some advantages to staying off-site are obvious, such as the benefit of competition among hotel chains. They work to get your business, particularly in "off season," so rates are more competitive. Many offer perks such as buffet and continental breakfasts, free nights, discounted tickets and on-site ticket purchases to attractions and even free or discounted transportation to and from the Disney and other theme parks. Be sure to ask about the additional services so you can compare "apples to apples" when selecting your accommodations. Check this list of discounted hotels.

Carol Muse Evans is a freelance travel writer, author and associate editor of Birmingham Family Times Magazine. Her work also appears in the New York Post, Travel Smart, Southern Discoveries and more. Outgoing president of the Alabama Media Professionals and National Federation of Press Women, she and her husband David and their two children often spend vacations in Orlando.