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Off-season can be your best season at Disney World

Email|Print| Text size + By Richard P. Carpenter
Globe Correspondent / April 23, 2006

For every one question I am asked about faraway places with strange sounding names, I get a dozen about a destination much closer to home: Walt Disney World. As the end of school approaches and families plan summer vacations, the search is on for Disney deals, and debate arises over whether to book a room inside or outside the park or, indeed, whether to go at all. Here are my thoughts:

Do go, at least once. The 47-square-mile Florida resort is an American phenomenon that you should experience yourself rather than rely on someone else's view. Maybe you will decide that once is enough or, like several people I know, decide to return every year or two. There always seems to be something new, the latest example being the Animal Kingdom's wild roller-coaster ride, Expedition Everest, which comes complete with an attacking yeti and should have teenagers and tween-agers lining up for repeat rides.

Also coming soon are a revamped Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at the Magic Kingdom, ''Finding Nemo -- the Musical" at the Animal Kingdom, and The Seas with Nemo & Friends, featuring real and imaginary creatures together, at Epcot. Even with new attractions, though, some repeat visitors spend little time at the resort's four big theme parks, choosing instead to golf, dine, shop, and ride the water slides.

If you have school-age children, you may have to go in summer or on school vacation weeks. Alas, that is usually when the parks are most crowded. If you can arrange it, try visiting in late April through early June, Labor Day until Thanksgiving, and -- my favorite time -- the period after Thanksgiving weekend until mid-December. If you are bringing preschoolers,the Disney World website (www.disneyworld.com) has a ''Something For Everyone" menu on which the Preschoolers tab takes you to a page with the new Magical Beginnings program. It features a list of attractions and activities that will especially appeal to the wee ones, and tips on what to do before and during the vacation.

The deals are out there, both online and at brick-and-mortar travel agencies. A quick check finds Liberty Travel (888-271-1584 or www.libertytravel.com) offering a three-night package from Boston that begins at $525 and includes flights, rooms, tickets, and some meals. Travelocity (www.travelocity.com), meanwhile, has an entire section devoted to Disney trips. And Walt Disney World itself (see website above) features a six-night vacation, including rooms and tickets but excluding air fare, that it says a family of four can take for less than $1,500; prepaid dining options are also available.

What families on a budget have to be careful about is the spending once they get there: Snacks, souvenirs, and the like usually end up costing more than you think. One book that addresses such questions is ''Disney on a Dime: Money-Saving Secrets for Your Walt Disney World Vacation" by Chris and Kristal Carlson (Intrepid Traveler, 2005).

Years ago, it might have made sense for budget travelers to stay outside the resort. Accommodations were cheaper elsewhere and complimentary shuttles to Disney World were often available. All of that is still true, but nowadays there are compelling reasons to at least consider lodging in Walt Disney World. The addition in recent years of Value Resorts -- Pop Century, All-Star Sports, All-Star Movies, and All-Star Music -- has cut the price of staying on site to as little as $79 a night off-peak. In addition, staying on site gets you free transportation from the Orlando airport on Disney's Magical Express bus service while properly tagged luggage ''magically" goes from the airport baggage claim to your room. Guests also get transportation from their lodging to the parks and other Disney sites, and early admission to selected theme parks on different days.

At the All-Star Music Resort, nearly 400 rooms are being converted to 192 family suites with kitchenettes. The first suites, expected to start at somewhere around $200 a night, will open in June and the project should be complete by October.

These days the only downside to staying inside Disney World is that you will be less likely to venture beyond Disney territory to attractions such as Universal Orlando and SeaWorld, or the area's natural and cultural offerings. Check out www.orlandoinfo.com and www.floridakiss.com and you will see that the magic of the Orlando/Kissimmee area isn't confined to just one place.

National parks
There are nature and history in our national parks, and if you are planning to visit more than one with the family, a National Parks Pass may make sense. The $50 pass is valid for one year from first use, will admit you and accompanying passengers where a per-vehicle fee is required, or will admit spouse, parents, and children at parks where there is a per-person entrance fee. Those age 62 and over, as well as their passengers, get further discounts with a Golden Age Passport.

Visit www.nps.gov.

Panda love
The Panda Package at the Fairmont Washington, D.C., provides accommodations for four; admission for six to the Giant Panda Habitat at the National Zoo; a zoo welcome kit, including discount coupons, a stuffed panda, zoo map, giant panda fact sheet, activity booklet, panda postcard, and disposable camera. The package, available year round, costs $229, with $10 of that donated to the Giant Panda Conservation Fund.

For more information on this and other family-friendly offers, visit www.fairmont.com/family.

When not included, hotel taxes, airport fees, and port charges can add significantly to the price of a trip. Most prices quoted are for double occupancy; solo travelers will usually pay more. Offers are subject to availability and there may be blackout dates. Richard P. Carpenter can be reached at carpenter@globe.com.

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