The average leisure visitor to Orlando spends about $534 per trip and stays 41/2 days, according to the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau. That's a lot of Grumpy mugs and plush Shamus. You can cut costs by trimming your lodging expenses. Here are some ways to do that:
* Go at the right time of year and you can save a bundle. Though it's difficult for families with school-age children to travel off-season, prices (as well as park crowds) plunge. Off-season includes early winter (January to mid-February), the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the months cushioning summer (May and September).
* Use multiple Web searches to check hotel prices. As we found during our search for budget lodging outside the park (see our picks, Page P4), it pays to use numerous sites, including Orbitz.com, Expedia.com, Travelocity.com and Hotels.com. Use an aggregator site such as Sidestep.com to run a search that includes hotel sites.
* Once you've narrowed your choices, call the individual hotels or check their Web sites for discounted rates or special deals not available elsewhere. AAA and AARP deals, for instance, can be sizable. We found a rate for about $40 through a Web search for the Howard Johnson Maingate Resort, but when we checked www.howardjohnson.com, we found the same room for $33 with a AAA discount.
* Read the signs. Many hotels in Orlando/Kissimmee advertise their rates on giant illuminated signs that change based on occupancy. If the rate you're paying is more than what the hotel's marquee is promising, ask for that rate.
* Don't be afraid to shop around once you've checked in. If the hotel you booked is a dog and you're in it for more than a night, look around to see if you can do better. After we checked in at the aforementioned Howard Johnson, we started searching for alternative lodging -- and found it a few miles down the road. For $20 more, our hotel (the Comfort Suites Maingate) was nicer in every conceivable way, and the price included breakfast.
True, we did book a $33 room, but we didn't have to settle for it. After we voiced our displeasure, the HoJo desk clerk let us cancel our reservation penalty-free. If we'd been staying a week and the employee was less amiable, we gladly would have forfeited the $33.
* Check tourism bureaus to see what deals they're listing. The state's official tourism site, www.flausa.com, has long-term, short-term and military deals on its home page. The Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau site (www.orlandoinfo.com) lists a ream of "Great Offers"; you can also print out an Orlando Magicard, which offers numerous lodging discounts. For example, according to the site, the peak-season published rate for the Comfort Inn Lake Buena Vista is $69 a night; with the card, the tariff is $49.
* Prices at Disney properties, for the most part, don't fluctuate much except for seasonal variations. But the company has been offering discounts to fill rooms in the past year; watch for ads and check with Disney itself (407-939-6244, www.disneyworld.com) for deals. Rooms at its Value resorts (Pop Century and the All Star properties), for instance, usually start at $77 but have been marked down to as low as $55 in the past year.
* Check whether your hotel includes breakfast in its rates. It's well worth the extra $10 or $20 you may pay for waffle-inclusive lodging at another hotel (breakfast for four at Denny's can easily top that amount). For a bit extra, you may be able to get a room with a kitchen or kitchenette, which will ultimately save even more if you use it.
* Consider a hotel, airline or Web package, or book with a travel agent. Significant savings are possible by booking a prepackaged trip inclusive of air, hotel and sometimes park tickets. For example, 11thhourvacations.com (888-740-1998, www.11thhourvacations.com) lists more than two dozen Orlando deals. One current deal offers round-trip air from BWI, three nights at the Radisson Resort Parkway and a free pizza for $214 per person double. Book by Nov. 15; deal is good through at least Jan. 31. Other offerings: three nights at La Quinta Inn Lakeside from $188, or at the Ritz-Carlton for $463 (sorry, no free pizza).
* Large families and groups can spend a fortune on eating out and booking connecting rooms in a hotel. Many rental properties, such as condos and single-family homes, are available to Orlando visitors, and these can include three or four bedrooms, pools and lots of space to unwind. See the story above for more details.
-- John Deiner