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How To Save Money At Disney

by Tara Kuczykowski on August 31, 2010 · 41 comments


You may recall that my family recently had the opportunity to attend a special media event at Walt Disney World. It truly was a magical adventure that I'll never forget. Being able to go behind the scenes to learn about Summer Nightastic! at Disney was such an unbelievable experience.

We got to see the Main Street Electrical Parade up close and personal and experience the Summer Nightastic Fireworks Show from a prime spot on Main Street. I can't even tell you how amazing the fireworks display was -- my kids were totally engaged from start to finish, as was I!

Of course the Disney experience can also come with a hefty price tag if you're not prepared, so I spent some time while we were there talking to people in the know on how to make this destination affordable.

Their consensus? It's much harder to save money at Disney after you're already inside those magical gates. However, if you're willing to do a little preparation in advance, you can definitely whittle down your vacation budget to an affordable amount.

:: Saving on Lodging

  • Rates are at their lowest between late August heading into November.
  • Consider a villa instead of a hotel room if you're interested in staying off site. You'll enjoy significant savings, plus you'll likely have a private pool and kitchen at your disposal.

:: Saving on Transportation and Parking

  • Use the free shuttles if you're staying on Disney property. You'll save on gas, as well as the significant parking fees.

:: Saving on Food

  • You can often take advantage of a free dining plan in the fall months. Disney has confirmed this offer for the time period of August 15 - December 21, 2010!
  • Pack a lunch and carry snacks with you in small coolers. You can rent a locker for $2 (minus the refundable $5 deposit) so you're not lugging them around the park.
  • Beverages may end up being one of your largest expenses, especially if you're going during the summertime. Pack refillable bottles to cut this expenditure dramatically.
  • Are the kids balking at the fountain water? Carry powdered drink mix packets to add. We're often able to find these free or nearly free anyhow!

:: Saving on Souvenirs

  • Purchase Disney-themed trinkets at bargain prices from the Dollar Store and elsewhere to surprise the kids with.
  • If you're a first-time visitor, stop by City Hall on Main Street to pick up a free "My First Visit" button.
  • Mickey Mouse Ears are a relatively inexpensive souvenir to pick up in the park. Even if you get them monogrammed, you'll only pay $15 or less.
  • Avoid the balloons. This was a tough one for us since my two-year-old LOVES balloons, but they're way overpriced, and you're not going to be able to take them home with you.
  • Take your own glow necklaces and bracelets. I've found these in the Dollar Spot at Target the past few years around Halloween, so I always stock up to avoid the outrageous price that fairs and amusement parks charge.
  • Use the pressed penny machines! For just $0.51 you can get a cool Disney souvenir that you can carry in your wallet. Our family has been collecting these for years from various establishments. It's fun to look back through them and remember all of the fun we've had.
  • Pick up an inexpensive autograph book and create your own souvenir with your favorite characters' autographs. Don't forget your camera so you can add a photo later!

:: Miscellaneous Tips

  • Buy Disney gift certificates ahead of time at your local grocery store. Not only will you earn additional rewards on your store loyalty card, but it's also a fantastic way to enforce your food and souvenirs budget.
  • If you're renting a stroller, pay for the whole week up front to save $3 per day on your rental fees.
  • Pack rain ponchos. It pays to be prepared -- a rain poncho will run you $8+ in the parks, or you can pick up enough for the whole family elsewhere for the same price!
  • Don't forget extra batteries. A 4-pack of batteries could run you as much at $10 in the parks, and you don't want to be forced to pay that if your camera batteries give out.

Now mind you, I am not a Disney expert. These are just some tips that I picked up on our trip and from talking with others, as well as from some of you wonderful readers. Here are a few more resources that were recommended to me numerous times by others.

:: Resources to Check Out

Above all, have a magical time, and don't be afraid to splurge a little. After all, these are memories that will last a lifetime, and you don't want to have any regrets about missed experiences. Save on the areas that matter less, so you can spend a little more in the areas that do!

How did you enjoy a Disney vacation on a budget? Do you have any fantastic tips or tricks?

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Melissa August 31, 2010 at 10:23 am

We only went for 3 days to the park, so park hopper passes or packages didn't make sense for us. Instead, we got our tickets thru the Disney "Give a day, get a day" volunteer promotion. We also donated to Florida Children's Hospital and scored more tickets that way. Park tickets that are tax deductible - YES!!! We packed granola bars, frozen bottles of water and frozen Capri Sun, along with string cheese, and snack mix. We did not stay on property, but rather at an Embassy Suites with a free shuttle and enormous breakfast every morning. The best food we ate in the park was the grilled chicken ceasar salad - which was around $8. I also found a Fromer's guide in the $1 section at Target before I went. It gave us tons of tips for visiting the park and food spots.

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2 cindi August 31, 2010 at 10:36 am

We just got back! And had a great time. A few other helpful pointers~all of the Disney concession stands that sell drinks will give you free cups of ice. Rain ponchos are 2 for $1 at Dollar Tree. I bought t-shirts and daily souvenirs at our Disney outlet & Dollar Tree ahead of time. My kids LOVED having something everyday and only asked for ears at the parks. Lockers are actually $12 up front and $7 after they refund the deposit at the end of the day. Parking is free at their water parks & Downtown DIsney. And finally, we stayed offsite at a time-share villa thru Orlando minivacations.com--the place had mini golf, 2 pools & shuttles. We were also able to get our tickets through them. For our package, we stayed 4 nights/5 days, my husband and I got our 4 days of tickets for free!!! And my 2 children's 4 days tickets were the cheapest I found anywhere. We got all of this (4 nights in a villa w/kitchen & w/d, tickets, shuttles) for cheaper than the tickets ALONE had we bought them through DIsney direct. Yea!!! We also rounded up coupons for meals ahead of time and hit the chain restaurants (TGIF, CiCi's Pizza< etc) and ate a couple of good meals for around $15!! We did Disney for as cheap as I think I possibly could and did not feel that we missed out on a thing!!

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3 FABI August 31, 2010 at 11:41 am

you are super mom!! i hope i can be like you when i take my (future) kids to disney.

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4 Jodi August 31, 2010 at 12:29 pm

Cindi - where did you stay? Sounds like you loved it. Also, you booked it on minivacations.com? Can't seem to find the right place.

Thanks,
Jodi

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5 Eric August 31, 2010 at 6:29 pm

orlandominivacations.com

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6 Eva August 31, 2010 at 11:06 am

This is great information. I have a 5 year old son. My husband and I are planning to take him to Disney World next year. I have questioned myself many times as to how we will afford this trip. This blog has provided us with wonderful tips. Now, I am not as stressed about our adventure!

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7 Lisa August 31, 2010 at 11:13 am

And what makes you an expert on saving money at Disney, when you went there on someone else's dime? I prefer http://www.mousesavers.com/ for Disney saving info.

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8 Tara Kuczykowski August 31, 2010 at 11:31 am

Wow, Lisa... As I mentioned in my post, I by no means consider myself an expert after just one trip, and I did give MouseSavers as a good resource. However, I'm offended by your accusation that I was there on someone else's dime. Sure our tickets to the park were comped, but we had to pay out of pocket for our other expenses.

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9 Aly August 31, 2010 at 1:08 pm

Was that rude comment really necessary?? Tara works her behind off providing money saving information on this site. She said herself she is not an expert. If you are so put off, then stop checking this site.

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10 marla August 31, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Wow Lisa - way to be snarky!! I happen to appreciate any tips I can get and think it's great that Tara is able to get something like comp park tickets now and then. Lighten up girl!

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11 sheree August 31, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Ewww....RUDE!
BTW- I don't think mousesavers is that cheap.

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12 Kathy McG August 31, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Lets just hope Lisa is having a bad day. Tara, you did a great job positing your Disney Tips. I'm thrilled that you get a comp now and again. You've earned it! Now, if you ever want to do cruisng tips, I'd be glad to give a few pointers on my experiences. :)

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13 Tara Kuczykowski August 31, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Kathy, I would love to hear your cruising tips! We went on a cruise as part of a business conference last year, and I was totally unimpressed. I'm hoping it was just a fluke, because it sounds like it should be a fun vacation.

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14 Kathy McG August 31, 2010 at 5:38 pm

I'm going to assume it was a fluke. But then again, some people are not cruisers.
Money Saving Tips:
1. Bring your own water bottles. The boat sells them for big bucks (good to have for port days)
2. Bring a soft sided cooler that can double as a carry-on for the plane ride- good for pool side on boat or at port for water bottles and snacks.
3. Bring varying size ziploc bags. Instead of buying snacks at port, keep the cookies, etc. you over filled on your plate at the buffet on board and keep them for port days.
4. Don't book excursions thru the boat. Way too expensive. If you know in advance what you want to do (ie: zip line in costa rica), do a search for it on-line before your cruise. You can also wait until you get to port but this can be very confusing with everyone else doing it too.
5. I'm not a heavy drinker but I do like a drink now and again but refuse to spend $7 or more for one. I have brought a few single serving wine bottles in my suitcase or a small pint of rum and never had it taken from my checked bag. I've noticed a couple cruise ships let you bring a bottle of wine on board now.
6. Don't buy the over priced photos they take of you every time you turn around! Take your own photos or ask another cruiser to take your family shot for you.
Sea Sick Tips
1. Book your cabin in the middle of the boat-less motion in rough seas.
2. Atlantic Ocean can be very windy and rough in Eastern Caribbean in Spring-avoid it at that time.
3. If you are sea sick on cruise, go to open deck (fresh air) and watch the horizon.
Other Tips:
1. Carnival tends to have a more relaxed, party type crowd with younger patrons. Celebrity is a little more stuffy with an older crowd. Royal Caribbean is in-between.
2. If you're cruising for the first time (and not sure if you have sea legs), pick an itinerary with the least amount of days at sea. One that travels by night and you awake in a new port the next day is best.
3. If looking at a cruise that has a port you have no interest in visiting, stay on board and enjoy the boat instead! You'll actually get a great spot by the pool and have no crowds to fight in the buffet line.
Of course there are more but this at least is something to start with!

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15 Tara Kuczykowski August 31, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Thanks, Kathy -- this is great!

16 Dianna August 31, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Bless your heart Lisa!
Tara never professed to be an expert. Had you read what she posted you would have learned that she said did not pay for the trip but researched ways to save money .... really

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17 kim September 1, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Wow Lisa. What a nasty attitude you have! Jealousy is a heavy thing to keep on your shoulder. I'm glad Tara was able to go enjoy the DIsney experience, even if would have all been free. My family took our first Disney vacation last fall and loved it.

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18 Kylie August 31, 2010 at 11:22 am

If you are planning on renting a stroller look into Orlandostrollerrentals.com. We rented a double jogging style stroller, that reclines for right around 100.00 for the week. They deliver it to your hotel for free. Also the strollers in the park are the hard plastic ones and do not recline and will cost you more money to rent. The orlando stroller ones also hold 50 lbs per side so was good for our 5 year old to be able to take a break..

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19 Tammy Rinehart August 31, 2010 at 11:23 am

I have been to DW many times but not with 3 kiddos your suggestions are really helpful.

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20 FABI August 31, 2010 at 11:40 am

These are great tips! Way to plan ahead with the glow sticks, the dollar store souvenirs, ponchos, and thanks for the tips about the mickey ears.

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21 Erin August 31, 2010 at 1:24 pm

I agree - I never would have thought about the glow sticks... genius!! I keep some in my car for when we go to the drive-ins or fireworks or things like that but this is a GREAT tip!! thanks tara!

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22 Kristine W August 31, 2010 at 11:57 am

We had a session pass to Disneyland last year (we live in AZ) and loved it. My girls love to see all the characters, but I didn't want to stand in line to get all those autographs and have them sit on the shelve in a book. I went to Walmart and got one of those really wide 8x10 picture mats. Then I brought them along (in a really big ziplock) and had the characters sign the mat. Then I was able to put their favorite picture from Disney in it with all the autographs around it. Definitely worth it and it was only around $3. Also, since we went several times throughout the year we bought them a lanyard the first time and each visit they got to pick a pin and that was all they asked for.

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23 Erin August 31, 2010 at 1:27 pm

LOVE this idea!! THANK YOU for sharing it!! How did you keep it from getting banged up as you went through the park? Did you take something for them to write on (ie, did the characters with their ginormous gloves have trouble writing on this as opposed to a whole page in an autograph book?)

Thanks for the idea... I'm using this one! :)

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24 Kristine W August 31, 2010 at 2:37 pm

When you buy the mat it has a little cardboard behind it. None of the characters had a problem writing on it. Towards the end of several trips they had to find room to write their BIG signatures. I would get as big of one you can find. You might be able to find a bigger one at like Micheals or somewhere like that. We bring a double umbrella stroller I got off Criagslist for Disney. I put the mats in a XL ziploc bag and just have it under the stroller in the basket. Keeps it clean and all the markers are in there too.

Also all the characters 'keepers' commented on it. Thought it was a great idea. They need to make some that say Disneyland or Princess cut into it.

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25 Stefanie August 31, 2010 at 12:23 pm

You can get free ice water at any counter service location.

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26 Gwen August 31, 2010 at 12:23 pm

We went in 2007 & hope to go back in 2011 with our 4 kids for our 20th anniversary (WDW was part of our honeymoon!). We each strapped on a fanny pack that had snacks, a collapsable cup (usually in the camping section of discount retailers & sporting goods stores) (the cups helped us avoid the weight & bulk of carrying around bottled water and allowed us to occassionally share a soft drink or frozen lemonade), a whistle (if someone got separated or had an emergency), and a picture of the child taken the week before the trip, laminated, with important info & contact info on the back (if the child or the pack became separated - I also had copies of each in my pack). We found pin trading to be an economical souvenier because we each got a lanyard & a "starter set" of pins (doesn't matter if you like them - you're going to be trading them away) and traded them w/cast members & other guests. It became its own entertainment & diversion if we were standing in line or waiting somewhere. And cast members might even give you free pins during your stay, esp at the resort's gift shop/snack huts, shops, restaurants, etc. that were made to be comps to guests. Looking for hidden Mickeys is totally free & they're woven into everything on Disney properties. We also saved time & money by choosing the free dining plan and making many of our meals character meals. IT kept us from burning valuable time standing in line to meet characters at the parks. Every meal we ate on site was great! If you're waffling about whether to stay on resort - do it. Between what you save in food, time (transport & not having to cook/clean), getting into parks earlier and/or staying later than off-site guests, and getting to explore the entire resort (instead of just hitting this park or that one), it was much more enjoyable for us. It isn't a economy vacation, but it can be reasonable. We choose to take very inexpensive vacations for many years to save up for a nice one like this.

Thanks Tara for sharing & reminding me how fun Disney can be.

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27 Millie August 31, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Most of the food stands and eateries (if they have a soda fountain) will give you a cup full of ice water for free. If they only sell bottled drinks you're out of luck...but usually there is one in walking distance of you that will. I've even been handed a cup full of ice before - and with the heat it quickly became ice water. It tastes way better then the water fountains.

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28 Carrie August 31, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Great job, Tara! With the lessons we've learned and research I've done to prepare, Disney has now become our "every other summer" vacation spot. I'm so glad we can take our three kids-on a budget and have a great time. It's never going to be a once in a lifetime vacation for us. I wrote some tips and comments to share with the Columbus Mothers of Twins Club and they posted it on their blog. Maybe you could check it out.

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29 Charity August 31, 2010 at 1:22 pm

We went to Disney in June and had a blast! I found lots of tips on disboards.com and borrowed Disney planning books from the libraray. I got the Disney planning DVD and when I called to get a quote for our stay, there was a code attached to my name so we saved on lodging because I had requested the free DVD. We stayed at Pop Century (value resort) and got the quick service dining plan. We brought breakfast with us and just ate in our room each morning. I liked that our other 2 meals and 2 snacks ea. day were already paid for and didn't have to stress about the money in the park and we didn't have to lug around a cooler or track back across the park to get to a locker where we'd stored a cooler. What fun would that be? We got free ice water from counter service places on several occasions. I bought glow bracelets at the dollar store before we left home. We got the free 1st visit buttons from a cast member when we were waiting to go into the Magic Kingdom. Our kids don't usually ask for much, but they had their own spending money...we had a yard sale at which they sold toys they no longer played with and then they split the money to spend at Disney. Also, grandparents got a Disney gift card for each at Walgreens...if you have a while before you are going, this is a great Christmas or birthday idea to give to family. Take lots of pictures and have a magical time! :)

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30 tina August 31, 2010 at 1:28 pm

I love ur site-Tara! Thank you for your wonderful tips! Another important one is miliatary discounts! We went for really cheap that way last year! During extra park hours some of the rooms with differnt charcters in them are open! We met Mickey and his gang after dinner one night in Epcot! It was wonderful!!!! there was no one in line! But not all the parks do it, but guest services will call for you! Good tips! I loved the one about the picture frame mat! I am gonna do that when we go next year! Thanks guys!

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31 Colleen August 31, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Please, please, please consider whether or not you want to use those drinking fountains! With so many international guests at the park you may be exposing yourself to bacteria & viruses that you don't have immunities for. My mother got very sick after using refillable water bottles in the park at Disney, and doctors were unable to diagnose the cause. They gave her heavy duty antiobiotics which she had an allergic reaction to (unfortunately), and now has dozens of food allergies that she never had before. "Free" can sometimes be very costly! Just be aware.

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32 Carrie August 31, 2010 at 1:35 pm

We just booked our vacation last night through mouseunlimited.com. Tom is a wonderful, prompt liaison and has helped us to save $1100 in the course of the past week by adjusting our arrival date by two days! I have no affiliation with him - just thought he was an amazing help to us!

That said, after having my son who was born with some breathing problems, I lost my full-time job in October of 2008 (and I was my family's major source of income). My husband and I had promised one another that we would take a trip to Disney when our oldest boys became teenagers and before our littlest cost anything; therefore February break of next uear became our goal time to go. I have learned how to ebay on an almost daily basis, and we have tucked all of that money aside. Since January, I have earned more than enough for the entire trip and it has not hurt our modest income. We are by no means debt-free, but we are working to cut our debt down significantly and are still able to include this trip for 4 adults for 8 days, 7 nights. My husband works seven days a week and without sites like this one and Tara's help, we would be in a much worse situation, so thank you Tara :)

Your Disney photos are beautiful, by the way.

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33 Kristine W August 31, 2010 at 2:42 pm

If you son still has health problems, but sure to visit City Hall as soon as you get inside Disney to get a guest assistance pass. It is there for people with health problems who may have problems with the large crowds or standing in lines. It will allow you to go through the exit to get on the rides. It cuts wait time in half. I have had 4 knee surgeries and by the end of the day without one, I need a wheelchair cause I can barely walk. Have fun on your trip.

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34 Amanda August 31, 2010 at 1:36 pm

You should also check out the http://www.couponingtodisney.com blog There is lots of useful information I have found there. Check out the Disney World training tab - lots of great posts!

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35 Dianna August 31, 2010 at 3:33 pm

I found this site yesterday. She inspires me!

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36 Jenna August 31, 2010 at 2:06 pm

If you can get a tiny hole in the top of the pressed penny and put a very pretty ribbon on they can become bookmarks as gifts or for family use and or tree ornaments at Holiday times. They are great for the tiny top branches.

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37 Jenna August 31, 2010 at 2:24 pm

When it came time to take my children to Disney my husband decided the best way to cut cost was not to invite me. This should have been a very big red flag to me however, I didn't really think about it.
Now 10 years later I still have never been to Disney but the man who earned $300k per year took the kids and went again. Think about how your famileis are cutting cost all the time.

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38 Michele August 31, 2010 at 5:27 pm

I checked into the travel agency recommended by Mousesavers when we were planning a trip to disney and thought their prices were extremely high. We ended up staying at theDoubleTree guest suites (that a friend recommended). The hotel was over-the-top nice and cost around $70 a night with breakfast included (the breakfast deal did come from mousesavers). We took lots of snacks and drinks in with us and only bought a couple of Disney gifts on the last day although I thought the gift items were reasonable priced at Disney. Since we were only there for 2 days, we couldn't get discounts on park tickets so those were kind of expensive.

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39 Nilufer August 31, 2010 at 10:27 pm

Disney is all about families so they've got spots all over the park for nursing moms, diaper changes, or just quite time away from all the fun. If you've got a little one who might need to step aside from all the action and needs a nap or something, be sure to ask about the family area (not sure exactly what its called).

BTW, Tara, thank you and your team for all the insight and money saving tips! You guys make life so much more affordable for moms like me.

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40 Jane September 1, 2010 at 5:31 pm

We checked into our value hotel early in the afternoon. We rode the free shuttle to the Magic Kingdom and took the free riverboat over to the Wilderness Lodge Buffet for dinner. We then walked across the campgrounds for a free campfire sing-a-long with Chip and Dale. After dark we caught the free riverboat ride back to the park while the fireworks were going off. It was a great view. I felt like we really got to do a lot of fun stuff without a park ticket, just paying for dinner.

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