Disney on a Dime (Part 2): Doing a Disney Trip on the Cheap!

Say you’re on a pretty tight budget, maybe you’ve driven down to Florida and are staying with family, maybe you’ve flown down but don’t have a lot of cash left to splurge. There is plenty you can do to give your kids a taste of Disney magic while spending practically nothing! In this post, I’ll cover some free (or close to free) Disney options, finding Disney tickets, visiting the parks with small children and a summarized description of the parks. Happy planning!!

Start here: What time of year should I go? and yourfirstvisit.net

Downtown Disney

  • The Downtown Disney area is free and open to the public with no ticket purchase necessary
  • Free parking
  • Lots of things to see and take in. Hands-on lego displays and a huge lego store. A huge Disney store, complete with princess outfits and the princess hair and make-up boutique (which is NOT free – but they will wave their magic wand and sprinkle pixy dust on your head for free if you ask!!).
  • Lots of places to eat including the Rain Forest Cafe and other fun places – for a price…
  • Small train and carousal that kids can ride for a fee.
  • Free nightly entertainment and/or “dance party” for kids at the stage by the water.
  • Boat rides from one side to the other for free when running.
  • 2 Splash pads – take a change of clothes or a bathing suite and enjoy the water fun for free!
  • Update: Disney has unveiled plans for a complete overhaul of the Downtown Disney area. The changes and updates they are going to make look amazing, but you may want to check on the status of construction before going.


The Monorail

  • Monorail stations can be found at many places, including Epcot, The Grand Floridian Resort, Polynesian Resort, and Contemporary Resort. Google Disney monorail routes for diagrams and maps. Riding the monorail is free, parking outside of a monorail station should be free in most cases – most likely at a resort parking lot.
  • Ride the monorail around – because it’s fun! Take in the scenery out the window which includes glimpses of Epcot, the Magic Kingdom (Cinderella’s castle, Space Mountain, etc) and several resorts.
  • In recent years there has been talk of Disney cracking down on the use of the monorail by tourist hoping for a free ride. We have only been asked once about the nature of our visit, and we told the cast members we would be dining at one of the resorts, so we were allowed access. My advice is not to be too cheap. Plan on going for a meal or light snack at one of the resorts. This is completely acceptable and welcomed by Disney. Ride the monorail, and in return, give them your business at one of the nice places to eat. You don’t have to be staying at a resort or going into a park to make a reservation at Chef Mickey’s for example! Splurge on a character meal or stop in for a quick service lunch at one of the many cafeteria style food courts. Please note, reservations book up way in advance! Make reservations as early as 180 days before your trip.


The Polynesian

  • Walk through the front entrance into a tropical paradise and even if you are not staying as a guest, you will be greeted with an “aloha” and a flowered lei necklace!
  • The Polynesian also offers prime viewing of the nightly fireworks over Cinderella’s castle. Sit on their sandy beach, and take in the fireworks, complete with the same musical program that can be heard live at the Magic Kingdom.
  • Book a meal at the Ohana or the Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show. Please note, reservations book up way in advance! Make reservations as early as 180 days before your trip.

The Contemporary

  • Offers a great view of the castle from their balcony on the floor directly bellow the monorail station.
  • Book a meal at Chef Micky’s for a character dinning experience without having to purchase park tickets. Please note, reservations book up way in advance! Make reservations as early as 180 days before your trip.


The Grand Floridian

  • A beautiful hotel to stop in at. Not much to do for free, but if you’re willing to put out money to eat, it’s a very nice place to have breakfast, lunch or dinner.

The Animal Kingdom Lodge

  • A highly recommended stop! If you’re staying at a value resort, this is a fun place to visit for a change of pac. Eat at their “quick-service” dinning room, the “Mara.” The African Stew is amazing!
  • Take it all in, go for a walk around, it’s huge! Straight out back from the main entrance is an entire African savannah, complete with viewing areas. You’re guaranteed to catch Giraffes, Zebra, maybe an elephant and all kinds of birds and flamingo!
  • The Animal Kingdom Lodge also has a very nice play structure and on certain nights, they have a camp fire going where you can roast s’mores.

Disney Tickets

Start the process of procuring Disney tickets, way in advance. I have to say, the secret for us is no secret – it’s called prayer! God always seems to provide for us above and beyond what we need, and He amazes us time and time again with the ways He provides funding for our trips. Now, with that said, there are still things you can start doing. Throw out a message to all your friends on facebook way in advance. Chances are, you know someone who lives in Florida or works at Disney. One year, my grandma just happened to get in touch with a distant relative (twice removed or something like that), that mentioned her daughter was working at Disney and could get us tickets. Disney employees generally get a certain number of passes each month that they are free to use as they please. This distant relative that we had never met, got us VIP parking in the “Disney Cast and Crew” parking lot, 1 day park hopper tickets for 4 of us and free wheelchair rental for my grandma.

It can’t hurt to throw it out there that you are going, and see if anything comes through! There is not a whole lot of sense in buying up tickets in advance anyways, so just wait to see how God may provide. Buying tickets on ebay or craigslist is a risky move. There may be no way of telling if the tickets are legit or active. Once used or activated, Disney now links your fingerprint to a ticket so it cannot be passed on to another person! Tickets also expire after a while unless the “no expiration” feature was paid for. Keep a watch out for Disney promotions on their official site http://disneyparks.disney.go.com/ one year, they ran a promotion that if you came on the day of your birthday, it was free! I went with my daughter and parents that year and my mom got in free (she also got a button that said “it’s my birthday” and every Disney crew member greeted her throughout the day with a birthday hello). One year, Disney ran a volunteering promotion. My husband and I signed up on their official site to volunteer at a food bank in our area, for a few hours. We were sent free tickets and when we got there we had buttons that said “i volunteered!” These types of promotions are generally announced at the beginning of the year, and do fill up fast. For example, the volunteering promotion was for the first million people I think, and we got in right at the end as it filled up by late February!

We’ve never used them, but I’ve been told Undercover Tourist is an official spot for discount tickets. Disney usually offers pretty good military incentives and discounts which can be found on their official site. Mouse Savers is a good place to go as well, for info, tips and advise on discount tickets. AAA may be able to get you a discount on a multi-day pass. Florida residents can only get discount tickets for themselves that are non-transferable. The only exception to this is that Grandma and Grandpa may be able to get away with buying Florida resident priced tickets for their grandkids who have no official ID – “But you didn’t hear that from me!” said one very nervous Disney employee I spoke with.

My Rank and Comparison of the Parks (in a Nut Shell)

  1. The Magic Kingdom: Classic Disney! You don’t really feel like you’ve been to Disney World till you’ve been there. Princesses, magic, warm fuzzies, happy rides based on Disney animated movies, Pirates of the Carribian, etc. They have an awesome and moving fireworks display over Cinderella’s castle each night – brought to you by Tinker Bell. There are rides for every age – including the most little kid-friendly rids as well as a few roller coasters and thrilling rides for older kids
  2. Hollywood Studios: We went here on our most recent trip. A ton to see and do! More than we remembered there being, actually. Not so much princess themed, like the magic kingdom, more Pixar, Disney Junior and then Star Wars, Muppets, etc. A good variety. It’s like they’ve added in the Disney Junior specific stuff to appeal to younger kids, because in the past their big draw has been the Star Wars ride and stunt shows like the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular. There are more show type attractions here than rides. We found this to be a welcomed change from the Magic Kingdom, which is the only park we had visited for the past few years. There was something for everyone, including plenty that our 5 year old, 3 year old AND 1 year old all enjoyed!
  3. Epcot: We always disliked going here as kids, but my parents loved it! We always referred to Epcot as the boring, educational side of Disney. They’ve added more kid friendly stuff in recent years, but a lot of it is more educational, cultural, sea life/science related. The big draw is World Showcase, where you really do feel like you’re taking in a quick tour around the world and getting a fun sampling of the best places to stop, shop and eat from all different cultures.
  4. Animal Kingdom: I’ve actually never been here (aside from a stop at the Animal Kingdom Lodge). I have heard from numerous people that it is pretty small in comparison with the other parks, but really nice. We can never get over the fact that based on how small it is in comparison with the other parks, it is still the same price!

Personally, if I were doing 2 days I would do a day at the Magic Kingdom and a day at Hollywood Studios. Also, I’d pass on any of the fancy “park hopper” options. There is plenty to see at each park and it just kills tons of time traveling from park to park. The only time I  think it is worth it would be if you are purchasing a multi-day pass, and the cost of adding a park hopper option was not considerable – you could feasibly stay as late as possible at say, the Magic Kingdom, then hop over to Epcot, which is usually open later, to catch their fireworks as well! This is also a nice option if you’re staying at one of the resorts that is closely connected to the park (like the contemporary for example), so that hopping back to the room for a nap is easy enough! If you’re staying at a value resort, you will waist a large chunk of time going back to your room for a nap.

Disney really makes it worth your while if you are going for multiple days. The price jump from each additional day once you’ve already bought a 3 day base ticket becomes smaller and smaller. My only note of caution with this is, if going with small children, any more than 1 day at a time will be very tiring! I remember doing multiple days as an older kid myself, but we have only ever done 1 day at a time with our young kids. To get your money’s worth by staying a full day at any of the parks, is one looong day of excitement! Young children will no doubt become cranky and over-stimulated. I think kids age 7 and up would probably do fine for multiple days. I think my siblings and I were close to our teen years when we enjoyed going for multiple days in a row without tiring. But the trick with young kids is not to overstay the fun. If doing more than one day, give yourself a day in between to rest!

Tips for Going with Young Children

Some people say not to do it – they say it’s not worth your time – they say to wait until your kids are older when they’ll remember it… But it is possible, and enjoyable to go with young kids!
First off, my kids do remember going (in detail!) and they are very young. It’s also most enjoyable when they are young enough, uninhibited, and free to allow their excitement out in loud and adorable ways! Kids are also free up till the age of 3 (and they don’t ask for proof of age, birth certificate, etc). So…
  • Go rested, prepared and relaxed! You do need to have a plan, if there are specific rides you definitely want to hit. Otherwise, the day will get away from you and you may end up missing a lot. However, there is hardly time to get EVERYTHING in by the end of the day – so try not to stress about doing it all. Make your own Customized Map on Disney’s site to plan the spots you really want to hit.
  • 2 years ago we went with an infant, a 2 year old and a 4 year old. That year we took an infant carrier and an umbrella stroller (so the infant could give mommy a break by sitting in the stroller while the 2 year old walked a bit). This past time we just took a stroller for the now 1 year old and the 3 year old walked the whole time. Whatever you do, know that your stroller will have to be left on long extended times throughout the day while you are away on rides. In other words, don’t take a stroller you will be heartbroken over losing, as Disney can’t be held responsible for lost or stolen strollers.
  • Almost all rides at the Magic Kingdom can be enjoyed while holding an infant in your lap. We went with my grandma the year my oldest child was born. She was 3 months old and we had the silly fantasy of getting her picture taken with Mickey or something adorable like that. We were really just excited to have a kid to use as an excuse to go to Disney World (never mind she was only 3 months old)! We went on every ride there and she did fine. We took a stroller for her and when it was time for her to nap or nurse, I would fined a quiet corner somewhere and sit with her a while – which was a nice little time out during a long day.
  • Know your kids. There are few rides and experiences that have frightened our kids over the years, but that is their nature. If your kids are easily startled or frightened, there are definitely rides you may want to stay away from. The map you receive for each park is pretty good about pointing out these intense rides and areas.
  • If going on the off season, you will definitely want to dress in layers or pack a sweatshirt for at night, it can get rather chilly once the son goes down.
  • We have splurged a few times by making reservations at a “character dining” restaurant in the park. We ate our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the rest of the day, but for one meal, strategically timed at mid afternoon, we were able to sit in a nice air conditioned room, have good food and entertainment for the kids when they were just starting to get really tired and cranky. It worked really well the year I was pregnant and the 2 kids were pretty young. It was a welcomed break and bonus – it happened to rain outside while we stayed dry inside. You HAVE to have reservations for these types of restaurants, so plan ahead. You also have to cancel within 24 hours or you’ll be charged a good amount of money.
  • Disney does have very nice Baby Care Centers available at each park – to change an infant, sit to nurse, warm a bottle, etc.
  • Take tons of pictures! They are so cute at this age.
Money Saving Tips for the Parks
  • Pack your lunch and snacks! I remember hating it as a kid – why did my mom always have to pack those stinkin peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?? Obviously I understand it now, and wow does it make a difference. You’re already (most likely) paying an arm and a leg to get into the park, why not stop the spending there? If you’ve got a stroller, you have plenty of space to store stuff. Otherwise, carry a back pack or plan on renting a locker. Pack light, but go prepared.
  • Why not let your daughter dress like a princess or your little boy like a pirate? They wont be the minority. Many little girls will arrive each day dressed in their best princess attire. Many will have paid out big bucks to get a princess make-over. You don’t have to, just plan ahead. Bring your own dress, crown and accessories. She will be referred to all day long as “princess” by Disney staff and she will love it!
  •  Take the “photo pass” cards when they offer them to you. These are free and you are under no obligation to purchase anything. However, if by chance you were to lose you camera or something crazy like that, you may be really glad you did have them take your picture a few times and put it on a card. Not only that, but they will gladly take your camera and snap a “professional” shot with it as well, but for free! So if you don’t know who else to trust handing your camera to, know that they will gladly do it.
Where to Start
  • There is so much info available right on Disney’s official site. Info on special rates, promotions, events, when to go, what to do, what to see. Sign up to receive a free Vacation Planing DVD – Your kids will love watching it and planing along with you!
  • Go to Disney’s official site and consider calling a Disney rep or travel agent. A lot of the time, they will be able to help answer questions and offer you packages you may not have known about on your own.

Happy Planing!

Be sure to check out my first installment of this post:
Disney on a Dime (Part 1)

Check out my Destination Disney Pinterest board for more great ideas!


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  1. Anonymous says

    Thank you sarah! so with a 6 yr old, 4 yr old and 1 yr old (the ages my kids will be next spring) 1 day at MK and 1 at Hollywood studios would be just right? How many days total do you usually stay at the value hotel?
    We will probably do 2 days unless we get a really good package deal for not too much more. I am tempted to go for the 5 or 6 day package but don’t want to be sick of vacation. and you know the law of the diminishing returns, why pay for more if we will really only enjoy the first few days :)
    Hope you are well, when is your next trip planned?! Kym

    • says

      Yes, my personal opinion is that more than two days is too much with young kids! It’s easier with older kids, and many people choose to spend longer times if they think of it as a once in a life time experience. But, one day for us was always very tiring and I’d rather end on a good note than stretch the kids to complete exhaustion or until they are completely spoiled and cranky! I think we’ve done 5 nights in the past at the value resort, and between the activities there, the free stuff you can do in the area and going into the park 1 day, the kids have had more than enough fun and Disney magic to get their fill :) I hope you guys have a great time!! So many memories to make – you will love it! We have no return plans in the works right now, but you never know… :)

  2. Anonymous says

    Some good tips but I would like to note that a visit to Animal Kingdom Lodge is nowhere near equal to visiting Animal Kingdom itself. There is much more to do and see there than just look at some animals. Plus you can’t see lions and tigers and such at the Lodge. My kids have always loved Animal Kingdom. It is so much more than just a zoo as you make it sound. Also, the resorts, particularly monorail resorts, have cracked down on people parking who are not resort or restaurant guests. Be prepared to be asked for resort parking pass or restaurant confirmation number.

    • says

      thank you for reading and for commenting! As I stated, the Animal Kingdom is the only park I have never actually been to, so of course it would be ranked last on my list. I am glad to hear, however, that your family enjoys it! We do hope to make it there some time, it just hasn’t happened yet.

      I would also like to note that whenever we have ridden the monorail around, we have also stopped and dined at one of the resorts or at an area in downtown Disney. We’ve never been stopped by anyone and questioned, but if we had, we would have told them we plan on eating at one of the resorts. You can also park for free at Downtown Disney and take a free bus from there over to a resort with monorail access, if you are concerned with being questioned at the resort parking area.

      • Disney MOm says

        Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park is 5 times the size of the Magic Kingdom. There is a lot to do and I am not sure where you got the idea that it is smaller.

  3. Anonymous says

    I agree Animal Kingdom is well worth the vist…so much to see there..it is actual the largest park (land wise) but just has fewer attractions because a huge chunk of it is for the safari, which showcases a ton of animals and beautiful landscapes! Even though there are fewe attractions there is still more than enough to keep you busy ALL day :).

    I also agree Disney can be draining especially on little ones, but just in Sept we did 10 nights\11 days with an 8yo, 6yo and 14 month old…with naps each day and early turn in times plus lots of relaxing resort time we enjoyed a park each day and loved every minute of it. I guess being from Canada I would never make the trip down for 1 or 2 days (that’s just my personal opinion, and experience)

    • says

      Anonymous, I am glad to see you had these results. My son will be turning 14 months during the duration of our trip. He is our only child, we have planned out 3 hours to go back each day, and we plan on leaving the parks by 7, unless he decides to nap in his stroller. Plus, my husband doesn’t do “thrill rides”, so we have plenty of time to do most of the family-oriented rides. I finally realized, I do plan on going back & don’t have to do it all in one day. So we are doing 4 parks in a row and will be there 6 days.

      It’s nice to see someone with success while using a similar schedule!

    • says

      Just wanted to follow up. We set aside 3 hours for naps, and never left any park and we went to all four! Our weather was wonderful, and my son took 2 naps a day in his stroller! It was fantastic! We even got to stay for the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom, which I have never gotten to do! We went at park open & stayed until about 6 or 7 most nights, with about an hour long lunch break to regroup. Our son did an awesome job! Can’t wait to go back in 2015!!

  4. Anonymous says

    I don’t know how you can say not to go to ANIMAL KINGDOM?! I have been going to disney for years. I am a florida resident, so tickets are significantly lower in price – and I live in tampa, so going for just the day allows us to not need a hotel most trips. Magic kingdom is the park that residents refer to as the tourist trap. That’s why when we go, we go EARLY and get out before noon.

    A usual trip for us involves getting to the park about a half-hour before it actually opens. Generally, they start letting people in about 5-10 minutes before gates officially open. HEAD TO THE BACK OF THE PARK!!!!! I can not stress that enough. Everyone and their mother stops at the first few attractions they see. If you’re at Magic Kingdom, go to Buzz Lightyear. DO NOT RIDE IT. Get a fastpass. Then go to Space Mountain. RIDE IT!!! By the time you’re done (maybe a 20 minute wait at MOST), it’ll be time for BUZZ. Now, you’ve been there for less than an hour, and you’ve gotten two of the most popular rides out of the way. You can now go get a fastpass for something else. If you do it RIGHT, you can do everything at MK in a half day. Also, SUNDAY IS THE WORST DAY FOR MK!!! This is when EVERYONE goes. avoid it. In the afternoon, head over to Animal Kingdom. It’s not a huge park, but if you have kids, nothing makes them happier than seeing animals. Plus, most people know it’s not a full day park, so by 1 or 2pm, the crowds start to die down. AK is always the least crowded park. Of course, not all the animals will be as active in the afternoon, it’s definitely not a a park you want to miss.

    On day 2, typically Sunday for most people, go to Hollywood Studios FIRST THING! BEFORE YOU DO ANYTHING ELSE, GO TO TOY STORY MAINA. Get a fast pass. Even at 9:05, the line will be an hour long at best, and the line for a fastpass will be for noon or later. This is the first thing people go to. Get your fastpass, and head to Rock n’! By this time, the lines are minimal as most people are waiting on Toy Story. Again, you can get the park done in a half-day if you want, or you can easily take your time all day. In between fastpasses, go on the Great Movie Ride. it’s inside, and cool and it’ll kill some time with a relaxing ride. Epcot is also a great park to hit in the afternoon/evenings, There are a few good rides, but you could easily kill the park in 4 hours, get some dinner, and then head back to watch the fireworks!

    As a true disney lover, I almost don’t want to give away these secrets – we tend to not like all the tourists with a million small children that parents don’t keep an eye on, or the people who stop to look at a map… IN THE MIDDLE OF THE WALKWAYS, or the parents who let their children stand in line for food and take 20 minutes to decide between a cheeseburger or chicken fingers. Oh, but P.S. cups of ice water are ALWAYS free, so skip the $4.00 sodas and opt for water whenever possible. If you’re trying to cut costs, bring lunch and splurge on ice cream. We also always split meals as they are more food than the average person should eat anyway.

    I hope this helps you all get a little inside scoop on disney!

    • Darci says

      Thank you! We are planning our first trip for this spring and I am trying to make this trip less chaotic than necessary. Very helpful!

    • Renee says

      Thank you Thank you Thank you!! With out tips like these we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our trip nearly as much. We’re treating our daughter to a trip for her graduation present. We can’t afford any more than two days and have to fit as much into those two days as we can. You’ve really made it much more do-able for us. Thank you again for being kind enough to share your insights.

  5. Anonymous says

    I’ve lived in Kissimmee for 15 years and never dreamed of paying to go to Disney I’ve always had a cast member get me in well now I have a 4 1/2 yr old and a 1 month old and no friends working at Disney. This year we decided to get annual passes. We opted for the weekday seasonal pass ( black out dates apply). It was the price of 1 day park admission per person. We paid $89.00 (down payment) and $9.99 (monthly fee) the first day we used them. So my family of 4 can now go when passes are good for $30 a month. As far as I know as long as you call the month your passes expire to renew them there is NOT a down payment fee again. So we can have passes FOREVER now LOL We’ve actually gone to 3 parks in 1 day. The black out dates are when as a Floridan I wouldn’t dream of going to Disney anyways, so it’s not a big deal. Parking is NOT included in the price of passes but we simply park at Boardwalk and start at Epcot/ Hollywood.There is a food cart at the Boardwalk with delicious food (cheap) also. I pack water/juice and freeze grapes , make pb&j’s and add a little treat like fruit snacks or cookies for my son. Also Walmart and most of the tourist gift shops have Disney items for alot less than at the park.

  6. Anonymous says

    You have some great tips and advice and as a former cast member I’d like to offer you and your readers a few more tips … besides the monorails, ride the watercrafts (boats). It’s also free and is a fun adventure … there are several routes in and around the ticket and transportation center (where you park for for MK). also in the evenings, there’s a light parade that passes by all the hotels in the waters around MK, Including right in front of the park. it’s pretty much been the same forever but it really is neat. Also, when you get in a one on one situation with a cast member, they’re more likely to tell you cool tricks or secrets … so like while on an empty bus or boat. sit close to the front and strike up a conversation. just remember their first priority is your safety so if they don’t respond in the way you want, it’s not personal. some are better at multi tasking than others. also, on the boats, busses and monorails we used to have trading cards to hand out for free (seaworld does this with animals at the exhibits where there’s an educator). if you go to the dollar store ahead of time you can get a wallet sized photo album for safe keeping!
    Also if you can get a hold of Disney pins, maybe on eBay or that someone is getting rid of gather up as many as you can and pin trade! many cast members have a lanyard and the possibilities are endless of what you can find. there are even pins called cast exclusives that have a little hidden mickey on them. that means it’s special because you cannot buy them anywhere – you can only trade for it.
    the only other thing I want to mention is that distant relative that got you in and got you special parking in today’s Disney standards could lose his/her job. the passes cast members receive are intended for families or friends that remain with the cast member throughout the day or are highly trusted. if something happens on their ticket (if someone they let in gets caught stealing for example) the cast member is held responsible and can be terminated immediately. this also goes for the parking lot … technically they can get in trouble for parking there off hours. I’m not saying to you or anyone to not try to get some perks, but many are much more weary because of this. just be aware of the risk someone is taking if they do let you in!oh and I remembered one more thing … we used to get passes for the length of stay when I was younger or annual passes because of how often we liked to frequent … it gave my parents the piece of mind that not everything had to be done in a day. we would often leave when the parks got extra crowded or too hot, depending on the time of the year, to go back to the hotel for naps, pool time, lunch, etc. especially with extra magic hours for resort guests this was fantastic. and now they aren’t even an extra fee! if you or the kids are having a hard time, take a time out! and baby centers aren’t just for babies … they usually have toddler size tables, a tv and a few toys.
    I’ve got tons more to share if you’d like to know. every piece of info helps!

    • says

      Amber, here is what I’ve been told: Florida residents can only get discount tickets for themselves that are non-transferable. The only exception to this is that Grandma and Grandpa may be able to get away with buying Florida resident priced tickets for their grandkids who have no official ID – “But you didn’t hear that from me!” said one very nervous Disney employee I spoke with. They have really buckled down on giving out resident tickets and the process seems very strict.

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