**Warning: this is a long article but hopefully full of great tips for you to save and make the most of your vacation!! You might pin it or bookmark for future reference.
I mentioned this a few weeks ago and here is part 1 of a two part series on saving big at Disneyland. We live in California and make a trip down to Disneyland once a year. It is such a great family vacation but the price tag can get crazy… really crazy if you aren’t careful.
So here are a few things I have found to save a bit here and there on your trip. This last vacation I actually made a ton of fun things for my girls to have on the trip and before we left, so I will do a separate post soon with pictures of all the stuff I came up with, the food we packed for the trip and more…
Keep in mind I have never been to Disney World but hopefully some of these things will come in handy for those of you on the East Coast!
Click below for the full article.
TICKETS AND ACCOMODATIONS::
If you are able to hit Disneyland a few times a year you might consider an annual pass.
For the rest of us that just go once a year or so, the current price is $90 per day for children under 9 and $96 for those 10 and older. That only includes one park and one day- if you want to go to California Adventure and Disneyland in the same day you will pay $144 and $150 respectively. (Yikes!)
We did a lot of research and found the best deals for our trip were buying the tickets a la carte direct from Disney vs. in a package deal. We actually spent 2 days at Disneyland so we planned for one full day at each park.
If you are military, a teacher or you or someone you know is a resident of Southern California you can get a little extra discount on tickets. (Note: as of May 2014 Disney is looking at ending these discounts but certainly worth looking into.)
Overall the best prices are usually to buy from Disney directly and to skip any of the fancy package deals. Break down those package deals if one is tempting you and make sure you really are getting the best prices.
The best deal we found on tickets was actually through Costco. Sadly I don’t think these Costco packages are available in every state and I only see them offered once a year. As of 2013, it appears Costco stopped offering these discounted packages. If you happen to know someone that lives in Southern California, you might ask them to keep an eye out for you but here in Northern California I check all the time and have not seen them since late 2012.
Staying on site vs. out of the park.
You need to make a decision if you want to stay at one of the Disney Hotels or a hotel off site. We have done both and here are some things to consider:
- The Disneyland hotels are crazy expensive. You are paying for the extras because the rooms are OK but not as ritzy as you might think from the price.
- If you have very small children (babies and toddlers) staying off site is a drag. You need to haul all your stuff on and off a shuttle- our first trip was with an 18 mo old and a 3 year old and it was a nightmare to get the children, the stroller, the diaper bag and the Ergo on and off the shuttle to and from the park. Plus it is a long walk. If you plan to leave the park midday for naps keep this in mind. We found it exhausting.
- Parking is about $15 per day if you stay off site plus you do need to deal with the parking garages. You can park at Downtown Disney free for a few hours but you’d have to keep moving your car every few hours.
- The major perks of staying at the park is super easy access- you walk straight into Downtown Disney and then right up to the gates of the park. You can get into the park an hour before it opens. This is especially awesome for Cars land because we waited 6 minutes to get onto Radiator Springs. (Which was my favorite ride hands down!)
- They have a nice pool area with waterslides for the kiddos. My kids LOVED the pool area and we stayed well after checkout because they were having so much fun. (We stayed at the Grand Californian which is the newer hotel and the more expensive hotel, the Disneyland Hotel is the middle of the road and the Paradise Pier is the least expensive but a tiny bit farther away.)
- At the Disney hotels you can get a character call in the morning, there is a goodnight story on TV from one of the Disney Princesses and you can have all your souvenirs and stuff charged directly to the room and even delivered to the room for you from the park.
I am sure most of you have heard this a million times but it really is true. Pack as much food as you can. We travel by car so I typically pack a bunch of stuff ahead of time that we keep in coolers in the car. Another option is to find a store near your hotel once you get there and plan to purchase your supplies. If you can get a hotel room with a fridge you will really save a lot on meals.
Besides saving money you will save a ton of time and probably eat much better foods- remember the point is to have a fun-filled day and you need lots of energy! Drinking tons of soda and eating fries is probably not going to put everyone in a great mood overall so packing your own stuff can be a big help in keeping everyone feeling good and energized. You can get lockers if you don’t want to carry around your items- we just took a backpack and it was no biggie.
(I can tell you we went to Starbucks at Disneyland this last trip and I swear the line must have been 40 minutes long. PLUS when you are in line that long suddenly everyone is starving and the world will come to a crashing end if I don’t get that fruit cup for $7 plus a milk to wash it down and suddenly a $4 coffee turns into $35 for a little snack. Not that I know from experience or anything.)
So do what you can to plan ahead and bring your own stuff into the park. Inside the park the food is very expensive and the lines are long and you probably won’t make the best food choices. We packed all sorts of snacks- juices, bagels, cereal cups, sandwiches, reusable water bottles and more to take with us. You can refill water bottles at Rancho del Zocalo inside the park. Coffee is crazy expensive so consider Styrofoam cups to take it to go from your hotel or maybe the bottled coffees would work for you as an option to bring inside the park. (Next time I plan to pack my homemade iced coffee and bring that with me.) I have heard if you buy a reusable coffee cup you get free refills at the Disney Hotels but I missed that deal on our trip.
Careful with the kids meals at some places- I found them to be a big rip off and half the time the kid’s wouldn’t touch the food. One of my favorite spots to grab food was inside Toontown. We found these bag meals for about $6 and it included yogurt, string cheese, milk, Goldfish crackers, apples, banana and carrots. So not an incredible bargain by any means but a MUCH healthier option and really this is a great mini- meal for adults too. I love the smaller snack type things over bigger meals because it is an easy way to entertain the kiddos while you are waiting in lines. (The hummus was my snack and I believe it was $3.)
The corn dogs are fantastic from the little cart that is by Cinderella’s castle. Those are worth checking out and don’t miss the Dole Whips. For like $3 or so they are worth every penny.
Character Dining:: Holy smokes this is a budget buster. You can choose a restaurant and eat your meal and the Disney characters will come around for photos and conversations. If you want to do this be very sure to book in advance because they do fill up. Our last trip we reserved dinner at Ariel’s Grotto (my girls are HUGE Ariel fans) but we actually walked out of the restaurant. I was mortified about it but the place was not clean, dark and depressing at dinner, the menu did not offer items we liked and the price tag would have been over $150 for 2 adults and 2 kids. The menu is set so when the waitress greeted us with a platter of Jello squares as the appetizer, we decided not to stay. We did eat breakfast at Goofy’s Kitchen. There were several characters although it wasn’t the big names. We saw the Mad Hatter, Chip n Dale, Mulan, Goofy and that was about it. It was $30 per person for a breakfast buffet- ouch!
TIP: If you don’t have a rental car or you don’t want to drive around, you can check and see if Von’s (Safeway affiliate grocery store) will deliver to your hotel! You would just go to Vons.com and check out the grocery delivery page. I have not tried this myself but they do deliver to businesses and you can reserve a specific time to have everything delivered so that might be a great option. Amazon is another option if you plan the dates exactly.
There are two ways to save money here. The first idea is to buy everything or make everything ahead of time at better prices. You can make your own stuff if you are crafty (I am not crafty and made a bunch of stuff myself anyway) or buy on sale in advance at the Disney Store or Walmart. The prices at the park are crazy. It was colder then I thought it would be on our trip and I literally could not find a sweatshirt for less then $50. Ouch! See me above in the hoodie from my gym bag that I wore for 3 days straight :P.
I think souvenirs are a must for kiddos- I remember when I was little everything from little pens to shirts was such a thrill. Many people like to collect autographs from all the characters. If that is something you want to do, you might consider getting some sort of cute little book ahead of time or some people bought postcards at the Park and used that as an autograph book. The scrapbooking section of any craft store will have TONS of cute little things to jazz up plain paper if you want to make your own.
I bought shirts at the Disney Store on sale, pj’s at the Disney Store on sale and stuffed animals for the girls- we actually had our packages sent directly to the Disneyland hotel. They were thrilled and this makes saying no to a million little things in the park a lot easier. (If you go this route- give AMPLE time for shipping. Disney Store is slow as heck to ship things.)
I also bought a bunch of glowsticks, glow bracelets little light up Princess spinners, glow wands etc… at the Dollar Store and Target beforehand. The glow stuff is beautiful in the park and really hard to say no to- but just one balloon is $20. You will really pay a small fortune on this stuff and it seems like every turn brings a new vendor with a huge cart of stuff at night. (Full disclosure: my kids still whined and cried for the fancier stuff but at least they weren’t completely empty handed.)
If you want to grab items in the park one little tip to save a bit is to look for discounted gift card offers on Disney gift cards before your trip. Sometimes Rite Aid, CVS and Safeway will run $10 back on $50 gift cards and occasionally you can score a deal that way. If your child has a birthday you might ask for these gift cards instead of gifts or perhaps make arrangements for extra chores and things around the house and the child can earn gift cards to use on the trip.
Otherwise I say set a firm budget for souvenirs and hold off at least a bit on purchases. I find my kids desperately need things until 2 hours later when they forgot all about that item . If you buy a Disney gift card that can make it easier to stick to a budget. Once that gift card is gone, it is gone and no more money for little treasures.
If you happen to buy the cute balloons (to the tune of $12)- grab that the first day because if your balloon pops or deflates during your trip you can find a cast member to replace it for you! Yeah!!
One thing totally worth the splurge:
The amazing treats at Pooh’s Corner! We grabbed the candy apples to bring back as a little gift to the dog sitter plus a little treat for the day after we got home to talk about the trip and remember how fun it was. These are great to take back to the hotel too- cheaper then dessert in a restaurant and they definitely feed two or more people. The caramel apples are my fave but for more staying power the chocolate covered marshmallows or Rice Krispies might be a better choice.
Other Tips and Tricks::
- There are several free apps that you can download to keep track of the wait times for rides. If you stay at a Disney Hotel you can get into the park an hour early. That hour goes crazy fast (and note there are big lines at the hotel too so don’t leave your room at the last second or you might miss part of your hour.)
- You for sure want a plan for that hour to maximize it with the best rides- just note that not everything will be open. We were really disappointed to figure that out on our trip. The most popular rides on the Disneyland side were closed during Magic Hour! For our early hour we jumped in line to meet the Princesses at Disneyland and at California Adventure it was awesome to get in quickly to a lot of rides- California Adventure always seems way busier to me.
- One little trick if you have small children is to ask for a stroller pass. Most rides will give you a stroller pass and you can come back later to skip the line for busy rides. My big girl and I went on Radiator Springs very first thing to avoid the lines and I asked for a stroller pass for my husband. That means that he can come back later and go on the ride without waiting again. (Disneyland knows that we have little kids and Mom and Dad often need to stay with a little one while the bigger kids go on rides so they offer this little benefit.) If you have littles don’t miss this HUGE perk. When the lines for Radiator Springs were an hour, we were able to use those stroller passes from the morning to zip right in.
- Fast Passes: So fast passes are little tickets you get from a stand in front of the rides. Those allow you to come back to the ride after an appointed time and you can skip the regular long lines. This is the way to go but there are some tricks that are important to note. One is that the Fast passes can sell out early in the day for the more popular rides. The second is that you can only get one Fast Pass at a time- say I get a Fast Pass for Pirates of the Caribbean and it says to come back at 11am. I can come back anytime I want after 11.01am until the park closes and use that Fast Pass. Once it is 11:01am I can also get another Fast Pass for another ride. You want to collect these Fast Passes so that you can keep hitting the rides and avoid waiting for ages and ages for any ride. Collect the Fast Passes in the morning and use them in the afternoon when the park gets super busy. (Note: since you are limited on how many Fast Passes you can get, the stroller pass is totally different so you want to take advantage of both if you can.) As of 2013, Disneyland might start enforcing the time of the Fast Passes- so you might ask when you go just to be sure. For our trip in Nov of 2012 they were not enforcing the times (so if my Fast Pass said 11am to noon, you should be able to go anytime after 11:01am. If they are enforcing the time on the Fast Passes during your visit you would only be able to use it during that one hour time frame.)
- One last little tip to avoid the lines is to use the single rider option. That lane is much faster to get on rides and if you have older children you will probably be on the same ride just not sitting together. If you have little children this doesn’t work because you want to be seated next to each other.
- And keep in mind the time of year you go. We always plan a trip for around Thanksgiving. That is the slowest time of year for the park, the weather is nice and mild and the kids don’t miss a lot of school. The park is all decorated for Christmas too and it is so pretty! If you want to go on one of the special days they offer discounted tickets (like Homeschool days or Dapper Days) be prepared for much, much bigger crowds. Spring Break is obviously going to be crazy as well. Try to aim for Tues or Wed- those are the slowest days of the week. Halloween is also a really fun time of year to go.
- If you do have small children, there is a little Baby Center that is nice. It is calm and quiet and you can change diapers, feed babies or just take a minute to get it all together. If you need diapers, bandaids or other supplies you might pop in there.
- Find the special events and parade schedule for your trip here. People start finding spots to sit hours before these parades. This is another perk to packing your own food. You can find a good spot and eat your meal while you wait for the parade to start. Just note that you want to be in the front here because the park staff will often make people move if they block the sidewalk. (NOTE: We were there before Christmas so lots of people came to the park just for the parade. It is nearly impossible to find a spot right before the parade starts. We almost missed it except a VERY nice group of ladies that let us sneak in next to them. We were literally crammed in and there was standing room only unless you were right on the curb… if you have littles they can’t stand that long and they won’t be able to see.) I had read about all sorts of secret spots that you can supposedly find great seats last minute- NOT ONE secret spot was a secret and we nearly missed out on the parade.
- If you have a special occasion- birthday, first trip to the park etc… grab a free special occasions button at City Hall on Main Street or at Guest Services at California Adventures. It is a cute souvenier and the person wearing it will get extra attention from the staff all day long- kids will be thrilled or sneak and put one on your husband’s back when he isn’t looking ;).
- Photo Passes: there are pro photographers that will take a little card you give them and they will take photos for you. To buy the photos is pricey so don’t give them the preferred spot for pictures! I foolishly stood behind the photographers or to the side of them (trying not to be rude) but I found out after that my photos were just as good. Next time they can get behind me ;). And tell those kids to look at YOU- we have tons of cute pics with the kids looking at that darn photographer and not me.