Disneyland on the (Sort of) Cheap

By Maggie Wells on 17 August 2009 (Updated 12 November 2012) 27 comments

Disneyland is like a drug. Once your kids have had a taste of it, they remember it. They ask for it. When they hear you say the word "vacation" they remind you of it. We went a solid three years of their lives keeping them from all things Disney — from the Disney channel to the diapers, but one trip there when a cousin was getting married about a mile away from the park, and that was it. They were hooked. Now, anytime we find ourselves in southern California we find ourselves considering the big trip to Disneyland — the happiest place on earth. But return trips have made us much wiser Disney guests. If you are contemplating a trip with the kids these tips just might help you out. (See also: 8 Great, Cheap Summer Vacations)

Admissions

Think this article is out of season? Think again. There's no better time to go to Disneyland than — for lack of a better phrase — anytime that's not summer. We used to joke about it and say the best day to go to Disneyland was a Tuesday afternoon when it's raining in February. You don't have to wait for bad weather but here's what not going in summer might do for you:

Lower admission

Keep a look out on their website for deals. Sometimes you can get a 2 or 3 day pass at a big discount if you go off season.

Friends go with you

Tons of southern Californians have year round passes. They usually have some blackout days in summer and around holidays but most of the time your southern California family and friends with passes can get in any time. And have them buy the tickets for you. Often there are discounts if you have a southern California zip code.

You can also make friends with people who work for Disneyland. They get a limited number of free passes for family and friends. If you hear your cousin's daughter is working there, hit 'em up.

Kids under 3 years of age are free

That can get a bit subjective. I had a big three-year-old son that they questioned was really three, but you aren't required to carry a birth certificate, so I just told them his birthday and got slightly indignant.

Free Admission on your birthday!

You better bring proof!

Deals for multiple days and multiple parks

You can get a ticket for a day, two days, or three days. You can get a ticket for just Disneyland, or Disneyland and California Adventure park, or just California Adventure. California Adventure has a couple of great Pixar kiddie attractions that might lull you into the big ticket price. We were on a budget this time around and told the kids that those rides were closed today. They forgot about them soon enough.

Parking

There is almost no way to get out of the $12 parking fee except if you bus in or hitch a ride in a shuttle from one of the nearby hotels. One cool thing though is that you can park in the Downtown Disney parking section for free for the first three hours. You'll just need to send someone out of the park by monorail to re-park and come back. Or if you plan a really brief trip.

Food

The most money you'll shell out after gaining entrance to the park will be food. They know you will be there for hours; you'll be walking a lot; you'll want food and drink. Here are a few tips Disney aficionados Briana Sanford and Kathryn Couch shared with me:

Start the day with your own stuff

Every member in your party can walk into the park with a beverage in hand from somewhere else and they can't make you throw it away. We stopped at Tully's for a cheap round of coffee for us and juice for the kids before entering the park. Careful though! If one person carries all the drinks in a take away box or tray they'll make you dump it out. They can each be carrying something to eat in hand but again, one person cannot be carrying all the food. It must be for immediate consumption. But hey! You just got away with breakfast!

Your backpack full of snacks

My cousin's husband filled his backpack with any number of snacks, fruit, and water bottles. Technically, if you bring a "picnic" lunch, you are supposed to eat at picnic tables provided outside the park, but no one uses these that I've ever seen. So long as the snacks are something you can eat standing up, you are okay. They'll look through your backpack but you are allowed to bring it all in.

Resist the urge and share germs

There will be $4 drinks everywhere. You'll see the number 4 so much you'll think sure, it's normal to spend that much. Don't do it. Buy one $4 drink per 4 people. They are big and if everyone gets their own drink then you just bought yourself an extra line for the bathroom. Keep it to the water bottles you brought with you. I ask for extra straws or bring them from home so my kids don't complain.

Find deals for food

At some point you'll break down and eat there. Some places are better than others and some are better deals. Our frequent guests Briana and Kathryn shared these cheaper favorites:

  • California Adventure's Pacific Wharf Cafe has a large shrimp louie salad served in fresh-baked Boudin sourdough bread bowl for only $10. A bunch of people seem to swear that this is the best food in either park.
  • Pizza Port in Tomorrowland is a family crowd pleaser with pasta dishes big enough to share and affordable.
  • Plaza Inn has large portions that can be shared among a family of four for under $20.
  • Main street bakery has some sweet yummy treats under $5.
  • Take the monorail to Downtown Disney and hang out and eat down there instead. It has upscale mall food for the most part.
  • Stay away from impulse buys of cart food and retreat to your backpack full of snacks instead.

Souvenirs

It goes without saying: if you have kids with you, you ain't getting out of Disneyland without a souvenir. But you can make more bang for your buck choices around it. Number one from the moms I know? The official Disney autograph book. For $6.95 you can get an autograph book so your kids can chase down their favorite characters and ask for their autographs. If you are crafty you can remember the book for repeat visits and fill up the pages. A little interactive activity. We usually tell our kids that they can look in the stores — and to let us know what they liked and maybe we'll share the info with Santa Claus. Almost anything you can find in the park you can find online. And some of the very best Disney deals are at their outlet store. We got these great Alice and Wonderland pillows we saw for $45 bucks for under $5 at the outlet.

Buttons

Are you celebrating something? If you are there for the first time, having a birthday, anniversary, etc. go to Ciity Hall on Main Street at Disneyland or guest services at the California Adventure entrance and tell the cast members what you're celebrating. They'll give you a big dorky button to wear on your chest all day that exclaims whatever that is. Wear the button for potential freebies. Cast members are required to smile at button wearers, shout out Happy Birthday, and I hear rumors that various places will give you a slight advantage of one thing or another. A free bag of tortillas awaits you in California Adventure for example, or an extra cherry in your mint julep. You never know. Pays to wear the dorky button and find out.

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Leaving the Magic Kingdom

We lasted nine hours at Disneyland. The tickets were $268 for the four of us. I brought an additional $100 cash and some change for a family of four. I also fed 2 cousins at lunch for coming with us. I entered the parking lot at the end of the night with $29 left and change. Not bad for two meals, drinks, two souvenirs. Anyone else have any cheap Disneyland tips?

 

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Guest's picture
Greg

While my kids were too young on my last visit, my brother-in-law gave his kids $x per day to spend as they wanted (spend, save, save and buy one big thing at the end of the week).

Also, we plan one meal at a character-themed buffet. Expensive? Yes. But it gives the kids a chance to settle down, rest up, and refresh (especially in the summer). The payoff is they are good for several hours after...rather than having to leave mid-day.

Also, with young kids, get a stroller. They can nap while at the park.

Finally, know when it is time to leave the park. A waste of money if you stay from open to close, but everyone is tired and agitated.

Guest's picture
Guest

I used to work at Disney World. I always hated how people that I would never hear from would have the time to call me once I worked at Disney. When I quit, I never heard from them again. I didn't mind so much when they offered a little cash, since I had to drive out there on my day off to sign them in and their pay scale is really low. My favorite saying was when someone said that so and so did them a favor and they would like to return it. Then asked if I could get them into the park for free!!! ok, enough groaning....

Annual passes are often a great deal and usually include perks like free parking. Add up the costs less the perks and see if you are saving some money..... Some savy folds would buy an annual pass every other year and visit in January and December one year. Then skip a year and buy an annual pass the following year. So they would visit 11 and 13 months apart. Admission for the second visit usually worked out to be free.

Things may have changed in the time that I left, but they always put restrictions on the food and drinks that were brought in. However, they would let people take food in for special medical or religious dietary restrictions. Check first.... they may have changed the rules.

You can tailgate picnic to save money. Just don't put the Hibache with hot coals in your trunk when your done. You will come out of the park at the end of the day to find out that you burned up your car and the cars on either side of you. Yes, that actually did happen!

Guest's picture
some guy on the internet

Being an east coaster I will refer to Disney World.

1.I have found packing snacks, food and drinks as being the most cost saving tactic of all.
My tip in that regard is to back dry drink mixes (crystal light, kool-aid etc.) instead of many bottles. Have a bottle for each person, and refill with free Disney fountain water and your mixes through out the day. This will also save significantly on weight.

2.Stay away from salty snacks. I found chips-ahoy and oreo's satisfied the best without making us thirstier.

3.As for souvenirs, we purchased authentic Disney items at the supermarket outside our hotel room off property. At 1/2 the price we would give each kid one at the end of the day. They were told if they were good they would get the souvenir at the end of the day, and not once did they ask for something while we were there.

4.Lastly, stay at quality off property hotels if you can. You will save significantly.

Guest's picture
Guest

Great tips, particularly about the powdered drink mixes, genius! Thanks.

Guest's picture
some guy on the internet

almost forgot:

5. Bring a stroller even if your kids walk fine on their own. It's great for cargo as well as naps and breaks for the kids. If yopu have a very common stroller hang some ribbon or tag from your suitcase on it so you can easily pick it out in the stroller parking lots.

Guest's picture
Guest

One more tip: there's a cafe right next to where you exit the lockers (on your left as you're heading to Main Street.) Go there in the morning and get a coffee, and with you receipt, you can come back anytime later (at night is great when it's cooled off a lot) and get a free refill! It's not necessary to bring your cup, either.

My boyfriend and I did this last time we were there a few weeks ago (the woman behind the counter tipped us off). We were skeptical, but we went back later and what do you know? It worked.

Maggie Wells's picture

Should be as good as last week (which is when we went and tried out these theories). The 'newer' parking lot at Disneyland would make tailgate parties nearly impossible (enclosed structure).

This was our first year without the stroller! But as long as you can it's a great idea. Our four year old is going on 16 and refuses to use one. We did get her in free when she was 3 1/2 in a stroller.

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
martha in mobile

We bought trading pins on ebay before going. Disney "cast members" (you may know them as "employees") wear lanyards with pins and will trade with you. This added a fun dimension for my preteens and made standing on line easier, because they were always reviewing their pins and getting excited about what pins they were looking for. I enjoyed chatting with the cast members and finding out where in the world they were from and why they were working at Disney. It added a human touch to the Disney behemoth.

Guest's picture
DivaJean

My sister brings her son to Disney at the drop of a hat- and she lives in southeast Pennsylvania. My aunt once went with them and said it was the saddest thing she ever saw- a 7 year old (at the time) jaded over going to Disney World. My brother in law has 3 jobs and my sister works too- and they vacation just about exclusively at Disney World. They have gone 3 or 4 times a year for the past few years-- she just was down for a month from June thru July, first taking a cruise w/ Disney, then spending 3 weeks for the rest of her stay. My kids have yet to go. When they hear their cousin talk about always going, they have their pangs of wishing it was them. I then remind them that they have other things they get to do- going to camp, having a parent home that can let them go to a friend's house anytime (rather than being at a sitter or daycare), etc. We DO go to a local amusement park almost monthly over the summer- but then don't feel so rushed to see and do everything like I know we would at Disney. Besides, our 4 (ages 10, 7, 4, and 2) make travel from home to Florida very cost prohibitive. We imagine Disney will be a twice in their lifetime plan-- once everyone is out of diapers (probably in the next year or two) and then when the youngest is about 9 or 10 (the oldest would be in high school).

My sister uses all kinds of crazy tricks to get meals included, goes the last day of cheap pricing to get the cheap price for the whole trip, etc. She has made it a hobby as to how she finagles her Disney trips. I will likely look for her help when we get more serious about planning for our trips, but in the meantime, we do without. I don't even like to hit the Disney store at the mall with kids- its just too ripe for kids to want "stuff."

Guest's picture
Jamie

I agree with a point made by #8 DivaJean. I too have a friend who brings her kids to Disney multiple times a year. She too searches out the best deals but I think the kids don't really care to go anymore. They expect to go, and the magic seems gone for them. They never seem excited about it. My friend justifies it by saying they are young only once, but I think just spending time WITH them is better then spending FOR time with them.

Anyway, food for thought.

Guest's picture
Maseca

We're annual pass holders, and go to the park at least once a month, sometimes more. Here are some of our favorite tips:

1. The cheapest place to eat at Disneyland is Bengal BBQ, across the way from the Jungle Cruise in Adventureland. They have beef, chicken or veggie skewers for under $3.50 a piece. Two skewers are usually sufficient for my husband for lunch. Plus they're delicious!

2. To really do things on the cheap, exit the park, walk over to Harbor Boulevard and hit the McDonald's across the street. It's a pretty short walk, and even doable for kids.

3. If you have a car with you, nix the in-park souvenirs and head to the Disney Character Outlet in Fullerton (about a 10-15 minute drive from Disneyland). They have a huge store full of "last season's" souvenirs at a steep discount.

Guest's picture

I have lived in the Orlando area for my entire life and never knew that Disney was free on my birthday! That is amazing. I may be a grown adult but I am psyched to go there this year :-) Thanks for that tip!

Maggie Wells's picture

I was working off of D-Land info.

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
Guest

AAA has Disney World ticket discounts on their site, www.aaa.com

Guest's picture
Kim

If you are AAA members you get free parking when you buy your Disneyland passes (already at a steep discount)at AAA--and that is free parking for every day of your visit!

Guest's picture

Great examples of how to economize. I think they work for every place. We always bring our own snacks and bottled water! that's a huge money sucker. And living in Central America, you cant just go and drink out of the faucet because you will end up with some parasite:) so we are now stocked with water to the ears!

Maggie Wells's picture

Apparently as of Jan. 1, 2010, Disneyland is no longer offering free birthday visits!

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Maggie Wells's picture

Apparently as of Jan. 1, 2010, Disneyland is no longer offering free birthday visits!

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
Guest

Food tips from an Annual Passholder:

The cheapest meal you'll find at Disneyland is what I like to call the "Poor Man's Meal." At the Pizza Port in Tomorrowland, you can get a huge side of foccacia bread that is larger than a slice of pizza. It comes with cheese on it and pizza sauce for dipping. It's about $4, and is even more satisfying than a real slice of pizza, which costs twice as much.

Be careful about visiting restaurants that are within walking distance from Disneyland. Their prices are hiked up, and might not be any cheaper than staying in the park. For example, the IHOP across from the bus depot is about $3 more expensive than any IHOP you've visited in your life.

My biggest advice is to bring as much food and drink as you're willing to carry. They'll never make you dump it out or eat it in their picnic area. If they question you, tell them you're meeting someone with small children. Everyone with kids in the park brings tons of food. Disneyland won't dispute your right to feed your little picky eaters.

Guest's picture
Chara

At Disney World in Orlando there are no restriction on bringing in outside food or drink. I do it all the time. They even have water fountains throughout the park. So if you bring a refillable bottle, there is no need to purchase or bring a bunch of drinks with you.

Guest's picture
Guest

This article is completely out of date. Free admission was offered in 2009 only. Parking is now $15 dollars per vehicle. My suggestion would be to wait until October and see if Disneyland is offering any specials for admission for 2011 and sign up. Around this time last year, Disneyland was offering free admission in 2010 for anyone who volunteered. We signed up to volunteer 2 hours at a homeless shelter and received free tickets for everyone in our party within 24 hours. I am sure they will be offering something to get guests into the park for 2011.

Guest's picture

Thanks for these tips, I don’t have any tip to give to save while on Disney since this will be our family’s first time to visit Disney. But I do have a tip before going for the trip. I had talked to my kids about going to Disney and let them saved money out of their allowances. We sat down and told them that I will shoulder half of the entrance fee and the other half will be paid by them. The half that I saved on the entrance fee will be used for our expenses inside Disney. This way, we all got our trip and the cost for it while teaching my kids to save for something they want.

Guest's picture
disney lover

When we hit disneyland we stop at our local disney store, dollar tree, or walmart. We buy a few small items ($10 or less) for the kids such as a stuffed animal, disney candy or a book. When we arive to check in at our hotel I stay in the car with the kids while my husband runs in. He sneeks the gifts in the room and sets them up on the beds for the kids to discover when we enter the room. We tell them Mickey Mouse left them. They are delighted! It has an almost Christmas morning effect on them. They have a disneyland keepsake, a magical first moment, and I save some money. Everyones happy!

Guest's picture
Guest

Oh!!! Good Idea! I was wondering how I was going to pull off getting the surprise in the hotel BEFORE the kids got in... Now we are set!!! THANK YOU!!!

Guest's picture
Guest

Instead of buying an expensive "autograph book" we bought $1 journals at the Dollar Tree with Winnie the Pooh on them. My two daughters used them to get autographs from tons of characters and when we got home used the rest of the pages to paste photos into. Great scrapbooks of a great vacation! It was three years ago and we still look at them.

Guest's picture
Guest

It is no longer free on your Birthday. That ended in 2009. Sorry world!

Guest's picture
Dining Downer

Regarding taking food and/or drink into the park, according to the Disneyland website:

http://disneyland.disney.go.com/faq/dining/#dining-q5

Can I bring food into Disneyland Park or Disney California Adventure Park?

If you wish to bring your own food and enjoy an outdoor meal in an ideal setting, there is a complimentary Picnic Area conveniently located outside the Main Entrance to Disneyland Park.

With the exception of food items for Guests with specific dietary restrictions, food or beverage items are not permitted into either of the Disneyland Resort theme parks.