Disneyland on the (Sort of) Cheap
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)
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?