How to Plan a Disneyland Trip on the Cheap
Last year, I promised my 6-year old I’d take her to Disneyland for her birthday. Last month, she reminded me her birthday was coming up and I looked up hotel prices – gasp! I looked at Disneyland ticket prices – gasp again! And I looked at SFO-LAX flights – triple gasp! If that trip was not going to cost me an arm and a leg, I would have to be seriously crafty. Here is how I managed to keep the costs down – and still make good on my promise to visit the Happiest Place on Earth for my little girl’s 7th birthday.
Since the flights for me and my two girls would cost hundreds of dollars, I decided to cut down on that part and drive down I-5 to Anaheim. Depending on your starting point in the Bay Area, you are looking at a solid 7-8 hours of driving and roughly 380 miles of boring straight non-scenic road. Oh joy!
Obviously I was the only driver with no adult co-pilot so I was a bit worried about such a long drive. Fortunately we found a plan that would keep the three of us entertained during hours on end: books on CD! Two days before the trip, we dropped in at the San Francisco Public Library and borrowed 7 different books on CD, from long epic stories lasting 7 hours to short early readers done in an hour. That’s how I discovered the hypochondriac mouse Geronimo Stilton, listened to 6 hours and 30 minutes of pulsing Percy Jackson and the Lighting Thief (sadly the last CD was missing so I’ll never hear the end), and heard the two first chapters of Little House on the Prairie (but they were lulling me to sleep so I ejected the CD).
We stopped twice along the way: once for the necessary stretch-your-back/get-your-blood-flowing pit stop, and a second time to eat dinner. We went all out on the road trip idea and ate at McDonald’s, which by I-5 standards is practically gourmet junk food. Plus, my girls were overjoyed to order a Happy Meal and even managed to trade their toys for “better” toys at the register. What could I say?
The trip down took us 9 hours because of three delays caused by road works on I-5. I tried – unsuccessfully – to listen to the I-5 traffic information station but only got static. And went back to Percy Jackson.
Tickets & Lodging
Seeing that there were no special ticket discounts at CostCo or on the Disneyland-budget-bible Mousesavers.com, I called AAA and booked a Disneyland package via their travel agents. Had I been smarter, I would have done that a week earlier and saved myself a week of comparing hotel prices, hotel amenities, hotel distances from the theme park and hotel reviews on the web. Enough of Kayak and Expedia already! Even the Unofficial Disneyland Guide 2012 didn’t help much because it compared dozens of hotels around the park and all I wanted was a narrow choice of 2 or 3 tops.
When you go to Disneyland, you basically have two choices. You can splurge and stay on Disney property hotels (Disneyland Hotel, Paradise Pier, Grand Californian) but that went beyond my budget. The other option is the Good Neighbor Hotels program, a list of hotels around the theme park that partner with Disney and offer tickets + room packages at discounted prices.
That’s how I picked the Marriott Anaheim, almost solely on the star-factor and the fact that they’d recently renovated their bedrooms and featured comfortable beds. I like my sleep and figured I’d need a good bed after a 9-hour drive. Indeed, the beds were plush and comfy but I wished the bathroom would have been larger. The hotel was roughly 20-walking minutes from the park’s entrance, a good way to start a busy day under the shade of lush palm trees.
Oh, and something worth noting: in the AAA package I chose, parking was free for the whole stay as well as all meals eaten by my girls (kids under 9 eat free) at the hotel’s restaurants. Trust me, my girls went for the breakfast buffet both days.
Food & Drinks
That’s where you’ll lose your arm and leg at Disneyland. Food and drinks are very expensive and not even that good. $4 for cotton candy? $9 for a corn dog with apple slices? I mean, you’ve got to practice some damage control here: pack some snacks! I’m not saying you should bring the fully-loaded cooler – you can’t, it’s not allowed – but go ahead, don’t be shy. Snacks are good fuel during the day.
On the first day, my bag featured a pack of blueberries (fresh from the hotel’s fridge), a ziploc bag of small carrots, 2 apples, 1 banana and a chocolate chip cookie. I’ll grant you that it’s an odd assortment but it satisfied hunger cravings in wait lines. And how could you not feel hungry when everybody else around you is eating? I don’t know why but people eat non-stop at Disneyland and I bet they’re not even that hungry. It’s must be too enticing: the sun, the quaint food carts on wheels, the kitchen smells floating everywhere – it’s all part of the experience.
As far as drinks, I went for the minimal option. Since I could not carry a filled water bottle (too heavy, too bulky), I simply carried a sturdy plastic cup (airplane or camping size) that we refilled to drink several times throughout the day at water fountains. You’ll find that Disneyland was really well designed because water fountains are everywhere. I like it like that. If you don’t find them on your maps, they’re generally next to bathrooms.
Souvenirs & Tchtotchkes
Ah yes, the deadly mouse trap: a souvenir item! As tempting as it is to buy a souvenir glittering cup with twisty straw and Disney character, it’s just another piece of plastic crap that’ll end up in the great Pacific garbage patch some day. If you’re going to pick up a souvenir, please please please try to avoid plastic. How about a morning mug with polka dots or a Luiggi’s Tires hat – the latest rage? At Disneyland, avoiding plastic is a challenge but it can be done. Actually, you can buy a piece of unique nostalgia for under a dollar. My girls are fond of arcade games and on Main Street USA, I always give them a handful of quarters to spend on souvenir coins or the Esmeralda fortune-teller machine that predicts their entire future with breathtaking accuracy. They love it and literally learn heir fortune by heart so they can test its truthfulness throughout the day.
Transport to/from Hotel
There are dozens of shuttles that stop at local hotels to bring hordes of mouse-fans into the park but why sit on a bus when the weather is so nice and the pavement so nicely landscaped? The surroundings of Disneyland are made for walking: wide pavements, tall trees, Mickey Mouse lanterns. And walking is free! We walked to and from our hotel and always stopped on our way back to get a whiff of the fragrant jasmine bushes or sweet woodruff flowers that had been basking in the sun all day and released their vanilla aromas at night. It was a pleasant break from walking through tight crowds in the park.
Of course you want to immortalize your vacations and the photos better be memorable. Have you noticed all the Disney cast members snapping great photos of your party when you pose with Disney characters? Or the hilarious shots of you roller-coaster-stricken at the exit of Space Mountain? They cost a pretty lump sum and to avoid that extra cost, I put my camera to good use. When my girls struck a pose with Mickey and Minnie, I took the photo at the same time as the Disney photographers (and graciously accepted their card) and at the exit of Space Mountain, I set my camera on 3200 ISO and captured the screen photo of our car with my camera. Other people used their iPhones to the same result. That saved me a good $15 per photo and I’m very happy with the results.
That’s all all I did to keep the budget reined in during our 3-day trip and the only thing I could have done better with was the meals. That dinner at the Blue Bayou for our special occasion was expensive – but so worth it, what with the fake fireflies, Caribbean paper lanterns and pirate-viewing boats floating by. My little girl will remember her 7th birthday dinner with a pirate-menu-hat on her head. What cost-saving tips have you used at Disneyland?