You generally don’t hear the words “Disney” and “budget” in the same sentence, because “the most magical place on Earth” comes at a hefty price.
But after two years in pandemic lockdown mode, and with the parks at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, fully open and continuing to modify their pandemic protocols, my family was more than ready to splurge on a trip with newly vaccinated children.
A family trip to a Disney theme park can cost thousands of dollars. But there are tricks to keep the trip relatively affordable without sacrificing the magic. Read on for those tips, as well as lessons for keeping your trip from becoming stressful and overstimulating.
1. Pick your park (and stay on the West Coast)
Disneyland is smaller, less overwhelming, and so much easier to navigate than Disney World. There’s less walking because all the rides are closer together. Not to mention that it takes twice as long to fly to Orlando, Florida, opposed to Southern California.
2. Pick a cheaper time of year if you can
There’s no way around it: Admission tickets are expensive. Prices vary, but walking in the gates each day will cost at least $100 per person. Prices — and crowds — are highest during school breaks. If you have the flexibility to go at an off-peak time of year, do it.
3. Stay close by and know your limits
Book a room within walking distance of the attractions so you can take a break midday and not feel like you lost half your day. Stay on-site — or, better yet, at a hotel across the street. Some off-site hotels are just as close to the parks as Disney hotels. And staying off-site can save you thousands of dollars.
Running around the park all day trying to squeeze everything in leads to sensory overload. Know when enough is enough; no ride is worth hitting breaking point. You can head to your room for a nap or a swim or just to melt down for a little bit. Return to the park in the evening when ride times are shorter and stay for fireworks.
4. Bring all the snacks
Disney food is cute but not good, and definitely not cheap. Not to mention sit-down meals seriously cut into your time to do fun rides.
Instead, stop for groceries, or get basics sent to your hotel with a grocery-delivery service like Instacart or Amazon Fresh. You can also sign up for Walmart+, which is free for 30 days, and they’ll deliver your groceries for free.
Stay ahead of the hangry: Bring string cheese, protein and precut fruit with you to the park. Bread, lunch meat, baby carrots, bananas and trail mix make easy, portable lunches. You can bring any outside food into the park, just no alcohol, no glass containers and no loose ice. Packing your own food and snacks is cheaper and healthier, a win-win.
You can ask for free water at any quick-service restaurant instead of paying $4.25 for a bottle of Dasani, too. Eat breakfast in the hotel and skip the pricey character dining.
A princess breakfast runs an eye-popping $125 per person. Our food budget wound up running less than $10 per person per day.
5. Be smart buying your souvenirs
Buy your souvenirs (trading pins, bubble wands, etc.) on Amazon or at the dollar store ahead of time to surprise your kids without breaking the bank. Those $30 ears you see everyone wearing at the park? They cost $4 on Amazon.
The Target and Walmart stores near the parks have great selections of Disney merch, too, well below the Disney price point.
6. Stock up on gift cards
Gift cards can help you stick to a budget because you can’t spend what you don’t have. Ask for Disney gift cards for birthdays and holidays. They can be used anywhere in the park, for anything. Pro tip: Disney gift cards are 5% off at Target with a RedCard.
7. Look up point-of-view videos on YouTube
Some kids are born thrill-seekers, others lean to the cautious side. You can reduce anxiety about scary rides by looking up YouTube videos that show exactly what you’re getting into. You’ll know if there are any triggers, like loud noises or pitch-black sections.
Let your kid call the shots. Also know that if you get to the front of the line and you change your mind, it’s perfectly OK to back out.
Noise-canceling headphones are a good option to have on hand, in case your kid is overwhelmed by loud music or fireworks. Some of the rides are a lot less intense if you can mute them. Also, pack some fidgets for lines or mealtimes.
8. Use your stroller as your photographer
You’ll want to remember your trip with cute family photos, and Disney has photographers stationed throughout the parks ready to take group shots — for a fee. You knew there had to be a catch.
Extendable tripods and selfie sticks are not allowed in the Disneyland parks, so we bought a miniature tripod that clips onto the stroller. Anytime we felt like taking a family picture, we set the camera on self-timer mode and our stroller served as our photographer.
9. Families with special needs: Register for DAS
Disneyland goes above and beyond making sure its guests with special needs have a good time, too.
Disability Access Service lets you ask for a return time for rides via the Disneyland app. DAS isn’t for people with mobility issues, but you can qualify for medical reasons like autism that make it hard to wait in long lines.
Getting set up with DAS is like already having Genie+ and Lightning Lanes, Disney’s two paid line-expediting options. DAS passholders go through the Lightning Lanes; you won’t be judged for using DAS for a hidden disability.
You don’t have to go to the ride to get the return time — it can be done anywhere once you’re in the park. Once you’ve checked in for one ride, you can select the next ride. The DAS pass includes six people total, so your whole family can ride together.
You can preregister for DAS online two to 30 days before your trip via a text and video chat. The wait time for online chat can take many hours, but once you’re connected, you’ll explain why you need the accommodation and why long waits are challenging. The cast members, which is what Disney calls its park employees, are kind and helpful.
It’s easy to register for DAS in person at guest relations, where there’s virtually no wait. But if you preregister online, you get two bonus advance reservations per day in the parks. There’s no limit on how many rides you book once you’re in the park.
10. Go with the flow
Don’t overplan. Mapping out every minute of every day takes away from the magic. You won’t fit everything in and that’s OK.
Relax, be positive and see where the day takes you. Have so much fun! That is the point of a vacation, after all.