After doing quite a bit of research on how to manage a Disneyland trip “on a budget”, I quickly found out that there are many different ideas of what that actually looks like. Some people spent more on their “budget” Disneyland trip than I spent on my last car!
I had a $2000.00 budget for our family of four, and when it was all said and done, we actually came in under budget at the end! I’ll show you a quick breakdown of where our money went, and then give more details on how we found different deals and how we made our decisions.
Disney Budget – Family of 4 (kids ages 4 & 7) for 3 days: $2000.00
Traveling off-season and mid-week – November 2017
Rental Car: $111.00
Disneyland 2 Day Park hopper + Max Pass tickets: $1032.00
Character Dinner: $7.26
Pre-trip purchases: $24.00
Grand Total: $1988.66
Here are the details on why we made certain decisions, or where we found discounted deals…
Flying vs. Driving
We live about 16 hours from Disneyland, so I was open to driving instead of flying. I compared the costs of driving (gas, extra night in a hotel, food, extra time off of work) and flying (plane ticket and rental car). I was able to find tickets to LAX for only $106.50 per person and so we chose to fly. It was the preferred choice too because then we wouldn’t arrive exhausted and grouchy from sitting in a car with small children for 16 hours.
Often times, in order to get good deals, you have to sacrifice some comforts. In this case, that meant our flight home from LAX left at 6:30am… Which meant we left our hotel at 3:30am to get there on time. I planned ahead and before leaving on vacation, I had dinner prepped and in the freezer so that we could spend the rest of the day taking naps, watching movies, and just recovering from vacation.
Remember to keep your costs down by avoiding baggage fees and only bringing carry-on luggage with you.
I found our flight (Delta Airlines) by using Google Flights. It is my favorite way to search for flights! If you are flexible on your vacation dates, it searches several airlines and will show you the lowest prices for ranges of dates.
We like the freedom that having your own car allows, so we rented a car through CarRentals.com. We never buy any of the extras they try to pressure you into (extra insurance, toll road access, etc.). I didn’t include the cost of gas into our Disneyland budget, because we would normally be using gas if we were at home as well, so it came from our regular monthly budget. (The final cost of gas for the entire trip was a whopping $12 in the end.)
I know a lot of people like to stay in fancy hotels, have nice pools, and “experience the Disney magic” with a themed hotel. We stayed at our hotel long enough to sleep, shower, and eat the continental breakfast (an important money saver). So my biggest requirement was to find a decent hotel that was clean and didn’t have bugs.
I spent WEEKS looking at hotel deals until finally making a decision. Here are a few things that I took into account while searching:
Parking situation: When assessing the price of the hotel, make sure to account for any extra charges. I only looked at hotels that provided free parking since we would have a rental car.
Distance to Disneyland: The closer to Disneyland your hotel is, the more money you are going to pay. While it is nice to be able to just walk to the park in the morning, there are other options for transportation if you want a hotel a little further away. Some people like to take a break mid-day and return to their hotel to rest or swim in the pool. Our plan was to stay at the park the entire day, so we didn’t mind staying farther from the park. If your hotel is farther than walking distance, you will want to add in the cost of parking ($20/day) or taking a bus.
Our hotel was just a block away from the Disneyland Toy Story parking lot, so we walked to the lot and hopped onto the shuttle bus to get to and from Disneyland.
Cleanliness: When I found a few hotels we were considering staying at, I looked them up on Trip Advisor to read reviews. Keep in mind that there will ALWAYS be that one person who is never happy and leaves bad reviews because the paint was the wrong color. I would read the reviews mainly looking for comments on cleanliness, weird smells, and mention of bedbugs or cockroaches. I would also scour the photos to see what was offered at the continental breakfast.
We made sure to book a hotel that offered a continental breakfast. When we arrived in California, we made a stop at Walmart and picked up bread, peanut butter, jelly, and sandwich bags. We packed sandwiches each morning and I brought snacks from home (granola bars, nuts, fruit snacks, goldfish crackers, fruit, etc). We brought our own water bottles to the park and refilled them throughout the day at drinking fountains or restaurants that offered free cups of ice water. We budgeted $50 each day to eat dinner out while at the park. We also budgeted extra money for a few fun treats (dole whip, cotton candy, bakery goodies).
And of course we spent a little extra stopping at In-N-Out burger a couple of times.
Before we left on our trip, I wanted to have a few special items for the kids. I bought plain t-shirts at Walmart for $3/each and made them a simple Disney shirt, and their Nana secretly bought them each a shirt to wear on their second day. Jenna already had souvenir Minnie Mouse ears that one of neighbors had brought her as a gift years ago. Then I bought Micky and Minnie coin purses on Amazon for about $7 and filled them with quarters and pennies for the kids to use in the penny smash machines that we would find throughout the park. (One of the cheapest souvenirs and the kids love doing them)
We decided that in order to keep the trip within budget, we wouldn’t be buying extra things from all of the shops while in Disneyland. So, before we got there, we explained to the kids that we were going to have a lot of fun, and there would be a LOT of fun things in the stores while we were there. They were welcome to look at stuff and tell us if they liked things, but we weren’t going to be buying anything. They understood and it made the trip so much better to not have to constantly have them begging to buy things and being told no.
This was one of the things that we splurged on during our vacation. We took the kids to dinner at Goofy’s Kitchen and managed to only pay $7.26. Yes, you read that correctly! Here is how we did it…
We applied for the Disneyland credit card to use while on vacation. They had a deal running where once you spend $500 on purchases in the first 3 months you receive a $200 statement credit. So, we got the card, purchased our Disneyland tickets with it, and then used our statement credit to cover the $49 annual card fee and our dinner at Goofy’s kitchen (you also get a 10% discount when you pay for dinner with your card).
Now, if you don’t have any self-control when it comes to using credit cards, I highly advise against doing this. We live a debt-free lifestyle, but we recognize that credit card companies offer REALLY good deals. So, when vacation is over and the card is paid off, we simply cancel the card.
If you park at the Disneyland hotel, you can get free valet parking for 3 hours when you eat at Goofy’s kitchen and get your parking pass validated.
Since we arrived in California mid-day, we spent our first day exploring downtown Disney and going to our character dinner. It was a great way to get the kids acclimated and ready for a full day in Disneyland.
(Connor had to be photoshopped into the Space Mountain picture because he was too small to be seen in the original picture! And the kids hated all 3 of these rides!)
Our other major splurge on vacation was to pay the extra $$ to buy park hopper tickets and to buy the Disney MaxPass. The MaxPass is an extra $10 per ticket per day, so I was really hesitant to spend the extra $80, but it was completely worth it.
With the MaxPass you get the Unlimited Disney photopass downloads for the day. What this means is every time you get a picture on a ride, or take a picture with characters, you get a code to enter, and the pictures automatically download into your app and you can save them to your phone! I didn’t think we would get much use out of this part of the offer, but in the end, I had over 40 pictures saved!
It’s simple to use too. After you get off of a ride, simply snap a picture of the screen that shows your ride picture so you can input the code into the app later. If you are taking pictures with characters, the photographer can scan your code from your app and the pictures will automatically be downloaded for you!
The main reason we bought the MaxPass was to utilize the fast FastPass option. With the app, you don’t need to walk over to a kiosk to secure a FastPass, you simply do it from your phone and then scan your code at the entrance when it’s time for you to use it. This meant that as soon as we were in the park in the morning, we could secure a FastPass for whichever ride we wanted without having to walk anywhere to get it. We could be in the middle of a ride when the window came open to get another pass and it was easy to snag it right then! We saved so much time doing fast passes.
The other really cool thing about the option is that if a ride breaks down that you have a fast pass for, you can either save the pass until the ride is running again, or it turns into a magic pass that you can use at ANY ride in the park that offers fast passes!
One night while we were there, I wanted to ride Space Mountain, but they weren’t issuing any more fast passes and I wasn’t willing to wait in the hour-long line. I had a pass for another ride and it happened to break down for a short time, so my pass was converted to be able to use on any ride and I was able to hop onto Space Mountain after a short 5 minute wait with my pass!
This was one situation where spending extra money to wait in line less and maximize our time in the parks was a priority for us and well worth the money.
When you are considering whether or not you will be able to afford a trip to Disneyland, it really comes down to determining what is important to you. It takes a little more effort to have the discipline to pack lunches, not buy extra tempting snacks, and settle for a regular hotel, but it’s totally worth it!