Have you ever wanted to plan a Disneyland vacation and thought it was completely out of reach, budget-wise? Up until a couple of months ago, I was in that boat! But, my husband and I just got back from a trip to Southern California with our five year old son, which entailed two days at the Disneyland Resort. With a little planning, it is definitely do-able to have a budget family Disneyland vacation, and I want to share some tips with you today that helped make this possible. If you’re looking to make a family vacation happen and you’re on a budget, keep reading!
And, actually — a lot of these tips aren’t super specific to Disneyland or other theme parks. Some are just general helpful hints for family travels. So, I’ve decided to break this into two lists to help with differentiating the theme park tips from everything else. I hope you enjoy this article!
Family Vacation Tips
Book hotels that include breakfasts
On a road trip that we took last year, and also our recent Disney vacation, I insisted on booking hotels with breakfasts included in the hotel stay. I figure for the three of us to go out to eat breakfast, even at a simple diner like Denny’s, we’d be looking at spending at least $30 (and probably more, with drinks, tax, and tip) on breakfast alone – I’d rather save that money and eat at a hotel with an included breakfast! No, breakfasts that are offered at hotels usually aren’t fancy, but it is food and fuel for the day ahead. Look at your hotel options that offer free breakfasts, and save that money on eating out each day.
Good walking shoes
You never know what type of adventure you’ll find yourself on! Pack decent walking shoes for unexpected hikes, aquarium or zoo visits, or wherever else your travels might take you.
It’s summertime guys. Protect your skin (and your kiddo’s) from sun damage with some good SPF. (Hint, this can get really expensive at theme parks, resorts, gift shops, and cruise ships. Bring your own!)
Budget for food
It’s a good idea to at least map out a ballpark of what you think you’ll spend on food for your trip. It’s an area that’s very easy to overspend, and that’s no fun to be in a position of wondering where all your vacation cash went. Not to mention, eating out is just downright expensive. When you’re traveling, chances are you’ll be in a position where you’re eating out for EVERY meal. And, I don’t know about you, but I can get tired of eating out, day in and day out. So, I try to plan ahead a little bit by packing some of our meals for the first leg of our trip to take with us. Last summer, we took a road trip from the Pacific Northwest all the way to Colorado, and we packed a cooler for cold drinks for the car. In that cooler, I packed breakfast, lunch, and dinner for our first day driving. This minimized food costs, but also provided some simple, comforting food, that we didn’t even have to pull into a restaurant for.
Bring water bottles and snacks
With that note above, don’t travel empty handed! Especially if you have small children—as you know their hunger strikes quickly and more frequently than ours, so pack some quick, non-messy snacks for car and airplane rides.
Disneyland (or other theme park) tips
Buy tickets first
The cost of Disneyland tickets themselves are the reason I really thought we’d never be able to afford a Disney vacation. Unfortunately, it’s one of the highest factors of the trip, and being a budget conscientious person, I had some serious sticker shock for how much they cost. One of my suggestions when planning your vacation and your vacation budget is to be realistic about how much time you think you’ll spend in the park, and also, evaluate the need for “Park Hopper” tickets. We hit up Disneyland for two days, and for my husband, our 5 year old son, and myself, that was plenty. We also had more than enough to do in one park, let alone feel the need to “hop” on over to the other park, midday. Therefore, we only opted for a 1-day, each park pass, and saved $200 by forgoing the option to “park hop”. Also, in some cases, the cost of the tickets to Disneyland will be the most expensive factor of your trip – it certainly was for mine. The tickets cost more than what we spent on a hotel and what we spent for flights. Once I budgeted and paid for those Disneyland tickets, I did feel a weight off my shoulders. Everything else, cost-wise, for our trip, was downhill from there.
Disney Resorts entice people with their main hotels to stay at, and offer various perks, such as close proximity to the park, special meals or breakfasts and, of course, full on Disney décor. However, they charge a very steep premium for being “on-property”. My advice? Save your hard earned cash and stay off-property. There are still plenty of options right around the resorts to stay that are clean, safe, and much more budget friendly than staying at one of the Disney hotels. We stayed at a Quality Inn that had really nice rooms, free breakfasts included, and was a 12-minute walk to the main gate. I couldn’t have hoped for anything better.
Buy souvenirs ahead of time (Dollar Tree, Amazon)
You’ll notice in theme and Disney parks especially, every corner (and, the end of every main attraction or ride) has a gift shop or souvenir stand! There’s definitely something to be had for getting some cool theme park loot, but keep in mind that some of these shiny new objects can be purchased ahead of time, very inexpensively. I visited my local Dollar Tree before our trip and found a Mickey Mouse hard-cover journal which I got for my son to use as an autograph book when he met characters. I also scored a Disney pen for him to have the characters sign with, and a Disney water bottle for the trip. On Amazon, I purchased lanyards for all three of us with pouches attached, which allowed us to easily store some cash, our hotel room keys, Disney tickets, and Fastpasses. We received regular compliments in the park about how nifty our particular lanyards with pouches were (Disneyland sells Disney lanyards, without pouches, and about three times more expensive than those that I purchased on Amazon 2 weeks before our trip). Save yourself a few bucks and gain the convenience of keeping what you need close by, while in the park.
Change for coin machines
Disneyland has various “make your own coin” machines around the park. I wasn’t comfortable letting our son hold his own Disneyland ticket (could you imagine if it had gotten lost?!) in his lanyard pouch, but I did fill his with some quarters and pennies, and helped him make some of his own souvenirs in the park. He made Star Wars coins, Mickey coins and Toy Story coins, and thought that was the coolest thing ever. Not all souvenirs will be this cheap, guys – so clean out your change jar before you leave the house and allow your kiddos to make some souvenirs too.
Expect the sun, crowds
TRY….relative word, try — to go into a theme park expecting the place to be packed like sardines. TRY to enjoy yourself and your time with your family anyway. If you let the people get to you, you’ll end up disappointed, because guess what – they’re everywhere! Also, expect that you’ll be in direct sun for a large majority of the day. See my SUNSCREEN tip, above. Try to find some shade and take a break when you can. Relish the air conditioning in the rides, restaurants, and in stores or buildings.
Budget for souvenirs
Even if you packed your kids pockets full of coins, and stopped at Dollar Tree and ordered off Amazon before your trip, your kids are going to want a toy or some mouse-ears from their trip. Anticipate this and decide what a good budget amount will be for you to ensure that your group leaves with an awesome momento of their time at the park.
Bring water bottles and snacks
I can’t speak for all types of theme parks, but Disneyland in particular allows water bottles and FOOD to be brought into the parks. This is AWESOME for you budget conscious people, like myself! Knowing this, I actually packed our reusable water bottles in our suitcase, and we filled them half with ice and half with water in the morning, and carried those and some snacks (along with other necessities – sunscreen, camera, light jacket, etc) in a backpack into the park with us each day. Having our own water bottles completely beat paying $3.50 a pop for Dasani bottles in the park! It also came in super handy to help ourselves to a snack while standing in line for a ride. I could have taken it one step further and packed brown bag lunches for ourselves as well (Disneyland just asks that you’re courteous and find a patch of ground or park bench to eat at, instead of using the counter service or restaurant seating areas to eat at), but I didn’t do this. We ordered counter service lunches during our time in the parks.
Opt for Counter Service Restaurants
Speaking of counter service, allow me to explain what this is. Disneyland offers three main ways to purchase food – street vendor type deals (think popcorn, churros, ice cream), counter-service restaurants, and sit-down restaurants. Many of the sit-down restaurants require reservations, take longer to eat at, and are packed to the brim with people. We passed many that had long lines out their door. Some of these restaurants are said to be quite good, and some even offer various perks like preferred seating for fireworks and parades. However, the entree and drink prices at the sit-down restaurants are of course pricier, and, well…park food is pricey as it is.
Therefore, my recommendation is to opt for counter-service restaurants. These eateries are all over the parks and are where you stand in line to place your order, your food is prepared and then handed to you on a tray, where you and your group will then find a seat to eat at. You’re not waited on, but your meal should be a bit cheaper, faster, and then you are back out having fun that much sooner.