Don’t make my husband admit he loves taking the kids to Disneyland. He fancies himself a backpack-toting, public-bus taking, cheap-hostel sleeping, crowd-hating kind of adventurous traveler. I had to wheedle and beg my way into our first family trip to the Happiest Place on Earth. He was still skeptical, but clearly tickled when Mary Poppins walked by and scolded him for referring to her as Sleeping Beauty. And then he saw my toddler meet Mickey Mouse for the first time, and it was all over.
We have since taken a lot of trips to Disneyland.
Not Disney World, mind you — I have been there, and am willing to admit it holds a certain appeal. But Disneyland is compact, walkable, and totally doable with a young family over a couple of days. Disneyland manages to retain its charm as a happy, average middle-class family type of vacation spot. If you have tots that love Disney Junior, just take them there. Quick, before the magic wears off and they’re obsessed with Fortnite.
The entrance tickets to Disneyland are easily the most expensive part of this trip. If you plan ahead, the rest of the costs can be reined in, making this less expensive than a lot of other vacation options (at least for us).
Here’s how we take our kids to Disneyland the cheap and easy way:
Go When Nobody Else Goes
Educators, don’t send me hate mail. We have taken our kids out of school in order to go to Disneyland in the middle of the week. (Have I mentioned how much my husband hates crowds?) There are websites that publish a calendar of peak attendance days, and it’s worth checking them out. We’ve had a lot of success going on Tuesday and Wednesdays in September/October before the holiday season gets going. Hotels are cheaper this way, and the whole experience is more pleasant. For example, Mary Poppins has plenty of time to pause mid-stroll and tell you off.
Buy a Three- or Four-Day Ticket
You can do just one day in each park: Disneyland and California Adventure. But in my opinion, if you are coming from out of state, you may as well make the whole thing worth it and give yourself enough time to see everything you really want to see. The way Disney tickets work, the more days you go, the less each subsequent day costs. We frequently buy a three-day ticket and book just two nights at a hotel. We fly out early in the morning, stash our stuff at the hotel desk, and head into the park.
This way we are only paying for two nights in a hotel. Our little kids never make it through an entire day from opening to closing at the park anyway. If we make it in to the park from noon until closing the first day, and from 9:00 a.m. to around 3:00 p.m. the last day, we’ve still had plenty of time in the park.
Stay in a Reasonably Priced “Good Neighbor” Hotel
I harbor a longstanding dream of staying in Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel. In this dream, we enter the park an hour early every day, and in the afternoon, I sit by the pool drinking pina coladas while some other adult takes my kids on Star Tours for the umpteenth time.
But it’s much more logical to stay in one of the decent hotels that line Harbor Boulevard, the road to the east of the Disney complex. Disney has lots of partner “Good Neighbor” hotels. These are peppered with Disney decor so you still feel like you are getting the full Disney experience. Many of them are actually closer to the park entrance than some of the Disney hotels, and during the off-season we have stayed in them for around $100 a night.
Check the location of your potential hotel carefully. I look for a hotel that is as close as possible to the road to Disneyland so I don’t have to walk any further than necessary. Along Harbor Boulevard, you will also find a mini-mart and at least one standard family restaurant, which I consider necessities in order to avoid doing all our eating in Disney establishments. Some hotels even have food inside the hotel: the last time we stayed at the Fairfield Marriott they had a Pizza Hut on the second floor. Also consider whether you need a pool or not. I have always planned on returning to the hotel at nap time every day for a “break,” but we have never actually done this.
Have a Food Plan
Ahem. This is a do as I say, not as I do kind of situation. I am not good at planning food ahead of time (although I am GREAT at throwing a zillion boxes of granola bars and applesauce pouches in my suitcase.) Disneyland lets you bring as much food in as you want, unlike a lot of places, and if your kids eat as much as mine do, you probably ought to pack in food.
Disneyland has a lot of great restaurants, but at busy times it can be hard to get a reservation, and you may have to plan ahead. Since we are a freedom-loving family (which you can interpret as meaning we are terrible at being in a specific place at a specific time), the only place I have ever made a reservation was at Carthay Circle in California Adventure for a special dinner with my mom and mother-in-law. Which was amazing, by the way.
Generally, we wing it. The magic of smartphones means you can pull up Disney’s website and look for which restaurants near you have available tables at the time you want to eat, or look around for the nearest fast food. This system actually worked just fine for us when we had babies/toddlers who were easy and cheap to feed.
Now that I have three boys who all insist on their own meals, this is pretty pricey, and the next time we go to Disney I fully intend to be the person with the wheeled cooler full of food. (I just graduated from strollers, so this is fine.) This is going to mean making the Uber driver stop at the grocery store on the way to the hotel, but it will be worth it.
Buy Souvenirs Ahead of Time
Everybody says this, but it bears repeating. I took my kid to Disneyland one year in the cutest Halloween Mickey shirt. Six people asked me which shop I bought it in. The answer is Target. $4.99. If you are a better planner than I am, you can hide the pre-purchased Disney merchandise and bust it out last minute for the kids. Next time, I’m going beyond shirts and getting water bottles. Big spenders over here!