Disneyland on a Dime

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Mom and kids standing next to a Winnie the Pooh character at Disneyland.You can’t live or travel in California without a trip to Disneyland. Sooner or later, I think a trip to Disneyland, the original Disney theme park, is in order. Yet, the tricky part is finding a way to afford it.

Amusement parks are never cheap. And while Disney, in my opinion, is the creme de la creme of theme parks, it also has the price tag to go with being cream of the crop.

A few weeks ago our family headed to Disneyland, taking our six kids for the first time. I grew up going to Disneyland at least once a year, and FishPapa, though not as often, went regularly. But, our kids had never been, due in part to living in Kansas for five years, waiting for “the right time,” and wondering how to swing it on a tight budget.

This year we decided to make it part of our vacation fund. And while, we certainly weren’t able to go for free, we were able to cut some corners to make it more affordable than many Disney vacations.

Preplanning is Key

Baby in stroller reading map at Disneyland.I asked friends and readers about what they did to make their Disney days a success.

Amy told me about Disney trading pins, something I’d never heard about. Alyssa gave me the heads’ up on Disney apparel for cheap. Jessika clued me in about the cheapest souvenir in the park.

And my readers told me about all the tips and tricks they could think of as well as shared their Disney adventures.

What a help that was!

Here are some of the things I did before our trip:

:: Reading Research – First, I purchased the book, The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland. Great book! It made me laugh and it gave me a much-needed reality check about how to maximize our day at the park and set realistic expectations for Disney with kids. I highly recommend it. Read my more in-depth review for more ideas.

Cost = free with SwagBucks

:: Tickets on a Discount – This is probably the hardest pill to swallow. We missed out on the Give A Day, Get a Day Promotion. Instead, we bought our tickets from FishPapa’s work where he gets a discount on Disneyland tickets, $68.50 for adults and $60.50 for children.

Cost for two adults and five children = $447.50

:: Dressing the Part – I logged onto the Disney store and ordered tshirts for me and the kids at a discount. I went through ShopAtHome so that I could get an extra 5% back from my purchases. I only bought shirts that were on low sale, about $5-6 each, so that we could dress the part of Disney tourists. Not a necessity, but fun, nonetheless. Next time, I’m buying all red Disney tshirts in order to keep better track of everyone. Counting six heads in a crowd is kinda tough. Cost = $43.00

Boys goofing off posing for the camera at Disneyland.:: Geeking Out with Waist Pouches – Remember fanny packs? Well, the Unofficial Guide recommended getting them for the kids and I’m so glad I did. I shopped around and found some on Amazon. Don’t worry about getting “kid size” bags, just cut the straps to make them fit. The point of the waist pouch is to let your kids stuff them full of snacks, like granola bars, fruit leathers, and crackers, so that they can snack whenever they want. This worked like a charm. Loved it and we will be doing it for more outings in the future.

Cost = free with SwagBucks

:: Ordering Trading Pins – These are a phenomena that have been around for about ten years. Disney sells pins that you can trade. They’re quite cute and quite expensive. Instead of paying $15 a pin (which I would never do), I ordered a lot of 20 from Ebay (via Ebates for 3% back) and split the pack 5 ways. Each kid got to choose four and they had a great time trading them with castmembers at Disney. It was an economical way to have souvenirs and participate in a Disney tradition without breaking the bank.

Cost = $20.00
:: Packing Snacks and Lunch – Since I have two great cooler bags, I packed those full with cold drinks, water bottles, cheese sticks, and sandwiches. In my backpack I had some cookies and crackers. We grazed throughout the park and since the kids had their waist pouches full, they weren’t hounding me every five minutes for a snack.

Cost = same as it would be if we ate lunch at home

Saving Money At the Park

Since we were treating this day as a vacation, we didn’t want to go without fun stuff. But, since the kids already had snacks, Disney tshirts, and trading pins, there wasn’t a whole lot that they wanted. We did splurge on a few things.

:: Free Coffee Refills – We were pleased to see that the coffee shop on Main Street offers free refills all day long. Just keep your receipt. I don’t know about other coffee locations throughout the park, but Main Street isn’t too far of a walk from anywhere, really.

Cost for coffee for the Resident Caffeine Addict = $3.00

Girls drinking pink lemonade on curb at Disneyland.:: Yummy Frozen Lemonade – I knew that we would want a cool afternoon pick-me-up, so I had mentally prepared myself for a splurge later in the day. We found the Frozen Lemonade near Haunted Mansion to be the perfect thing.

Each cup was $4. Yikes! But, it was vacation! We ended up getting 8 cups for a whopping $32. More than I would spend on dinner! As it turns out they really were big enough for two people to share. So, next time we would buy 4 and split them. We made a sweet memory, nonetheless.

Cost = $32.00

:: Dinner at Downtown Disney – To browse the Disneyland menu options is to have a minor attack of sticker shock. Heaven help my bank account! Thanks to my sister’s iPhone, we were able to check out the offerings at Downtown Disney.

We found the best deal at the Jazz Kitchen Express. Just hop the monorail and it practically drops you at the front door. Nine of us (my sister included) ate dinner and dessert for less than $45 by sharing large orders.

Cost = $43.00

:: Cheap Souvenirs – My friend Jessika always has wise ideas. She suggested that the kids bring two quarters and a penny for a fun souvenir of the day. Two quarters and a penny – you know what I’m talking about…. Those penny squashing machines were just the ticket. The big boys bought them while me and the littles met Tigger and Winnie the Pooh.

Cost = $1.53

Sweet Memories are Priceless

We had a fantastic day and we didn’t spend as much as we could have. Certainly, we could have scrimped a little more. But, considering what Disneyland costs, I think we did pretty well:

Total Cost for day at Disneyland = $590.03

Memories made with FishKids and Auntie Jamie = priceless

What have you done to make to make Disney Parks more affordable?

For more budget ideas for California fun, check out my series, California on a Budget.

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  1. How did your little one(s) do? Are there things for them to do or were they in the stroller most of the time?

    1. They did GREAT. And there was always something to go on. In comparison to Legoland, which we did last year, it was amazing. (Legoland is lame for small children.) When the boys went on a bigger ride, I took the girls on a smaller ride. They never had to just sit.

  2. We’ve never taken our kids to Disney before, though I went once when I was a teenager.

    I’m sitting here in sticker shock over what the non-discounted prices must be for a single day. How in the world do people manage to go for a whole week??

    I think we’ll probably take our kids at some point, but it’ll probably be when they’re all a little bit older, as we have to do a lot of traveling to get to a Disney park!

    1. @[email protected], I know. I think you have to think in Disney currency, as if you’re going to a foreign country.

      When I added it all up for a final total, my mouth dropped open. Tickets are basically non-negotiable. We could have brought all our own food to reduce expenses. But, that’s a lot of food for 9 people for a whole day. Plus, it was “vacation.”

      Honestly, we had SO MUCH fun. I’d totally do it again. Praying for a good ticket deal… 😉

      1. @Jessica Fisher, I totally understand. We fork over $1200 to stay in a beach-front condo for two weeks each September. And we also spend some money on eating out, playing mini golf, getting ice cream cones, and so on.

        The money we spend feels like a lot to me…but it is vacation, we save for it all year long, and we only do it once a year. It’s all about balance, you know?

        I’ll go look at ticket prices now, and hopefully in a few years my mind will have adjusted to Disney currency! lol

  3. I love this post. You’ve got some great tips.

    I grew up going to Disneyland just about every year like you. When my son turned 2 we got annual passes and went all the time. But now with 3 kids, annual passes and even day passes are a tough pill to swallow. We’ve only taken my 4 year old to Disneyland once and my third who is almost 2 has never been. I’m going through withdrawls!!! I want to go so bad… but… we’re going to wait until baby number 3 is at least two and can really enjoy it.

    Thanks for all of these money saving tips. I’m gonna need them!!!

  4. I love learning all of these tips for Disneyland with kiddos! My husband and I honeymooned at Disneyworld in Orlando, and we loved it! I will definitely be checking out “The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland” either before or soon after we move to LA, CA, since a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth will likely be in the plan shortly thereafter!

  5. I loved this post! It reminded me our our last trip to Disneyland, you share so many wonderful ideas. We have a large family too (5 kids). We are headed to Disneyworld at the end of the summer, and we are doing our best to save money where we can.
    Thanks for the fun read! I linked back to you on my blog for my “Disney on a Budget” series

  6. LOL! I about fell out in the floor at $32.00 for the frozen lemonades!!!!! 🙂 It was a special day, so it calls for some special concessions! 🙂 Glad you all had a great time!

    1. I know. I almost didn’t tell. But, we drive used cars, eat leftovers, and don’t shop extravagantly. So, I figured the frugality was for some purpose just like this. 😉

  7. Wow, sounds like you had a great day! Disney is expensive but then again almost any vacation destination these days costs a pretty penny. We love going to Disney World and look forward to trying Disneyland someday, we’re hoping 2012 when the new Carsland is open.

    We use the waist packs too! Never hear “I’m hungry, can I have a snack?”.

  8. One of the best ways we saved money and our sanity was by staying at the campground. The first time we went (with a five year old) we rented a Fort Wilderness cabin. That way we had room to spread out, a kitchen to make our meals in, and all the amenities of a Disney resort – swimming pool, etc. Plus when you stay “on Disney” you get to enter a lot earlier than the rest of the crowd so it made our time more efficient… and we were able to come back home for lunch and naptime when the crowds hit. Then we’d go back around 4:00 Pm when everyone else was on their way out. The 2nd time we went, we took our own camper. That was a good way to travel, too, but it rained nearly every evening which cut into our plans to do a lot of outside cooking. On that trip (in the middle of July) if you picked up a free wristband, you could go in at 11:00 PM until 2:00 AM with just 5000 others. Our 13 year old thought this was the best thing in the world… so we napped in the hot afternoons and did the park at night with very few others. Both times we went we were able to buy tickets through our work with special rates for the # of days you went (cheaper than daily rates).

    1. That sounds very fun. I don’t think they have camping at Disneyland, do they?

      1. they do have camping around the Disneyland ares. You have to ride a shuttle, but you can watch the fireworks at night from your campsite.
        Anahiem Resort RV Park is the name and yes they have a pool.

  9. I am always looking for a deal….here is an artical from “Budget Travel” magazine http://www.budgettravel.com/bt-dyn/content/article/2009/06/08/AR2009060801433.html

    here are some websites I found after watching the Travel Channel

    this one is for ALL theme parks

    try not to come in the hottests months..july,august,sept & even part of october. summer in so cal can be horrendously hot if you have small kids with you
    happy vacation!!!

  10. Curious about the cooler bags – did you carry them around the park? Or did you go out to the parking lot for lunch? That is what we always did at amusement parks when I was growing up.

    Do the rules allow food into the park? We went to seaworld and legoland recently and their websites said no food could be brought in. Of course we saw that many people had.

    1. Disney has very tight security. Yet, I never saw a sign that said no outside food. And security searched every bag including the cooler bags. So, I think it’s fair to say it’s okay. The guidebook said it was as well.

      Re: Legoland – your best bet is to send one parent around the corner to Costco for a pizza and picnic on the grass outside the gates. For nicer sit down meal, head to Pat and Oscar’s which is right near the Costco.

  11. Great suggestions for saving money at Disney! Especially love the pressed pennies/quarters for souvenirs. Kids just love them, and it doesn’t get much more affordable than that!

    Disney parks can definitely cost a lot of money, but there are also tons of ways to save money on everything from food to accommodations as well. It is also possible to save *some* money on tickets (at Disney World at least) by ordering them through an authorized ticket broker. But you have to be careful that it is a reputable company. Steer clear of eBay or Craigslist for tickets, it is too easy to get burned.

    Our family loves Disney but the only way we can go is to save money in as many ways as we can. Thanks for sharing your tips!

  12. We bought tickets for Disney World at AAA and bought the ones that never expire so when prices go up we will still have days. You can get deals if you buy more days but Disney World have multiple parks that takes about a week! ( Or at least 4 days)

  13. I love Disney. Even though the cost seems extravagant, I’ve really never regretted any of the money we’ve spent to take our girls — watching their eyes light up when they first spot the Cinderella castle always makes me tear up! And they carry the memories with them for so long.

    Is it a necessity? Nah, of course not. But is it worth it? I think so!

    1. Exactly. 🙂 To be honest, I cried just walking in the place. Main Street was just the same as it was when I was a kid. The sentimental value of Disney is HUGE.

      1. I totally agree with both of you! It isn’t cheap, but in my opinion it’s one of the best ways to splurge ever. And I cried walking in the gates the first time I took my daughter, too! We took her last summer for her 1st birthday, which some said was too young (“she won’t even remember” “You won’t have fun with a baby”). To anyone on the fence about taking a little one… DO IT! I hate the “won’t remember” excuse. By that logic you might as well leave your kid in a playpen until their 4 or 5 lol! It doesn’t matter if they remember, they will be amazed and adorable, and YOU will NEVER forget the amazing time and the look on your little one’s face as they soak it all in, meet the characters (if they aren’t scared… my daughter LOVED them!), and do on their first rides! Worth ever penny!

        As for advice on saving money, my best one would have to be try not to pay the crazy water prices. Bring some bottles to start you out, and then practically any food place there with fountain drinks will give you a free cup of ice water. My family and I have been so many times before and only recently found this out. It saved us sooo much money on our last trip, especially since it was the end of June and pretty hot out!

        I am planning my second trip with my little girl for this November. She will be two at the time of the trip and I cannot wait! As cute and as much fun as she was the first time, now that she really knows and loves so many of the Disney characters, I think she’ll love it even more this time around! Plus she is going to LOVE meeting Anna and Elsa at the Frozen meet and greet, as well as Carsland. She is OBSESSED with those movies! <3

  14. Thanks for sharing about your trip. My sister in law lives in LA and we are going to Disneyland for a day while we are out there. We have never been there so we need all the advice we can get!!

    I am considering a “character meal” but it’s so expensive! It sounds like you did not do this on your trip. I am concerned that my 5 year old daughter won’t get to see/meet the Princesses. Did you feel like the characters were accessible in the park? I’ve heard when they are around, long lines form. Any suggestions?

    1. We did not see the princesses. They do have set hours for visitation and it’s very organized. Like waiting in line for a ride. I think you could definitely avoid the meal and just spend some time in line. We’ll do that next time. They have the same set up for Tinkerbelle and the fairies, too, as well as other characters.

  15. I’ve bookmarked this page! We are planning a trip to Disney next year. A friend of mine just went and packed all their food as well. She was told you could bring in anything except for glass.

    She also said if you go to the left when entering the park the lines are shorter (most people go right).

    1. I read that about the left lines. We tried it in Indiana Jones and it backfired. So, hold that idea loosely.

      And yes, we could have packed dinner. But, I couldn’t carry all that if I had. We had to park really far away and as it turns out, I don’t think I would have wanted to go through that hassle. But, we were so glad to have packed lunch and snacks.

  16. Re Dana’s comment … I think it used to be possible to rent lockers or store items inside the entrance to the park. I don’t know if that is still there or how much it would cost.

    1. You can still rent a locker. And that would be a good route for storing dinner.

  17. Great tips! We are going in three weeks, primarily to save on hotel costs (before spring break).. but tickets for my family of 4 are over $600 for 3 days. But it’s vacation, right? It’s Disney, right? haha I love the cooler idea, I’m going to see if Target still carries them. Did they search your bags/cooler? I don’t think you are really allowed to bring food in, but I’m going to try.

    1. We have had our bags searched every time and there was never an issue bringing food.

    2. Chrystina, they have now changed their regulations on bringing foods into the parks.. you can bring small soft sided coolers, but not the large hard plastic ones.
      They will check your bags , but they are not looking for foods…
      you can still rent lockers , not sure of the cost of them though…

      1. Yes, it’s totally fine to bring food. They do request that you eat in their designated picnic areas.

  18. Just read this, planning a quick trip down next weekend and was trying to find a few ways to cut some corners to make it as inexpensive as possible. Just thought I would comment about the camping. There is camp grounds near DL. And it is a great way to go (in good weather). I actually go frequently with my 2 kids. I think I am an addict. I ended up buying into the DVC. That is how I save for my annual trips. I pay monthly and eventually I will own my membership. Nice thing is I pay around the same amount as I paid before to local hotels but now I get to stay at the GCH. 🙂 It is such a great way to go. I have to make a disclosure here, I would rather be at DL than be on a tropical island so for me it is worth it. I think I have turned my kids into addicts as well. I just LOVE it there and really think it is all worth it in the end. Thanks for the tips, another one is to check the website http://www.restaurant.com. You can get great deals on coupons to restaurants near there. If you sign up on their page to receive notifications you find out when they are running their promotions (70-80%) off. We paid 7$ for a 50$ gift cert for the house of blues. There are stipulations like you have to spend $100 or something like that, but heck, we can easily rack up that when we go out sometimes so technically we are getting a nice dinner for 53$. There are other deals and other restaurants, but I always check there before I go anywhere on vacation. 🙂

  19. Dinner at the Park is insane. Right out of the Gate at Disney land is I-hop where kids eat Free with paying Adults. We go every Year and we Now have a system down where we Eat a good Breakfast out of the park, pack snacks and water bottles and when Hunger starts in after snacks are gone we go out of the Main gate to I-hop.

  20. How do you find such discounted tickets? We have 4 kids: 11, 8, 4 & newbaby, so that will be 3 adult tickets & 2 kid tickets for all of us. By my count that’s over $800 for our family to walk in the door! (Big swallow) Where should I be looking to find such deeply discounted ticktes? I think we will be going Sept 2011. We went when my third was 7 mo. and did the whole princess thing with my girls, it was amazing and SO worth it but that was on Grandma/pa’s dime! I need to find a way to do this frugally before my girls get “too old” (in their eyes) for this kind of family fun!

  21. Just to add to your ticket information.. if you are Military , current or ex you can get heavy discounted tickets.. we are going again in March of 2012 and we can get a 3 day park hopper for $99. per person..
    Also another park freebie… go to city hall and they will give you free large buttons to commemorate your trip to the park, ie.. wedding, birthday, first trip. etc.
    Dont wait in line at the main st entrance for photos with Mickey etc..
    Toon town doesnt open until 10am. so if you go straight to Toon town you can get all your photos in under 30 minutes..
    We got to Toon Town at 9.50am waited for the gates to open and by 10.15 we had photos with Mickey , Minnie and was in line for Pluto.. went on the roller coaster then got Goofy… when we made our way back to main st,, the lines for Mickey were crazy…
    Hope some of these tips help…

  22. Thank you for the tips! We are planning a trip in July- hubby is a teacher so we our only option to go during summer break. Lovve the fanny pack idea- I’ll have to do that for our kids. The price of admission is pretty hefty and we are going for 3 days- ouch! But we think it will be worth it.

    1. Are you in state? Some school districts offer admission discounts. See if yours does.

  23. We love Disneyland too and have been twice with our kids. Our biggest expense is getting there from Canada. We drove the last time and made it a bigger vacation by visiting Grandparents in Palm Springs. We were able to get 3-day Park Hopper tickets for free by using our Air miles points. We collect them any time we shop at certain grocery stores, gas stations etc. so they automatically add up. If you have any reward programs like that in the U.S., it is worth checking them out. We stayed at a cheap motel across the street from the Entrance and grocery shopped as soon as we got there. We would eat breakfast in the room and then go early in the morning to the park. By the afternoon we were hot and ready for a break so we would head back to the hotel for a swim in their pool. We would sometimes eat dinner at one of the inexpensive restaurants across from Disneyland and then head back to the park in the evening when it was the most magical. I still get a chill thinking about the first time my kids walked into the park after dark and saw how magical everything looked all lit up! We would watch the parades,the fireworks and do some more rides.Also, I’m not sure how it is now but you used to be able to rent a Disneyland stroller for super cheap and even when my kids no longer needed it we would get one to load all our jackets and bags on. We just left it outside the rides and not once was anything ever stolen. All this reminiscing makes me want to go back soon!

    1. I love my stroller just for hauling all our stuff around. We park it in one spot and then come back to it later. Hehe.

  24. We just spent 5 days, family of 7 at Disneyworld after 3 weeks in the US from Australia..yes the trip of a lifetime..yes alot of $ but our stay in DW averaged $80 per person per day incl quick dining @ meals, accomodation , park entry to 4 parks (not hopping)..I shopped around for quotes and halved the original quote here in Australia by comparision shopping. The chn all saved, ebayed and took newspaper throwing jobs for 2 years to make this trip…we paid cash and had the experiences of a lifetime and so enjoyed our time as a family..yes expensive..yes priceless….just a reminder that when you live in the States you dont have the international fares! so find a way and with thorough planning and research its a wonderful place to go…Thanks to all the links and blogs that helped me make discisions and choices

  25. Thank you for this. It is feb 2013 and I am looking to go summer of 2014, so i am planning ahead and starting a spreadsheet and word file of lots of advice people have given to cut the budget!

  26. So how in the world did you get such amazing prices on tickets??? I looked online to start planning our trip and tickets (3 day park hopper) are 250.00 EACH! That’s over 500.00 for the 7 of us for 1 DAY! OUCH! Any tips????

    1. We only buy 1-day tickets to 1-park. That is a big price difference right there. I can’t imagine doing three days. We’d all be fried. This post is a few years old, so I’m not sure how the tickets stack up now. I know Disneyland jacked up the prices a couple months ago. 🙁

  27. One idea that works for us is to buy souvenirs before going to the park. Don’t show the kids and pack them separately. Go to WalMart, Target, etc. and find Micky and Minnie t-shirts, sweatshirts, toys, etc. on sale or clearance. When on your trip, break out the goodies over the stay of the trip and surprise them at different times! Don’t forget to remove the tags! Example, cute pink Minnie Mouse t-shirt at WalMart on clearance $3.00 similar at Disneyland $30.