How We ROCKED Disneyland on a Budget

This post is going to dive into our money-saving tips for Disneyland. For the whole rundown on the Christmas morning surprise and how we planned our trip, check out Operation Cancel Christmas and The Reveal.

Let me first just acknowledge our extreme privilege. First of all, the fact that we got to go to Disneyland at all–and especially in the middle of our journey to becoming debt-free–is truly extraordinary. We were fortunate beyond measure to have someone who wanted to treat us to tickets (tickets which just went up in price again yesterday, grumble grumble), as well as to have the means to save up for hotel, food, etc. It’s not lost on me that we are breathing rarified air, over here.

With all that said, we were definitely on a tight budget. This was not the trip for $200 child makeovers or fancy restaurant meals. But we did not sacrifice an ounce of fun! Here’s how we had the time of our lives in Disneyland on a shoestring:

Hotel: This was our biggest expense as a family. My primary concern (aside from safety and affordability) was that we were walking distance to the parks. This was not only a matter of convenience, but of budget and principle. I was not paying $35 a day to park at Disney. Furthermore, did you know that most hotels in the area charge their guests an extra $15-30 per day to park their cars? Let’s assume we had a low-end hotel parking fee. That works out to an extra $50 per day, minimum, to move our car back and forth.

Another option would have been to take the ART shuttle (which also costs money). But waiting for shuttles with enough room for all of us–both in the morning, where we’re anxious to get in, and at night, when we’re exhausted and cranky–plus folding/unfolding a stroller, making sure everyone kept track of their belongings…that ain’t it, friend. Nope, the only option for our family right now is a hotel within staggering distance of the castle.

We landed on the Anaheim Islander Inn and Suites. It was certainly not fancy, but it was clean and well-maintained. Housekeeping was very thorough every day, which was a treat after a long slog through the parks. We were crammed in like sardines (two queen beds and a pull-out sofa), but we made it work, even after wedging in our pack and play for Senator Cutenoise. Oh, and you best believe your girl managed to find one of the only hotels on the Disney strip with FREE parking! So just paying attention during booking and deciding to hoof it, saved us over a hundred dollars. They also kindly allowed my uncle to park there every day for just $15 per day, which saved him $60 and allowed us to walk to and from the park together.

The calm before the storm

My best advice on booking a cheap Disneyland hotel is to book the minute you know your dates. As the trip approached, I kept watching the rates (you do book hotels with a great cancelation policy, right?), to see if there might be a sale, or a rhythm to price dips…Nope. Book early. The prices will only go up, in my experience. All told, we managed to put up our family of six for just over $100 per night.

Food: The Islander did say it offered breakfast, but it appeared to be basically bananas and muffins in the lobby, which didn’t work for our family. So we packed cereal, yogurt, and protein bars and ate in the room. Aside from being convenient, this saved us money and time on in-park breakfasts. The only thing I would do differently is bringing some folding chairs, because our room did not have a table suitable for eating, and I do not recommend making your five year-old balance cold cereal in their lap, unless changing pants multiple times before hitting the park is your thing.

Next time, chairs.

The mini-fridge was a good size, which was great considering we brought an entire Trader Joe’s with us. Why so much food? Umm, did you know that you can bring your own food to Disneyland?? I brought sandwiches, cheese sticks, chips, more protein bars, and even candy in with us each day. Smuggling in some treats I don’t usually offer at home (hello, chips, candy, and Disney-brand fruit snacks), helped mitigate some of the deep emotional pain of being offered “food from home” when you really wanted a churro.

With all those supplies, we were able to get away without buying a single piece of park food until the end of night one, when it was cold and we all decided we wanted a hot meal. My kids–especially the boys–are having a bit of a fling with Toy Story right now, so they were tickled to eat at Pizza Planet. Everyone wanted to try a famous Disneyland macaron, so we bought two adorable Toy Story alien ones and that was plenty for all of us to share.

Key lime…so yummy!

Bringing our own food did not add much work to my day or bulk to our stroller: we packed one backpack for snacks, plus a small freezable lunchbox, which was very helpful. Since we weren’t buying groceries for the house that week, the park-picnic expense came out of our normal weekly grocery budget, not our trip money. Money aside, having things we could easily gobble down on the go saved us so much time. Disneyland crowds are something else, and we would have lost a ton of activity time if we had to stop and get in line every time one of our human garbage disposals (or “sons”) needed refueling.

Bring your own food so you can splurge where it counts: Dole Whips!

Tickets: Again, we were extremely fortunate and #blessed that my uncle gifted us the tickets, which is how we were able to go in the middle of a debt snowball to begin with. But, he did ask for my help in helping him hunt down the best possible deal. It’s almost like I have a reputation for being a savvy shopper or something. 

Of course, Corporate Mouse Overlord does not give discounts easily. After researching until my fingers bled, we went with Get Away Today, which was offering a great deal on kids’ tickets. I was able to save a few hundred dollars this way, which made me feel good. We skipped the Park Hopper upgrade and did one park per day, for a total of two days at Disneyland proper and one day at California Adventure, which saved quite a bit. We also went while our youngest was still free, and in the last handful of months that my oldest qualifies for a child (3-9) price ticket. So, if you’re trying to plan for Disneyland on the cheap, keep those ages in mind.

Remember those price increases I just mentioned? As of this writing, Get Away Today is STILL SELLING AT THE 2019 PRICE. For a very limited time, you can sneak in for “less.” If an audience with The Mouse may be in your future this year, BUY THEM NOW.

We did spring for MaxPass, and it was hands-down the best decision ever. Once you’re investing this much in a trip, it makes sense to pay a relative few dollars extra to get the most out of it. We were able to score tons of FastPasses without running hither and to around the park, and rode most everything multiple times.

Your MaxPass also includes the PhotoPass, so we were able to visit all of the pro photographers in the park and get all our ride photos included. In the end, we got dozens and dozens of beautiful professional family pictures. This, combined with all the time (and tantrums) saved by jumping the biggest lines, made the cost of the MaxPass more than worth it, to us. 10/10, will buy again. It’s a must, for us.

Pro photogs will make sure you look great, even when your face is swollen and your kids are smiling weird.

Side note: If you think going to Disneyland with a baby is going to cramp your style, you have never been more wrong. The rider switch program is incredible. Not only did we all get to ride what we wanted, but my kids got to ride all the big rides multiple times in one go. Yes, that includes Rise of the Resistance, which opened four days before we arrived and is balls-out amazing.

The sheer scale of ROTR took our collective breath away. It’s a must-ride, even if Star Wars is whatever to you.

Souvenirs: After much cost-analysis, we gave each of the kids $50 in souvenir money. Depending on where you’re at in life, this will either sound wildly extravagant or downright spartan. When I saw some of the prices (looking at you, $65 hoodies), I was worried it wouldn’t be enough, but we were not going into hock for park trinkets. It worked out perfectly. They were each able to pick out two large toys and stay on their budget.

This is what “We are absolutely not getting that huge Buzz Lightyear” looks like at Disneyland.

And I have to admit, the Disney Store quality toys are way nicer than the versions I could have gotten at Target or wherever. I feel pretty confident that they’ll last as well as any toy can in our house. In hindsight, we could have limited them to one toy and gotten away with $30 per kid, so live and learn, but we didn’t know what would speak to them, and again, the price on those clothes had me SHOOK.

We also did pin trading. If you’re not familiar, this is a new-ish Disney tradition, wherein folks collect official Disney pins and trade them with cast members and guests around the park. I knew the kids would enjoy pin trading (hooray for free entertainment and bonus souvenirs!) so I bought a lot of 100 pins on eBay, and cheap lanyards. This gave them more than enough to get started, and they love their pins so much. They still huddle up and trade with each other sometimes at home.

Money well spent and we saved at least 75% by buying ahead!

Miscellaneous: A friend much wiser than I, who has a child for each of Snow White’s dwarfs and makes the pilgrimage frequently, advised me to get a double stroller. I thought she was crazy, but I did it anyway, because I always listen to her (seven kids, y’all; she knows more than me). I’m so glad I listened! By chauffeuring our five year-old, we were able to make much better time through the parks, and getting to and from the hotel was a breeze. A friend was getting rid of one of the few double strollers still allowed at Disney, so I traded her some items I was going to yard sale for that.

Oh, yeah: We had a yard sale 48 hours before we left town. Crazy? Absolutely. But we made a couple hundred bucks! I decided to invest that found money into a last-minute decision, and surprised the family with a character breakfast on our way out of town. It was such a great decision. After three days of balancing cold cereal on our laps, a hot breakfast really hit the spot. It also saved us on finding fast food on the way home. Best of all, it helped take the sting out of transitioning back to reality. We did Donald’s Seaside Breakfast at Paradise Pier Hotel, and it was perfect. The food was great, we got tons of character interaction, and the sporadic dance parties were a great way to let the kids get the wiggles out before a six-hour car ride.

Best money we ever wasted!

Regrets: This pains me to say, but Oga’s Cantina. I made a reservation for Oga’s on day 1, and snagged it the minute it opened on the schedule, 60 days in advance. I was that excited. Imagine my delight and surprise when my “reservation” bought us the opportunity to wait outside for 30 minutes, and then a standing table. No chairs. No high chairs. This feels like a good time to remind you that we have a toddler. I don’t know how many times you’ve balanced a wiggy toddler on your hip while you try to enjoy an overpriced craft cocktail, but it was my first time and also my last.

We were allowed to “smuggle” our paper coasters out with us, and they were quick to replace the $7 mocktail Boy Marvel spilled immediately upon receiving, so there’s that, I guess. The atmosphere might have been cool, but it was impossible to enjoy, given the circumstances in which you’re expected to enjoy it. Oh, and they don’t have bathrooms. Just in case you have a kid who, say, knocks over their drink. You have to walk halfway across Galaxy’s Edge for that.

Oga’s notwithstanding, Galaxy’s Edge is absolutely spectacular.

But, that’s it. Two parks over three days with seven people…one regret. Could have done a whole lot worse!

One thing that stood out to me about our budget Disneyland adventure is that, once you get in the door, you can have an amazing day without spending another dime. Bring all your own food, and use the water bottle refill stations for free drinks all day long. Ride everything, meet your heroes, see amazing shows—all covered in the (high) cost of admission. You’ll find a million opportunities for extras, but none of it is necessary. You can even get souvenir buttons for free, if you ask nicely.

Cosplay was just one more way we had extra fun for free. They loved getting compliments on their outfits from their heroes!

All in all, the trip was perfect. Not only would we do it again, we can’t wait to do it again! No joke, we would pack our car and leave right now to do the whole thing again, if we could. My husband and I are probably worse than the kids about this. In just two months, we’ll have been at this parenting gig for a decade, and this was without a doubt the most fun we have ever had as a family.

All the more reason to get this debt snowball finished and get on with living our best lives.

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