Disneyland and California Adventure With Kids Done Smart and Cheap!
When I first asked the Organized Life community for their tips on how to do Disney Land, I received some incredible responses! One of the best was from the wonderful Daisy Phillips. When I approached Daisy to write a detailed article about how to do Disney Land on the cheap, I was sent the most extensive information I've seen so far on how to prepare, enjoy and remember fondly the happiest place on earth! I am beyond thrilled to be able to share with you this incredible source of information. Without further ado, I give you Daisy! ~ Lauren
Growing up in Southern California, I’ve had my fair share of trips to Disneyland, and even been to the famous Club 33 twice, and yet I’ve always considered myself a medium Disneyland lover. After getting married to my husband, who was also a mid-level Disneyland enthusiast, we quickly accumulated more love for Disneyland together. Despite moving out of California a few years later, we still go back to visit my family every year, and manage to always sneak in a trip to Disneyland. So far, we have been visiting Disneyland and California Adventure once a year (even while pregnant or with kids and we now have four to tug along). It's never been exceptionally easy, but it's always ridiculously fun, and I love the memories we make each time. Nothing compares to the look of pure joy on a child’s face the first time they recognize Mickey or a princess, or the exhausted satisfaction of a day well spent together. As a now admittedly Disneyland fanatic, I’ve managed to pull together some tips on how to navigate Disneyland with kids in tow, on the cheap, and smart!
1. Go BIG Or Go Home: By big, I mean go more than one day - say what? No seriously, you go one day and you pay a fortune. Go two days, and pay less. Three days? Save even more! Plan on going for 3 days for maximum savings, and if possible, go during the off season as the prices are normally a bit lower during the non-peak times. Plus, you don't have to fight off as much foot traffic or long lines during non-peak times. To check whether or not it's going to be a busy day, you can use websites or apps like "Is It Packed." The best time we have ever gone was the second week of April. Not only was it super empty, but the weather was perfectly overcast and cool. You can also take a look at the annual passholder's calendar of blocked out dates by passholder type. Some of the cheaper passholder levels have more blackout dates, which means the park will be busier and lower tiered pass holders aren’t allowed to come. Those are the busy days you might want to avoid. If you do plan on going when it's super busy, you might want to think about booking a hotel stay with one of the Disney hotels, albeit more expensive, will give you a free extra magic hour, which is entrance into the park one hour before everyone else, and in that hour where the park is nearly empty, you can pretty much do all the long line rides you'd normally have to wait a while for. I’ve never heard of anyone saying the extra magic hour is not worth it. Everyone raves about it! Read more about the extra magic hour here.
2. Book With A Third Party Vendor: Are you a Costco member? If so, they have wonderful packages for Disneyland and booking air and lodging along with your park tickets will drive the price down even further. If you aren't a Costco member, my favorite third party vendor is Get Away Today which sells packages and tickets, and they've been known to price match if you can find a lower price, which I am quite confident you can't! But when it comes to booking together, a lot of these third party vendors can get deals that frankly, you can't on your own. You might find a cheap hotel nearby Disney, but you might not have inquired about parking (average is $30/night near the park), breakfast, or if there's a free shuttle (parking at Disneyland is $20/day). This is especially because most of us planning a trip to Disneyland will need flight, lodging, car rental, and park admittance. So in this case, I completely recommend getting a third party vendor to book your vacation for you, unless you are really good friends with someone who works for Disney, and in that case, talk to them first and see if they can hook you up!
3. Check Your Credit Card Perks: If you can, also check your credit card perks as they relate to booking travel, a lot of times credit cards used to purchase vacation travel will protect you and provide additional perks. I haven't found owning the Disney credit card to be of any use, we did get some additional photo opportunities, but my husband is always very cognizant of which card we use for travel, because of the additional cash back and traveler’s protection we get on a vacation purchased. So I recommend everyone to check your card perks as it relates to travel before deciding which credit card to use to purchase your big trip.
4. Buy Disney Gear Beforehand: We're huge Disneyland family folks, so normally I've planned our outfits ahead of time, whether it's making a new themed Star Wars Mickey Mouse shirts, making my own Mickey ears, Rapunzel yarn hair for my daughter, or having the kids pick out their favorite Disney character t-shirts. T-shirts purchased at the local Wal-Mart or Target near home (or if you forget, swing by the ones in Anaheim because their selection is always HUGE!) will still be cheaper than the ones purchased inside the park or in Downtown Disney. On top of that, the selection you can find online and even in the clearance sections from places like Old Navy and Gap make it so easy to plan ahead. I like to take my sweet time looking at all the options beforehand, so I'm always on the lookout for cute Disneyland shirts wherever I go. Just recently, I scored high quality Disney shirts for each of my kids for $10 each from Uniqlo!
The same goes for Disney souvenirs. If you have a Disney Store nearby, there are always some great clearance items you can purchase ahead of time for your kids. Now my husband is a huge souvenir tradition kind of guy, so we've always budgeted $20 for each kid to get a souvenir at the park (and I know that’s a lot with four kids now.. we’re still discussing it for our next trip). I'd say considering we go once a year, it's pricey but it’s a tradition we’ve worked hard to make, so it works for us. One work around is to buy your kids a treat that will double as a souvenir when you get back to wherever you're staying, but I think a better approach, would be to prep your child ahead of time, and potentially get them excited about the penny souvenir collection they can start! Or, if you really want, the pin collecting, which is actually really affordable to get started, and kind of fun to go around the park looking for pin traders! To do this, you can just buy a set of basic beginner pins online (ahead of time remember?!) and then you can just go up to any Disney employee with a lanyard and pins around their neck, and trade!
5. Get Some Glow Gear: Disneyland or California Adventure at night is full of twinkling lights and glow sticks in Mickey ears, balloons, and tons of stuff they sell (way overpriced) including swords, wands, etc. I want my kids to enjoy the fun of glow gear, but at a fraction of the cost, so I always load up either with a trip to the local Dollar Tree or by buying some bulk glow sticks via Amazon beforehand. If your kids are still awake when it starts to get dark, remember to bust out your glow gear surprise load, and they will be SO excited you got them something to join in on the fun! You can also buy something that lasts longer and has light functionality, especially flashing multi-colored ones, but basic glow sticks will also do the job!
6. Pack Food: One of our favorite things to do while at Disneyland is enjoy all the delicious food! But we definitely budget and stay on track by packing tons of snacks to help pass the time and allow for good decision making when we do decide to spend big bucks on the Disneyland treats. We normally pack a ton of snacks for the kids and adults, which includes anything from fruit snacks to nuts to nut bars to packaged chips or cookies. We also always come with plenty of water bottles and thermos cups for the kids (which you can refill at any restaurant with ice and water). You can also pack a few meals and leave a cooler in the lockers outside of Disneyland. We've never done this because it's not convenient for our huge crew and our kids aren’t huge sandwich fans, but I’ve seen some families pack leftover fried rice in thermos and bento boxes and thought, genius! We normally avoid bringing along anything that needs to be refrigerated, because you technically aren’t allowed to bring coolers larger than 6-pack sized into the theme park, but you can store coolers up to 18" wide x 25" high x 37" deep in the rentable larger lockers outside of the main entrance, so bring cash up to $15 if you're thinking about that! Pro-tip: if it's a hot day and you have a freezer before your trip, freeze some bottles of water and go-gurts for the kids which can be consumed before while frozen or still super cold.
7. Bring a Bike Lock for Your Stroller: If you're bringing a stroller, though you aren't allowed to lock your stroller to anything at the park (the attendants will literally CUT you off by cutting IT off), you can lock your wheels, or if you're lazy like us, just use it to lock your diaper bag to the stroller (more on this in the next tip). We haven't had any issues with stroller theft but it's not unheard of, so protect yourself and be mindful that it could happen. Try to only park your stroller in designated "stroller parking" spots, because these are the areas where Disney employees are monitoring them and will move them to make space. Your stroller could still potentially get stolen from one of these spots if someone walks over like they totally know what they're doing and just walks off with your stroller, but honestly, there's very little probability of that happening unless someone was eyeing your stroller, just be smart and be aware, and you’ll be fine.
8. Bring Two Bags: We normally bring two bags - one huge one with diapers and wipes which sit on the stroller's handles all day, locked to the stroller with a bike lock, and a side body bag for me that houses my wallet, phone, chapstick, and hand sanitizer and rarely leaves my side. The bottom of our stroller is normally full of snacks, water, and extra pajamas, so having the larger bag with just diapers and wipes locked to the stroller is great for when we're off waiting in line. It's too heavy to bring my actual diaper bag to every single line wait, so this is a great way to enjoy without worrying about irreplaceable items being stolen. The last time we were at Disneyland, upon returning from a long line as it began to get dark, someone warned me about how a guy was trying to take my bag off of our stroller. Though I was a little shaken up, I'm no stranger to the fact that theft does occur at the happiest place on Earth!, and I'm glad our little bike lock hack prevented our worthlessly valuable bag of diapers and wipes from being hijacked! From that time on, I always keep one extra tiny thing of wipes and some diapers in the undercarriage as well. Over prepared you say? I say, well prepared!
9. Bring a Baby Carrier: Obviously this is only for those who have babies, but even if your baby hates being carried or you don’t foresee using it often, for the mere fact that you can use it on all the rides in Fantasyland as well as Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters (Disneyland’s Tomorrowland) and Toy Story Midway Mania (California Adventure) makes it worth it! In my unprofessional opinion, it is much safer to be wearing the baby while trying to shoot than holding the baby. It also allows babies to sleep while waiting in line with the rest of the family, something we’ve had to do to use our stroller passes. So better safe than sorry!
10. Stop by the Baby Center: If you're with a big group of kids and adults, do yourself a favor, and stop by the baby center to get some "information stickers." You write in your kids' adult and contact number and slap the cute Disney sticker on their back. We recently visited with 8 adults and 11 kids, and as responsible as we were (or thought we were), we lost a child, which was the scariest 10 minutes of everyone's lives. With such a large group, it took us about 5 minutes to confirm we had indeed lost the child. Of course, the best place to lose a child is probably at Disneyland given the immense security everywhere, we found our lost child at the Baby Center, where all our the kids in our crew were given stickers that we prompty filled out (we also got enough for the next day since we were there for two days). You can make your own stickers or purchase Dollar Tree wrist bands, or even use a permanent marker to write your number on your kids hands, but I really liked the official Disneyland stickers because all the staff at Disneyland know exactly what they mean on a kid, and when we spent the time to stop by, we were able to quickly educate all the kids in our group about what the purpose of those stickers. The baby center in Disneyland is at the end of Main Street USA and in California Adventure, is next to the Ghirardelli Shop, and also has a nursing area, baby supplies and food for purchase, and a sitting area.
11. Stop By City Hall: City Hall is the place to get your free pins. Disneyland gives free pins for your first time there, your birthday, anniversary, marriage, any other celebration, a graduation, you name it! On top of the free pins, you can also obtain a recipe for ANYTHING you eat at the park through the City Hall. Thought those beignets and mint juleps were adorable but couldn't stand the huge price tag or line? Grab a recipe and DIY the recipe at home! Also, sometimes people are surprised to learn you CANNOT get alcohol at Disneyland, but you CAN at California Adventure. The only place you can get alcohol at Disneyland is at Club 33, but it is a club that requires membership, and membership is exclusive and pricey. If you aren’t at Disneyland as a guest through Club 33, then you will not be able to get alcohol at Disneyland. This is more just good to know information so you aren’t shocked that the delicious mint juleps from Disneyland are virgin, and so if you have a great mixed drink at the the Cove Bar and want the recipe, you can get it too!
12. Be Prepared For the Weather: It's easy to assume what the weather forecast will be like, but to be safe, always pack layers of clothes, some blankets (great for seats during parades), a light jacket, pajamas for the kids, and a poncho. Yes, a poncho! If it rains, your $3 poncho will be a lot more pleasant to don as you sludge through the wet park, than a $25 theme park poncho you regretfully purchase thinking you knew this. Added bonus: you can put the poncho on during serious water rides and not have to dry the rest of the day (Splash Mountain at Disneyland or Grizzly River Run at California Adventure). Don’t forget to also pack sunglasses, sunblock, and hats for everyone, because the coveted overcast day doesn’t always happen, so better to have some gear for the sun! And on an unrelated weather note, we also leave some toothpaste and toothbrushes in our car now, so we can brush our kids' teeth before we get to wherever we're staying and are too tired to think about brushing their teeth. Dental hygiene is important after a day of munching on delicious Disney food and snacks all day.
13. Plan For Long Lines: Know what rides you want to go on, and what rides are the most popular and have the longest lines. The Fast Pass system makes it so easy now (I remember my childhood years of waiting for Space Mountain for 3 hours without cell phones or screens too!... yes, I tell my kids this EVERY SINGLE TIME we walk through the fast pass line), and now, there's even an option to use an app to get your next fast pass. It’s called the Disney MaxPass and it’s only $10 and also includes unlimited downloads of your PhotoPass (when the Disneyland employees take photos with their fancy cameras for you!). If you have a big group going or want to have the photo downloads, this might be helpful. But keep in mind it’s only per day, so if you’re doing more than one day (as recommended earlier), you’ll have to consider if $10 each additional day is worth it for the app. Here are the instructions for how to download the Disney Max Pass.
Fast Pass - Disneyland admittance ticket will allow you two fast passes within a 2 hour time frame. They can be from any park, so start practicing your speed walking abilities if you want to get a fast pass for rides in California Adventure and Disneyland, or split up with someone in line at a ride that doesn't have a fast pass and someone else running to get fast passes. You can obtain fast passes in the designated areas by inserting your admittance ticket, which will be coded with your fast pass. The fast passes are usually assigned with different periods of time during the day, as they become available. Unfortunately, you have to use your fast pass within the allotted time frame, and the employees are becoming more strict about this since everything is digitalized now. It used to be a ticket that you gave them, but now everything is electronic on a little gadget that links to your park admittance ticket. The only exceptions they've made are for rides that have broken during your fast past time slot, a lost child (because really, he was so sad), and dining reservations at one of their fancy restaurants (bring a receipt to verify).
Stroller Pass - Also, if you have babies or small children, the "stroller" passes are amazing for adults to ride some big kid rides. Here's how it works: Any ride that has a height requirement will distribute "Stroller Passes," (this means it does not work in Fantasy Land where there is no height requirement for any ride). The Stroller Pass enables three more people to go on the ride through the Fast Pass line after the initial party has gone through, and in turn, offers relief to parents with children who are not tall enough to go on the ride. There’s no time limit as it relates to Stroller Passes (like how Fast Passes have a time expiration). What we’ve done in the past is have one parent and tall enough child or other adult go on the ride, subsequently, the other parent can go with the child again through the Fast Pass line. Alternatively, if you go with another family with small kids, the parents can trade off and go two at a time while the babies sleep.
Wait Times - Lastly, don't forget to download an app with wait times so you can plan accordingly throughout the day. We always download the My Disney Experience App which tells you the wait times but also lets you sort by other factors like height, and utilizes an actual Disneyland map to show ride times throughout the park. These are crucial for surviving the long wait times and properly planning where to go next.
14. Ask For Photo Assistance: For some reason, the Disneyland employees with the fancy cameras are always in the best photo spots! It's on purpose guys, but don't get tricked into buying their photo packages, unless you downloaded the MaxPass (because remember along with it, you get unlimited PhotoPass photos for the day, but if you go for two days, you might have to consider if $20 is worth it). But if you didn’t purchase the MaxPass, definitely stick to asking a Disney employee to help you after they’ve taken their professional photo. Nobody will ever said no. And don't forget the power of a Disney selfie.
15. Free Stuff: There’s so much free stuff you can get at Disneyland, I already mentioned the pins, but you can get a free sample chocolate from Ghiradelli (California Adventure) and a bread slice from Boudin (California Adventure). The photos they take as you’re going down a big dip that get displayed after the ride are all okay to photograph with your phone while at Disneyland. I’ve been to other theme parks where this is a big no-no, but not at Disneyland! At the the Buzz AstroBlasters, you even get to email yourself the photo. Lastly, if your kids are die hard Star Wars fans, once they are 4 (and less than 12), they can sign up for Jedi Training - Trials of the Temple. The slots throughout the day go fast, so make sure you head straight to the sign-up (across from Autopia at the kiosk outside of the Star Wars Launch Bay) upon entry into the park. The child signing up must be present, and after completing the “training” or performance, you’ll get a free pin (which my boys treasure and put on display on their shelves). The employees at Disneyland are always really kind and usually offer our kids pins (even though we aren’t trading) or stickers in the morning, when we’re dragging everyone to get to the park upon opening. You bet, we don’t waste time and want to be taking advantage of the entire day!
And that about sums up my tips and tricks for being smart and cheap when it comes to Disneyland and California Adventure. I know it’s long and extensive, but it’s a comprehensive list of what we’ve learned along the way. I hope you find the advice helpful and enjoy your time at the happiest place!