Disney on a Budget

How to Save Hundreds on a Family Trip

ACCORDING TO THE US CENSUS BUREAU, the median household income in 2020 was around $67,500. With the rising cost of living, balancing a daily budget and planning forward for a baller family vacation might seem out of reach for the majority of families in the US. But it is possible, here’s how my family of four did Disney on a budget, all while getting the most value from our Disney experience.

How can families afford Disney on a budget?

There is such a magical feeling when you walk down Main Street U.S.A., with Sleeping Beauty Castle straight ahead. Walt Disney’s vision back in 1955, has turned into California’s top family and tourist destination. Visiting Disneyland though can be an expensive experience — but it doesn’t have to be if you plan ahead. I factored five major expenses in my three-day, two-night budget, by doing research ahead before purchasing tickets, reserving a Good Neighbor hotel room, calculating transportation costs, merchandise expenses, food and beverages. My money-saving guide will help keep expenses down for your next Disneyland family vacation.

How to book your Disneyland ticket

Micky Mouse in front of sleeping beauty castle at Disney

Photo: Disneyland

Tickets for a family of four for two to three days can add up to over $1,000. First, purchase your tickets weeks or even months in advance to be sure a reservation is available for the dates you want to visit. Also don’t purchase an entrance ticket the day you arrive. There are other fun things you can do on your first day that don’t cost as much. Disneyland offers tier ticket options that include one-day/single-park, one-day/park hopper, multi-day/single park and multi-day/park hopper. On a park hopper ticket, visitors explore one park in the morning and then are allowed into the other park after 1:00 PM.

When to visit Disneyland

Parade of floats at night at Disney in California

Photo: Disneyland

Nowadays, Disneyland Resorts doesn’t have much of a low season, except after New Year’s Day to early Spring. Disney is offering a special weekday ticket price for Southern California residents within zip codes 90000-93599. It started on January 3 and runs until May 26, 2022. So Cal guests who secured their tickets paid as low as $67 per person, per day with the purchase of a special three-day ticket.

Another low season with slightly fewer visitors begins in September after school resumes until the parks decorate for Halloween. Then there is a lull after Halloween until just before Thanksgiving. Sometimes ticket prices are discounted slightly during this season.

If you plan a trip during spring break, summer or winter break, know that the theme parks are crowded, the ticket prices are high, and may not be available to reserve, so plan ahead at least a month before your trip. The good news is the parks extend their hours during this high season, and provide additional entertainment, special decorations and evening events to make your experience more magical.

Disney FASTPASS and Disney MaxPass services have been retired, and now the Disney Genie is a complimentary digital app service offering updated tips and suggestions to have the most fun throughout the day. Download the Genie app for access to planning tools, maps of the park, forecasted wait times, dining reservations and mobile food and beverage ordering in advance, as well as mobile check-in all in one place. They also offer a Disney Genie+ for an extra $20 per day. This allows “Lightning Lane” access to almost every popular ride with the exception of Rise of the Resistance, Webslinger, and Cars. Since I was on a budget, I didn’t add this to my ticket reservation.

Where do you stay at Disney?

Another way to get the most value during a dream trip to Disneyland is by staying overnight at one of the value Good Neighbor Hotels. Typically they are up to 50 percent less than one of the pricier Disneyland properties such as Disneyland Hotel, Disney Paradise Pier and Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa.

Good Neighbor hotels are AAA-approved and offer a choice of standard rooms, suites and villa-style accommodations. Many of these hotels offer a free breakfast, so at least one of your meals is covered each day. This saved us a bundle, as we filled up on nutritious food and hot and cold beverages before entering the park. We didn’t waste time waiting in long food and beverage lines at the park and walked straight to our favorite rides. I also packed granola bars, fruit snacks, fresh fruit, and some trail mix for pick-me-up snacks throughout the day.

Many of these hotels also offer free parking for guests, which saves up to $45 per day. Walking to Disney Parks instead of driving and parking in one of the Disney lots will save you $30 a day for standard parking and $45 a day for preferred parking near elevators and escalators.

Some hotels offer free theme-park transportation, a swimming pool, and Disney-inspired decor in the guest rooms. Be aware that these hotels price their rooms based on the high and low season too. Inside many of the hotels is a Guest Services desk to help you plan an even more memorable Disney vacation.

One of the Good Neighbor Hotels that backs up to Disney California Adventure is The Candy Cane Inn. It’s currently being refreshed and is set to open this spring, and will offer a complimentary deluxe continental breakfast buffet each morning. The nearby Desert Palms Hotel & Suites also offers a free hot breakfast buffet daily, as does the Marriott SpringHill Suites and the Hyatt House. And directly across the street from Disneyland is the Castle Inn & Suites. It looks just like a castle and offers a refrigerator, coffee machine and microwave in each room.

Where to purchase souvenirs for the family

Another value tip is don’t purchase souvenirs at Disney. The first day we arrived, we didn’t have a ticket to the parks, so we walked to Downtown Disney, an outdoor Disney-theme entertainment, dining and shopping center. It’s free to enter if you don’t drive there. Parking is $10 for the first hour and $7 every 30 minutes, for a maximum daily rate of $66. For those who must drive, have your parking ticket validated when you purchase a minimum of $20 at any Downtown Disney retail store or quick-service restaurant. Then your parking cost is $10 for up to a four-hour visit. You can stay for up to six hours when you get your parking validated from one of the table service restaurants.

Before entering Downtown Disney, we noticed a lot of people wearing festive mouse ears and Disney shirts. We gave the girls $25 each and explored nearby Walgreens, CVS and A Market on the corner of Harbor and Katella. Each store had an array of colorful mouse ear headbands, themed shirts, autograph books, and Disney character stuffed animals that fit their budget and were 50 percent less than the same or similar items at Downtown Disney.

For example, we saw a Mickey Mouse shirt at Downtown Disney for $36.99 and at Walgreens similar shirts were $9.99 to $16.99. At a Disney store, a hoodie sweatshirt can cost $54.99, however, a similar hoodie outside of the park is $23.99. Bucket hats are $39.99 at a Disney store and a really cute baseball cap is $14.99 at CVS. Those fancy mouse ear headbands are $29.99 to $39.99 inside the Disney Parks, yet at Walgreens, they cost $6.49. Those looking for a plush Donald Duck is $29.99 at the park, but a similar plush outside of the park is $9.99.

Why you need a reusable bottle for Disneyland

Another money-saving tip is to fill up your coffee, water or juice in an insulated reusable water bottle before starting your day. Buying coffee, bottles of water, soda and other beverages add up during a long day. There are free water bottle refill stations and drinking fountains in various parts of the park, including Red Rose Tavern in Fantasyland, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland, Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, Autotopia and Goofy Sky School. A friendly Disney cast member will happily tell you where the closest one is for a refill. If you want a cup of ice water, head to one of the Starbucks in the parks and Downtown Disney and they will give you one for free.

Where and what to eat at Disneyland

When you get hungry, avoid the sit-down restaurants and visit the walk-up counters instead to save money. There are also numerous carts at Disneyland that sell the classic Mickey pretzel and ice cream for a festive treat. Instead of dining at the park for lunch or dinner, go back to your hotel during lunch or dinner and have a pizza party in your room. Go for a swim at your hotel when the parks are crowded and come back recharged at sunset to go on your favorite rides and experience Disneyland at night.

Our Disneyland budget for a family of four

  • Multi-day Disney tickets (regardless of dates) will cost $255 per adult and $240 per child for one park for two days, $315 per adult or $300 per child for both parks. For three days it’s around $330 per adult and $310 per child for one park, $390 per adult or $370 per child for both parks. If you want a park-hopper ticket, add $60 to the following costs.
  • Many of the Good Neighbor Hotels are about $200 a night depending on the season.
  • Food budget, even if you bring in your own snacks, beverages or sandwiches, it is around $120 per day for the four of us.
  • Set aside $100 for souvenirs and merchandise to bring home the memories of your magical Disney family vacation. 
  • This article was featured in Matador Network in March, 2022.

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