The Happiest Place on Earth: How to save time and money at Disneyland

Ready for the day!

Ready for the day!

We’ve been back from Disneyland for a week, and we’re still talking about it. Disneyland is not far from San Diego, but we were waiting until our kids were a  bit older to make sure they would really enjoy (and remember) their first visit. Since their birthdays are a month apart, we asked if they wanted to spend a couple of days at Disney instead of having birthday parties, and the Cars lover and princess fanatic thought this was a great idea.

I read some helpful tips for saving time and money before we went, so I thought I’d share what made our trip to the “Happiest Place on Earth” so much fun.

1. Buy tickets online
I buy everything online, so it’s no surprise I purchased our tickets that way. What was a surprise was how many people didn’t purchase tickets in advance and how long the lines were to buy them at the gates. Buy online and save valuable time!

Taking a break in the room for a nap and a snack

Taking a break in the room for a nap and a snack

2. Stay at a Disney hotel
I know some people may argue this, as the price is significantly higher than it is to stay at the local Marriott or Hilton. Time is money though, so it was worth the extra $100 to park our car on site and walk (not shuttle) everywhere. Another big advantage is that you can get into the parks an hour earlier than everyone else and avoid crowds. We were also able to come back to our room in the early afternoon. The kids and Chase took a nap while I did some work, then we watched the end of the Masters and had a drink and snack before heading back to Disneyland feeling refreshed.

Mmm...Pirate's Booty and fruit snacks

Mmm…Pirate’s Booty and fruit snacks

3. Bring snacks and drinks
I do this at every theme park (Sea World, San Diego Zoo), but it’s especially helpful at Disney where lines are long and prices are high. I bought Capri Sun waters and made individual bags of snacks for each kid. The obvious advantage is saving money since a bottle of water is $4 and popcorn is $6, but it also allows you to eat healthier than you would with most Disney options. Not to mention it keeps you sane, helping to distract the kids in long lines. And of course, you’ll be grateful for the time you save not having to wait in line with other hungry (and often grouchy) families.

Spent her gift card on Minnie!

Spent her gift card on Minnie!

4. Limit souvenirs
Disney is a marketing machine, and many attractions spill riders out directly into gift shops. We exited quickly, leading the kids off to new rides. Though the toys in the shops look fun, they were there for the experience and didn’t seem to mind. That being said, Avery got a Disney gift card from her aunt and uncle for her birthday, and Clay had a great week (of listening) at school, so we told him he could pick something $15 or less.  I was shocked Clay was able to find Cars he didn’t already have (he’s been collecting them for almost two years), and Avery chose a Minnie Mouse pillow pet. This was their first trip to Disney, so I was okay buying one thing each.  If you agree to buying a souvenir, I’d recommend buying it at the end of the day, so you don’t have to lug it around all day.

After his second ride on Radiator Springs Racers

After his second ride on Radiator Springs Racers

5. Get to the parks early
We got to Disneyland right when they opened and to California Adventure an hour before they opened to the public (thanks to staying on property). Lines are short when the parks first open, so head to the rides that are most important to you first. It’s also good to get FASTPASSES for the popular rides in the morning since they run out quickly. That was the case for Radiator Springs Racers in the new Cars Land. Chase and Clay went and got in line for the ride, while I stood in the FASTPASS line, which meant Clay got to ride again later that morning. FASTPASSES for that ride run out by 11:00 a.m. and without them, my coworker waited in line for three hours. No, thanks!

Our breakfast companion

Our breakfast companion

6. Book a character dining experience
Disney characters walk around the parks, but they have handlers like the celebrities they are, and kids have to wait in line to meet them. But, there is a solution for impatient people like me – character dining. I know $16 is a lot of money for a child’s breakfast, but for little kids, eating with Disney characters is pretty darn cool. At our hotel, the Paradise Pier, the food wasn’t bad either. They had an omelet station reminiscent of our Hawaiian honeymoon and Mexico trips, so Chase and I pretended we were on a tropical vacation. You have to eat breakfast regardless, so rather than spending time at the park waiting in line to meet Minnie, let her come to you while you enjoy some pancakes. We went early (7:00 a.m.), so the dining room was not crowded, and we got a lot of attention from the characters. Almost too much attention for me, but it was great for the kids. If you’re not staying at a Disney hotel, there are dining experiences at the parks, including Ariel’s Grotto, where you dine with the princesses (we chose the more generic Mickey & Friends option since Clay is not quite as obsessed with princesses as Avery is).

Cheers to a fun day and sleeping munchkins! Who cares that we're eating in the hallway?

Cheers to a fun day and sleeping munchkins! Who cares that we’re eating in the hallway?

7. Put the kids to bed, order room service and relax
Chase and I didn’t eat dinner at the park, choosing instead to order room service at the hotel. We brought a cooler with us, so we had drinks and the kids fell asleep quickly listening to a bedtime story from Cinderella on the TV (another benefit of the Disney hotel). The food was just okay and we ate in the hallway of our room with the lovely light of the bathroom, but it was nice to have some alone time and made it feel like a vacation for the adults as well.

All of these tips are specific to Disneyland, though for my East Coast friends, they’d probably work for Disney World, too. Chase and I joked that a fun drinking game (if they sold booze) would be to take a drink every time you hear a kid cry. Fortunately, it was never either of our kids. We had a blast!

I’m sure I’m forgetting some tips since I didn’t get much sleep on the trip and haven’t had time to catch up since. Do you have any tips for Disney, to make our next trip even better?

Amusement parks: happy kids = happy parents

We had such a great time at Sea World on Sunday. On our way there, I told Chase how lucky we are to be able to drive 20 minutes and be there, while others have to fly across the country to visit the beautiful place we call home. Someone please remind me of that when I complain about the cost of my tiny house or the fog here in June!

Growing up, my family had to travel to get to any amusement park. Sure, we had monuments, memorials and Smithsonian museums 30 minutes away, but to a kid, those are for school field trips. To get to any real fun, we had to drive several hours to Williamsburg or Richmond, Virginia or fly to Florida for Disney World. It was never something we could do on a whim. My kids are lucky. We have Sea World, San Diego Zoo and Safari Park annual passes (which are a great deal, by the way). Legoland is also nearby and we’ll probably get passes there, too. So we can decide to go at 7:00 a.m. and be at any of the parks when they open.

I always have a plan before we head to an amusement park (surprise, surprise). We go right when they open and typically leave by 1:00 p.m. Getting there early is not hard for us, since our kids wake up with the sun. I like to beat the crowds, which can be brutal in the summer. Have you ever maneuvered a stroller the size of a Smart Car through hundreds of people and their equally large strollers? Not fun. It’s also cooler in the morning, and you get to have fun before it is way past nap time and your normally well-behaved children embarrass you in public by begging for cotton candy or animal-shaped balloons.

I have a rule of not buying food at the parks. In most cases, the options are similar to a school cafeteria, and cost four times as much for the same slice of soggy pizza or reheated fries. I bring drinks and small snacks (string cheese, crackers, fruit snacks) that are easy to eat while going from one attraction to another. I know my kids are still young, but they have never once asked to eat at the park. They would rather stop at In-N-Out on the way home, which is a treat for them (and us), tastes better and costs a lot less. I don’t typically let them eat in the car, but in this situation it works well. They eat on the way home, then go straight down for naps because they’re worn out and full of yummy burgers and fries. Then the grown-ups get to relax too…

The quality of toys is a bit better than the food, but the prices are outrageous. And for people like me who hate clutter, where will we put another stuffed animal? I’ve found that the easiest way to avoid the begging is to steer clear of the gift shops completely. This can be hard, since some attractions’ exits are strategically placed in gift shops (marketers are smart!), but my response when they ask for something is that I don’t have any money.

I realize my kids are little and they may outsmart me someday, but since they don’t know any differently maybe I’ll get lucky and they won’t question my penny-pinching, clutter-controlling ways. We’ll see.  And if they do, I guess I’ll need to come up with another plan…