We recently went on our first family vacation to Disneyland. The last time I went to Disneyland was about 15 years ago when I was in junior high so I didn’t do much planning (besides finding ways to make money to spend). In addition to this being our first vacation to Disneyland, it was also our first big family vacation with our kids. While trying to figure it all out, I didn’t really know where to start, so I turned to Facebook and asked my friends for their best Disneyland vacation planning tips. Then I went to my Disney Pinterest board to look through my saved pins. I was working within a short time frame (less than 2 weeks to plan it all out) so I needed to get as much information as possible as quickly as possible.
Keeping in mind that our family currently consists of me, my husband, my 4 year old daughter and 2 year old son, I had to tailor the trip to work for our family. However, I know many families with similar dynamics as mine choose to go to Disneyland so I thought I’d share my process with the hope that you might find something here that will help you as well. Some of these tips are helpful across the board, while others are more specific to families with young children.
A friend of mine suggested checking out the website www.isitpacked.com. This is a great website to check out if you are planning a trip to (almost) any theme park across the US. It gives you information on how busy the parks are at any given time of year and helps you plan your trip accordingly. As with most vacation spots, there are peak times and off-peak times and knowing which it is at the park you’re attending is very good to know. Since we had about 5 days total for our trip, we tried to be flexible and fit our park days into the less busy days as shown on isitpacked.com.
This isn’t an official website for any of the parks, but it is based on real-time crowd tracking and historical tracking information and is pretty accurate. It “crowd meter” has four levels: Ghost Town, Hey it’s Alright, Yup it’s Packed and Forget it. One of the days we went was a “Hey, it’s Alright” and the other was a “Yup, it’s Packed”. Knowing beforehand that one of the days was going to be more crowded helped us know which rides to try and get into the day before, which ones to get fast passes for and overall, just not be as frustrated by the amount of people in the park.
Park Hopper or One Park A Day?
One of the biggest decisions we had to make in our planning was how many days we wanted to spend at the park. As part of that, we had to figure out if we wanted to do Disneyland only (no California Adventure), a park hopper, or one park per day. I’m not kidding when I say that I spent multiple days and talked to multiple people trying to figure it out. We ended up not even buying our tickets until the day before we went to Disneyland! But ultimately, we chose to do a 2 day park hopper ticket. Why? Because we wanted to experience the rides and the atmosphere of both parks. We don’t know the next time we’ll be back to Disneyland. So we decided to do a little bit at both parks. Plus, it only cost an extra $114 for 3 tickets for 2 days, which equaled out to $57 per day or $19 per ticket per day. When we were already spending as much as we were on tickets, paying a little more to experience an additional park made sense to us.
Discount Tickets through University or College Alumni Association
It’s fairly well-known that discount tickets to Disneyland are hard to come by. Not to mention that Disney raises their ticket prices on a regular basis (and will be again soon due to Star Wars Land), it’s just expensive to get into the parks! So it’s tempting to try and get as much of a discount on tickets as possible. However, there are very few reliable places to get discount tickets. A friend from college told me that I could get discount tickets through our university’s alumni site. So I checked it out and–lo and behold!–she was right! I had no clue that discount Disney tickets were a benefit to being an alumni. For our family, we needed (2) age 10+ tickets and (1) age 3-9 ticket. We went 2 days and also did a park hopper. Here is a breakdown of my savings:
Disneyland Theme Park official website: $662
Get Away Today official website: $656 ($6 less than Disney)
Alumni official website: $624 ($38 less than Disney)*
I would guess that my university isn’t the only one to have a deal with Disneyland on discount tickets so if you or your spouse are part of your college/university’s alumni association (which you would be if you graduated), it’s worth looking into!
*Update (7/19/17): My alumni association no longer offers discount Disney tickets, which means that Get Away Today is the next best way to get discounts on park admission as opposed to buying directly from Disney. Get Away Today also offers a layaway program that allows you to make payments on your vacation with no interest, making the vacation more affordable for your family. See more HERE.
Find a Hotel and Book It
As I mentioned earlier, we were working within a limited time frame for our trip. Because of this, our options for a hotel within our price range were also limited. I looked on Expedia to see which hotels in the area still had available rooms that fit within our parameters (2 beds, continental breakfast, etc). I found a great one for just over $100/night and within a short walking distance to the park. Perfect! However, they only had one room available for the nights we wanted. I decided to double check another website to see if I could get the room for any less, but I couldn’t. So I went back to Expedia and the room was still available so I booked it as fast as I could. Put my credit card number in….hit submit…and…someone else had beat me to it! Ugh! I was so frustrated! (Plus it was really late at night.) So I had to spend another 30 minutes going back through and finding another hotel. If you are also trying to book a trip to Disneyland on short notice, try and book the hotel first, before anything else. Transportation to the park, food and tickets can all be worked out later, but hotels book up fast in that area and if you snooze (or get greedy like me and try to save a couple extra bucks), you will lose.
Along the same lines, figuring out where you want to stay when you go to Disneyland can be challenging. For us, we were ok with staying further outside the park to save some money. The hotel we stayed at had a Disneyland shuttle (for a fee) about 200 feet from the entrance so that was one option for getting to the park without driving there ourselves (parking is $17/day). In addition, our hotel was only about a mile away from the entrance to the park and was basically a straight shot along Harbor Blvd (one of the streets bordering Disneyland) and my husband and I felt comfortable walking that distance since our kids would both be in a stroller. Ultimately, being within walking distance to the park was one of our deciding factors in choosing a hotel.
Flying or Driving?
Originally, my husband and I had talked about flying out to LA and then renting a car. But the short notice made the round-trip flights too pricey for us so we decided to drive (about 9-10 hours each way). We knew how big our gas tank was and about how many miles we could get out of one tank. Then we figured out which cities we’d need to fill up in. We looked at the website gasbuddy.com to see the price of gas and estimated our total cost. It was much more cost effective to drive, even though flying would have saved us some time. In addition, we had a lot that we needed to take with us: a double stroller, two car seats, a pack n’ play, suitcases, a cooler, snacks and electronics. The thoughts of hauling all that around an airport and then hoping our rental car was big enough to fit it all were not exactly encouraging. So if you are within driving distance, maybe 12 hours or less, consider driving over flying. It was challenging for sure, but worth it to us.
Do Your Research and Decide What’s Best for Your Family
Between Facebook and Pinterest, I spend a lot of time researching everything about Disneyland, from where to eat, to how to use a rider swap, to the best location for parades/fireworks. It’s so. much. information. My brain started to hurt. I wanted to plan the best trip I could for my little family, but I was getting overwhelmed. Finally I had to take a step back and remember that while my intentions were good, I needed to pick out the essentials. The information that was truly relevant to my family. For example, I asked my daughter what she wanted to do at Disneyland: “See the princesses.” So I looked up information on seeing the princesses so we could fit as much princess time as we could into our visit. She didn’t care about seeing Goofy or Peter Pan, so I didn’t waste my time trying to figure out how to see them. Another example: I know my kids don’t generally eat a lot for breakfast, so while a good continental breakfast was important to my husband and I, I knew that I’d need to pack a lot of snacks to take into the park to keep them full and happy. So I researched information about taking food into the park. Every family is different and what is important to us, may not even be relevant to you.
And when it all comes down to it, you’re going to Disneyland! It’s pretty difficult not to have a great time making memories and experiencing the magic that is Disney. *wink*
If you haven’t planned your vacation yet, be sure to check out Get Away Today for discount park tickets and vacation packages. Click here and use the code Sunshine to get $10 off any 2-night or longer Southern California package. They also offer a layaway program where you can make payments on your vacation with no interest! Find out more here. (Plus you can combine the $10 off code with the layaway program!)
What tips would you share with someone planning their first trip to Disneyland?