Updated: Feb 13, 2019
We just returned from a trip to the Big D, and by that I mean Disneyland. After the Crowd-fest that was the 2016 and 2017 trips to DL, I swore off the parks unless we went on an obscure Wednesday in February. Well, at Thanksgiving my cousin and I, under the influence of apple cider mimosas, dreamed up an epic 3 day adventure for February. Initially we had planned to go on Superbowl Sunday, in an effort to take advantage of the rumored “the best day to go” as everyone is home watching the game. However, after doing some research on isitpacked.com I found out that it is a complete and total myth.
In recent years Disney has opened the floodgates of annual pass bargains to California residents and the park is teeming with people… and guess what? Superbowl Sunday isn’t a blackout day So… you do the math. After I got over the initial disappointment, I scanned the website’s calendar to find that the Thursday before that weekend was predicted to be a Ghost Town day. So we did some hustling, arranging, time-off-ing and made our plans for a Thursday to Saturday Disneyland romp with the cousins.
We piggy backed this trip with a family visit in Arizona. Since my parents live in Sun City, we were a 5 hour drive to Anaheim. The kids and I flew to Phoenix, while Scott met us in California for the actual Disney trip. I’m pleased to say that we were able to travel hack this one with points for us all entirely.
Cost to fly a family of four from the Northwest to Southwest: $20 (for the obligatory taxes and fees at $5/person)
The drive was super easy and we had my willing and spry little sister to do the bulk of the driving for us.
Thanks to my parents Toyota Prius fuel cost us $45 round trip.
When it came to lodging, we faced the usual dilemma that all visitors to the Anaheim area face of "to stay close to the park, or not to stay close to the park". Most of the hotels are priced according to their proximity to Disneyland. It takes some effort to do the math to see if staying further afield really saves you any money when you factor in daily parking fees ($20 per day)/Uber fares when deciding where to stay. We chose an AirBnB in a recently refurbished historic building right by Anaheim City Hall. We were a 10 minute drive from the Disneyland entrance. We were able to split the rental with my mom and sister, lowering the per person cost considerably. The added bonus of vacation rentals is the ability to have a full kitchen and washer/dryer. For these reasons it was worth the extra parking fee and “hassle” to not be within walking distance of Disneyland. But really, to each their own when it comes to that kind of thing.
$500 for 4 nights, plus $55 in parking and Uber fares.
Our biggest expense was going to be the ticket prices, obviously. While Disney & Co. may give a kickback to Southern California residents, they are in no humor to cut the rest of us a deal when it comes to the price of admission. Three day park hoppers are $355 for adults and $335 for kids.
$1380 for three days of unlimited access at Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom and California Adventure.
We were a little skeptical as to whether or not we could actually fill our time at Disneyland for three days. Usually by day two we are shot, overstimulated, and ready to swear off Disney for at least another year. After chatting with my cousin (who is a Disney park Rock Star and totally deserves to be on the Disney Mom Panel) we decided to opt for a third day as
a. It wasn't that much more cost wise to have an additional day
b. it would be a great chance to actually get to see some shows, exhibits, and areas of the park that often get left behind due to “lines at Radiator Springs Racers”. If you catch my drift.
Our trip started off nice and strong at the Trader Sam’s restaurant in Downtown Disney for dinner. A super cute off the beaten path tiki restaurant with a somewhat limited food menu, but an absolutely jaw dropping drink menu that makes up for everything. We enjoyed the live ukulele music and delicious hamburgers/veggie poke bowls/Volcano erupting tiki drinks. ($57)
That night Scott and I went to the grocery store to load up on snacks and meals to take into the parks. I am happy to report that Disney doesn’t restrict what food you bring into the park. In fact, in Fantasyland I saw a stroller with two Little Caesars pizza boxes wedged into the bottom. I wanted to give that parent a Katniss salute for that one. The food and drink in Disneyland is notoriously expensive. For this reason we loaded up on PB&J, trail mix, bananas, pears, to take into the park. For the morning we made breakfast that would be fitting for a lumberjack in an effort to stave off any impulsive snack purchases in the park before lunch time. I’m not going to include this in my total cost as this is basically that week’s grocery budget so this isn’t really anything beyond the ordinary.
We were ready to start our epic Ghost Town Day bright and early Thursday morning. We loaded up our stroller (borrowed from Cousin- saved $45 on a would-be three day stroller rental at $15 per day), declined the Max Pass upsale, for our amazing “Disney hacked” day. Rain was forecasted and we prepared ourselves for a day of having the park to ourselves.
Except we didn’t.
Not even a little bit.
Who knows what happened.
One security guard said that it was because of the rain that people decided to come- the hope for the lack of crowds, made a crowd. Perhaps? Don’t people have jobs to be at?
So there was torrential rain and crowds. Our fast passes were hard to manage as we were a party of 9. We slumped through California Adventure and tried to make the best of it. The Little Mermaid ride was a walk-on so we went twice. Our ponchos sprung leaks. But, it wasn’t until we went on Mater Butts as a walk-on and nobody had fun that we realized we just might need to pack it in and call it a day. Moments before we conceded defeat the rain let up we made our way over to Magic Kingdom. The crowds settled down just enough for us to get a few rides in and a lack luster dinner at Galactic Grill in Tomorrowland ($44).
Friday was predicted to be a “Yeah, It’s Crowded” day according to the Is It Packed scale (Ghost Town, It’s Not Bad, Yeah- It’s Crowded, Forget About It). For this reason we purchased the Max Pass which allows for you to plan your ride schedule with Fast Passes allowing for a much more pleasant day in the parks in which you see the crowds, but don’t feel them. The pass is absolutely worth the price, so just plan for the extra cost in your ticket budget. I could get into the nitty-gritty ethics of why Disney feels the need to nickel and dime for tickets that are already exorbitantly priced, but I won't.
The rain cleared out and we planned for a decently crowded, but fun day. ($60 for daily Max Pass/family of 4) We opted for some extra coffee in the park ($6).
I don’t know if Disney purposely has made it more difficult for you to go it alone in terms of FastPass or if Max Pass really is that much better, whatever the case we were ding, ding, ding, ding hitting every ride with military precision thanks to Scott’s commitment to schedule keeping. Our cheap lunch plans for foiled thanks to the water logged pb&j from the day before. We ate delicious beef bulgogi bao in Adventureland ($20) shortly before the obligatory Jungle Cruise. And then by some strange brand of Disney magic the ever-populated Peter Pan ride line died down and we finally saw miniature London from a gondola pirate ship.
We hopped over to California Adventure for our Fast Pass appointment at Radiator Spring’s Racers. After that Cousin suggested we have dinner at the Lamplight Lounge on Pixar Pier. Our table consisted of a giant coffee table flanked by two tufted leather couches and we could not have been more grateful after a long day of line standing and Fast Pass hustling. Dinner and drinks were delicious and over priced, but weirdly worth it. ($108- including tip and paying for Sister’s dinner as she was an awesome in-park nanny to the four kids who were with us.) The day ended on a high note, despite our throbbing feet.
Day three was Saturday and was slated to be a Forget About It day on the Is It Packed calendar. Epic rain was predicted and we all planned for a short and relaxing day of seeing shows and enjoying the non-ride experiences at Disneyland. Turtle Talk with Crush was adorable. The Sorcerer’s Workshop was so fun. Belle’s library was super cute. But, it wasn’t until we took the drawing class at the Animation Studio that I actually had a “I’d rather be doing this than riding Pirates of the Caribbean” moment. The kids all sat nicely along the rim of the lecture pit as we learned to draw Tigger. We all experienced varying degrees of success with our hyper active tiger, but we all had the same amount of fun.
The rain picked up again and then suddenly, without warning, the historic So Cal rainstorm vanished leaving nothing but blue skies and an empty park. Lunch was corndogs ($40 @ $10/ corndog) and we got to meet Mulan and Mushu which was an unexpected surprise. The kids didn’t care, but my fellow Gen X/Millennial peeps can appreciate this. On an impulse Scott bought another round of Max Pass ($60) just in case the crowds returned. But they didn’t. And we changed out of our wet shoes (hello, trench foot), rallied our tired selves and walked on to just about every ride our heart desired.
Dinner was bread bowls in the French Quarter ($23, two split between the four of us) and dessert at the Jolly Holiday Bakery ($13). We stopped for silhouettes of the kids on Main Street Disney. (All done freehand by the sweetest lady ever. I’m still in awe of how she was able to perfectly capture any person who sat in her chair.) $20 @ $10 per profile. The day was polished off with the grand finale of Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Splash Mountain.
I’ve written about going to Disneyland with kids, HERE. So I won’t belabor the point about keeping expectations low, stroller rentals, plan around crowds, et cetra. We hacked Disney as much as we could. Traveling with fun people, Rider Swaps, Fast Passes, Max Passes, bringing our own food (and water!), and packing a change of shoes (seriously, do that. It changes the pressure points and your feet don’t hurt nearly as bad by the end of the day). But to a certain extent you need to just be prepared for the fact that your hacks might get derailed by things like rain, crowds, exhausted kids, and water logged sandwiches and that Disney & Co. pretty much will take whatever money you give in order to “do life” in the park.
Our total cost could actually have been much more if we had not prepared our lumberjack breakfast at home, brought lunches, packed for snacks, and brought our own water (thank you, CamelBak).
The total cost to take a family of 4 to Disneyland for 3 days:
Food: $313 ($158 if we didn’t splurge on Lamplight Lounge and Trader Sam’s) Comparable NOT including our fancy dinner: $525
Stroller for three days: $0
Comparable in park rental: $45
Lodging: $500 Comparable for a hotel near the park $670
No comparable. Disney is the worst.
Max Pass: $120
Comparable for 3 days instead of 2 of Disney Max Pass $180
Comparable flights for a family of 4 from Seattle to Sky Harbor/Santa Ana $800
Comparable if we had stayed at the Fairfield Anaheim hotel $0
Souvenirs/Indulgences: $105 Comparable souvenir budget: $250
Cost had we not attempted to travel/Disney hack: $3850
Our biggest savings was in our transportation and food cost. Which makes sense as most things beyond that are pretty fixed. Le sigh. The moral of the story is that there really isn’t a cheap way to do Disney. Because of this, I think it is important to take stock about what you value when it comes to the amusement park (or any travel) experience. For me, I'd rather not deal with crowds and heat. So, rain and off season travel ends up working out beautifully for us. My sister declared she hated rain and would happily deal with heat and crowds in favor of not being in a state of constant damp-ness. I get it. Disney will cost the same no matter what, so stick with what you like and have fun... and if you can avoid crying tears of candy like Bing-Bong by the end of the experience, then so much the better.