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The Trip Planner
Practical travel advice
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Lani Teshima, editor

Disneyland on a Budget

Disneyland on a Budget

Planning an affordable trip to the parks

"Disneyland on a budget" does not have to be an oxymoron, and neither does it refer to the current management mindset at the park. When we think of a Disneyland vacation, we usually don't think of being on a tight budget.

Your kids don't care if the stock market continues its bear market or large bellwether companies announce possible layoffs, because you accidentally mentioned that you wouldn't mind planning a Disneyland vacation soon.

For "dream vacations," we often pick out what we want to do, then try to save money to afford it. On a budget trip, you can work the other way around by first coming up with a budget you can live with, then trying to fit your trip into what you can afford.

Warning: Although you will want to put major travel expenses on your credit card for protection, make sure you have the cash to pay these off right away. Otherwise, you are instantly adding 18% interest to the cost of your trip!

Vacation budgets usually break down into transportation, accommodations, admission, food, and souvenirs. There are others, such as cost of research material and luggage, but let's assume you'll do your research for free online, and you already have your carry- on luggage for your trip. [If you don't know how to pack lightly enough to avoid checking in your luggage, visit my Travelite FAQ Web site. Clicking on the link opens a new browser window.]

Traveling in the off-season is the single most important way to save money. By traveling in the off-season, you enjoy cheaper airfare, cheaper hotel rates and less crowds. Although your tradeoffs may involve less-than-optimal weather or shorter park hours, I believe these are minor inconveniences compared to the amount you can save, especially when you can carry umb50% on your airfare and accommodations. This can easily amount to a $1,000 difference in your bottom line!

Disneyland on a Budget

Peak travel season in the U.S. usually corresponds to the times the kids are out of school. That means all of summer (starting on Memorial Day weekend and ending after the Labor Day weekend), Thanksgiving, Christmas through New Year's, Easter, college spring break (April) and other three-day weekends buttressed by a holiday. Some of the slowest periods include January and February, October, as well as November and December in between the holiday periods.

Avoid weekends. Disneyland is filled with a large local population on weekends, and it is not uncommon for attendance to balloon by four or five times a weekday attendance on a Saturday. Many of these "locals" come in for the weekend from other parts of California or neighboring states, and they fill up the rooms in neighboring motels. The same room you might pay $49 for on Tuesday night may go to $79 or even $99 on the weekend.

Speaking of motels, consider renting one room instead of two, and housing your children in the same room. The same goes for a larger group of friends. With two double beds in a room, four friends can split the cost of one room four ways, and save quite a bit. Be aware that most hotels ask for an additional fee for the third and fourth person in one room. Even with this fee however, it is still considerably cheaper than renting two rooms. Just make sure you find out ahead of time if one of your friends likes taking two-hour showers in the morning!

Disneyland on a Budget

Take your kids out of school. Some people will accuse me of blasphemy to suggest pulling your children out of school for your vacation. If you decide to do this, speak with the teachers and obtain study material ahead of time to help your children keep up during the trip. Be aware that not all teachers are amenable to this concept, and that you may have a tough time getting your children to do their homework after a day in the park. Explain (and repeat) to your children that sitting down with you for a daily dose of "vacation schooling" is everybody's responsibility. Instead of nagging them when it's "study time" and then plopping to watch TV yourself, work through the homework together, use the quiet time for everyone to read, or write an entry in a travel journal.

By taking your children out of school, you are not limited to taking a vacation during the most busy travel times of the year.

Should you fly or drive? This depends greatly on your situation. My husband and I now have a routine of leaving home on Friday night, catching some sleep at a freeway rest stop, then driving in to the park on Saturday morning. With a high- mileage car, our round-trip transportation costs only about $50. Flying to LAX or Orange County airport for the two of us would cost at least three times as much, with the additional cost of catching an airport bus to the motel.

Disneyland on a Budget

Driving may be more difficult if you have to travel a great distance, and you have children who can't sit still. Just remember that airlines charge a full fare for children over two years old. I suggest you also keep an eye on some airline specials that let kids fly for free with a paid adult. This can save you quite a bit of money, and Southwest Airlines has been known to do this periodically for their routes to the LA area.

Weekday fares are usually lower than weekend fares. Spend the time to check the online reservation Web sites to see which days are cheapest for you. Since the formula for determining airfare is as secret as the Colonel's eleven herbs and spices, I'm afraid you'll just have to be patient and look around.

Pay or no play in the park. If you want to get into the park, you have to pay your admission. Disneyland is the only place that considers 11-year-olds to be mature enough to be charged a full adult rate. There are occasional specials that allow you to purchase discounted tickets, but these are so few and far between that they can't be counted on. With the opening of Disney's California Adventure, you also don't want to buy just a single-day ticket for $42. A three-day pass is $111 ($15 savings over buying three single-day tickets), and a four-day pass is $137 ($31 savings). Not much, right?

Disneyland on a Budget

Here's a thought: Is it possible for you to take more than one trip to Disneyland in a 12-month period? For example, if you were to visit the park in May, do you think you might visit the park by May of next year? If so, consider getting yourself an annual pass to the park. The APs are not cheap: A one-park Deluxe AP is currently $139, while a two-park is $199. Although these passes have a few block-out dates during the most popular weekends and holidays, you would have no problem visiting on weekdays.

If you are sure you are returning after one trip, give the annual pass serious consideration.

Disneyland on a Budget

Food on a Disneyland vacation can easily bust your budget, if not planned carefully. Technically, you are not supposed to bring food into the park. You can however, bring a cooler full of lunch, and leave this in the lockers outside the entrance. There is a nice picnic area in front of Disneyland. If your family is already used to this, no problem. However, there are lots and lots of food temptations throughout the park that are especially enticing for children.

The best thing to do is to have a good, filling meal in the morning. If you rush to get into the park in the morning, you'll be starving by lunch time. You'll end up paying a lot and waiting in long queues with everyone else who's hungry. Check your motel to see if they offer a continental breakfast. For a family of four, this can easily save you $20 or more each morning. If your room has a microwave and small refrigerator, you can also have quick lunches in your room. This is a good excuse to get away from the park during the hottest time of the day, and give your children a chance to nap (or just play in the pool). Lunch at your room can easily save you $40 or more.

You have quite a bit more options for dinner now that Downtown Disney has opened. Some places like ESPNZone, although a bit pricey, are famous for extra-large servings. Share an entree, or take leftovers back to your room to enjoy the next day.

Be careful with buffets. Unless your party can scarf down a ton of food in one sitting, buffet prices are usually higher than individual entree orders, and worse, you can't take leftovers back to your room. Be creative. If you have leftover chicken from dinner, consider making a chicken salad sandwich for lunch the next day!

Many souvenirs at the park are very expensive. A windbreaker I can pick up for $29 at a local store might go for $70 in the park because it has a Disney character on it. Two things to remember about souvenir- shopping: Many items that make good mementos don't cost a dime, and there are some very inexpensive hidden gems you can pick up at the park. See the sidebar for some examples.

Your children may want to control what souvenirs they get. Setting boundaries (giving them a certain amount of money, then letting them get whatever they want), or helping them earn extra money beforehand may be good solutions, so that you don't find yourself tugged everywhere to buy everything that shines and glitters. Jewel, one of our Magic Years teens here at MousePlanet, will be publishing a column called "Earning Your Own Spending Money."

Part of the reason to be on a budget vacation is so that you can save money to splurge occasionally. If you don't eat out every night while on vacation, you might be able to splurge for a Fantasmic dessert buffet at the Disney Gallery patio, or have a full- course dinner at Hook's Pointe and Wine Cellar restaurant in the Disneyland Hotel. While budget travel usually involves extra planning, you'll be pleased to discover that it's not really that difficult.

And me? We could afford flying to the park, but we drive 350 miles because it allows us to visit the park more often.

Disneyland on a Budget

Affordable Souvenirs

You don't have to break the bank to get souvenirs at the Disney parks. There are traditionally two types of souvenirs: Keepsakes that help you remember your trip, and gifts you bring home to family, friends or coworkers.

In both cases, you want to bring something home that is unusual, or even unique to your destination. The following are some souvenir ideas:

Mementos for yourself (many of which can be enjoyed by setting into a photo or memory album):

- Menus from the places you ate. Many restaurants have menus you can take with you. If not, ask. Cost: free.

- Kid's menus, especially if your child worked on an activity sheet on the back. Cost: free.

- Kid's meal cup. Many restaurants provide the child's drink in a plastic cup. If it's customized for Disney or the restaurant, these make great take-homes. Cost: free.

- Coasters from your restaurant. Cost: free.

- Stickers. Many places within the park give out free stickers. Examples: City Hall, if it's your birthday. Mickey and Minnie's house, to say you met them. If you peel these off your clothing carefully, you can put them in your photo album. Cost: free.

- Mardi Gras beads from New Orleans Square. These are hit and miss, but if you happen to catch one being thrown out, great! Cost: free.

- Your used admission tickets. Cost: free.

- Any unused FastPasses. Cost: free.

- Disneyland Today and other daily handouts (also available for Disney's California Adventure and Downtown Disney). Cost: free.

Affordable mementos that also make good souvenir gifts:

- Park-specific napkins. For years, this has been my favorite to take home. Disneyland and DCA currently have two different designs printed on their brown paper napkins. Some specific eateries, such as Redd Rockets, have their own printed napkins as well. I take a handful each time to use at home to remind myself of the parks. Cost: Free

- Pressed pennies for your favorite park land, attraction, or character. If you stay at an on-property resort, get a pressed penny for your resort. Cost: 51 cents each.

- Mickey Mouse mints in reusable tins (also available in other characters like Minnie and Goofy) a la Altoids. Cost: $3.00 a tin.

- Character head pens. These are ball point pens with the non-writing end twisted and bent into the shape of various Disney character heads. The most popular is the mouse head. Cost: Under $3.00

- Mickey head antenna balls are a fairly common sight in California, but not as much elsewhere. There is a DCA version with Mickey donning blue sunglasses, as well as other seasonal versions. Cost: $4.00

- Iron-on patches, of the park or specific attractions, can turn an ordinary bag or jacket into a reminder of your vacation. Cost: Usually well under $5.00.

- Guest of Honor badges or keychains in your name, a personalized favorite and less noticeable than a pair of mouse ears. Cost: $5.00

- Individual Mickey head lollipops, or a bundle of five long- stemmed lollipops. Cost: Under $4.00.

- Attraction-specific buttons or magnets. Cost: Under $3.00

If you have a large group of people to give souvenir gifts to, consider putting together a goodie bag for each person, and include Park- specific napkins, a pressed penny, an attraction button, a postcard, a Guest of Honor badge, and / or one long- stemmed lollipop. Depending on the combination, each goodie bag can cost a few dollars each. When you make a purchase at a store, ask to get extra shopping bags (note: they do not give these bags out without a purchase). Adding a bit of ribbon on the top of each bag when you get home is a nice touch!

Do you have any souvenir ideas? They should be small, affordable, and legal to take. Send me an email at the address below.


Contact Lani Teshima if you have any travel tips or questions about trip planning.

A Hawaii ex-patriate, Lani is a technical writer for a San Francisco Bay Area software company.

When Lani is not managing the copy editing tasks here, you can usually find her at the gym, slogging away those slow miles on the treadmill as she trains for the WDW Marathon (held in January). She also maintains her internationally recognized Travelite FAQ.

In the occasional spare moment, Lani and her husband, Alex—our MousePlanet CEO and MouseAdventure event coordinator—attend baseball games, and drive down to Disneyland in their 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid (which gets 50mpg).


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