There’s no such thing as Disneyland on a dime, but the good folks at the House of Mouse are well aware that people are trimming their travel budgets and sticking closer to home.
Lucky for us in the Bay Area, the “Happiest Place on Earth” is a relatively manageable drive and even shorter flight away. And Disneyland is offering plenty of promotions to try to convince travelers that the Magic Kingdom is within reach. In addition to its much advertised “Get in Free on Your Birthday” promotion, Disneyland is also offering a five-for-three package though Sept. 26, with two free days of park admission and two extra hotel nights added to any three-day package at the Disneyland resort. (Packages must be booked by Aug. 11.) Ticket deals for multiple days are also being offered through the fall.
“Obviously, we want to make a visit to Disneyland as attractive as possible at a time when people are very conscious about how they spend their money,” says Disneyland spokesman John McClintock. He says the best deals are available through AAA and at disneyland.com. Friends have recently also found good package deals online at sites such as getawaytoday.com.
But scoring a deal on hotels and tickets is only the first step in planning a great trip to Disneyland. The intrepid travelers at Bay Area Parent (myself, husband, two kids and four willing grandparents) have done the advance work to help you squeeze the most out of a Disneyland vacation.
When to go
There are two major considerations in visiting Disneyland: the time of year and the age of your children.
Not surprisingly, July, August and winter and springs breaks are Disneyland’s busiest times, when kids are off from school and lines are long. McClintock says January, February, September and October have traditionally been considered low season, but fall has been getting busier with Halloween celebrations starting in late September.
In general, he says, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays are the best days to avoid long lines.
We’ve visited twice around Memorial Day – once just before and once just after – and found the crowds manageable but certainly present. Clearly, lots of people don’t worry too much about pulling their children out of school for a vacation.
But school schedules are only one consideration. Your Disneyland experience varies greatly depending on your children’s ages.
We scheduled our recent trip for May for two reasons: We could go at an off time before our son starts “real” school in the fall, and our daughter could receive free admission for a few more months. Kids under age 3 get in for free to both Disneyland and California Adventure, and are even eligible for free dining at character meals.
But the off season has its trade-offs. Park hours are shorter and there’s less entertainment after Labor Day, so make sure to check the entertainment schedule (up to six weeks in advance) at disneyland.com, under “Plan.”
Another thing to think about are your children’s heights. While there are plenty of attractions for tots, at 40 inches, bigger kids are eligible for thrillers including Space Mountain and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (though we didn’t attempt either with a 5-year-old). Only a handful of rides have higher minimum heights.
Where to stay
Whether or not to stay at one of Disneyland’s three hotels boils down to how much extra you want to spend for convenience. With napping children, we’ve found being close enough to walk to the park has been worth the added expense. For both proximity and aesthetics, it’s hard to beat the Grand Californian, Disneyland’s newest hotel, with its own entrance to California Adventure. But you’ll pay top dollar.
We also enjoyed our recent stay at the Disneyland Hotel, which has been well-maintained, despite its years, and has large rooms and a fun Peter Pan-themed pool.
Friends, especially those on longer trips, have been happy with various “Good Neighbor” hotels nearby. Many are within walking distance (though it depends on how you define it) and are also on the Anaheim Resort Transit shuttle loop. The Sheraton Anaheim Hotel, one of the closest to the parks, offers a free shuttle and discounted park tickets. The Portofino Inn & Suites, also nearby, offers “kid suites” with a separate children’s bedroom with bunk beds and child-sized table and chairs.
Beat the lines
No matter when you visit, you’re bound to stand in line at some point. But a little planning can help minimize the time you’ll spend waiting to have fun.
We found “Magic Mornings” to be invaluable. Allowing entry to Disneyland’s Fantasyland and Tomorrowland one hour before the park officially opens, Magic Mornings are available on certain days to anyone staying at a Disneyland resort hotel and through bonus tickets and certain package deals.
We got a lot of rides in during the first two hours of the day. The Monorail in the Downtown Disney District – the shopping and dining strip between the hotels and parks – takes you directly into Tomorrowland, allowing you to bypass waiting at the entry gate. But be warned: Strollers must be folded on the Monorail, a lesson we learned the hard way when trying to board with a sleeping kid one afternoon.
Even without early entry, McClintock recommends getting to the park before it opens so you’ll be one of the first in.
“If you have older kids, you’ll probably want to go to Space Mountain or Splash Mountain or Pirates of the Caribbean,” he says. “If you have a younger child, you probably want to go to Dumbo, one of the most grueling queues in the park. We call it the ‘Dumbo or die’ approach.”
The best advice we got from a friend was to hit the recently revamped Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage first in Disneyland and the very cool, new “4-D” Toy Story Midway Mania first in California Adventure. Neither has FastPass, and the lines get very long very quickly.
FastPass is a great tool for many major attractions. It allows you to come back after a designated time and wait in a much shorter line. We ignored it on our first trip, thinking it would be a hassle to criss-cross the parks to go back to a ride. But for rides like Space Mountain with major waits, it’s worth the trip. We also discovered that while FastPass gives you a one-hour window, you can ride any time after the designated time. You just can’t get a FastPass for another ride until you use your previous one.
McClintock also recommends eating at off hours, taking the afternoon off for a rest or a swim at your hotel and returning to the park in the evening.
“You’ll be amazed by how much energy a 4-year-old can summon,” he says.
Bring a grandparent (or four)
We didn’t spend late nights in the park with our kids, who never napped, despite our best efforts (and their exhaustion). But we did return without them, thanks to grandparents who could baby-sit from their adjoining room.
We’ve had grandparents with us on both trips and highly recommend it. With an adjoining room, you get the benefits of a suite without the costs. You have an extra set of hands, and maybe a babysitter for late-night or naptime parks runs. An added bonus is that the Disneyland hotels offer a senior citizen discount for guests over age 60, who can book up to two rooms at a roughly 30 percent discount, depending on availability.
And, most importantly, it’s great fun to see your children’s joy reflected in your parents’ eyes.
Where to eat
Everyone complains that the food at Disneyland is expensive and unhealthy, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised, especially by the portions. You can often split meals between (or with) your children.
We tend to bring breakfast supplies and eat in the hotel room, saving money and helping us get to the parks early. We have also had good luck dining in Downtown Disney, but reservations are always a good idea. The takeout windows at Tortilla Jo’s, for Mexican, and Napolini, for Italian, are good, fast bets. Inside Disneyland, Redd Rockett’s Pizza Port near Space Mountain is good for pizza and pasta, and the Blue Bayou has a beautiful faux-outdoor setting for a sit-down meal as Pirates of the Caribbean boats float by.
We’re also big fans of the character dining options, despite the price tag. The food is decent and the one-on-one time to meet and photograph characters beats standing in line for hours in Mickey’s Toontown or at the Disney Princess Fantasy Faire. Children under age 3 eat free – just make sure to mention your child’s age and ask for the “infant” options on the menu – and AAA members get a 10 percent discount. Ariel’s Grotto in California Adventure, a three-course sit-down meal, is a thrill for princess-loving girls, and Goofy’s Kitchen in the Disneyland Hotel is a great place to dine with characters without having to pay to enter the parks. Make sure to make reservations, up to 60 days in advance.
After two trips to Disneyland in two years, perhaps my best advice is to remember that when you’re traveling with kids, not everything will go according to plan, even the best-laid one. Maybe your daughter won’t want to take a picture with Mickey Mouse, after talking about it for months. Maybe your son will want to go to the LEGO Store, every single day.
Just roll with it. It’s hard not to have a good time at the “Happiest Place on Earth.”
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent and mother of two.
- We tried out Rider Switch for the first time and liked it even better than FastPass. For big rides you want to check out without your kids, one or two adults can stay with the kids while the other parent (or rest of the group) waits in line and rides. The adults who waited can return at any time with a Rider Switch pass and enter through the FastPass or disabled entrance. There are no signs about Rider Switch. Just ask the employee at the front of the line for pass.
- If you’re traveling with a baby, keep an eye out for the Baby Care Centers (located near the Plaza Inn in Disneyland and the Mission Tortilla Factory in California Adventure), which have quiet nursing areas, child-sized potties, formula and other supplies.
- If you don’t want to haul little ones to the park for fireworks after dark, you might be able to view the show from your Disneyland hotel. Make sure to turn on the fireworks soundtrack on your TV.