Disney Splurge vs. Save
Fact: Disney vacations are pricey. There’s no way around it–Disney is a magical, a money-sucking pit with a castle on top. As a budget-conscious traveler, I put my skills to the test at the happiest (and possibly most expensive) place on Earth. Here’s what I found worth splurging on and when it’s better to save money at Disneyland. (Note: many of these are applicable to other Disney theme parks too.)
You’ll barely ever be there, so any cushy accommodations are basically a waste. At the end of the day Disney will have tired you out so much that you’ll be able to sleep easily, no matter how thin the walls and bedding are. We chose the cheapest hotel that was still within walking distance and never regretted it once, even though it was a glorified motel with absolutely no frills. Sure, we didn’t get the extra magic hour to enter the park early and we had to walk 10 minutes to get to the parks but it was definitely worth saving hundreds of dollars a night over onsite properties.
This one is a no-brainer. There’s no reason not to spring for the MaxPass. It’s $10 extra per person, per day and it allows you to get FastPasses right on your phone. You’ll also get all the PhotoPass photos taken of you on rides and at photo opps in the parks. Definitely a great deal for everything you get. Make sure to use your app for mobile food ordering too–more on that in a minute.
With the exception of a box of popcorn and a Dole Whip float, we didn’t snack in the parks at all. Actual meals aren’t much more than what you’d pay outside the parks, but snacks are typically pricey. You can bring small amounts of food in with you, so toss some easy-to-carry snacks in your bag.
Carry a small water bottle and look for fountains and spigots to fill up at throughout the day. In theory you can get cups of water for free at Disney, but it can be a hassle to find a restaurant that will give you one when you need it. It’s better to have water on hand and prevent those paper cups from heading to the landfill. Two places I saw water spigots are Red Rose Tavern in Fantasyland and Galactic Cafe in Tomorrowland.
This one is kind of a save and a splurge at the same time. Lunch prices are cheaper, so if you make lunch your big meal you’ll save money. But I do recommend budgeting for a nice meal at a restaurant because Disneyland food is actually really good. I expected unhealthy amusement park food, but it was far from it. The chefs are amazing with food allergies and healthy, good quality food is the rule, not the exception. If you eat at off-peak times, avoiding crowds is easy. Try a small breakfast at the hotel, a meal at 10:30 am, then another meal around 2:30, and a small dinner (try ordering ahead on the mobile app at Bengal BBQ for fast, delicious food that can be a small meal).
(The following sections may contain affiliate links)
Shopping for Disney t-shirts, ears, hats and more ahead of time can save you big time. Everything for sale in the parks is expensive compared to what you can find online before you go on Etsy, which has the best selection of tees and ears from small makers. Mouse ears are a relatively easy DIY. I made ears for me and a hat for Chad as well as Beauty and the Beast stained glass pocket tees for both of us. Chad wore a Millennium Falcon tee he bought at Maker Faire and I bought a “Paint with all the colors of the wind” tank ahead of time for $9+shipping. I also bought a secondhand tank top from Poshmark.
The parks have the entire selection of Disney pins so if you’re a collector you should definitely shop at the parks. You likely won’t find pins cheaper online after you go home. I did find pins for less at a local Comic-Con, but the selection wasn’t as broad as the parks.
As we left the park and headed to the hotel, I stopped by a convenience store for a gallon of water for the hotel. Inside, I found a ton of cheap Disney souvenirs for wayyyyy less than inside the parks. Basic Mickey and Minnie ears for $5.99, postcards for .89, etc. You could stock up on these things and save a bundle over park prices. I do admit splurging on Starbucks You are Here mug ornaments because they can only be found in the parks, but I held back from buying any other trinkets.
Spend: ParkHopper Pass
I went back and forth on this one, because it does drive up the cost of the already expensive ticket into the parks. In the end, I was so glad we did though. The first day, we did California Adventure Park (DCA) in the morning and then switched to Disneyland Park for the afternoon. We went back to see the Paint the Night parade at DCA and then made it to Fantasmic at Disneyland. It was super easy to get between the two parks and the flexibility of the ParkHopper let us experience all the rides we wanted to at one park and then go the other one for dinner.
Spend: Locker rental
It’s only $7/day, and it’s so much nicer to have a change of shoes on hand and a place to store things you’ve bought, snacks, a sweater for when it gets chilly at night…
I hope you have success with your mission to save money at Disneyland. Fellow Disnerds, am I on track with these splurge vs. save tips? What are your secrets for navigating the Disney parks?