The first time we went to Legoland last year, we set on a tight budget, making sure to cut out on extras that we didn’t need to spend on. On this trip, since Disney is a trip we put off for a long time, we splurged, doing a lot of the extras we were excited to try. After our trip I did some reflection and wanted to share where I thought it was worth saving, and where I thought it was worth splurging.
Where to Splurge
Dining Character Experiences
The character dining experiences generally have 3-4 characters that go around the room and meet with the children right at the dining table. The kids love the 1-1 interaction, and the fact that they can have conversations with them. In addition, most experiences have 1 or 2 characters that you don’t normally get to see in the park. Also, the experience can be different than what you get in the park. We attended Mickey’s Breakfast with Friends. All the characters were in surf outfits and more playful than at the park. And this is apparently the only place to see Stitch. In addition, when Ariel’s Grotto reopens, I have heard many good things about the princess experience. You get to see and interact with 4 princesses, Ariel is guaranteed, and it means you get to do it without waiting in a long line.
Tip on how to save: Attend a breakfast instead of a lunch. Breakfast is slightly cheaper, and if you are attending one outside the park, you can make reservations for before the park opens, and you don’t have to exit the park and security and re-enter.
Fantasmic and World of Color Dining Packing
Disneyland has figured out how to get you to pay extra for items in the park, and this is one of them. You will discover with their two big shows, Fantasmic and World of Color, there are several ways to see them. You can get a FastPass, you can book a dining package, or you can pray that there is an open space when it’s time for the show (good luck with that). At Disneyland we did the middle of the basic Fantasmic Dining Package, which comes with appetizer, entrée, dessert, and most importantly access to a special reserved section for viewing Fantasmic. It was close to the water, and everyone in that section had to sit on the ground. We had fantastic view of the show, the kids could see everything, and while getting up was a problem for the old bones, we discovered the next day why that was a better option. At World of Color, we got a FastPass to the show. We were sent to a slightly less desirable location, behind all the people who had better seating because they bought the dining package. However, in our section, everyone was standing, which meant none of the kids in our section could see anything. My daughter spent a lot of time on her father’s shoulders but at some point his back gave out. I had my 8 year old on my back like a piggyback ride for about ½ the show so he could see. I was aching afterward.
However, we had it better than most. Both days, we were able to walk into our area minutes before the show started, and didn’t have to sit for hours staking out a spot. That meant we got to do more in the park. I saw several people really mad to discover that the walkway is kept clear throughout the show, so since they didn’t have access to a special area, they were pushed way back to a small section that had people standing for hours already. Many were eventually denied access.
Tip on how to save: There is a dining package that includes dinner on the terrace during the show. But the price is quite steep. Getting the basic dining package gives you the same food, and good enough seating. For Fantastmic the River Belle Terrace is the cheaper of the two options. In the World of Color, both Wine Country Trattoria and Carthay Circle Restaurant are in the same price range, but Wine Country Trattoria has wine, which may be needed after a day at Disney with kids…
Honestly, at first I was dubious. It seemed to be expensive, $10 a person a day, that totaled $80 for the four of us over two days. However, it turned out to be a great timesaver. With the Max Pass we didn’t have to send one running across the park to grab the next FastPass for the group. We were able to get it digitally right where we were, often when we were standing in line for another ride. Also, because you were able to grab them right away, we were able to score four FastPasses each a day.
But that wasn’t even the best part of MaxPass. The PhotoPass was the best part. There are photographers all over both park. Normally I avoid them, but because the PhotoPass is included in the MaxPass, I scanned my pass and grabbed every picture. The photographers do this all day long. They know how to pose the kids with Spidey, or capture the face when a little girl first sees her favorite princess. Plus, you get to add all those silly pictures taken on the rides you go on. The pictures alone were worth the cost
Tip on how to save: With people that don’t do rides, or with little ones? Still worth it to buy the MaxPass for one person in the group. It’s $10 and you still get the PhotoPass. It’s cheaper than buying the PhotoPass on its own for the day.
Where to Save
Lunch in the Park – Bring it from Home
Both days we grabbed lunch and dinner in the park. Honestly, lunch was nothing to write home about, expensive, and took time because you had to wait in line and wait for it to be made. If I had to do it again, I would make sure to prepare better and make lunch to bring with us into the park. A backpack could have easily fit a few sandwiches among the snacks we had for the kids, and it would have saved us a lot of money and time.
Where to splurge: Snacks are a lot of fun in Disney and worth the treat. Sometimes it’s not vacation unless you have a Mickey shaped ice cream or a churro.
Disney Gear – Buy before you get there
We had a tight time frame and didn’t have a lot of time to go souvenir shopping. We ended up buying our Mickey/Minnie Ears and other souvenirs in the World of Disney Store, and in the park. Unless you are a collector who wants something you can only get at the park, it’s not worth it. Get your Disney gear for the little ones at home from Target or Kohl’s, and give it to them at the park. They won’t know the difference. And you will know you saved a lot of money over others.
Where to splurge: I will say that the Minnie Ears I bought were amazing in comfortable, much more so than any others I bought outside. Plus, everyone is wearing them, it’s fun to wear them in the park, it’s all part of the experience.
Hotels – Disney Good Neighbor Hotels or Similar
Disneyland only has 3 onsite resorts, but they were all $300+ a night midweek in January 😱. We stayed in the Anaheim Hotel. It claimed to be a Disney Good Neighbor hotel, but it’s not listed as one on the Disney App. But it was sleek, modern, excellent rooms with a microwave and fridge in the room, swanky bar, pool, and a block and a half for the park entrance. All this for $120 a night. A statue of Mickey was in the lounge and there was a small Disney gift shop on site. My kids didn’t even realize we weren’t in a “Disney” hotel. Plus, on the way to Disney you pass both a Denny’s and a IHOP if you want a quick breakfast to fill up before heading into the park for the day.
Where to splurge: If you are planning to do more than 3 days in the park, stay in a Disney Good Neighbor hotel to ensure you get the Magic Hour, (entrance to the parks an hour early).
Look, let’s be truthful, a trip to Disneyland for four is going to be expensive no matter how you cut it. With ticket prices close to $100 a day, the costs add up quickly. But when going on vacation it’s important to go in with a budget, and there are always ways to save. But I think it’s just as important to understand where spending that money is worth it. Sometimes it’s the experience, sometimes it’s to maximize your time, and the extra money may be worth it to you. In the end what’s most important is that you have a vacation you love and enjoy – where the entire family has fun, and you walk away knowing you have had made memories that last a lifetime.