Disneyland. The Happiest Place on Earth. The sound of the Disneyland Railroad steam whistle piercing the air. The wind blowing through your hair as you plunge into the darkness of Space Mountain. The aroma of popcorn as you stroll down Main Street U.S.A. The Magic Kingdom.
Oh, and the crowds packed shoulder to shoulder in the summer heat waiting to see a parade, seemingly endless lines for a minute-long ride, paying $12 for a fast-food hamburger and soda and screaming children because they can’t have that Mickey Mouse shaped balloon that will float out of their hands shortly after you spend far too much money on it.
Let’s face it, summer is not the best time to visit one of the biggest tourist draws in the world, but if you live in California, you may not have a choice; you may have to visit the Disneyland resort while the kids are out of school.
But just because it is the busiest time of the year at the park, though, does not mean you can’t have a good time.
My best friend and I are Disneyland fanatics. We go multiple times a year. We often come up with ideas to move closer to the park so we can go even more. We read Disneyland history, watch Disneyland documentaries and learn all the random facts we can. We know the ins and outs of the park and we know tricks to take full advantage of Fast Passes to get on rides quicker. We’re a little crazy. But we also know how to plan a trip on short notice and save a lot of money.
The thing that saves us the most money is that we get into the park for free and I can tell you how to do that.
Here are my tips to help you plan your Disneyland vacation.
Picking a day
As mentioned before, the summer months are the busiest and no day of the week is a “good” day, but there are days that are better than others. Average attendance rates show that Tuesday through Thursday are the least busy days at the parks. Friday is bad. Attendance on Saturday is often twice that of Sunday. During summer vacation you will still be shoulder to shoulder with people no matter what day you choose, but the middle of the week is your best bet. Weekdays also have another perk: cheaper hotel rates.
Booking a hotel
Booking a hotel is often the trickiest part of the pre-vacation preparations. What’s a good price? What’s the best way to book a room? Which hotels don’t have bedbugs? All great questions.
Summertime brings demand, and with demand comes higher prices. Step one – DON’T CALL THE HOTEL. Calling the hotel directly with no research will give you the highest price and you’ll have a much lighter wallet. After not calling the hotel do some research online. There are plenty of popular and reliable websites that offer discounted hotel rates. Kayak.com will allow you to search for a hotel and compare prices for the same hotel on all the major discount websites.
Read the reviews and check the proximity to the park. Also check if they have a shuttle to the resort to save yourself parking fees — and your feet at the end of the day if you’re within walking distance.
Once you’ve found a hotel online you like DON’T BOOK IT. Check out the hotel’s own reservation website. Sometimes they have even lower prices. Now call the hotel. But don’t talk to the reservation desk. They can’t help you. Talk to the hotel manager and negotiate a price starting at the online rate. According to a radio financial guru, 80 percent of people who attempt to negotiate hotel costs are successful.
Treat it like you’re trying to knock off a quarter from that 1970s lamp at a garage sale. Don’t be rude and aggressive.
If negotiating fails, hang up and book online or wherever the cheapest price is offered.
Staying in the surrounding cities will also save you money. Fullerton is a 10-minute drive and can save you loads of money — money you can spend on the most expensive part of the trip ...
Tickets to the park are expensive and there is not a whole lot that can be done about it. The cheapest ticket is the one-day, one-one park ticket for a child age 3 to 9 and that will still run you $68. The adult equivalent is $76. It’s not a large sum of money for a single person, but with a large family it will add up quickly.
And chances are you aren’t going for just one day. Your family is probably going for two days, three days, maybe even five days. And the park hopper ticket, which allows you to go between both Disneyland Park and Disney’s California Adventure, is best way to get the full resort experience. It’s also the more expensive option.
So what do you do? Spend the money. That’s about all you can do. The prices are what they are. You can save money by buying longer stays — a 3-day hopper is $186 and a 6-day hopper is only $30 more — but saving money by going to the parks for more days leads to bigger hotel bills.
If you are part of a credit union, organizations like AARP, or companies like AAA, check with them. They may offer a discounted ticket.
But the most effective way of saving money is an Annual Passport. In January I purchased a Premium Passport at a heavy investment of $459. A lot of money up front, but I’ve gone to the park enough times this year already that the pass has paid for itself. Every time I enter the parks for the rest of the year it is essentially free of charge. I also save 20 percent on merchandise, 10-20 percent on food and parking is free. The Premium Passport is also free of the blackout dates that come with the less expensive passports.
So if you are a small family or just a couple who plan to go to Disneyland multiple times during the year, buy passports to save money in the long run.
Inside the park
So the hotel is booked, the tickets are paid for, the kids packed in the back of the wagon and you’re on your way. Now the question is what can you do to keep Disneyland the Happiest Place on Earth while you’re there with your family.
• Bring snacks — The great thing about Disneyland is that as long as you don’t have glass bottles and hand grenades you can bring in pretty much anything you want. So save some money by having your own snacks and skip those $3.50 bottles of soda and $9 dipped apples.
• Take a break — The best thing you can do for your family is taking a break midway through the day. You’re going to get tired and you’re going to get irritable. The kids are going to cry and you’ll be the family other park guests look at and say “Looks like they’re enjoying the ‘Happiest Place on Earth.” You don’t want that. Go back to the hotel in the afternoon for a two-hour nap. You’ll thank yourself when you head back to the park completely reenergized.
• Fast Passes — What I’m about to share with you are tips that for some reason, after more than a decade of Disneyland offering Fast Passes, a lot of guests still don’t know.
First off, what is a Fast Pass? As you enter queues at Disneyland you’ll often notice two lines: Standby and Fast Pass. The Fast Pass line is much, much shorter. To get in this line you go to an attraction’s Fast Pass kiosk and insert your park ticket into a machine that spits out a Fast Pass with your original ticket. The pass has a one-hour time frame listed that allows you to stand in a shorter line for the designated attraction. At the bottom of the ticket is another time listed. That time is when you can scan your park ticket again for another Fast Pass.
This first tip is more well known by people but there are still some that have missed this — you can have multiple Fast Passes at once. Some assume that once you have a Fast Pass in hand you can’t get another one until the initial Fast Pass has been used. Not true. The only limitation is you can’t have multiple passes for the same hour. So I can’t have a pass for Space Mountain for 12 to 1 p.m. and Indiana Jones Adventure for 12 to 1 p.m. But I can have passes for 12 to 1p.m. and 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.
Now here is the big Fast Pass tip. Regulars know it. Others don’t.
You don’t have to use the Fast Pass during the designated hour. You can use it anytime after the first time listed. A pass for 9 to 10 a.m. can be used at 6:30 p.m. What we always do is build up Fast Passes in the morning and use them in the late afternoon and evening when the park is much more busy. Rarely, and when I say “rarely” I mean it’s never happened to me, have the cast members collecting the Fast Passes at the start of the queue enforced the time.
Those are the tools you need to plan a trip to Disneyland and save yourself some money and stress. But the most important thing you can do is remember it’s vacation. Let the kids be loud and play. Put that diet behind you for a few days and eat some junk food. Stay up late and let the kids ride the Jungle Cruise until they fall asleep standing in line. Be spontaneous. Dance with the Mad Hatter and give Goofy a pat on the back.