Disneyland is a splurge, no matter how you do it. With daily tickets averaging around $104 (for a Tuesday in May) and $164 (for a summer Saturday), plus a $30 parking fee, and a $60 upgrade if you plan on hopping over to California Adventure as well, you’re bound to make a dent in the piggy bank regardless of how well you prepare.
However, once you’re in the park, there are definitely ways to save, or splurge, depending on how much pocket-money you brought along.
For my family, the biggest factor was the age of our children. During our most recent trip, my son was a few days shy of his third birthday. Which meant that he, and his younger brother, got to enter the park for free. Considering the daily admissions price, this is a huge win, and is really the only reason why we’ve been to Disneyland so many times in the past two years.
But lest you think I was super budget-friendly this time around, it’s important to note that I also spent a whopping $15 on lollipops ($5 a pop, plus an extra $5 when one of them shattered upon opening). But that’s the joy of vacation–you get to choose where you save, and where you splurge. And hopefully, if you too have a Disney trip in the books, the rest of this post will help you make some of those choices a little easier.
Genie, Genie+, and Lightening Lane Upgrades
If you’ve spent any time looking into Disney’s Genie+ system, you might feel like you need a doctorate to decode whether it’s worth the splurge. And if so, you’re not alone. I actually took two whole trips to Disneyland before I even attempted to figure out the Genie system (which is the updated version of the FastPass system–a perk that allows park-goers to cut long lines on popular rides). While I still refrained from purchasing any of the upgrades during our most recent trip, I did finally do the research, and have a much better idea of how, and when, I plan on using Genie +, and Lightening Lane in the future.
Regardless of whether you want to purchase Genie+ or Lightening Lane passes, I would always recommend downloading the Disneyland App and setting up a Genie itinerary for your trip. I found the itinerary helpful, as it allowed me to plan my day around my “must see” attractions, and provided me with details like height requirements for certain rides (which were crucial, considering we were attending for our exactly 38-inch-tall child’s birthday).
The app also shows wait times for rides—so you don’t have to arrive at the Haunted Mansion with a newly potty-trained two-year-old in tow, only to find that he’ll have to wait an hour (and definitely pee his pants) before making it to the front of the line…
You can also purchase the Genie+ service via the Disneyland app, if you so choose. The Genie+ feature is an additional $20 charge (per ticket), but allows you to “cut the line” (via the Lightening Lane) at a variety of attractions. Before you get too excited, however, there are some stipulations. First, you can only reserve lightening lane for one ride at a time, and you have to do so in advance. That means you can’t just show up at Space Mountain and immediately cut to the front. Instead, the app will offer you a time, which is when you’ll be expected to show up and move to the front of the queue.
Many of the most popular rides are included in Genie+, including Haunted Mansion, Splash Mountain, and Smugglers Run. The full list can be found here.
It’s important to note that the park’s most popular rides—Rise of the Resistance, Radiator Springs Racers, and Web Slingers—are not included in Genie+. Lightening Lane passes for these rides can be purchased a la carte. So, when you’re determining which pass to buy, it’s a good idea to consider which rides are on your “must” list, and how many of them are included in Genie+, vs. the individual Lightening Lane tickets.
When my family visited the park last week, we did so with a 5-year-old, 3-year-old, and 11-month-old in tow. We knew in advance that our most anticipated rides were Dumbo, the teacups, Alice in Wonderland, and the carousel—none of which are popular enough to have Lightening Lane entrances. We also live about 30 minutes from the park entrance, and were able to arrive before rope-drop. Because of this, we got on a few of the more popular rides—specifically Haunted Mansion and Smugglers Run—before 9am. Lines this early in the morning are much shorter, and while the Lightening Lane still would have been faster, the wait wasn’t nearly as painful as it would have been in the afternoon.
However, as my kids age up, and become more interested in “bigger” rides, I definitely plan on purchasing the Genie+ service. The Lightening Lane lines, especially in the afternoon, were way shorter than the main queues, and I think the $20 fee is definitely worth the 3 or 4 extra rides we’d have time for if our wait time was cut in half.
Meals & Snacks
If you’re going to Disneyland with littles, pack as many of your own snacks as you can. Even if your kids are stroller-bound, they’re going to be expending a lot of energy, and are likely to be hungry more often than you’d think. There are a variety of snack offerings throughout the park, but much of it is overpriced, and almost all of it is unhealthy (although shout-out to the mango slices outside of It’s A Small World). For my own family’s trip, I packed everything from baby pouches, to frozen yogurt tubes, to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we ate almost all of it before 11 am.
If you do plan on eating out, most of my favorite restaurants are located in Star Wars Land. While there isn’t as much outdoor seating here (which I prefer with small children), most of the food can be eaten on-the-go, or while strapped into a stroller.
In Star Wars Land, Ronto Roasters is my number one recommendation. They sell pretty amazing pita wraps, at relatively affordable (for Disneyland) prices ($7-$13). I also like Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo, where I got a truly delicious falafel salad. Entrees here run between $12 and $20. Outside of Star Wars Land, we’ve also eaten at, and enjoyed, the Royal Street Veranda. This one has plenty of outdoor seating, and sells pretty stellar gumbo in a bread bowl for $12.
All of these restaurants offer an order-ahead option via the Disneyland app, which is super convenient for the parents of impatient (and hangry) little ones.
Despite all the great dining options at Disneyland, I’ve come to accept the fact that my kids just aren’t that great at transitioning from Splash Mountain to a quiet lunch table. So next time we go, I plan on skipping the restaurants entirely and opting for an on-the-go turkey leg ($12 at stands throughout the park), and either a Dole Whip ($5) or a Mickey Beignet ($9 for a pack of 6) from the Mint Julep Bar. Since my kids have never expressed great enthusiasm over their previous Disney meals, in the future, I plan on packing their lunches. And perhaps surprising them with an ice cream cone on the way out.
My number one recommendation to anyone visiting Disneyland with kids is always the bubble wand. They’re sold at stands throughout the park and cost a whopping $30. Even though that price is absurd for a piece of plastic filled with soap, I promise, it’s worth it. Both of my “big kids” (5 and 3) had a blast spraying bubbles all over themselves, each other, and whoever else was around us in line. Our bubble wands have also proven to be surprisingly durable, and just recently made it through their third trip to the park.
This might be a hot-take, but I do not recommend the mouse ears. As cute as they are, they’ll cost you about $30, and you’ll likely never wear them outside of the park. I also found the headband to be wildly uncomfortable–as did my daughter, who took hers off after about 10 minutes of wear. They do make for a cute picture though…
Sweatshirts & Apparel
I’ve always found the Disney apparel incredibly tempting. After all, I love a touristy t-shirt—especially if it’s extra cheesy. However, I’ve often found that the selection at Disneyland itself is picked-over, and over-priced. Recently, I spent some time poking around the internet, and found some much cuter, not to mention more affordable, Disneyland garb, from smaller sellers. So if you’re looking to sport some Disneyland gear at the park, I recommend looking online before you go, and saving yourself the headache that will inevitably result from braving the Main Street Emporium on a packed afternoon.
My family lives within driving distance to Disneyland, so we’ve never stayed on property, or nearby. However, if you’re coming from out-of-town, it may be helpful to know that, unlike at Disney World in Orlando, there are a variety of off-property hotels that are still within walking distance of Disneyland’s front gates.
First, the Courtyard Marriot Theme Park Entrance is about 5-10 minutes from the Disneyland entrance, and even has its own water park on-site. Rooms run around $350-$450 per night. The Hilton Anaheim is also nearby, and offers shuttle service to the park. Rates are more affordable, at around $200 per night.
If you’re looking to splurge on lodging, all three of the on-property Disneyland hotels have good reputations. Weekend rooms at the swanky Grand Californian run around $750 per night, The Disneyland Hotel is around $600, and The Paradise Pier Hotel is slightly more budget-friendly, at about $450 per night. All of the hotels have restaurants, and pools, and are walking distance (or monorail accessible) to Downtown Disney, as well as both Disneyland, and California Adventure.
Regardless of what you choose to spend money on at Disneyland, I guarantee that the best part will be the look on your kid’s face when they ride their first rollercoaster, or see a favorite character come to life. I hope you soak it all in, enjoy the ride, and remember that the magic of the day (yes, including the inevitable meltdowns) is truly priceless.
Want to see what a day at Disney is like for Katherine’s family? Head over to our Instagram and watch her Contributor Takeover highlight here!
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