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Disneyland on a Budget: How This Single Mom Does It On One Income
I heart Disneyland. Being a kid at heart, my family and I have escaped to The Happiest Place on Earth numerous times during my "high salary" days and we manage to do it on a budget every time (after all I still gotta make sure my mortgage is paid and I have food on the table!) We are planning our next trip (the first in 1 ½ years on my "took-a-pay-cut-so-I-can-work-from-home" salary" ), but I plan on using all the money saving tips that have worked for me in the past as I continue to live on one income (high salary or not):
- Plan, Plan, Plan. To save the most amount of money you need to plan ahead. A big trip like this needs about 6 months to 1 year ahead of time, giving you enough time to set money aside and research all options.
- Research, Research, Research. Our past Disneyland trips have either been purchased through an AAA Disney Package deal, or by reserving a hotel separately and purchasing the tickets at the gate - whichever is cheaper. I've found that purchasing my airfare (when not driving) was always cheaper than including it in a package deal. In all the times I've researched options (60+ times over a 15 year period) I've generally found the Disneyland.com travel deals slightly higher than a comparable AAA deal. Talk with other parents in your area who've made the trek and see what worked for them. What amazed me most about asking around is finding out how many parents simply went online to one website and booked their vacation without doing a lot of legwork.
- Be Flexible. Over a 15 year period we've been to Disneyland & California Adventure Land in March, April, June, July, November and December. We most enjoyed our visits during the March and April months. Southern California in March and April is still warm enough for us to enjoy Disneyland in the evenings with the kids clothed in long sleeve shirts and hoodies, and it only rained on our parade once out of the 3 trips we took during these months. June and July were crowded and extremely hot. November (Thanksgiving break) and December (Christmas Eve) was even more crowded during the holiday periods.To stay flexible I let the kids miss a day of school when they were in grades K-2 so we could enjoy the park when the crowds were at its smallest.
- Souvenirs and Toys. During trip-planning mode I keep a keen eye open for Disney-themed items. Before we leave for our trip, I assemble "Disney Fun Kits" made of Disney-themed items placed in a small easy-to-carry bag. Most items are from grocery and dollar stores. For the young ones, kits have usually included an autograph book and pen, notebook, markers, lip balm, fruit snacks, jewelry, hair accessories, etc. - all Disney-themed. As my kids reach teen and college ages I usually omit the autograph book and hair accessories, but still include cute Disney-themed notebooks, pens, lip balm and a few Disney dollars purchased at the Disney Store at a nearby mall. Once I even threw in a camera and film, both found at the dollar store. On the first day at Disneyland, I give the Kits out right before we hit Main Street in an attempt to curb the IWTs ("I want that!") My rule: they are limited to one souvenir under $20 that is purchased on the last day of our Disney excursion. This curbs the IWTs every time we enter a store, since they are using the time to window shop and decide on what they may want at the end of our stay. They use the notebooks and pens provided in their Kits to make note of all their possible souvenir choices and prices, so they can keep to the $20 budget.
Another cheap souvenir option that my kids do every time we've visited: the penny machines found everywhere throughout the park. For 51¢ (2 quarters for using the machine + the penny itself), we get a mini-picture flattened on the penny that my kids collect and place in their Disney Kits as we explore the park.
For the car or plane trips I usually pack a coloring book and crayons for the young ones, a couple of DVDs + our portable player, and for the older kids they usually pack their iPod or hand-held games.
- Drive or Fly? I live in Northern California so Disneyland is about 5-6 hours away by car and about 3.5 hours by plane (taking into consideration airport check-in times, the 1 hour flight, waiting for baggage + drive time to the hotel, etc.) I have always considered both options and have actually done both depending on the price of gas and what I score on Southwest Airlines. (I have purchased multiple flights several times at the web promo price and it came out cheaper than loading all in the car and buying gas for the trip.) It always pays to check both options, especially now when gas prices are over $4 per gallon.
An article in AAA's Via magazine once stated that it was actually easier and faster to drive vs. fly if: 1) you were traveling with small kids that required car seats, and 2) your destination was between the SF Bay Area and the LA area. I speak from experience when I say I AGREE! Lugging small kids, a bulky car seat & luggage through airports is no small feat, and I have to say I was more exhausted once we reached the hotel after flying than I was driving. When the kids are that small, it was much easier for me to drive as it allowed more flexibility to pull over and let the kids run around, have a snack, as well as let the kids take naps in the car during our road trip. When driving, I started our drive very early in the morning (5am-ish) so they would still be sleeping for the majority of our road trip. If we flew, we were usually at the mercy of the flight times still available when I purchased tickets at the web promo prices.
- Hotels: Disneyland Hotel or a Surrounding Hotel? We've done both options. My goal is to experience all 3 Disney hotels. We've stayed at Paradise Pier thus far and am aiming for the Disneyland Hotel and the Grand California, but it will only happen if I can score a great deal like I did on Paradise Pier. We're in no hurry. 99% of our other visits have been at one of the surrounding hotels. Of those surrounding hotels, all were booked at $85/night or less, all were clean with pools, over ¾ served a complimentary hearty continental breakfast (no donuts and watered down juice!), and over ¾ of the rooms we stayed in had a microwave and fridge. I found the travel websites that included customer comments very helpful.
- Car Rentals? A long time ago, when I still drove my college clunker, I rented a car for me and my (then only one) child. Gas was waaay cheaper then and it actually saved me money than taking my old gas guzzler down south. Now, with a reliable economy car, I rarely rent a car if I choose to drive. If we fly, my oldest, who is now going to college in Southern California, picks us up from the airport and we all drive to the hotel together to begin our family vacation.
- Food & Meals. When driving, we always pack enough food for both the road trip and our hotel. If our hotel has a microwave and fridge I pack our cooler with milk, cheese, sandwich meat, boiled eggs, fruits, veggies. We also bring along bread, instant oatmeal and soups, home baked cookies, hot cocoa, bottled water, my fave coffee and a one-serving coffee press, plus "fun" foods I usually don't allow in their daily diet: chips, soda, dip, candy. We are, after all, on vacation. =)
We have breakfast before entering the Magic Kingdom taking advantage of the hotel's free continental breakfast, or we have instant oatmeal using the hot water from the coffee pot, some fruit and hard boiled eggs. For lunch we usually head back to the hotel to make sandwiches and take a much-needed break. We have our dinner in Disneyland or in Downtown Disney. Our treat is limited to one meal in the Happiest Place on Earth. Snacks and water are packed in a backpack and doled out during the day.
If we fly, or our hotel does not have a fridge or microwave, then we limit perishables to those that can fit in the hotel ice bucket or our small cooler that we replenish with ice daily. We drive to a local grocery store to pick up groceries that can survive in a cooler or can be made easy in our hotel room (you can find stores the locals use on the outskirts of the tourist area, about 3-4 blocks away.)
- What else? It goes without saying, but don't forget to pack sunscreen, batteries and extra memory cards for your camera, any medications (OTC and prescribed) and a mini first aid kit. You'll pay dearly if you decide to purchase these items at the park.
- Contingency Plan. Only once during one of our many trips did we experience a downpour as we walked into the park (a long ways from our hotel room.) Rather then head back to the hotel, I opted to purchase rain ponchos for $8 each from the Disney Store in Downtown Disney. We plan to bring these with us for future non-summer Disney trips. Occasionally, the smell of churros and popcorn, or the sight of refreshing ice-cream lured me to open my wallet and treat myself and my kids to these expensive snacks. It's okay. Allow yourself some leeway, especially if your careful planning saved you on transportation, lodging and food. You're on vacation! As long as you keep your splurging to a minimum, a few small unplanned extravagances only adds to the fun of your vacation and the time spent with your family.
Good luck in your Disney planning adventure, and safe travels!