There are a ton of articles out there on how to do Disneyland on a budget. Not only do I not think that’s entirely possible, but this isn’t one of those articles.
We gave up our annual passes when we had our third baby and our daughter started elementary school. It became less practical for us to play hooky and hit up Disneyland on a random Tuesday. So now we go once or twice a year, and we really make it worth the trip.
Disneyland is always crowded. Gone are the days when you could get lucky/wait for LAUSD to be back in school/trust that App that always says the park will either be a “ghost town” or tell you it’s so packed you just shouldn’t even bother.
It’s almost always busy and for a family of five (with a baby under 3), it costs between $772-$952 just to purchase park tickets. There’s no budget-friendly option. So if you’re going to do it, you might as well go for it and make it a really special trip. Here are my recommendations for making the most of your time at Disneyland, whether you’re local or traveling.
Because one thing no one tells you about parenthood? Taking little kids to Disney is really fudging hard. Paying for some extra conveniences and taking your time makes it so much more enjoyable.
1. Stay at the Disneyland Hotel. We picked up our kids from school on Friday with the car all packed and ready to go and drove to the Disneyland Hotel. We valet parked, had our bags brought to the room, explored Downtown Disney and had dinner at Catal*.
We used to stay at the Grand Californian Hotel because it’s supposed to be the nicer of the two. It’s definitely more expensive, but after the Disneyland Hotel’s renovation, our family thinks the rooms are nicer, newer, and much bigger, and the pool is SO much better for little kids. They have a few waterslides for toddlers on up to big kids, and you can order lunch and drinks by the pool. The room service menus and food quality seem similar and they have the same “Princess Bedtime Stories” on their television programming. The only thing the Disneyland Hotel is missing in an espresso machine, but you can get your latte at the coffee shop by the pool.
Both hotels have little stores where you can get everything you need for little kids: milk, snacks, baby wipes, pool toys, wine. Oh, that last one was for me.
When you stay at a Disneyland property, you get access to the “Magic Hour“, which means if the park opens at 9 am, you get to go in at 8 am and get on a ton of rides. We stayed for two nights and did Disneyland on Saturday and California Adventure on Sunday. At the end of our day on Sunday, we had a nice early sit-down dinner, walked back to our hotel (we had checked out and had them hold our bags), had the car pulled up to the valet, and left for home.
The kids had a full day and full tummies, and we had the convenience of the hotel amenities, including being able to nap our baby in the room until we checked out.
*our favorite Disney restaurants below!
2. Download the Disneyland App on Your Phone. When you enter the park, purchase the MaxPass for $10 per person per day. It allows you to reserve your Fast Passes on your phone. You still only get one a time, but you don’t have to run across the park to the ride you want to go on, only to have to wait two hours until it’s time for your Fast Pass. We had MaxPasses for Splash Mountain and the ride broke down. Our Fast Pass turned into a “multiple experience” pass and we were able to go on The Haunted Mansion, which had previously been “sold out” of Fast Passes for the day. When Splash Mountain opened up, our passes on the app still said “Multiple Experiences” and we were able to use them again to ride Splash Mountain.
We were able to get on more rides this trip than ever before and I think it was a combination of making the Magic Hour from our two-night hotel stay, and using the Max Pass.
Disney MaxPass on the Disneyland App
3. Divide and Conquer. Baby Shep isn’t tall enough to ride the “big kid” rides, and there are a few rides that one of our big kids likes and the other doesn’t. We had never really utilized the “Rider Switch” program, but with three kiddos, we do now. One of us will take the baby on a ride with no height restrictions (or he’s happy to just get a snack and run around a bit), while the other takes the older kids on their ride. Then, we’ll use the Rider Switch pass (which you have to ask for as you’re entering the ride, and you come back at a designated time, like a bonus Fast Pass. The Rider Switch Pass will then get the other parent (and the big kids!) back on the ride without waiting in the long line. Our kids love it because they get to do their favorite rides twice.
*Polite AF Tip: after we put the kids to bed, if we have the energy, grandma doesn’t mind staying in our adjoining hotel rooms with the kids while my husband and I go have a drink or hit up the few rides our kids aren’t big enough to go on. When you’re going once per year, you might as well make the most of the trip! Parent’s deserve to have fun, too!
4. Take a nice break for lunch and dinner. We aren’t really “power through” type of people. We’ll spend the whole day, but we like the sit-down restaurants. Top of our lists for each park and Downtown Disney are: (you need advance reservations for all of these. I’d recommend booking a month out, if you can)
1. Napa Rose at the Grand Californian Hotel. Fine dining in a casual atmosphere and they’re great with kids. Amazing wine list and cocktails.
2. Catal. This is our backup for when we can’t get reservations at Napa Rose (they book up quickly). Catal always has a reservation available and they have a super cute balcony that overlooks Downtown Disney.
The balcony at Catal
3. Ralph Brannan’s Jazz Kitchen. We had always walked past this restaurant and never went in until last year. The food is really, really good, and they have live jazz music to entertain the kids!
1. Carnation Cafe. This is at the front of the park on Main Street and it’s just really, really good if you’re looking for sit-down service. It’s casual and pretty quick and has excellent lunch food.
2. Blue Bayou. Honestly, it’s hard to get reservations. It’s inside Pirates of the Carribean and it’s beautiful and definitely something to see. But I don’t love the food. (Could be because I’m a vegetarian and they don’t have great options for me…but it sort of smells like a cafeteria…but I’d still go…)
1. Carthay Circle. This restaurant is beautiful. You can sit on the balcony during the parade for dinner and watch the whole thing go by. The food is supposed to be fine dining, but it doesn’t compare to Napa Rose. The California Wine Trattoria is much more casual than Carthay Circle, but the food is so much better. We go back to Carthay Circle for the drinks and the experience, but we can’t say we’ve loved the food.
2. California Wine Trattoria. We love this place. It’s casual, but the food is really good (Italian) and they have an excellent wine list — hello, Caymus! They did this little Mickey birthday cake for our daughter’s birthday:
What are your favorite Disneyland tips?