I'm all for saving money at every step possible when visiting the wallet-emptying vacation spot known as Disneyland. Too often, I've sacrificed convenience for saving money.
While my family's frugality has saved us money on our Disneyland trips that have in part helped make the vacation more affordable, in some ways it has cost us in other ways — time and better experiences. Some splurges are worthwhile.
We took a short trip to the Anaheim, Calif., resort this weekend during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, taking our daughter out of school for two days so we could turn it into a long weekend and hopefully enjoy smaller crowds. I'm writing this post ahead of our trip, so by the time this post runs I'll be safely home with a credit card bill awaiting.
Our daughter is 11, and this will be her fourth family trip to Disneyland. Looking at that now, I realize that's a lot of visits, but it is the happiest place on Earth.
I've always thought that after spending about $90 per day per person just to get into one of the parks is so high of a cost that it's imperative that we save money in other ways. While I'm not throwing out all of the financial stops on this trip, there are some high expenses I'm willing to indulge this time because they look to be worthwhile.
Here are some of the ways we're spending more more money, along with frugal ways to help save money so we can afford these extravagances:
Lunch with pirates
I've always noticed the Blue Bayou restaurant inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and thought it would be fun to have dinner there. The dining area is part of the scenery at the start of the ride, and I imagine it almost feels as if you're part of the cast when dining there.
I've mentioned it to my wife and daughter on our last trip, and both thought it would be fun.
Then I looked up the dinner prices. I couldn't see us getting out of there for less than $150. Dinner entrees run $30 to $60 per adult. But lunch and breakfast, according to Disneyland's dining guide, "generally cost less," so I'm hoping we can spend $100 or less on lunch for the three of us.
Paying for a good seat
We're only spending one day at each park (another frugal lesson), so using our time wisely is important. This time, we're buying a dinner package so we can see an outdoor show that was too crowded to see from our seats the last time we were there.
Three years ago, we tried to see World of Color at Disneyland California Adventure Park. The show is free with admission, but a Fast Pass is recommended to get the best view.
We arrived at the park early and got our Fast Passes, but an hour before the first evening show started, the passes still didn't get us a good area to watch from. We were at the back of the crowd, and holding my then 8-year-old up was difficult and we really didn't see anything from our standing area. All of the reserved viewing areas are for standing only.
I vowed to pay whatever it cost the next time so we could see the show. This time we've reserved a dining package, which basically means we'll be paying $150 or so to eat dinner and then get a World of Color voucher that will let us into a closer area to stand for an hour before the show starts.
Those are the two main extra "experiences" we're buying to hopefully make the trip more enjoyable and give us memories we won't forget. But there are some extras we're not buying, though many would save time and make the trip easier. They include:
Driving instead of flying
This is a big cost saver, even though it's about 400 miles from our home in the Bay Area. Three plane tickets would cost about $500 or so, and we'd need to rent a car for a few days at about $50 per day. Instead that car rental fee will pay for our gas and we'll save $500 by not flying.
Of course, we'll spend two whole days driving south and back, eating up valuable vacation time in a car. Consider in a character-building exercise for the kid.
No Disneyland hotel
I've always wanted to stay at a Disneyland hotel, mainly because of the convenience of being practically inside the park and within a short walk of the rides. Walking to our hotel room for a mandatory afternoon break sounds like a great time saver. But the nightly price of $400 or so has always turned me off.
Instead, we're staying at an Embassy Suites hotel about a mile away, requiring the hassle of a free shuttle ride or a paid taxi or Lyft ride to Disneyland. And then there's the late night scrum to wait for a shuttle home to our hotel as the parks close. Not fun, but saving at least $250 per night, which will more than pay for our meals.
Our afternoon breaks from the Disneyland crowds will have to take a little more time, but I think it's worth the savings.
We did get one free night at our hotel through our credit card rewards program, saving us about $130. We have a credit card that gives us reward points in free hotel stays, so we could have booked free rooms for this entire trip. But the room was so inexpensive that we opted to pay for two nights and only use one free night, allowing us to save the free hotel stays for another vacation.
No parkhopper passes
In past visits we've bought parkhopper passes that allow visitors to go between both parks in the same day. This add-on costs about $40 more per ticket, and can be worth it when you want to get out of crowded Disneyland and go to the less crowded California Adventure Park for a few hours.
We're not doing that this year, mainly because paying $120 more for three tickets seems like a waste of money because we'll only be there for two days.
That's another change we're making for this trip — two days instead of three. Mentally, my wife and I can handle two days at the parks, though I can sometimes push myself to almost three if I can find enough benches to sit at. But an extra day costs $150 more for the three of us, and throw in another $120 for the ability to go between parks in the same day, and we've got $270 more in expenses. No thanks.
Free breakfast and happy hour
Buying lunch and dinner in the parks is expensive, but it can be a worthwhile cost, I think, when you consider your time. Time equates to money during vacation, meaning you only have so much time and you want to make the most of it instead of trying to save money at every turn with frugal savings that take up more time than they're worth.
Take my hotel and transportation choices, for example. Both cost less but we'll spend more time doing these money-saving methods than we would by flying and staying at a Disneyland hotel.
But those costs would add up to about $1,000 for our two-day visit ($500 savings by not flying and $500 more by not staying in a Disneyland hotel) and two days of driving. I think that cost is worth the extra time we're giving up.
But back to my point of food costs. We planned this trip with the expectation of buying most of our meals inside the parks. But there's one small savings I'm hanging onto: free breakfast at Embassy Suites.
The hotel offers a made-to-order breakfast, which I plan on getting up early enough to eat before we head to the park in the morning.
And another benefit, if we time our afternoon break well enough, is a free happy hour at the hotel with drinks/snacks. I'm not so concerned about that savings, but the others add up to about $1,300, which should more than pay for our lunch at Blue Bayou and dinner and World of Color vouchers.
It's not adding up to be a free trip, obviously. I'm not trying to completely justify the extra expenses by saving money on hotel and flights, but it is a good feeling to be saving such a hefty amount of money on a short trip.
Update: Read a followup post I wrote about how worthwhile these two splurges were.