10 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Disneyland Dollar

Our family recently went to he happiest place on earth. I'm not a Disney fanatic or anything but I grew up in Southern California, so Disneyland is just a thing you do. You know. For the kids. But let's face it, it's hard not to fall under the spell of all that fantasy and wide-eyed magic. There's always a little something for everyone, whether it's the nostalgia of practically throwing up on the teacups or the breathless terror of jolting halfway to your death on Space Mountain.

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A trip to Disneyland can also incite a whole other kind of wonder. The wonder of where the hell did all those zeroes in my bank account go. Disney is expensive. And while some of it is worth it, other things are just the result of poor decision making. The kind that happens when exhausted, hungry parents meet toddler tantrum number four and tears ensue. 

If you haven't been to Disneyland in awhile or you're newbies (Do those still exist? Who are those people?), I'd like to give you a few tips. Tips I have sacrificed my sanity and my fiscal responsibility to learn so you don't have to.

Learn from my mistakes, friends and level up. Your wallet will thank you.

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1. You Can't Do it All in A Day

Disneyland has this thing called California Adventure now, so it's basically two parks in one. And like Rome, it can't be conquered in a day. Don't get me wrong- it's totally worth it. Just know that you need to get a Park Hopper Pass and spend at least three days to do this right. This is especially true if you've got younger kids and lots of little legs. 500 acres of packed park is no small feat to navigate when you just learned to walk a year or two ago.

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2. Leave the Littles at Home

Which brings me to my next point. Don't bring the littlest ones if you don't have to. In terms of getting your money's worth, I wouldn't take anyone younger than five through those iconic gates. I get it- sometimes you gotta drag the littles along because there's no other choice. If you do have young ones, the best areas of the park geared towards younger kids are Mickey's Toontown in Disneyland and A Bug's Land in California Adventure. 

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3. Mousewait is Marevlous. Use it.

Download it already. You can see wait times as reported by actual park guests, get updated status for rides, and see current FASTPASS wait times as well as the overall park crowd index. It'll help you organize and prioritize so you can make the most of your time. Mousewait even lets you sort by dining spots, create customized views for your favorite attractions, and set alerts. Just note that it isn't an actual Disney app and if there aren't many users in the park on a particular day, it may be less accurate.

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4. FASTPASS it All the Way to the Bank

Learn the rules of FASTPASS and exploit the hell out of them. This is the single most important strategy that will get you on the most rides in the least amount of time. A few quick tips:

  • One at a time: You can only hold one FASTPASS at a time. When you've used it, you can pick up a new one. So the rule here is ALWAYS be in possession of a FASTPASS for something. 
  • Every two hours: After two hours, even if you haven't used your other FASTPASS, you can get another one. This helps with rides like Radiator Springs, where even the FASTPASS wait times get ridiculously long.
  • There is one exception: The World of Color FASTPASS doesn't count against you, so you can hold that one at the same time as another one. And you should, because it gets you priority seating and the ability to actually view the show. The World of Color water show needs to viewed straight on for the full effect and FASTPASS does run out at some point during the day depending on visitor volume in California Adventure. Grab one first thing to be safe. 
  • Pass on it for Fantasyland or Tomorrowland: You can use your magic morning to go on rides in Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, so unless you're still waiting to knock a few more off your list, tackle FASTPASS attractions in other parts of the park first.
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5. Magic Morning It, Mama

The other advantage to getting a three or five day park hopper pass is that it allows you access to the park an hour earlier than other visitors with a little thing called Magic Morning. And it is definitely magical. Check the park for specific rules as they do change, but it's usually confined to rides in Tomorrowland and Fantasyland on certain days of the week. I highly recommend knocking out these rides first as their waits can be long later in the day when the park fills up. None of these currently have FASTPASS options:

  • The Matterhorn
  • Autopia
  • Peter Pan's Flight
  • Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage
  • It's a Small World (especially the holiday version)
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6. Pack it In

Disneyland is one of the few parks that still allows you to bring food and drinks, just not into the park. Officially. They do search your bags for security reasons and specify you can picnic at a park provided just outside the gates. But unofficially, I've brought water bottles, granola bars, fruit, nuts and more in our backpacks and never heard a peep from anybody.  It's a smart move to bring at least a few snacks to tide the kids over or to stretch your dining dollar a bit.

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7. Don't Bother with Fancy Dining

The last time we went, I decided to play it smart. Instead of eating junk food at random carts and dealing with crowds at some of the smaller buffet-style restaurants, I scheduled some sit down meals. It was a terrible mistake, at least in Disneyland proper. The food was horrible, severely over-priced, and worst of all, the kids just picked at it and then were hungry two hours later. Unless you want the delight of sitting in the semi-dark enchantment of the Bayou at Pirates of the Caribbean, skip the dining reservations. They are a grand waste of money and time.

I do have one caveat. And that's Carthay Circle in California Adventure. It's the most expensive dining option Disney has on the park premises, but if you're willing to pay for it, it's a little slice of heaven. Decent food, solid craft cocktails, and excellent service in a quiet, sophisticated atmosphere that seems entirely removed from the hectic bustle of the park. You can get more value for your dollar if you purchase the World of Color dining package, which gives you special front row seats to the show.

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8. Pass on the Princess

Dear God, why oh why did I reserve character dining? I'm not sure what my thought process was, but it was a fantastic fail. My daughter could have cared less, my son was so sick to his stomach he couldn't eat, and my husband and I felt like our feminist fingernails were being pulled from our nail beds. And we got the joy of paying nearly forty dollars per person for some of the most mediocre food I've ever had to swallow. Don't do it. Unless you've got a die hard princess or Disney junkie, give the character dining a pass.

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9. Take a Break

Go early, stay late, and leave in the middle. If you're staying close by, your best option is to make use of the park when it is less crowded in the early and later hours of the day and go rest in the afternoon. Nap, watch TV, catch a bite, then head back in for parades, fireworks and more. A few timing tricks we've learned:

  • Many of the lines get shorter during parades and the fireworks, so if you've already seen the excitement, head to a nearby ride like Thunder Mountain or Pirates of the Caribbean during the hoopla. The exception to this is Fantasyland and Toontown, where some rides close to accommodate safety procedures during the fireworks.
  • Head to the kiddie areas late and they'll have shorter lines. Areas like Mickey's Toontown, Fantasyland, and a Bug's Life start to empty out as the little kids get tired. Just be aware that Toontown closes at 8pm typically, so wander over after dinner.
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10. Set Limits

Disney is an utterly overwhelming wonderland of fantasy and it's easy to fall under the spell of indulgence. Everybody is walking around with glowing balloons and light up swords and princess costumes galore. Sit down with the whole family before you go and decide what's important to you. Set a spending budget per person for the day and stick to it. Disney has made this worse by insisting everybody walk through half a mile of Downtown Disney's shopping to get to the park entrance. Yep. It's horrifying for parents. Keep on keeping on, folks. You got this. And that rainbow light saber will be broken by the time you fly home. Worst $25 ever spent. You know it's true.

Enjoy the drama and the delight that is Disneyland, kids. It's possible to walk away with a few dollars left in your pocket and you'll need them. For new shoes.

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