Disneyland – A How-To Guide for Families (Part 1 of 2)
A friend of mine was recently looking for advice on a first trip to Disneyland with his daughter. As it turns out, I couldn't summarize my tips into a quick facebook post. They needed a full article, like my Lego Land experience. When I was in a similar position a few years back, I asked around and all of my friends seemed to think that the planning part wasn't a big deal. If you have read any article of mine before, you will know that I’m a planner. For as long as I can remember I have had the belief that if I think through, plan and prepare for an event or situation, I will be safer and somehow will have squeezed an ounce or more of entertainment. One could argue that the ounce gained is not worth the pound of preparation. While this may be a good point, I will still plan and prepare. I can also then share for others in my position who might benefit from excessive planning.
If you haven’t been to Disneyland in the last few years, I can tell you that it has changed. The former parking lot is gone. In its place is another theme park also owned by Disneyland called California Adventure. Disneyland could potentially have just extended its gate and expanded the existing park. The gate to California Adventure is across a walkway from the gate to Disneyland. Instead, they split it into two parks and require you to buy separate tickets. I cannot remember a time when I thought that Disneyland tickets were affordable. They continue to be quite pricey – and additionally they are more complicated. Because there are now two parks, Disney encourages you to go to both. For this reason, there are “Park Hopper” tickets. Sure, you could just go to Disneyland itself for the day. Many families do. But for just a little more money, you can then go to both parks. The hopper tickets allow for you to hop back and forth all day as many times as you would like. If your ticket does not say “hopper” on it, you must stay in the park chosen. It is completely normal not to buy a hopper ticket, but the way that Disney prices tickets, there is usually no financial advantage not to.
I cannot advise the best place to buy your ticket. In my experience, the pricing on tickets changes so rapidly that I would need to dedicate the site to just doing this. I can say that in checking, I went between a local Santa Barbara Axxess discount book, AAA, Google, Costco and Disney’s website itself. Knowing these prices, I tried to talk down the lady at the reservation line when booking my hotel. They simply wouldn’t budge. What I found overall is that the prices do not vary excessively. Once you have found a discount of some sort, you won’t likely save much with a different discount. Like Apple products, the price you see won’t be different at different retail outlets. I recommend, however, planning the trip first, then purchasing your tickets. Like any major expense, it’s better not to look at the price until it’s too late. If you want the full experience of four days with park hopping privileges, plan to get that and price it out from there. I can assure you – regardless of which package or number of days or hopper passes you choose, you cannot afford them.
The one caveat to buying is deciding whether or not you will want and use the Magic Morning pass. Magic Morning allows you into the park an hour earlier than other ticket holders. If you are looking to maximize your experience, your eyes are probably widening as you read this. Formerly one could only get a Magic Morning pass from Disneyland itself and only then if you stayed at the Disneyland Hotel. This meant that the whole park was yours (and a few hundred others) for a solid hour with no lines or wait anywhere in the park! To a certain extent, this still holds true. In my opinion, Magic Morning is still a great deal, worth paying a premium for and still has nearly all the benefits of old. One need not be a hotel guest at the Disneyland Hotel to get these passes anymore. The exclusivity is gone, but still limited. If you want to buy a Magic Morning pass, be on the lookout for it – you may have to buy it in a package deal such as a 3-day pass from AAA or with a room at an affiliated hotel from Costco Travel. Wherever you get your ticket, if you’re in the hole far enough to buy the Disneyland experience anyway, you may as well look for and buy the Magic Morning as well.
Now that you have determined how long your stay will be and type of tickets that you want, you’re ready to start comparing prices of hotels. Similar to the tickets, check around for pricing everywhere. I found Costco Travel, MouseSavers, AAA and Disneyland’s website the most helpful. If you don’t live in Southern California, I will do my best to explain your options in order of convenience (and reverse order of cost). If you plan to stay for at least 2 days of park experience, you will need lodging of some sort. You can choose from one of three Disney-owned hotels, dozens of affiliated hotels or alternative non-affiliated hotels. I recommend researching and finding the best fit for you.
The Disneyland Hotels are easily the most convenient option that you have. You certainly pay for the convenience, but you are also getting a great experience. The quality of all three hotels is on par with a resort. It goes beyond a regular hotel with multiple restaurants, shops, pools and other activities. There are three hotels to choose from now: the original Disneyland Hotel, the Grand Californian and Paradise Pier. The original hotel has been refurbished but still retains all of the charm of its glory days. The one thing that this hotel is now missing is the pickup stop from the monorail. The monorail picks up at the end of Downtown Disney just outside the exit of the three hotels now. The Grand Californian has a woodsy cabin theme. The Paradise Pier has the theme of surfing California. All of them are very nice. The cost of staying at these hotels may be high, but you get so much more than you might anywhere else. Disneyland is known for their superb customer service – and this does not end with a pleasant smile when checking in. They offer daytime and evening entertainment in the lobby for kids and adults alike. During check-in, there may be a line, but your kids can park with a dozen others in front of a big TV to watch classic Disney cartoons. The entertainment is varied: magic shows, banjo players, pianists, balloon artists, you name it.
The Disneyland Hotels also offer a concierge package at an additional cost. The first time that I stayed at the Grand Californian, the sales woman reviewing the package that I was purchasing over the phone offered the concierge package as an up-sell. The price was not bad, but it was just one more thing that I was getting nickled and dimed on. I nearly passed on it but am glad that I did not. The concierge package starts with express check-in. When you pull into your hotel, they have already spotted your car, run the plates in their database (you already provided the plates to them) and are waiting for you. Your room isn’t “still being cleaned for you.” Your room is ready and waiting. They then take you and your frazzled family up to your room past the lobby check-in. They check you in from an iPad, so no lines. If you do this, do not let them hurry you to your room. Take your time going through the lobby and walking around the hotel to take it all in. Once you have checked in, you find your bags already there! Apparently the bell boy has a separate and faster elevator than you do. Overwhelmed? Walk over to the special concierge room. This rec room has snacks and beverages around the clock. It has a bigscreen TV playing Disney and plenty of board games. There are tables, couches and everything to get you comfortable. While your kids are gouging themselves on goldfish crackers and raisins from the complimentary snack bar, you can order a beer or glass of wine from one of the room’s waiters (not complimentary). These waiters are also constantly bringing out trays of delicious complimentary snacks including a full fruit buffet in the morning. If you are unfamiliar, a tea sandwich is just a regular sandwich but cut into fours to be cute. I must have eaten a couple of dozen of these. In fact, because we had this room, we avoided many of the expensive meals and snacks in the park. I may not have intended the snacks as a meal replacement, but buying a $6 pretzel seems nonsensical after you have gorged yourself on mini-empanadas just an hour earlier. Doing the math, you may actually save money getting the concierge package once you multiply the quantity of uneaten pretzels. The room is also open around the clock. We found this especially fantastic when we had one child who napped in our room while the other was bouncing off the walls. These rooms are also set up intentionally to show you the evening parades and fireworks – perfect for your kids to see and then rush to their beds down the hall. The room is also staffed with an agent who can buy or change your tickets, make recommendations and even loan you a Disney DVD for the kids to watch in your room. If you will be going to Disneyland for your children for the first time, these hotels are an excellent option and a sure thing.
If you simply cannot afford the luxury of the three Disneyland hotels, you aren't alone. Thousands of guests each day stay at one of the many “affiliated” Disneyland hotels. “Affiliated” typically means that they are nearby and allowed to use the mouse logo on their sheets and curtains. These hotels may be able to offer things like discounts on tickets. This is where the Disney-affiliation ends, though. They are otherwise regular hotels. Some are nicer, have restaurants and pools (or even a mini water park) while others are much simpler. Last December, we stayed at the Carousel Inn and Suites. While it wasn't nearly as nice as our stay at the Grand Californian, we were on more of a budget. Our overall Disney experience was still very good. The affiliated hotels have taken note of what Disneyland has done and try to compete, but on a budget. For example, our hotel had a room with a nice panoramic view of the fireworks catered with hot chocolate and snacks where all the families went at night. Expect to get what you pay for and expect pay for what you get with regard to these hotels. Take note and pull up google maps when booking, though. Determine how far your walk will be. This will be key later, especially if you have young or elderly companions. For our stay at the Carousel Inn, we found that it was directly across the street from the Disneyland shuttle drop – very convenient.
Alternative lodging is always an option. Maybe you have an RV that you brought with you. Maybe you rented a timeshare or house from VRBO. If this is the case, you need to determine your entrance and parking strategy. Many of the affiliated hotels will have extra parking and will sell you a spot for the day. These may be closer than the Disney official parking spots (which all require a shuttle now) and may even be less expensive. Determine a strategy in advance. Note: there is no cheap parking anywhere.
Now that you have decided your length of stay and your potential lodging, you may have noticed that your schedule can drastically affect pricing. If you are able to go mid-week, for example, you will pay significantly less than if you were to go for Friday through Sunday. Likewise, Disneyland has a busy “season.” I recommend seeking out the list of the blackout days – these are the busy times at Disneyland. Really, February through April end up being the lighter “season” when prices go down a tad. If you were hoping to see Disneyland at Christmas, you will pay a premium as this is their busiest time of the year (November through January). Those decorations are beautiful and the parade is a lot of fun, but you will pay for it.