5 Tips on How to Enjoy Your Hard Earned Family Vacation to Disneyland

Disney Vacation
This is a guest post by Sarah Kishpaugh

My husband and I are obsessive number crunchers. We have to be.  Life circumstances have our young family on a very strict budget. Like many Americans, after we pay our bills and clothe and feed ourselves we don’t have much left over. Our credit and savings have slowly been obliterated due to healthcare costs from an illness in the family. I work fulltime while my husband attends school. It’s tough, but we’ve learned how to make our minimal income work for us.

Despite our cash-strapped woes we ached to give the kids a summer family memory outside the neighborhood we’ve been trapped in for years. And, with our kids being 9 and 6, we really wanted to go big with Disneyland, and naively thought it could be done on a shoestring. We did cost analyses for a million ideas: What if we drive and camp along the way? Bring our food in the park? Stay with family friends an hour away?

We arrived at the decision to spend our tax return on a flight and hotel package using the following logic: Yes, we’d save a bit driving and camping, but between the gas prices, camp grounds, parking fees, and dog sitters (not to mention the whining and fighting) it would about the same price plus way more relaxing to buy 4 nights at the Good Neighborhood Hotel Packages offered at Disneyland Resort vacation online which included a 3 day pass to Disneyland and California Adventure.

As for saving a realistic amount of spending cash, it sounds like martyrdom, but by making sacrifices – skipping things like haircuts, new clothes and any and all dining out or frivolous spending from March through June – we were able to save $1,000 devoted 100% to our vacation fund, the news of which we saved as a surprise for when the kids got out of school.

Read on for a play by play look at our adventure, including breakout costs of the entire trip…

Day 1 (Saturday, July 2)

Purchased all the typical airplane stuff: gum, candy, coffee, and magazines. Arrive to hotel early afternoon. A friend told us of a nearby Target so Miles walked in that direction while the kids and I got our suits on. Gave the kids some cash and a short leash for exploring the hotel while I unpacked. Miles came back with all the items we agreed we’d take in our backpack for the duration of our park experience: juice boxes, fruit roll-ups, granola bars, nuts, and beef jerky. Ate lunch next-door at the reasonably priced Mimi’s Restaurant and ordered a late-night pizza we ate in front of the TV. Breathed in the joy.

Day 2 (Sunday, July 3)

Ate the store-bought bagels and yogurt for breakfast. Hustled to get to the park by the 8 am opening. Easily walked on to Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion and Splash Mountain attractions. Hopped aboard the Disneyland Railroad, ate ice-cream and made reservations at the Blue Bayou restaurant at New Orleans Square inside the Pirates attraction. Ouch! Dinner would be pricey. We argued and Miles won: eating there would be our one big splurge. Returned to the hotel for lunch at McDonald’s and a swim. The kids wanted trinkets and we told them wait until Day 3. Came back to the park and fought the crowds to walk through Sleeping Beauty’s castle and the Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island.

Day 3 (Monday, July 4)

Arrived early and took pictures with Mickey in his house. Waited thirty minutes for the amazing Peter Pan attraction and enjoyed classics like It’s a Small World and the Storybook Land’s canal boat ride. Bought Eliza an Alice in Wonderland dress at the Bibbidi Bobbity Boutique which she didn’t take off from then onward, relishing the attention it brought. Bought Will a snazzy Tron disk after watching the inspirational ElecTRONica laser and dance show. Ate at the Village Haus Restaurant in the park, later meeting up with friends from home for hours of swimming. Dinner was nearby Quiznos and back to the park to check out California Adventure’s World of Color light show.  (Tip: Get a Fast Pass for a good seat. We didn’t and wished we had.)

Day 4 (Tuesday, July 5)

Raced to the Finding Nemo Underwater Submarine Voyage exhibit. Dragged the children to Main Street U.S.A. to have hand-cut silhouette portraits done, a long time wish of mine. (At $9 per 5 x 7 oval portrait sans frame, it’s a classy and decorative souvenir).  Explored California Adventure. Eliza went on the Silly Symphony Swings 5 times, and Will surprised us with his enthusiasm for the thrilling (and wet!) Grizzly River Run. The “a bug’s land” attraction was enchanting and age-appropriate and we l-o-v-e-d the Muppet Vision 3D show. Had a pick-me-up lunch of kiosk stand Cokes and chimichangas and breakfast for dinner outside the park at IHOP, where the kid menu items are free with adult meals after 4 pm. Rested, swam, and returned to Disneyland to watch the fireworks over the castle. Though the kids complained they couldn’t see, I thought it was breathtaking. I had no idea Tinker Bell and Dumbo was going to fly through the sky! Bought light up Mickey ears and Will a supersized lollipop.

Day 5 (Wednesday, July 6)

Everyone’s wiped out. Shades are drawn and we sleep until 10 am. Meandered to the hotel convenience store to buy champagne and OJ for a toast to our successful trip. Official check out is at noon, so we walk to the downtown Disney district and buy Lego star wars key chains and a plush Winnie the Pooh. Take more photos and say goodbye to the park. It’s McDonalds again for lunch, mostly for the air conditioning.  Airport food for dinner. Kids sleep on the short plane ride to Portland. Life is good.

Planning a big trip and staying within our budget was a challenge in cooperation for the whole family. Sure, Disneyland was a blast for us as parents, too, but the best part was knowing we were building memories from our careful planning and intentional execution.

Breakout Costs for the Trip:

Flight: $1,157.00 (US Air)
Hotel & 3-day park pass: $1,238 (Fairfield Inn by Marriot, booked through Disneyonline.com)
Bag Check: $50 ($25 for one bag under one hundred pounds per flight)
Shuttle from LAX to Fairfield Inn by Marriot: $120 ($60 each way, including tip, prearranged)
Cash: $1,000

Total: $4,165

Our trip to Disneyland was not cheap. After the planning and saving we did, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect it to be – not if you want to have any fun. Still, by sticking to your budget and being strategic with your partner, you can have a great time and feel rewarded by your efforts!

5 Tips for a Happy Hustle

#1 Set the Alarm

Take advantage of the fewer crowds and get there when the park opens. The excitement you get from simply walking to the front of the line and boarding is well worth the morning struggle.

#2 Give it a Rest

If stimulation overwhelms your family, it’s wise to plan for a break in the day and head back to the hotel to regroup. It’s amazing what a little TV time in an air-conditioned room and a few hours in the pool can do for your headspace.

#3 Cash is King

Yes, it’s risky carrying cash, but for us, it helped balance our daily budget. We knew we had approximately $150 per day on food, trinkets, travel costs and entertainment, and that’s what we stuck with. Period.

#4 Smile, Smile, Smile

Don’t expect to see it all in 3 days. Choose some stuff, revisit favorites, and follow the kids’ lead. When that little voice tells you you’d rather be at the hotel reading a book, remember that right now the kids want you there experiencing the novelty with them. When kids start whining, divide and conquer. Give your partner lots of high fives.

#5 Feed Me

Ward off hunger and stay hydrated by packing in healthy snacks and juice. You will save money in the long run and there will be less whining, I promise. Make them energy packed items like trail mix, fruit leather and meat sticks. There were no restrictions on snacking – all they had to do was ask.


Sarah Kishpaugh is a Seattle native and Mother, wife and owner of a fixer-upper home by the beach in Edmonds, WA. She is a grant writer and brain injury advocate and workers’ compensation consultant. She is currently working on an instructional book designed to help worker’s navigate the public insurance system.  Follow her on Twitter and Facebook

Are you interested in guest posting on Family Friendly Frugality? Please email me heather @ familyfriendlyfrugality.com. I’m looking for anything in the family friendly/frugal niche, but specifically how-to’s, DIY posts and RECIPES! Must be original content not posted elsewhere.

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Heather is the creator and owner of Family Friendly Frugality. She calls Texas home and is married to her best friend. With 2 children 22 months apart, she has her hands full. So full that she decided to start blogging as a hobby. That hobby blew up into a full time job. Now she's got the husband, the kids and the blog. We're not exactly sure what she was thinking, but she's too busy for us to ask. Find Me On Google +

One thought on “5 Tips on How to Enjoy Your Hard Earned Family Vacation to Disneyland”

  1. Luckily for us we live in Fl but it is still a 2 1/2 hour trip each way to get to Disneyworld in Orlando. We have been six times (annually) so far and I am all disneyed out but my youngest is just really starting to enjoy the parks.
    To save money get a hotel with a kitchen, and free breakfast and even sometimes dinner(homewood suites). You have to splurge on something either eat at Cinderellas castle (my daughter wants to do this one next time) or one of the other themed restaurants. We did the movie theater one at Disney MGM ($70+ for our family of 4 but we are not big eaters). Don’t be rigid and on time all the way through. Have some fun and be flexible

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