My friend Mike is what I’d call a true Disney expert! He’s been to the parks many times and as a travel agent, he’s coordinated many family vacations over the years – including for a number of my close friends! In the past year, he’s been kind enough to write many Disney posts for the blog. Today, he’s back at it with more expert tips:
We save and we save and we save. This is how we make vacations happen. I have shared in many previous posts how to save money while preparing for a Disney trip, such as how to avoid money traps and how to pick your best hotel for you budget and and the best meals as well. Even with that in mind, the goal of saving money isn’t always to be frugal for frugal’s sake. Sometimes, that money saved is money you can put towards other aspects that have more importance for your vacation. With that in mind, let’s look at some areas that could be of real personal value so can maximize some of that money that you saved.
#1: The Disneyland Hotels
For many, your time in the park is paramount. You are there from open to close, and the only time you see the inside of your hotel you are also seeing the inside of your eyelids.
But there are others who want to make their Disneyland vacation to be more than just roller coasters and character meet and greets. You occasionally want to sleep in, even if you’re not going to be first in line for Space Mountain. When the sun is beating down and the crowds are at their worst, you want to be relaxing poolside reminding your spouse not to drown the kids. Perhaps at the end of the night you just want to watch the twinkling of lights and fireworks dance from the cromfort of your room while the kids sleep. If you value a bit of down time in your Disney vacation, then saving for a stay at one of the Disney resorts might definitely be of value to you.
While each of the three Disney run and operated hotels are fine choices, I have found myself using my saved money towards enjoying the Disneyland Hotel. The last time we stayed there, I recall walking into the lobby filled with giant teacups and mural of Disney history and being quite excited when we got our room was in the Frontier Tower.
The room was beautiful, spacious, and allowed us to be just steps away from Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar. One evening, I couldn’t get the kids out of the pool, and so we ended up all being in the hot tub as the fireworks started going off. Sure, it was sans music, and you couldn’t see every single explosion and effect, but it was easily the most comfortable and leisurely way I have ever watch the nighttime spectacular. I definitely got the value I wanted, and if you have a young family, the proximity, magic and amenities might easily be of value to your as well.
#2: Halloween Party Tickets
One of the hardest things to get any discount on is the actual park admission. And those park tickets only raise in price every year. This makes it hard for people to consider buying another ticket to get inside the park for another event that isn’t included in your day at Disneyland. However, Mickey’s Halloween Party might one of the most special parts of your trip and worth saving for.
Throughout late September and October, Disneyland offers a separate ticketed event, Mickey’s Halloween Party. It starts around 6PM, but those who have bought a party ticket can usually enter around 3PM. But 0nce the party starts, day guests without a party ticket are nicely asked to leave for the evening (Buh Bye!). Once the rabble leaves, the fun really begins. Wait times for rides plummet harder than the end of Splash Mountain, costumed kids and adults abound like it was the opening of the newest Avengers movie and trick or treat trails open and the candy flows like political memes on Facebook.
Ever since I tried a Disney Halloween party, I haven’t missed a year since. I love them. I love how the Main Street Barbershop Quartet dresses like ghouls and sing along the riverbanks calling themselves the “Cadaver Dans.”
The fireworks they do at the end of the night might be the best fireworks ever! And Disneyland just upped their game last year with a great new Halloween themed parade lead by the Headless Horsemen straight from the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
If you can, definitely treat yourself to a night at Mickey’s Halloween Party.
#3: Specialty Dining
One of the most frequent questions I get when helping people plan their Disneyland vacation is “What can we do to celebrate…” (fill in the occasion here). Which is a perfect question. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduation, engagements, honeymoons, these are often the reasons we decided to visit Disneyland in the first place. One of my favorite ways to celebrate is with a special meal.
While there are many awesome places to eat in Disneyland, there are a couple that stand out more than others. For most, you already have heard about the Blue Bayou. Possibly the most famous restaurant in any Disney park, this gives guests the chance to sit and eat within the of Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. I recently surprised my son to celebrate his 11th birthday and he loved it. We got a table right near the water so that he could find an infinite amount of things he could do to make me respond “No, you can’t do that here, put that down.”
And while it is a great experience, it isn’t the only game in town. Most people don’t know that there is an amazing restaurant inside the Disneyland Hotel, Steakhouse 55. The atmosphere is a tad more relaxed, the service is on point, and it really is the best place for a perfectly cooked steak.
If you like your meal to include a more varied ingredient list, without losing any of the of the culinary flair, you need only look to the Napa Rose inside the Grand Californian Hotel. If you want to make it extra special, try the Chef’s Table. It is in the top 3 meals of all time. All of these can be a great place to use that saved money to celebrate that special event.
But when it comes to saving your dollars and cents for a special meal, nothing in Disneyland rivals Club 33. This restaurant and lounge is not open to the general public. You have to be a member, to which the initial fee is about $25,000 (with yearly dues of about $12,000 to $14,000). After spending that much, you still need to actually pay for your meal when you want to dine there. For most Disney fans, this is their #1 Bucket List item. So when a member invited me to lunch there recently, I had to make a lot of hard choices on how to save money to make this lavish meal a budget practicality for me and my beautiful wife. The four course lunch menu started at $90 per person. That price doesn’t include adult beverages (it’s the only restaurant in Disneyland to offer alcohol, so it’s kinda like you have to, right?).
Was it worth it? Absolutely. We had some time before our meal began in the newest addition, the Jazz Lounge, Le Salon Nouveau. Dark woods, brick and leather give feelings of a wine cellar converted from a speakeasy. While we enjoyed some pre-lunch drinks (I had the Absinthe Suissesse), we watched some of the special interactive art. One portrait had a magnificent sailing ship, and in the background random thing would appear (like two other ships locked in battle, until one was sunk).
We moved into Club 33 proper for lunch. Someone ordered a bottle of Pinot Noir for the table, which helped us not be tempted to do the optional wine pairing. I was the envy of everyone as I ordered the Corn Chowder during the second course, which was far more robust than the salad. Swordfish was the seared fish of the day, I couldn’t resist,
My wife had the Filet Mignon which was also perfection. My wife got the Peach Upside-Down Cake for dessert, which was a great call, and I was the odd one who got the Diligently Selected Cheese Plate (I’m a sucker for diligence).
The rest of the trip we ate a lot of value centric meals. Saving money by sharing personal pizzas, eating outside the park, snacks we had bought before we left. Because we had a plan in place of where we would save money, it made it possible to enjoy the luxury of such a once in a lifetime meal.
#4: Max Pass
One of the newest considerations at Disneyland is the electronic version of Fast Pass called, Max Pass. This fun addition allows you to obtain a Fast Pass through the Disneyland app while you’re in the park. Which means, you can be in Tomorrowland riding Star Tours and grab your Splash Mountain Fast Pass without crossing the entire length of the park. Sound super awesome, right? It also comes with all the digital downloads from any pictures taken by the Photo Pass photographers.
The downside? It does cost $10 per person, per day. Despite the fact that the kids are spry enough to do all the extra running around for Fast Passes, you’ll probably need to get it for the entire family, and not just Mom and Dad. Factor that cost for every day you’re in the park, and that $10 is probably looking more like over $100. However, think back to that family who is in the park from morning to close we talked about earlier. This is a great addition for those die-hard park junkies. And since you saved a bunch of money with the hotel that you’ll never be in, this a great way to enhance your trip.
#5: Dining Packages
One of the biggest time drains in the park can be trying to score some good seats to the amazing nighttime spectaculars. Both World of Color and the newly re-imagined Fantasmic! draw huge crowds. Many will wait hours to get prime viewing areas. Though both are amazing to watch and make a terrific ending to the evening, it can be a rather lengthy time investment. That’s time I’d rather be spending on Big Thunder Mountain (I really love it in the evening), while others are waiting.
One solution is to do one of dining package offered by the Disneyland resort. Often when I’m traveling with a larger group of extended family or friends, this type of specialty dining package is what I usually recommend for the big “together time.” It always end up being the highlight of the trip. Admittedly, not all restaurants that offer these types of package are the same quality. For great food, try the newly offered Cafe Orleans for a Fantasmic! package. And for the best ambiance, Ariel’s Grotto can’t be beat with the outdoor seating, right around twilight. Paradise Pier starts to light up, the sun sets, it really is beautiful (even if the food leaves something to be desired). But the real value will be when you stroll into your reserved viewing area just 20 to 30 minutes prior.
Not only did you save time, you’ll probably have an awesome view of the show. It will be at that point that you be very happy with the investment.
Look, we’ve all been on vacation and thought to ourselves, “If only I was also running a half marathon at some point.” I get it, adding a long distance run is everybody’s first thought when thinking about traveling. So it is only natural that Disneyland offers several half marathon opportunities throughout the year.
True fact, the first year that Walt Disney World offered an endurance run, the race itself was free to those who had a room on property. Also true, that is no longer how it is done. In fact, these RunDisney events are a bit more expensive than your local races. Is such an event worth adding to your Disneyland vacation? For many the answer is yes. Many of these races sell out due to their overwhelming popularity.
These races do distinguish themselves from others by the amount of Disney exclusives. Some would say running through the parks is enough perk to make the cost of entry. Others love the theming, like Tinkerbell, Star Wars or Marvel. With races like that, you get more than a few opportunities for some special photos with characters while on the race. Like most races, it comes with a race day T-shirt and a goodie bag. For some though, the amazing medals, unique to each race, is the reason to keep running.
Completing a massive run will definitely make your Disneyland vacation one you will always remember. But this kind of additional cost is good reason to save in as many other areas as you can.
#7: Food & Wine Festival
Food & Wine Festival was made popular on the east coast at EPCOT in Walt Disney World. Various versions have run at Disneyland, but nothing to the extent or reception as the Florida version. However, Disney California Adventure (DCA) after the refurb it finished with the opening of Carsland, has renewed the Southern California version of this popular offering. While nowhere near as broad as EPCOT’s Food & Wine, Disneyland’s focuses on the fresh and local ingredients that are found throughout California.
Currently being run through the spring, this makes for an excellent addition for to your Disneyland vacation. Spring is by far one of the most popular times to visit the resort to avoid the summer crowds and still have beautiful weather. Unlike the Halloween party, the festival is technically “free” with admission. So why then is this under a list of things to save for? Scattered throughout DCA are various booths, showcasing some of the finest snacks, entrees, desserts and beverages that California can offer. They are both delicious and not complimentary. The menu changes year to year and nearly everything has been amazing. No longer do you need to sit down for a meal, because every time you turn around you’ll find a new small plate item you have to try.
Not only will the extra food and drink be something you’ll have wanted to budget for, but this almost begs you to have admission tickets that include Park Hopping. Are you really going to want to eat a burger in Tomorrowland when you know you can cross the promenade and grab some delicious concoction that you’ve been wanting an excuse to try? In addition, they run food demos and tutorials by some of the top chefs at various times. Or special dining events, like last years Brew Master Dinner, a 4 course prix fixe dinner with beer pairings from Carl Strauss Brewing Company.
Possibly the best part, is that this is still growing and hasn’t reached the crazy crowds that are inherent with its east coast counterpart. With all the different options, this is definitely something to be using the money you saved with your ninja like life hacks for.
What things do you find the most value despite their costs at Disneyland? Where are the areas you like to invest into for your best magical experience?
Please join the conversation by adding a comment about your thoughts, questions or suggestions. Let me know if there are specifics aspects of travel I can cover for you.
For more tips on saving money in Disneyland, please see our Disney page.
Mike Rinehart is an independent travel agent affiliated with MEI & Mouse Fan Travel. Follow him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/MikesTravelThoughts/ or see my travel photos on Instagram by following @MikeOnMainStreet. Or request your free no obligation quote on your next Disneyland, Disney World, Aulani, Disney Cruise (and any other cruise line) vacation by emailing him at Mike.Rinehart@mei-travel.com. Mention “The Coupon Project” and receive a free gift with your completed booking.
In case you missed the first post in our series, please check it out!