A few years ago, we bought an annual pass to Disneyland. As Southern California residents, we got the passes at a great and deep discount. If we went to the park more than three times during the year, we saved money. It was an awesome experience.... but, it COULD have been EXTREMELY expensive if I hadn't laid down the Bargain Queen ground rules.
(Note: Currently there is a great 3 day pass for Southern California residents.)
Kids (and adults) tend to get cranky when they are hungry and/or tired. There is nothing worse than going to all the trouble and expense of going to Disney and then get cranky and fight. (And believe me, I have seen lots of cranky kids and parents on my trips to Disney.) Therefore, anything you can do to avoid being hungry and/or tired during your trip is well worth the effort. Following the rules below will help you have a happy and bargainish Disney adventure.
1. Make sure that EVERYONE (you included) gets a good night's sleep the night before the adventure. This means planning ahead so that you can get everything done early enough to go to sleep on time. Any Disney day has to begin early in order to make it worthwhile.
2. Make and pack nutritious food the night before. Food at the park is extremely expensive. The cheaper food is full of sugar and carbs. Because the junk food is cheaper than going to the restaurants and getting something truly nutritious, the family can end up in a cranky after-sugar mood.
3. Eat a good protein breakfast. You can make this the night before, as well, and then eat it in the car.
4. You are not supposed bring outside food into the Disney parks. You can get away with a water bottle and something small in your purse or backpack, but you can't bring in picnic baskets. However, each park has "hidden" picnic areas just outside of the entrance. They are not well advertised, but they are there. At Disneyland, they are just to the left of the ticket booths, behind some bushes. There are lockers and picnic tables. The lockers are big enough to put a good sized picnic cooler and/or extra clothes. You have to pay for these lockers (click here to see the current prices), but the cost is a drop in the bucket compared to what you would pay for the food that you can store there.
I found the best eating/food break schedule for the day was to eat a bit of something when we dropped off the cooler and clothes as we entered the park. We also made a bathroom stop at that time as they are right there next to the picnic area. Then we would go into the park. We'd coordinate to meet back at the picnic area between noon and 1:00 to have lunch. We could refill out water bottles and add or subtract clothes depending on the temperature. We would meet at the picnic area again at 6:00. Then back out to the park until after fireworks. Again we could grab a snack, go to the bathroom, and refill water bottles. We'd gather everything up and make out way back to the car.... tired but not on a sugar high and not upset that we had just blown the budget.
5. Bring your own water. OH MY GOODNESS!!! The mark-up on water is OUTRAGEOUS! I always bring my own water jug full of filtered water. I also make sure that each person has a water bottle that they carry into the park. I did purchase Disney water bottle lanyards (that go over your shoulder and then hold a water bottle) so that you don't have to carry the bottle in your hand.
Note on the laynard: Here the lanyard is $14.95. Here the lanyard is $1.
6. Avoid sugary snacks. Salt and protein will be your friend. Some good treats to pack are: Bobbi's trail mix*, cheese sticks, crackers, carrot & celery sticks, dry cereal, granola bars. These are good snacks to stick in small bags in your purse.
7. Bobbi's Trail Mix Recipe*. This is a family secret and now I am sharing it with you. I make a batch of this before any big trip. I divide it up into smaller bags for each person. A few nibbles on this snack will help you make it through the wait for the "new and now most popular" ride.
1 bag raisins - organic if you can
1 container salted, mixed nuts (don't buy the cheap stuff... get the good Planter's mix)
1 bag plain M&Ms
Dump all three items into a large bowl and mix with a large spoon or very clean hands.
Now divide the mixture into snack sized ziploc bags. Give one to each person in your group. These are small enough that you can get away with taking them into the park in your purse or backpack.
Stays good for ages. Gets kind of yucky if left in a hot car and then smashed... but it will still taste good.
8. Avoid mayonnaise sandwiches in the heat of summer. When mayonnaise goes bad by sitting too long in the sun, you can end up with food poisoning - not fun. I try to avoid sandwiches and salads that have mayo during the hot summer months. If one of my kids just insists that they want a turkey and mayo sandwich, then I make sure it is kept in a cooler and I get them to eat it early in the day.
9. Make at least two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches per person. At the end of the day, when you are hungry and tired, a smashed PB&J tastes like filet mignon.
10. Budget a defined amount of money for each person to buy a souvenir and a snack. You ARE at Disneyland for goodness sakes. Tell them that if they don't spend their allocated amount of money, it is theirs to keep and spend as they want at a later time and place. This way, you can enjoy going into the gift shop to look around.
Your child has a certain amount of money to spend. First of all, they will discover that the same stuffed animal they can get for $1 at a garage sale is $50 at a gift store in the park!!!! Also, this keeps you from having to say, no, no, no. They have their own money and it is up to them how they will spend it. My kids have gotten wise and save their souvenir money, but at the beginning they bought a pin or something small. It gave them something to remind them of the trip.
On the snacks.... well, most of them are sugar, sugar, sugar.... but oh so tempting, so let them buy one. They have the money. If you can pull it off (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't) make the rule that you only buy one snack at a time and then you share it. In my family, I love cotton candy. Someone else likes the frozen lemonade. Someone else likes the giant turkey legs. So, when we want a snack, we buy one of them and share. That way, it seems like we have snacks all through the day.
11. Of course, it goes without saying that you wear the most comfortable shoes that you own, wear a fanny pack or a purse that has been cleared out of all valuable and important papers except the ones that you MUST have, dress in layers so you can put on and take off depending on the weather changes, have a pen & paper for those important Disney autographs (pens and autograph books are big sellers with high price tags at the parks), have a camera (don't you DARE buy one of the overpriced official Disney visitor pictures) with a good wrist strap or shoulder strap, have a hat to shade your head and eyes that is secure enough that it won't fly off at the first breeze, sunscreen for your nose, extra tissues for wiping and blowing, and (most important) lots of patience. You WILL wait in lines. It's just the nature of the (beauty and the) beast. If don't want to be patient with yourself, your kids and those around you.... don't go to a theme park. Otherwise.... have a good time, take lots of pictures and enjoy yourself!