A lot of people have asked my best money saving tips for going to Disney. We love Disney and wish we lived closer so we could go all year long, but we can't, so we settle for once every few years- but last year we spoiled ourselves and went TWICE!
So, I am going to share some money saving tips. Some of these tips are specific to Disneyland (where we go since we are closer to it then DW) and some of these are general- for any travel.
WHEN TO GO
When wanting to do Disney on a dime, you have decide WHEN you are willing to go. January- April 1st, Disneyland offers a discount on their tickets. However, if you are going during spring break, it will be VERY CROWDED! Going during spring break, summer, Thanksgiving, or Christmas breaks will also bring higher hotel prices. Sometimes it is worth it (kids can't miss school) and other times it isn't. Is it possible to go a long weekend in October and then only miss 1-2 school days to save the extra $300 for the week on hotel? For some it may be, others it may not be.
Also when deciding when to go- think about how you plan to get there. If you are traveling from Idaho in the winter- you could end up going through snow storms. Heck, when we went last spring break we hit a white out snow storm between Twin Falls, ID and Jackpot, NV. Flying may take less time, but may be more expensive, especially if you choose an airline that charges for bags checked. If you decide to fly, try to use Southwest (2 free bags per ticketed passenger), or try the name your own price on Priceline. If you are going down for the Holidays, pick dates that are typically less popular for flying. When we went to Texas in 2010 it saved us $200 each to fly back ON Thanksgiving.
WHERE TO STAY
This is probably one of the biggest ways to save money, and one of the most important things you can look into, take your time and really think about.
First- Do you know anybody with a time share that you might be able to use? When we went this last October, we were able to use my sister's time share and have a full 2 bed/2 bath condo with a full kitchen. It saved us a lot of money on lodging, but also on food because we were able to make meals, stock the fridge with snacks, etc. Because it would have used up too much of her "points" to stay in Anaheim, we went ahead and stayed in Oceanside. It was well worth the hour commute. We had several people so we were able to use the carpool lane as well.
Second- if you don't have a time share available, and no relatives to stay with, then next best thing is to weigh your options. If you are going to need 2 rooms anyways, I highly suggest looking into something like The Residence Inn by Marriot. They have FULL KITCHENS (including ovens) and 2 beds and 2 baths. Much like the condo. Usually the cost of the 2 bedroom is cheaper than 2 hotel rooms in the area and you get the full kitchen.
If you only need one room, I suggest doing hotwire.com. Why hotwire and not name your own price on priceline? Well- hotwire asks how many guests (therefore you hopefully won't get 1 double bed room with 4 people), and gives you a small list of amenities that the hotels in a certain group will guarantee. You can go to another site like tripadvisor and research the areas offered to be sure they are safe. They also tell you the price they are cutting it down to, rather than you having to keep putting in amounts until your offer is accepted. You can use Better Bidding to help determine what hotel you are getting, before you buy on hotwire.
If you belong to a "club" for hotels (wyndham rewards, marriott rewards, etc) and know well in advance you will be going to Disney, you can book any small trips in between now and your trip at that hotel chain. Save up your points and then redeem them for free nights during your Disney trip. We did this back in 2007 and were able to get an entire room for FREE!!! YEP FREE! Sure, it was at Super 8 (on Disneyland Dr) but our room was clean, had a mini-fridge and microwave, was walking distance to the park, and you could watch the fireworks from the hot tub. It was well worth it.
Disneyland has so many different ticket options it can get confusing.
I highly suggest you ALWAYS get the park hopper ticket. It is nice to be able to go to the other park if the lines are just to long at the current one. If you enter DCA (Disney California Adventure) and then find that you are not enjoying it, you can head over to Disneyland and the other way around. Plan on spending most of your time in Disneyland, but that park hopper option is always nice.
Go for 3 days or more. This gives you a ticket you can get called a Parkhopper Bonus ticket. The bonus- a magic morning entry where you can get in an hour earlier than others and the lines are shorter. It is nice for rides that don't have fast pass (Matterhorn) and also to do the kids rides without a long wait. There are also characters out with NO LINES!
Do you know someone who is military? If so, they can usually get discounted tickets on base. Even here in Idaho- out at Mountain Home or at Gowen Field they can purchase discounted tickets. Ask them if they are willing to get them for you (you pay of course ;P).
Does your work offer discounted tickets? Mike's work has a huge site with tons of discounts to millions of things- car rentals, hotels, cruises, and they have something called "Tickets at Work" that offer discount tickets to tons of theme parks. Including both Disneyland and Disney World. It is generally $50 cheaper for a 5 day ticket from there then from Disney. Other places (Knotts Berry Farm) are 50% through his work. It is great and I am so thankful we have that available to us.
If you have an Entertainment book- they offer the same discounts as Tickets at Work. You just go online, log in and go to the tab "Attractions." If you have a large group- it is almost worth it to purchase an entertainment book just for this purpose.
This is the biggest way you will save when going to Disney. No doubt about it.
When we were there in October- an ice cream bar was $6, a bottled water was $2.50....NOT WORTH IT!
We take snacks into the park. Small bags of chips, frozen water bottles, sandwich baggies of gold fish, etc. We used to take a cooler with sandwich stuff and leave it in the car- go back to the car at lunch and eat, and then go back to the park.
In October we did something different- we actually rented a locker. Just before you go through security there is a picnic area hidden off to the side. It is very nice and quite. (We always come from the Mickey and Friends parking structure and when you get off the tram and are facing security, the area is to the left. It has lots of green shrubs surrounding it.) WE LOVED IT! When we would go back to the car on previous trips, after sitting on the tram, then in the car, you started to realize how tired your feet were. We also ended up changing our minds and just eating in the park a lot. With the locker- we kept a cooler in there with our lunch stuff, paper towels, paper plates, and utensils. We also kept extra cold drinks to take back in the park after lunch, extra snacks, and then we also were able to keep all our sweatshirts in the locker and send one person to get them before it cooled down. Our medium sized locker was $12 a day- but it was well worth it and definitely saved us a TON in food and beverage.
Also- refill your water bottles/camel packs in the park at drinking fountains. There are tons of fountains in the lines. Pirates, Thunder Mountain, etc all have them.
I always love souvenirs. However, it is important that you focus on things that will 1) be used and 2)remind you of your time and bring back all the memories
Do you have a Disney store? We used to. Back in 2007 we raided the Disney Store clearance for T-Shirts for us and our friends and their 5 kids. When we all arrived in Disney I gave them the shirts.
Make your own Autograph book. The same year I also made autograph books for all the kids. I was able to personalize them and they were a lot cheaper then the ones you buy in the store.
I also made journals using notebooks and scrap book paper. I had several other fun things that I did. It made the need to spend a lot less intense.
After that, I focus on things we will use over and over (clothing) and things that will last and remind us of the trip. Ornaments are a big one. We purchase a tree ornament on every major vacation we take. Fun photo frames to frame a picture from the park are also great.
PHOTOS- take your own. The ones by the park cast are ok, but not worth the price. And guess what- if you ask them to take one with your camera- they almost always will. NEVER give a DSLR camera to another park guest. Point and shoot- go for it, but please, do not hand someone your $600 Canon/Nikon to take your picture. If you really want a picture of your whole group, and you are not wanting to ask a cast member to use your camera- pick 2-3 key locations that you want them done and get the photo pass and use them there. Print your favorite one or buy the CD. If you do decide to do the photo pass all over the park- BUY THE CD because once you hit a certain number of pictures, it is way cheaper than buying the prints.
OTHER WAYS TO SAVE
If your hotel is close- walk to the park. Parking is now $15 a day. YIKES!!!!! If someone else in your group doesn't want to walk and is willing to pay for it- woohoo! But if your hotel is only 1/2 mile away- WALK! But do expect that the end of the first day, that walk back will seem 3 times as long.
Book a trip through AAA or even just buy park tickets through them. It will get you extras. Like this month, if you book through them, you get free parking PLUS a 10-20% discount at Disney and neighbor restaurants and gift shops. SWEET!
Find fun ways to save for your trip- so yeah, this doesn't SAVE you money on the trip, but we have a change jar I decorated to be Disney. We put all our spare change in there and you would be surprised. In 2007 a year of change saving paid for our gas to California and back. It is also a great way to save pennies to smash.
If you use Swag bucks, etc save up your points for airfare gift cards, hotel gift cards, restaurant gift cards, etc. Use these to eat out while on vacation, buy your flights, or pay for your hotel.
Disneyland is a lot of fun, and it can be done on a really cheap budget, if you plan carefully. People think I am crazy when I start planning 6-9 months in advance, but when it makes it so you can do your entire trip for under $1000 for 4 people- it is worth it. Our next time will hopefully be while the park is all decked out for Christmas. If not this year then next. We are already watching to see what kind of deals are out there, although we won't decide when we are going for another 3-4 months.