12 ways to save money and have more fun at Disneyland

Meeting your favourite Disney characters is all part of the fun.
Meeting your favourite Disney characters is all part of the fun. Photo: Supplied

Visiting Disneyland's original resort in Anaheim, California has never been easier for Australian families.

Direct, return flights to Los Angeles start at just $900 – and there's an Express Bus straight from LAX to Anaheim.

Sure you can rock up to the Disneyland gates and buy your tickets on the day, but there is so much to see and do it really helps if you have a game plan. As any well-travelled family knows - preparation is everything.

Watching the nightly fireworks over Sleeping Beauty's castle is an experience not to be missed.
Watching the nightly fireworks over Sleeping Beauty's castle is an experience not to be missed. Photo: Disney

After taking my own family to Disneyland this year, I've put together the ultimate guide for every first-time visitor to the Magic Kingdom.

1. Yes, you can buy discounted Disney tickets

The number one destination for all info and tips on Disney pricing is at MouseSavers.com. While there are several outlets who provided discounted ticket packages, we used aRes Travel, saving approximately $100 USD for a family three-day park hopper ticket.

2. Spend at least three days there

Three days seems like a long time to spend at a fun park. But consider that tickets include both Disneyland as well as Disney California Adventure next door – making up 70 acres of attractions. That's a lot of walking. Passes of three days or longer also include one 'Magic Morning' allowing early admission at Disneyland Resort Park before the park opens to the general public – the short queue for Hyper Space mountain is worth it alone.

For convenience you may want to purchase a 'Park Hopper' upgrade which allows you to go between Disneyland and California Adventure park as many times as you like per day. Not a bad option given the superior food options at California Adventure.

Arrive before the gates open to enjoy the park while it is less busy and before the midday sun beats down.


3. Use the FASTPASS system

Honestly, this system is amazing and it is still free at Disneyland. Fastpasses allow you skip the queue for popular rides. Follow the signs for Fastpass machines at the major attractions. You can only have one active fast pass at a time, but careful planning will enable you to fit in all the major rides in a day, while visiting neighbouring attractions while waiting for your next Fast Pass ride.

For example, on Magic Morning my husband and son sprinted straight to HyperSpace mountain for a fast pass before joining myself and my daughter in the queue for Star Tours.
There is only one Fast Pass issued per ticket, per ride, but ride operators don't check whose Fast Pass you are using. My daughter didn't like some of the faster rides, so my son was able to use hers to go on twice in the same Fastpass period. There are other tips and hacks on using Fastpasses – Tripadvisor has an excellent summary.

The teacups are a family favourite.
The teacups are a family favourite. Photo: Supplied

4. Don't miss the evening shows

Disney does things bigger, brighter and louder than anywhere else. The two major evening shows, Paint the Night and World of Color, are Vivid-meets-Mardi Gras on steroids.
While many people throw down a rug and wait hours for a good spot for the evening performances, you don't have to. Free Fastpasses for allocated World of Color seating are available in the morning near Grizzly River Run in California Adventure Park; while booking a special Parade dining package will grant you reserved seating for the Paint the Night Parade and legendary fireworks.

5. Try to avoid school holidays, Christmas, Easter and Spring Break

Disneyland is never empty, but the time of year you go can make a huge difference to queue times and overall comfort. Undercover tourist has put together a helpful list of days to avoid at Disney if at all possible. To put it in context - we accidentally visited during Spring Break and the longest wait time at Disneyland was 45 minutes for Peter Pan. Over at California Adventure, the latest attraction, Radiator Springs Racers, ran out of Fastpasses by mid-morning and queues for food were lengthy.

Dsineyland's Paint the Night parade features incredible light-up floats.
Dsineyland's Paint the Night parade features incredible light-up floats. Photo: Amber Robinson

6. Don't limit yourself to Disney hotels

Sure, the convenience and Disney theming might be worth paying three times the cost than a hotel outside the park, but not for this family. We stayed at the no-frills Park Vue Inn, directly across the road from the main gates to the park. It's close enough for an afternoon siesta and swim before returning to the park for the evening shows. They'll even throw in a free breakfast.

7. Download the Disneyland app

Street performers on Buena Vista street.
Street performers on Buena Vista street. Photo: Amber Robinson

Plan your day, find your way and monitor wait times using the official Disneyland app. There is no Wi-Fi at Disneyland, so you'll need mobile data for the app to work. You can buy compatible SIM cards to work on Australian phones at LAX.

8. Characters are all part of the fun

Characters at Disneyland are played by competent actors and the costumes are magnificent. Even grown adults will find themselves waving at Mickey or beaming with joy when Alice and the Mad Hatter stroll by. Make the most of the character opportunities by picking up an autograph book from one of the souvenir stalls and taking it with you as you meet the characters. There are usually professional photographers on hand to capture the moment, but Cinderella won't mind posing for your mobile phone pics either.

Queues to meet the fairies in Pixie Hollow can be long, so consider stopping by early in the morning.

Soup bread bowls from the Pacific Wharf cafe are an inexpensive and delicious lunch option.
Soup bread bowls from the Pacific Wharf cafe are an inexpensive and delicious lunch option. Photo: Disney

9. Disneyland rules apply

My colleague, a Colorado native, told me that her family followed 'Disneyland' rules whenever they visited the park. Like that T-shirt? Buy it. Feel like Churros? Stuff your face without guilt. Budgeting to allow for snacks and shopping during your visit – within reason - will make everyone more relaxed. Of course, a pair of Mickey or Minnie ears is encouraged for every visitor young and old.

10. You can bring your own food – or eat relatively cheaply

Surprisingly, Disney doesn't mind you bringing in your own food, so long as it doesn't require heating. If your budget is tight, consider bringing your own water and snacks for the day. Little zip-lock bags of snacks like fruit or popcorn will help keep small children amused in long queues. Also consider booking a hotel with free breakfast included to keep you going until lunchtime.

As a rule the takeaway dining options are cheaper at Disneyland than the sit-down restaurants. Some inexpensive foods to try apart from the usual fried fare are the meat skewers at Bengal Barbeque or soup in a sourdough bread bowl at Pacific Wharf Café.

11. There is no wine at Disneyland. Be prepared.

As one friend quipped, how can it be the Happiest Place on Earth when you can't buy a glass of wine? Let's face it – a long day schlepping your children around a fun park can be draining. But don't fret. You can enjoy a beverage with your meal at the Wine Country Trattoria in California Adventure Park (the food is excellent), or at the restaurants in the Downtown Disney precinct. If all else-fails, there's always the hotel mini-bar.

12. Wear comfortable shoes

It might be obvious, but it can't be emphasised enough. Walking on concrete for 12 hours a day is exhausting, especially if you're in the wrong shoes. Sneakers with a thick sole are ideal, but be careful on wet rides like the Grizzly River Run. Cover your shoes with plastic bags or switch to flip flops for this wild ride. In hot weather, supportive sandals like those by Birkenstocks or TEVA can cope with splashes while keeping your feet cool.