TouringPlans #Everywhere: Budgeting for A Disneyland Trip

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Photo courtesy Guy Selga, Jr

Hello! You may remember from my last post about traveling to Disneyland for TouringPlans #Everywhere that I am totally “California Dreamin” (on such a…uh, spring’s day?). Well, now I am back to give you a little more insight into everyone’s favorite subject: budgeting!

What?! You don’t love to budget? I guess that’s probably normal, which explains why I do enjoy it (e.g. I’m not normal). The sad fact for those of you who do not like to discuss vacation budgeting is that it is an essential part of the trip. My plan here today is to go through my experience budgeting for a Disneyland trip, tell you my thought process, and give you some tips.

Basic Info

As you may recall (but probably don’t), I will be travelling with my wife and two children, ages 5 and 3 at the time of the trip. We live in beautiful, scenic Pennsylvania, which, if you have a knack for geography, you will notice is quite far from California. And yes, my wife has to go although “if I didn’t tell her I could leave today.” We will be traveling in early October, specifically, around the weekend of October 11-13.

Disneyland Tickets

Much like Walt Disney World, admission options at Disneyland are one of the few aspects of a vacation that is fiscally set in stone. There are few discounts on tickets, and what discounts do exist are very small and basically negligible.

We previously decided to spend 5 days at the Disneyland Resort because why the heck not. Additionally, Park Hopping tickets are a no-brainer because Disneyland and California Adventure are so close to each other. Being able to visit both on the same day is a must. The 5-day Park Hopper tickets are $305 for adults and $289 for children ages 3-9. Therefore, our ticket cost for the four of us is $1,188.

A few different types of Annual Passes are available, but to fully understand their value we need to discuss hotels and food. Towards the end we’ll get back into Annual Passes.

Hotel

I talked about our hotel choice in my last post, but I’ll rehash it quickly with the associated costs. We will be staying near the Disneyland Resort for 6 nights, although we will have been in California for a week prior to our arrival at the happiest place on Earth. The reason for the extra night is so we can drive into Anaheim later in the day, check into the hotel (to be named later…suspense! As long as you didn’t read my last post), return the rental car, and probably walk over to Downtown Disney for dinner. Then we still have 5 full park days to get the maximum value out of those tickets.

As a Walt Disney World veteran, I am used to staying in an on-site Disney hotel, so that is naturally where I looked first. At first I looked up the full price, or “rack,” rates, and then I calculated a 20% discount as a proxy for a common Annual Passholder discount (in parentheses). I will use this later to determine whether an Annual Pass is right for me. All prices are per night, found on the Disneyland website, and include taxes and fees:

  • Grand Californian Hotel & Spa: $525.92 ($420.73 with 20% discount)
  • Disneyland Hotel: $454.55 ($363.64)
  • Paradise Pier Hotel: $342.23 ($273.78)

Once I recovered from the heart attack those numbers gave me I started calculating. $274 per night doesn’t sound awful I guess, but that’s in the least popular on-site hotel and that includes a 20% discount. There is absolutely no guarantee that any discount will be offered, and even if there is, it will likely require me to buy an annual pass. So then I’m looking at a minimum of $342 per night, or $2,053 for the trip. Even though “all the leaves are brown and the sky is gray” where I am, the trip needs to have a slightly lower price tag than that.

Where that leaves us is off-site, which means something very different at Disneyland versus Walt Disney World. The California park is not blessed with land like its Orlando brother is, so dozens of hotels have sprung up within an easy walk of the parks. What we wanted was something that within a few minutes walk that is clean and reasonably priced. I tried to look for the Hotel California which I’ve heard allows you to  check out any time you like, but the downside is you can never leave…oh well, I guessed it was time to reach out to some friends with Disneyland experience. After asking around, two hotels were recommended to me: The Camelot Inn and the Desert Inn. Let’s see how their prices check out (again all prices are per night and include taxes and fees):

  • Desert Inn and Suites: $195.80
  • Camelot Inn and Suites: $150.93

Well that is certainly lower. The room at the Camelot seems to be equivalent to a Moderate level room at Walt Disney World (such as Port Orleans). It has 2 queen beds, a table with chairs, and a mini-refrigerator. The Desert Inn room has all of that plus a sofa, which indicates to me that it is a bit bigger. Both of these are within about a 6 minute walk of the Disneyland gates and both come with good recommendations. The slight difference in size was not that important to us, but the cost is, so we chose the Camelot. The total for 6 nights is $905.58, which is $1,147.77 cheaper than the cheapest Disney hotel.

Budgeting For A Disneyland Trip

Kayak’s Price Trend

Airfare

Buying airfare has the feel of gambling to it. The price is one thing on a Tuesday, could be another thing on a Wednesday, it might go up in 2 months, or it might drop $100 for one day next week…no one knows. Luckily there is a tool that helps, although a lot comes down to research and luck.

First, a few qualifications: we live in northeastern Pennsylvania, so we have a few airport options. There are some small, local airports all within about 45 minutes, but all would require at least one layover on the way to California. For a direct flight, and many more route and price options, we can drive about 2 hours to either the Philadelphia or Newark airport. As I always do, I checked every airport around for the best flight.

When it came down to it, direct flights were basically equal in price to flights with a stop. While spending 6 hours on a plane with a 5 and 3 year old sounds sub-awesome, we decided that would be better than enduring 2 takeoffs, 2 landings, and an indeterminate amount of time in a layover airport.

To search for the flights I used the popular site Kayak because they have the Price Trend tool I mentioned above. What this tool does is tell you the likelihood that the flights you are looking at will go up in price. The trend box on the left (circled in the photo) includes a chart, their advice (in this case it’s BUY), and their confidence level (61% right now, which is not very high). It’s not exact, but it is better than nothing.

We purchase our flight on February 16 for $368 per ticket (including tax and fees), when Kayak said buy with a confidence of 89%. It turned out that the flight went down very briefly for one day in March, but has been higher ever since. We could have gotten lucky and done a little better, but it turned out pretty well. As you can see in the Kayak screenshot, the cost now is $442 (Kayak’s prices also include taxes and fees, one of my favorite features). I guess we gambled and won.

Dining

For obvious reasons, calculating dining costs are much harder than the items above. It is hard to know exactly where you will eat and what you will order for every day of your trip, so we have to estimate.

For the five days we plan to spend in the park I guessed we would eat one sit-down (or Table Service) meal per day and two fast food-style (or Counter Service) meals. This is probably over-estimating, but I’m not including extra snacks or drinks either so it may be pretty close overall.

For the five Table Service meals I priced out the 5 character meals offered at the Disneyland Resort. Those who have read my multitude of character meal review from Walt Disney World know that I love eating with costumed personalities buzzing around. Whether we will actually do all 5 remains to be seen. Anyway, the cost of these meals for 2 adults and 2 children is about $633 (including estimated tax and gratuity). The costs for each individual meal average about $34 per adult and $18 per child.

The Counter Service meals are trickier since there are so many menu items. What I did was browse through some of TouringPlans’ wonderful Disneyland menus and pick a price that seemed average. I came up with a figure of $11 for an adult entrée and $9 for a child. Adding tax and drinks comes to around $42 per meal or $455 total. Adding that to the character meal prices brings the estimated food total to $1,088.

There are some mitigating factors that may help keep the costs down. For one thing, my kids are very picky and we usually pack PB&J, so the odds that we will order each of them an entrée at a Counter Service restaurant are very slim. Additionally, if we do end up eating at a breakfast buffet with characters, we may not want 2 extra meals every day. When it comes to budgeting though, I like to be conservative, so I’m using the full amount.

Annual Pass versus Paying Full Price

Now we come back to the price and value of an Annual Pass. Since the Annual Pass offers discounts on resorts and dining, it is prudent to check and see if purchasing a pass makes economic sense. To make things more difficult, Disneyland offers a few different Annual Pass options. They are:

  • Southern California Select: $289.00. Meant for local residents with many blackout dates (clearly not for me).
  • Deluxe: $519.00. Contains blackout dates during popular periods. Offers 10% dining and merchandise discounts.
  • Premium: $699.00. No blackout dates. Offers 15% dining and 20% merchandise discounts.

Luckily for us, we are not visiting at a busy period, so the Deluxe pass would cover all of our days. Since we don’t expect to visit more than once this year only one of us would need an Annual Pass. The difference between an adult ticket and the Deluxe Annual Pass is $214, which we’ll use as the base for our comparison.

Dining – The Deluxe pass offers a 10% discount at most Table Service and Counter Service restaurants, so we’ll use the dining calculations above to find out the value of that. Ten percent of that (pre-gratuity) cost comes to $98.88.

Hotel – As mentioned above, there are often Annual Pass discounts on Disney hotels. If we use a possible discount rate of 20%, that would save us $410.67 on Paradise Pier, bringing the dining plus hotel savings to $509.55.

Unfortunately to get that hotel discount we also need to upgrade from the Camelot Inn to Paradise Pier. The difference between the Camelot and the discounted Paradise Pier is $737.10, so we have to add that to our total. Here is the total breakdown:

  • With Annual Pass: $1,402 (tickets) + $1,642.68 (Paradise Pier Hotel w/discount) + $988.76 (food w/discount) + $1,472 (airfare) = $5,505.44
  • Non-discounted price: $1,188 (tickets) + $905.58 (Camelot Inn) + $1,087.63 (food) + $1,472 (airfare) = $4,653.21

Well, since we would save $852.23 without the Annual Pass it seems like a no-brainer to forgo that upgrade. Our total Disneyland trip estimate comes to $4,653.21 not including souvenirs or extraneous costs like a rental car, which would not be necessary if we weren’t going elsewhere in California.

Disneyland vs. Disney World

To look at the relationship between travelling to Disneyland versus Walt Disney World, I checked the price for a comparative Walt Disney World vacation. Here’s what I looked up:

  • 6 nights with a room discount at Port Orleans – Riverside (similar room to Camelot Inn)
  • Flight (from Philadelphia)
  • 5 day Park Hopper Park tickets

The total of the above is $3,108.26. Assuming the same dining cost (because it would be close), the total comes to $4,195.89. That is “only” a $457.32, or about a 10%, difference. There may be cheaper options for Walt Disney World (because, frankly, I didn’t look too hard), but I just wanted to show that it was closer than many think.

Well, that’s it. Sorry I got so wordy, but pricing out a vacation and proper budgeting can make or break a potential trip, or allow for more trips than you thought…so it’s important. Feel free to ask any questions or point out any errors in my math.

Thanks for reading!

(In case you youngins are wondering, quoted references come from “California Dreamin’,” the 1965 song by The Mamas & the Papas, which is even before my time. There is also an Eagles reference in there because all non-rap songs about California apparently came out at least 40 years ago.)

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Posted on June 4, 2014

14 Responses to “TouringPlans #Everywhere: Budgeting for A Disneyland Trip”

  • by Mariana Ruiz on June 4, 2014, at 6:50 am EDT

    Great budget article! I also love budgeting for Disney trips (being an engineer, a simulation professor, and mother of two picky eaters might explain it too). I usually start updating my spreadsheets about 10 months prior to each trip. We travel from Mexico City so flights to either Florida or California are about the same cost- time, so hotel/tickets/food comparison is very helpful. Question: Could you quickly name which those 5 character meals are?

    • by Brian McNichols on June 4, 2014, at 7:39 am EDT

      Of course! The five character meals at DLR are:

      Plaza Inn (breakfast) in Disneyland
      Ariel’s Grotto (breakfast or lunch) in California Adventure
      Storyteller’s Cafe (breakfast) in the Grand Californian Hotel
      PCH Grill (breakfast) in the Paradise Pier Hotel
      Goofy’s Kitchen (breakfast or dinner) in the Disneyland Hotel

  • Get your Disneyland tickets at Way.com, and you’ll save about $80. I used them for my trip last September, and it was very convenient.

  • Thank you for such a great article! It was very helpful as we also start our Disneyland planning!

  • Thanks so much for this article. I have a Disney budget spreadsheet that I have tracked almost every dollar I have spent on Disney vacations for the past 6 years (too scary to look at sometimes!). I love Disney but I really love Disney on a budget.

  • Just a guess, but since you work for touringplans, do you already have a WDW annual pass? If so, the cost of an annual pass for Disneyland would be the cost of upgrading to a premier pass, which is in the $350 range. Also, the premiere offers a 15% discount on food, so a little extra saved there. Additionally, if you’re planning on buying souvenirs, the annual pass will get you a discount on merchandise (which includes the fabulous treats at Pooh’s Corner – a must visit!

    Keep in mind that the big draw of the Disney-owned hotels at Disneyland is early entry. It is a huge perk and can make all the difference. So while I appreciate your cost considerations, the value of that extra hour when the park is empty (*every* day) is definitely something to be considered.

    Of course, if you’re doing character breakfasts, then you’re spending those early morning hours eating, so that may not make a difference to you.

    • by Brian McNichols on June 4, 2014, at 11:53 am EDT

      Great points. I do have a WDW annual pass but it will expire in September. Since I don’t expect to visit WDW until at least February (and more likely summer) 2015, the carrying costs of getting a new WDW AP or Premier passport make it unreasonable.

      The early entry is something I probably should have mentioned although, since our tickets are longer than 3 days, we can get into Disneyland early for Magic Mornings once on either Tuesday, Thursday, or Sunday. It’s not the same value as the on-site hotel, but it’s still something.

  • by Bryan Klinck on June 4, 2014, at 1:34 pm EDT

    Bonus points for using The Mama & The Papas, but the Eagles??? The Dude does not abide…

  • Hey Brian,

    Great budget. I always do a Google Doc spreadsheet of all of the points that you list out. However, I actually have the advantage of living in Northern California so I never have to worry about flying. Makes taking a trip to the original park that much easier :)

    One thing that I DEFINITELY wanted to recommend and honestly try and persuade you on, is staying at the Candy Cane Inn. I’ve heard the Camelot is nice, but I just wanted to point out all of the features at the Candy Cane Inn for comparison. I don’t know if you plan on making a hotel post at any point either so I’ll just write it here:

    The Candy Cane Inn is also literally, next door to Disneyland. In fact, you can see the back of Cars Land while you’re in the hotel parking lot. So proximity is on par with Camelot.
    As far as other features that I don’t know if the Camelot has, here they are:
    -A “AAA” discount if you’re a member with them, so your hotel stay would be even cheaper.
    -Free breakfast in the morning. So that means, saving a TON of money on either going out every day or even packing your own food. Plus it’s actually a good breakfast! :) Not to mention, you can grab some of the food that they provide for you to take to the park later for even more money saving.
    -Free parking. Now this is more relevant for someone like me who would drive down there and needs to park their car, but if you’re planning on renting a car, be aware that most other hotels charge you per day, on using their lot. Candy Cane Inn does not.
    -Lastly, a free shuttle. Now I know, I know, you said, and even I said, that the park is super close. But I’m thinking for those long afternoons that you spent at the park or any other time when you’re worried about walking, having the shuttle option (for free!) is always nice to have.

    Not to mention that the actual rooms and pool are fantastic and perfect for a family who is staying for the parks. I realize you probably already booked your hotel, but I just thought that in the event that you ever stay there again, you might want to consider the Candy Cane Inn because it honestly has so many money-saving features its hard NOT to stay there at some point.

    It’s too bad that the Disney Hotels are so much more heart-stoppingly expensive, but choosing to stay off-site is really a good choice for someone who wants to enjoy the parks as much as possible without having to worry about breaking the bank.

    Sorry for the long comment! But I hope that helps you somewhat :) enjoy your trip!

    • +Love+ Candy Cane Inn. It’s definitely become our “go to” hotel when visiting DLR.

      • Gotta vote for Candy Cane too! Took our first trip to Disneyland in Nov 2013 and would stay again in a heartbeat. So clean, colorful, updated, great breakfast and such a short walk to DL!!!

  • Maybe I missed something, but if a 5-day adult ticket costs $305 and a Deluxe Annual Pass costs $519, your difference should be $214, not $394. I don’t think it would change your final conclusions for your family’s trip, but the difference might be close enough for others. I think if you desire to stay on site for more than a few nights, one AP is a no-brainer for that discount alone.

    • by Brian McNichols on June 5, 2014, at 1:15 pm EDT

      You are correct Vik, it was supposed to be $214 and has been fixed. The other numbers were not looking at the wrong spreadsheet cell as I was, so they are still correct. Thanks for catching that!

  • Brian,

    First off, love the early trip reporting for DLR. Economics reporting was a great insight. I’m sure there will be getting there, during trip, and post trip reporting. Most interested in your comparison opinions versus WDW. My first and only trip to DLR versus 20+ trips to WDW was best described as ‘ I was visiting another country where English is the predominant language’ but still very different. Loved DCE as a ‘new’ park but found Walt’s original park to be very disorienting :-)