Tips on planning the perfect disneyland trip on a budget
November 14, 2014 11:47 AM   Subscribe

2 adults, 3 girl kids (2,4,6) want to venture to Disneyland for Christmas, because: 1. Frozen 2. No family nearby to spend the holidays with 3. One kid turns 6 on Christmas eve 4. Frozen Please help me plan the perfect trip on a budget.

We have no family nearby and our friends are out of town for the holidays so we're going to spend the holidays alone. We are toying with taking the girls to Disneyland for a surprise because of the reasons listed above. My preliminary research has put the resort hotels out of our reach due to budgetary constraints, but we can manage a good neighbor hotel unless someone can wrangle a resort reservation at a good neighbor price. We are also flying out of Seattle so there's airfare to consider.
Specific help with the following would be much appreciated:
1. Advice on which hotels to pick vrs which to avoid based on proximity to resort (less than 10 mins of walking), kid friendliness and general feel-good vibes
2. Advice on park tickets. My kids are pretty young. They pretty much want to see Elsa, Anna, Olaf and maybe Minnie Mouse. Is it worth it to splurge on park hopper tickets? We plan to be there from dec 22 through Dec 26.
3. What is there to do on Christmas day? Will the parks be open on Christmas Day? If not how can i keep 3 kids entertained?
4. My oldest has an autism diagnosis. I plan on looking at getting a Disabilty access service card. Any other tips/tricks? She's also the one with the Christmas eve birthday. Is there anything special we can do for her at the park(s)?
5. My youngest is 2 but she's really tiny so i don't know what (if any) rides she can go on. She's barely 25lbs and very short! Will there be anything for her to do?
6. Will i be able to make it out of this trip alive?
7. Tell me there'll be a Frozen theme something (parade, characters, anything...) because apparently my kids eat, live and breath Anna, Elsa and Olaf.
Any other tips/tricks/observations/anecdotes welcome.
Please please please help me make this a trip to remember for the kids, because it's been a hard year and well, also, Frozen.
posted by ramix to Travel & Transportation around Anaheim, CA (20 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
What's the stroller situation? If you have one in a stroller, consider bringing an umbrella stroller (small and light) that can go on the plane and make sure to customize it heavily. About 1000 other parents will have exactly the same stroller as you and when you get off a ride, even if you were careful to put it in a stroller parking area, it might get moved. Don't leave anything you care about in the stroller.

Bring your own water.

My younger child did Disney World at 2 and enjoyed it quite a bit.

Make reservations for meals ahead of time and plan to be there, otherwise it may be a long wait for food and as we all know, child + hungry + tired + stimulated = inconsolable screaming fits.

Be prepared to carry kids through some of the lines. Disney staff will separate you from your stroller for some of the lines and even though we had a "stroller == wheelchair" tag, we didn't get consideration on Pirates of the Carribean.
posted by plinth at 12:01 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

As of March, this lists Frozen locations at all of the parks :
posted by librarianamy at 12:13 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also Christmas at Disneyland:
posted by librarianamy at 12:14 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

The park will not only be open, but very VERY busy, on Christmas Day. That's not to say you should avoid it, but be forewarned.
posted by primethyme at 12:16 PM on November 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

We were in WDWorld last year in December, but two adults alone. My biggest advice for "getting out alive" (based on my husband, since I was the one dragging him along) is to go with the flow. You're going to be at the "happiest place on earth." Know in advance that you're going at one of the busiest times of the year (Crowd Calendar). Be prepared for that. Plan ahead for your fast passes and manage that wisely. Don't feel like you have to do EVERYTHING. Include the kids in planning, and ask each of them in advance what their MUST DOs are. We had such a nice time that even my "get out alive" spouse has agreed that what Disney does well is customer service, and they KNOW what they're doing.

Two tangential anecdotes:
1) A good friend went in July, her oldest is on the autism spectrum. One of their biggest successes was to go over the map in advance and talk about the rides he wanted to go on. Then they went on YouTube and searched for videos of those rides/shows. There were a few they were able to eliminate completely based on his advance knowledge that it would be "too much" for him - and that saved them time in the park.
2) As I said, we were in Orlando, and Frozen had _just_ hit the parks in even the slightest amounts. We were standing in the church in Norway and overheard a family having a fight about their time - the dad had no interest in standing in line for two hours to meet Elsa & Anna. The little girl was perfectly content to stand in line for those two hours - when the mom explained that she was going to miss more of EPCOT that way, she shrugged and told them that the princesses were more important. (Honestly, the daughter was more rational than the dad...). So I guess just, be prepared for the lines to meet the super hot princesses, and involve the kids in the decision. And then think about bringing an ipad along so that they can be distracted in line while they wait.

Good luck! We had a great time. I can't wait to go back. :)
posted by librarianamy at 12:25 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Lokheed has written quite a bit about his autistic son's love of Disney World.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:25 PM on November 14, 2014

FIRST! There are many websites devoted to how one does Disney best: hopefully some people will be along to distill that knowledge for you (I see some already have), but absolutely take advantage of those resources-- they can mean the difference between an amazing time and coming home completely frazzled. is one for sure.

SECOND! Plan on staying in the park. I can't recommend any specific resort in the park, but if you were hoping to stay outside and save some cash, you'll be shortchanging yourself unless you absolutely positively can't pay for it. Staying inside saves you time, energy, and allows you to either show up early or stay late in order to take advantage of slightly less packed park experiences.

THIRD! There are a few meals you can go to that are reservation-only (I think?) and are heavily populated by character actors. Try and make one of these, but otherwise PACK YOUR OWN FOOD (IF YOU CAN). Food is crazy-expensive, and if you can feed your family with sandwiches and water bottles, you will be much much much happier, both in your pocketbook and in the time you're saving on waiting in line at the food counters.
posted by Poppa Bear at 12:35 PM on November 14, 2014

The ten minutes of walking bit -- do you need to be within walking distance of D-land? If not, that expands your hotel choices quite a bit. You might consider lodging in Fullerton, Placentia, or La Habra or thereabouts. These are suburban areas and far from glamorous, but they will be cheaper than places closer to either Disneyland or Knotts Berry Farm (or the beach, if you go further west). They are also a quick freeway jaunt to the Land of the Mouse (and Elsa).
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 12:39 PM on November 14, 2014

If you stay outside the resort, consider driving to the park if your hotel doesn't have a shuttle - you have to pay ~$15/day to park, but you can also go back to your hotel and then back to Disneyland without paying again.

On your daughter's birthday, take her to Guest Services and tell them it's her birthday - they'll make a personalized birthday badge for her and cast members (and sometimes park visitors) will wish her a happy birthday throughout the day.

We took my daughter when she was around 2 - she didn't even really want to ride on the rides, she was just having fun enjoying everything. Her favorite thing was to wander around Toontown; Goofy's Playhouse is a free play area for kids that only has one entrance, so you can hang out there and she can explore safely.
posted by mogget at 12:41 PM on November 14, 2014

You may also want to consider an Airbnb/VRBO rather than hotel. That way you'll have a more homey space and a kitchen, which can really cut down on expenses as you can grocery shop and fix some meals.
posted by quince at 12:45 PM on November 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Disclaimer: I work for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, but on the east coast (Orlando) not in Anaheim. My comments are my own and do not represent my employer in any way, don't sue me or them, blah blah blah, you know the drill.

Personally, I recommend you check out MouseSavers, which is a website run by a Disney fan who tracks deals and offers tips and money saving advice. Here is their page on Disneyland

1. Advice on which hotels to pick - if you are only going to Disney, you should look into staying at one of the Disney hotels. The benefit of this is that you can leave the park midday for a nap and still make it back at night. However, this is more expensive, plus hotels generally book up quickly and Christmas is a busy time. The site I linked has current offers for Disneyland hotels listed, and listings of nearby resorts. You could also look into renting points from a timeshare (Disney Vacation Club - DVC) member using their points for a visit, but that depends on availability.

2. Advice on park tickets - I do not think you need to splurge on park hopper tickets. Kids are generally happy doing one park per day, and you can walk around the hotels and Downtown Disney also.

3. Will the parks be open on Christmas Day? - The parks are open Christmas day, with all rides and parades. Official hours are 10:00 am to 8:00 pm

4. autism diagnosis - Here is the official page on guests with autism. The Disability Access Service Card is the service offered, and you should plan to take advantage of it.

5. youngest is 2 - There are plenty of things for your toddler to enjoy! Here is the page that covers attractions, and offers filter for both age and height requirements. My search for Toddler/Any height returns 50+ things in Disneyland park alone (not including California Adventure), with items ranging from the carousel to Disney Junior to character meet and greet options.

6. Will i be able to make it out of this trip alive? - Yes! You will have a great time too!

7. Tell me there'll be a Frozen theme something - I checked our internal website. Anna and Elsa will be available for Meet and Greet in Fantasyland every day during your trip. Olaf has a “frosty” spot between Pinocchio's Daring Journey and Village Haus Restaurant. There is a "Frozen Fantasy" celebration before the parade every day in Disneyland, and a Frozen float in the parade featuring "Princess Anna, Olaf and Queen Elsa creating winter wonder on a float made of snow and ice".

I hope you have a magical trip!
posted by I am the Walrus at 1:51 PM on November 14, 2014 [10 favorites]

Just wanted to chime in on your youngest. We just got back from Disney with our 16 month old, 3 year old and 5 year old. Our youngest could ride a lot of rides on my lap, and had the best time of us all. She seriously smiled and was happy the entire time we were there. Your tiny two year old will most definitely be able to have a blast. I would highly recommend the Winnie the Pooh ride for her as well. My 16 month old could have ridden that over and over again!
posted by Happydaz at 2:13 PM on November 14, 2014

Oh! I forgot to add. We stayed at the Camelot Inn, which is right across the street from Disney. The price was affordable, the room was perfect, and the walk to the main gate took us less than 5 minutes. VERY worth it! The resorts, while fun to stay at, are definitely expensive, and you can get a nice close hotel for a much better price.
posted by Happydaz at 2:16 PM on November 14, 2014

Best answer: Disneyland is the best place on earth to have your birthday! I just celebrated mine there and I am 30 years old :) When you enter the park at the turnstiles on your daughter's birthday, make sure that you tell them that it is her birthday and they will give her a pin (they write her name on it, but you can probably tell them not to if it will make her uncomfortable). People will tell her happy birthday, cast members and parkgoers, alike.

Hotels: I have stayed in the Sheraton Park Hotel at the Anaheim Resort and the Sheraton Anaheim. Both have continental breakfast if you have enough SPG points. I preferred the Sheraton Anaheim (it has a shuttle, was in a quieter location, and was a nicer hotel overall). I have also heard good things about the Alpine Inn and the Candy Cane Inn (which is literally right next door to California Adventure). Here is a good blog entry on Good Neighbor Hotels, plus reviews of the hotels. I would really recommend something within walking distance as the parks will be super busy and parking/traffic around there can be a nightmare. When I was at Disneyland last year at the end of December, it took me about an hour to wait for parking, park, get on the tram, and then get to the park. If you fly into Santa Ana/John Wayne, you can get a hotel shuttle or SuperShuttle pretty easily, and totally forego the rental car fees and parking (which can be steep at hotels around there).

Park tickets - I don't think you will need park hopper tickets. There is plenty to do in each park each day, plus admission lines can be long, so you don't want to waste time by going back and forth. You can get discount ticket packages (including stays at Good Neighbor Hotels) from AAA or Costco or just on tickets at Park Savers. Don't try to buy tickets from eBay or whatnot- Disneyland takes your picture when you enter and then checks your picture when you use the tickets again.

Christmas themed stuff - There are several rides that are holiday themed, including Haunted Mansion and the Jungle Cruise. Also, World of Color at California Adventure is themed to the holidays. There's a nice holiday sing-a-long at the back of Disneyland as well. The decorations in each park are pretty spectacular, especially Cars Land. Also, make sure to catch the lighting up of Cars Land when dusk hits - all the neon signs turn on and it is pretty amazing.

Frozen stuff - they just finished taping the Frozen-themed Christmas special at Disneyland, which will air on Christmas morning, so maybe you can watch that in your hotel before heading over. There is also a little Olaf-themed ice rink in Downtown Disney. To meet Olaf, Anna, and Elsa, you have to get a FastPass - there is no stand-by for that meet-and-greet anymore. The line can still be long, from what I understand, so be prepared. There is also a Frozen pre-parade before Mickey's Soundsational Parade.

Tiny-child logistics. There are some rides that have the baby swap option, so you and your spouse can trade off your youngest daughter if both of you want to ride. I would also make sure that you have some quiet-ish places that your family can go to just chill after being in long lines. Tom Sawyer's Island in Disneyland and the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail in California Adventure are good for this.

Dining - you can pack in your own food and drink, as long as you don't have any glass. There is a picnic area outside the park, but I would recommend eating your picnic at the Hungry Bear Restaurant in Disneyland, as it looks out over the Rivers of America (it's walk-up seating). There's lots of space there too. In California Adventure, a good spot is in front of the lake across from the Little Mermaid ride. Try the fried chicken at the Plaza Inn or a corn dog from the Little Red Wagon. The French Market is also good (all are counter-service restaurants, Disney-speak for walk-up dining).

Also, be aware that I have seen many, many girls throughout the park wearing Anna and Elsa outfits. They are about $60 each at the shops, so if that is something that your girls would want, it would probably be worth buying them ahead of time and packing them. The Bippity Boppity Boutique is also very popular - it's where kids can get their hair done in fancy buns with gel and sparkles (for $$$). Again, you can probably pack some fancy hair gels and bring that along, if it's something you think they will want. If you are really crafty, you can even DIY your own mouse ears!

You will survive :) The best part of Disneyland is the detail (like the bands and the decorations and the roaming characters and the people watching), so just make sure that you and your family relax and soak up the ambiance!
posted by topophilia at 2:43 PM on November 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

The nighttime water show World of Color in Disney California Adventure has just switched over to the holiday version (WOC: Winter Dreams), and it is 50% more Frozen than last year. So that alone is worth at least one day in DCA. Be sure to get Fastpasses for the show early in the day as they run out by afternoon. If you have a DAS, then I believe you should be allowed into a special seating/standing area, but in either case, I would show up earlier to get up close. Otherwise plan on your kids sitting on your shoulders.

More Frozen-related news: they just opened up Anna & Elsa's Boutique in Downtown Disney! You can get Frozen makeovers there. Also, to meet Anna & Elsa in Fantasyland you'll need a virtual Fastpass, which alleviates the 3 hours long lines that were there before. The Frozen pre-parade float in Disneyland is nice, but nothing really special, although the rest of the parade is great. They have a special holiday-themed fireworks show over the castle at night.

Non-Frozen-related stuff: there are a ton of hotel shuttles that go to and from the park all day long, if you're looking into hotels that aren't within walking distance. There's even ART (Anaheim Resort Transportation) that will get you all around Anaheim. I don't think it's as imperative to stay at a Disney hotel the way it is in Orlando.

Park hours will be extended during your timeframe: Disneyland open til midnight, DCA til 11 pm. I'd suggest park hoppers only because you can head to DCA for relief from the crowds. It will be busy, but not stuck-in-crowds-moving-the-speed-of-molasses-in-winter when you're trying to cross New Orleans Square. There's a department store Santa on Buena Vista St and a tree lighting ceremony. Also, Cars Land is pretty cute right now with snow and lights.

(Disclaimer: I work in DCA stores, so I'm a little biased. Feel free to send me a message if you have other questions!)
posted by book 'em dano at 4:07 PM on November 14, 2014

Also, with three girls, definitely look into doing a character breakfast like at Ariel's Grotto where they get to meet Belle, Rapunzel, Cinderella, et al, and also get special paper crowns and Ariel buttons. For birthday buttons, don't bother waiting in line at City Hall or Chamber of Commerce; all of the stores usually carry buttons. If a survey taker stops you on your way in or out, take the survey! They usually have special stickers, as do custodial cast members.
posted by book 'em dano at 4:14 PM on November 14, 2014

We stayed at the Howard Johnson Anaheim (right outside the park) and it was awesome. Much cheaper than the park, close enough to walk back in the middle of the day for a rest, and a great kiddie water park on the premises. We had a blast at Disneyland but the hotel was really great too.
posted by agent99 at 4:48 PM on November 14, 2014

1. Don't listen to anyone above who insists you stay in a disney hotel but has only been to WDW. Not at all the same planet and you are absolutely fine staying at a good neighbor hotel-this is completely unlike a trip to disney world.
2. The Howard Johnson's is great. Best Wester park place inn and Deser inn and suites are right at park entrance-maybe a five minute walk? The best western is nicer
3. Get thee to and go to their disneyland boards. They can answer all your questions far better than anyone else.
posted by purenitrous at 8:03 PM on November 14, 2014

I live in SoCal and did Disneyland over Memorial Day (and have been many other times). I agree you probably won't need the park hopper since you'll be there enough days that you can do one park a day. I'm a total planner and the $13 membership to Touring Plans and their app is amazing. You can make customized plans with the rides you want to see and it'll help sort the order you should do things while you're in the park to minimize waits. The app also has menus and ride wait times.

Having gone to various Disney parks since I was a kid, the biggest piece of advice I can give is to take a break in the afternoon. Hang out in a quiet area, go to the hotel for naps/pool, sit in a restaurant and people watch...Afternoons seem most crowded and they're also when everyone has a meltdown. Kids start crying because they're tired, parents start yelling, and even my friends and I get super cranky.
posted by loulou718 at 7:22 AM on November 15, 2014

We were just there recently. To see Anna and Elsa, be there when the park opens and IMMEDIATELY go from the front gate to Fantasyland -- straight up Main Street, around the statue of Walt, through the castle, and left at the carousel.

You will get in line to get a ticket for later in the day to see Anna and Elsa. We were in the park at 8:05 and went right to FL, and we got a ticket for 12:20.

When we showed up then, we got to see Anna and Elsa. We also saw lots of people who were being turned away because the tickets were long gone by 12:20.

Make meal reservations online to avoid a long wait. The Plaza Inn has a breakfast buffet with character dining that's $30 for adults, $15 for kids, but worth it if you want to eat a big breakfast and meet people in costume.

Here is the reservation link.

Count on spending a lot on food, there's no way to eat cheaply in the park, but some places are comparable to a typical mid-$$ restaurant in price -- there's just no actual low-priced food. (A slice of pizza was like $7.)
posted by shvaughn at 12:56 PM on November 15, 2014

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