Cropped Mickey_2

This year’s family spending controversy was this: New kitchen floor or first family trip to Disneyland? Floor or happy kids? Floor or magical family time together? You guessed it: We chose Disneyland.

A major trip like this (we went in July) is quite out of character (pun intended) for my husband and me. When we spend money, it tends to be on our house or our kids’ education–stuff we feel will really last. We love to travel, but lately it’s been sooo easy to put it off. It seems a bit, well, luxurious when there are always so many things that need to be done/paid for at home: New roof, new dishwasher, leaking frig….and of course, the ancient, cracking kitchen floor.

But. My dad’s been seriously ill. Our friends have recently lost beloved siblings and parents. Our daughters are growing up quickly. If we aren’t willing to invest a little money now in the things that are most important to us–people, relationships–will there be time later?

When they’re grown, will our kids remember fondly that we worked hard to buy a new kitchen floor? Or will they remember that we all screamed together on a Disneyland ride and splashed in the pool until our skin pruned up? We all know the answer.

That said, it IS possible to plan a big trip like Disneyland without breaking the bank. Although I often book trips on my own, this time I got help from a fellow writer-turned-travel agent–Julie Sturgeon of Curing Cold Feet. Don’t let her general travel-y looking website fool you. She’ll work with you one-on-one. Plus, she’s a big fan of the Mouse, and gave me great advice on the length of our trip, getting deals on passes, and which hotels were good.

I also loved, loved, loved this book. We got it from the library and took it with us on our trip. By following the strategies from this book, we rarely waited more than 20 minutes for even the major rides. Except for Peter Pan. Which my older daughter had to ride NOW even though the wait was 45 minutes in sweltering heat and we didn’t have a FastPass. 🙂

Some things we learned:

* For a first trip, stay at one of the official Disneyland hotels. In Disneyland, that means here, here or here. Sure, it will be cheaper to stay in a Motel 6 close by, but the Disney hotels are easy to reach from the park, linked by monorail, and just very, very fun for the kids. They are part of the whole Disney experience. In fact, I think our kids liked our hotel pool as much as the park! And the little shampoo and conditioners in our bathroom had cute mouse ears!

Also, you can arrange to have your purchases sent back to your hotel so you don’t have to schlep them around with you.

* Skip the Disney dining plan. We bought a 4-day Goofy Meal Plan for 4 people. We thought it would save us money buying food at the park and hotel. But it didn’t really. We essentially got vouchers for the exact amount of money we spent, and we couldn’t use the vouchers in Downtown Disney (the cool shopping area between the parks and hotel). Maybe it works better at DisneyWorld, but I’m not sold. Neither is this blogger.

Look for deals/reviews before you go. I always check this site. And for Disney-specific advice, I liked this one. I used a couple of their links to get restaurant coupons, including one for the Rainforest Cafe in Downtown Disney. My opinion on the Rainforest? Phfft. Disney is exciting enough. Our daughters barely cared about the animatronic birds and gorillas. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Save your sanity: Give kids a Disney allowance. Instead of listening to the kids beg for a charm bracelet here, oversize Mickey Mouse hands there, we allocated them each $50 for the week. It totally saved us! It’s amazing what sharp consumers kids become when they’re spending THEIR money. Oldest daughter (almost 12) bought a hat, jewelry and candy, while youngest daughter (7) opted for pins and several sets of Disneyland dressable action figures. Everyone was happy.

Go offseason if you can. But you know that already. Southern California in the summer is sweltering and crowded, crowded, crowded. If we did it again, it would be worth pulling the kids out of school in the fall for a long weekend at the Mouse. But do give yourselves at least 3 or 4 days to comfortably see all of Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure (connected to Disneyland via a main plaza). And don’t miss the Soarin’ Over California ride at DCA! This was my favorite ride of the whole trip!