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NerdWallet: 10 ways to save money on a trip to Disneyland

At Disneyland, elephants do in fact fly, and successfully planning a trip there on a budget isn’t as impossible as it might seem. Read More...

This article is reprinted by permission from NerdWallet

One-day theme park tickets to Disneyland Park in Anaheim, Calif., and its sibling, Disney California Adventure Park, start at $104 per person, so calling Disneyland cheap is about as believable as saying an elephant can fly. But at Disneyland, elephants do in fact fly (Dumbo, anyone?) — and successfully planning a trip to Disneyland on a budget isn’t as impossible as it might seem.

Here’s how to go to Disneyland for less.

1. Purchase discounted Disneyland tickets

Authorized third-party sellers such as Undercover Tourist often sell Disneyland tickets for less than buying directly from Disney DIS, -2.16%.

Some membership programs, including AAA and Costco COST, -0.18%, offer tickets or vacation package deals, though they typically command a membership fee to join. Other affiliations, such as employee or student discount programs, might similarly unlock discounts. 

Disney also sometimes offers discounts to groups, including U.S. military members or Southern California residents.

Also see: The good and bad on booking a vacation through Costco Travel

2. Skip Park Hopper for multiday trips

There are two Disney theme parks in Anaheim, and if you want to see both in one day, you’ll need a Park Hopper ticket. The problem? Park Hopper tickets cost $65 more per person for a single-day ticket.

If your one-day trip will feel incomplete if you don’t see both, say, Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle and Avengers Campus across the way at Disney California Adventure, then you’ll need the pricier Park Hopper option. But if you’re there for multiple days, save by visiting one park per day. The best way to do Disneyland is by focusing on one park at a time, anyway.

Plus: 7 off-the-radar places worth stopping on a California road trip

3. Get there early (like, really early)

The theme park turnstiles typically open for business slightly before official park opening time, and it’s likely guests will be waiting. By arriving early, you’ll be able to pass the security check and scan your tickets. From there, you’ll typically be able to linger within the first few hundred feet inside the park, browse the shops and be ready to power walk to the rides as soon as they open.

You can race to your priority experiences, like Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. This new ride opened just in time for the Disney100 Celebration. By hitting your must-do rides early, you’ll avoid the longest wait times. According to Disney trip planning website Touring Plans, which tracks ride wait times, lines are usually the longest from 1-2 p.m.

Also on MarketWatch: Disney CEO Bob Iger blasts DeSantis over ‘anti-business’ retaliation

4. Bring your own food and drinks

When it comes to meals, the cheapest way to do Disneyland is to bring food from elsewhere. Disneyland explicitly allows outside food and nonalcoholic beverages, with just a few stipulations, such as no glass containers.

Pack nutrient-dense snacks like protein bars and nuts. Road trippers might stop at a supermarket along the way. Nearby cafes and fast food restaurants can offer similar-quality food for less money, and a few are within walking distance of the park. If you’re willing to venture out further, dine at Anaheim Packing District — a food hall in a renovated, historic 1919 citrus-packing house that’s a 10-minute drive away.

5. Use mobile food ordering

The official Disneyland app has many capabilities, including displaying GPS-enabled maps, live attraction wait times and — perhaps most useful — mobile food and beverage ordering.

This feature is offered by almost all quick-service restaurants, including the notoriously popular home of the Dole Whip, the Tiki Juice Bar. Budget your time and skip the lines by ordering and paying for your food and drinks in-app.

6. Ditch your friends (for a few minutes) with Single Rider

Another tip in the time-is-money vein: Single Rider. A handful of especially popular attractions, such as the Millennium Falcon at Disneyland and the Incredicoaster at Disney California Adventure, offer Single Rider queues, where folks willing to ride separately from their group fill unused seats.

The Single Rider line almost always gets you on board faster than the standard queue.

7. Buy souvenirs elsewhere

Forgo the expensive Disney gift shops inside the parks. Instead, purchase plushies or character garb from your local toy store in advance. Then, hide “souvenirs” in your suitcase and spring them on the kids while you’re on vacation. They likely won’t realize their new plushies aren’t actually from Disneyland.

The “Disney tax” on food and souvenirs also applies to other items. For instance, the plastic poncho from the gift shop near Splash Mountain is likely far pricier than what you’d buy elsewhere.

Plus: How to choose the best seat on a plane

8. Consider neighboring airports 

Many folks think that the best airport for Disneyland is Los Angeles International Airport — the fifth-largest commercial airport in the U.S., according to the Federal Aviation Administration. 

But LAX is actually close to 40 miles away from Disneyland, and that distance can equate to a couple of hours in traffic. Two smaller airports, John Wayne Airport and Long Beach Airport, are each about 15 miles away, which can mean a cheaper and faster trip to the park.

Be sure to read: These are the airlines with the most delays and cancellations

That said, according to 2021 FAA data, LAX served 6.2 times more passengers than John Wayne Airport and 22.7 times more passengers than Long Beach Airport. This suggests that if you opt to fly into LAX, which is further away, you’re more likely to find a direct flight or have more route options. 

And if you can avoid a layover, you’ll likely save a little money on flight costs. A 2019 study from the MIT International Center for Air Transportation, a research arm of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that the cheapest nonstop flight is, on average, $31 less expensive than the cheapest flight with a layover.

Don’t miss: 5 travel hacks to beat the summer crowds and high prices

9. Stay off-property

There are three Disney-owned hotels in Anaheim, and they’re almost always more expensive than non-Disney hotels of similar quality nearby. Unlike at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., where staying on-property usually has benefits like more frequent bus transportation to the parks, that’s typically not the case on the West Coast.

In California, many off-site hotels remain within walking distance — and many can be booked using credit card points.

See: Learn these 5 myths about credit card rewards to reap more benefits

10. Spend on the right credit card

If you end up spending $13 on a turkey leg in the park, you might as well earn some rewards. Though the best Disney credit cards aren’t actually Disney-branded.

Instead, look to travel credit cards that earn bonus points on general travel spending and at restaurants. Some command high annual fees, but they typically offer even higher spending rewards, plus extras such as TSA PreCheck statement credits and airport lounge access. Consider holding a premium credit card as the plastic (or metal) equivalent of the royal treatment.

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Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @SAFmedia.

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