Last month, our little family took our first official vacation and guess where everyone wanted to go – Disneyland! I thought I would share how we were able to do it economically without sacrificing any of the fun!
How We Traveled
After looking around for flights for a few days, we decided to go with Alaska Airlines. At the time, prices were extremely high for when we wanted to travel and they had the best deal. For a family of five, we paid just over $1900 which breaks down to about $385 per person. The only thing was that we agreed to change planes in Seattle which, in the end, was okay considering it saved us about $1000 but it was far from the fun on the way home since our stopover was 2 hours long.
The service on the airline was excellent even though the planes are small and/or don’t have any real frills. It would have been nice to have a movie to watch but it was nothing a good book and some crayons couldn’t fix.
Where We Stayed
This was the tough part of the trip and the one thing that I will always regret. Just before booking a hotel, someone mentioned staying at a vacation rental. I always thought it would be too expensive but it actually makes a trip more reasonable, in my opinion. I first found a condo, the Anaheim Sunset, that had great rates and looked nice but it didn’t seem to have enough room so I eventually let it go for a larger house I found in Huntington Beach. All of my warning bells went off when the owner asked me to give her a non-refundable deposit of $1000, but I ignored my own misgivings. As the date approached, she sent the contract and the cleaning costs differed from what was in the advertisement and, suddenly, the internet access was no longer an option (the owner claimed that part of the ad was a “mistake” even though days later it was still in the ad) and that the property did not have a telephone. I began to mistrust the whole thing and decided to cancel, even though it meant losing that deposit.
I decided to call back Serin, the manager at the Anaheim Sunset, to see if anyone had booked for the dates we needed. Unfortunately, the first two days were booked but the remaining five days were available. I was so grateful! The best part? Since this was the first year that they were renting out the condo, July and August bookings enjoyed a 25% discount AND they even threw in two adult Disneyland passes!!!! I could hardly believe my luck since that almost made up for the money I lost on the deposit for that other vacation home.
When we got to the condo, I was really pleased. We had stayed at the Embassy Suites LAX South in El Segundo and we really hated it. The room was absolutely disgusting, there was a hole punched in the bathroom door and the hide-a-bed sheets had not been changed. The pool was not in great shape and the one place outside next to the pool where guests can lounge was actually smaller than my backyard and had scary-sounding power lines all around it. Not great.
Okay, back to the condo. It was literally 2 blocks from Disneyland and was in a complex with a shared pool. You aren’t going to be blown away by the exterior (although it’s perfectly acceptable!) but you can tell that the condo owners have made significant efforts to update the inside to make their visitors comfortable. In the living room and kitchen area, there are hardwood floors, new-looking furniture, a flat panel television, and a fireplace. The full kitchen had such a great microwave that I am contemplating ditching mine for an upgrade. The best part was walking into this place and seeing “Welcome Rickard Family” scrawled on a dry erase board and a basket filled with goodies waiting with our name on it. There are all kinds of examples of these small touches that really add up. For example, each bathroom and kitchen had good-quality, antibacterial hand soap and there were nice cleaning products (like Lysol Wipes) under the sinks and the shower had two heads – one for little people and another for adults. We also had a washer and dryer (Serin provided laundry detergent for two loads!) connected with the bathroom downstairs.
That’s another thing! We had no idea there was a second floor! As expected, there were only two bedrooms (we have three kids – two girls and one boy – so we had hoped for three bedrooms) but it turned out to be more than enough space. The “kids room” had a bunk bed which was perfect for us because the lower bunk was actually a double bed while the top was a single. Our son (11) took the top bunk while the girls (5 and 14) took the lower one. They didn’t complain once! The master bedroom was quite large and included a walk-in closet (perfect for all those suitcases), a television and a computer! Yes, a functioning, connected-to-the-internet computer whereas the other, far more expensive vacation home, wasn’t even offering internet access! The flooring upstairs was a decent carpet – I’m very picky and I had no complaints. The bathroom could be accessed from the hallway but also had a “cheater” door to the master bedroom. The towels were great quality (and there were plenty of them!) and my husband and son had a great time at the pool.
I only have a few words of caution. The first is that this property is very close to Disney so the fireworks (which happen almost every night) are LOUD. So loud, in fact, that it sounded like a cannon was being shot at the condo (we were able to laugh it off while our five-year-old was so pooped from sightseeing that she didn’t even notice)! Second, the master bed is very hard so if your back can’t take it, consider sleeping in the other room.
We planned ahead for as much as we could so that we didn’t have to think about anything but having fun once we got to Disneyland.
We bought the “Unofficial Guide to Disneyland” by Bob Sehlinger and we really loved it. In addition to detailed explanations of the rides and parks, the book included information about nearby hotels, restaurants, and sample day plans for making the visit go smoothly. We also purchased the RideMax software to help us have the shortest wait times (it is quite customizable). Between the two, we stood in line for very short amounts of time and really enjoyed ourselves.
I don’t normally wear fanny packs but I bought one for the trip and was really thrilled. It was perfect for storing lip balm, hand sanitizer, and FastPasses. We also brought a backpack for storing water bottles (be aware that they search your bags every time you enter the park).
For one day, we bought Park Hopper passes which allowed us access to both Disneyland and Disney’s Grand California Adventure park. The latter is not as kid-friendly but we went so we could ride California Screamin’ or the Tower of Terror. Things are more spread out and there are fewer rides so be forewarned if you are traveling with little ones.
We also ate in Downtown Disney twice and, both times ended up going to the ESPN Zone. We tried the House of Blues but the wait was long and it was dark inside. We had burgers and fries all around and were pleased with the service, the portions, and the quality of the food. There is also an ESPN gift store and arcade and we were given scratch cards with our meals (we got 15% off store purchases). Being a sports-lover, I got a t-shirt from the shop but hockey fans will be disappointed to learn that the ESPN Zone should actually be called the “hockey-free zone” (in fact, pretty much most of Anaheim is, despite the presence of the Anaheim Ducks NHL team).
Of course, we also spent a small fortune at the Disney shop. If you look carefully, you can find some really great items (a gorgeous zip-up sweatshirt was 40% off and I snatched it up!). Just make sure it can all fit in your suitcase!
Other Noteworthy Places to Visit
We rented a van so it was really easy for us to get around. We totally took advantage and explored Los Angeles and Orange County. We took a stroll on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame (if you take pictures with any characters you meet, they expect tips!) and played in a fountain near Mann’s Village Theater.
We drove to Irvine, California (about 30 mins) to the Irvine Spectrum Center where we found great deals on video games. We hadn’t been to an outdoor mall before so it was a lot of fun (we were so tired from being in the sun for so long, though!).
We also visited the Disney Character Warehouse in Fullerton (find a great coupon here!). It’s not the most recent stuff and the store isn’t all that pretty but we found a jacket my daughter had spotted at Disneyland for $15.00 less. She also got plush toys of Pluto, Mickey, and Goofy for under $20 combined! You may not find what you are looking for but I think it is worth visiting.
We aren’t “beach people” but we stopped by Manhattan Beach and really enjoyed it. It’s a beautiful location (just outside Los Angeles), the beach is kept looking great and there are a lot of restaurants in the neighborhood (parking is atrocious, though. Make sure you have change!).
Booking and Planning Tips
Before you commit to a flight, check Kayak.com to make sure there isn’t one that is cheaper. Kayak allows you to look at other days in a month so you can see which times are least expensive.
If at all possible, consider renting a vacation home/condo. We were pleasantly surprised by the rates, you save money by being able to prepare some of your own meals and there is more privacy. Two sites that I recommend are VRBO and HomeAway.
One other thing that we found helpful was having directions to points of interest. Use Google Maps or whatever resource you prefer and print out the route from the airport to where you are staying. You can also predetermine some of the places you wish to visit or some of the restaurants you want to try and print out the directions from your accommodation. We also created a list of the nearby pharmacies, grocery stores, clinics/hospitals, etc.. before we left home. It really simplified things and I’m happy to say that we didn’t get lost once!
In the end, a lot of work goes into planning a vacation but if you take the time to get organized before you leave home, your trip will go a lot smoother.