Our family loves all things Disney, and our last three Disney trips have taken us to Walt Disney World in beautiful Lake Buena Vista, Florida. I was raised on Disney by my mom, who’s my original Disney-on-a-budget pro! She first took our family there in 1978 and many times afterward — a tradition I’ve continued with our own kids.
We were due for a Disney trip again, but several elements came together to lead us to consider Disneyland in Anaheim, California over heading in the Orlando direction. The first? Cars Land at Disney’s California Adventure. The allure of spending time in an entirely Cars-themed world was pulling at the heartstrings of our two sons. Getting to visit the real-life Radiator Springs? Eating at Flo’s? Strolling through the Cozy Cone Motel? As far as they were concerned, California was calling.
The second factor? Travel costs. Airfare from Chicago to Orlando had been unusually high as of late, and when we started comparing airfare from Chicago to Los Angeles, we found that it would cost us quite a bit less to head west instead of south.
So, here’s the story of our Disney California’ Dreamin’, how we did it and what it cost.
I have sung the praises of Virgin America airlines before on this blog, but I rarely fly west anymore on any other carrier. If you book far enough in advance (which for us, was about a month and a half before our trip) their prices from O’Hare to the west coast are usually much less expensive than any other airline. We flew in and out of Los Angeles International and paid $242 per person. Other carriers were in the mid to high-$300s for the same routing.
And, flying on Virgin is a treat. Your kids will enjoy it as much as you will. They’ve got seatback TVs for everyone with free satellite television, video games, and a combination remote control/video game controller in each seat. Our children found the free onscreen seat-to-seat chatting to be hilarious and kept texting us from across the aisle during the flight.
Other little perks: Every seat has an electrical outlet to plug in a laptop or other device. Want something to drink? Touch a menu in the seatback and a flight attendant will bring it to you — you don’t have to wait for the drink cart. Virgin will completely spoil you for any other airline.
Where to Stay
As I’ve blogged about before, when we go to Walt Disney World, we always stay on property. Always. I believe that there are so many additional perks that you receive there by staying on property that staying in a Disney hotel is a must.
When I started to research rates for our Disneyland trip, $400+/night rates at all of the three official Disneyland hotels stared up at me from my web browser. Ouch. I had only been to Disneyland once in my life prior to this trip — and I was fourteen at the time. I started thinking back on that trip. When my parents took my sister and I to Disneyland twenty-five years ago, we stayed at one of the Harbor Boulevard hotels that are adjacent to the park.
I turned to Mousesavers.com, which is a great resource for planning budget-minded Disney vacations. MouseSavers highly recommended the Howard Johnson Anaheim, which is a five-minute walk from the front gates of both the Disneyland and California Adventure parks.
Now, I know what you’re thinking — as I thought it too. Howard Johnson? Would this hotel be nice? MouseSavers assured me, with photos and vivid descriptions, that it would be. And happily, the hotel didn’t disappoint. MouseSavers calls it “the nicest in the entire Howard Johnson chain,” and I believe it is. It is right across the street from Disneyland, and your kids will be able to watch the monorail go by from the hotel’s swimming pool. It’s also one of Disneyland’s official “Good Neighbor” hotels, so you can get park information and buy park tickets/passes right at the hotel’s front desk.
MouseSavers offers a 15% off link for the Howard Johnson Anaheim’s nightly rates, and we paid $129.05/night for two nights. WiFi is free, and parking is too! (We found out later how valuable that perk is, as parking at Disneyland is $16/day. Parking at the Disneyland official hotels is $15/day.) We were also able to add a rollaway bed for our third child for no charge.
By far, one of the nicest features of the Anaheim HoJo is its Castaway Cove pirate-themed water park. If you have young children, they’ll love this — and it proved to be a great downtime spot for our kids while taking breaks from the park.
If we hadn’t stayed at the HoJo, I had also considered the Fairfield Inn, which is just down the street from the HoJo and also within easy walking distance of Disneyland. The biggest factor of choosing the HoJo was the pool/water park for almost the same price as we would have paid at the Fairfield.
We planned a five-day trip: Two days at Disneyland and California Adventure, a day at the beach, a day at Universal Studios, and then sightseeing and flying home on the fifth day. (Once we arrived, we changed things up and ended up spending three days at Disney instead because we were having too much fun and no one was ready to leave! More on that in a bit.) With our plans to cover this much California ground, we planned to rent a car.
We made reservations ahead of time with Dollar to rent a mid-size car. When we arrived in Los Angeles and took the car rental shuttle to the rental agency, their computer systems were down. Employees were hand-writing tickets for vehicle rentals, and our kids were amusing themselves by looking at the fleet of rental vehicles out the window. A white Dodge Challenger caught our soon-to-be-driving daughter’s eye, and like her mother, she appreciates all things automotive (even if she did have her eye on a Dodge.)
When we got to the counter, we were assigned a Hyundai Sonata, and we half-jokingly asked if we couldn’t have that sweet Challenger instead. The attendant checked with his manager and said the Challenger usually rents for $99 per day. Then, he checked again and said that because we’d waited over an hour for our car, he could upgrade us for $40/day. Would we get an additional $6 worth of enjoyment out of driving that car up and down the coast? You bet. Done.
Well, I should clarify. My husband and I got an additional $6 worth of enjoyment out of driving that car daily. I took this photo about ten minutes after we loaded everyone in the Challenger and headed toward Disneyland:
As Disney veterans, we’ve learned that you can usually get better prices on park passes by buying them somewhere other than at the front gates. Now, I’m not talking about buying dubious, used passes online — something I’d never do. However, there are authorized ticket brokers that offer Disney tickets at lower prices. You can also purchase combination tickets to Disneyland and other southern California destinations.
Admission to Disneyland is $86 per day for children 3-9, $92 for 10 and up. Park Hopper one day admissions (meaning, you can visit both Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure in the same day) are $131 and $137, respectively.
Two-day passes for Disneyland are $162 for children, $175 for adults without the Park Hopper option. With park hopping, they’re $197 and $210, respectively.
We knew we wanted to park-hop, especially with the close proximity of the two Disney parks. This isn’t Walt Disney World where the parks are separated by a 15-minute bus ride. You can walk out the gate of one park, continue walking in a straight line, and walk right through the gates of the other one. We were also kind of interested in visiting Universal Studios in Hollywood too, where one-day admission is $76 for kids and $84 for adults.
After exploring our options, we decided to go with the Southern California CityPass. This pass offers three park-hopping days at Disneyland and California adventure, one day at Universal Studios Hollywood, and one day at Sea World San Diego. We had no plans to visit Sea World, but this presented a much more affordable option for Disney/Universal. We paid $235 for each children’s CityPass and $250 for each adult CityPass. Yes, it’s still a lot of money, but in doing this, we figured we’d also gain an extra Disney day to go into the parks and eat or shop before we headed to the beach on day three. (As it turns out, we ended up using every minute of that third day at Disney!)
Considering we did three Disney days and a day at Universal, the CityPass dropped the prices to $58.75 per day per child and $62.50 each per adult (again, not counting the Sea World admissions that we did not use.) And, our CityPass also came with one “Magic Morning” admission, where we could enter the Disney parks one hour before the general public — just like the on-property perk you get when you stay at a Disney hotel.
One other note: All Disneyland passes expire 13 days after you first use them. Unlike Walt Disney World passes, there is not a no-expiration option.
After picking up our rental car, we drove to the Howard Johnson and checked in. It was just after lunchtime, so we immediately walked to the parks. We let the kids decide which park to visit first — Disneyland or California Adventure? Overwhelmingly, they chose California Adventure, because that’s where Cars Land is located. And oh, Cars Land did not disappoint.
I have never seen a Disney theme park land so attuned to every single detail of a movie quite in the way Cars Land is. It is a true immersion experience into the world of all things Cars. My boys loved seeing the real cars driving up and down the streets of Radiator Springs and interacting with them.
We ate at Flo’s Diner, which is the real-life version of the one you see in the film. Disney misses no details here, and we easily spent a half-hour walking around the restaurant looking at all of the “old” news clippings, Piston Cup trophies, and other racing memorabilia.
The boys loved that their children’s meals were served up in Lightning McQueen lunchboxes that they could keep!
We stayed at the park well into the night, riding all of the Cars-themed rides and other attractions. As none of us had been to California Adventure before, we weren’t sure what to expect — but what a stellar park this is. It is beautifully themed and has so many attractions for the entire family to enjoy. The boys were especially pleased that there were so many “boy” themed things to do — on our last trip to Walt Disney World, they were a bit vocal about all of the princess-theming for girls. I’m sure we’ll never get away from the Disney Princesses, but boys love Disney too!
I should discuss meals a bit in this writeup. Meals can be a huge expense when traveling, especially when eating in the Disney Parks. And yet, of course, you want to eat in the parks some of the time because the theming in some of the restaurants is fun (case in point – heading straight to Flo’s in Cars Land yesterday!)
If you’ve read some of my previous Walt Disney World savings tips, you know that I often pack easy meal items and snacks with so we don’t have to buy everything in the park. My goal for this trip was to not to have to eat any breakfasts at restaurants. Crazy? Not really — keeping breakfasts light and quick would also help us get into the parks earlier and maximize our “play time” too. So, I packed a box of Cheerios, disposable bowls and spoons, several boxes of Belvita breakfast biscuits, and a few single-serve bowls of Kellogg’s cereals. (Picked those up for a quarter each! Thanks, Jewel clearance!)
On trips like these, I always pack two canisters of pre-sweetened lemonade mix too. I’ve got a one-quart insulated sport bottle with a strap similar to the one shown above. and each morning I’ll fill several sandwich bags with the pre-measured amount of mix to make lemonade with later at water fountains in the park. The bags fit inside the zipper carrier that holds the water bottle. No matter where we go, I’ve always got my shoulder-strap sport bottle with me. Not having to buy drinks all day long is an enormous moneysaver.
Our room at the HoJo also had a refrigerator, so we picked up bottles of milk and juice at the convenience store in the hotel and kept them in the fridge.
We hit the parks an hour early thanks to our Magic Morning pass, and today it was all about Disneyland. Or, at least, that’s what we’d planned..! When we arrived at the gates and had to choose to walk right and enter Disneyland or walk left and enter California Adventure, we saw all the early-entry people running through the gates of Disneyland. So guess what we did? We turned left and went back to California Adventure!
While we’d done a good portion of the park yesterday, we did not ride some of the bigger rides in the back of the park’s Paradise Pier area. We headed straight for the back of the park, where the enormous California Screamin’ roller coaster loomed and called our names. My youngest son was too short for it this time, but my 8-year-old was ready to experience his first looping roller coaster! And experience it he did — four times in a row!
We were the only people in this part of the park for at least the first 40 minutes we were there. (I continue to be amazed, at any theme park, how many people will stop at the first attraction they encounter.) My husband and I took turns riding the carousel with our youngest son while the other parent joined the rest of the family for another round of California Screamin’. Woo hoo! As a huge roller coaster enthusiast, I was really impressed that such a large, fast thrilling ride was at a Disney park. It’s actually the longest looping roller coaster in the world!
We rode every single ride (!) in the Paradise Pier area — my youngest found that the Goofy roller coaster was more his speed, and we rode it several times. People were starting to trickle into the back part of the park as the morning went on, but we didn’t encounter any long lines. After we finished Paradise Pier, we rode the Tower of Terror and visited Cars Land again. Then, we thought we’d go over to Disneyland, but again our boys had other ideas:
I should mention a nice park perk too if you’re a Disney Visa cardholder. At both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, you can get a free 5×7 photograph of you and your family when you show your Disney Visa at their designated photo locations in the parks. (There are other perks too, including 10% off merchandise purchases of $50 or more in the parks and 10% off in restaurants. And, all of your purchases accrue Disney Dollars to spend in the parks. I had cashed out $76 in points to a Disney gift card to use for some of our in-park meals too.) We headed to the photo area and were delighted to see that we’d be taking a picture with Minnie Mouse!
We took a midday break for lunch near the hotel (there’s a Mimi’s Cafe next door to the HoJo, and we found their food to be both very good and reasonably priced. We ended up eating there several times during this trip.) There’s also a McDonald’s right on Harbor Blvd. outside the Disneyland gates, and their $1.49 ice cream cones were a bargain-priced snack when we’d walk back or forth from Disneyland. On this day, the kids wanted to hit the pool too, so I worked on my blog (and worked on my tan!) while they swam for a couple of hours.
After a change of clothes for the boys, we headed back to the parks in early afternoon. I happily set foot on Disneyland’s Main Street for the first time in 25 years. There’s a kid inside me that never really grew up, and I was really feeling like a child in a grown-up’s body on this day. There is something magical about walking this park and knowing that Walt Disney himself also walked there. I thought about my mom’s stories of visiting Disneyland when she was ten and wondered if she rode some of the things my children would ride on this day. There’s just something extra-special about Disneyland!
My husband has fond memories of Disneyland too, and his favorite ride is the Autopia. Who can resist driving those little cars? One of my sons took his driving task very seriously, attempting to steer his and his sister’s car to the best of his ability. The other child…?
Well, let’s just say I wouldn’t allow him behind the wheel of any other car at this age. And yet…
Someone at Disneyland felt this young man deserved a driver’s license.
(Incidentally, my little guy is wearing the “Fantasy Land” Disney shirt I wore to Walt Disney World when I was around his age. Mom, thank you for saving this!)
We had a marvelous time, staying in the park until it closed. We had dinner at a great Mexican restaurant in Downtown Disney, Tortilla Jo’s, because all of the park restaurants had closed..! We stopped at Disneyland’s Guest Services for a restaurant recommendation, and the food was delicious. When we went back to the room, we started packing up our things as we were due to check out of the room the next morning…
But were we done with Disney? We still had a third day on our passes..! After brief discussion, we all agreed that none of us felt ready to leave. Our original plan was to spend Day Three at the beach and head up to Universal City in early evening. Instead, we decided we’d go to a beach on our last day before flying home. I called the Universal Hilton and told them we’d be checking in late (very late!) and then ran down to the front desk at the HoJo to ask what time we would need to move the car out of the parking lot after checkout. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that we could leave the car parked at the hotel until midnight! We’d save money not having to move the car and park at Disneyland.
The HoJo front desk staff could not have been nicer, by the way. They gave our kids pirate hats at check-in, which they loved — and every time we’d stop in to answer questions, their customer service level was truly Disney-magic-level.
We all went to sleep knowing we’d get to spend another day at Disneyland!
Back to Disney. You might be wondering what else there was left in the parks that we hadn’t done, but there were actually plenty of little things. We spent a good portion of the day taking in many of the little details of Disneyland. We saw quite a few characters out and about, and one of Mary Poppins’ penguins started following our boys around. He led them to Snow White’s Grotto, where he motioned for them to listen to Snow White singing from the bottom of the well. It’s the little moments like this that really make Disney memorable.
A big part of the fun for me was experiencing many of the classic Disney attractions in their original form, like the Enchanted Tiki Room and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. (The kids loved them too.) We had a wonderful Tiki Room host whose love for the attraction was evident as he introduced the show. After the show, I thanked him for giving such a thorough history of the attraction, acknowledging that he must give the same speech over and over all day long — one that I really enjoyed as I just love the show. He kindly invited us to stay for a few more minutes while the show reset itself, leading us over to a wall where we could hear all of the circuits and relays clicking and resetting themselves for the next show as he explained how the audio-animatronics worked and were triggered.
We hopped over to California Adventure so the boys could spend a little more time in Cars Land. (Yes, it’s just that good.) We saw DJ driving down the street, and he stopped and began playing music for an impromptu street dance, which our boys loved:
We also toured Boudin sourdough bread bakery, which is located within the park, and we tasted free samples of fresh-baked bread. They also had the cutest loaves of sourdough shaped like Lightning McQueen!
Budget Snack Idea: I can’t find the receipt for this, but I do remember that this large Lightning McQueen loaf of sourdough bread was the best snack deal in the park. This enormous loaf of bread was priced around $6 if I remember correctly, and it kept five of us full until dinnertime. Yum!
Reluctantly, very reluctantly, we said goodbye to Disneyland and California Adventure that evening and headed up to Universal City. We checked into the Universal Hilton, where I had two nights reserved entirely on my Hilton HHonors loyalty rewards points. This hotel has a walkway directly to Universal Studios Hollywood, which is where we’d spend the next day.
Staying at the Hilton Universal City is definitely a different experience than staying at the Howard Johnson of Anaheim. (I can almost hear you chuckling now… “of course it is!”) My dad travels extensively for work, and he’s long had a theory on hotels. The more expensive and upscale the hotel is… the fewer amenities it provides free of charge. And he’s right.
At Howard Johnson: Free parking. Free wi-fi internet. Free rollaway bed for our third child.
At the Hilton: $25/day parking. $12.95/day wi-fi internet. No rollaway bed options (not even for-pay) for our third child.
Laugh, but when we entered the room, I immediately saw potential for the upholstered bench that was sitting along one wall. It neatly bridged the gap between the two beds, allowing the kids more room to spread out!
This room also had a refrigerator, so after we got the kids situated, we ran to the nearby Ralph’s (Kroger) and picked up some more milk and juice for our breakfasts. And on the morning of Day Four, we walked to Universal Studios.
I also had not been to Universal Studios Hollywood since I was a teenager, but we have been to the Universal parks in Florida several times. It was quite an awakening to realize how small the Hollywood park is. Aside from the studio tour (which truly is the main draw here) there are only four rides here: Transformers, The Simpsons, The Mummy and Jurassic Park. There are a few other attractions, like the Shrek 4D movie, a haunted house and a fun kids’ water/foam ball play area, but it’s definitely not a thrill-heavy park.
We had fun here, but we were in the park at 9:00am when the gates opened, and we had finished every ride and attraction (with the exception of the Waterworld show, which we had no desire to see) by 2:00 in the afternoon. We all agreed that the next time we go to southern California, we would not make a point of coming back here. As it was included in our CityPass admission, it was fine though.
The backlot tour was stellar, and if you’ve never done it before, it’s definitely worth doing. We lucked out as when we entered the park, there were employees taking surveys asking which other attractions you planned to visit while in California. (Disneyland, of course, was the first on their list!) For participating in the quick survey, we received a front-of-the-line pass to the backlot tour. This worked out well as it has the longest line of all of the attractions in the park. You do get to see some neat things like:
This city hall building, which has been used in many movies, including “Back to the Future;”
This plane crash set from “War of the Worlds;”
And this Falls Lake cabin, used for many movies and television shows, including “The Great Outdoors,” “Coach,” “The Naked Gun 33 1/3,” and “Desperate Housewives.”
Another element I’d forgotten about: Because the park is built into the side of a mountain, it sits on several different levels. You take covered escalators to travel between the upper and lower levels:
Budget Snack Idea: The least expensive snacks we found in the park were these oversized Simpsons donuts at the Kwik-E-Mart near the Simpsons ride. I believe they were $4 each, but as park food goes, that’s pretty cheap — and there was plenty to share! Five of us shared one enormous donut. Mmm, donuts.
The most fun we had though in the park? It’s not what you’ll expect…
We spent at least an hour in this playground where you shoot foam balls at other people. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit this, but I think my husband and daughter had even more fun than the boys did. Why? Well, while the boys were aiming at targets and what not, these two jokers were aiming at other adults – unsuspecting adults.
If this is your kind of fun, here’s another tip that your children will love you for too. To help collect balls to shoot, you’ll find vacuum machines like this one placed around the play area. If you happen to bring a shopping bag with you, you can easily hook the bag over the vacuum return and collect the balls. I always have this cotton Wild Harvest shopping bag in my purse (for shopping “emergencies,” of course!) but it did double-duty on this day as a ball collecting bag!
After playing in the ball shoot for at least an hour, we said goodbye to Universal and headed out for a drive up the coast. We went to one of my favorite restaurants in Malibu, Gladstones. Fresh seafood dining on the beach? I could not think of a better way to end the day, and it was the first opportunity I’ve had to take my entire family out to dinner here too. It’s pricey, but it’s worth every penny.
You dine outside on a deck with a beautiful view of the beach, and of course, after you’ve eaten, you can go splashing in the surf too. And, if you take any leftovers home, they wrap them up in a rather memorable way too, which delighted my kids:
And as the sun went down, we all waded and splashed in the surf on the beach behind the restaurant. A perfect end to a memorable trip!
We woke up early and checked out of the Hilton so we could hit the beach before coming home. We ended up at the Santa Monica State Beach, which was blissfully uncrowded in the morning and jam-packed with people by noon. I was happy that we got to get some beach time in too for the kids before heading home!
The only drawback to doing the beach on the day you’re leaving? No opportunity to shower after spending time in the ocean, and nowhere to ditch those sandy beach towels. I had brought along a travel-size bottle of baby powder to help remedy this — something I bring along to any beach destination. If you’ve never tried it, patting a handful of baby powder on skin with sand stuck to it immediately releases all of the stuck sand. We used the public changing rooms at the beach.
As for the beach towels, I’d brought two lightweight beach towels along in our luggage to cover the car seat with (for my polyester-allergic son.) Five people sharing two towels may not be the ideal situation, but it all worked out. We got our day at the beach, and we had five days of fun in SoCal!