How my family of 6 spent nearly $9,000 on a Disney vacation — and what we'll do differently next time

  • My wife and I took our four children to Disneyland for five days, which cost us $8,767.

  • We saved money by driving instead of flying, sharing meals, and not staying on Disney property.

  • Next time, we'll consider bringing some of our own food and visiting the park for fewer days.

Over spring break, my wife and I took our four children from Utah to Southern California for a week at Disneyland and Universal Studios.

For the five-day Disneyland portion of our visit, we spent:

  • Lodging: $2,664 for six nights at a Courtyard by Marriott hotel

  • Gas: $251 for our drive to the parks from our home in Utah

  • Parking: $210 in parking fees at our hotel

  • Tickets: $4,170 on Disneyland park tickets, including $2,820 for the base tickets, $900 for Genie+, and $450 for the option to park hop from Disneyland to California Adventure during our stay

  • Souvenirs: $187

  • Meals and snacks purchased in the parks: $1,285

Altogether, five days at Disneyland cost my family $8,767. Given families of four spend thousands on a typical Disney trip, we didn't do so badly for our group of six.

We would've spent more if we hadn't taken three important cost-saving steps, and we could've saved extra money by making four additional adjustments that we'll consider the next time we visit the theme park.

First off, driving instead of flying saved us a lot of money

The author's kids at a hotel
My family added a road-trip component to our trip.Daryl Austin

We saved money by driving to Disney instead of flying.

Based on the $336 round-trip ticket cost to fly Delta that week from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, our decision to spend a total of $251 on gas instead of $2,016 worth of airfare for our family saved us about $1,765.

That's not even counting the $100 or more we would've had to spend on rideshares from the airport to Disneyland and back if we'd flown.

Because we drove we were also able to add a mini vacation to Las Vegas to our itinerary, which our kids loved.

We also cut costs by not staying at one of Disney's on-site hotels

We saved even more by choosing a Disneyland good-neighbor hotel instead of one of Disney's three on-site resorts.

We picked the Courtyard by Marriott Anaheim Theme Park Entrance and loved it. Our room overlooked Space Mountain and Matterhorn Mountain, and we had a fantastic view of Disneyland's nightly fireworks display from our balcony.

The hotel also had a 20,000-square-foot water park, far larger than any we'd experienced at Disneyland-based properties.

Our room had bunk beds and two queen beds, so all six of our family members slept comfortably. Our favorite part, though, was that the Marriott hotel was only about a six-minute walk to the main entrance of Disneyland, which is as close to or closer to the park than any of the on-property Disneyland resorts we've stayed at before.

Plus, staying the same six nights at the Disneyland Resort hotel would have cost us $4,428 at the nightly rate that week of $630.90 plus 17% tax in a standard (non-view) room if the resort had even allowed it. Five people is the bed limit for Disneyland's standard rooms, so I'm unsure we would've been able to stay in one of these hotels anyway.

It's more likely we'd have had to spend $1,000 or more a night on a special suite or villa designed to sleep six or more people.

In other words, we had a great experience staying at the Marriott resort, and we saved at least $1,700 by doing so.

Lastly, we saved money by cutting back on character-dining experiences and sharing most of our meals

Author Daryl Austin and his family at Disneyland wearing Encanto shirts
Our family split meals at Disneyland when we could. Daryl Austin

Yes, we saved even though we still spent a whopping $1,285 on meals and snacks in just five days.

It's worth noting that we've spent more than double this amount on food on previous Disneyland trips by doing three or four character-dining experiences and by allowing each family member to order their own meal. (Consider that many Disney character dining experiences start at $59 for anyone 10 and up and dining near a few Disney princesses inside the Grand Californian resort runs a whopping $135 per person of any age!)

To save money on this trip, my wife and I chose to share meals at almost every place we ate. We also ordered two meals for our four kids to share at almost every stop.

By splitting three meals between six people, we saved a bundle and gave ourselves a bit of wiggle room in the budget to afford $6.79 churros and our favorite Dole Whip snack.

But we could've saved even more money by bringing pins to trade instead of buying them at the park

Pin trading is a popular activity at Disney parks and our kids loved the trading stations scattered around Disneyland and California Adventure.

But we could've saved money if we'd brought our own pins to trade instead of having to buy the ones sold at the park. Nearly all our souvenir money went to buying a couple of pins for each child. Unfortunately, most of the pins we found started at $15.

I wish we'd bought pins online before we left because I've since found many Disney-themed pins for only a few dollars from third-party sellers. Plus, my kids would've had more options and variety.

We could've also saved hundreds of dollars on food by bringing more of our own snacks and meals into the park

Author Daryl Austin and his family at Disneyland at a castle
My family could've saved a lot of money by bringing our own food and snacks to Disneyland. Daryl Austin

Disney mercifully allows cost-conscious families to save money by allowing outside food and drinks (with some understandable conditions and limitations).

My wife and I could've taken advantage of this by packing in sandwiches for at least a couple of our lunches or dinners.

We also could've saved $256.45 if we had skipped the Minnie & Friends—Breakfast in the Park character-dining experience we splurged on one morning.

I also think we could've gone to the park for 3 days instead of 5

Despite Disneyland being especially crowded during spring break, we hit every ride and show our kids cared about within the first three days of our trip.

In hindsight, this means we could've saved some serious money on tickets and food costs by cutting out our last two days at Disney.

We would've saved a lot of money by skipping the park-hopper upgrade and Genie+

Author Daryl Austin and his family at Cars Land
I didn't feel like the Genie+ service was totally worth it on our trip to Disneyland. Daryl Austin

We could've cut our costs a lot if we hadn't dropped an extra $1,350 to be able to park hop and use Disney's "line-skipping" service, Genie+.

The service costs a small fortune — which we were still willing to pay — but I was frustrated with the inconsistency of its value.

On our first day at Disney, I felt it was worth the cost because we were able to easily get on most of the rides we wanted to.

But a few days later, we got to the park an hour before it opened and were still only able to use the service to skip the line of just one popular attraction the whole morning.

After that, no other popular ride attractions were available to reserve skip-the-line return times until 5 p.m. Even then, the next two attractions we selected for that night ended up breaking down, and we thought the alternative rides offered as replacement options for each one were far inferior.

In other words, we felt we wasted $180 that day using a service that ended up serving us very little.

Although the service was convenient and made our kids happy at times, its inconsistency and unreliability caused us stress and made my wife and I hesitant to want to use it again.

Overall, we had a good trip — but we're rethinking future ones now that half of our kids are aged into adult prices

Despite the spring-break crowds, Disney's steep price tag, and some of my frustrations using its Genie+ service, my family enjoyed this trip.

But we'll have to rethink future ones because Disneyland's "adult" ticket and food pricing starts at age 10, a threshold two of our four children have now crossed.

As our kids get older, we'll have to continue finding ways to cut costs. Otherwise, my wife and I will be dreading the next Disney vacation nearly as much as our kids will be eagerly anticipating it.

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