Our Amazing [and Almost Free] Trip to Disneyland

Have you been to Disneyland (aka The Happiest Place on Earth)?

Most families dream of one day taking their kids to one of Disney’s theme parks.

If that’s you, you’re in luck. In this article, I’ll share the details of our recent trip to Disneyland and how you and your family can afford a fun and almost free trip.

Our family of five just returned from a five night stay in Anaheim, where we spent two full days at Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure park. We spent $0 on airfare (except taxes), $0 on lodging, $175 on a rental car, and around $650 on tickets to the park. Here’s how we did it, and how you could do it for less – even free.

Our family of five just returned from a five night stay in Anaheim, where we spent two full days at Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure park. We spent $0 on airfare (except taxes), $0 on lodging, $175 on a rental car, and around $650 on tickets to the park. Here's how we did it, and how you could do it for less - even free.

Free Tickets to Disneyland?

You have several Disney theme parks to choose from (Disneyland, Disney World – Magic Kingdom, Epcot, etc.). We like Disneyland in California. It’s smaller, has plenty of attractions for our kids (1, 5, and 7), is close to the beach, and is also close to some family.

Disneyland tickets aren’t cheap. And significant discounts to these tickets can be hard to come by. Mousesavers has a nice page of discounts available for multi-day trips, military, and other group and association discounts.

We found our tickets through a charity auction. We were able to buy (bid on) 4 single-day park-hopper tickets for half off the list price. Because we were the only bidders, we snagged them at a significant discount – essentially half off. Admittedly it would be hard to employ this strategy proactively (there’s no way for you to start searching for charity auctions with Disneyland tickets with little or no bids). But if the opportunity presents itself, you should be ready to take action.

In addition to the charity auction tickets, I was able to get two additional completely free one-day park-hopper passes by working with their press office. As a media outlet I am eligible to apply for complimentary passes a year. Thus, this piece.

For the remaining two passes for our second day at the park we worked with a friend and Disney travel agent to make the pre-purchase. She helped us save $20 by buying passes for Monday vs Sunday.

If you want to avoid paying anything at all for your Disneyland tickets, my friends at Richmond Savers recommend you sign up for a credit card bonus and use the cash reward to pay for your tickets. Definitely a smart strategy for those savvy with travel rewards.

Getting to Disneyland

Disneyland is in Anaheim, CA. With gas prices less than $2 per gallon in most parts of the country, it might not be a bad idea to drive to Disneyland. Southern California is a beautiful place with lot’s of free or inexpensive things nearby to see and explore.

We chose to fly from Texas on Southwest Airlines. They fly directly into LAX and also into our favorite airport, John Wayne Airport (SNA) in Santa Ana. It’s less than 20 miles from SNA to Disneyland.

Flying isn’t free (obviously), so we like to make use of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program. You can earn points in this program by spending on flights, OR by using a Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card, OR by transferring points in from another reward program, like Chase Ultimate Rewards. We mostly do the latter two.

What about getting around while in So Cal? Because we were staying for five nights and wanted to see/do some other things, we opted to get a rental car. We could have used some reward points, but for some reason I never find efficient spend on rental cars through reward programs. So we ended up using Costco’s car rental portal at the recommendation of a friend and found a great deal on a full size car. If you do end up renting a car, keep in mind that most of the hotels around Disneyland will have parking fees.

Other options for getting around include SuperShuttle and Uber/Lyft. This is a great option for those who only plan to be at the park during their stay.

One last option for transportation that looks fun is a service called TransferCar, which connects you with car rental companies that need cars and RVs transferred cross country. Consider it for all, or a portion of your drive.

Staying Near Disneyland for Free

Disneyland has some great hotels nearby. It would be easy to spend as much or more on a hotel as you do for tickets into the park. If you’re not using points, then use one of the typical hotel search options (i.e. Trivago, etc) or check out Airbnb.

We’ve stayed at the official Disneyland Hotel on a previous trip. It was a great experience (beautiful room, early access to the park, amazing pool and water park onsite, etc). I would highly recommend looking for a discount to either the Disneyland Hotel or the Grand Californian Hotel once in your life. But it doesn’t have to be this trip. You can use Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book there, but last I checked it was upwards of 30-50k points a night.

Thankfully there are plenty of other hotel options within walking distance of the park. For this trip, we stayed at the Sheraton Park Hotel using 40,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points that we had. The per night rate was 10,000 points. But Starwood gives you a 5th night free on some bookings, so we got 5 nights at the hotel. Earn 25,000 Starwood point with the SPG American Express Card.

You can earn tens of thousands of SPG points using one of their credit card welcome offers. Their Amex card is one of the best on the market.

Taylors Disney

Making the Most of Your Money in the Park

Now that you’ve made it to Anaheim, you’ve got your hotel booked, what about spending money in the park?

Disney allows you to bring food and drink into the park. So you don’t have to spend any extra money in the park if you don’t want to.

We spent money on a $15 stroller rental (they have nice strollers and our kids definitely needed one by the end of the day), and food in the park. We did pack in a few snacks, but there are so many cool treats in the park we ended up spending a lot of extra money here. A couple of additional pointers:

  • Mrs. PT highly touts the kid’s “power packs” you can purchase in Mickey’s Toon Town. They are $5.99 and well worth it according to her.
  • Our older two girls were given Disney gift cards for their birthdays this year (we might have suggested this to relatives looking for gift ideas). So at the park we told our girls they could use their gift card money to get whatever food or gifts they wanted. This ended up being a genius strategy for avoiding spending arguments.

So that wraps up our trip report. It was a blast. The kids loved it, we created some nice memories, and we didn’t completely blow through our annual travel budget.

Have any questions or pointers to share? Let us here from you in the comments below.

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  1. Avatar Vanessa Konig says:

    Hi Philip,

    Thanks so very much for all the information you have provided. We will keep an eye on any available charity auctions. I am not media outlet, I am not eligible to complimentary passes thought. Disneyland is a fun place for kids. I believe an almost free Trip to it makes it even more fun.

  2. Nice! How much did you spend total for the trip?

    1. Avatar Philip Taylor says:

      Around $1,000, not including food.

      1. Avatar Xyz from Financial Path. says:

        that’s impressive! Great frugal way to travel and save more over the years. Thanks!

  3. Avatar Samantha Pietrowski says:

    Great article Phil, thanks for the tips!

  4. The gift card ideal is brilliant! We don’t have plans yet to go and our kids are younger but I’m going to keep that one in the back of my mind. It’s good to let them act responsibly on their own.

    1. Avatar Philip Taylor says:

      Jim, I have to credit Mrs. PT for that one. The strategy has the added benefit of fewer new toys around the house. It’s a subtle way to continue moving towards the whole “experience vs stuff” lifestyle.

      For the readers, Jim has a well-researched piece on traveling to Disney World in Florida on the cheap.

  5. Avatar Catherine Alford says:

    That sounds like a very fun trip! I’m glad your family had a good time. We will be doing some travelling this spring and we are using credit card rewards to help pay for it.

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