The initial goal of this trip was a Disney World vacation in FL, which we have already done in the past with the kids. The #1 reason we didn't do it again was COST!! Anyone who's planned a trip to WDW knows it will cost you an arm and a leg to get a magical experience. Even with our corner cutting 2 years ago, we probably spent close to $4K, and that wasn't happening again.
I should probably preface this with the fact that all other factors of our trip were either free or minimal cost. Wifey travels a lot for work so we were able to redeem award points for all of our airfare and hotel stay, and only spent $18 for a rental car for the week. That being said, we are talking park cost only.
Based on a 3 Day park hopper ticket for a family of 4 (2 kids), here's how it broke down:
For a little bit more ($1,336.00), we found something called the SoCal City Pass, which was 3 Days at Disney with the park hopper and one magic morning, 1 Day at LegoLand and 1 Day at Sea World. Still cheaper than the 3 Days at WDW. By a few hundred dollars. Would that still be the case including hotel & airfare? I have no idea since we didn't have to deal with that.
Finances aside, how did everything else stack up?
My first and probably the most important observation that I made right away was the ease at which you can navigate from park to park. I know some people who refuse to get the park hopper option at WDW because it is such a nightmare to leave one park and get to the next. You have to go through security, wait in line to get into the park. Then when you leave that park to go to the next park you have to get on either a monorail, transport bus, or get in your car and then navigate security AGAIN, and wait on line AGAIN to get into the next park. Wasting probably close to 30-45 minutes on just moving from one place to the next. Disneyland is waaaayyy better for this. You first go through security and once cleared entrances to both parks are right there. So you never have to go through security again once you're in, you don't have to take a tram or a monorail to get there, you just leave one and walk right over to the other. Only line is the line into the park.
The downside to this is that there are only 2 parks, not 4 or 5 (or whatever WDW is at this point). There are no water parks. Just regular Disneyland (which is somewhat comparable to Magic Kingdom) and California Adventure (which is like Hollywood Studios plus other stuff and a boardwalk).
Everyone knows that if you go to WDW, expect to wait on line for about 2 hours for the "good" rides, maybe longer for the "BIG/scary" rides. We took this into consideration when planning this trip. We found a crowd calendar online and went with a week that was designated as "Alright" instead of one that was "Packed". We wanted to go with one that was "Ghost Town" but we weren't so lucky. Having no idea what to expect, we braced ourselves for the worst. Upon seeing the crowds at park entrance we thought the lines would be worse. Walking down Main St. everyone was just shoulder-to-shoulder, nowhere to go, tons of people everywhere. But I think the longest line we waited on was 45-50 minutes. Average was about 20-30, and we walked right on to some of them. There is a Disneyland Experience app that you can look up all your wait times on, and that helped a lot when figuring out what to do next. Especially with kids who want to take turns picking rides and the choices are never near each other, and at times not even in the same park. So you can look it up and say, "Yeah, let's do that" or "Why don't we stay in this area for a while until that clears out".
The experience waiting in line is also much different in Disneyland vs. Disney World; In Florida, waiting on line is part of the ride experience. In some cases there are interactive displays where you can wave at CGI crabs or animatronic Buzz Lightyears who talk to you. At the very least, the line is decorated in the theme of the ride. And if you see a line that ends outside of the building it is in, you know that's gonna be a looonnnng wait. Disneyland is different. A majority of the line you wait in is on the outside. You can see it, in some cases, in it's entirety. So when we first saw a line wrapping around 4 times before even entering the building, we thought for sure that the 20 minute wait estimate was wrong. But it wasn't. And this also means that the line is just a line. No standard Disney entertainment while you wait, just your own company.
Which leads me to:
WDW FastPass is efficient but also ridiculous. And unfair. If you are staying on property you get a wrist band and when you download the app you can select FastPass rides before you even leave your hometown for your trip. So you know before you even enter the parks that those 3 rides you want to ride today, you definitely will, TODAY. But for those of us poorer people, who don't stay on the Disney property, you have to wait in an hour long line in some godforsaken part of the park to make your 3 selections for the day. This is all null and void in Disneyland. If you want to FastPass a ride, regardless of where you are staying, you must walk to where that ride is, find the designated area that doles out FastPasses for that specific ride, and swipe your park ticket to receive a paper ticket with a designated return time on it. Once you do this, you can't get another FastPass ticket for about 2 hours. I think this helps the non-Disney stayers get on the FastPass rides of their choice, instead of having them book up so far in advance that you don't have a shot at it. Also, if you plan the smart way, you can get in more than 3 FastPasses for the day. There is a learning curve to it because some of the rides are more popular than others and the FastPasses are given out pretty quickly. So once you know what you for sure want to FastPass, go get it first thing as soon as you get in the park. This FastPass setup also works well because of the ease at which you can swap parks. There were several times we would get a FastPass at one park and then hang out in the other park until our time came up. In most cases, it took us about 10 minutes to leave wherever we were and get to the other ride in the other park and be well within our time slot. Definitely not something you can do at WDW.
Dining was also different. In FL you can/HAVE TO make your reservations 6 months before your trip. And in many cases if you don't make a reservation, you're not going to get into whatever restaurant it is. In CA they don't open up reservations until about 1 month prior to your visit. And if you don't book in advance, it's OK, you can probably walk into a restaurant and get seated within 30 minutes or so. I'd still make reservations ahead of time, especially if you're traveling with children that turn into The Incredible Hulk when they don't eat by a certain time. And for the character dining. I'd book that in advance too. But if you didn't make plans for a certain day, you will probably be able to walk in and eat. And it's still Disney, so it's just as expensive. Character dinner for 4 was damn near $200 when you add in tip & tax.
One of the drawbacks to the dining was that I felt like there were less sit down options in CA than in FL. My littles have some crazy food allergies so we had to be careful about where we chose to eat and it had to be a sit down dinner so that the food was made specifically carefully for them. So that eliminated a bunch of dining options for us right off the bat. But if you don't have any special dietary needs there is plenty of variety.
For those of us traveling WITH food allergies, I can tell you that my kids had an option at every single place we went. Every restaurant (the sit-down ones) had a separate allergy-friendly menu. It didn't break it down by allergen like other restaurants will (except for GF), but it listed options that were OK for certain allergies. Drawback was that it was usually the same 2 dishes everywhere we went: steak or chicken. Which is fine, but can be repetitive for 5 & 7 year olds. So we usually packed our lunches for the day and then had dinner out somewhere. We had several days where we weren't on Disney property so we were able to eat at some of the chain restaurants the kids are used to and they were able to get some more variety that way.
There are not set zones/areas for character meet & greets. There are no FastPass lanes for these either, but also no 4 hour waits to meet Elsa & Anna. Either you catch them while they are in the area or you don't. It's not like WDW, where you have to/can plan to meet all your favorites. It's somewhat random and unpredictable (maybe there is a schedule, but I never saw anything). So if your little is banking on pictures with Mickey, do a character dining experience or go to FL.
Reilly & Kayleigh are both pretty into Legos so I thought this was going to be a favorite of theirs. While we are all glad we did it, it wasn't anything fancy or out of this world. There were some really cute things there but nothing I would consider a "must-see" and I wouldn't say you HAVE TO go there if you're going to be in the area. Definitely skipable.
It's awesome. Do it. Plan some kind of animal encounter. It's worth the money if you can swing it. But HEADS UP: There is ZERO shade there. Anywhere. All the stands in the arenas are out in the blazing sun, the eating areas have umbrellas but they don't always block the sun. Translation: You will be in direct, strong, sunlight for however long you are in the park. Re-apply sunblock every 90 minutes. Even if you tan. If strong, constant, direct sunlight will bother you or your kids make sure you bring umbrellas to shade yourselves. We were spoiled by Disney's fairly constant availability of shaded areas.
Tips, Hints & Misc.
- If you are driving your own vehicle to and from the parks, try to park in the Mickey & Friends parking garage. It is closer to the parks and there is a tram to the park entrance. Versus taking the shuttle bus from the Toy Story parking lot where you have to deal with downtown Anaheim traffic. Also, from the Mickey & Friends garage, you can easily access Downtown Disney or even walk directly to & from the parks and bypass the tram if you don't mind a little bit of a hike (definitely under 1 mile, all on a walkway on Disney property).
- If you are in the parks around 8pm & 9pm and you DO NOT want to watch the parade/fireworks/light show that is going on...get yourself to whatever area you want to spend the next 2 hours in. Once the show areas are roped off it is nearly impossible to navigate to or from anywhere in the park. You will start to question if it is actually OK to just start running people over with a stroller. So figure out which areas in each park keep you guys the busiest and stay there, or just leave around/before 9pm. Or plan to watch all the shows. Because they are all back-to-back.
- Also, do not try to leave right after those shows are done. Everybody else will be leaving then. Either leave before they start/while they are going on if you can (if you have small kids), or stay until after (if your kids are old enough and can hang out until 10pm/11pm).
- Plan "break" days where you hang at the hotel pool or go to the beach. It's a lot to get everyone out the door and to the park for first thing in the morning, which is definitely the time you want to be there. There is not as much to do or see in CA as there is in FL. 3 days was nice, I feel like we got to see/do a good majority of both parks. I would have liked a 4th day in the parks to revisit some favorites, but I think you can see most of it in the 3 days and have some repeats.
- Your hotel room will have a fridge. Buy stuff to pack lunches. Pack your cooler & ziploc baggies & ice packs from home in your luggage so you have it out there with you. Bring water. Lots of water. In insulated thermal containers Don't pay for it in the park.
- Bring a stroller, don't rent one if you need one.
- Disneyland does not serve alcohol, only California Adventure does. So if you want a cocktail with dinner, don't make reservations in Disneyland, make them in California Adventure.