Let’s be honest. Eating is generally the highlight of my day. Once I finish a meal, I’m already looking forward to the next one. (me too!) So it’s no wonder that one of my favorite parts of going on vacation is eating out (Hello no cooking!). However, the food budget can have a mind of it’s own. My husband and I constantly struggle between wanting to eat everything, and wanting to have money when we come back from vacation. We really struggle (having 3 kids) walking the line between giving them enough food to not be hangry, buy food that is filling, and not spending money on food that is then wasted. We have found that despite the food prices in Disneyland being quite high, especially with the Canadian dollar being as low as it is, there are some tricks to eating for a reasonable price in the parks.
Food Budget in the parks
No matter what your budget is, it’s always a good idea to have a plan going in. Each of our families budget differently in this area so we will each share what we do to give you a broad spectrum of ideas.
My family budget is $75/day. That includes 1 entree and 1 snack. Adult meals for quick service range from $8-$15. Kid meals are generally $5-$7. Once upon a time we would share meals with our kids but as they are getting older, they eat almost as much (if not more) than I do! Ghirardelli ice cream sundaes are huge, and definitely can be shared. This budget also includes 1-2 Starbucks (just straight up iced coffee, nothing too fancy because I’d rather have a dole whip!).
My family budget, when it was my husband and myself, was $35 a day. We brought our own lunch in the park (a Pre-made salad from Target, a footlong from Subway, wraps from Costco), and brought canned pop. We often share a $15 meal, or each get our own $12 meal and share a treat. We also share a coffee (usually an Iced Venti Iced Coffee). We bring in a lot of snacks to stave off the hunger. When we had our son, we brought in lunchables for his first meal and then bought macaroni cups that we then heated up in the Baby Care Centre.
In Disney my husband and I share a meal at lunch, and share a meal at dinner. The portion sizes tend to be rather large for the most part, and when it’s hot neither of us eat a lot. This, plus the snacks we bring into the park, tends to be enough for us throughout the day. We also budget for 1 treat a day as well as a Starbucks each. Our daughter currently is still under 1, so she eats food packs and I share from my plate so this method still ends up not being very costly for us. We spend about $40/day.
Our budget is usually $50 a day. We are a family of 5. This sounds tricky but it really is doable. This is $20 for lunch, $30 for dinner… or packed lunch from outside of the park (lunchables for the girls, a $6 sandwich from target for me and my husband), $10 for coffee, and $40 for dinner. Since we tend to go for multi days, we will also just watch what we spend. We may share a large plate one night so we can get dole whip that day. Or if a day was a bit more, have the next day be more packed foods.
One thing to note about the kids is I really find they fill up with snacks and aren’t really all that interested in eating at the meal times. As long as you have healthy snack options, this doesn’t really bother me. One of my daughters would live on carrots, popcorn and apple sauce alone… really not worse than chicken nuggets and fries that you’re going to buy, you know?
Tip #1: Stay at a hotel with a continental breakfast
When you are looking for a hotel with a continental breakfast, that can mean anything from pastries and fruit to a full breakfast with eggs and bacon or sausage. You can usually find what each hotel offers on their website. Park tip: Grab a banana or an apple for a snack in the park. You really want to make sure that the hotel’s continental breakfast have enough options for this to be worth it, and for you to get full enough to start your day well. Pack peanut butter! (Put it in your checked bag if you are flying.) Peanut butter is great to put on an apple, banana, in a sandwich, on waffles.
If you are staying in a hotel that doesn’t have breakfast, here are a few money saving tips. I love overnight oats. I pack a ziplock with my favorite (Roger’s oat blend, it has so many good things!) and buy a small thing of milk for my fridge, equal parts oats to liquid in a tupperware then stick in the fridge overnight. That easy! then you can add things in the morning if you have extras. (Hello peanut Butter!) I like mine cold, but you can also throw that bad boy in the microwave and it takes much less time than cooking fully since they have softened already.
Tip #2: Do your research
Since you’re reading this, you are already one step ahead! But seriously, check out https://disneyland.disney.go.com/dining/. You can then select the park that you want to look at. A great tip is to select “counter service” when filtering your results. This will ensure that you are seeing the most reasonably priced restaurants in the park or in Downtown Disney. Almost every restaurant now has an online menu including prices. You can take a look at what you like to eat, and decide on your budget beforehand so that you know where and where not to visit.
Once in the park, there are several options, such as only ordering the burger and not the sides. There are toddler meals, a great option if your toddler is a big eater (skip it if they aren’t, and just let them eat off your plate or from your snacks) as well as kids meals. I have found that the 1/2 chicken meal is a really generous portion to share. My daughter (10) and I can share it and both feel full. For $15, that’s a win in my books. Last Tip: There are times when things are bundled together, and I found in Disneyworld you can ask for the prices separately. Like if there is Fries that come with apple slices, ask how much just the fries are, and it sometimes knocks a dollar or two off…. this also goes with if it comes with a beverage… you can ask what the price is without it!
Tip#3 Bring food into the park
A lot of people don’t know that you can bring food into the park. We do this to help subsidize the cost of food in the park. For me personally it’s also about getting fresh fruits and veggies into my family. You can pack a small cooler with food, we usually use a soft cooler bag that fits in the stroller. We only bring in a backpack now so we found one that fits nicely. You can stop at the local Walmart, Costco, or Target which is right down the street. If you don’t have a vehicle, there are companies that will deliver groceries right to your hotel.( Grocery delivery ). There is a subway within walking distance. There are convenience stores within walking distance, but you will pay for it. You can also pop over to the McDonalds across the street from Disneyland and get a pile of chicken nuggets for $5. Almost always on the street in front of Disneyland is a flyer kiosk with a McDonalds flyer and 10% off the closest McDonalds. Expect prices to be a little higher at this location due to it’s proximity to the parks. Be prepared for airport pricing.
Pro tip: A friend asked me today if I budget in the snacks that we bring into the park for each day. I do not (unless we’re talking lunchables and specific pre-made foods like wraps or whatever). Here’s my secret: for the months leading up to the trip, grab ONE thing from each of your shopping trips and put them in a bin. A dry cereal one week. Yogurt tubes the next (freeze them). Cheese sticks the next. Beef Jerky or apple sauces. That sort of thing. This way you’re not spending $200 the week leading up to a big vacation!
Here are some tried and true meals that we like:
The chili cheese fries are a hidden gem! Okay, so it may not be the most visual appealing but seriously, so so good. They are labeled as a side, but we eat them as a main. Find them at the Smokejumpers Grill for $6.49 in Disney’s California Adventure. They used to be at the Golden Horseshoe, but it seems to have been replaced by the Pepper Jack Mac. Tasting TBD. Chicken nuggets are also always a safe choice. I actually can’t wait to try this! Instead of fries the chili is on top of pepper jack mac and cheese. At $8.49 I still think that’s a steal!
These next three are from the Beauty and the Beast themed Red Rose Tavern. If you aren’t traveling with kids, this is a great excuse to pop in to Fantasyland. It is right around the corner from Big Thunder (just a little insider tip for ya).
If you are vegetarian, this Enchanted Cauli-Flower sandwich on the right was delish! And this coming from a meat lover. At $11.49, it isn’t terribly priced. The middle was the Poutine Flatbread for $9.49. I found it filling enough to share. The left is the Grey stuff. And let me tell you, it was, in fact, delicious. There was a red velvet cake with a raspberry coulis topped with a cookie flavoured whip cream.
The meal to the left is another of my personal favorite meals in Disneyland. It is the Hacienda Chicken Salad. And it is divine. This is another gem from the Rancho del Zocalo. I find many of their meals very filling and easy to share. There is a similar restaurant in DCA called Cocina Cucamonga Mexican Grill if you happen to be on that side with a craving for good Mexican. Our mom and I would often share a plate of Enchiladas, as they also come with rice and refried beans on the side, which make for a filling dish!
Finally, there is the ever-popular turkey leg. It is smoked, so it’s got a “ham” flavour. Pick up a pretzel, and you’ve got a great meal to share with someone. In the middle is the soup from Boudin Bakery on the Pacific Wharf. They usually have a clam chowder, a broccoli chowder, and a seasonal soup. It’s a must have for me when I’m in the parks. That last one is loaded Mac and Cheese. Delish!
Tip #3: Bring snacks and share meals
Sharing meals as much as possible will help keep cost down. It isn’t always possible to share with my husband, however we find that by packing protein bars (Cliff Builder Bars are a current fave of ours – Costco usually has them in stock) and even packing protein powder with a shaker cup for each day (make sure your protein powder mixes well with water) helps to stretch the food. We also love to pack jerky (if you’re traveling from Canada, check out custom rules before buying) and trail mix (or Mickey mix). Some other faves are fresh fruit and veg, pepperoni sticks, cheese sticks, yogurt (pack a small cooler). Take an uber to your nearest Wal-Mart or Target to buy some perishables. We also always come prepared with Ziploc baggies to portion out our snacks the night before we go in to the park. HEADS UP: you cannot bring ANY glass into the park. You are able to bring food in to the park, as long as it is prepared. (So leave the mayo and the mustard bottles at home, got it?)
Tip #4: BYO(Beverages)
One area that can swallow a lot of the budget is beverages. You’ve got your AM coffee, your PM coffee, and maybe a pop or two throughout the day. It adds up pretty quickly. We bring our own water bottles and stock up on Crystal lights or other water flavor enhancers to help mask the flavor of the California water. If you don’t want to carry a water bottle with you, ask any counter service for a cup of water. As a treat, there are several self-refillable pop dispensers at various restaurants throughout the park such as the Pizza Port in Tomorrowland, or Rancho del Zocalo in Adventureland. If you’re going to buy a soda, this is where to do it since you can refill your drink to offset the cost. I also like to bring my Starbucks Via with me rather than buying two or three coffees a day. Again, any counter service will give you a cup of hot or cold water for free, and there are several Starbucks throughout the park.
We also don’t spent the extra $$ on soda, but we DO budget in the coffee. We bring a travel french press with Starbucks for the morning, and a kettle in the room. Then we go to Starbucks in the parks. You can preload your card and get stars (but you cannot redeem them while there). My husband and I will often split a venti quad latte (iced or hot) which still gives us the 2 shots of goodness each, but you’re still able to save about $4 a pop. Seeing as how 16 hour Disney days are 3 coffee days, this savings really adds up. And Starbucks Iced Vias! I like the Refresher ones since they are more like a crystal lite, or a good old plain iced via, because they come sweetened and all you need is cold water!
Tip #5 Where to Splurge
The treats that we buy are ones that we can’t get anywhere else. Things like Dole Whip at the Tiki Juice Bar, or Ghirardelli’s Sundaes feel so special. We bring bags of popcorn to pop in the hotel room as snacks so that we aren’t tempted to buy what our noses smell all day. Anyone with kids will know that snacks are key to making it through the day. Those are the things we bring into the park.
Here are some for sure splurge-worthy treats:
For me, it’s all about the Mickey Mouse beignets (in New Orleans at the Mint Julep Bar) and the Mint Julep. I do prefer getting them in Downtown Disney, because there are so many things that are exclusive to the park that it is nice to have a treat outside the parks, however they are not Mickey shaped. I really love the Dole Whip! It’s a daily treat. This here is the float, which makes for a pretty picture but isn’t quite as good as the original (IMO):The ice cream at Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop are expensive, but they are a great size to share, which helps justify the price:
And if you ask really nicely, sometimes the workers will give you a sundae one of them made up. My husband and I did this when we went and they gave us a wonderful concoction called a Cable Car (sadly only Snapchat had photo evidence of this beauty), it’s a fun way to give the workers a chance to share their favorites with you.
Happy eating, and have a magical day,
Elisia, Heidi, Erica, and Danielle