Sunday, November 2, 2014

Disneyland on a Shoestring

$100 in Disney Dollars!

How does one manage a week-long, $3,200 Disneyland trip when one is a single mom and underpaid teacher who hasn't received a penny of child support since 2007, who is also divorce-lawyer-poor with huge medical bills and other critical costs to be paid?

That was the quandary I faced when I first decided, almost a year and a half ago, that it was time to plan another Disneyland trip. Our last visit to our favorite theme park was in July 2007, so it was long past time. Being a master budgeter, I was sure I could come up with about $1,000 for this vacation, but would it be enough?

Then, as the week of our vacation approached, financial challenges abounded. The broken front passenger seat belt in my car had to be replaced, to the tune of $567.50. This summer several health issues required doctor visits, an emergency room visit, and two CT scans at a cost over $13,000, leaving me with $2,885 in medical bills after insurance. And so far I've paid $1,961.50 to my divorce lawyer, which is, thankfully, almost a thing of the past. (The ironic thing is this: if Ed had been willing to work together, we would have each paid only $125 for the same exact divorce decree, without lawyers. In our final agreement, I gave him everything I was already willing to give from day one. He hasn't figured out yet that pride and anger are costly, in so many ways.)

Our six 3-day park-hopper tickets to Disneyland and a PhotoPass+ voucher.
The 2 small tickets are mine and Dylan's, which were ordered by phone and mailed to me.
The 4 larger ones for my adult kids were ordered online and printed at home,
but at the gates of Disneyland had to be exchanged for actual tickets like mine.

Let me say upfront that God has blessed us in so many ways that made this vacation possible. I had no idea I'd face so many health challenges this summer, but God knew. In May I was offered the opportunity to teach a freshman English class on my prep hour for the 2014-15 school year. It has been a huge challenge having 35 students in a course I've never taught before with no time during the day to prep for it, but I'm truly enjoying the class, and the financial reward has been enough to make a difference.

Still, would it be enough to cover all my obligations and a week in California with my family?

This is what we were looking at in possible costs:
    1 week of lodging in a 2-bedroom condo near Disneyland: typically about $1,500
    Fuel to reach our destination: probably about $250, given the current gas prices 
    Food for the week, including eating at Disneyland for 3 days: approximately $500
    2 three-day park-hopper Disneyland tickets: $535
    PhotoPass+ for photos at Disneyland: $69.95
    3 days of Disneyland parking: $51
    Mini-van rental for a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway: $100+
    Parking fees at the beach: $12-ish
    Souvenirs for two: about $100

Total potential costs about $3,200.

That's me in front of WorldMark Anaheim

First, lodging. That's the easy one, so $1,500 can be removed from the table right off. As an owner in WorldMark vacation club, the resort condo was available to me at no cost beyond my monthly payment. In fact, I'd reserved our unit back in September 2013, because the resorts in Southern California tend to fill up quickly. I actually had to use that week somewhere, anywhere, in a WorldMark resort, or I'd have lost the 16,000 credits I spent to reserve it, once my WorldMark anniversary date of November 1st came around. 

Every November first, 20,000 credits are placed in my club account. Those credits may be carried forward for one year, but after that they go away. When Ed and I married in May 2010, I had only 10,000 credits, which was all I needed to take my children on a nice annual vacation (at most WorldMark resorts, a week in a 2-bedroom unit is only 10,000). However, at a sales presentation at WorldMark Indio, where Ed and I stayed in December 2012, Ed decided we needed to double our credits. I didn't want to take on the expense, but he insisted (now guess who's stuck paying for them? Yep, that would be me). Besides the now-20,000 credits, they also gave us 10,000 one-year bonus credits. Ed and I didn't use those credits before we separated, so this past year I had 50,000 credits, 30,000 of which needed to be used or lost.

Vacations cost money, even modest ones. Our big trip to California was all I could manage for this year. How was I going to spend the other 14,000 credits? Thank goodness for the weddings in our family this year! It was a blessing to be able to give my stepson Ryan and his new wife Shera a 4-night honeymoon at Bison Ranch in January. It was another blessing to give my son Jacob and new daughter-in-law Danielle a 3-night honeymoon in Phoenix in June and a follow-up 3-night honeymoon in Las Vegas in August. Thankfully, I barely managed to use up 30,000 credits before they expired! Now I'll carry over this year's 20,000 to next year, giving me 40,000 to use up. Groan...

Most of the food used to stock the condo was brought from home.
Any shopping necessary in SoCal was at Walmart, Target, and Vons.
(Vons is the same as Arizona's Safeway, so we used my Safeway card!) 

Secondly, food and gas. Because there were six of us and my car only has 5 seat belts, we were forced to take two cars. Dylan rode with Jacob and Danielle in their car, while Chris and Sarah rode with me. Since Jacob would have to pay for his own gas, Sarah and I agreed to split the costs of my gas, as well as the food for our entire group. In addition, while we were in California the cost of gas actually dropped substantially, another unanticipated blessing! Instead of $250 for gas, my cost was only $160 (not including the $43 fill-up covered by Sarah). Instead of $500 for food, my cost was only $278 (not including the $60 contributed by Sarah). And considering that I'd still have had grocery costs even if I'd stayed home, the actual extra expense of food would be even less than that.

This little Rewards Redemption Card saved me a lot of $$$!

Next, Disneyland tickets. This was the item about which I had the greatest concern. Disneyland is already expensive enough, but during the previous year they had substantially hiked the prices of their tickets. For me, there is so much to do and see in Disneyland and California Adventure that it's not worth doing with anything less than a 3-day park-hopper, which allows you to move freely between the two parks for 3 days. And those tickets now cost $265 apiece, or $530 for the two Dylan and I would need.

I've had a Disney Visa credit card for many years, and in the past I'd used the Disney Dream Reward Dollars I earned on the card to pay for dining and to purchase souvenirs inside the theme park. I've even used them to buy items in Disney Stores. It wasn't until I realized how many reward "dollars" I'd accumulated over the past 5 years that I began to wonder whether these rewards can also be used to purchase theme park tickets. 

They can! In order to use all the reward dollars in my account (since about 30 were set to expire on August 1st), I had to buy my tickets at the end of July, but after using 424.73 Disney Dream Reward Dollars, both tickets together only cost me $105.27! (Plus $5.00 to ship them to me.) That's quite an amazing deal!

The only thing I couldn't find a way around was the $17 parking fee for each of the 3 days we parked at Disneyland. Our resort was less than a mile from the park so we could easily have walked there in the morning, but we'd have been too exhausted to walk so far back to the resort at the end of a full Disneyland day. The resort offered a shuttle to and from the park for $5 per day, per person. For 6 of us for 3 days, that would have been $90 as opposed to $51 to cram everyone into my car, drive myself, and park. So we parked and paid.

Our PhotoPass+ card, worn around Dylan's neck during our visit.

The Splurges: I did splurge on two items that I could have foregone altogether. First of all, during the course of my research, I discovered that Disneyland offers a picture deal called PhotoPass+ for $69.95. Throughout the park, there are photographers scattered about near picturesque spots whom you can ask to take pictures of your group. You hand them your own camera and get pictures with everyone in it (instead of one person having to stand out to take the shot). This is an absolutely free service.

With PhotoPass+, though, these photographers will take your picture (several, actually) with their expensive cameras, then scan in your card, downloading the photos to a Disney website where you can access them later and edit them, adding Disney frames and special effects and so on. That part is nice, but it really wasn't what sold me. We used this service several times at California Adventure and got some fun shots (sadly, one whole batch was lost, though, when the photographer forgot to scan our card), but we were so busy while at Disneyland that we never once stopped to ask a PhotoPass staff member to take our pictures! And we didn't edit the pictures in any way. Maybe next time...

PhotoPass+ also includes unlimited pictures at some dining establishments and at Disney character meet-and-greets, neither of which I could afford anyway, so that was not a selling point for me, either.

However, the PhotoPass+ card entitles you to every photo taken on any attraction that snaps your picture while you're riding, like Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, Radiator Springs Racers, Hollywood Tower of Terror, and California Screamin'. I never buy those pictures because they cost $14.95 apiece. With PhotoPass+, though, we could get as many as we wanted! Just 5 "ride pictures" (a $74.75 value) would justify the cost of the card ($69.95). In the end, besides the other photos, we got 8 ride pictures! That would have cost $119.60, so it was well worth what we paid. Plus Sarah contributed $30, so it actually only cost me $39.95.

Hertz, located next to WorldMark Anaheim.

My second splurge was renting a mini-van for the day we planned to drive down Pacific Coast Highway. I really wanted all of us to be together, not in separate cars, but I wasn't absolutely sure what kind of deal I could get. I checked out some websites and it appeared that most places would charge well over $100 for a one-day rental. This was discouraging. Last year Ed and I were able to rent an economy car in Atlanta, Georgia, for just $18 per day (thank you, But this was Southern California and this was a mini-van. I decided I could pay up to $70, but if it was more than that we would take both cars.

On Sunday morning, Sarah and I walked to the Hertz Rent-a-Car right next-door to our resort and I explained what I wanted and why. The lady behind the counter tapped some keys on her computer and then told me it would be $100 for the day. I said, "Oh. Well, that's more than I was hoping for. Thanks." As we turned to walk away, she called, "Wait! Maybe we can..." She furiously typed away at her keys and mumbled something about a discount, and then she offered me a price of $71. I took it!

Sarah on our walk back to our condo from Hertz.

Beach Parking. When we took our Pacific Coast Highway drive in our wonderful Dodge Caravan rental van on Tuesday, I'd expected to pay up to $12 in beach parking fees. We did pay $3.00 to park at our first stop, Huntington Beach, but after that we managed to find free parking at every other beach. Another blessing!

Lobby inside WorldMark Anaheim.

One more nice surprise. As a WorldMark owner, one thing you can always expect upon check-in is to be invited immediately to an owner training presentation, which is really just a sales presentation. However, since it always includes a free meal and a nice gift, I always sign us up. This is how Ed and I got free tram tickets to San Jacinto Peak in Indio, California, and how the kids and I got to see Blue Man Group for just $33 each in Las Vegas in June 2013.

Inside WorldMark Anaheim.

So on Sunday morning, after watching General Conference online, the kids and I headed downstairs for a free hot breakfast and a tour of one of the 4-bedroom presidential suites on the top floors of the resort. Those suites are, admittedly, quite impressive, with indoor hot tubs and columns holding up the living room ceiling and such.

But then it was back down to the sales office and two hours of sales pitches. I always tell the sales reps going in that I will not be buying more credits, and they always assure me that they'll only show me more efficient ways to use my credits. But it always turns into a high-pressure sales pitch. As long as I don't have a husband with me who wants to impress people by achieving "silver elite status" with a certain number of credits, I always walk away after I finally convince the rep that I already have more credits than I need.

$100 in Disney Dollars (back side).

This sales pitch paid off in a big way, though. Originally, the sales staff had offered us free tickets to a variety of attractions. I informed her that we already had our Disneyland tickets and no time for anything else. Then she offered me $100 in Disney Dollars. What!!! You betcha! She could just as well have offered me a $100 bill. Disney Dollars can be spent inside the theme parks exactly like real cash. It was enough to cover all the food Dylan and I ate for our first two days inside Disneyland, leaving only one day's worth of food to pay for myself. That was a blessing for which I am deeply grateful!

I'm not sure why it happened, but after the sales presentation I went to the sales office to claim my Disney Dollars, and the gal behind the glass brought me $20 in Disney Dollars and a 2-day Disneyland ticket. I looked at her and said, "What's this?" She told me that's what I'd been offered. I pointed out that it made no sense for me to accept a 2-day ticket when we all had 3-day tickets already. I was offered $100 in Disney Dollars, and that's what I expected. (I'm a pretty nice, laid-back person, but don't mess with me when it come to money!) She actually had to call her superiors to get it okayed, but in the end I got my $100!

My souvenir antenna topper on my car!

Finally, souvenirs. Souvenirs at Disneyland are pricey. As you may know, I have a tradition of getting a tee-shirt from each place I travel, and a modest tee-shirt at Disneyland will set you back a minimum of $30. I could easily have spent $100 for Dylan and myself. And, in fact, I did end up with $88.30 worth of souvenirs, including a tee-shirt and baseball cap for Dylan and a tee-shirt and 2 antenna toppers for me (another tradition of mine).

Dylan's tee and cap.

However, since purchasing the theme park tickets at the end of July, my Visa card had accrued another 48.74 worth of Disney Dream Reward Dollars, which brought my actual cost for souvenirs down to $39.56. Ka-ching!

And so, all told, our $3,200 vacation cost me a measly $750. Not too bad, huh?

My tee-shirt and my second antenna topper (2 for$8.00).


Anonymous said...

Just stumbled across your post when looking for pictures of the anaheim resort...we go next week!

One quick tip...did you know you can "Rent" out any credits you cannot use to another worldmark owner? I just learned this myself and was able to get rid of 15,000 credits that were about to expire....I had a backlog from when I was pregnant/ had a newborn...Anyhow, I made around $900...enough to cover my maintenance dues for the next few months. Much better than letting them expire! I learned about the rental process on

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