This first appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2015.
On a muggy August morning, I found myself peering deeply into a cavernous hole of mouse-shaped confections. How long could I survive this dizzying trip to the unknown,? I thought, attempting poetry but sounding more Bradshaw than Angelou. It was only 9:30 AM, and I was already losing it.
I was attempting Disneyland on a budget of $5.
In honor of the park's 60th anniversary, I decided to explore a day there on a 1955 budget. Having grown up in Southern California, I'm a Disneyland pro. So I figured, "what's the big deal?" and confidently drew up some rules: I would only carry $5 cash. I could bring snacks, but they had to fit in a tiny 50s-sized purse—meaning things like nuts, crackers, and not much else. And last but not least, all food had to be on Disneyland's main campus—apologies to the Denny's located across the street.
When Disneyland opened in 1955, adult admission cost $2.50. In 2015, the price of a ticket is $185. If you want to jump over to California Adventure, Disneyland's neighboring theme park, it's an additional $40. This brings the price of a family of four's visit to the happiest place on Earth to be around $714—just for a day.
With that in mind, I weaseled my way into the park by way of a kind and friendly Disney employee. For a simple exchange of I owe you one, I got to party hard between parks. I highly recommend this route.
There are two things you must know. First, do your research. Mommy blogs and that "Disneyland Hacker" dude on Instagram are lousy with tips and tricks on how to make it out of Disneyland alive. Second, embrace your inner scumbag. I knew immediately that survival meant pretending it was my birthday in order to gain full mooching benefits.
My first stop was the Jamba Juice in Downtown Disney, where I got $3 just for being born. I haughtily strutted up and quickly exited with breakfast in the form of a tiny bag of free Popchips. I chose BBQ flavor, and the dusting of the sweet and tangy flavors really hit the spot, but perhaps I was already a little delirious.
Which brought me to Disneyland's confection counter, a mere 12 minutes later. Right next to a $10 brownie, I found a vegan cupcake for $4.95, about which I later fantasized all day. It became the boudoir photo of my sweetheart as I'm shipping off to war.
At that moment, I wasn't sure which was worse: my task at hand or the thought of attending Disneyland solo on "my birthday." "Aw, you're here alone?!" an employee asked. Easy, lady, I thought. I'm only a fraction of how sad you think I am.
My trip from breakfast to lunch followed as such: I asked around for "birthday treats" and was met with silence, as though I asked about a Disney Fight Club or something. I befriended a cast member who said that popcorn went from $4 to $4.25 in the last week. I went to the Matterhorn, one of the park's most exhilarating rides. And while I waited in line, no one engaged me—which was ridiculous because I was reading an Ed Wood biography, and where were my Wood-heads at?
I went to the Smokejumpers Grill and spotted a toppings bar. "Can I have an extra plate?" I asked. "Extra" implied that I was already a paying customer. I then went whole-hog on some salad stuffings. I specifically loaded up on the roasted peppers and the half-pulverized trail mix topping. Hey! I think I'm gonna be alright.
I tore through the rest of my day disregarding the concept of rides entirely. My eyes lit up with a frugal rage like I'd found the best Father's Day deal on flatscreens. Sample-size Ghiradelli chocolate? I'll take it. Mini sourdough bread? Give it. Free condiments? Put it in my mouth.
The rest of my day was a gradual decline into the many stages of hangriness. I discovered that the shittiest ride in Cars Land was closed and flipped it the bird.
What have I become? Vegan cupcake, vegan cupcake, I thought to myself. Don't spend money. At snack time, I went to the Pacific Wharf Cafe. I asked for free water and forgot to say it's "my birthday." The greeting of the cashier bludgeoned me back to life: "Want anything else? Cookies?" Ah, can't. She handed one to me like I was little Orphan Annie, and I thanked her for what felt like an hour.
Later, I discovered that the Earl of Sandwich, situated in the theme park's Downtown Disney boardwalk area outside of the theme park, gives you a free sandwich on your birthday. I signed up for their e-newsletter and waited. An hour went by, then another. It was dinner time and I needed nutrients fast.
Even without the email, I figured that my cookie moxie might work. I hesitantly ordered a veggie sandwich. When I reached the register, it was go time. I'm not proud of this, but for the next 20 minutes, I went full Streep. "So you need a barcode from my birthday email?" I'm not even Streep in Kramer Vs. Kramer—I'm Streep in The Iron Lady. "It was just here!" I then proceeded to go all Ghosthunters on my phone. Then finally, as with so many moochers before me, they lost patience. Toasted wheat, grilled veggies, and judicious use of mayo were finally mine. I'd have felt bad, but since I didn't spend my actual birthday here, I figured I'm even, or something.
I marched back into Disneyland, head held high, Lincoln as my co-pilot. I slapped down my fiver and ordered a Dole Whip Float—a creamy, soft serve-like concoction that has inspired food cults in the past. You can't get them anywhere else.
As I gobbled what has been widely declared Disneyland's best snack, I reflected on the day. I sweated, stressed, and starved. I feasted on condiments, and lied to people's faces. I learned more asshole-y things about myself than I ever thought possible.
But I did it, and I pray you never have to. From here on out, it's $10 brownies for everyone.