What’s the secret to enjoying Disneyland without the long waits and without the kids (and adults) having a total meltdown? Read on to discover our tried and true Disneyland Tips for Success.
Our family loves Disneyland, and we have been going several times a year since our kids could walk. Why do we keep going back so often? Well, I suppose it’s because we’ve found a place that the whole family enjoys, and we’ve made so many happy memories there that we literally crave going back again and again. So, if you’re enthusiastically planning your first trip, I’ve got some tips to help make it go smoothly. Or, if you’ve been thinking of going, but have put it off, or have been considering it a chore that you must someday accomplish for the sake of your kids, then rest assured, the following tips will get you through…and you might just find yourself enjoying it!
There is just way too much to see and do in just one day, so trust me, you must go for a minimum of two days. Because California Adventure is just right across the courtyard from Disneyland, you can easily go back and forth between the parks on the same day. So, I recommend getting the Park Hopper passes. For first timers, a 3 or 4 day Park Hopper pass is best.
We prefer to buy our tickets online through Ares Travel. They are an authorized Disney ticket dealer, and tend to have better prices than what I can get through my work discount. Alternatively, use your employer discount, or check out Costco…they often have some good ticket deals.
Where to Stay
Our favorite place to stay is the Candy Cane Inn. The rooms are priced right, it’s within easy walking distance of the parks, they have a pool that is heated year-round, and they offer a free continental breakfast. In addition, if you’re just too tired to walk, they have a free, dedicated shuttle bus that takes you to/from the park every half hour. Use your AAA membership here for a nice room discount.
Another good, and relatively inexpensive option is the Howard Johnson Anaheim. The location is also within walking distance to the main gates, and they have a fantastic pool and water playground that the kids will love. They don’t offer breakfast, but they are right next door to Mimi’s Cafe, which is a yummy way to start the day. Follow this link for some discount codes you can use to save at the HoJo Anaheim.
There are three Disney resort hotels near the parks, as well, and there are some great perks that go along with staying in one. With your park ticket and room key, you can take advantage of the convenient entrance to California Adventure through the Grand Californian, and you also get early admission to the parks on alternating days (one day is early admission to Disneyland, and the next day is early admission to California Adventure, and so on). They also have a shopping delivery service, so your Disney store purchases can be delivered to your room for you And, I must say that the service at the Disney resort hotels has been top notch. However, I can only recommend two of them for your visit.
Let’s talk about the Grand Californian first. The Grand Californian is absolutely beautiful, and the location cannot be beat. It has its own private entrance into California Adventure and Downtown Disney, nice restaurants on-site, and a great pool with watersides. However, it’s pricey at over $400 per night on average. There are discounts that occasionally spring up through Disney or one of the online travel sites, but they never seem to be available when you want them. So, I recommend this hotel if a) money is not a concern for you, or b) you have young kidsand expect to go back and forth from the parks to the hotel room throughout the day for naps, breaks, etc.
The second Disney resort hotel I would recommend is the classic Disneyland Hotel. The location is not as close to the parks (but still nice), it has fantastic pools and watersides, and plenty of dining options. It’s cheaper than the Grand Californian, but will still run you over $300 per night on average. It’s about the same walking distance as the Candy Cane Inn or HoJo, but the walk is through Downtown Disney (see paragraph below), which can be both good and bad. Good because there are lots of fun things to look at, and great dining options, but bad if you’re ready for a nap and your kids want to stop in every store on the way back to the hotel. If you don’t feel like making the trek through Downtown Disney, you can also hop on the Monorial, which is outside the hotel just past the the entrance to Downtown Disney. The Monorail takes you right into Tommorrowland within the Disneyland park, allowing you to skip any lines at the Main Gate and a sometimes crowded walk down Main Street. The rooms at the Disneyland Hotel have been renovated, and include a fun lighted headboard that will serenade you to sleep. In my opinion, the Disneyland Hotel strikes the right balance between cost, location, and amenities. So, if you can afford the room rates, I highly recommend this hotel for families with kids, and adults without kids, too.
The third Disney resort hotel is the Paradise Pier. This hotel is the furthest of the resort hotels from the parks. They have standard rooms, and a basic rooftop pool, and the room rates are still high at $250-300 per night. I just can’t recommend this hotel when there are better alternatives for the price like the Candy Cane Inn or HoJo.
Downtown Disney is a mecca for dining, shopping, and entertainment. It has some fun themed restaurants, like the popular Rainforest Cafe, and lots and lots of shopping. There is an enormous World of Disney store here where you can find any souvenir imaginable, and the Lego store is a tourist attraction of it’s own right with incredible, larger than life displays of Disney characters. On our last visit, they featured a Frozen-themed ice skating rink, and there is also a movie theater here, if you want a change of pace. I’d definitely recommend making some time to stroll through Downtown Disney on your trip, or dining at one of the many restaurants there.
In the summertime, Disneyland is open from 8:00 am until Midnight, and California Adventure is open from 8:00 am until 10:00 pm. The parks open at 7:00 am for the Magic Morning hour (early admission for people staying at the resort hotels and others with ticket packages that include Magic Morning entry) That’s a very long day!!! In addition, you can expect to walk about 10-15 miles each day.
Many people come to the parks and are determined to make use of every dollar they spent on the tickets by staying all day long, only to burn out by early evening. And, trust me, your young kids will melt down far earlier, around 3 or 4 pm. By late afternoon everyone is exhausted, and cranky, and if you try to push yourself to stay all day every day, you will have a miserable time. So, how do you avoid this? Here is what you must do. You will go to the parks when they open, like everyone else, and then around 1 pm, you will leave and go back to your hotel room where you will all take a nap. In our family, everyone is required to take a nap (yes, even the adults), and trust me, you’ll enjoy it! Set an alarm (you’ll need it) for around 3 or 4, and then force everyone to wake up and go for a swim in the hotel pool It’s refreshing, and will wake you up and energize you for more time at the parks. Often times, your kids’ favorite memory of the trip will end up being the hotel pool. Then gear up to go back to the park. You can either eat dinner outside the park (Downtown Disney perhaps), or eat at one of the many options inside the park. Stay late, at least late enough to enjoy the fireworks and nighttime shows, and then head home to sleep. Repeat this schedule each day you are there.
Now, I understand if you have only one day at Dinseyland that you’ve got to take full advantage of it, but if you have multiple days, you must adhere to my advice above. Everyone I know who goes regularly to Disneyland does it this way…it works, it makes the trip enjoyable, and after all, isn’t that why you are paying all that money?
Avoiding Long Lines
Tip #1 – The best way to avoid lines is to go during less crowded times of the year. Websites like TouringPlans.com have historical crowd calendars to help you choose the best time to go…for a small fee. Just know that summer, and all holidays will be a busy time at the park.
Tip #2 – Download a Disneyland wait time app. We refuse to wait in line more than 15-20 minutes for any ride, so we use these apps religiously. There are several out there, and we tend to use more than one.
Tip #3 – Another thing you must take advantage of is the FastPass system. If you’ve never heard of it or used it before, Google it. This is essential to avoid standing in line for long periods of time! Basically, a FastPass will give you a return time (a one-hour window) to come back for the ride…it essentially holds your place in line for you while you go off and do other things. At the return time, you just show your FastPass at the special FastPass ride entrance, and you walk right up near the front of the line. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that you can’t get another FastPass until the return window of the one you already have in your hand has opened up. For example, if I get a FastPass for Space Mountain, and it tells me I need to come back between 10:25 and 11:25 am, I won’t be able to get another FastPass for a different ride until 10:25 am.
Tip #4 – There are some exceptions to this rule. If your FastPass return window is not for several hours, there will be another time printed on your FastPass that tells you when you are eligible to get another one. Another trick that most people don’t know about, is that the FastPass system between Disneyland and California Adventure is independent. So, that means that you can have a FastPass for a ride at Disneyland, and then run over the California Adventure and get a second one right away. We have tried it, and it works, but we usually don’t go back and forth that often between parks, so we don’t typically do this.
Tip #5 – OK, here is the most important thing you need to remember if you learn nothing else from this post: ALWAYS GET A NEW FASTPASS BEFORE YOU RIDE THE RIDE FOR THE ONE YOU HAVE IN YOUR HAND! If your Space Mountain FastPass window opens up at 10:25, do not be tempted to immediately run over there at 10:25 and go on the ride. Instead, go get another FastPass first, and then walk over to Space Mountain. This is the most efficient way to do things, and you’ll always have another ride lined up with a guaranteed short line!
Rides at Disneyland
Get to the park when it opens if you can. If you want to go on the Peter Pan ride, you need to go straight there. Otherwise the line will never be shorter than 35-45 minutes for the rest of the day. If you have young kids, you’ll need to ride Dumbo early on, as well. Next, go to Space Mountain and get a FastPass (don’t ride it, even if the line is short). FastPasses for Space Mountain can “sell out” by mid-day. While you are waiting for your FastPass window to open, ride the Nemo Submarines, and then Buzz Lightyear or Autopia. Once your FastPass window opens, get another FastPass for StarTours or Indiana Jones, and then ride Space Mountain. While you’re waiting for your next FastPass window to open, go ride some more rides with short lines (check your app). Once your next FastPass window opens, get another FastPass, then ride the ride. Keep up this pattern all day long.
Rides at California Adventure
Get to the park when it opens if you can. Split up and have one adult wait in line for the Cars Radiator Springs Racers FastPass (note, it’s not next to the ride). You have to do this right away or all of the FastPasses for that ride will be gone within an hour or two. While one person is getting a FastPass, the rest of your party should head over to Toy Story Mania. This is another ride, like Peter Pan, where if you don’t ride it early, you’ll have to wait in long lines (no FastPass for that ride). Most of the good rides here have FastPasses, and the rest of the lines are fairly short. Just use your wait time app, and enjoy. Oh, and if you like to see shows, World of Color is amazing, and you can get a FastPass for the show over near the Grizzly River Rapids ride.
Princesses and Characters
If your kids are totally consumed with the Disney princesses or other characters, I’m sorry. Only because you will have to wait in some long lines to meet the characters. On our last visit, the line to visit the Frozen characters was about 2 hours long (if you got in line right when the park opened). Our kids have never obsessed over the characters, although we do like to engage with them once in a while. One great way to meet the characters is a Character Dining experience. There are several Character Dining opportunities to choose from – Goofy’s Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel, Storytellers Cafe at Grand Californian, and Ariel’s Grotto in California Adventure to name a few. Breakfast and lunch are a little cheaper, so that’s what I would recommend. Don’t forget to have the kids bring their autograph book!
Your are permitted to bring water bottles and snacks into the park…a very nice option for saving some money, and I recommend you take advantage of it.
For Disneyland, we have a few favorite places to eat. For breakfast, I recommend the Carnation Cafe on Main Street in Disneyland. We usually eat lunch/dinner at the Rancho del Zoccolo in Frontierland. This won’t be the best Mexican food you’ve ever eaten, but the portions are big for the price, and the outdoor setting is nice. Tomorrowland Terrace…this recommendation isn’t for the food, which is standard fare…burgers, fries, etc., but if you time it right you can watch the Jedi Training Academy show, which our kids still enjoy to this day.
Update: How to get your kids chosen for the Jedi Training Academy? Well, our daughter has been chosen every time she tries. Here’s some tips.
- Have your child jump up and down, wave their arms, and cheer loudly when the actors are looking for kids.
- If you have a daughter, have her wear her hair a la Star Wars (think Leia buns)
- Have your child wear a Star Wars t-shirt
Oh, and the Dole Pineapple Whip…amazing! You must try one, honestly. I went years without trying one, and now it is a must-have on every trip. If you’re in a rush, the Chimichangas from the carts around the park are good, too. For a real treat, have lunch or dinner at the Blue Bayou (a restaurant inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride). The food is great (albeit expensive), and the setting/atmosphere is truly one of a kind!
In California Adventure, our favorite lunch stop is the Pacific Wharf Café. Flo’s V8 Café also has good food and a fun atmosphere. And the Cove Bar…I almost hate to share this tip for fear it will gain in popularity and the lines will be longer. The Cove Bar is hidden away behind Ariel’s Grotto restaurant, and it has a fantastic view of the waterfront. They also have good appetizers (our kids eat the tri tip sliders and lobster nachos for lunch), and some potent drinks for mom and dad, which can be a welcome treat after a few hours in the park. Get to the Cove bar right when it opens at 11:00 am or you’ll be waiting in line.
A note about alcohol…Disneyland does not sell alcohol, nor does it allow it inside the park. California Adventure, however, does. Now, if you like to enjoy a beer or some wine on your vacations like I do, make way for California Adventure in the evening for a drink. I must say it definitely takes the edge off, and suddenly the kids’ little bouts of fighting or minor meltdowns are much more tolerable.
OK, did I cover everything? I think so. If you have any questions at all, don’t hesitate to leave a comment or contact me via email. We’ve tried just about every restaurant at each park, and are proud to say that we’ve ridden every singe ride, so I can give you some specific reviews and recommendations for your family if you’d like. Hope these Disneyland tips and tricks can help you enjoy your visit to the “Happiest Place on Earth” as much as we always do!