I love Disneyland, but it’s a complicated place.
I go a lot, so people ask me how they should plan, and what they should do when they get there. I’ve gathered my thoughts below, and will keep these updated as needed.
Please keep in mind: these are just my opinions. Others’ may differ, wildly.
When to go.
Picking the right day (or days) to go is the most important decision you’ll make. Use TouringPlans.com’s Crowd Calendar: they give you a nice one-to-ten rating describing how crowded each of Disneyland’s two parks will be on a given day.
You pay about $7.95 to get access to their information, but the $7.95 is a bargain compared to the misery of going on a super-crowded day.
How long to go.
If you want to see everything, it’ll take two, probably three days. If you have small kids, then right now, just forget about seeing it all. You won’t. And that’s okay.
You can go for just a day, of course, but make sure you adjust your expectations accordingly: it’ll be hectic, and you’ll only see a fraction of what’s available. But it’s still a fun day.
Where to stay.
There are three hotels I consider when going to Disneyland:
- The Grand Californian is a deluxe Disney hotel. It’s the closest to the parks, but it’s very expensive: $450 per night is typical.
- The Disneyland Hotel is also a Disney hotel. It’s cheaper, but not cheap: $250-$350 per night is typical. Pro: amazing pool, Trader Sam’s tiki bar. Con: while it’s very walkable to the parks, it’s the furthest away of the three hotels I’m recommending.
- The Fairfield Inn on Harbor Boulevard. This hotel is not luxurious, but is clean, the rooms are newly-renovated, not expensive (in the $150/night range), the service is excellent, and it’s closer to the parks than the Disneyland Hotel. You won’t get the early entry “Magic Hours” (see below) if you stay at this non-Disney hotel. That’s a minor disadvantage, not a deal-breaker. Also: the pool is boring. (If you want a great pool in a value hotel, the Howard Johnson’s, just north of the Fairfield, is supposed to be good.)
There are many other good hotels, of course, but none I’ve found match the value, quality, and proximity of these three.
Before you go.
- Peruse the maps for both parks (Disneyland and California Adventure) and get a rough idea of the things you and your kids want to do. You don’t need to figure out a down-to-the-minute schedule (that strategy probably won’t work, and probably won’t be very fun) but just knowing the things you want to see is a good first step.
- Buy your park tickets online. You don’t want to have to figure this out when you arrive your first day. (Note: if you’re staying at a Disney hotel, you may have your tickets already, as part of a package.) You probably want to get the “Park Hopper”-style tickets that let you bounce back and forth between the two parks.
- Make dining reservations. (See “Dining,” below.)
Now that you’re there…
- The earlier in the morning you enter the parks, the better. If you’re staying at a Disney-owned hotel, check to see if there are “Magic Hours” when you can get in early. (Magic Hours let hotel guests into one of the parks an hour early.)
- If you’re going to Disneyland, go on the most crowded rides early in the morning, then spend the afternoon doing everything else. The most crowded rides include Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Dumbo, Peter Pan, Roger Rabbit, Storybookland Canal Boats, the Matterhorn, Autopia, Star Tours, Buzz Lightyear, the Finding Nemo subs, and Indiana Jones. (Whew.) Counter-intuitively, rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion don’t have long waits; save them for later.
- If you’re going to California Adventure, send someone ahead (with everyone’s tickets) to grab some Radiator Springs Racers Fastpasses early in the morning. (See below about Fastpass.) You won’t be able to miss the line for those Fastpasses—it’s enormous—but don’t worry: it goes very fast. Once you have the passes in hand, jump on Soarin’ over California or Tower of Terror, then head to the back of the park to do Toy Story Midway Mania and California Screamin’.
Shortening your Waits.
To help avoid lines, there’s a thing called Fastpass. A Fastpass is sort of a reservation to ride an attraction later in the day. When you come back, you get to skip to the (approximate) front of the line. Says Wikipedia:
Disney Fastpass tickets are dispensed by machines outside each attraction that uses them. The guest inserts his/her park ticket into a reader on the machine. The machine then returns the admission ticket and a Fastpass ticket will be printed. This ticket will show the time window at which the guest may enter the special priority line at that attraction. The time window given is normally one hour. It will also show when another Fastpass can be obtained. In normal practice, only one Fastpass ticket can be held at a time. Another Fastpass ticket can be obtained either at the start of the current Fastpass ticket’s return time or ￼after two hours, whichever is earlier.
Only about ten attractions in each park have Fastpasses; they tend to be the ones with the longest and most boring waits. (Sadly, for logistical reasons, a lot of the kids’ rides like Dumbo and Peter Pan don’t have them.) It’s nice to get them, but overall, not something to stress about.
Fastpasses are great when:
- The attraction you want to go on uses them.
- The “reservation time” you get isn’t too far into the future (say, less than two hours).
- There are other things you want to do in the vicinity that you can do while you’re waiting. (Example: Splash Mountain has a long, boring wait. If the posted Fastpass return time is, say, 60 minutes in the future, go get some Splash Mountain Fastpasses, then go ride on Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. When you’re done, go back to Splash Mountain and jump on.) Otherwise, you may find that you’ve locked yourself out of getting another Fastpass (see description above), or, if you’ve moved on to a new section of the park, you’ll be forced to backtrack, which you may not feel like doing.
Rider Swap, Single-Rider Lines.
If the people in your party are willing to ride individually and not together—or you’re at the parks by yourself—you can save a lot of time by getting in a Single-Rider Line, offered at attractions like California Screamin’, Radiator Springs Racers, Indiana Jones, and others. Also, if you are parents with young kids, Rider Swap is a great way to get more out of your day. Touring Plans does a great job of explaining it.
More about the parks…
- If you want to see the best in Disney attractions, the following five are tops: Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Radiator Springs Racers, and of course, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion. (Tower of Terror is scary, but less scary than it looks. Do yourself a favor and ride it.)
- What’s worth doing at Disneyland? Basically, everything. Prioritize the attractions I mentioned in “When You Get There”…but just do it all. It’s all fun.
- What’s worth doing in California Adventure? Like Disneyland, it’s all fun, but I tend to be a little choosier here. The aforementioned Tower of Terror is amazing. California Screamin’ is a great roller coaster. And everybody likes Soarin’ over California. (Try to get Fastpasses for this; the wait is boring.) If you ride Mickey’s Fun Wheel (the ferris wheel), be aware that the “sliding” cars can be a longer wait—longer than it looks—and are kind of terrifying. I’m not kidding. The “still” cars have a shorter wait and aren’t scary at all, as long as you’re not overly scared of heights. Lots of people like Toy Story Midway Mania; if you like video games, you’ll enjoy it. But it’ll be a 45+ minute wait, though I think Fastpasses are available. There’s other nice stuff, too, but those are the highlights.
The shortest waits.
If you’re sick of waiting in lines and want to do something now, seek these out:
- Disneyland Railroad. You can board at any of four stations around the park. And if you ride the Tomorrowland-Main Street leg, you see dinosaurs.
- Main Street Vehicles. Omnibus, horse-drawn streetcar, fire truck, horseless carriage. So pleasant and fun. Board near the Main Street train station, or down by the castle.
- Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough. Beautiful dioramas tell the story of Sleeping Beauty. I love this.
- Pinocchio’s Daring Journey. Not always a super-short wait, but always way shorter than Peter Pan or Mr. Toad.
- Casey Jr. Circus Train. Again, not a short wait, but tremendously shorter than the Storybookland Canal boats, and Dumbo. And more fun than either.
- Monorail. Takes you to the Disneyland Hotel and back. Useful if you’re staying there, but fun even if you’re not. (Ask the attendant if you can ride in front.)
- Pirates of the Caribbean. Typically a 5-minute wait; almost always less than 15 minutes.
- The Enchanted Tiki Room. A ’60s variety show presented by animatronic birds. Goofy, but deeply loved by many folks. Hang out in the Tiki Gardens in front, enjoy the scenery, and since you’re on the Tiki Garden side, take advantage of the much-shorter wait to get a Dole Whip float.
- Tarzan’s Treehouse.
- Mark Twain Riverboat & Columbia Sailing Ship.
- Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island. Maybe my favorite thing at Disneyland. Caves to explore, rickety bridges to cross. Set aside 75 minutes or more for this.
- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
- Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Animatronic Abe Lincoln recites excerpts from his famous speeches. It’s amazing, in its way, but not for everyone. (You’ll know if you’re the sort of person that would like this.)
- If Disneyland history interests you at all, stop by the Disney Gallery, next to Mr. Lincoln. It showcases old Disneyland artwork, and a model of the park.
In California Adventure:
- Art of Animation. Beautiful exhibits about animation; make sure you see the “Toy Story Zoetrope”.
- Redwood Creek Challenge Trail. Like Tom Sawyer Island: explore caves and ascend to treetops via rope nets. Fun.
- Grizzly Peak Nature Trail. I’m not sure if I have the name right on this, but this is a beautiful, scenic walk by the Grizzly River Rapids attraction. Great waterfalls, and a nice way to spend 10-15 minutes.
- The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure. Not a fantastic ride, I’d say, but it’s pleasant and there’s rarely a wait.
- Golden Zephyr. Not a superbly fun ride…but not bad, especially with little kids. (And a huge bargain compared to the Jumpin’ Jellyfish next door, which has huge waits and a shorter ride.) When you’re done, ask if you can stay on board. In my experience, they’ll let you ride as many times as you want.
There are three big nightly shows. I’m not super-big into shows, but a lot of people are, so you may want to check one or more of these out:
- The fireworks show at Disneyland. (Its name varies.) You should be able to walk over to the castle shortly before it begins (15-20 minutes?) and watch it. The earlier you get there, the better, but you don’t have to kill yourself.
- Fantasmic, also at Disneyland. Fantasmic (as of December 12, 2014) switched to a FastPass system, with dining options. Find out more here. (You can still get a “standby” spot if you don’t get a FastPass…but do yourself a favor and get FastPasses.)
- World of Color is in California Adventure. You can see this by either getting a Fastpass the morning of the show by the Grizzly River Run attraction (recommended), or by making dinner reservations similar to those for Fantasmic. Of the three shows, this is my favorite.
The current parade at Disneyland, Mickey’s Soundsational Parade, is really pretty good, and I don’t like parades. It typically happens twice a day; check the schedule. I wouldn’t kill myself to see it, but you want to, line up along Main Street at least 20 minutes in advance.
- Food at Disneyland isn’t great, though it generally isn’t terrible. Some of the better meals I’ve had are at the Jolly Holiday Bakery, the Plaza Inn (I do love the fried chicken here), El Rancho del Zocalo (Mexican food), and Redd Rocket’s Pizza Port (pizza, pasta, salads.) The beignets in New Orleans Square (Mint Julep Bar, next to Pirates of the Caribbean) can be very good. Big Thunder BBQ has become a recent favorite of mine, with pretty good all-you-can-eat fare.
- The Blue Bayou Restaurant in Disneyland is notable because it takes place inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. (You don’t see any pirates; you do get to see the “bayou” scene that’s at the beginning of the attraction.) You pay a lot for what you get, but it’s a unique atmosphere. Again, 714-781-3463 for reservations.
- Flo’s V-8 Café in Cars Land has good food, and beautiful views of the Radiator Springs Racers ride. And I loved the chile cone carne at the Cozy Cone Motel. In fact, everything I’ve eaten at the Cozy Cone, I liked.
- If your kids like the Disney characters, there are many opportunities to do a character meal at various restaurants around the parks and hotels. I don’t recommend the one at the Disneyland Hotel: they only have B- and C-level characters. I’d do the one in Disneyland at the Plaza Inn featuring Mickey and Minnie, etc.; there’s also a princess breakfast at California Adventure. You’ll need to make reservations.
- For high-end dining: the Grand Californian’s Napa Rose is a fantastic restaurant. Definitely on the “fancy” side, but I see kids eating there all the time; kids used to high-end dining won’t feel out of place. 714-781-3463 for reservations. The new Carthay Circle ￼restaurant at California Adventure is supposed to be excellent too, but I haven’t been there.
- I’ve only eaten a few places at Downtown Disney (a shopping/eating area in- between the parks and the Disneyland Hotel.) Earl of Sandwich is fast-casual and has delicious sandwiches. La Brea Bakery is a great place for breakfast before the park opens, though it’s fine for other meals as well. (They have both quick-service and sit-down areas.) Sit-down-wise, I’ve eaten at Jazz Kitchen, a New Orleans cajun restaurant, which was okay, and the ESPN Zone, which was average. There’s also a Rainforest Café, which I’m guessing is solidly average at best.
And that’s it.
You’re an expert now! Seriously, even if all you do is pick a less-crowded day because of these tips, you’re already way ahead of the game. Have a great time!
P.S.: If you want to make any suggestions, just contact me at tips -at- c3images dot com.