A theme park visit should be awesome. But it can also be long, expensive, and just a bit stressful. How can you make sure that, by the end of the day, “awesome” wins?
I spoke with Linda M., a member of the Disney Parks Moms Panel and a specialist in Disneyland, who knows the ultimate theme park inside and out. And, to make sure I brought back the very best editor-tested survive-and-thrive tips, I visited Disneyland with my wife and two daughters this past July (I know, it’s a tough job, but I took one for the BT team!). Here, the Budget Traveler’s ultimate guide to Disneyland.
“Booking a package is a great way to budget since you only have to pay $200 when you initially book your package,” suggests Linda M. “You can then make payments, in any amount and frequency that you choose, as long as your package is paid in full 30 days before your arrival date. I much prefer making small payments over time versus a lump sum all at once. Then, check the Offers & Discounts page of the Disneyland Resort Hotels website frequently.” Disneyland Resorts properties include Disneyland Hotel, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel, and staying on the grounds provides the most convenient access to Disneyland, Disney California Adventure Park, and the restaurants and shops of Downtown Disney. “There are often new offers added for vacation packages throughout the year. If you book a package and a deal later becomes available that applies to your travel dates and accommodation type, you can usually apply that deal to your previously booked package to save some money.”
“Don’t miss out on freebies!” Linda M. reminds me. While Disneyland visitors must, of course, pay for admission, meals, and souvenirs, you should remember that the park does offer ample free stuff too. “Grab your complimentary 1st Visit, Birthday, or Celebration pins upon entering the parks,” suggests Linda M. “Walk through Ghirardelli Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop and you’ll be handed a free chocolate square. Take the walkthrough Bakery Tour of the Boudin Bakery for your free sample of delicious sourdough bread. Bring your own autograph book to collect signatures from all the Disney friends you meet and you will have a free and unique souvenir to take home. And, of course, get those free cups of ice water at quick service restaurants when it’s time to hydrate.”
GET THE DISNEYLAND APP
“My best tip for first-timers is to download the official Disneyland app before you arrive,” suggests Linda M. “This will help give you a feel for how the parks are laid out as well as provide you with all sorts of tools to make your visit go as smoothly as possible. You can view attraction wait times, FASTPASS return times, locate your favorite characters, make dining reservations, and so much more. If it’s your kid’s first visit, get them involved in the planning process! My daughter is only 4 years old, but we love watching attractions and rides through videos online to get excited for an upcoming trip. Also, plan on getting a souvenir to commemorate their first visit. Mickey ears are a classic option, but something I always recommend to parents is to have your child’s silhouette done at the Silhouette Studio on Main Street, U.S.A. in Disneyland Park. These are so precious and will be a personalized keepsake of your visit that you’ll cherish for years.”
THE NIGHT BEFORE DISNEYLAND
Pack snacks, lunches, water, sunscreen, ibuprofen, adhesive bandage strips, and moist towelettes in a small backpack you either don’t mind carrying or that can fit inside a locker. (And, especially if you’re traveling with a multigenerational brood, remember to pack any needed medications.)
MORNING AT DISNEYLAND
Layer up. Wear layers and comfortable walking shoes and bring hats and UV-protective sunglasses. Morning and evening in Anaheim may be chilly any time of year, but it’ll almost always warm up considerably by afternoon.
Get early access. Arrive a half-hour before opening, leaving time for parking and to get a jump on some of the most popular rides, such as Star Tours, the Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, and, for the younger visitors, Peter Pan’s Ride. Linda M. says, “Guests staying off-site who purchase three-day or longer theme park tickets have one Magic Morning entitlement (admission one full hour before the parks open to the general public) at Disneyland Park on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday. Those staying at a Disneyland Resort Hotel have Extra Magic Hour every day of their stay, including exclusive access to Disney California Adventure Park one hour early on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. We find these early hours to be invaluable as the crowds and temperatures are always low!”
Prepare your kids' for safety and comfort. If you’re visiting with children, photograph them that morning so that, in the unlikely event that you get separated, you can show park employees exactly what your child looks like that day. Linda M. also suggests, “Come up with a meeting place, such as The Partners Statue (of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse), in the area in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, or the flag pole in Town Square. Or, tell small children that if they are lost they should find a costumed Cast Member, who will escort the child to a Baby Care Center where they will be looked after until the parents can be located.”
Book breakfast with a Disney character. Do you think your child would enjoy having breakfast with a princess? “Breakfast is the most widely available option,” says Linda M., “with character meals taking place in all three Disneyland Resort Hotels, as well as Ariel’s Grotto in Disney California Adventure Park, and my personal favorite, the Plaza Inn in Disneyland Park. Each meal features a slightly different character line up from princesses to Mickey and his pals. These meals are popular, so it’s important to plan ahead. Reservations can be made up to 60 days in advance online or by calling (714) 781-3463.”
Maximize your time with MaxPass. The best way to see “everything” is to tour the park as efficiently as possible. The new edition of Disney MaxPass takes that to a whole new level. Linda M. notes, “Now you can obtain a FASTPASS for an attraction from anywhere in the park. Plus, if you have a Park Hopper ticket, you can select a FASTPASS for an attraction in Disneyland Park while you are in Disney California Adventure Park. Talk about a time saver! One tip that applies to MaxPass and using the regular FASTPASS system: always be aware of the time when you can obtain your next FASTPASS. This time is clearly printed on your paper FASTPASS reminder ticket or on the Disneyland app. Once you are able to pull another FASTPASS, I suggest you do so immediately. This will save you time and allow you to maximize the number of attractions you can ride throughout the day.”
MEALS AT DISNEYLAND
On our July visit to Disneyland, my family and I packed snacks and a light lunch, and grabbed a nice off-hours meal (around 4p.m.) at the Mexican cantina in Frontierland, which, on the day of our visit, was the least crowded of the park’s lands. “I’m not sure if Frontierland is regularly less crowded,” says Linda M., “but I like the strategy of eating at non-peak meal times. This is always a great idea to ensure you aren’t fighting the masses. I also suggest that people scope out restaurants for seating areas that might not be immediately in the line of sight. Many eateries are larger than what they seem and sometimes you can secure a secluded and quiet table if you just venture around the corner or go upstairs. My favorite is Flo’s V8 Café in Cars Land in Disney California Adventure Park. Not only is the food incredible at this quick service option, but there is seating around back that is hardly ever crowded. Plus, when you eat back there you have an amazing view of cars racing by on Radiator Springs Racers.”
AFTERNOON AT DISNEYLAND
Look for “Hidden Mickeys.” The night before my family's visit to Disneyland, our cousin Dominic reminded us to keep an eye out for the “Hidden Mickeys” that take many forms in many places around the park. Linda M. shares Dominic’s enthusiasm: “Hidden Mickeys are everywhere and my daughter always delights in finding them around the parks! There are even guide books you can buy that point out all the different hidden Mickeys at the Disney Parks. My suggestion is to look closely at anything and everything that is circular in shape/design. More often than not, a few of those circles will form a Mickey. My favorite hidden Mickey is in the dining room scene of Haunted Mansion. Take a close look at the plates on the table the next time you take a ride on a Doom Buggy!”
Savor Disney history. Sure, you’ll love the thrill rides like Splash Mountain, Buzz Lightyear, and Indiana Jones, but don’t forget to immerse yourself in some of the park’s history and classic mid-century kitsch. My family loved the Dumbo ride, the Enchanted Tiki Room (where audioanimatronic tropical birds croon), the iconic Snow White wishing well beside Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and, of course, Main Street. “My daughter happens to love just about every attraction at the Disneyland Resort,” says Linda M.. “Some of the classics like It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean are among her favorites. She doesn’t realize the history behind them, she just marvels in the Disney magic that is presented around every turn in these attractions. The history at Disneyland is one of the things that makes it special. After all, here, you can walk where Walt walked. You can order some of Walt’s favorite dishes at restaurants, ride attractions today that originally opened with the park in 1955, and marvel at all the joy and magic that this place still holds.”
Take a break. It may seem counterintuitive, considering how much time and money you’ve invested in your Disneyland visit, but taking a break midday is one of the best survive-and-thrive theme park strategies. “Absolutely!” agrees Linda M. “Taking midday breaks is a necessity for our family! As I mentioned before, we like to start early – sometimes as early as 7:00 a.m. So by the afternoon we are ready for a nap or some relaxing in the pool. After a short respite, we are usually ready to head back to the parks for dinner and nighttime entertainment. Additionally, we always stay at one of the three Disneyland Resort Hotels which means heading back to the room for a break couldn’t be easier – each hotel is just a short walk from the parks. The close proximity of everything at the Disneyland Resort makes visiting so easy and relaxed and I think this could be my favorite aspect of vacationing here.”
EVENING AT DISNEYLAND
Stay for the fireworks. We enjoyed the nightly fireworks display, Fantasmic, from a table near Space Mountain, which at that hour was not too crowded. Linda M. notes that viewing the fireworks is not much of a challenge from just about anywhere in the park. “There are actually lots of interesting places the catch the fireworks. If you are watching the early show of Fantasmic!, you can stay where you are and watch the fireworks that happen almost immediately afterward from that spot. There is also this new dining option called the Tomorrowland Skyline Lounge Experience where you get to enjoy a little box of treats and a beverage on the balcony lounge of the Tomorrowland Expo Center. So on nights when fireworks are presented, you have an excellent, elevated view from this exclusive area. If you are staying at a Disneyland Resort Hotel, it’s possible to score a room with a view of the fireworks or if you are enjoying a meal at Catal or Tortilla Jo’s in the Downtown Disney District, the fireworks can be partially seen from those patios."
Enjoy short (or nonexistent) late-night lines at popular rides. "Experiencing short queues late at night is pretty normal," says Linda M., "but something most younger families aren’t able to take advantage of. For those with older kids who would love nothing more than to stay up late, this could be a really effective strategy. After (or even during) the fireworks, most families will exit the park. But if you are able to stay until closing time, you will be able to walk right in to a lot of attractions.”