Just what you need to know. And nothing more.
I love Disneyland, but it’s a complicated place. Here’s what I tell people when they ask me for advice.
When to go.
Disneyland on a crowded day can be a lousy experience, so picking the right time to visit is the most important decision you’ll make.
No surprise: avoiding holidays and school vacations are your best bets. But you can do better than these rules-of-thumb. Both Disney and a service called TouringPlans offer crowd predictions for given dates; I’ll show you how to use these in the Appendix at the very end of this post.
Also: Disney is adding a huge Star Wars-themed area to Disneyland, but it won’t open until Summer 2019. That’s far enough in the future that I wouldn’t put off a trip to Disneyland now.
How long to go.
If you want to see everything in both Disneyland and California Adventure (the two theme parks at the Disneyland Resort), it’ll take three days. That doesn’t mean that you can’t go for two days, or even one. You’ll still have a great time; just set your expectations accordingly.
If flying, your first impulse will be to fly into LAX. That works, but realize that LAX is an hour or more away from Anaheim depending upon traffic. Your best bet: fly to John Wayne Airport (SNA). It’s small, easy, and about 20 minutes from Disneyland. From SNA take a Lyft or Uber to your hotel for around $40. (Don’t take the Disneyland Shuttle Service… it’ll cost more and take a lot longer.)
Where to stay.
There are three hotels I consider when going to Disneyland:
- The Grand Californian is a deluxe, Disney-owned hotel. It’s the closest to the parks, but it’s expensive: $425–$575 per night is typical. Pro: great location; it’s beautiful. Con: pool is nice, but not as fun and kid-friendly as the Disneyland Hotel’s pool.
- The Disneyland Hotel is also Disney-owned. It’s cheaper, but not cheap: $350-$475 per night is typical. Pro: pool with amazing water slides, 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 Anaheim on Harbor Boulevard is not luxurious, but it’s clean, a little less expensive($150-$225/night), and is actually closer to the parks than the Disneyland Hotel. You may not get early entry to the parks (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 fun pool at a value hotel, the Howard Johnson’s on Harbor Boulevard is supposed to be good.)
There are other good hotels, but none I’ve found match the value, quality, and proximity of these three.
Before you go.
- Figure out a few things that you want to do and see. Peruse the maps for both parks (Disneyland and California Adventure) for an idea of what’s available in terms of attractions, shows, and restaurants. You don’t need a down-to-the-minute schedule — that strategy probably won’t work: you’ll get off-schedule quickly — but just knowing a few things you want to see is a good first step.
- Download the official Disneyland app, if you have a smartphone. It’s useful while you’re visiting, showing you wait times, park hours, and general information. You can also buy your park tickets and make dining reservations.
- Buy your park tickets ahead of time. There are several (confusing) options to consider. 1) The Park Hopper option lets you bounce back and forth between Disneyland and California Adventure on a whim. It’s pricey, but if you can afford it, you’ll appreciate the flexibility. 2) Do you want MaxPass? Probably; read more below. In general I recommend buying tickets directly from Disney, rather than trying to get a discount somewhere else. The discounts are typically small, and it just makes things more complicated. (One exception might be Costco: I haven’t personally used them, but some friends have gotten some compelling hotel and ticket packages through them.)
- Make dining reservations. If you want to go to some of the more popular places, you should make reservations. You can make them 60 days in advance. (See “Dining”, below.)
Planning your day at the parks.
- The hours for the two parks (Disneyland and California Adventure) are different from each other, and vary from day to day. Check the site, or check the Disneyland app, to find out the hours on a given day.
- There are two ways to get into the parks an hour early: 1) If you’re staying at a Disney-owned hotel, see if there are Extra Magic Hours on the days you’re visiting. 2) If you have a 3-Day or longer ticket, check for Magic Mornings.
- If you’re concerned about crowds, the earlier in the morning you enter the parks, the better. (Note that if you go early, the line to enter the park will look enormous. Don’t worry: it moves quickly. It won’t feel as crowded once you’re inside.)
What to do in the parks.
What’s worth doing at Disneyland? I’d say the very best things are Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Haunted Mansion.
What else should you do? To be honest: everything. It’s all fun. But 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, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Autopia, Star Tours, Buzz Lightyear, the Finding Nemo subs, and Indiana Jones. (Whew.)
What’s worth doing in California Adventure? Like Disneyland, it’s all fun, but I tend to be a little choosier here.
Everybody likes Soarin’ Around the World, a gentle and beautiful simulated flight to the world’s landmarks. Radiator Springs Racers is a spectacular, high-speed race through Cars Land that’s exciting, but docile enough that those afraid of thrill rides will be fine. Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout is Disneyland’s newest attraction, a re-theme of the old Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. (I liked the Tower of Terror better… but the new ride is still thrilling and fun.)
In Paradise Pier, California Screamin’ is a great roller coaster, probably Disney’s best. If you ride Mickey’s Fun Wheel (the ferris wheel), be aware that there are two kinds of cars to ride in. The “sliding” cars are, not kidding, completely terrifying. The stationary cars have a shorter wait and aren’t very scary, as long as you’re not scared of heights. (Note: the line for Mickey’s Fun Wheel moves very slowly.) Lots of people like Toy Story Midway Mania; if you like video games, you’ll defintely enjoy it. There’s other good stuff, too, but those are the highlights.
Shortening your waits for the most popular rides.
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 a few 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 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 or Pirates of the Caribbean. When you’re done, head back to Splash Mountain.) 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.
Starting July 19 2017, Disneyland offers a thing called MaxPass. For $10 per person, per day, it lets you claim FastPasses directly from your smartphone without having to walk to the attraction. (It also gives you free access to Disney’s PhotoPass photography service.)
Is MaxPass worth it? While I am loathe to recommend that people spend even more on their Disneyland vacation… the MaxPass upgrade is worth it. You’ll definitely ride more attractions than you would otherwise, and doubly so if you’re going for just a day and want to make that day as productive as possible.
Rider Swap, and Single-Rider Lines
If the people in your party are willing to ride individually and not together — or if you’re visiting 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.
FastPass+ and MagicBands
You may have heard about a slightly different reservation system in use at Florida’s Walt Disney World called FastPass+, and things you wear called Magic Bands that you use in place of tickets. Disneyland doesn’t use either of those things, so don’t worry about them.
“I want to ride something *now*.”
If you’re sick of waiting in lines and want to do something right this second, seek out these attractions that typically have short lines:
- Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough. Beautiful dioramas tell the story of Sleeping Beauty, and you get to literally walk inside Disneyland’s castle. I love this.
- Mark Twain Riverboat & Columbia Sailing Ship. A pleasant, beautiful 15-minute trip around the Rivers of America.
- Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island. One of my favorite things at Disneyland. Caves to explore, rickety bridges to cross. Set aside 75 minutes or so for this.
- Disneyland Railroad. You can board at any of four stations around the park. And if you ride the Tomorrowland-to-Main Street leg, you see dinosaurs.
- Tarzan’s Treehouse. Fun exploration through an oversized jungle tree.
- The Enchanted Tiki Room. A ’60s musical variety show presented by animatronic birds. Goofy, but deeply loved by many folks. Before the show, hang out in the Tiki Gardens and take advantage of that side’s much-shorter wait to get a Dole Whip float.
- Pinocchio’s Daring Journey. Always a shorter wait than Peter Pan or Mr. Toad.
- Casey Jr. Circus Train. Not always a short wait, but way shorter than Storybookland Canal boats or Dumbo. And more fun than either.
- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. A pleasant dark ride.
- Star Wars Launch Bay. Over in Tomorrowland, check out authentic Star Wars models and costumes. You can also meet Star Wars characters, but the line to see them is sometimes long.
- 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.)
- Emporium Windows. Five astonishing animated window displays, each depicting a scene from a Disney animated film. Outside the Emporium on Main Street.
- If Disneyland history interests you at all, stop by the Disney Gallery, next to Mr. Lincoln on Main Street. It showcases old Disneyland artwork, and a model of what Disneyland looked like on opening day.
- Main Street Vehicles. On any given day there will be some subset of the omnibus, horse-drawn streetcar, fire truck, or horseless carriage running up and down the street. So pleasant and fun. Board near the Main Street train station, or down by the castle.
- Monorail. Takes you to the Disneyland Hotel vicinity and back. Useful if you’re staying there, but fun even if you’re not. (Ask the attendant if you can ride in front.)
In California Adventure
- Grizzly Peak Nature Trail. This is a beautiful, scenic walk by the Grizzly River Rapids attraction. Start at the spot where the Grizzly Peak rafts plunge into the water, then follow the path past great waterfalls, geysers, and a forest. A nice way to spend 10 minutes.
- Redwood Creek Challenge Trail. Like Tom Sawyer Island: explore, and ascend to treetops via rope nets. Fun.
- The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure. Pleasant, and there’s rarely a wait.
- King Triton’s Carousel. Always a shorter line than King Arthur’s Carrousel at Disneyland. (Yes, they spell “carousel” differently in the two parks.)
- Silly Symphony Swings. Fast and fun. (If the look of this ride scares you, you probably don’t have to worry. Unlike the terrifying Mickey’s Fun Wheel, the Swings are less frightening than they look.)
- Golden Zephyr. Not a superbly fun ride… but not bad, especially with little kids. (And a much better deal than the Jumpin’ Jellyfish next door, which has huge waits and a short, not-very-fun 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.
- Not that fun for the kids, but I think the interior of the Carthay Circle Restaurant is really beautiful; 1930s-era perfection. Worth a quick tour if you happen to be in the vicinity.
There are four big nighttime shows. They take place on most days, but not every day, so check your app or park guide for showtimes. I’m not big into shows myself, but most people love them, so you probably owe it to yourself to check one or more out:
- Fantasmic takes place near Disneyland’s New Orleans Square and combines fountains with fireworks and lots of other stuff; people generally love it. To see Fantasmic, you need either 1) Fantasmic Fastpasses 2) a dining package (choose Blue Bayou over River Belle Terrace unless the extra cost gives you heartburn) or 3) a somewhat cheaper on-the-go meal package. Note that with these dining packages, you won’t be eating and watching the show at the same time.
- “Remember… Dreams Come True” is the fireworks show at Disneyland, in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle, and viewable all down Main Street. If you want the very best view, right in front of the castle, I’d recommend getting there 30–45 minutes in advance. If you are content to be a little further away and watch from Main Street (which is fine) you can probably show up just about anytime and be okay.
- World of Color is fountain show in California Adventure. Of the shows, this is my favorite. There are a few ways to see this. 1) Just show up. This is doable, but will result in the poorest view. I’d show up at least 60–90 minutes in advance. 2) Get a Fastpass the morning of the show over by the Grizzly River Run attraction. You’ll get a much better view than if you just show up, but I would still recommend getting there 60 minutes before showtime for the best view. 3) Dining reservations. Pro: you’ll get the best view of all, and will have a lovely experience. Con: reservations aren’t cheap. The best seats are saved for people at the pricey dessert party who eat while watching the show; with the more reasonably priced dinner packages, you’ll eat first and watch the show later. As with Fantasmic, the higher-priced package you choose, the better view of the show you will get.
- There are a few different parades running at Disneyland and California Adventure at any given time; check the entertainment schedule for what’s happening when. If you want to see the Disneyland parade, line up along Main Street about 20 to 30 minutes in advance. (Note that you’ll see people staking out spots hours in advance. You can do that, but in my opinion the better view isn’t worth it: sitting on a curb for two hours isn’t how I like spending my day at Disneyland.)
Food at Disneyland has gotten much better in recent years, probably better than you’d expect for a theme park.
- In Disneyland, some of the better meals I’ve had are at the Jolly Holiday Bakery Café, the Plaza Inn (I love the fried chicken here), Cafe Orleans (the Monte Cristo sandwich here is famous), and Bengal Barbecue. I also liked the vegetarian cauliflower and asparagus sandwich at the Red Rose Taverne.
- At California Adventure, 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.
- I’ve only eaten a few places at Downtown Disney (a shopping/eating area in-between the parks and the Disneyland Hotel.) My favorites: Tortilla Jo’s has surprisingly good chile rellenos and margaritas. Earl of Sandwich by the Disneyland Hotel 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. (La Brea has both quick-service and sit-down areas.)
- At the Disneyland Hotel, Tangaroa Terrace has good poolside meals, including breakfast.
The places below take reservations. Reservations can be made 60 days in advance, and are highly recommended. Click here or dial 714–781–3463 to reserve.
- 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, but you do 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. Reservations highly recommended.
- For high-end dining: the Grand Californian’s Napa Rose is a very good restaurant. Definitely on the “fancy” side, but kids used to that won’t feel out of place. Again, click here or dial 714–781–3463 for reservations. Steakhouse 55 at the Disneyland Hotel is good, if you’re into a very traditional steakhouse vibe. In-park, the Carthay Circle restaurant at California Adventure is very good, and very beautiful. Also on the fancy side, though kids are welcome.
- If your kids like the Disney characters, there are many opportunities to do a character meal at various restaurants around the parks and hotels. Each venue features different characters, and you’ll need to make reservations.
- There are way more options for snacking than I could possibly list, but a couple of things I like: The Golden Horseshoe is a nice, cool place to stop for ice cream. The pineapple Dole Whip at the Tiki Juice Bar is a sensation. (Personally I like the Float over the plain Whip. And remember: there are two lines. Go through the Tiki Room turnstiles and wait in the shorter one.) And the beignets in New Orleans Square (Mint Julep Bar, next to Pirates of the Caribbean) can be very good.
- There’s no alcohol in Disneyland Park, but there is in California Adventure. The most elegant place is the Carthay Circle Lounge in the center of the park. At the hotels, the Napa Rose at the Grand Californian has a very nice bar, and Trader Sam’s at the Disneyland Hotel is a fun, beautiful tiki bar. Drink quality varies, but it’s such a fun place to visit, it’s still worth your time. (It can get very crowded in the evenings.) Steakhouse 55, also at the Disneyland Hotel, has a bar that slants more toward wine and martinis. Go here if Trader Sam’s is too crowded.
Fall and Winter changes.
Just something to be aware of: some of the attractions at Disneyland are re-themed for the fall. September through early January, The Haunted Mansion becomes Haunted Mansion Holiday, featuring characters from the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas. September and October, Space Mountain turns into the very slightly scarier Space Mountain: Ghost Galaxy. November through January, It’s A Small World becomes It’s A Small World Holiday (the dolls sing Christmas carols instead of the normal theme song.)
New in 2017, Cars Land will be specially-decorated for Halloween. My guess is that will start mid-September and run through early November. And Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout! has a special Halloween program they run after 4:30pm each day that I’m told improves on the standard ride.
On select dates September through December, Disneyland closes early and holds special nighttime Halloween and Christmas parties. Your normal park tickets will not get you in to these parties, and the upcharge is steep, around $90–100 per person.
That said… they are fun. They have spectacular, special parades, and amazing fireworks shows. They hand out free candy at Halloween all over the park; for Christmas, it’s gingerbread and hot chocolate. And attendance is much less than normal day at Disneyland, so most rides—all of which are open—are a walk-on.
Should you go? It’s pricey, so it’s a tough call. But I don’t know anyone that has gone that regrets it afterward. It’s a special experience.
Note: If you’re a ticket holder on one of these party days, it’s definitely a bummer that they kick you out of the park early, around 6pm. On the plus side, however, locals don’t show up on these “short” days, so Disneyland is much less crowded. It’s possible you’ll actually ride more stuff on these truncated days than on a normal day. So… it’s not all bad!
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.
Just remember that when it comes to Disneyland…
- Despite your best efforts, it’s probably going to be crowded. That’s okay.
- It’s almost certainly going to be expensive.
- Despite 1 and 2, you’re still going to have fun.
Have a great time!
While it’s not focused on “tips”, I am a host of a Disneyland podcast called the Golden Horseshoe Review. If you want to indulge in some inside-baseball Disneyland talk, check it out! Thanks.
Appendix: How to figure out when to go…
1. If you want to visit in the next nine months, check out Disney’s ticketing page. Choose “1 day” (no matter how long you want to visit) and you’ll see a calendar. If your schedule is flexible, go on the light blue days and avoid the dark blue days. (If you’re visiting for just one day, the light blue days are cheaper. But multi-day passes are the same price no matter when you go.)
2. If your plans are more than nine months out, 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 $7.95 for access to TouringPlans’ information, but $7.95 is a bargain compared to the misery of going on a super-crowded day.
To figure out what attractions are closed for maintenance during your vacation, click here. Find the days you want to go, then scroll down to Closed for Refurbishment.
(In general I wouldn’t recommend planning your trip around what attractions are closed: there’s always more than enough to do. That said… it’s still best to know in advance what will and won’t be open. It’s no fun dreaming of Pirates of the Caribbean only to see a “Closed for Refurbishment” sign when you arrive.)