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.
How to figure out which days are crowded
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.
Star Wars Land
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.
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.)
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.
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: $450–$575 per night is typical, though you can sometimes get it as low as $375 if you’re lucky. Pro: great location, and 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 a Disney-owned hotel. 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 is clean, newly-renovated, 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.
- Peruse the maps for both parks (Disneyland and California Adventure) and get a rough idea of some things you want to do. 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 bit of what you want to see is a good first step.
- Buy your park tickets online. You probably want to get the “Park Hopper”-style tickets that let you bounce back and forth between the two parks on a whim. And 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.
- 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 make dining reservations.
- Make dining reservations. (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 your smartphone 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, but don’t worry: it moves quickly, and it won’t feel as crowded once you’re inside.)
What to do when you’re inside.
What’s worth doing at Disneyland? I’d say the very best things in the park 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.
Radiator Springs Racers, a high-speed race through Cars Land, is a standout. Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout is Disneyland’s newest attraction, a re-theme of the old Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. I haven’t ridden this yet, but it’s said to be thrilling and fun and people like it. (Since it’s the latest and greatest thing, it will have very long lines at least through the rest of 2017.) California Screamin’ is a great roller coaster, probably Disney’s best. And everybody likes Soarin’, a gentle and beautiful simulated flight around the world. 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. (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 nice 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.
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.
- Pinocchio’s Daring Journey. Always a shorter wait than Peter Pan or Mr. Toad.
- Casey Jr. Circus Train. Not always 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 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.)
- 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.
- Tarzan’s Treehouse. Fun exploration through an oversized jungle tree.
- Mark Twain Riverboat & Columbia Sailing Ship. (Note: Closed until Summer 2017, to make room for Star Wars Land.)
- Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island. (Note: Closed until Summer 2017.) Maybe my favorite thing at Disneyland. Caves to explore, rickety bridges to cross. Set aside 75 minutes or so for this.
- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. A pleasant dark ride. (A trippy dream sequence in the middle of the ride might scare the very youngest kids…but it probably won’t.)
- 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.
- Disneyland Railroad. (Note: Sadly, this is closed until Summer 2017, to make room for Star Wars Land in 2019.) 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.
In California Adventure
- Redwood Creek Challenge Trail. Like Tom Sawyer Island: explore, and ascend to treetops via rope nets. Fun.
- 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.
- 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 great bargain compared to Jumpin’ Jellyfish next door, which has huge waits and a very 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 info. I’m not super-big into shows, but most people love them, so you probably owe it to yourself to check one or more out:
- Fantasy in the Sky is the fireworks show at Disneyland. You can watch from one of four areas, and get a slightly different show at each. (Read this for details.) You should be able to claim a decent viewing spot 15–20 minutes before the start of the show. The earlier you get there, the better, but you don’t have to kill yourself. (The castle area will be the most crowded.)
- Fantasmic (closed until Summer 2017 because of Star Wars Land construction), also at Disneyland, takes place near New Orleans Square and combines fountains with fireworks and lots of other stuff. The best way to view Fantasmic is to get Fastpasses. 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. There are also optional Fantasmic dining packages if that’s appealing to you.
- 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 much 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. Get either a Dessert Party reservation, or special World of Color dinner reservations at nearby restaurants.
- 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 always-more-crowded 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 is a mixed bag…but mostly pretty good, 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.
- 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: Earl of Sandwich by the Disneyland Hotel is fast-casual and has delicious sandwiches. Tortilla Jo’s has surprisingly good Mexican food and margaritas. 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 great loco moco and cinnamon rolls at breakfast-time.
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; 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. Reservations highly recommended.
- If your kids like the Disney characters, there are many opportunities to do a character meal at various restaurants around the parks and hotels. You’ll need to make reservations.
- 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 excellent, and very beautiful. Also on the fancy side, though kids are welcome.
- 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 bery crowded in thr evenings.) Steakhouse 55, also at the Disneyland Hotel, has a bar that slants more toward wine and martinis.
Fall and Winter changes.
Just something to be aware of: some of the attractions at Disneyland are re-themed for the fall. September through December, 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.) And in November and December, the Jungle Cruise becomes the Jingle Cruise, with the animals dressing up for the season.
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.