I come from a Disneyland-loving family.
My mom was born in December 1954, in Los Angeles. Disneyland opened seven months later, 30 minutes away in Anaheim. She grew up visiting Adventureland, Tomorrowland, and Fantasyland, and when I was old enough to walk, she started taking me.
I’ve never been much for dressing up like a Princess, but I have always loved the history, the rides, the music, and the “Magic” (®). Instead of a sweet sixteen, I begged my parents to let me take my two best friends to Disneyland. By then, I’d begun to develop my Park strategy. We ran from ride to ride, scoffed at parade-watchers, and collected and spent Fastpasses like the whole thing was a complicated board game. It was exhausting; exhilarating.
This is what I know about how to do Disneyland.
Hold on to your hats and glasses, ‘cause this here’s
the wildest ride in the wilderness.
– Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Before we begin: I have already referred to “Disneyland” a few times, so the sharper amongst you will need no clarification on the following point. I feel strongly, however, that this not be misunderstood: this article is not about Disney World. Some of the principles outlined below will apply, but the Orlando installation of The Magic Kingdom is — in my opinion — an overgrown, unpleasant approximation of the original park. I’ve been to Disney World twice, which is enough times to suggest you not visit.
So, you’re going to Disneyland.
Here’s one way to do it: show up, wander around for ten hours, spend a dozen Disney Dollars on funnel cake, buy a pair of embroidered Mouse ears, ride a few rides, and go home. You’ll have a pretty pleasant time.
Then again, you’re here to learn what I do. So: look past the Pooh sweatshirts, Princesses, parades, turkey legs, souvenir photos, and fake snow. Beneath the scripted, moderately-paced guest experience, there is a system ready to be bent to your will. If you do the work, your planning, passion, and dedication will be rewarded. Screw the pleasant time. You are going to have an outstandingly large amount of fun.
This guide doesn’t start at Disneyland. That would be amateur hour, and we are professionals. Professional large-amount-of-fun-havers.
If you want to do this right, your preparation begins…
The Night Before
You’re going to Disneyland tomorrow. Congratulations!
Pack, in your backpack or other roomy water-resistant bag: sunblock, granola bars, a water bottle, sunglasses, a hat, a pen, and a Ziploc bag.
Set aside some good shoes. I’m not kidding; tomorrow at 10 pm, when you’ve been wearing comfortable shoes and good socks all day, and you see someone in flip-flops hobbling around, you will thank me.
Check the operating hours. (For purposes of this article, Disneyland is open 8 am - 12 midnight — weekend summer hours — and California Adventure 9 am - 10 pm; sixteen hours allows for maximum fun.)
You won’t be able to see everything, so decide which attractions (rides, parades, shows) are a must-see for you. Write these down.
Go to bed slightly early, and by all means don’t drink too much beforehand. Tomorrow’s a test of endurance, and cranky bleary hung-over you is not going to feel the magic (ahem; Magic®) quite the same.
The Morning Of
You’re packed, rested, and prepared. Make sure you have your tickets, eat a banana, drink some water, and get ready to kick Mickey’s ass.
If You’re Staying at the Disneyland Resort…
(Good choice, big spender.)
Get up, put yourself together, and head over to the park entrance about 15 minutes before the park opens.
Early Admission: depending on the day of the week, you, as a hotel guest, have early access to the park, which means you get the whole place to yourself for an hour before the plebes show up. Use it wisely.
Since you’re staying on-site, jump ahead to “Zero Hour”.
If You’re Driving From Los Angeles…
You’ll park in the massive Mickey and Friends garage, and escalator down to the tram. Walk to the far end, where the lines to board are generally the shortest. Avoid getting in line behind families with strollers, as they take up a disproportionately large amount of room.
On the tram ride, enjoy the cool morning air. Consult with your party on what your first ride should be. Do a couple of light stretches.
Step off the tram, get your bag checked for alcohol, firearms, and knives by the friendliest bouncers you’ll ever meet, then make a beeline for the Disneyland entrance. It’s to your left. California Adventure’s to your right, but it doesn’t open for another hour or so.
The time has arrived. You’re about to enter The Park.
The Park is what Disneyland employees call the behemoth that is Disneyland & Disney’s California Adventure. Call it this from now on. You’re in the club.
Get your park map
As you have your park ticket scanned and step through the turnstile, grab a park map and parade schedule; fold them in half and stick them somewhere handy, like a back pocket or the outside of your bag. Until you know the park’s layout by heart, you’ll want these in easy reach.
Run to the first ride
This is one of the best parts of the day: I suggest you run to your first ride of the day. My pick is Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Good alternatives include Space Mountain and Matterhorn Mountain. Outdoor rides only: Indiana Jones is the same all day. (Booo-ring.)
Before you get on the ride, take one minute to grab a Fastpass.
A Fastpass is a magical piece of thermally-printed paper that gets you to the front of the line on certain popular rides. Go to the ride to get a Fastpass, then return later in the day and skip the line. The Park gets an even distribution of guests on its busiest rides, and you get to be the cool guy walking past the chumps who’ve waited three hours to ride Splash Mountain: win/win.
You can only hold one active Fastpass at a time per park (one for Disneyland, one for DCA), but after its “return after” time passes, you can grab another one. Stack ‘em up early in the day and they’ll pay off later.
Then hop in line. It’ll probably be incredibly short, and you’ll walk on.
Walking on to a ride is the ultimate goal of line avoidance. It’s a delightful feeling to skip, gleefully, through an empty queueing area that at other times holds hundreds of sweaty, bored, fidgeting humans. Breeze through. Enjoy.
My favorite thing about the first ride of the day, besides the fact that I’ve just walked on to it because nobody’s in the park yet, is the cool morning breeze as I hurtle through the air in an old-timey mine car. It shakes any remaining early-morning brain cobwebs loose and prepares me for the awesomeness to come.
You’ve been on your first ride. You have a Fastpass in hand. The Park is your oyster. It’s tempting to run to the next big ride, but pace yourself. You have fifteen hours and forty-five minutes to go.
Take a minute, grab a coffee and a table with a nice view of whatever Land you’re in, and plan out your targets. Look at your park map and reconcile it with the must-see list you wrote down last night. The pen I asked you to bring? It’s for circling attractions you want to see — not on the index, but on the map itself: then, note distances between your target rides. There will inevitably be some doubling-back throughout the day, but if you can minimize it, your feet will thank you, and you’ll waste less time. Consider, too, crossing rides off as you go. It’ll provide a delightful sense of accomplishment now, a memory aid later, and is easy to scan when it’s ten minutes to midnight and you’re running to that one last ride you haven’t been on yet. (More on this later.)
Once you’ve done some planning, early morning is a great time to ride whatever you walk past that has a 5- or 10-minute wait and is interesting. Pirates of the Carribean, the Haunted Mansion, Star Tours, and It’s a Small World are all good candidates here.
If you’re interested in having dinner later at The Blue Bayou (which is adjacent to / inside Pirates), go to New Orleans Square and make reservations.
When 10 or 11 rolls around, California Adventure will have opened. Go there. Hell, do “the first-ride run” again if you want: Soarin’ Over California, California Screamin’, Tower of Terror, and Midway Mania are all great first-thing rides in this park.
While you’re in California Adventure, swing by Grizzly River Run. It’s likely too chilly to ride now, but grab a Fastpass. It’ll come in handy later. You’ll be able to grab one for a different ride in about an hour.
My favorite morning rides: in Disneyland, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Pirates of the Carribean, the Jungle Cruise, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant. In California Adventure, California Screamin’.
You’ve been up since six, on the go since seven, and on your feet since eight. Treat yourself to an early lunch at around 11, before lines get too long. There are good options in both parks, but my favorites are Bengal Barbecue in Disneyland (across from Indiana Jones) and the Pacific Wharf Café in California Adventure (on the “pier”).
Since your morning Fastpasses have probably passed their return-after times, go ahead and grab another one in either park (or, even better, both). And, by the way, repeat this process as often as possible.
At around 2pm, the park’s getting pretty hot and crowded. The less-dedicated tourists and locals arrived a few hours ago, and all those children haven’t started to get tired or cranky yet, so the park’s pretty full. The terrifying Southern California sun is blazing overhead. So…
Staying at the Grand Californian? Execute the Grizzly River Run / Swimsuit / Pool / Cocktail Maneuver.
Here’s the way I like to do it: remember that Fastpass you got earlier in the day for Grizzly River Run? (You smarty.) Go to your hotel room, using the hotel-guest-only entrance across from GRR.
Throw on your swimsuit. Put your party’s park tickets, credit cards, IDs, and Fastpasses into the Ziploc bag you brought, and tuck it in the pocket of your guy friend’s board shorts. Then head back into the park and use your Fastpass to walk to the front of the line on GRR. Ride. If there’s a short enough line, ride again. Get soaked. (Because swimsuit!)
Then, go back into the hotel and hop in the pool. Lounge. Relax. Head to your room, shower, perhaps enjoy a cocktail (you did bring cocktail supplies for the room, right?), and go back into the park as the day is starting to cool off. Refreshed, un-sweaty, slightly buzzed. Excellent.
Not Staying Onsite?
You’re hosed! Just kidding.
Take the frantic afternoon hours between 2 and 4 to check out some less-crowded inside attractions: The Hall of Presidents is kitschy, historical fun. Pirates of the Caribbean kills 15 minutes and usually has a pretty short line. Innoventions is interesting. In California Adventure, the Disney Animation building is basically a museum: history, interactive exhibits, and — importantly — air conditioning.
Then, ride a couple of the fancy rides you collected Fastpasses for this morning. Note the wait time, and enjoy the sense of achievement as you waltz to the front. It makes the ride better. Seriously.
Also, if you find yourself in Adventureland near the Tiki Room, afternoon is a great time to treat yourself to some Dole Whip. Only available in Disneyland and Hawai’i, Dole Whip is a non-dairy whipped pineapple fruit-based dessert. Super-refreshing and delicious.
My favorite afternoon rides: in Disneyland, Star Tours, Splash Mountain, Gadget’s Go-Coaster, and Autopia. In California Adventure, Silly Symphony Swings (formerly the Orange Stinger), Muppets 3-D, and Goofy’s Sky School.
When dinnertime rolls around, pick a place that caught your eye earlier in the day. (Or, if you made a reservation at The Blue Bayou, go there!) Try for something not too fried and cheesy: you still have four or five hours of wakefulness ahead of you. Go protein. Carbs.
On Parades: unless there’s a parade or nighttime show you’re interested in seeing (I’d recommend the Electrical Parade — not, as of this writing, currently running — and Fantasmic if you happen to be over by Tom Sawyer’s Island), hitting popular rides during parades is a sound strategy.
As the park continues to cool down, and kids and their parents go home, take another look at your park map and Fastpasses. Re-assess your strategy for the rest of the night. You might need to re-prioritize if you were ambitious with your must-sees. Then go ride more rides!
My favorite evening rides: in Disneyland, Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the King Arthur Carrousel, the Matterhorn, Space Mountain, and Captain E-O. In California Adventure, California Screamin’ and Tower of Terror.
The fireworks are visible from almost anywhere in the park (and greater Anaheim and neighboring cities, for that matter). Don’t feel like you need to jockey for a spot on Main Street to appreciate them. They do tend to be pretty spectacular, though — one doesn’t put on a show a day for 55 years without learning a few tricks — so try not to be stuck on a long inside ride (like Pirates, Star Tours, or the Haunted Mansion) during the display. Riding the Matterhorn during the fireworks, however, is magical, as it’s right nearby and has great views.
In the Park Again Tomorrow?
Don’t stay until closing. Go to bed, and tomorrow, apply what you’ve learned. Hit the rides you missed, and take it easy. You lucky dog.
The Final Ride
If this is your last day in the park, take advantage of the unofficial “in line by park close” policy: pick the busiest, most-crowded ride that you couldn’t get into all day, and hop in line for it before midnight. The staff will stop new guests from getting in line when the park closes, but everyone else gets to ride.
My favorite final-ride rides: Indiana Jones and Space Mountain.
The Tram, Back
Plan to snooze a little and enjoy the night air. If your muscles didn’t hurt already, they will now that you’ve sat down. You’ve earned it.
Drive safe, and post lots of selfies. You are the envy of all your friends.
How do you do Disneyland? Leave me a note.