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Top 10 tips for first-time visitors to the Disneyland Resort

By Robert Niles
Published: May 24, 2016 at 2:39 PM
Visiting the Disneyland Resort in Southern California for the first time? Here are some tips that can help you get the most from your visit, based on the experience of Theme Park Insiders who've been visiting Disneyland for years.

You don't need a car at the Disneyland Resort

Disneyland includes two theme parks: the original Disneyland, which opened in 1955, and Disney California Adventure, which opened in 2001. Unlike the sprawling Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, the two Disneyland parks are built next to each another, with their entrances facing each other across a short plaza. There's also a "Downtown Disney" shopping and dining district extending to the west of that plaza, where you will find Disney's three on-site hotels. Dozens of other hotels are located within walking distance of the park along the adjacent Harbor Boulevard. If you get here by car, you'll just park it and not need it again until you leave. (And pay for parking each day while you are here.)

That said, public transportation options to the resort are limited. You can get a taxi, Disneyland Resort Express shuttle, Uber or Lyft from the Los Angeles airport, if you're flying into the LA area. There is no free Disney's Magical Express service from the airport for hotel guests, as there is in Orlando.

If you do bring a car, either pay to park it at your hotel, or you can pay $18 a day to park in the Mickey and Friends parking garage, located off Interstate 5, or the Toy Story surface lot, located off Harbor Blvd. There is no overnight parking at either of these locations.

On-site hotel guests get into one of the two parks an hour early each day

Disney offers an "Extra Magic Hour" for guests stating at the Disneyland Hotel, Disney's Grand Californian Hotel or Disney's Paradise Pier Hotel. On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, California Adventure opens one hour early to these hotel guests. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, it's Disneyland offering the early entry.

On days when Disneyland opens early for hotel guests, people with certain multi-day tickets (three days or more) or Southern California CityPASS tickets can get in early for that extra hour, too. Disney calls the early entry "Magic Morning" for those ticket-holders, but it's the same thing.

Buy your tickets in advance

You can find Disneyland tickets for sale on Disney's website at disneyland.com/tickets. You can print your tickets at home and take them straight to the front gate turnstiles, skipping the often-busy ticket windows at the park. If you decide to upgrade your tickets to add more days or to buy an annual pass, you can do that at any ticket window or guest relations office so long as you do it before your original ticket is up. You'll just pay the difference between what you've already paid and the price of the upgraded ticket. Unused days on Disneyland tickets expire two weeks after their first use, so there's no way to save extra days for a future visit, as you used to be able to do with Walt Disney World tickets.

If you buy a one-day ticket, the price Disney charges will vary based on the day you select for your visit, from $95 to $119 for single park tickets. The price will be higher on busier, more popular days, such as summer and Christmas vacation days.

You might be able to get a small discount on multi-day tickets from authorized resellers such as AAA (ask at your local branch), aResTravel, or from your employer's HR department. Discounted tickets are sometimes available at Sam's Club and Costco, too.

You can call in advance for dining reservations, but they're not really necessary

Disneyland does not offer an advance-payment Disney Dining Plan for its restaurants, as Walt Disney World does. As a result, Disneyland doesn't have thousands of DDP users calling months in advance to book tables to ensure that they can get the most value from their dining credits. Getting a table at one of the Disneyland Resort's table-service restaurants is pretty easy. If you're visiting on an especially busy period or want to minimize your wait for a table (always a good idea), call +1-714-781-DINE to book your time. But you can wait to do that until a few days in advance of your visit.

You can see Theme Park Insider readers' ratings and reviews of Disneyland's restaurants on our Disneyland and Disney California Adventure review pages.

If you're staying on-site, use the hotel guest-only entry to California Adventure to skip the big security lines

There's an entry into California Adventure through the Disney's Grand Californian hotel, just for use by guests of the three on-site Disney hotels. It's the best way to get into California Adventure in the morning, as the bag check line there will be much shorter than the often-long lines at the plaza. In addition, using the Grand Californian entry allows you first crack at getting Fastpass reservations for the nightly World of Color show on the park's lagoon.

Disney opens the Grand Californian entrance to all visitors around lunchtime, so it's a great way for anyone to get back into the park from Downtown Disney later in the day.

Use Fastpass to skip some of the lines in the park

Disneyland uses the original paper-ticket Fastpass ride reservation system - not the new Fastpass+ system now in use at Walt Disney World. On selected rides and shows, you can get a "return time" for those attractions by inserting your park ticket into the designated Fastpass machines and collecting paper tickets that you will use to skip the regular, standby lines. One person can collect the Fastpasses for your entire group, so long as they have everyone's tickets. It's one Fastpass per park ticket. (We suggest sending the fastest person in your group ahead to get those Fastpasses when available.) Once you get a Fastpass, you can't get another one (with some exceptions) until the return time for that Fastpass has arrived, or two hours later - whichever comes first. The exceptions are shows such as World of Color, which are "off the grid" and allow you to get another Fastpass immediately.

You cannot reserve Fastpasses in advance of your visit, as you can at Walt Disney World. We suggest starting your day by getting a Fastpass for the attraction that will have the longest mid-day waits, then getting another Fastpass as soon as you can. (We'll share a specific strategy in our final tip!)

Use single rider lines to skip long waits, too

Disney allows people riding alone to skip much of the wait for certain attractions, too. Disney "cast members" (i.e. employees) will take people from the single rider line to fill in empty seats at the loading station for a ride, so that ride vehicles go out fully loaded - reducing the wait time for everyone. You don't have to be visiting the park by yourself to use single rider lines - you just have to be willing to split up your group for the actual ride. (Note that children under age 7 will not be allowed to ride alone.) On slower days and times, single rider lines might not be open. But the rides that typically offer single rider lines are:

Disneyland

Disney California Adventure

Park hopping is easy, but can be expensive

With the two parks located so close together, hopping between them is easy. You don't need to go through the security bag check again when walking directly between the parks, either. But visiting both parks on the same ay requires a "Park Hopper" ticket, which adds $50-60 to the cost of a one-day ticket and $40 to the cost of any multi-day ticket (that's total, not per day). Annual passes include park hopping, which is why locals treat the two parks as one. If you are visiting for the first time, you'll probably find it easier - and definitely find it cheaper - to stick with one park per day on a two-day trip. But go ahead and spring for the Park Hopper if you buy a pass for three days or more.

There are some great toddler-sized toilets in the Baby Care centers

If you are visiting with young children, take a moment to find the Baby Care centers, on Main Street in Disneyland and Buena Vista Street in Disney California Adventure. There are nursing rooms, changing tables and toddler-sized "real" toilets in there that will make potty time much less stressful for everyone than in the regular park bathrooms.

A bonus tip for parents: Many rides in the parks have minimum heights to ride, but parents can enjoy them by using a "child swap." That allows one parent to ride while the other waits with the too-short child. Then the other parent can ride immediately, without having to wait in the line again. Ask at any attraction with a height restriction, and the cast member measuring kids out front will show you what to do.

Get to the park before it opens in the morning, then do these rides first:

You can find the parks' operating hours online at Disneyland's website, or by using the official Disneyland app, which is free and includes current wait times for all attractions in both parks.

In Disneyland: Go to Hyperspace Mountain and get Fastpasses for everyone riding, then double back to Star Tours and ride it. If you have time before your Fastpass return, go on Buzz Lightyear, too. Ride Hyperspace Mountain, then head to Indiana Jones. Get Fastpasses for that, then go ride Big Thunder Mountain. Ride Jungle Cruise and Pirates of the Caribbean (if you have time) before returning for Indiana Jones. Then get Fastpasses for Splash Mountain before riding Haunted Mansion and Pirates, if you didn't get to it before. Other highly recommended attractions for later in the day include the Fantasy Faire Theatre shows, Alice in Wonderland, the Mickey's Soundsational and Paint the Night parades and the Disneyland Forever fireworks show. Disney World visitors coming to Disneyland for the first time also ought to ride Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Roger Rabbit's Car-Toon Spin, and the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

In Disney California Adventure: Get Fastpasses for Radiator Springs Racers and World of Color before going on Soarin'. Then ride Toy Story Midway Mania and California Screamin' before returning to Radiator Springs Racers. Go get Fastpasses for the Frozen show then ride the Tower of Terror and visit the Animation Academy before your showtime. Later in the day, if it's warm, cool off with a ride on the Grizzly River Run. Past Disney World visitors also might consider rides on Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters and Monsters, Inc: Mike and Sulley to the Rescue.

Disneyland fans: What are your favorite tips for new visitors? Please share them in the comments.

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Where will we see Shrek next in theme parks?

By Robert Niles
Published: May 23, 2016 at 10:21 AM
Fifteen years ago this month, Shrek hit movie theaters for the first time, establishing a sarcastic animation icon that challenged Disney and entertained parents in the audience as much as their kids.

Earning hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, Shrek inspired multiple sequels and went on to become the top-grossing animation franchise of all time, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. With that level of popularity with families, perhaps it was inevitable that Shrek would become a theme park fixture, despite the many jabs thrown at parks in the original and its sequels.

Two years after its debut, in May 2003, Universal Studios opened Shrek 4-D at its parks in Florida and California. True to its source story, the show took plenty of shots at other theme park attractions, including Disney's Star Tours. I reviewed the show for the Los Angeles Times, writing:

It's not the only reference to Disney in Shrek 4-D, which opens with a frog trying to eat Tinkerbell and ends with the poor little Disney fairy smashed into the theater wall. The original "Shrek" ridiculed the shallowness of Disney's animated fairy tales and the sterility of its theme parks. Shrek 4-D doesn't directly attack Disney's parks, but it does land its punch by being far more entertaining than anything a Disney park has opened in years.

Seven years later, Universal expanded its use of Shrek at the new Universal Studios Singapore, placing Shrek 4-D into King Harold's Palace in a Far Far Away-themed land that also included an Enchanted Airways Vekoma family coaster, an indoor kiddie Ferris wheel, a live show, meet and greets, and, as of last year, a Zamperla inverted family coaster, Puss In Boots' Giant Journey.

Puss In Boots' Giant Journey

And this fall, Motiongate Dubai will create a full replica of Shrek's swamp in a theme park for the first time, as part of the indoor DreamWorks Zone at the new park, which opens in October.

Shrek's swamp will include Shrek's Merry Fairy Tale Journey, "a heartfelt interactive ride where Shrek meets Fiona for the first time, reincarnated as puppets and animated figures," according to the park. In addition, Shrek, Fiona, Puss in Boots, and the Fairy Godmother will appear in meet and greets and the area also will feature a table-service restaurant, The Candy Apple, serving "British-American" fare.

Shrek's Merry Fairy Tale Journey
Shrek's Merry Fairy Tale Journey. Concept art courtesy Dubai Parks & Resorts

Motiongate is part of Dubai Parks & Resorts, not Universal, so it won't include the Shrek 4-D show. But with Universal's parent company recently buying DreamWorks Animation, it's likely that Shrek — in some form or another — likely will continue to find a home in theme parks for many years to come.

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The 20 things every great theme park should have

By Robert Niles
Published: May 20, 2016 at 1:03 PM
What makes a theme park great? Powerful franchises with memorable characters and thrilling rides have helped push the Disney and Universal theme parks to the top of the annual attendance charts. But a park doesn't need expensive IP and record-setting thrill rides to become great. Here are 20 elements that any theme park can add to help elevate it to world-class status.

We're not counting the legal requirements here - such as safe facilities and access for people with disabilities. These 20 elements are the sometimes-little, sometimes-big other things that the world's top theme parks offer which distinguish them from the competition.

A photogenic, iconic landmark that draws people into the park

A great theme park wants thousands of fans posting selfies that tell the world, unmistakably, where they are - and that makes their friends wish they were there, too.

Beautiful landscaping

No one dreams of a vacation to a carnival in a parking lot. Think how many theme parks around the world have had "Gardens" in their names. Great theme parks create beautiful environments you long to visit.

Multiple attractions with no height restrictions, that appeal to all ages

Walt was right. Families want to do things together. Height restrictions divide families, but no one wants to spend time on boring attractions, either.

Enough available attraction capacity to keep peak waits for non-new attractions under 90 minutes

Sure, wait times can be crazy for this year's new ride - whatever and wherever it is. But the older stuff shouldn't keep us waiting. Long lines for old attractions is the sign of an underfunded, poorly-planned park. On peak days, 90 minutes is the reasonable limit, but on less-crowded days, nothing should cause us to wait more than an hour.

A high-capacity, slow-moving indoor ride

They don't get the headlines like a record-breaking coaster and they're hard to pull off - as fans have time to pay attention to detail on slow-moving rides. But a great dark ride sucks in guests, reducing wait times elsewhere in the park while allowing visitors to enjoy a great experience together.

A large-scale, sit-down, indoor show

On a hot summer vacation day, sometimes you just want to sit in a dark, air-conditioned theater for a while. Great theme parks know this and make plenty of these shows available.

A playground

And at other times, the kids are sick of standing and sitting and just need to run around for a while. Great theme parks create unique, engaging environments for kids to do it.

All long queues (10 min+) are shaded or indoors

The top health problems at theme parks? Sunburns and other heat-related maladies. Let us wait in the shade, for goodness' sake.

Shortcuts across the park

Whether it's via a well-landscaped path or a scenic train, boat, or skyway ride, great parks let us get from Point A to Point D without having to walk around the perimeter of the park.

Table-service restaurants

Again, sitting and chilling is the key to keeping visitors from getting tired, overheated, and cranky during their (let's face it) expensive day in the parks. Not everyone wants a sit-down lunch or dinner, but great parks give us those options.

Easy-to-order allergen-free food options

We love the way that Disney and other top parks bring out chefs to consult with people about food allergies when they order their meals. But great parks also make a wide variety allergen-free food available on a grab-and-go basis, too.

Non-fried, low-carb, vegetable-containing food options

Yes, a day in the park is a special indulgence. But not everyone equates having a good time with fatty, sugar-laden food. Great parks allow us a wide variety of taste options - beyond fried, fatty and sweet.

A unique, signature food item

From Disney's Mickey ice cream bars to Universal's Butterbeer, great theme parks offer your palate something it can't find anywhere else.

Family bathrooms, plus changing tables in ALL bathrooms

When it's that time, parents don't want the hassle of navigating a restroom that makes it difficult for their children to, well, do their business.

Kiddie toilets

And for kids who are toilet training, automatic "grown-up" toilets are a horror. But kid-sized toilets are a dream.

Free, accurate wait-time app or webpage

Everyone understands that popular attractions are going to have a wait. But great parks communicate well with their visitors, allowing fans to know what's happening throughout the park, so we can plan accordingly.

Free, usable Wifi in the park

A wait time app or website is of no use if we can't access it. We've paid enough to get into the park - we shouldn't have to pay for data on a swamped mobile network to get that information, either. Great parks have great wifi.

Free, accessible electrical sockets

And great parks give us places to recharge our mobile phones - for free - so that we can get our money's worth and spend the whole day in the parks, without having to go outside to recharge.

Park-branded and attraction-branded merchandise

Fans can be a park's best marketing force. So why not give us a slew of park- and attraction-branded shirts and souvenirs for us to take home and promote the park to others? (And, yes, we're talking to you here, Islands of Adventure!)

Well-trained, experienced, and empowered employees

If there's a common theme here, it's that great theme parks provide great service that accommodates the needs of their visitors. Doing that ultimately requires a great team. But companies need to pay, train, and support their employees to the point where they can stick around and develop the experience necessary to provide world-class service. Minimum wage jobs with high-turnover, and bosses who treat employees as a commodity, don't make a theme park great. Invest in your people if you want theme park fans to invest in your park.

What would you add to our list?

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Disney World confirms opening dates for new attractions

By Robert Niles
Published: May 20, 2016 at 9:14 AM
The Walt Disney World Resort this morning confirmed specific public opening dates for its line-up of new shows and attraction updates at its theme parks this summer.

On May 27, the new Tree of Life nighttime project show will debut at Disney's Animal Kingdom, and the original "Over California" version of Soarin' will return at Epcot for a limited run.

On May 28, The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic, the replacement show for Rivers of Light, will begin its run on the Discovery River at Animal Kingdom.

On June 17, Soarin' Around the World will debut at Epcot, replacing the original version, the Mickey’s Royal Friendship Faire show will debut on the Magic Kingdom castle stage, and the Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular fireworks and projection light show will open at Disney's Hollywood Studios

And on June 21, the Frozen Ever After ride and the adjacent Royal Sommerhus meet-and-greet with Anna & Elsa will open at Epcot. To accommodate the expected crowds, the Norway (Arendelle) pavilion will open at 9am instead with the rest of the World Showcase pavilions at 11am. Disney will offer Fastpass+ for the ride (an overlay of the old Maelstrom attraction), but not for the meet and greet.

To help you plan your late-spring trips, here's what else is opening at major theme parks around the world in the next month or so:

May 26 (Media preview) - Cobra's Curse, Busch Gardens Tampa

May 27 - Frozen – Live at the Hyperion, Disney California Adventure

June 10 - Mako, SeaWorld Orlando

June 11 - GhostRider, Knott's Berry Farm

June 16 - Shanghai Disneyland

June 23 (Media preview) - Skull Island: Reign of Kong, Universal's Islands of Adventure

For more attraction opening dates (and links to reviews):

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Marvel rides start testing, all around the world

By Robert Niles
Published: May 19, 2016 at 2:40 PM
Two highly anticipated Marvel-themed rides — one new and one rebuilt — have begun testing in advance of expected summer openings.

At the Universal Orlando Resort, The Incredible Hulk Coaster is running test trains, following a complete rebuild of the Bolliger & Mabillard track over the winter.

Last week, Universal revealed new details about the rebuilt coaster, which will feature new trains, a refreshed storyline and new on-board music.

Of course, since this is Universal — home of the tough-in-cheek joke — fans couldn't resist reacting to the testing news with some unsolicited sarcasm:

On the other side of the world, at Hong Kong Disneyland, Disney announced that its new Iron Man Experience has started testing, too.

The story begins when Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) decides to bring the Stark Expo to the park. Guests can visit the Expo and explore the latest and greatest innovations from Stark Industries. They’ll go aboard an Iron Wing vehicle, the latest flying transport invented by Stark Industries, and journey through Hong Kong streets and the iconic city harbor as they battle against the evil forces of Hydra alongside Iron Man.

This Star Tours-like simulator ride will be Disney's first Marvel-themed ride at any park. As Theme Park Insiders know, Universal obtained the rights to Marvel characters before Disney bought the comic-book publisher, and Universal retains those rights in perpetuity in Orlando and until the next decade in Japan, which is why Disney-owned Marvel characters appear at Universal's Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Japan but not at Walt Disney World or Tokyo Disney. Disney's clear to use Marvel for attractions in its parks in China, France, and California.

Based on past experience, if everyone goes well with ride tests, it typically takes at least a month or so before you see people riding, assuming everything else in the attraction is ready to go by then. But if any issues are discovered during testing, any opening will be delayed until those issues are resolved.

Not counting math and reading scores, of course.

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The Walking Dead opens at Universal Studios Hollywood on July 4

By Robert Niles
Published: May 18, 2016 at 12:02 PM
The new, year-round Walking Dead attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood will open on July 4, the park announced today.

In a new behind-the-scenes promotional video, executive producer/director Greg Nicotero shows some of the practical effects that he and creative director John Murdy are overseeing as their creative team works to bring the show's post-apocalyptic world to life.

The Walking Dead is going into a new space located between Universal Boulevard and Westminster, next to the Universal Plaza. Universal recently held auditions for scareactors who will be working in the attraction, supplementing the thrills from animatronics and other special effects inside this walk-through experience.

The Walking Dead has been a staple of Universal's Halloween Horror Nights, but this will be the first year-round attraction based upon the franchise at a Universal theme park. Due to its intense nature and graphic scenery, Universal is not recommending The Walking Dead attraction for visitors under age 13.

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Take a ride on Shanghai Disneyland's Buzz Lightyear ride

By Robert Niles
Published: May 17, 2016 at 9:40 AM
We've got another on-ride POV video from Shanghai Disneyland for you. This time, it's from Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue — a redesigned installation of Disney's wildly popular interactive ride.

This video comes from Matthew Finnemore, the same visitor who uploaded the video of Pirates of the Caribbean Battle of the Sunken Treasure, which has fans debating whether Shanghai's new version Pirates might have a claim on the title of the world's best dark ride.

On Buzz Lightyear, Shanghai Disneyland has added screen animation throughout the ride, bringing Buzz himself into the action to create a much more dynamic experience than on the other Buzz Lightyear rides. In addition, the set design of the ride abandons the cartoonish appearance of the other rides for a look perhaps best described as "steampunk light."

You can't really judge the gameplay from a video, so I can't speak to how that might have changed on this version of the ride, as well. But the production design of Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue looks like a clear upgrade from previous versions (to me, at least), reflecting what appears to be the trend from Walt Disney Imagineering in this park to blend screens with practical effects to create an experience that's more dynamic than traditional animatronic rides yet more tactile and "real" than strictly film-based attractions.

Shanghai Disneyland is open for invitation-only "trial operations" in advance of its official public opening on June 16.

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