Theme Park Insider

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

May 24, 2016, 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.

Replies (12)

May 24, 2016 at 2:59 PM · Great list! I truly am grateful that Disneyland still uses the old Fastpass system.
May 24, 2016 at 3:28 PM · I like the old system at the parks as it means you can not get the tickets unless you are actually there, perhaps something like this should be looked at Florida, it always makes me wonder how many guests reserve fast passes but don't go to the parks in the end due to change of plans, this means that space is lost which could have been used.
May 24, 2016 at 4:36 PM · Actually, from what I've seen and heard, the Disneyland Resort is getting the new Fastpass+ system, though it will operate more like the existing paper Fastpass system than what you'll find at Walt Disney World. In other words, while electronic, fastpasses can only be obtained while in the park the attraction you're looking for is in (so you cannot obtain Fastpasses for Hyperspace Mountain while in DCA, for example), and you can only have one at a time (though I suspect nighttime shows will be excluded from this). The obvious advantage of this is not needing to go to a specific attraction just to pick up Fastpass tickets. However, it will be interesting to see how this effects crowd patterns throughout the parks.
May 24, 2016 at 9:15 PM · As long as the debacle of Fastpass+ as implemented in WDW is not coming to DLR.
Last time I was at DLR, I got a five-day park hopper for the family but we never "hopped." DCA is now a full-day park, so spending extra money on park hoppers probably won't be worth it for most people.
May 24, 2016 at 9:24 PM · To be honest, it's not a great time to be doing your first visit. A chunk of DL is under construction, and the parades have been severely cut back.
May 24, 2016 at 10:41 PM · I could write 10 pages of Disneyland tips, but I'll refrain as Robert has given a lot of good advice. I will, however, add my own thoughts on a few things.

Park Hopping: For first-time visitors, I generally recommend that you don't purchase park hopping for a 1-3 day visit and do for a 4-5 day visit. It generally takes one to two days to see everything at Disneyland (less time if you've visited WDW or another Disney resort) and one day to see everything at DCA, so it generally isn't worth paying extra for hopping on a ticket of three days or less. The one exception is for visitors who only have a single day, have a strong desire to visit both parks, have visited WDW or another Disney resort before, and are okay with only seeing the headliners at the parks.

Absolute Do-Not-Miss attractions: At Disneyland, Indiana Jones Adventure, the mountain rides, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the nighttime spectaculars should not be skipped for any reason EVEN if you have done the attractions at other Disney parks. I also highly recommend doing the five classic Fantasyland dark rides (Peter Pan can be skipped if you've ridden it elsewhere), as well as Star Tours if you haven't done it before. At DCA, Radiator Springs Racers, Grizzly River Run, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and California Screamin' should be ridden by all visitors, and if the Frozen show matches the quality of Aladdin it is a must see as well. Soarin' and Toy Story Midway Mania are must do attractions if you have not experienced them elsewhere. World of Color is also definitely worthwhile, but do not watch this at the expense of Disneyland's nighttime spectaculars.

Fastpass: While it may be tempting, the benefits of Fastpass are usually minimal for any attraction with a wait time under 30 minutes unless you will be doing other rides in the immediate vicinity. Also, despite popular opinion it is generally more efficient to go directly to a headliner at opening rather than going for a Fastpass first (this is particularly true on non-early entry days). Also, know which Fastpasses generally run out the quickest and get those before others...at Disneyland, prioritize Star Tours, Hyperspace Mountain, and Splash Mountain, while at DCA Radiator Springs Racers, Soarin', and Frozen will be the biggest draws. Lastly, note that Fastpasses for nighttime spectaculars do not count against you, and this is often (though not always) the case for Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters as well.

Regarding the new Fastpass+ system, from what I've heard testing of the system will begin in the fall at the Disneyland Resort with the goal of having it go live before winter break. As I understand it, the system will work somewhat like a bank: When your ticket is scanned for admission, you will be eligible to reserve one Fastpass for any attraction at any time during the day. Regardless of when your reservation is, after a set amount of time passes (likely 2 hours), you will gain another reservation, and so on throughout the day. You'll be able to make reservations from kiosks located throughout the park, or from your smartphone through the app. All D and E ticket level attractions, as well as select C tickets and the nighttime spectaculars, will be on this system. Again, this is subject to change, but this is what I heard.

Touring Plans: Robert's plans are generally pretty good, but I've found that particularly on non-early entry days the following is more efficient...

Disneyland: When the park opens, have your fastest member collect Fastpasses for Star Tours AND Buzz Lightyear (get Star Tours first just in case you can't get Buzz Lightyear), then ride Hyperspace Mountain through the Stand-By Line (first thing in the morning, the wait is often only 20-30 minutes even though it grows to 80-100 later). After Hyperspace Mountain, grab a ride on Matterhorn Bobsleds, then return to Tomorrowland and use your Fastpasses. If you want to ride Hyperspace Mountain again, grab a Fastpass after Star Tours, then head to the west side of the park and do as many attractions as possible over here before lunch (if you don't have a Hyperspace Mountain Fastpass, get one for either Splash Mountain or Indiana Jones Adventure). I typically go Indy, Splash, Mansion, Pirates, Thunder, but the order doesn't matter that much. After lunch, tackle Fantasyland and Toontown, saving the Fantasyland dark rides for during the daytime parade (if you will not be watching the parade), then head back to Tomorrowland once you've done everything else. You will likely be able to complete all the main attractions by dinner time, allowing you plenty of time to stake out a spot for Paint the Night and Disneyland Forever.

Disney California Adventure Park: Grab a Radiator Springs Racers Fastpass and then head directly to Paradise Pier. Starting with Toy Story Midway Mania, do everything of interest in this area. Once you are eligible for another Fastpass, grab one for Soarin' as well as your World of Color Showpass, and do Grizzly River Run while in the area. Pick up a Frozen Fastpass next, followed by Twilight Zone Tower of Terror if you didn't ride it earlier, and use your downtime to visit whatever attractions catch your interest. Unlike Disneyland, which is about 80% rides, roughly half of DCA's attractions are non-ride experiences and can be enjoyed with minimal waiting at almost any time during the day. Just be sure to return to the World of Color viewing area at least 30 minutes before showtime to avoid being stuck with an obstructed view.

Lastly, download the Disneyland app and make use of it, as it provides accurate wait times and the current Fastpass windows. If nobody in your party has a smartphone (or they all run out of power), check the time boards regularly to avoid making a trek across the park only to discover a ride is down or has a massive wait.

May 24, 2016 at 11:09 PM · You need dining reservations if you want to eat at the Blue Bayou, Carthay Circle, and Napa Rose. You have to wait a long time during the popular dinner hour or lunch hour. Disneyland isn't not busy these days. Thankfully, you can book dates and times at least two weeks in advance. Book earlier if you can.
May 25, 2016 at 1:38 AM · I've just spent the today and yesterday at the Disneyland Resort theme parks and will be going the next three days as well. What Sylvain Comeau said is absolutely untrue.

It's a great time to visit. All major attractions are open. The only parade that has been scaled back at the moment is Mickey's Soundsational daytime parade at Disneyland, which is still being performed on weekends.

Pixar Play Parade is performed once daily. Paint The Night parade is performed twice nightly. Fireworks and World of Color are nightly as well. Plus, this week Disneyland is open until 11:00 pm Monday - Thursday instead of the traditional 9:00 pm closing.

I've witnessed absolutely NO cuts in operations in the theme parks this week.

May 25, 2016 at 11:40 AM · Pixar parade used to be twice daily. Soundsational used to be every day. Rivers of America, Tom Sawyers's Island and Fantasmic! won't be back until Star Wars Land is completed.
Read MiceAge updates for lots of reports about the results of the cutbacks.
May 25, 2016 at 3:07 PM · I've never stayed onsite, but all the people I know that have strongly, Strongly advise against using the GCH entrance to DCA 1st thing in the morning saying it takes much longer to get in then through the much better staffed main entrance.
May 25, 2016 at 4:13 PM · One correction: the Baby Center in DCA is not on Buena Vista Street but in Pacific Wharf. It did not move when First Aid and the Chamber of Commerce did.
May 27, 2016 at 12:40 PM · I went there for the first time on Monday and Tuesday and for some reason, both days were packed. I saw lots of Grad Nite groups on Monday and all kinds of school groups on Tuesday. We did the things we don't have in Orlando like Radiator Springs Racers and had to hit POTC because it is different from MK and I have to say I liked it better. I lasted 13 hours on Monday but could only take 4-5 hours on Tuesday due to the crowds.

The main thing I noticed about DL and DCA is the employee attitude. Everyone smiled at us and seemed to enjoy their jobs and interacting with guests. At WDW, there seem to be a LOT of unhappy employees who are just there to collect a paycheck.

And Fast Pass? Please WDW, go back to the original paper FP system. This seemed to work a lot better at DL and DCA and there were not nearly as many po'd frustrated guests dealing with it. We got there early, got our FP's for Radiator Springs, Indy, Star Tours etc and waited for Matterhorn and POTC and HM and it wasn't bad.

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