The four-hour theme park time limit (A Disneyland trip report)

April 11, 2008, 8:16 PM · I went with the family to Disneyland today, and wanted to share a few tips.

1. Buy your tickets online and print them at home. You take the ticket print-outs directly to the entrance gate, where the attendant will scan them and hand you regular Disneyland tickets in exchange. These are the tickets that you can use in FastPass machines and for reentry into the park. Knocks off at least 20 minutes in line at the ticket booths, and allows you to decide on the right ticket, at home, with no pressure.

2. Avoid driving on Interstate 5, at all costs. We took the 210 east from Pasadena, to the south 57, then cut over to the park via Ball Road. It's a longer route, in distance, but took only five minutes longer than I-5 route would have taken... had there been no traffic. Which is not something that happens at 8 in the morning on a Friday in L.A. I'm guessing we saved 15-20 minutes by the end run around the 5.

3. Stick to a four-hour time limit. This is my new rule for visiting theme parks. I've been following it subconsciously for years, actually, but haven't bothered to articulate it before now.

Four hours is the time, I've found, that a family can spend together in a theme park before fatigue (physical or emotional) sets in. At the four-hour mark, it's time to get out, go someplace else, and either call it a day, or chill for at least six hours before returning to the park. Staying longer than that puts the group at risk for someone melting down. (With a toddler, knock an hour off the limit.)

Maybe newbies can let their adrenaline carry them through a "Special Forces"-style 12-hour assault on a theme park. I'll pass. I'd rather enjoy every moment of my time in the park, getting my money's worth from each minute, than suffer another family breakdown while tired people argue about what second-tier attraction to kill time with next.

Today, the plan was to do Finding Nemo, Buzz Lightyear, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain. Then mess around taking pictures in front of the castle, go to Downtown Disney for lunch... and go home. We got into the park at quarter 'til nine and were out by 12:45. Five great rides (plus a repeat trip on Buzz, thanks to FastPass, and a trip down Main Street on a horse-drawn trolley) in four hours on a day when the park was open from 8 am to midnight (meaning it was a *crowded* day), with no hassle and no conflicts over what to do.

If we'd gotten out rears on the road earlier, we could have cut our wait time on Nemo and squeezed in a visit to Tom Sawyer Island as well. And if I had made this an overnight visit, we would have returned to the park from a hotel after dinner to hit two more rides (probably Matterhorn and another go on Buzz), then to watch the fireworks or Fantasmic.

Now, you might argue that $66 for an adult ticket for four hours in a theme park ain't a great deal. Well, we bought the SoCal resident 2fer ticket, so our $66 gets us an additional (yep, four-hour) day at California Adventure within the next 30 days. So we'll hit ToT, Monsters Inc., Aladdin, Grizzly River, and, for old times' sake, Jumpin' Jellyfish. We might try the Trattoria for lunch, or head back to Brennan's. And I'll take a slew of construction photos for the site.

With the two park visits, it's a reasonable deal, with no stress and plenty of relaxed enjoyment all around. So that's the key: Find a ticket package or discount that allows you feel comfortable with the four-hour daily time limit, and not frustrated that you're spending too much money for that amount of time in the park.

Here are a few pics from the park:

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My final tip? Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen in Downtown Disney. Great food, much better than in the parks themselves, and I've never had a wait to get in. It's not cheap, but the high quality makes it a great value, in my experience.

Replies (16)

April 11, 2008 at 8:21 PM · Wanted to add one thing: We grabbed FPs for Buzz when we entered the park, then used them to ride twice (once stand-by, once FP) after Nemo. Then I picked up FPs for Splash before going on Mansion.

We lucked out on Splash. After riding Mansion and Pirates, we returned for Splash, only to find the ride down. (Apparently it went down right after I picked up the FPs.) But it came back up just as we arrived, only to go back down just as we exited.

I'm telling you: the theme park karma gods reward you for following the four-hour time limit. ;-)

April 11, 2008 at 10:25 PM · About 10 of us are planning a trip to Southern Cal this August. Although we probably won't do your 4-hour rule, we'll definitely plan to go early, take a break and relax in our rooms and go back later in the evening when it's cooler out. We'll be staying on site so we'll just catch the monorail in Tomorrow Land back to Downtown Disney for a short walk to the Paradise Pier Hotel. If we were just doing a one or two day trip, I think your 4-hour rule would definitely work. But we decided we would take 7 days in the area so that we don't feel rushed and like we have to be at the park from opening to closing. If we miss a FP and can't get on a ride one day, we always have a few more days where we can go back. But I agree with you, after awhile being amongst the crowds and with children, the mid day break is a definite help. I think the best advice I was ever given prior to our first theme park visit was to give yourself plenty of time in the area so you won't feel rushed and can actually relax while you're on vacation. We always take at least 7 days for any vacation like this, just so that we can go at a more relaxed pace.
April 12, 2008 at 9:25 AM · Sounds like a great plan. I can't stress enough the importance of a relaxed pace on a vacation, whether it is a full week or one day.

And I think that one of the keys to maintaining a relaxed pace is trying not to do everything but only to do the very best experiences.

That's what I'm really trying to nudge people to do with the four-hour time limit. Cut out the second-tier stuff, stick to the best experiences, enjoy them, then move on to other top-notch experiences for a while (a great sit-down meal, time with the kids in a fun pool, heck, a well-deserved nap). Then come back to the park, later, for other top-notch attractions that you missed, or want to do again.

April 12, 2008 at 10:45 AM · When I'm at the Magic Kingdom, I always feel terrible by the afternoon that so many miserable-looking people paid so much money to come here, and they're wasting it by not chilling out.

We have a version of the four hour rule, but not quite the same. Usually on a trip, we can spend a full first day together, and a second day, too, without getting cranky. On the third/fourth day and on, we make sure to set some time (not 6 hours, but maybe 3-5) aside to go have a quick nap, a swim, and a few martinis/beers back in the room when the sun is setting. It's really great, and if your resort has a balcony it can be as nice as anything the parks have to offer.

Then we're ready to go back to the parks. We're rested, fed (lightly), and ready to go see the good stuff with no lines. We catch the fireworks (if available) and have a late dinner when the restaurants aren't packed with hyper tourists.

Additionally, about three quarters of the way through the vacation, we plan on a slow day. No theme parks, so maybe we'll go to a water park for a while, then go out to Downtown Disney, CityWalk, or the equivalent.

And if at any time during the vacation I feel a little tired, bored, or cranky, or notice that someone else is, I go back to the resort. 3 hours is usually sufficient, and then we're ready to go.

April 12, 2008 at 12:11 PM · Our plan of attack is similar to what Josh does: we pretty much go all out for the first couple of days, then take a day off completely from the parks, and balance the remainder of the vacation with long afternoon breaks or early evenings back at the resort.

The only real rule I do have for the family when it comes to Disney parks is that we get to the parks very early (usually 30 - 40 minutes before the park opens). It seems like we can get all the major attractions completed by about 11 - 11:30, then relax the rest of the day when the heat and crowds hit.

Probably the best time we had was when we stayed on property at the Royal Pacific Resort (Universal, Orlando). With Citywalk and both theme parks within easy walking distance, automatic fastpasses due to being on property, and almost a whole week to explore, we were very leisurely explorers. We never toured for more than a few hours at a time, and did plenty of resting a relaxing at the pool. It honestly felt like a real vacation and not a race!

But we have done the full day pushes, and as long as we have a good plan that doesn't involve a lot of back tracking, we can usually keep the family pretty focused and happy. Or, at least, we've been very lucky so far!

April 12, 2008 at 12:36 PM · The sit down table service restaurant is one of the keys. Unfortunately, at Disney, you have to reserve eons in advance. But having that mid day sit down meal in an air-conditioned space with healthy food makes all the difference in the world.

And, I, too use the 4 hour rule for the big rides. Get them out of the way, fast, then slow the pace way down for the rest of the day. I warn people when I take them to parks with me that I'm going to guide them through a fast pace for the first several hours to get on the big-line rides, then I slow them down. Since I've pre-warned them, they're usually quite happy and feel they got a really good day's worth of the park.

As stated above, the best is staying for several days and taking your time. Universal Orlando is the absolute best for this!

April 12, 2008 at 2:00 PM · I think I know what I'm writing about next week on the Blog Flume: Robert's 'Four Hour Tour Plans' for the country's top theme parks (or, at least, the ones Robert's been to recently.)
April 12, 2008 at 2:05 PM · I remember going to WDW as a child. My parents would never let myself, or my brothers, walk, they always kept us in the stroller. This made us not waste energy on walking around everywhere, and it gave them the security of always knowing where the kids are in large crowds. We also ALWAYS took a mid-afternoon break, in which we usually left the park and returned to the hotel. During this time we would take naps or lay at the pool, and just relax. After eating dinner we would return to the park, all energized.
April 12, 2008 at 2:08 PM · I was very hesitant this past trip to Disneyland to purchase my tickets online. I just prefer to have an actual ticket in my hand, and I'm a bit old-school like that. I completely agree that getting the tickets online is extremely convenient!

However, I think the 4 hour time limit can be flexible depending on who you're with. If it's with family, then I definitely agree that 4 hours is a great thing.

However, if I'm with the significant other and/or with another couple, we usually take a different route. We break the day up by riding a few attractions, getting a snack and hanging out, then going on a few more, eating at one of the sit-down service restaurants, then repeating. The breaks truly help. The biggest thing with this kind of plan is that the chemistry and energy with all four people has to be great.

April 12, 2008 at 4:01 PM · I think I have a little bit of a different approach. Since it is just my wife and I we do take a storming the beachhead approach to our theme park visits. We almost always stay from open to close, except at our local park. Our marker is at about 8 hours. At that point we don't leave the park, but we do either have a sit down dinner or get a snack and sit for at least half an hour.

After our evening break we usually go on rides for a second and sometimes a third time. I know a lot of how we are able to do this is our age. We are both under 30 and have no kids. Also think that part if comes from how park visits went when I was kid. The pace was a little more relaxed, but we would still usually stay open to close. If we were with friends we would probably do a 2 hour morning rush and then take the rest of the day easy and let them decide how they wanted the rest of the day to go.

April 12, 2008 at 4:08 PM · Depends on the family, depends on the ages of the kids. My favorite days at Disneyland have been with my sisters, arriving close to opening and not leaving until the park closed. But we did traditionally have a long, leisurely lunch at the Blue Bayou, which does a lot to recharge one's batteries.

Even now with a toddler and annual passes, we always stay longer than planned. It's just so hard to leave, unless the park is kicking us out.

However, I'll keep your four hour rule in mind for any time we might go with people from outside our family! I guess we may be a bit abnormal.

April 12, 2008 at 5:26 PM · The four-hour theme park time limit would not work for myself or my family. We are a hyper bunch of people and enjoy the whole theme park experience. From rides, shopping, people watching, having a meal or snack. Everything is fun. Why would I limit myself?

I get a limitied time for vacations and the closest theme park to me is 2100 miles away (Sea World San Diego). I make it count.

This year I plan on going to Disneyland, DCA, Knotts and Magic Mountain in October. We will have 4 1/2 days to enjoy our vacation. We stay in the parks for at least 8+ hours. We do have a long lunch and snack threwout the day, can you say churro? Just take your time and don't run to anything.

April 13, 2008 at 11:03 AM · Four of five hours would be fine if we lived near a park and had yearly passes…. But since we get only one big get a way to Orlando a year, we have to hit it hard… Usually 8 to 9 hours in a park per day. Then go back to hotel with skid marks, exhausted and dehydrated and hungry for some real food… Go back home and need about a week to recover… Ah,,, what a way to relax…
April 13, 2008 at 11:37 AM · Brandon -
I completely agree. When I'm with family, the four hour rule usually applies. When I'm with my buddies, we still take breaks after a few days, but overall we have a lot more energy. We can get to the parks by 10 in the morning and stay until after midnight without getting cranky. But these are college buds, so we're kind of used to all-nighters (speaking of which, got my fluid mechanics exam in 19 hours - gotta run).
April 13, 2008 at 5:27 PM · I have a season pass for Six Flags Great Adventure, my hometown park, and my buddies and/or my girlfriend and I go a lot over the summer months. We usually go for four hours, go get a sandwich at the local deli, head over to the waterpark until it closes, get dinner, and go back to the park for the night hours. The breaks really do help.
April 17, 2008 at 12:12 AM · You folks have greater willpower than I do, I could never limit myself to 4 hours. I usually arrive in the early afternoon with family and stay until the little ones are satisfied and they peter out. The best advice I ever got about going to theme parks with little ones is to let them dictate the pace and attraction visits for the most part. It makes everyone happy.

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