The Theme Park Insider Way to Visit Disneyland

October 23, 2015, 10:39 AM · While not the first theme park in America (that title goes to nearby Knott's Berry Farm), Disneyland is perhaps the most influential. The park opened in 1955 and has grown to an international destination over the past 60 years. Even though it is not as large as its younger siblings, its place in theme park history makes Disneyland a "must-see" destination for any theme park fan.

When to Visit

While there are sites that will assess crowds on a 1-10 scale, Disneyland really only has four crowd categories: Low (0-30 minute waits for headline attractions), Moderate (30-45 minute waits), Busy (45-60 minutes), and Very Busy (60-120 minutes). While it is impossible to predict exactly how crowded any specific day will be, the following calendar provides a good approximation:

Disneyland Crowd Calendar

In addition to the above calendar, please note that certain days may be busier than expected due to special events. The most affected days include the weekends of the runDisney events (Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, the first weekend in May, Labor Day weekend, and Veteran's Day weekend) as well as the weekend of Gay Days (first weekend in October).

Common sense says to avoid visiting during very busy periods unless absolutely necessary. However, is it better to visit during low, moderate, or busy periods? The answer is very much up for debate. During the low-crow periods, Disneyland has shorter hours and closes attractions for refurbishment. During busy periods, most (if not all) attractions should be open and the park should have full hours. Moderate periods are somewhere between these two, with a few attractions potentially closed and the park closing around 9 or 10pm instead of midnight.

With a good plan, there is no reason to fear crowds at Disneyland, so visiting during the moderate or busy periods is better for a first-time visitor than visiting during a low-crowd period. As for specific days during the week, Disneyland is generally least crowded on Wednesday and most crowded on Sunday.

Lastly, for those planning visits in 2016, note that the following attractions will be closed for the entire year (and potentially beyond) in order to allow for construction of Star Wars Land.

How Much Time is Needed

While Disneyland is only a medium-sized park, there is a lot to do here. With more than 40 attractions spread across its eight themed lands, the park has far too much to do in a single day. First-time visitors should allow a minimum of a day and a half for Disneyland, with two full days recommended if time permits. Even those who have visited other Disney parks should allow a minimum of one full day for just Disneyland, as approximately half of the park's attractions are unique to the park or significantly different from similar installations elsewhere. For returning visitors, one full day is likely sufficient for the park to revisit your favorites.

While it is possible to spend three or more days at Disneyland (not the resort as a whole, just Disneyland itself), this is not necessary unless you wish to have an extremely relaxed pace or will only be doing partial days (five hours or less). Visit our Disneyland page for a complete list of attractions to see what most interests you.

General Strategy

When visiting Disneyland, the first rule is to arrive early. At minimum, you should be at the park gates 25 minutes before opening. If you are driving to the resort instead of walking from a nearby hotel, keep in mind that it may take as long as a half-hour to park in the Mickey and Friends parking garage or Toy Story parking lot and take a tram to the park, so factor this when planning. The gates will open up to 30 minutes before official opening time, at which point you will be free to enter Main Street USA. A rope at the far end of the street will block further passage into the park until the official opening time.

Once the rope is dropped, the crowd will disperse throughout the park. Fantasyland is usually the first area of the park to become crowded, followed by Tomorrowland. The remaining areas of the park take longer to fill and might not see heavy crowds until after noon. Your first priority at opening should be to get a Fastpass for one of the headliner attractions, then do rides in that area until your return time comes up. Once you are able to collect another Fastpass, do so, and follow this pattern during the day. In addition, decide which shows you wish to see and plan accordingly. Remember that you can send one person in your party ahead with everyone's tickets to collect Fastpasses for the entire group.

When it comes to the nighttime spectaculars, if you wish to see both Disneyland Forever and Paint the Night, your best option is to attend the first Paint the Night showing. Select a spot on Main Street before the first Paint the Night parade. While viewers will begin camping out 90 minutes or more before the parade, you should be able to get a decent spot if you arrive at least 30 minutes in advance. Following the parade, go into the street and get into position as quickly as possible for Disneyland Forever. If you are not interested in Disneyland Forever but still wish to see Paint the Night, it is much easier to get a good viewing spot in Fantasyland for the second parade. Seeing Disneyland Forever from Main Street is difficult if you do not also see Paint the Night, but good viewing spots are easier to find in Fantasyland and Frontierland. Lastly, note that Disneyland's third nighttime spectacular, Fantasmic, will be closed in 2016 to facilitate construction of Star Wars Land.

Attraction Priorities

For a first time visitor, the following are Disneyland's must-do attractions, as rated by Theme Park Insider readers (attractions in alphabetical order):

In addition to the above, the following are recommended as time allows:

*These attractions may be skipped for time if they have been experienced at another Disney park.

**These attractions are more geared toward children and may be skipped for time by those who do not have any young children in their party or who are not interested.

The Plan

Due to the vast audience it serves and the range of interests visitors have, there is no "one size fits all" plan for visiting Disneyland. Therefore, the following plan is somewhat general and can be adjusted as desired in order to fit the preferences of your group. If you don't care about an attraction, skip it. If something is missing that those in your group wish to experience, insert it at the point where minimal deviation would be required (such as when doing other nearby attractions), or wait until you have free time to get to it. If something is down, simply skip it and try again later when convenient. Also, note that this plan is intended for day one of your visit. On your second (or later) day, simply follow the general strategy and attraction priority lists in order to revisit your favorite attractions and see other things you missed.

1. At opening, proceed to Tomorrowland and collect a Fastpass for either Space Mountain or Star Tours. Since it is early in the morning, your return time should be no more than an hour away. Stay in Tomorrowland and ride the attraction you did not collect a Fastpass for, then Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. Then it should be time to redeem your Fastpass. Waits should be no more than 20 minutes at this time.

2. After using your Fastpass, cross the park to Frontierland and collect a Fastpass for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Proceed into New Orleans Square and ride Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, in either order. By the time you have done both of these attractions, it will likely be time to return to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. However, you might be able squeeze in Splash Mountain, too, before returning to Thunder. Go for it if the standby wait does not exceed 20 minutes — and it's warm enough that you're okay with getting wet.

3. After using your Fastpass, collect one for Indiana Jones Adventure. While waiting for this Fastpass, visit the Jungle Cruise and Enchanted Tiki Room (or ride Splash Mountain if you didn't ride it earlier), then grab lunch. Once your return time for Indiana Jones Adventure arrives, use your Fastpass and have lunch if you have not done so yet. Theme Park Insider readers' recommended Disneyland restaurants (in alphabetical order) include:

***Blue Bayou and Cafe Orleans are table-service restaurants that accept reservations. Call +1-714-781-DINE in advance of your visit for reservations to avoid what can be a lengthy standby line on busy days. Reservations are available up to 60 days in advance of your visit.

4. After lunch, the remainder of your day will be primarily dictated by show schedules. Decide which shows you would like to see and make a note of the times, then be certain to arrive early. Aim for 15 minutes before show time and 30 minutes early on busier days. (Get there 45 minutes on busy days for Fantasy Faire Royal Theatre, though Fastpasses might be available for this show on certain days. Check on the hub, in front of the castle, for availability.) Otherwise, head to Fantasyland and ride Alice in Wonderland and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, then head to Toontown for Roger Rabbit's Car-Toon Spin. Finally, work your way around the park to any interesting attractions you skipped earlier, or attractions you'd like to revisit, before seeing the parades and fireworks.

Alternate Plans

In some situations, it is not advisable to follow the general plan listed above. Here are some alternate strategies for the most common situations.

Visiting with Young Children

If your group includes primary young children who are all below 40" inches tall, they will be unable to experience several of the park's headliner attractions. Therefore, it is advisable to follow a plan more catered to their interests.

1. When the park opens, head directly to Fantasyland. Start with Peter Pan's Flight and Dumbo the Flying Elephant, then work around the land to do whatever interests your children. Note that Snow White's Scary Adventures and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride might be too intense for very young children. Also, if meeting Disney princesses is a priority, be sure to visit the Fantasy Faire Royal Hall early to avoid 45+ minute waits on even low-crowd days.

2. When Toontown opens, send one adult to retrieve Fastpasses for Roger Rabbit's Car-Toon Spin. Continue doing Fantasyland attractions until it is time to ride, then head to Toontown to use your Fastpasses and explore the rest of that land. (You can meet Mickey and Minnie in their houses in Toontown.)

3. Head over to Tomorrowland and secure Fastpasses for Autopia. Ride Buzz Lightyear and get lunch while waiting for your return time. (Head back to Main Street for the Plaza Inn or the Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe, for your best bets at lunch.)

4. After Autopia, cross to the west side of the park and do any appropriate attractions. The order won't matter much beyond this point as unrestricted attractions are either high capacity or rarely experience significant waits. Suggested attractions include the Enchanted Tiki Room and the Jungle Cruise. Follow the previous advice for the nighttime shows.

Visiting on an Early Entry Day

Unlike at Walt Disney World, early entry does not have a huge effect on overall crowds at Disneyland. However, early entry does affect morning traffic patterns in the park. On a rainy day (where crowds will be minimal anyway) or an off-season weekday, the general plan can be used. However, on weekends or during school breaks, use the following alternate plan.

1. When the park opens, proceed to Space Mountain and grab a Fastpass, then head to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, and Haunted Mansion, then retrieve a Fastpass for Indiana Jones Adventure on your way back to Space Mountain.

2. After riding Space Mountain, do the other rides in Tomorrowland while waiting for your Indiana Jones Adventure Fastpass. Once your return time is reached, collect a Fastpass for the attraction of your choice and head to Indiana Jones Adventure.

3. After Indiana Jones Adventure, ride Pirates of the Caribbean and grab lunch. From here, follow the previous advice.

Visiting with Special Needs

Depending upon the specific needs in your group, you can follow any of the strategies listed above. If you are using a wheelchair, a cast member might direct you to an alternate entrance on some attractions. If you have questions or concerns about waiting in line, please see a cast member at City Hall, located in Town Square on Main Street USA. You might be eligible for Disney's "Disability Access Service," which acts as a Fastpass-style system reservation system to allow visitors with disabilities to wait for an attraction without having to actually go through the queue. Assisted listening systems and audio description devices for use in Disneyland attractions also are available at City Hall.

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Replies (16)

October 23, 2015 at 11:16 AM · I see this is in sharp contrast to "The Hacks of Life" way to visit Disneyland. Bring your clipboards!
October 23, 2015 at 12:23 PM · Think of it this way, going on a Busy day (Yellow) on a month where there is more Moderate (Blue) days than Very Busy (Red) days means the Busy days will seem less busy. Generally, avoid July and December. Do the Spring and Fall months.

"Visiting with Young Children" = Missing is getting a Fastpass for the Frozen show. A must see for the first or second showing. Then go on Peter Pan after getting the Fastpass.

October 23, 2015 at 1:38 PM · Are the Fantasy Faire/Frozen Fastpasses still available every day? I thought I'd heard that those had gone/were going away at some point. (This is where I admit I haven't been paying attention to that during my last several visits.)
October 23, 2015 at 3:42 PM · Anon (and Robert), the latest I've heard is that Fastpass will now only be used at the Fantasy Faire Royal Theatre on peak days and may be discontinued completely at some point in the future (probably after the Frozen musical opens or when the show rotates out). Also, it will no longer be mandatory and stand-by seating will be available. I guess it wouldn't hurt to send one adult to check if Fastpasses are available and retrieve them if so, but I left it out as I anticipate more no-Fastpass days than Fastpass days in 2016.
October 23, 2015 at 10:40 PM · I love how the translation for the Disney Tokyo parks "Low" attendance days is "People rattle".
October 23, 2015 at 10:40 PM · I love how the translation for the Disney Tokyo parks "Low" attendance days is "People rattle".
October 23, 2015 at 10:49 PM · If Peter Pan or Splash Mountain are required rides for the day, I recommend the 'Young Children' path. The lines for Peter Pan and Roger Rabbit never seem to get better throughout the day, and you don't have to worry about missing them once the fireworks close Fantasyland and Toontown.

It's going to be interesting to see what happens with the Fantasmic closure. Normally I'd recommend Tomorrowland and Small World while Fantasmic is showing. But if Fantasmic is closed, Pirates and Mansion are so much easier to visit at night.

October 23, 2015 at 11:54 PM · Jeff, I will say that I've had good luck with Peter Pan's Flight late at night. The line doesn't completely disappear, but going during the last hour I've found 15-20 minute waits vs. the typical 30-60 minutes in the afternoon. It is definitely a first hour, last hour, or wait attraction though, mainly due to the poor capacity of the attraction (I estimate it at around 700 riders per hour).

I too am interested to see how Fantasmic's closure affects things. My guess at this point is that it will be a lot easier to visit New Orleans Square and Critter Country in the evenings but it may be harder to cross Main Street due to even more crowding for Paint the Night and Disneyland Forever. The loss of the railroad is definitely going to impact the park as well during the evenings.

October 24, 2015 at 5:26 PM · Robert- Selectively posting anonymous posts is not a proper way to run a site. If you're going to offer the option to post without an account then you shouldn't pick and choose the content that you allow, especially when the comments would not violate any terms of service or policies. While not complimentary, nothing I said was inappropriate.

If you're going to continue to cherry pick then I'll use a much larger forum I have access to to disclose this fact.

October 24, 2015 at 7:29 PM · AJ, you've been on this site for a while now- why have you just now become a writer?

Great article, by the way. Also, even on low days, the park gets packed around 5 when the schools get out. I went last Wednesday and everything was 30 minutes until 3 or 4.

October 25, 2015 at 5:39 AM · What is a good plan for someone who has already visited the Florida parks multiple times? Anything that can be skipped that is basically an exact replica of in both parks?
October 25, 2015 at 11:44 AM · Derek, for WDW vets I would suggest following the same plan as above and just making substitutions for the similar rides. For example, after grabbing a Space Mountain Fastpass in the morning you can go do Matterhorn Bobsleds and Alice in Wonderland instead of Star Tours and Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. The only attractions that I would say are identical are Star Tours and the flat rides (Dumbo the Flying Elephant, King Arthur Carrousel, Mad Tea Party, etc.). However, the following attractions are fairly similar between both resorts:

-Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters
-Enchanted Tiki Room
-Gadget's Go Coaster (identical to Barnstormer, just a different theme)
-It's a Small World (do not skip Holiday version)
-Jungle Cruise
-Peter Pan's Flight
-The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

These attractions can be skipped if necessary, but I still recommend riding them if time permits (especially It's a Small World and Jungle Cruise, as they are original versions). The other duplicate attractions are different enough between the two parks that it is definitely worth experiencing both versions.

October 25, 2015 at 4:59 PM · Great article!

One question though, unrelated to the article

AJ, why have you just now decided to become a writer?

October 25, 2015 at 10:15 PM · Juan (and anyone else who is curious), I strongly considered applying to be a writer the last time Robert put out a call for them (April if I remember right). However, at that time I had stronger ties with another theme park website and didn't want to create a conflict. Not too long afterward, those ties broke and I decided I'd apply for the position next time a call was put out. However, a couple months ago Robert approached me and asked if I'd be able to help with a series of advice articles for the destination parks around the world. While I don't know if I'll do any Asian parks (I know very little about most of those), the current plan is to cover the Disney parks in North America and Europe and then go from there.
October 25, 2015 at 9:53 PM · To,

Our policy has been that comments critical of any writers or other posts on the site cannot be made anonymously. I approved your comment so that I could remind everyone of that policy.

October 26, 2015 at 10:32 AM · I read elsewhere that the Fastpasses for the Frozen shows at both Disneyland and California Adventure are discontinued. You still need Fastpasses for the Anna and Elsa meet and greet at California Adventure. I wonder if Frozen Fun will return for the holiday season. Perhaps not with Star Wars coming. There is still a contingent of Elsa and Anna costumes at the Halloween Party that I attended yesterday night.

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