'I'm going to Disneyland... so what should I do?'

October 26, 2018, 6:20 PM · Living in Southern California and running a theme park news website, I get a lot of calls and messages from out-to-town friends who want some advice on visiting Disneyland when they're in the area. So here are my latest tips for planning a quick trip to the Disneyland Resort, for people who don't obsessively plan their theme park vacations to the last detail, months in advance.

1. Download the Disneyland app

Putting the Disneyland app on your mobile phone will do more to make your day in the parks easier than any other step you can take. With the app, you can buy your tickets in advance, skip the lines at the ticket booths and go straight into the parks, where you can track yourself on a park map, get current wait times, and find characters, shops, restaurants, and bathrooms. You even can use the app to order food, and (if you pay an upcharge — see below) make reservations for rides and download photos from Disney photographers. Download the app for Apple or Android, then create an account to sign in before you leave for the park.

2. One park, or two?

The Disneyland Resort is actually two theme parks: the original Disneyland, which opened in 1955, and Disney California Adventure, which opened in 2001 before "reopening" in 2012 after a major refurbishment.

Unlike at Florida's Walt Disney World Resort, where its four theme parks are located miles from each other and all have their own parking lots, Disneyland's two parks are located within a few yards of each other and share common parking facilities. You can "park hop" between the two easily, to get the best of each one.

However, you will have to buy a more expensive "Park Hopper" ticket to visit both parks on the same day. Prices vary by date, but currently run between $97-135 to visit your choice of either park and $147-185 for the "Park Hopper" to get into both on one day.

3. Arrive early

Whatever you choose, plan to arrive at Disneyland's Mickey and Friends parking structure (if you are driving from LA) or Toy Story parking lot (if you're coming from the south) at least one hour before the park's scheduled opening time. You can check park operating hours on the app.

Disneyland's crowds are dominated by local annual passholders, who tend to show up in force later in the day, especially on Fridays. Again, this isn't Walt Disney World, where crowds often thin in the evenings as little kids get tired. Disneyland gets worse as the day goes on, so get there early to maximize your time doing instead of waiting.

4. Get the Maxpass

You got the app, right? Maxpass is a $10 a person per day upcharge that allows you to make Disney's "Fastpass" ride reservations via the app, as well as to get unlimited downloads of Disney's Photopass pictures, including on-ride photos.

You don't need Maxpass to get a Fastpass, and Disney's Photopass photographers will be happy to take your picture using your cell phone or camera as well. But Maxpass allows you to get onto several more rides during the day, as you don't need to walk over to each attraction to scan your admission ticket to claim a return time. You just tap the available return time on your phone, wherever you are in the parks, and you've got it.

Once you have selected a Fastpass return time, you can't get another until either that return time has passed or two hours have gone by. The trick with using Maxpass is to pick your next Fastpass on the phone immediately once you are eligible. Over the day, that will get you on many more rides than you could have by walking around the park to claim your return times. Also, getting unlimited ride photos and professional shots inside the park is just cool.

5. Start with thrills, then you can chill

Assuming you can enter the park at opening, start your day at Disneyland by heading to Tomorrowland for a ride on Space Mountain, while using the app to book a Fastpass on Indiana Jones Adventure. Then hit up Star Tours and Buzz Lightyear before heading back across the center of the park toward Adventureland and Indiana Jones. Then book a ride on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad before hitting up the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. After riding Thunder, book a Fastpass for Splash Mountain to cool off in the middle of the day.

At California Adventure, head immediately to Radiator Springs Racers while booking a Fastpass for Soarin'. If you have time before needing to walk to Soarin', get a ride in on Toy Story Midway Mania next. After Soarin', use your next Fastpass on Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout. Then after that, get a Fastpass for the Incredicoaster.

If you are hopping between both parks, you'll need to mix and match, but try to do several rides in one park before switching to the other to minimize time waiting at the front gate to get into each park. And if you are visiting between Labor Day and New Year's, the Haunted Mansion gets a Nightmare Before Christmas overlay that makes it a good use of a Fastpass, too.

If you arrive after the park has opened, or you are just getting to your second park after visiting the first, look in the app at the current wait times and available Fastpass return times then pick whatever looks best for your next options. Go on other stuff, with shorter wait times, while you wait for your next Fastpass return. Generally try to follow the priority order listed above, but feel free to do what you want. There are no wrong answers here. You can use single rider lines to cut your wait times if you are visiting alone, too.

After knocking out a bunch of thrill rides to start your day, great choices to chill after that include the Enchanted Tiki Room, Disneyland Railroad, and Mark Twain Riverboat in Disneyland and the Animation Academy and Frozen musical at Disney California Adventure. (Note that the Frozen musical can be a tough "get" during some times of the year.)

6. Use mobile ordering for your food... or just get the fried chicken

Disneyland's mobile ordering feature in its app allows you to pick your selections from most of the counter service restaurants inside the two parks, customize your order and place it without having to wait in a line at the restaurant. (The link describes how to use Disney World's system, but it's the same process.) You will have to wait a few moments to get your food when you arrive, but that's a much better deal that enduring waits that can be as long as for some attractions. (Especially for Disneyland's beloved Dole Whips.)

One of the few counter-service restaurants that does not accept mobile ordering is my favorite Disneyland restaurant — the Plaza Inn, home of an amazing three-piece fried chicken dinner. At California Adventure, the Carthay Circle restaurant is a somewhat upscale, table-service choice, but well worth the time and money if you have both to spend. Or share the Lobster Nachos and donuts at the sit-down Lamplight Lounge for a less fussy, but just as tasty option.

You can browse menus on the Disneyland app, so pick what looks good to you. But if a restaurant offers mobile ordering, be sure to use it! If you want a sit-down restaurant, you can make reservations via the app, too.

7. Don't hesitate to ask for help

Finally, do not hesitate to ask for help from Disney's employees, known as "cast members." (Because Disneyland is show business, right?) You can find Guest Relations cast members, whose entire job it is to help, at City Hall on Main Street in Disneyland and at the Chamber of Commerce on Buena Vista Street in Disney California Adventure. (Both are to the left just past the entrance of each park.) If you are celebrating a birthday, anniversary, or a first visit to the park, they will hook you up with a souvenir button. And if you are having any difficulty with the app, Maxpass, or navigating the park, they have plenty of tips and advice to help you get the most from your day.

Have a great trip, and thanks for sharing this advice from us here at Theme Park Insider!

Replies (10)

October 26, 2018 at 11:06 PM

It helps Disneyland is smaller than WDW Magic Kingdom to get around. Complex in that more lines are outdoors and tend to be slower at peak periods. Just have to make sure to balance your Fastpass out right and hit the big ones at certain times.

October 27, 2018 at 6:35 AM

For someone who has recently been to Disneyworld, what attractions can be skipped at Disneyland because they are a copy (or near copy) of the attraction at WDW?

October 27, 2018 at 11:18 AM

TwoBits: That's tricky. A few are pretty carbon copies but the great thing of Disneyland is that there are subtle differences so worth riding.

I think Jungle Cruise is a bit skippable, shorter than the WDW version. Also, I think the WDW Haunted Mansion is better (thanks to a big upgrade) although the Disneyland Pirates is superior. Big Thunder is mostly the same as is Splash Mountain with just a couple of scenes.

Their Fantasyland is much better with Mr. Toad and a different Small World. Star Tours and Buzz Lightyear are the same but their Space Mountain is a bit different. At California Adventure, Soarin and Midway Mania are exactly the same as WDW.

Overall, Disneyland does have several attractions WDW doesn't (Indiana Jones, Radiator Springs, Matterhorn) but would recommend still hitting their versions of some rides just to see differences.

October 27, 2018 at 12:11 PM

Here is my complete list of the Disneyland Resort attractions that a Walt Disney World veteran can safely skip, as they bring little or nothing of significance new to the table.

At Disneyland:
Splash Mountain
Haunted Mansion (if not the Holiday edition. Do the Holiday version, though.)
Star Tours
Buzz Lightyear
Mark Twain (do the Columbia or Canoes instead)
Jungle Cruise
Peter Pan's Flight
The Many Adventure of Winnie the Pooh
Star Wars Launch Bay
Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (it's excerpts from Hall of Presidents and The American Adventure)
Gadget's Go Coaster (same as the Goofy Coaster)
Casey Jr. Circus Train (skip if you do Storybook Land)
Dumbo the Flying Elephant
Mad Tea Party
Tarzan's Treehouse
King Arthur Carrousel
Astro Orbitor
Fantasy Faire Royal Hall

At Disney California Adventure:
Toy Story Midway Mania
Grizzly River Run (if you've done Kali River Rapids)
Soarin' Around the World
The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure
Turtle Talk with Crush
Mater's Junkyard Jamboree (same as Alien Swirling Saucers)
Disney Junior Dance Party

Disneyland's Thunder has a better ending than WDW's; It's a Small World is the original version and somewhat different, and Disneyland's Tiki Room is in much better shape than the MK's, so I would include those on a Disneyland trip, though I would consider them low priorities.

Fantasmic! is infinitely better at Disneyland, though, so make that a high priority, even if you have seen the DHS show.

October 27, 2018 at 3:05 PM

I'd strike Grizzly River Run from Robert's list (it is much longer than Kali River Rapids) and add all the Paradise/Pixar Pier flat rides. Otherwise, that's a pretty good list of attractions similar enough between both resorts that they don't need to be re-experienced. I'd also say that any major attraction originating at Disneyland is worth experiencing, though those on the list should be at the bottom of the priority list.

One other tip I'll add is planning how to park hop. Before your visit, check the calendar to see which park offers early entry on that day. If it's Disneyland, start in DCA and do everything of interest (you should be able to knock out the majors by noon), then hop to Disneyland for the rest of the day. However, if DCA is the early entry park, start at Disneyland and try to knock out as many rides as you can in the first 2-3 hours (I usually try to tackle Space Mountain, Star Tours, Indy, Splash Mountain, Matterhorn, and the Fantasyland dark rides in that time), then hop to DCA for the late morning/afternoon, and back to Disneyland in the late afternoon. If you use this strategy along with Maxpass, you're actually better off Maxpassing either Space or Indy and hitting the Fantasyland dark rides first thing.

October 28, 2018 at 12:22 PM

As a Haunted Mansion nut, I must disagree. While WDW is Somewhat upgraded, DL is more pure. The walkthrough is longer, the story seems to work better, and ... HATBOX GHOST!

October 29, 2018 at 9:11 AM

Some of the offsite hotels near Disneyland are actually closer than the onsite hotels and less than a 5-minute walk to the Esplanade that connects the entrances of Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure. If you stay close by, you won't have to pay to park at Disneyland and you won't lose any time in the parking garage or waiting for shuttles. There are other benefits of staying at hotels near Disneyland too! There are also hotels that are a short walk to the free parking lot shuttles. (Ribbit! We can save you $$$ if you book your hotel through Undercover Tourist!)

Ease your way through the security line.

The best way to get through the security line quickly is to be prepared. Make sure all of your bags are out and open for the cast member to peek into. Have keys, cell phone, coins and any metal devices ready to be passed to the guard at the security scanners. Have something that you know will buzz, such as a belt? Take it off and shove it into a bag for a moment. The Harbor Boulevard security lines (the area where Toy Story Lot and offsite hotels tend to enter) have a special security line for people with no bags. If you have no bags to check you may save yourself a long line there!

October 29, 2018 at 9:11 AM

This is all solid advise If you can, use jet lag to your advantage and be there when the place opens. If you can walk from your hotel to the park, taking a break in the hotel after lunch and returning in the late afternoon can make it so you can handle a later night and still be up early in the morning..

Also, The Plaza Inn was a pleasant surprise. Good food that somehow wasn't slammed with people.

October 29, 2018 at 12:21 PM

Adding to JustinJack's post we carry gallon Ziplock bags to put all of our pocket stuff in when we go through the security line. The guards really appreciate that, it makes their job easier. We get through the line quicker and over to the trams where we can take our time replacing items in our pockets or in my belt pouch.

October 30, 2018 at 9:14 AM

I just came back home (UK) from a SoCal trip and we utilized Maxpass and mobile ordering.
Mobile ordering was available on my last WDW but I hadn't used it - the lure of the DL Dole Whip being 'immediately' available to me was too much and I went for it. It's changed my theme park life.
Maxpass I thought was totally worth $10 each. (Tip - have your phone to take a picture of the code for your on-ride pictures - I missed a couple as I left all my things with a non-rider).
We only had about 15 Photopass pics with it over 2 days - but couple that with the ease of getting FP without the legwork - its a total bargain.

Also WDW regulars take note - Splash is a lot wetter on the West Coast!

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