I recently went to Disneyland with my family, and while we had a wonderful time, it would've been even better if we'd known these tips!
1. Do not purchase the Max Pass unless you like to go on all the rides.
Disneyland gets an estimated 44,000 visitors a day (Martin, 2015). This amount of people creates crowds everywhere. Go to Disneyland any day of the year and you will see people, strollers, rides, and gift shops as far as the eye can see. The most popular rides—like Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain, and the Indiana Jones Ride—can have lines well over an hour long.
To help their customers avoid the lines, Disneyland introduced the FastPass system. For certain rides (but not all), Disneyland essentially has 2 different lines. The largest line is called the Standby line. It is the line for "normal" guests who are not using a FastPass. It is always longer and moves much slower. The second line is—you guessed it—the FastPass line. Those with a FastPass use this line to get on the ride much faster than those using the Standby line.
Disney FastPass Details
FastPasses are free to all guests. So if they're free to all guests, why wouldn't everyone just use the FastPass line? The reason is that Disney caps the number of FastPasses that can be used for each ride each day. Once all the FastPasses have been used, guests can only use the Standby line.
There are two ways to acquire a FastPass for a ride. The first is to go to the ride and obtain a physical FastPass ticket. That ticket shows the time you can use your FastPass. Once you obtain a FastPass for a ride, you cannot obtain another one until the time that FastPass is scheduled to be used. This prevents guests from loading up on a bunch of FastPasses at once. Once your time arrives, you proceed to the ride's FastPass line, scan the FastPass, and marvel at how fast you speed on to the ride.
Disney MaxPass Details
Another way to obtain a FastPass is through the MaxPass. This is a premium paid service that Disney offers for $15 per guest per day. The MaxPass enables you to book a FastPass on your phone without having to physically go to the ride. This can save a huge amount of time, energy, and sanity by preventing frequent trips across the park. You could be standing in line for the Indiana Jones Adventure in Adventureland and book a FastPass for the always popular Space Mountain all the way across the park in Tomorrowland.
Not knowing exactly how everything worked, we purchased MaxPasses for our entire family even though my wife does not like rides. That turned out to be a waste of money. The MaxPass is a great feature but only for those who plan to take full advantage.
2. You can bring in your own food into Disneyland.
It's no big surprise that theme parks like Disneyland don't draw visitors with their cheap buffets. If you plan on buying a meal at Disneyland, plan on budgeting at least $20 for an adult and $11–12 for a child.
Disneyland is unique in that it actually has many very nice restaurants inside the park. Each section has restaurants that reflect the park's theme. You can get off the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride in New Orleans Square and sit down for a nice meal at Cafe Orleans. Or you may prefer to go next store to Frontierland and enjoy some southern cooking at the River Belle Terrace. My family and I opted to buy our food inside the park, but for our next visit, I anticipate putting some of that food budget to work in other areas of our vacation. We enjoyed some great Mexican food at the Rancho de Zocalo Restaurante in Frontierland.
For those who are traveling on a budget or want to eat quickly so they can make the most of their FastPasses, Disneyland does allow you to bring in your own food. As long as you abide by the restrictions, this is a much more affordable way to go (Disneyland, 2019). Not surprisingly, you can't bring in alcohol or glass containers other than baby-food containers. There are plenty of tables and seats all over the park where you can sit down and enjoy your meal.
Keep in mind, carrying food around all day can get heavy and you can't take your bag on the rides with you. However, a nice PB&J and a bottle full of water are much cheaper than a steak with red wine at one of the Disneyland steakhouses.
3. Be prepared for a long line at the security checkpoint to enter the park.
We live in a dangerous world, and Disneyland—being one of the most visited places on earth—needs to ensure its guests stay safe. As a result, guests must pass through metal detectors and have their bags searched before entering the park.
All guests pass through the same security checkpoint just outside Downtown Disney. Here, Disneyland's security team searches bags and makes sure the guests aren't bringing in anything they shouldn't. For a list of items that are prohibited, refer to the Disneyland website. The staff is very professional and the line usually moves fast.
I bring this up because the line gets very long in the hour leading up to the park's opening. We were staying at the Disneyland Paradise Pier hotel so we were able to enter the park at 7:00 AM, an hour before the park opened to the general public. We arrived at the security line at 7:30 hoping to get in quick to catch some rides before the park was overflowing with people but were slowed significantly by the long security line. If you're looking to get a head start in the crowds, make sure you leave enough time to navigate security.
4. Staying at the Disneyland hotels is fun, but not required.
Disney has three hotels right on the edge of Disneyland. These are the Paradise Pier, the Disneyland Hotel, and the Disney Grand California Hotel and Spa. The Paradise Pier and Disneyland Hotel are fairly similar in price, with the Grand California sporting more premium prices.
Since it was our daughter's first trip to Disneyland, we opted to stay at the Paradise Pier Hotel. We chose to stay there in particular because the pool at the Disneyland Hotel was not fully functional and our daughter loves swimming pools. The cast members were some of the greatest hotel staff I've ever seen. They were great with our daughter, and there were always plenty on hand to make sure we had a great experience. Every evening at 8:00 PM, they host a movie night where families can go watch a classic Disney film and eat popcorn. When we were there, the movies were Dumbo and Hercules. There were great buffet and sit-down restaurants in each hotel. The food was amazing.
We opted for the character breakfast at Goofy's restaurant, just a short walk from our hotel. The cost is about $40 per person for adults and $25 per person for kids, but we found it well worth it. Their characters greet you at the entrance and are constantly walking through the restaurant interacting with guests. We were treated to multiple interactions with Chef Goofy, sous chef Pluto, and helpers Chip and Dale. There was a nice model sports car in the lobby for kids to play in while waiting to get in. Be sure to book these experiences in advance, as they sell out quickly.
The other great benefit to staying at Disneyland hotels is the Magic Hour. Disneyland Hotel guests are allowed to enter the park at 7 AM, 1 hour before the park opens to the general public. This is enough time to ride some nice rides before the lines get long (as long as you get through security fast enough!).
If you are going to Disneyland for the first time, staying at a Disney hotel property is worth it. There are, however, several other very nice hotels within a short walk or Uber ride from the park.
5. Do NOT believe the wait times for the rides that have FastPass.
Since you only have a limited number of FastPasses at your disposal, it's good to use them wisely. To help you do this, Disneyland posts estimated Standby-line wait times at all the rides. If you see a ride with a Standby wait time of 20–30 minutes, you may think it's a good idea to use the Standby line for that ride and use the FastPass for something with a longer wait. I learned that may not be the best strategy.
I attempted to use the Standby line at Roger Rabbit's Cartoon Spin since the estimated Standby wait time was 25 minutes. We ended up waiting well over an hour. To make things even worse, the ride was not that good.
As I said before, for the rides that have FastPass, there are 2 lines, one for FastPass and one for Standby. The park cast members will allow a large group of FastPass members to get on the ride followed by a smaller group of Standby Passengers. It seems that cast members place a heavier emphasis on getting Fastpassers on the ride faster than creating a fair situation for the Standby guests. My recommendation? If the ride you love has the FastPass option, use it.
The rides with no FastPass (such as Pirates of the Caribbean) have lines that move fast and efficiently. Their estimated wait times are much more accurate.
6. The park is packed from open to close.
Disneyland stays open from 8 AM until midnight. You would think that the later hours would send people back to the comfort of their own homes to relax. And you would be wrong.
I waited well over an hour to ride Thunder Mountain at 10 PM. Even after I got off that ride, the park was still filled with people of all ages. The crowd did trend older but there were plenty of strollers around.
If you think you might see shorter lines late in the day, you're in for a big surprise. In addition, visiting at night leaves you virtually no chance of getting any FastPasses since most of those are usually given away by the late afternoon. The only way to get a true advantage over the crowds is to stay at a Disneyland hotel and take advantage of the Magic Hour.
7. Buy a 3-day pass even if you only go to the park for 2 days.
We only attended Disneyland for 2 days, but we purchased 3-day passes. Ironically, it's cheaper to purchase 3-days passes than 2-day passes. This pricing model creates great flexibility in how you structure your Disneyland vacation.
Theme parks, especially Disneyland, are incredibly fun to attend. But they can also be stressful and tiring, especially in the hot summer months. We attended 2 days in a row and while we had fun, we were incredibly tired by the end. As we neared the end of the second day, we felt like we were on more of a mission than a vacation.
It takes more than 1 day to truly experience Disneyland. I recommend spending at least 2 days at Disneyland, but not back to back. Buy a 3-day pass and take a day in between to relax at the pool, go to a character breakfast, or see another great site in Los Angeles. Sleep in and attend the evening movie at the hotel and watch the fireworks. There are a lot of really nice places to visit in LA, such as the Warner Brothers backlot, Santa Monica, and Venice Beach.
This day of recovery will give you a chance to recharge your batteries and get the most out of your last day in the park.
Disneyland Resort Park Rules (n.d.).
Martin, H. (2015, May 19). Disneyland prepares for crush of visitors during 60th anniversary celebration. Los Angeles Times.
© 2019 George Johnson
Lorna Lamon on March 20, 2019:
Great tips - we had a family holiday at Disneyland Paris a few years ago and these tips would have come in very handy. Thanks for sharing.