My kids’ dad and I will shamelessly admit we deprived our kids.
We made them wait until they were teenagers before we bit the bullet, hopped a cheap (compared to current airfares) flight to California and made our way to the Happiest Place on Earth: Disneyland, USA.
Outside the pandemic shutdown years, we have gone to Disneyland a couple times a year since 2014, which is my only credential for offering advice on how to navigate this enormous and privileged parental rite of passage.
Not rich, just lucky
I don’t think I need to state this, but I will for the record: Our family is not the norm. We happen to reside both in Southern California and Washington and for years were eligible for Disneyland’s SoCal resident annual pass which made going regularly to the theme park uber affordable. We have not bought into the company’s newer, more expensive Magic Key pass system so, who knows, our recent visit may be our last.
Things have changed over those years – attractions have come and gone, the system for beating the lines has changed, crowds have grown, nowadays you’ll spend as much time looking at Disney phone apps as you do the rides. Still, a visit to the original theme park in the Disney collection can be a magical adventure. These tips may help.
NOTE: These tips are about visiting one park: Disneyland. Many families “park hop” between Disneyland and its neighbor Disney California Adventure Park, located across the Disney entrance esplanade. Needless to say, park hopping takes a lot of coordination, the level of which my family and I have yet to master.
#1 Wait for it
In fact, I’ve already given you my first tip: Wait ’til your kids are old enough to appreciate or at least handle (physically and emotionally) the plane trek, the long wait times for rides, the crowds, the weather and the walking that are all part and parcel of a day at Disneyland. There is no consensus on the exact perfect age for a first visit, but an informal survey of 20 Disneyland tourism and navigation websites suggests waiting until at least age 4.
On a trip last fall, I found myself in the ice cream line behind a young mom madly bouncing up and down to quiet the crying baby Ergoed to her chest, while simultaneously trying to wrangle a mid-meltdown preschooler into a stroller the size of a Cadillac (although it must have met the park’s stroller size limits).
I smiled at her encouragingly. She rolled her eyes in that way of exasperated moms and mouthed above her toddler’s head: “Nightmare.”
My kids were 16 and 13 on our first trip and I have to say watching them shed their teenage bravado for tiaras, mouse ears and younger-kid enthusiasm made a true pixie-dust believer out of me. They would have had just as much fun and been just as pleasant between the ages of 5 and 12. I’m just saying, waiting was the best Disney decision my family ever made.
#2 Time it right
June, July, first half of August . . . all warm and beautiful months in Seattle. Months when you should stay in Seattle, rather than heading to Disneyland for some of the hottest, most packed park days of the year.
Seriously, we tried a Thursday in July once. All we remember from that visit is the backs of a thousand heads everywhere we turned and it being so hot our Mickey-shaped ice cream melted without a single lick.
Of course, you have to go when the opportunity arises and a visit to the parks can be wonderful whatever window you choose. But if you can swing it, choose low-crowd days. There are numerous blogs that offer crowd counters and crowd calendars to help you plan for days with the lowest census possible. My favorite calendars can be found online at Undercover Tourist.
Avoid weekends, they are the busiest days in most theme parks, especially Disneyland.
Avoid school breaks and vacation weeks.
If possible, plan a mid-week visit to take advantage of lower census on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays.
Here are a few of the expected moderate-to-low-crowd days coming up in 2023:
- January 17-31 (except weekends)
- February 9-12
- May 1-5 and 8-25 (except weekends)
- August 21-31 (except weekends)
- September 5-28 (except weekends)
- November 1-17 (except weekends)
- December 1-15 (except weekends)
Be sure to check that tickets are available for the dates you choose and purchase them online as far in advance as humanly possible. Or, in Disney terms, up to 120 days before you go.
Note: Multi-day tickets are less expensive per day than single day tickets – and they don’t need to be used consecutively. Close friends from Seattle came to visit us in our Venice home a couple years ago and took their kids ages 5 and 8 to Disneyland on a Tuesday, to Venice Beach on Wednesday and back to Disneyland on Thursday. Their kids had a blast, had time to digest each day and didn’t get overwhelmed.
#3 Touch down at John Wayne
Yes, it is generally a few dollars cheaper to fly into the Los Angeles International Airport from Seattle. However, LAX is a crazy beehive of activity and getting in and out of the airport is a time-consuming drag. Not to mention it’s about 33 miles from Disneyland and in LA freeway terms that means a 45-minute to two-hour drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic, amid motorcyclists who love to race up the dividing line between cars. Save the thrill rides for the theme park. Fly into much smaller John Wayne Airport. It’s easier to navigate and just 11 miles from the park. The $20 extra per plane ticket it will cost you will be well worth the decision.
Plane tickets increase as you move closer to the window of a trip. Secure your plane seats well in advance of your trip for best rates. It’s hard to find the $49 one-way fares we enjoyed on our first Disney trip from Seattle, but if you plan ahead you can find one-way tickets for under $100 per passenger (Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines are your best bets).
#4 Stay at a Disney resort
I hate giving this advice because for the price of a night at one of the three Disney hotels located in and around Disneyland, I could feed my family for two months. A room sleeps up to five adults and runs between $500 and $700 (or way more) per night. But, if you are only going to make the trek once or if you want the full-meal deal, staying at a park resort is the way to go. There are a few benefits (discounts, great restaurants on the premises where characters come to visit), but two stand out.
First, Disney hotel guests get into parks 30 minutes before everyone else. If you plan it right, you can do a lot in those 30 minutes.
Second, you can easily get a midday nap, rest, change of clothes, shower, and so on without having to find your car. If you ignore tip #1 and bring very young children, staying at an attached hotel can be a sanity saver – and help prevent afternoon meltdowns.
#5 Or, don’t
We stayed at a Disney hotel on our first trip and are glad we did. We got a kick out of the character breakfast held in one of the hotel eateries – my daughter hugged Goofy and we all got high fives from Mickey and Minnie. But it must be said that there are wonderful and far cheaper hotel options within easy walking distance of Disneyland – some of which include breakfast. And frankly, we felt way more at home in the less swanky accommodations. Our favorite is Anaheim Camelot Inn where those same five adults can sleep and eat breakfast for aroun $240.
If you stay at a hotel not within walking distance and need to use Disneyland parking lots, be sure to snap a phone photo of your car’s location. Lots are HUGE and finding your car in that sea of metal and fiberglass can be painful after a long day.
#6 Download Disneyland Mobile App BEFORE you go
Not only download it, wander around in it. Get to know it. Make it your best friend. Of all the changes that my family has seen at Disneyland in the last eight years, use of an app to navigate everything from ride waiting times to paid reservations on the busiest rides to food purchases and restaurant reservations is the biggest. Your entrance barcode will also be in the app.
I will admit I was a little disconcerted during our most recent trip to see so many heads looking down at phones rather than up at the colorful attractions all around – or the other people on the packed paths. But I imagine parents who grew up on technology and their tech-savvy kids will be nonplussed by all the palm gazing and far more adept at using this tool.
Once you’ve purchased your Disneyland tickets, you can start using the app to plan your park itinerary, look at menus and plan meals, and tick off a lot of other boxes before you even leave Seattle. You’ll need the app to order food at many food venues in the park. You can shop with it. It practically does your laundry. So don’t fight it, the new Disneyland is a digital Disneyland.
HINT: Save yourself time, upload your credit card into the Disney app before you go to the park.
#7 Get in the park entry line early. We mean it. EARLY
In case you missed that: E.A.R.L.Y.
In general, security starts letting visitors into the park about 30 minutes before the official park opening. You are able to walk into the park and down to the end of Main Street until you hit a rope that is laid across the path. Getting to that rope gives you a big leg up on other visitors in terms of the time it takes to get to your most coveted rides. When Disneyland staff (called cast members) drop the rope, you and yours should make a beeline to your top ride choices. Being at the front of the pack at “Rope Drop” doesn’t assure you’ll be the first on the uber popular new Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ride, but you’ll be darn close. That same ride will have a line out and around the park by noon so good on you! Get there by 7 a.m. – even if you stay at a resort and have early access, get there 30 minutes to an hour before your entry time.
HINT: Rumor has it that the high-tech Resistance breaks downs more than your average ride. Stay in line. It will get fixed. And since a lot of other people will jump out of line when it briefly closes for a fix, you’ll move quickly up the line.
HINT: Make it swifty through security check by carrying a backpack without a lot of pockets and zippers and holding only the essentials. Snacks, water, money, sunscreen, and so on. If you arrive early enough, I suggest renting a storage locker just outside the gate. They are available first come, first served. It’s a great way to store extras – including a fuller lunch or extra gear – until you want or need them.
#8 Bring your own food
You’re parents. I don’t really need to tell you this. So, consider this just affirming what you know. Kids need snacks, lots of snacks, no matter their size. The more they move, the more they need. We all do. You will be moving a lot around Disneyland.
There are lots of snacks at Disneyland. Very expensive, largely unhealthy snacks that will hop your kids up and then drop them down into a sugar coma without the balance of healthy foods. So go ahead and book your meals at the very expensive restaurants sprinkled around the park through the app you downloaded and befriended in advance. (In fact, be sure to make your restaurant reservations via the app as soon as you book your park tickets. Seats at the Blue Bijou restaurants in the Pirates ride sell out literally months in advance.) But carry a backpack full of healthy snacks that will stave off hunger, boost energy throughout the day, and save you from hangry family breakdowns. Think non-refrigerated energy foods:
- high protein bars
- chopped fruit and veggies
- peanut butter crackers
- string cheese in cooler months
- cans of chocolate Ensure
And then, once or twice during your day in the park, get them to that character-shaped treat, that full turkey leg (protein!), that crazy big sundae or cloud of cotton candy. The sugar high won’t be so high, nor the low so low, thanks to your good planning and doling.
HINT: You cannot take glass bottles and containers into the park.
#9 Bring the Kraken (or Seahawks or Storm . . .)
Show your team spirit in the form of brightly colored matching T-shirts or jackets so that you can easily see kids and they can see you in a sea of other families (many of whom will be wearing matching shirts from their home teams). When I was a child, my parents took us to a different theme park and forced us to wear bright blue windbreakers with the slogan “Morey’s Mortuary: You stab ‘em, we slab ‘em” on the back. Believe me, my parents couldn’t have lost us if they tried. My kids had it easier: bright orange shirts. Whatever your color or slogan, make it a pack event.
Most older kids carry phones these days, so texts help keep you connected. But consider installing phone locators on each family member’s phone. And for younger children, consider purchasing a child tracking bracelet (like the Washington-state developed Littlebird tracker) or other wearable device like an Apple Airtag.
While we are on the topic of getting lost, it happens. Thankfully, Disneyland cast members are great at locating lost kids or parents. Literally, go up to any person on the Disney staff and say “My princess is lost” and a whole team of elves and princes will fan out until she’s found safe and sound. If your child gets lost, encourage them to go to Disney staffers (all of whom wear name tags).
#10 Have thought-out plan for the whole day(s)
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. People, many people, have dedicated their lives and businesses to doing Disney theme parks as efficiently as humanly possible, hitting all the major rides and attractions by mapping out the best routes, stops, et al. You can use the Disney app to make your own plan, but why waste all the work and experience that groups like Undercovertourist.com or Touringplans.com have put into creating ride itineraries that will meet your needs.
#11 How to beat the looooong lines
There have been books written on how to avoid waiting for rides at Disney parks. Google it and you’ll find hundreds of ideas. But I’ll boil it down to just three:
- Use the single rider line. Disney staff use the single rider line to fill in seats on rides and you’ll be in your seat in no time. Yes, that means members of your family may not be in the same car or carriage. But really? Who cares? If your kids are tall enough to ride, try this option with the agreement that everyone will wait at the ride exit before moving on. On our first trip we used single riders a lot and our teens were in heaven as theywhizzed by tired, cranky kids in long lines.
- For very popular rides, use the Lightning Lane option in your app to purchase a spot close to the front of the line. You can only purchase Lightning Lane spots two times in a single day. Or, pay $25 per person to use the app’s Genie+ service, which allows visitors to Lightning Lane entrance times on select attractions, one at a time, all day long. Keep in mind that these options are available only on certain rides (several high-demand attractions are not on it).
- Go early, stay late. The shortest lines are first thing in the morning (because you heeded tip #7) and the last few hours before the park closes, when the youngest wrung-out visitors and their parents have thrown in the towel. Tackle the non-Genie+ rides first thing in the morning and save those front-of-the-line cards for later.
HINT: Some rides and attractions close down earlier than others, including that crazy popular Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. Be sure you know closing times for your top ride picks.
HINT: Kids not into parades? Lines shorten up when the evening parade is rolling down Main Street.
#12 Rider switch
Another reason for waiting for kindergarten before heading to Disneyland is that many rides have height restrictions. But if you couldn’t wait and you’ve entered the adventure with younger, shorter kids, take advantage of the rider switch option offered at rides with restrictions. One parent waits at the exit with the child while the other takes the ride, then using a rider switch pass, the second parent moves to the front of the line to take their turn. Have a sweet snack or special something for the kiddo, to ease their sadness at being left out!
#13 How to meet your favorite characters
Let’s face it, we’re all here because we fell in love with a Disney movie character or two or 10. Meeting beloved characters in the park is part of the magic, but doing so may take a little planning. Look for your favorite princesses at Fantasy Fair and other characters at major squares in Disneyland – Town Square, New Orleans Square or ToonTown, for example. The Disney app provides some character locations, but mostly you have to keep your eyes peeled. If your kids really, really have their hearts set on seeing a specific character, consider a character breakfast or meal event.
#14 Take photos of photos or . . .
At the end of many rides you’ll find a kiosk with screens showing photos of riders on the ride. You know these photos – the ones with your hands in the air, hair raging like Medusa’s snakes, screaming like banshees on the roller coaster? Disney would love for you to buy these photos (which you can do using the Disney PhotoPass). But honestly, those ride shots aren’t terribly clear even in print and we found that if we take a phone photo of the screen at the end of the ride, the images are just as good as printouts. And we are more likely to look at them now and then if they are on the phone.
Or, if you go all in and purchase Genie+ on the Disney app (or Disney PhotoPass+) you can download ride shots as well as professional photos taken throughout the day by roving Disney photographers.
#15 Save souvenirs for last (or first)
I know, I know, it’s just different if you get your Disneyland souvenirs in Disneyland. It’s emotional. But, the truth is, Disney tees, hats, gidgets and gadgets are all the same whether you get them online, purchase them through the Disney app, or buy them in one of the many, many shops in the park. The difference? They are a lot cheaper online.
Still, if you must buy your remembrance items in the park, wait ’til the very end of the day so you don’t have to lug them around. Not to mention, avoiding stores for as long as possible means avoiding excessive “I want” whining.
HINT: Shops on Main Street are open for an hour after park closing time.
The last thing I want to offer about navigating Disneyland is about heading home. You might be tempted to race home the next morning after your whirlwind day or days in the park. Consider a later flight – say in the evening or at night. Ask for a late check-out from your hotel. Spend the morning in the pool, going through photos, enjoying breakfast. A little downtime before the airport rush is a helpful way to transition from the Happiest Place on Earth back to real life in Seattle.
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