Planning a trip to Disneyland can absolutely feel overwhelming! Here are all the things I recommend you do if you’re planning a trip for the first time in a while.
Buy your tickets online or the day before
I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t do this! The ticket booth lines are absolutely wild in the mornings, and are completely avoidable for almost every ticket buying situation. You can buy your ticket online and take your printed ticket directly to the front gates, or if you’re in town the night before, drop into Downtown Disney for a drink or some shopping, and pick up your ticket at the ticket booth then. You do not have to use your ticket the same day you buy it, and lines are often shorter at night. Also, if you’re staying in a hotel near Disney labeled as a “Disney Good Neighbor Hotel” you can buy your tickets through your hotel counter, and the same goes for any Disney hotel property. This is a big one. Don’t waste your time in a line before you even make it into the parks!
Arrive an hour before Disneyland opens
The parking lots will always open at least an hour before Disneyland opens, and getting to the parking lots when they open has a lot of benefits, not the least of these is that you don’t want to wait in line to park. Getting there right away will let you park before the masses arrive and keep you from extra traffic.
Park in the Mickey and Friends parking structure
It takes a surprising amount of time to get from any parking lot to the main gates, but we love Mickey and Friends because while there is a tram, you can also walk, and if there is a line for the tram it will be faster to walk. It’s about 10 minutes, plus you get to walk through downtown Disney. Parking in any other lot requires you to use the Disney parking shuttles because they are farther away. The time it takes to get to the gates is another reason to arrive early!
Keep in mind that you will have to go through bag check and a metal detector to get into the parks, and certain things like Selfie Sticks, wagons, and pepper spray are never allowed (ask my sister about the pepper spray thing, she’s gotten many taken from her when she forgot to take it off her keychains). Security lines are usually pretty mild because there are so many entrances, but keep in mind there may be a wait there.
Know what you want to do first
When you “rope drop” (get in the parks right as they open) it can get a little hectic as people rush to their first attraction. Have a plan! My favorite thing to do is grab a fast pass for Space Mountain immediately, and then ride Star Tours while the lines are still pretty short. Read my Fast Pass blog here to learn about how it works, and why I recommend purchasing the MaxPass add on to really make the most of your time.
Some other good attractions to do right out of the gate are Indiana Jones, Peter Pan (this line stays at around 45 minutes all the time with no Fast Pass available), Matterhorn, or Splash Mountain.
In my opinion, these first four are critical! If you arrive right when the park opens, you can accomplish as much in the first two hours of park opening while everyone else is still parking and waiting in security lines and trickling into the parks as you might for the whole rest of the afternoon! Mornings in Disneyland are epic and generally the park stays clear for a bit, and I love taking in the corners of Disneyland with literally no other people around. It is magical!
Make sure you always have a Fast Pass
Depending on whether you use MaxPass or the free Fast Pass, you can either get a pass every 90 minutes or 2 hours. Don’t forget to always get a new one as soon as you possibly can! Fast Pass lines aren’t always zero minutes, but can often be only 5-10 minutes opposed to a 60-90 minute wait. The more Fast Passes you do in a day, the more attractions you can ride in a day! Read my list of my favorite rides to Fast Pass here, if you want some inspiration on how to prioritize your passes.
Don’t leave the park for food
This is my #1 tip for how to make the most of your day! Leaving the park takes a TON of time, and most of the food surrounding Disneyland is not that much cheaper than eating in the parks, truly. To leave the parks you have at least a 10-15 minute walk to your destination, a wait for your food even if you do fast food because the lines are always busy around Disneyland, the walk back, the line for bag check and security again because you left the security area to go to grab food, and then the lines to get back into the gates of the park. All things considered, I think you’d be hard pressed to grab even McDonalds or Panera across the street in less than an hour, and for what you’re paying per day for your park ticket to simply be in the park, it absolutely does not make financial sense to save $5 on your meal. I know that a $9 hot dog can have some sticker shock, but when you consider the alternatives I absolutely suggest going into the park knowing what you’ll spend on food, and sticking with it. Bringing snacks, making breakfast at home or hotel, and not buying sodas or alcohol can greatly lessen your food cost, so consider those short cuts instead!
Do what YOU want to do
Listen, I DO NOT like water rides. I ride Splash Mountain like literally once a year, usually on Justin’s birthday because it is a favorite of his and he gets to call the shots. But Splash Mountain is a major attraction and would be on a lot of people’s “must-dos” for their Disney day. I really just do not care what anyone says, I refuse. If you don’t like roller coasters, don’t ride them. If you don’t like Tea Cups, don’t ride Tea Cups. Be understanding of friends and family who don’t want to do what you want to do, and do your best to compromise. You will have a better day if you skip the ride that makes you sick or if you’re like me, makes you soggy for the rest of the day because that is the WORST feeling in the world. Alright rant over.
Don’t skip the shows and parades
For years I never saw a Disney parks show because my mind was all go-go-go to tick off the attractions, but this was a mistake! Not only are the shows top level talent and performance quality, the shows are the BEST way to get out of the heat, they’re a great excuse to sit down and get off your feet for 20-30 ish minutes at a time, which can really make a difference! Our very favorite is “Mickey and the Magical Map” which is in the Fantasyland Theater near Small World and the entrance to Toon Town, and there are generally multiple shows per day! Otherwise I’d recommend the Storytelling shows at the Royal Theatre or Frozen in the Hyperion Theater in DCA!
In terms of parades, our absolute favorite is Paint the Night, which is nightly in DCA! There are a lot of night time shows to choose from, but Paint the Night tops my list easily. If you’re in DCA at night, do not miss this one!
If you love a piece of merchandise, buy it when you see it!
Not all merchandise is in each store, not all merchandise is in the big Main Street shops or in World of Disney, so it is worth it to just buy it when you find it if you know you don’t want to go home without it! I have learned this lesson TOO many times and have had things either sell out on me or I’ve been trekking back to the one random place they had the item I wanted at the end of the day! BONUS TIP: try to avoid the shops after park closing if at all possible! The shops on Main Street and Buena Vista Street do stay open an extra hour after park closing each night, but… they are PACKED FULL of people who are over tired, kids who are over tired and can’t get the toy they want, etc etc. Just – do your shopping during the day if at all possible. You don’t want your last memory of the parks to be unhappy families all up in your business fighting about how expensive a t-shirt is!
Don’t panic if you don’t accomplish everything
Listen, sometimes the parks are busier than you expected, or you took some downtime to have a nice long lunch, or your favorite ride is closed for maintenance unexpectedly all day, and so you don’t do everything on your list. These things can leave you feeling angry or frustrated, so my advice is to go into the day with a plan, but without expectations. Your time in the park should be fun and relaxing, not stressful.
If I find myself frustrated or unhappy, I like to remind myself how lucky I am to be in the parks at all, and will generally take a break from the hustle and bustle by dipping into a show, riding the train around the parks with a coffee, or picking up an ice cream and finding a bench or a corner to eat it on. Your Disney Day, whether it is a once in a lifetime vacation or just a Saturday afternoon, is your magical time, and I want you to think about all the little things that got you there. Even if you don’t get to ride Space Mountain, you still just spent probably 12 or more uninterrupted hours hanging out with your family or friends, while taking in one of the most visited destinations in the world! That is truly some Disney Magic.
I hope this is helpful! Do you have any tips on how to make the most of your Disney Day? What is the attraction you absolutely have on your list each time? I love trading stories!