We go to Disneyland a lot. The first several years of our BK (before kid) marriage we got the Disney bug every 3-6 months. Living the high life of no debt and two incomes we'd just pick up and go. We took our eldest when he turned 1. We've been with little kids and big groups, and even with the stomach flu. We've been in all kinds of weather with all kinds of crowds.
Even though we've been enough times that I consider myself an expert, I still really enjoy to read tips on making a better trip. But sometimes I'll click on a Pinterest link or website or article and laugh out loud at the advice given. There really is no "wrong" way to do Disney, BUT if you claim to be an expert but don't list the correct name for one of the most popular shows at the resort. . . It's super hard to take any of your advice seriously. After stating my reaction on Facebook I had some requests for the "right" advice. Here are my tips on having a great Disneyland vacation.
Know before you go
- The Basics: With very little digging you can find out the hours of operation, parade/show schedules, ride closures, height requirements, and other gems right on the Disneyland website. If you've got a kid who is dying to ride Radiator Springs Racers (ie the Cars Ride) but isn't 40" tall yet, you'll want to deal with that before you've waited in line. Measure your kids in the shoes they'll be wearing to the park. If they barely hit the mark, make sure you talk to them ALOT about standing up straight and tall when getting measured. We've never had a problem, but I know others that have. It isn't fun when you got to ride yesterday but can't today because your tennis shoes are 1/4 inch taller than your sandals.
- A Little More Effort: Join (or lurk around) a forum or two. The good forums are full of people planning trips, going on trips and returning from trips. They are the absolute best place to learn about hotels, current crowd patterns, anticipated closures, and all the tricks of the parks. My favorite site when I was just starting out was disboards.com. It has in depth posts about Fast Pass, Rider Switch, good hotels, and more. It is also very active, so your questions will be answered pretty quickly.
- Wanna Be an Expert: Go spelunking around my absolute favorite Disney site miceage.com. Their forums can be down right snarky sometimes, so put on your tough skin if you plan on posting. In addition to the great in depth info in the forums these are the regular features I read when planning a trip.
- Dateline Disneyland (Mondays) - get a look at what's going on this week including tons of great pictures.
- In The Parks (Fridays) - want to know what's going on around all the Southern California parks, not just Disney? This one is also picture intensive with lots of news events happening at Knott's, Universal, Six Flags, and occasionally Sea World.
- MiceAge Updates - These are only posted when there is Disney News. I signed up for the MiceAge newsletter just so I wouldn't miss one. They include speculation on how events in the near future will be handled (and what to watch out for), new and exciting things being talked about behind the scenes (what's going on with Tomorrowland), as well as updates to new and current projects and policies. This is a must read for anyone wanting learn more about Disney.
What to bring
- The Basics:
- Comfortable shoes that you've broken in (DO NOT wear new shoes out of the box). Any kind will do as long as they are comfy to wear for lots of hours and lots of walking.
- Sunscreen - Even my never burn husband wears sunscreen at Disney. Burn the first day and the rest of your trip will be miserable.
- Chapstick - Read above about sunscreen.
- ID for All Adult Guests - I've read that in order to cut down on ticket fraud all guests are being asked for ID as well as their ticket to prove the names match.. Better to be safe than sorry.
- A Little More Effort: This requires a medium size "mom" bag and everything listed above.
- Water Bottles - There is nothing I hate more that spending money on something that I can walk 10 feet for and get for free. You can refill them at any drinking fountain and some of the eateries around the park. Buy them at home, to save a little bit more.
- Snacks - Disney allows you to bring in food as long as it is not in glass containers. We done fruit snacks, granola bars, fruit/veggies, but our favorite is make your own trail mix. You bring the main ingredients + resealable baggies and let everyone make their own treat each morning. Our favorite ingredients include peanuts, m&m's, pretzels, and gummi bears.
- Wanna Be an Expert: Pack everything listed above
- Your Own Stroller/buy one at a local Target - Disney strollers currently run $15 per day for a single or $25 per day for a double AND you can't take them to Downtown Disney or back to your hotel room.
- Ponchos - Want to ride the wet rides but not drip the rest of the day, buy an inexpensive poncho for everyone in your party before you leave. On your last day you can "Pay it Forward" by standing at the entrance to Grizzly and handing them out to grateful families.
- Baby Wipes - Everybody gets sticky sometimes. Even if you don't have a baby, they're a life safer for ooey gooey fingers.
- Hand Sanitizer - Millions of people just touched that, 'nuf said.
What to eat
- The Basics: Every time I travel, I'm amazed at how expensive the food is. Add Disney prices to the more expensive California food and you've got a budget buster if you aren't careful. The easiest way to save money is by packing your own snacks and eating breakfast before you enter the park. If you are staying at a hotel that serves breakfast use it. If not dry cereal, breakfast bars, and fruit can be a great alternative. Check with your hotel to see if your room includes a fridge or microwave to expand your options. You can even boil water in the coffee pot for instant oatmeal if you'd like.
- A Little More Effort:
- Frugal - On one trip we traveled back to the hotel for lunch and swimming almost every day. It's a nice break from the parks and generally healthier than the fast food options.
- Save a few bucks - There are several restaurants/fast food locations within walking distance of the park. You can save big by walking across the street. ***Downtown Disney also has some food options, they tend to be more expensive then those off Disney property***
- Splurge - Eat smart in the parks. Along with the standard burger and fries (your cheapest option in the park) there are now several great places to eat "real" food within the park, if you've got the cash. Our favorites include Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta (CA), Jolly Holiday Bakery (DL), Plaza Inn (DL - includes unlimited refills), Pizza Port (DL), Royal Street Veranda (DL), Fiddler Fifer and Practical Cafe (CA), and Flo's V8 (CA).
- Splure + Experience = Character Meals + any place that needs a reservation - You'll have to look around and see what suits your family/budget. Our favorite character meal is Minnie's at the Plaza Inn - but it's just our preference. I like being in the park, the food served, and the variety of unique characters here.
- Wanna Be an Expert: If you have allergies, dietary restrictions, or other special food needs you have to become an expert. Menus, prices, and some ingredients can be found online. You'll need to make a plan BEFORE you get there of where and what you can eat.
What to do
- The Basics: Make a basic plan. Schedule ride time around any shows/parades/fireworks you'd like to watch. Pick up Fast Passes as you go. Use Rider Switch (can be used with Fast Pass) if you have small children. Eat when you want, ride what you want, rest when you want.
- A Little More Effort:
- Arrive early (up to an hour before opening during peak season). If you get there early enough you might be picked to open the park for the day. Even watching this is a super special experience.
- Maximize your Fast Passes - There are tons of really good guides available on the internet, plus rules tend to change so I'm not going to list tips here. A prepared person knows which rides are disconnected from the others, when you can get a new one, which order to obtain them in, etc.
- Know that getting a good seat means showing up early - Want to be next to the waterfront for Fantasmic, in the hub for the Fireworks, or get the best view (the bridge) for World of Color? You are going to have to wait for it.
- Choose what to hit & what to miss - With a bunch of bad knees and a good case of claustrophobia we always do the alternate viewing room for Nemo. I'll wait with the girls to see the Princesses while the boys do something else. Aladdin and Jedi Training are can't miss things for us, and we choose Fireworks over World of Color. Watch videos on YouTube to know what to expect. Try not to scare all the young children by starting your day at Snow White's Scary Adventure :)
- Wanna Be An Expert:
- Ridemax - With Ridemax we experienced almost the same wait times during Spring Break as we did when we went during one of the slowest weeks in January. You enter the day and the attractions you want to see, it spits out the best order in which to ride them. Also comes with tips on hidden bathrooms, parade viewing areas, Magic Morning, and more. Worth every penny!
- Add an extra day to your package - If you want to make sure you don't miss a single thing, stay for an extra day. We are Disney diehards and can do the resort for 5-6 days and not be bored. It is super nice to take the tired kids home to sleep, swim, eat, or just get away from all the people because you have tomorrow to fit it all in.
- PhotoPass/PhotoPass Plus - Want professional shots of your kid battling Darth Vader or flying high on Dumbo? Want to have everybody in your picture without worrying about a stranger stealing your camera? PhotoPass is the one thing I purchase EVERY time we take the kids. Make sure to tell the photographer that you'll be buying the CD and they'll take lots of pictures with characters or at all the best picture spots. After you get home you can edit your pics, add Disney touches, and then get a CD with all your memories. PhotoPass Plus even includes some ride photos. The CD comes with a photo release so you can make photo books or get the pictures printed at your favorite location.
When to goWe've tried to choose an "off peak" season and ended up with a park full of cheerleaders. We've tried to go when the weather was perfect and ended up with 100 degree temps all week. We even went last July in the middle of peak season and due to the opening of Carsland walked on every ride until the late afternoon. So my answer to the question of when should I go, is to go when you want to. These tips will help you create a solid plan for the time you picked.
- The Basics: The first question you need to ask yourself is what is more important A) Low Crowds OR B) Most of my favorite rides open, long park hours, and watching the fireworks every night. If you choose A) you'll want to travel mid January to February and possibly May to early June. If you choose B) You'll want Spring Break, Summer, Halloween, or Christmas. With the addition of Carsland and recent improvements to California Adventure there are getting to be less and less slow days. However the new real estate also gives somewhere for all those people to go, so even on the busy days it doesn't feel all that bad. Just know your favorite ride might break down right before you get to ride it, that beautiful California sun might be covered by a gloomy rain storm, and your slow week might be someone else's convention. It won't be perfect but that's okay, you're still at Disneyland! As of 2013, in June Disneyland closes early some nights due to Grad Night Parties and October some nights due to Halloween parties. These are each separately ticketed events above your usual park admission. Weekends are busy year round. If you go in the off season they'll be your only days to see some of the parades/shows, so know if you 100% want to avoid the crowds you'll be missing some other things.
- A Little More Effort:
- The best ticket/hotel discounts are usually offered during the spring. However during 2012 several million more people than was anticipated visited the resort. If attendance remains high the nice discounts we've come to expect may not be as nice/last as long/or exist at all.
- Disney raises ticket prices 1-2 times every year. Usually once in the late spring/early summer and occasionally at the 1st of the year. If you have a trip planned DO NOT wait until the last minute to get your tickets. It won't save you money, and may end up costing you more. Generally tickets are good through the calendar year (yes they have an expiration date, it's even shorter for discounted ones). Always check this date BEFORE you purchase.
- Some rides are closed every year for a few days at about the same time to install/remove their holiday overlays. This currently applies to It's a Small World (November/early January) and the Haunted Mansion (September/early January). Check the calendar at Disneyland.com for the latest info on all ride closures.
- Wanna Be an Expert:
- Join mailing lists to get discounts: If you request the free Vacation Planning DVD from Disney you'll occasionally receive discount codes in the mail for Disney resorts. Almost all off site hotels will send discounts through their email lists, join each one that sounds like a great place to stay. The HoJo (Howard Johnson) also releases their best rates only through their email list. This is a highly rated hotel near the resort and can be down right cheap if you hit the right deal.
- I've read that it's cheaper to purchase your hotel and tickets separately. However; I've never been able to beat Get Away Today's prices EVER on my own. They are highly recommended over several Disney forum's and their customer service is excellent. Even if you can find a cheaper hotel, you can purchase discounted tickets for all kinds of Southern California fun on their website.