Disneyland: when to go, where to stay, & how to max your days

My family’s Disneyland California experience is official weeks (plural) in the past but it’s still so vividly alive in my kids’ thoughts and dreams, I already want to be back in the magic. If you’ve already visited the park, I hope this post will bring back some memories and that you might share your own advice. If you’ve yet to go, I hope you’ll find some helpful info here and be inspired to plan a trip tailored to your family. Here’s my best advice on making the most of your Disneyland vacation:

  1. Every age is the best age for Disneyland. At 9 months, we took our daughter Petra to Disneyland Paris on a whim and her eyes were wide meeting Minnie Mouse, she delighted in climbing Tarzan’s Treehouse, and there were lots of rides that have no height restrictions (too many to list) so adults needn’t worry there’ll be nothing to do. Mostly, my husband and I enjoyed her wonder. Just before two, Petra could go on rides galore and her love for Minnie was at a whole new level. At three, Petra was singing Small World and Tiki Room for months and now that she’s four and a half, she can go on the big rides like Guardians, Soarin, and Radiator Springs Racers. There are very few rides she misses out on, and in another couple inches, she’ll be able to hit every single one. So just go when you are able.

  2. Low season isn’t a thing, but there are weeks that aren’t quite as busy. We found this sweet spot when American schools are back in, Canadian ones are not, and the season pass holders are still in blackout. EVERYONE in line was talking about the amazing wait times. So for risk of totally jinxing my future trips, I’ll tell you it’s August 12-17. Here’s a link to some other good dates (including a few seasonal crossover weeks when you can experience both regular rides and Halloween or Christmas themed).

  3. Torn about which hotel to choose? I’ve done a few and they all have benefits. We’ve stayed just down the road at Castle Inn, a dated but inexpensive and kind of charming place, on-resort at Paradise Pier which is fully themed with a character dining restaurant on the main floor, and just across the street at Best Western Mini Suites (although there are plenty of others along that strip, each a walk away from the main gates). Here’s my two cents: Yes, you break the illusion of magic even when you cross the street (one man who asked for “money for food” refused food) buuuut it does save a thousand dollars or so. AND Paradise Pier is a further walk to the park because you walk through Downtown Disney to get there. My wishlist is Grand Californian because it’s right in the heart of things buuuut it averages $1000/night. Wait. Am I being helpful or are you more confused than ever?

  4. Transportation. We’ve used a limo service (shitty car seat), the Disney bus that goes right on resort (no car seats because it’s a bus AND you have to drop people off at other resort hotels, but there was a Disney movie playing), and a private van through Disney Shuttle Express (my best experience, good car seats). Some people rent cars but if you’re strictly hangin’ at the park, why bother? You can easily fill 4 days there and I’d do 5 next time so all you need is the to and from.

  5. Early entry. With a 3 or more day park pass, you get ONE Magic Morning, which means you can go one hour before general entry. You can use it for the really long-lineup rides, get a FastPass for later, and hit a bunch of medium-lineup rides. The benefit to staying in a hotel that’s on resort is that you get this early entry EVERY DAY. Do not let your husband carry the hotel keys if you’re straying from the herd, though… if you walk out of the blocked-off area like I did, they’ll ask to see your hotel key to get back through and they ain’t taking “my husband has it” for an answer. Ha!

  6. You can bring in food and empty water bottles. Picnic wherever if that’s your speed or just take some on-the-go snacks that didn’t cost a fortune (like park stuff kinda does).

  7. There are three can’t miss evening shows: World of Colour in California Adventure and Fantasmic! in Magic Kingdom for which you should get a FastPass to have a decent vantage point without camping out for ages and the fireworks show in Magic Kingdom. You can catch the fireworks after World of Colour just by watching from outside the gates, but my favourite place to watch is at the Main Street roundabout. Second choice: over by Small World, even though you miss Tinkerbell flying and the layer of fireworks set up from the castle. What you do get is a great projected show on Small World and zero staking-out-a-place time like Main Street requires.

  8. The shortest ride lines are during parades. When we went, the Main Street Electric Parade was right before the fireworks and people were extra into keeping their place. Although a few rides close during the show (and all of Fantasyland closes for the fireworks), this is a great time to scoot on quick to Pirates, the Haunted Mansion, and other rides that are generally a wait.

  9. MaxPass tips. My family didn’t use it at all this time but if you end up doing it, DO NOT ADD IT TO YOUR PARK TICKETS AT PURCHASE because you’ll be charged for every day of your park passes. Instead, buy it day by day. MaxPass is $15/day per person and allows you to load FastPasses rather than grabbing them at a ride and access all the photos for your day (Disney photogs are always around and they scan your QR code to load them to your account). If you don’t mind the walk to get FastPasses but want the photo feature, I suggest getting a MaxPass for ONE person rather than your whole family (making it $15/day rather than $60 for a family of 4) and taking advantage of photo ops galore. Just make sure that family member is always around to scan the QR code!

  10. FastPass tips. Skipping MaxPass? Here’s how to get the best FastPass experience! A. FastPass stations are set up by the ride entry and minus Fantasmic! and World of Colour which require you to keep your reservation receipt, the paper it dispenses is just a reminder as your FastPass gets loaded right onto your park ticket. B. Check the app to see what return times are being issued for each ride before running over. C. Get Splash Mountain and other hot-weather faves early in the morning because the afternoon return times sell out quick! D. Send a runner to get your whole party’s FastPasses but remember, you need everyone’s park ticket. E. Link your park ticket to the Disney app so you can check when you can next grab a FastPass or cancel existing ones. F. Technically, you can hold a few at once but it’s really hard to figure out when you can get your next FastPass. General rule is 2 hours after you get your first FastPass (90min with Max).

  11. The Disneyland app is KEY. Download it now and have a peek at what rides are busy (the map shows wait times) and what restaurants are close to each attraction and what’s on each menu. Then, link your credit card because…

  12. MOBILE ORDERING is waaaaay quicker than standing in line for food. We bypassed hundreds of people in our four days of ordering. Cookies, beer, full meals, veggie dogs, or Dole Whip, mobile is the way to go. Get the app, load your credit card, check out menus around you on the app, and you’re in biz.

  13. Pack a princess dress. Your child might not want to be in a long skirt ALL day since there are lots of things to climb (like the Tarzan treehouse and Redwood Creek Challenge Trail), I just shoved Petra’s in the backpack so she could wear it to meet the princesses later in the day.

  14. Character dining is the fastest and most personal way to meet a bunch of faves. The Plaza Inn is a great experience with a good buffet and features Minnie and a variety of friends like Winnie the Pooh or the Fairy Godmother, Storytellers Cafe is in the Grand Californian where Mickey and friends will join you. Both are in the heart of the parks so if you’re staying off-resort, this is the easiest hike to meet some classics. You can also walk through Downtown Disney to get to Goofy’s Kitchen in the Disneyland Hotel (Goofy’s also serves dinner, this is your only non-breakfast-exclusive option) or PCH Grill in Paradise Pier which features Donald and friends. I haven’t tried the new Princess Breakfast Adventure in the Grand Californian Hotel but we visited the now-closed Ariel’s Grotto for this experience and it was excellent so I expect the same. Characters or princesses come right to your table and spend some time with your child. It is worth the money. MAKE RESERVATIONS ASAP. You can do this up to 60 days in advance.

  15. Single rider is evvverrrying if you want to knock off some big rides your kids aren’t able or don’t want to go on (or if you just want to do one again quick). California Screamin’, Goofy’s Sky School, Grizzly River Run, Indiana Jones Adventure, Radiator Springs Racers, Soarin’ Over California, and Splash Mountain all have the single rider line, which often you can just run right through while other people stand in line for an hour and a half.

  16. The Disneyland Railroad looks boring. No. Get on it. Do the round trip. The first couple times I went to Disney, I saw old people on it and thought nah, I can walk the park just fine. This time, there was no line in the morning so we hopped aboard and it turns out that not only do you learn a lot about Disneyland but there’s animatronic scenes along the way. WHO KNEW.

  17. If you have a child, Ride Share is your new true love AND it can be combined with FastPass. Basically, one parent takes a kid through (either with FastPass or via the regular line) and the other parent gets to skip the line right after. So the child gets to ride twice and parents don’t have to wait forever in line. Petra especially enjoyed this at Hyperspace Mountain.

  18. The app is in real time. Beware getting excited about wait times on the app if the ride is far away. A lot of people have the app, so chances are, you see a 5 min wait across the park, in the ten minutes it takes you to hike there, it’s gonna be 30. Proximity is everything, choose well.

  19. Everyone who works in Disneyland is a “cast member” and can answer questions but if you see someone with an “ask me about characters” button, they’re really in the know. The app will tell you where characters are, but those folks can predict the future. Good places to find Mickey and Co. outside their houses are at the Main Street entrance and in the square at California Adventure. Winnie the Pooh and friends are often outside their namesake ride, and Pluto is often at his airplane beside Soarin.

  20. Cheat a character meet-and-greet. See a character walking really fast with their handler? They’re not stopping… except for a quick pat on your child’s head if you’re oncoming and really excited. So put yourself in their line of fire and make sure your partner gets a quick video because they rarely slow enough for a photo. Buuuut sometimes that’s good enough!

  21. Do bring a stroller. This was our first-ever Disney trip with a stroller because I’d always pictured it as an annoyance (and I’m a baby wearer) but ooooh it’s convenient. There’s spots all over to park, your baby can maybe nap in it, and you can stash in it. Still unconvinced? You can always change your mind and rent one there.

  22. Shop for Disney stuff before you go instead of as souveniers. Sure, you’ll want to buy your Mickey ears and a few favors there, but DO pack on theme. It makes it more fun!

  23. Top souveniers: Get your child’s profile handcut in silhouette from the Silhouette Studio on Main Street, an original since the park opened AND a bargain at $9.99 for two copies (since it’s cut on a folded piece of paper). Aaaand you’ll want a set of personalized mouse ears, embroidered at The Chapeau on Main Street. Both of these are the kind of thing your kids will treasure all their lives long.

  24. Don’t miss the live shows. The app will tell you what’s playing and when but good lord, I hope you can see Frozen at the Hyperion because it’s Broadway good. I cried. A lot.

  25. Stop and watch the performances that pull on up on street corners. Get your kids right up to the tape you’ll suddenly notice on the ground. You might feel pulled to reach your rides, but ohhhh the look on my kids’ faces when Goofy was dancing to the jazz band? Can’t beat it.

  26. FOOD. Oh gosh, this could be a whole post. Here are my faves in no particular order: The Star Wars cantina (veggie “meatloaf” and the hummus snack plate), the Tropical Hideaway (spiced veggie bao, ramen shaker, and new Dole Whip flavours), Bengal Barbecue (Bengal rice plate with outback veggie skewers), Pacific Wharf Cafe (broccoli soup in a sourdough bowl), Plaza Inn breakfast (character dining buffet), Rancho Del Zocalo (Mexican fare with lots of options), and the veggie burgers that you’ll find at joints like Hungry Bear. But skip the veggie dog at Award Wieners no matter how appetizing the uploaded pics on Google look… the dogs are boiled and that’s never a good time.

  27. Take a moment to marvel at how the whole place WORKS. The people, the infrastructure, the organization of it all… that this mini city WORKS is as incredible as watching your child enjoy it.

  28. You can’t take too much video or too many photos. The magical moments fly in Disneyland and trust me, your child will delight to revisit them later on your phone or computer. Even if you do the Disney photo pass, don’t be shy in asking people to take a family photo with your phone or getting right in there to take video of your kids meeting a character. You’ll never regret having that moment captured.

Anything I missed that would be helpful for first-timers or otherwise? Let me know your advice and I can add it in for other parents to reference, not to mention I’ll be using it on my next trip!