9 things families should know before visiting Disneyland

Jan 29, 2020

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A visit to the original Disney destination — the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California — is high on the bucket list of many families. It’s often called the Happiest Place on Earth, and for the last decade and a half, I’ve been trying to make it even happier, at least for my family. That means standing in as few lines as possible, saving money so we can take more trips and having downright magical experiences.

In This Post

After dozens of visits, I have more than a few Disneyland secrets to share. These are the nine essential things to know to have a successful Disneyland vacation of your own.

Image by Leslie Harvey.
(Image by Leslie Harvey)

It’s not Walt Disney World

Just because you’re a Disney World pro doesn’t mean you can do Disneyland the same way.

Dining reservations are made at different times, and the FASTPASS program is the same in name only. (Actually, Disney World uses FastPass+ now.) Hotels and prices are a brand-new ballgame, too. Even attractions with the same name as their East Coast counterparts offer noticeably different on-ride and queue experiences.

The good news is that Disneyland vacations don’t require quite as much advance planning as trips to Disney World (in fact, that’s one of the reasons I happen to think Disneyland is better than Disney World). You still do need a strategy, though.

Related: How much does a Disneyland vacation cost?

Disneyland is a local hangout

Because it’s near Los Angeles, there are a lot of people who live near Disneyland, meaning it’s a frequent destination for annual passholders. Locals can radically affect crowd levels, much more so than at Disney World, where most guests are out-of-towners.

Avoid Southern California school holidays. Checking a crowd forecast site, such as TouringPlans.com and IsItPacked.com, is always a good idea. Be extra careful around new attraction and festival opening dates, as anything new tends to bring out the locals, too.

Mom and daughter riding on Dumbo in Disneyland
(Image by Leslie Harvey)

For the best days to visit Disneyland, review the annual passholder blockout calendars. There are a number of days when lower-tier annual passholders are not allowed into the parks and, as a result, crowds can be much more manageable.

Related: Is Disneyland’s annual Flex Passport a good value?

There are many airports nearby

Most travelers are familiar with the largest area airport, Los Angeles International (LAX), but the reality is that LAX can be overwhelming and confusing, even for frequent flyers. For families, I rarely find it worth the hassle if you have viable alternatives.

When flying to a Disneyland vacation, check out the smaller regional airports whenever possible. Both Orange County’s John Wayne Airport (SNA) and Long Beach Airport (LGB) are substantially closer to Disneyland than LAX. You’ll pay less for ground transportation and spend less time in traffic. Their smaller sizes mean shorter waits for security, checking bags and pretty much everything else.

Depending on the airline and your dates of travel, awards into these smaller airports may not cost that much more than awards into LAX, so always do a comparison using both miles and dollars.

John Wayne SNA Airport
Substantially shorter lines at John Wayne Airport. (Image by Leslie Harvey)

SNA is serviced by most major airlines, with Southwest as the most prominent carrier. LGB is mainly a JetBlue hub, although Southwest has recently secured an increasing number of slots as JetBlue has pulled back a bit.

Related: How to quickly earn the Southwest Companion Pass

You don’t need a rental car

Unless you’re traveling all around Southern California, a car rental is not a necessity — and can be quite a drag. Most hotels near Disneyland charge a hefty parking fee that may exceed the daily rental rate of the car itself.

Sadly, there is no Uber car-seat service in the area, so families with younger kids planning to use ride-hailing services need to bring their own. In California, kids must legally be in a car seat or booster until their 8th birthdays. Unfortunately, one of the most popular ground transportation options that didn’t require a car seat, the Disneyland Resort Express, closed down in early 2020. Luckily, several limo companies will provide a car seat when requested (Lansky is the most well-known).

Related: Best credit cards for Uber

If you think you might need a rental car for a short period of time and not for your entire vacation, there’s another alternative to consider. There is an Alamo rental car counter located in the lobby of Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel. Renting for a single day there is often cheaper and more convenient for guests than an airport rental for the entirety of a vacation.

It’s extremely walkable

What makes Disneyland so much more convenient than Disney World is its walkability. The two parks, Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure, are just a few hundred feet apart, making park hopping incredibly easy.

Adjacent to the two parks is Downtown Disney, a shopping, entertainment and restaurant district where no park ticket is required. The trio of Disney-owned on-site hotels (Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, the Disneyland Hotel and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel) are also all within walking distance of the parks. Never having to get on a bus or hop in a car can make the logistics of a Disneyland vacation so simple, especially for families.

Disney's Grand Californian Hotel and Spa
Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa. (Image courtesy Disneyland Resort)

Of course, families with small children need to be prepared for all that walking. Even older toddlers and preschoolers will likely need a stroller. If you choose not to bring your own, you can rent strollers from companies like City Stroller Rentals. These companies offer a variety of stroller models and can deliver to your hotel (note that Disney-owned hotels now require you to meet the delivery in person).

Disneyland rents strollers as well (single and double), but they aren’t the most comfortable. They can also only be used in the parks and Downtown Disney.

Off-site hotels can be worth it

Unlike at Walt Disney World, where Disney hotels come in a variety of price points, Disneyland’s on-property hotels are all equivalent to a deluxe Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. (Read: expensive.)

Off property hotels near Disneyland on Harbor Boulevard
Hotel row on Harbor Boulevard. (Image by Leslie Harvey)

Fortunately, there are reasonably priced off-site hotels near Disneyland, many of them within walking distance of both parks. A few have larger family suites.

The most walkable hotels are on Harbor Boulevard directly across from Disneyland’s pedestrian entrance, or near the corner of Disneyland Drive and Katella Avenue.

You’ll likely find a hotel that meets your preferences or points account: Marriott enthusiasts can opt for the Courtyard Anaheim Theme Park Entrance or the Fairfield Inn Anaheim Resort (bookable with select annual Marriott credit card certificates). The Hyatt House at Anaheim Resort is family-friendly, a 15-minute walk to the parks and bookable for 15,000 World of Hyatt points per night. You can also use a Category 1–4 award that can be earned with the World Of Hyatt Credit Card.

As much as I prefer spending miles and points to spending cash, Disneyland is a destination where loyalty programs don’t always make sense, especially when cash rates are low.

Photo courtesy of Courtyard by Marriott Anaheim Main Gate
The Courtyard by Marriott Anaheim Theme Park Entrance. (Image courtesy of Marriott)

For example, the aforementioned Fairfield Inn Anaheim Resort is a Category 5 property, requiring 35,000 Marriott Rewards points per night at standard award prices. With paid rates as low as $140 per night, that’s a return of less than 0.5 cents per Marriott point — not a great value. In that case, you’re better off booking with a flexible miles currency, like those earned with the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card.

Down the road, the Hyatt Regency Orange County can be booked for 12,000 World of Hyatt points per night, though cash rates can dip below $100 per night.

Of course, better points value can be found farther afield, but you’ll sacrifice convenience. For families with young kids who might need an afternoon nap or pool break, proceed with caution when looking far beyond the gates of Disneyland.

You don’t have to wait in line

Families can easily reduce their wait times on a Disneyland vacation, though the strategy will vary depending on the rides, family preferences and the heights and ages of your children.

New attractions, like Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run or Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, present a more difficult challenge. Believe it or not, there are nevertheless strategies for reducing lines and improving your odds even for these very popular new rides. See TPG’s guide to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland for the latest tricks.

Related: How to skip the lines at Disneyland

FASTPASS: While many theme parks charge for similar cut-the-line services, Disneyland’s virtual queuing service is entirely free. Unlike FastPass+ at Walt Disney World, Disneyland’s system is only available for same-day, in-person reservations made at kiosks at eligible rides. Scan your park ticket and you’ll secure a window during which you can return with a minimal wait. Typically, guests can obtain a second FASTPASS somewhere between 30 minutes and 1.5 hours after getting their first.

Disney MaxPass: While FASTPASS is included in the price of your park ticket, I strongly recommend that travelers who focus on riding a lot of attractions at Disneyland use the paid upgrade, Disney MaxPass. Disney MaxPass costs $15 per person per day, letting you book FASTPASS times on your smartphone. I’ve found that MaxPass reservation windows are often earlier than those you see at the FASTPASS kiosks. As a bonus, MaxPass also includes digital download access to pictures taken by Disneyland’s PhotoPass photographers, including on-ride photos and character dining shots.

Disneyland’s Rider Switch: Parents with babies, toddlers and very young children can use Disneyland’s Rider Switch to trade places with someone else in the group when little ones are too small or too scared to ride — and still only stand in line once. (E.g., Dad goes on Space Mountain with Big Sis while Mom stays behind with Baby Brother. Then Mom gets to go on the ride right afterward while Dad takes care of Baby Brother.) You can even combine Rider Switch with FASTPASS or MaxPass for even shorter waits.

Single Rider Lines: Some thrill rides, such as Radiator Springs Racers, Space Mountain, Matterhorn Bobsleds, the Incredicoaster and the new Millennium Falcon: Smuggler Run have single-rider lines. As long as you’re OK not riding together, these lines are great for avoiding long waits. This strategy works best for families that either have kids too young to ride or tweens and teens who don’t mind riding without parents.

Be there for rope drop

It’s vital that families arrive early — there’s no sleeping in on Disneyland vacations! Guests who make “rope drop” for the park’s opening will wait in much shorter lines for attractions that don’t offer other shortcuts. My family often gets more accomplished in the first two hours of the morning than we do the rest of the day.

Disneyland Sleeping Beauty Castle 2020 Colors
Be one of the first to enter Sleeping Beauty Castle if you arrive for rope drop. (Image by Leslie Harvey)

To take full advantage, plan to arrive about an hour before the park opens (between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., depending on the season). You’ll need time to pass through security and line up to enter the gates. Arrive even earlier if you need to park and take a shuttle.

Disneyland often opens the gates 15 to 30 minutes before the official opening time so crowds can queue at the end of Main Street USA (or near Carthay Circle Theater in Disney California Adventure).

Take advantage of early entry

Although rope drop is early, it’s possible to get into Disneyland and Disney California Adventure even earlier.

Guests staying in a Disney-owned hotel, for example, receive Extra Magic Hour, which allows them to enter Disneyland park one hour early on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. At Disney’s California Adventure, Extra Magic Hour will get you in one hour early on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Not every ride is open early, but many of the most popular attractions are.

Guests who purchase three-day park tickets (or more) in advance receive one Magic Morning allotment. Magic Morning grants entry into Disneyland park one hour early on Tuesdays, Thursdays or Saturdays. The perk doesn’t work at Disney California Adventure, but it’s a great way to hit the most kid-friendly rides in Fantasyland that don’t offer FASTPASS.

Leslie Harvey is a mom of two who blogs at Trips With Tykes, is the co-host of the podcast Disney Deciphered and co-owns the Disneyland planning Facebook group, Disneyland with Kids.

Featured photo by Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort.


Want to read more about Disneyland? Check out these other Disneyland guides…

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