Inside: Disneyland insider tips and tricks from a Season Pass Holder that every first timer should read. Ways to save money at Disneyland, save time at Disneyland, and prevent meltdowns while you’re visiting.
A rare Sunday with no sports, no Scouts, and no family commitments so my family did what we do best.
We hopped in the car and went to the happiest place on Earth.
We joke that Disneyland is our family’s comfort food.
My husband and I were born and raised in Southern California and have been going to Disneyland ever since we could walk. And ever since our eldest was one, we’ve invested in season passes for our family.
Disneyland is our family date and it’s our way to connect as a family and build a strong family identity.
We take our kids out of school to go to Disney. We fight the crowds to see the Halloween decorations and the Christmas decorations. And we spend three days in a row and get a hotel room even though we live an hour away.
We are those people.
But because we’re those people, our friends who rarely go to Disneyland or come into Los Angeles on vacation ask us to share what we know about the “Big D” so they can be in the know too.
And there are tricks and tips to make any first visit or rare visit to Disneyland easier, more enjoyable and more affordable so you don’t need to take out a second mortgage.
The one thing everyone should know about visiting Disneyland:
First off, if you’ve been to Disney World, Disneyland is much smaller and much more manageable. And it’s more laid back. There’s no need to book meals and fast passes months in advance. We don’t have magic bands or travel agents dedicated to over the top Disney World vacations (which look amazing, by the way).
You can literally show up to Disneyland and have a fantastic day with no planning ahead. But, there are a few tips and tricks to make it more enjoyable.
And you need to know this one, essential Disneyland insider tip:
You will not see everything, ride everything, or meet every character in Disneyland.
You could drive your family nuts trying.
Or you can figure out what’s most important to your family.
If your child is obsessed with princesses, you’re going to spend more time in the Fantasy Faire area and Fantasyland and might miss most of Tomorrowland.
If your kiddo is obsessed with Lightning McQueen, you’re headed to Disney California Adventure to camp out in Radiator Springs. But know you might miss the show your friends talked about.
If you have thrill seekers who are tall enough, you’re going to race from Space Mountain to Thunder Mountain to Guardians of the Galaxy and won’t have time for (or interest in) parades.
Depending on the season we’re in, and my kids’ current interests and ages, we make a list as we head to Disneyland. We ask them, “What are your top 3 rides you want to go on today?” Or “Which characters do you really want to try and see today?” Or “What’s the one thing you want to do at Disneyland today?”
And then we do everything in our power to get to those things on our lists. Anything above and beyond our lists are added sprinkles to an already awesome day.
We’ve done Disneyland days that were heavy character focused and we ended up on only 4 rides for the day. But we saw the parade at both parks and went to the Disney Junior Dance Party at DCA, and got 5 signatures so their day was “perfect.”
Yesterday, we didn’t stop for one character, but rode every ride on our kids’ must-ride list. We decided we didn’t have time to see the parade this trip, especially since we’ve seen it a dozen times.
I know a family with all older kids and they willingly challenge themselves to see how many rides they can squeeze in one day. They race from ride to ride and eat their meals in line. But they enjoy every last minute of it.
There’s no one way to do Disneyland.
But if you prioritize what’s most important to your family, you will make it way more magical for your family. The day will feel “perfect.” Even if you don’t do or see everything.
Disneyland Insider Tips to Save Time
Even if you know you won’t get to everything in the park, it would be nice to get the most out of your day(s) at Disneyland. Especially if you don’t go often. Especially since it costs an arm and a leg to get in the park.
Some days are more crowded than others and it will take longer to do everything: order food, get on a ride and walk between rides. Click here if you want to help plan your trip based on how crowded the park gets.
But no matter when you go, there are a few ways you can save time when you’re headed into either park.
1. Buy your tickets online
Avoid the long and slloooooowww ticket window lines you first see as you get off the tram or enter security (depending on which side you enter from) so you can head directly to the gates. There is no need to buy tickets at the park.
2. Avoid the longest lines in the park
Some rides have notoriously slow lines. I’m talking to you Peter Pan and Dumbo.
Unless your kids are desperate to ride these rides, it’s best to avoid them. If you absolutely have to go on those rides to make the day “perfect,” try first thing in the morning or during a parade. And keep in mind, most of the Fantasyland rides close early on firework nights so don’t leave these rides to the very end of the day unless you’re okay to miss them.
And some rides have seasonally long lines. Haunted Mansion is extra long in October and Small World is extra long in December. The Small World at Christmas time line is worth it to my family but the Haunted Mansion isn’t unless we get a fast pass. But that preference is different for every family.
3. Grab fast passes
Fast passes give you a return time to a ride so when you come back you stand in a faster line. It does not give you a pass to the front of the line. But it does drastically shorten your line. You can only get one fast pass at a time and not all rides have fast passes. If your child has a must-go-on-ride-or-the-day-isn’t-complete, make sure to get a fast pass first thing in the morning. Disneyland often runs out of fast passes on really busy days.
There’s now an app you can use to get fast passes digitally and save you time and energy running to get a hard copy of the fast passes.
4. Order food on the app
You can also order food on your app to avoid long food lines. You go pick your food order up at a special window. I’ve never tried it but it sounds heavenly.
5. Pee together
I know it sounds ridiculous, but when we pass a bathroom and someone needs to use it, we all go. That way, you’re not spending your day taking one kid at a time to the bathroom. It also avoids having an emergency bathroom trip in the middle of a line (or worse, when you’re on the ride and can’t do anything).
If you have a toddler, preschooler, or kid who generally refuses to go until it’s an emergency, you can try my go-to tip I always tell my youngest: “You don’t have to pee. But you have to sit on the toilet.” My daughter, who swore she didn’t have to go, pees every time.
Tips to Save Money at Disneyland
I saw some Disney shirts the other day that read, “Most Expensive Day Ever,” and “I’m just here to pay for everything.”
They’re funny because they’re true.
Disneyland is expensive. There are no incredible deals on tickets and the price of admission is only increasing. When I paid for parking the other day I asked the cast member if he’d also like my firstborn daughter.
But once you’re in the gates, there are ways to save money.
And we have managed to do a no spend day at Disneyland: no meals, no treats, no souvenirs. And it was a lovely day.
Here are our ways to save money:
1. Bring in your own food
We almost always pack lunch and we always, always bring snacks. The snacks save us when our kids are melting down in lines. Cranky kids? Have a bagel or a cheese stick or an apple.
I’ve seen a large, extended family bust out two loaves of bread, a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jelly. The parents assembly-lined about 15 sandwiches right in the park and they saved hundreds of dollars on one meal.
Security will check your bags, but as long as you avoid glass (baby food jars are okay), ice cubes, and poisonous apples, you’ll be let in, no questions asked.
We use this insulated lunch bag that has the ice pack built in so it keeps all of our dairy and protein snacks cool throughout the day.
For snacks, we pack foods we find at Disneyland so we are less inclined to buy them… so we bring popcorn every time we go and these cute Mickey Mouse goldfish packs.
2. Bring in your own water
You can refill water all over the park so we pack refillable water bottles. The coldest water we’ve found is in the Baby Center at Disneyland and the drink kiosk across from Soarin Around the World. There is no need to buy water bottles there.
If it’s super hot, we always take these water bottles that double as misters.
3. Buy Disney souvenirs before you go
You can buy Disney goodies almost anywhere now. Buy them ahead of time and hand them to your kids once you’re in the park. Avoid the park prices and the time suck of looking in stores and trying to decide on the just-right souvenir.
This applies to glow sticks, bubbles, stuffed animals, and souvenir signature books.
We bring Dollar Store glow sticks and Disney notepads. We head to the Disney Outlet to look for good finds. And you can also make your own ears if you’re crafty and own a glue gun.
Keep in mind, Disney does not allow anything with a trigger including bubble guns, wooden guns, and Star Wars laser guns-even the ones they once sold inside the park.
Pin trading is something my kids are super into right now. But the pins at Disneyland are ridiculously expensive. So we bought some random ones on ebay and then my kids trade with any cast member they find. They also pop into each store they pass to trade pins with the cast member at the register.
4. Buy costumes before you go
There are tons of Disney related clothes you can buy at Disneyland. But they are ridiculously expensive.
But my kids LOVE love love to dress up when we go to Disneyland. So we buy their costumes and outfits before we go. Because the last time I popped my head into the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique to laugh at their prices, the fancy princess dresses were over $300. Nope.
Disneyland Insider Tips for Families with Unique Needs
1. Special Needs and Accessibility
There have been a few times where Disney fell short in helping us access the park for my daughter who has an invisible disability, but for the most part, they’re super accommodating. We get her a Guest Assistance Pass so she’s able to access the park in a safe way. There’s a braille map of Disneyland and DCA and auditory guided tours. You can rent wheelchairs and motorized scooters.
To get a pass, head to City Hall at Disneyland or Guest Services at DCA. No proof of a disability is required, but they will ask you questions about what kind of assistance your child will need. These passes do not get you a get out of line free pass. Click here for info on the Guest Assistance Passes.
If your child needs to use a stroller for mobility purposes, they have Stroller = Wheelchair stickers you can put on your stroller.
2. Food Allergies
There’s good news for families dealing with food allergies. Disneyland is finally getting on board with food allergy awareness. They have restaurants that are nut free, kids items that are allergen safe, and menus that show which meals are safe for the top 8 allergens.
Tips to Save You Headaches and Tantrums and Tears at Disneyland:
Tantrums happen everywhere. Even at the happiest place on Earth. Both with toddlers and tweens, and I’ve been there for both.
Related: How to limit toddler tantrums, (even at Disneyland)
But there are ways to reduce the drama that sometimes comes with an all-day amusement park day.
1. Know the heights requirements before you go
Warn your kids ahead of time so you can let kids know if they won’t be able to go on the same rides as their siblings before they’re standing at the entrance of the ride. Disney does not screw around with height requirements and they will not budge if your child isn’t tall enough. At all.
48 inches is the magic number where kids can ride any ride they want and 56 inches allows them to drive an Autopia car without an adult. Check here for all the height requirements at Disneyland.
Likewise, if your child is super tall like my kids, there are a few activities that will be restricted when they’re too tall. My daughter had her first “You’re too tall” moment at Disneyland yesterday at the zip line in Redwood Creek Challenge Trail. Because I warned her it may happen, she videoed her siblings with a great attitude instead of a tween meltdown.
2. Know where to find a/c
The longest rides with air conditioning are Pirates of the Caribbean and Small World. You’ll get about 15 minutes of uninterrupted coolness. Also, you can meander the shops on Main Street and the shops on Buena Vista St. at DCA without leaving the a/c because they’re all connected. With a napping baby or toddler, this was my go-to for years.
3. Bring something to do in the lines
Lines are not fun. Waiting is not fun. Kids who whine are only voicing what us adults wish we could complain about. And during the summer and near the holidays, the lines can get out of control. Our go-to to make the lines less tedious is to always pass out food. We feed our kids in the line and the lines seem to move quicker.
Now that my kids are older and are well versed in Disney movies, we started Disney trivia in the lines and we name all the Disney cats or guess the villain. We use the trivia cards from Beat the Parents but leave the game board at home.
We also search for Hidden Mickeys because they’re everywhere. Our favorite is the shadow of R2D2’s Mickey Ears in the Star Tours line.
4. Get the Play Disney Parks App
Disney recently launched this app full of games kids can enjoy. There’s games, trivia, and music for Disneyland, DCA and Walt Disney World.
But the coolest part is this app now interacts with a few of the lines in the park to make the wait more interesting: Space Mountain, Peter Pan’s Flight and Toy Story Mania at DCA.
5. Head to the Baby Center
Want a clean place to change your baby or toddler? Forgot diapers or formula or baby food? Wish you could nurse your baby somewhere quiet and cool in a rocking chair? Head to the Baby Center at the end of Main Street. Just follow the smell of corn dogs because the corndog stand is right across from it. You can also plug in your breast pump in privacy if needed.
But this place is magical for toddlers and preschoolers too because there are two little-kid-sized toilets that don’t flush until your child is ready for them to flush. There’s also a Baby Center at DCA over by Ghiradelli and Boudin Bakery.
6. Know the scary rides before your kiddo gets on them
Everyone has a different scare tolerance: darkness, unexpected drops, Minnie Mouse…
My youngest was petrified of all characters, Minnie Mouse included, until she was three and met Tinkerbell. She has since moved past her fears, but she spent her few trips to Disney looking over her shoulder for characters who got too near.
And there are a few rides that don’t have that sweet, magical, everything is perfect-Disney feel to them and you can’t really tell from the outside of the ride.
Here are a few rides to know about (that aren’t obvious) so you can make the right choice for your kiddos:
- “Dark”/intense content– Snow White’s Scary Adventure, Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones (for younger kids, most of this will go right over their heads. Preschoolers and grade schoolers might really struggle with these rides though).
- Jump out at you scary– Matterhorn (I know the Abominable Snowman is coming and it still freaks the living daylights out of me), Indiana Jones
- Actual darkness– Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, the train on the Disneyland Railroad(between Tomorrowland and Main Street stops), Indiana Jones
- Tight spaces– Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage (there’s an alternative way to view the ride without actually getting on a submarine).
- Height– Guardians of the Galaxy, Goofy’s Flying School, Pixar Pal-Around (the ferris wheel), Soarin Around the World
- Turbulent– Star Tours, Indiana Jones
- Drops/Falls– Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain, Guardians of the Galaxy, Goofy’s Flying School, Incredicoaster, Thunder Mountain, Matterhorn, The Pixar Pal-Around Ferris Wheel with the Swinging Buckets, Space Mountain
Use Rider Switch if you and your spouse both want to go on the rides your kids can’t or won’t go on. You stand in line together, with your kids. When it’s time to get on the ride, one of you waits with the kids who can’t/won’t go. When the ride is over for the first adult, you swap places. One line, both of you get to ride. Just tell a cast member that’s what you want to do. Get more info on Rider Switch here.
7. Find Disneyland’s open spaces so your kids can blow off steam
Disneyland can be an intense, overwhelming day. Most kids need to run or climb or let loose a little and that’s impossible in the tight switchbacks of the lines. But there are spots in both parks if your kids need a break from line standing.
At Disneyland, to let off some steam and run and jump and play, head to Pirates’ Lair on Tom Sawyer Island and Goofy’s house in Toontown. At DCA, head to Redwood Creek Trail Challenge.
If you need a break too, stop by the Starbucks on Main Street or Buena Vista Street to get your pick me up caffeine so you can sit and relax while your kids run around.
Or your kids can dance at the Disney Junior Dance Party at DCA. Parents can sit and kiddos stand the whole time dancing and yelling and catching things that fall from the ceiling. It was on my kids’ list of a must-do activity for years and if your kids watch Disney Junior shows, this is the place to go.
Find a little Disney Magic to Make Your Disneyland Day Special
Everyone talks about the Disney magic.
And it’s real. I’ve seen it. I’ve been a part of it.
I bought the “grey stuff” dessert from a Fantasyland restaurant and as I walked back to my family, I happened to pass by Belle. We locked eyes and I asked her, “Have you tried the grey stuff?” Without missing a beat, she replied, “No, but I hear it’s delicious.” It’s one of my most favorite Disneyland moments. And none of my family was there to share in my magic. It was just for me. And Belle.
There are some simple ways to get a little piece of the magic for you and your family.
1. Grab a button
If you’re celebrating something or it’s your first time visiting the parks, you can ask for a button. Most people stand in long lines at City Hall but you can get buttons at any store to avoid the lines. If you’re wearing a Happy Birthday button, almost every cast member will stop to wish you a “Happy Birthday.”
2. Search for Hidden Mickeys
We search for Hidden Mickeys to keep us busy in lines, but finding them also helps us find our own little Disney magic. Get the book of Hidden Mickey hints here.
3. Find The Little Man of Disney
We love the origin story of Disneyland because the story of how Disneyland was built is fascinating. And we’ve had this Little Man of Disneyland book on our bookshelves for a few years now. But, a few months ago, we found his home. And you can find it too.
It’s in the tree at the entrance to Indiana Jones.
4. Stop and meet the characters
The real magic of Disney can be found when interacting with the characters.
If your child has a favorite character, ask a cast member at City Hall where to find that character.
The more quirky the character, the more fun the interaction will be. If the character is allowed to speak (aka, they don’t have on a mask), the more meaningful the interaction will be. Fairies are sweet. Princesses are even sweeter. Villains and sidekicks are hilarious. Find. Cruella. DeVille.
But no matter how you do Disneyland, no matter how crowded or how much money you spend, it will be a pretty perfect day.
Because at the end of your visit, you will have walked down Main Street, and squealed on rides, and showed your kids what a magical place Disneyland can be.
And you will build memories that will last a lifetime.