I absolutely love Disneyland. So do my kids. So does my husband (seriously). We love it so much that we have gone on a 5-day vacation to Disneyland the last week of August for three years in a row. It’s become our thing, because Disney is our family’s happy place. A lot of people think we are crazy to keep going back. They say things like, “I can’t stand the crowds.” “All you do is wait in line.” “The kids whine constantly.” All those things can be true about family vacations at a theme park. But it doesn’t have to be that way, if you’re smart about your Disneyland trips. Over the years I have repeatedly loaned out my highlighted book and notes, and sat down for coffee with friends to share my tips for having the best Disneyland vacation ever. So grab a notebook, a comfy chair and a coffee, and let’s dig in.
Do Your “Disneyland With Kids” Research
I am a planner. It’s how I roll. For some, planning and researching vacations is a chore, but for me, it’s downright enjoyable. And without a doubt, it makes our vacation go more smoothly. Doing my research prevents us from riding a ride that’s going to scare my kids to death, make my husband sick, or be a total bore. Doing research means less wasted time at a show that doesn’t appeal to us, and less wasted money on restaurants or snacks that aren’t worth it. It is worth the time to find out which shows you need a FastPass ticket for (World of Color and Fantasmic), which ones you’d better arrive early for to get a seat, and what time you should park yourselves on the parade route; missing out on something you were excited about is a serious Disney bummer.
Every year that we go to Disneyland, I grab the latest copy of The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland by Bob Sehlinger and Seth Kubersky. It provides essential information on where to stay, what to do, where to eat, and everything you need to know. It’s worth the money and worth the time to educate yourself before your trip, believe me.
You might think that planning a vacation like this kills the fun and spontaneity, but it’s the opposite. When your family is less frazzled and avoids unnecessary disappointment, you will have way more fun. Rather than roaming around randomly looking for the princess your kid has been begging to see, talk to a cast member for details, or easier yet: use the app and find out exactly which characters are going to be where, and when (more on that below!).
Our family always goes to Disneyland right when it switches to “off season” the last week of August because the parks are considerably less crowded. Googling the Disneyland crowd calendar can be a very helpful tool. It’s worth considering a less busy time of year to go to the parks, but sometimes that isn’t possible. If summer vacation, spring break, or winter holidays is the only time you can schedule your Disneyland vacation, there are ways to make it less stressful despite the crowds.
Get Organized, and Get the Family Involved
Before each of our trips, we have regular Disney meetings where we list our family priorities: each person adds the rides they want to ride, the characters they most want to see, what snacks are musts, where we might want to eat meals, and the shows we want to catch. After some group planning, I make daily itineraries that are loosely organized around our family priorities for the day. (note: there is absolutely room for flexibility in here; see a few headings below!) As our trip goes on, I update our daily itineraries based on what we have already done and what we still want to do. At dinnertime every night of our vacation, I ask for family input so everyone feels involved. Making sure everyone’s voice is heard gives the kids ownership over the experience, even if ultimately my husband and I are in charge of the daily order of events and last-minute decisions based on wait times and convenience.
Don’t Waste Your Time at Disneyland
People don’t believe me when I tell them that in the past three years of our Disneyland vacation, we hardly wait in line. It’s true. This past year we spent 30 minutes waiting in line for a popular ride only once during our five-day trip, and the rest of our waits averaged between 5 and 15 minutes, generally less than 10. Seriously.
There are two things that are invaluable for preventing wasted time: The FastPass system and the Disneyland app. The Disneyland app provides accurate wait times on rides, the locations of characters and what times you can meet them, a map, and a dining guide (which you can use to make dinner reservations well before your trip!). I am constantly using my Disneyland app in the park to plan which rides to visit based on their wait time. There are a handful of popular rides that you want to hit first thing in the morning, and others whose popularity ebbs and flows throughout the day: consulting the app prevents waiting in line unnecessarily for a ride you can easily catch with a short wait another time (like the carousel).
The FastPass system is available for anyone to use (yes, really! I often wonder if people don’t fully understand how to use FastPass.) on a handful of popular rides like Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, The Haunted Mansion, Radiator Springs Racers, Soarin’, Toy Story Mania, and many more. The basic idea is that you walk by a FastPass distribution center, insert your party’s park tickets, and get an assigned return time: it might be as early as 10-20 minutes away, or it might be hours later in the day if the ride is particularly popular. It does require some planning: you need to know when to return and how to plan the time in between accordingly so that you are not dashing back and forth across the entire park multiple times a day. (Get familiar with the park’s map for sure!) If you have a priority list or daily itinerary, try to group your attractions and shows accordingly so that you an stay in one part of the park, especially if you are waiting for a FastPass.
This year, Disney introduced the MaxPass, an upgraded FastPass system that you can purchase for $10 a day, per ticket. When you’re already spending a lot of money on a theme park vacation, it may not seem worth it to add another hundred dollars or two to the tab. However . . . we tried it this year and I can honestly say it was worth every penny. The difference is, rather than running across the park to each FastPass distribution center, you can get a FastPass for your entire party simply by using the app on your phone. Which means, while waiting for a show to begin in Fantasyland, I can get a FastPass for each of my family members for Splash Mountain in Critter Country, and by the time we walk there, it’s time to redeem our FastPass. Pretty handy, eh?
Using your Disney app with MaxPass, you can see a list of which rides have FastPass availability, and exactly when your return time will be. Once your first FastPass return time begins, you can get a second FastPass for your party . . . and so on and so forth. We were able to score multiple FastPasses (sometimes more than four per person, per day!) without running back and forth to distribution centers. When you’re traveling with kids, time is money.
The other factor that makes MaxPass worthwhile is that it includes daily downloads of your PhotoPass photos. If you’re unfamiliar with that program, there are PhotoPass photographers all over the park who will take your family’s picture with characters, and in front of the castle, park entrance, and other landmarks. They simply scan a card or your app, and if you’ve purchased a PhotoPass package (or MaxPass, in this case), you can download all your amazing photos for free. And they are usually fantastic; here are a few of our favorites:
Balance Your Disneyland Plan With Flexibility and Embracing the Unexpected
I always print out our family priority list and trip itinerary to bring with us on vacation, and then I use them to provide a general structure that has a lot of room for flexibility. For example, on our first day at Disneyland last year, we had a list of favorite attractions to hit upon entering the park. I planned to go straight to Fantasyland, but when we saw there was only a 5-minute wait at Pirates of the Caribbean (thanks to my app!), we detoured there first. This year, we planned to make Pirates our very first ride, but on our way there saw Moana (who was on our character “must” list this year!) and decided it was worth the time to meet her first.
Sometimes things don’t go according to plan: One weekend day this past vacation, we had Soarin’ as our first stop upon Disney California Adventure’s opening (which is smart—it’s a spectacular ride and it fills up fast!). It was unexpectedly closed, so we backtracked and wound up meeting Anna and Elsa without any line at all! We got a MaxPass and rode Soarin’ a few hours later without a wait. When you’re in the moment, things often work out better than you could have planned.
Sometimes it’s worth pausing to get a photo with a hard-to-find character instead of mobbing Peter Pan first thing in the morning. Some of the best moments of our Disneyland trip were the unplanned ones; the perfect spot to view the parade, the character we had never met before walking right across our path, discovering a delicious new treat and the perfect place to enjoy it. I still maintain, though, that providing a structure that prevents wasted time and utilizes knowledge of the parks, the attractions, and how your family interacts with them, is essential to being open to experience those unexpected delights.
Know How to Take Breaks and Stay Cool at the Disneyland Parks
On a particularly hot day, Disney California Adventure is the better park to choose, in my opinion. Their Disney Animation building provides a huge, air-conditioned space in which you can a) get in line to meet Anna and Elsa (while beautiful film montages including behind-the-scenes early character sketches surround you on all sides!), b) do Turtle Talk with Crush, or c) experience the Sorcerer’s Workshop or the Disney Animation drawing class. It’s roomy, it’s dark, and it’s COOL in there. The Hyperion theater is also moderately cool and air-conditioned, though it fills up with people and warms up a bit more (so worth it to see the Frozen show, though: WOW!). Take advantage of other indoor shows, like Disney Jr., which are air-conditioned and provide a place to sit down and get cool again. (Note: Without a bit of shade, Cars Land is an exception! Make sure to limit your time spent there in the heat of the day!)
The Disneyland Park shows (Mickey and the Magical Map and the Royal Theatre shows) are open-air, so although they provide a place to sit and rest and stay out of the sun, they aren’t indoors or air-conditioned; on a hot day, they are only marginally helpful with cooling down. There are certain rides in both parks that are nice and cool to begin with, but also provide occasional blasts of cold air that feel SO nice in the summer (Small World, Winnie the Pooh, The Little Mermaid, Monsters Inc come to mind.)
It’s helpful to balance your day by mixing up blocks of hours for riding rides (particularly the first few hours of the morning when the park is less crowded), meeting characters, and sitting down to enjoy parades, shows, and other performances. You can also find plenty of spots to sit in the shade and enjoy a treat between rides. A balanced day is generally more enjoyable for everyone.
When our kids were younger, we usually took a midday break to return to the hotel to rest and swim. Now that they are a bit older and we’ve got this Disneyland thing down, we are able to crank out 11-14 hour days at the park without a break. BUT, if you choose this path, you must incorporate regular breaks, whether it’s a prolonged snack or meal, several shows, or just sitting down in the shade or on the train for a while. Know your family and what is best for them.
Adjust Your Attitude
It’s Disneyland. It’s going to be crowded, and you are going to deal with tons and tons of people all day long. Large groups will come to a dead stop in the middle of traffic. Someone will pause and whip out their phone while you narrowly miss mowing them down with your stroller. You will occasionally wait in a line that irritates you. Your kid will have a meltdown. YOU might have a meltdown. These things are all to be expected.
I have heard a lot of people say they dislike the “Me first!” mentality of Disney crowds. But I have to say, I rarely experience that. In fact, we have far more “Me, too” moments interacting with people at Disneyland. While waiting in a line, watching a parade, or sitting at the bus stop at the end of the day, we met dozens of wonderful people from all over the world this past vacation. And it happens every year we visit the park. People are excited to be there. They love their families. You find common ground that you would expect, and synchronicity that you could never have expected. You will turn a corner and run into a marching band, complete with Mickey and Minnie.
Your child’s favorite character will blow a kiss to them during a parade. You’ll miraculously walk right onto a ride without any wait. Maybe, like we just did, you will meet another family and end up becoming instant friends. Be open to wonderful things happening to you at Disneyland, and they will.
New to Mommy, for Real? When I’m not writing about Disneyland, I’m sharing the real, hilarious, heartbreaking, and messy reality of raising kids. Follow me on Facebook, sign up below to receive my new blog posts in your inbox, and buy my book,So Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About Motherhood, for more “me too!” stories.