Ultimate Disneyland Guide

 I’m obsessed with Disneyland. I’ll admit it. I’ll proclaim it! No shame in it. I’ve compiled all of the things I’ve learned for how to do Disney. These are the best tips from the craziest lady. I’m giving away all my secrets. Here is my guide to the ins and outs so you can get the most fun out of your funds when it comes to a Disneyland vacation.

My family at Disneyland
Getting to the parks
The parks are easily accessible from major Los Angeles freeways. L.A. traffic is notorious for a reason. Plan ahead and account for traffic. Depending on where you exit will determine where employees lead you for parking. For example; if you are northbound on the 5 freeway your exit will lead straight into the Mickey and friends parking garage in most cases. If you are southbound your exit will guide you passed the garage and toward the Toy Story lot a few blocks down from the parks. In some cases the parking at the Anaheim Convention center is utilized. These patterns are ever changing. Follow traffic signs and park where designated. From any official parking area you’ll take a complimentary Disney tram or bus to the park entrance.
Two Parks
Disneyland, Downtown Disney District, and California Adventure park are adjacent to one another. They are separated by a large open courtyard (or entrance plaza) where you’ll pass through security and find ticket booths. Separate admission is required for each park.
Tickets
Tickets can be purchased online or in person at the booths outside the park entrance. I highly suggest buying tickets prior to your visit to save on waiting in lines at the booth. You print your tickets at home and head right in to the park. Check for deals through companies like AAA and even your employer. If you are a government employee or military check for discounts through MWR. If you are a Southern California resident check online for discounts as well. Tickets can be bought for a single day or multiple days and become more cost effective (per day) when bought in 3 or 5 day increments.
Annual Passport
An annual pass gets you a calendar year of access to both parks. There are different options and price ranges based on the number of days that the pass allows you into the parks. (I dream of having an all-day-every-day pass. Can I live at Disneyland, please?) This can be just as cost effective as a multi-day pass but give you the opportunity to come back all year. Tip: You can convert your single day or multi-day tickets into an annual pass at the end of your visit!! When we splurge and get an annual passport we always get the cheapest Southern California Resident pass. That pass allows weekdays only, no holidays, and no peak seasons like summer. Let’s say your trip starts over Christmas break. You can’t just buy an annual pass from the get go because the lower level passes don’t allow access during that time of year. You can buy a multi-day pass and then on the last day of your trip go to the ticket booth and apply the cost toward an annual passport. Yee-haw!
Check the resort calendar for a pass that works best for you for the next year. We are often surprised that our kid’s school schedule allows for several weeks off that coincide with the cheapest annual pass. Breaks off of school for spring, fall, Thanksgiving, and even the end of the school year line up perfectly for subsequent trips back to the parks.
Don’t forget to allow for time the last day. It can take a while at the ticket booths and everyone in your party needs to be there to have their picture taken.
Where to stay
Of course there are the Disney resort hotels. These gems are located near the parks and offer Disney magic that you won’t find at hotels off site. The Grand Californian is closest to the parks and actually has a private entrance (for guests with tickets) to California Adventure park. Paradise Pier and the original Disneyland hotel are also onsite. The resort hotels offer character dining, themed pools, and rooms with great access to the parks including trips on the Monorail that drop you right into the park at Tomorrowland. These hotels are just a short distance through the Downtown Disney dining and shopping area from the parks entrance plaza.
If you have experience at Disney World, please know that Disneyland is a bit different. Disney World is it’s own city. Disneyland is housed in an existing city. There are hundreds of motels and hotels in walking distance to the park. Many just as close as the Disney resort hotels. To stay offsite but just steps from the park with no need for a car, bus, or tram try Camelot Inn or Best Western Park Place or any little place near these. They are literally a cross walk away from the park entrance. Added bonus: there is a McDonald’s next door for cheap eats!
We tend to be brand loyal to Hilton. I love free hotels when we use points we’ve earned from work travel. We love a Hampton Inn,  Embassy Suites, or Homewood when we travel with our kids. I recommend checking out the various options for this brand in the area. The Homewood suites Anaheim Resort- Covention center is the closest to the park entrance. It’s brand new and just a block from the park. Homewood’s have plenty of room for a family, full kitchens, and include daily hot breakfast and dinner on weeknights. Such a deal!
Security
As guests approach the park you’ll pass through a security section. Have all bags/backpacks unzipped and ready for inspection. A cast member takes a peek at your things including strollers. New in 2016 guests will be required to pass through detector machines or have additional screening. It’s generally a quick, noninvasive process. Wagons and hard side ice chests won’t be allowed through security or into the parks.

Food and dining

One of the greatest gifts Disneyland gives us is allowing guests to bring their own food. That’s right. You can pack in all the food you like and enjoy it in the park. Hallelujah! My wallet thanks you. And my colon actually. There are lockers and picnic areas located in the entrance plaza if you’d like to ditch your food or soft-side cooler. We strap our feed bag on and have it at the ready at any time. We bring PB&Js, Lunchables, crackers, fruit, granola bars, and water bottles. There is a McDonald’s just outside the park if you want to take the time to eat offsite. You could even send an adult to run out and grab Subway or McDonald’s close by and carry it in for the rest of the group. I think we even did pizza once. No big deal. Totally acceptable. We eat in line as we wait for rides or walk throughout the park. Find a bench and enjoy the ambiance.
For dinner in the park we love Plaza Inn on Main street in Disneyland. The fried chicken plate comes with 3 pieces, green beans, mashed potatoes with gravy, and a biscuit. Hearty food that comes with enough to share and will keep everyone going until the wee hours of the morning.
For lunch in the park we love Blue Bayou. This awesome restaurant is inside the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction! Sit waterside and watch the boats as they head to Davey Jones’ locker. The night sky is over head, candle light on the table, and the sound of crickets in the distance make it a real event. This is a table service restaurant with yummy rolls and the crab cakes were tasty. They serve a regular “happy meal” style kids menu and, for adults, the Monte Cristo is divinity. Prices are cheaper for lunch and the Monte Cristo is only available then as well. Blue Bayou is the most popular place to eat so make reservations online before your trip.
Lots of typical convenience food can be found  but for something unique try the gumbo or clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl from the walk-up windows around the Waters of America or the skewers from Bangal BBQ in Adventureland. 
 For dessert: Disneyland has themed treats available in all the food shops. Grab something Mickey shaped or themed for the season in which you’re visiting.
Dole whip is a park favorite! You can only get this delicious pineapple soft serve at Disneyland or at the Dole Plantation in Hawaii.
Try the oreo funnel cake at the Stage Door Cafe at the Golden Horseshoe near Thunder Mountain.
Visit  Red Rose Taverne in Fantasyland (formerly Village Haus) for a Beauty and the Beast ambiance. Try the Grey Stuff it’s delicious!
Savings tips: Bring a treat or surprise with you. When the kids are wishing for treats all day you can whip out a bag of Skittles to share.
At California Adventure try the Corn Dog Castle or the Mediterranean food at Paradise Garden Grill. Yum!
Some great hotels offer a mini fridge or even full kitchens, and free breakfast and dinner! If your hotel doesn’t include breakfast then stock your fridge with milk and yogurt and sandwich stuff. If you don’t have a fridge pack shelf stable foods like banana, apples, and muffins.
If you are a slow-goer you may want to head back to the hotel for a nap in the afternoon and enjoy your free dinner at the hotel or a cheaper dinner offsite before heading back to the park for the evening.
What to wear
This is L.A. after all. I’ve seen high heels and adorable knee high boots but I suggest comfort. Jeans, workout apparel, sneakers. I’m most comfortable in a skirt and comfy sandals for hot days but keep in mind the weather and that you’ll be climbing in and out of ride cars. Typical California weather will have you wearing a sweatshirt in the morning and after dark. During the days you’ll mostly be fine in shorts or jeans and a short sleeved shirt.

It’s a long day or week or life. Leave the kids plastic princess shoes at home or at least bring a pair of comfy kicks to change into. Kids 10 and under are allowed to wear costumes to the parks. If you want to get in to the magic but don’t meet the age requirements I suggest Disney shirts and of course those amazing ears. Disney character inspired outfits are a huge hit too. Really fun and adorable. Of course, if adults really want to dress up they can attend Mickey’s Halloween party. Check out my review of the party here for details.

Rentals

You can rent lockers, strollers, wheelchairs, and motorized chairs at the rentals desk in the Entrance Plaza. This is also where you’ll find the Lost and Found center and a kennel for any animal legal in California. So I guess if you just can’t leave your python at home, you’ve got a place for it. The kennel is first come first serve day of.

Downtown Disney
This area requires no ticket for entrance though it is adjacent to the parks and you’ll have to pass through security. You’ll find restaurants like Rain Forest cafe and ESPN, Disney shops, Lego store and Build Bear and much more in this shopping and dining area. There are singers, bands, and performers on the street as well.

Fast Passes
You’ve got to understand the glory of the Fast Pass!!
A Fast Pass is a free reservation system provided by the park. Some highly popular rides have a Fast Pass kiosk located (in most cases) near the attractions entrance. There are a limited amount of Fast Passes available for these attractions. They do run out. You go to the kiosk, scan your admission ticket, and the kiosk distributes a pass with a return time window printed on it. You then enjoy other attractions until your return time window. Then, return to the ride, find the Fast Pass line entrance, show your Fast Pass to the attendant, and be admitted to a line with a much shorter wait time than the regular line. Fast Pass lines typically have a wait time of 15 minutes or less.
You can only hold one Fast Pass at a time. There is one exception though. You can get a new Fast Pass after the current Fast Pass return window time has started OR 2 hours after having received a Fast Pass, which ever comes first.  
Example: Radiator Racers is a VERY popular ride at California Adventure with wait times that can be 3 hours! Fast Passes are available until they run out. You may get a Fast Pass first thing in the morning (which I recommend) but your return time isn’t until 7pm. In that case, you do not have to wait until 7pm to get another Fast Pass for that ride. You just wait 2 hours from when the Fast Pass was distributed. If you got it at 8am then you can get a new one at 10am or after return time window starts; which ever comes first. Your Fast Pass for Radiator Racers is still valid but you can continue to utilize the reservation system helping to enjoy the park all day.
Disneyland and California Adventure Fast Pass systems are NOT linked!
If you want to hop from park to park you absolutely can. We’ve gotten Radiator Racer Fast Passes first thing in the morning and then run over to Disneyland where we get a Fast Pass for Space Mountain. Spend the day at Disneyland and then saunter over to California Adventure for the evening using your Racers pass. Works great!
Fast Passes for shows do not count against Fast Passes for rides!
You can get a Fast Pass for viewing World of Color or Fantasmic but you can hold that Fast Pass as well as other Fast Passes for rides. A pass for these shows is just a seating assignment (really it’s a standing assignment because it just tells you which viewing section to stand in during the performance.) It does not count against your ride Fast Passes. Feel free to grab a Fast Pass because these show should not be missed.
Parent Swap Pass
There is tons to do for all ages and adults with small kids (or scaredy cats) don’t need to miss out. Rides with height requirements make Parent Swap Passes available. Get one from the attendant as you enter the ride wait line. This way your party waits in line once. An adult can be off entertaining a small child or barf-prone husband (ahem! clears throat) nearby. After the group has waited in line and ridden the ride the waiting adult can then take the pass and one extra guest with them to the exit of the ride where they will be let on the ride without a wait. My daughter loves this because it means she generally gets to ride everything twice.
Disclaimer
We are diehards. We keep a quick pace. We mean business. I’ll also include information for slow-goers who might like to keep a pleasant pace to their day.
Arrive at the park early. Check your multi-day tickets which may include a Magic Morning one day of your visit. This allows you special access to the parks one hour before regular opening. You can get a ton of stuff done in a magic morning hour when wait times are low and your energy is high.
Fast Passes are not distributed during Magic Morning.
Mornings at Disneyland
Park gates will often have a “light” opening prior to the regularly scheduled open time. They may let guests start into the park to enjoy Main Street and Buena Vista shopping and dining areas. We’ve been in Disneyland when they did a ceremonial ribbon cutting at the end of Main Street to officially open the park for the day. Not sure if this happens daily but if you arrive early you may get some fun surprises and you’ll at least be ready to start your day as soon as possible, taking advantage of prime park hours.
Slow-goers- Once in the park you can enjoy breakfast on Main street with Mickey shaped pancakes or waffles etc. Disneyland offers character dining like Breakfast with Minnie at Plaza Inn with a view of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Do consider grabbing a Fast Pass for a popular ride and a show and hitting some attractions first thing. Wait times are lower as guests straggle in and the park hasn’t filled up.

Die-hards- Run! OK fine, hurry. That early entry magic morning hour is prime ride time but so is the first hour of any regular day. Use it wisely. Get a Fast Pass for a high demand ride like Space Mountain or Indian Jones and then ride the attractions near it skipping anything that generally has shorter wait times throughout the day. Example: if I got a Fast Pass for Indian Jones I’d then ride Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, Haunted Mansion, and Pirates of the Caribbean, in that order. Haunted mansion and Pirates have quick moving lines that tend to run about a 15 minute wait. Very busy days may be 30-45 minutes. Big rides like any mountains and Indiana Jones can have wait times over an hour or more on any given day. For Halloween thru Christmas seasons the Haunted Mansion is a hugely popular ride due to the Nightmare Before Christmas theme conversion and wait times get lengthy. If I were visiting during these times I’d grab a Fast Pass for another big ride and jump in line at Haunted Mansion.

Afternoons
The park will start to get even busier after 3pm. Locals, travelers, and stragglers are finding their way into the park. Slow-goers may want to head out of the park for a few hours to rejuvenate. Soak in the nostalgia on Main Street. There are plenty of interesting shops to peruse or wander the attractions there. There is a lot of history to be found. Take a look at the store front window displays or read the names of cast members and Imaginears on the windows of the upper floors who’ve received the honor of being immortalized at Disneyland, including Walt Disney’s father Elias. The Disneyland Story and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln are great to see for a slower pace and some history. I love seeing the bench where Disney thought of the idea for Disneyland. ( It was relocated from Griffith park.)
Die-Hards be prepared for wait times to be a bit longer the rest of the night. This can be a great time to slow down a bit or take in Pirate Cove (formerly Tom Sawyer island.)  
The island and canoes close before dark.
 

Random tips you can’t live without
Single rider lines are available on some of the thrill rides like Matterhorn and Indian Jones. This can be a great way to expedite the line. The wait is generally 15-20 minutes and you are mostly guaranteed not to sit with someone from your party as you are filling in as empty seats become available due to odd numbered parties in the regular line. There have been times when we’ve chosen the single rider route and been seated together anyways but that’s not usual. plan to be seated separately and on different cars. You still get to enjoy the monotony of standing in line together.
Bring a poncho to wear on water rides. (And in case of inclement weather. But this is California so you’re probably fine.) They cost a buck at Walmart and they’ll keep you happier the rest of the day. Focus on keeping your shoes and your stuff dry. The rest is livable. Shoes take forever to dry out. Lift your feet up and don’t sit by a door on Grizzly Rapids. You’ll thank me later.
Bring a water bottle. You don’t realize how much you’ll walk and stand and how sunny it is.
Secret: There is a great restaurant quality drinking fountain with cold water perfect for filling water bottles. You’ll find it where people line up for the Mint Julep stand in New Orleans square. It’s meant for your use! Otherwise, you’ll find drinking fountains throughout the park and access to fountain drink machines in restaurants.
Get the Disneyland mobile app. It’s available on their website for free. Download prior to your trip. The app has maps, lists, and menus to help you navigate the park. The best feature is the up-to-date wait time list. The app is run by cast members in the park and will have the most accurate information for the day you’ll find.

Information kiosk: In Disneyland at the end of Main Street near the Jolly Holiday restaurant and in California Adventure near Carthay Circle, you’ll find information kiosks staffed by cast members. They have a board displaying current wait times for attractions as well as whether Fast Passes are still being distributed for that attraction etc. (also found on the app.) Info from the kiosk can save you the time and energy of running around the park answering your own questions. If you have a problem or complaint try talking to these cast members about it.
I got stuck in line on two broken rides in a row and was tired of crossing the entire park only to arrive at an attraction that was closed. I went to the kiosk for information to save my sanity and when I mentioned the problem I was running into the cast member graciously added a Fast Pass to our tickets that was good any time for any ride that day. (Having the app should help avoid this too.)Check for special events before your trip. The parks can close earlier than you might expect. Mickey’s Halloween Party, movie premieres, Grad Night, etc can cause the park to close as early as 6pm. This is rare but you wouldn’t want to be disappointed.Shows are a great way to get some down time. Take in Frozen at CA or whatever fun preview or experience is playing in Tomorrowland theater. Taking a trip around Disneyland on the train is one of my favorite ways to get off my feet and still enjoy the park.

At the end of Main Street near Plaza Inn you’ll find three amazing places tucked away. A first aid station staffed by Registered Nurses where you’ll find beds, bandages, medication, and friendly advice. If you have blisters, too much heat or sun, or anything that ails you, stop in and see how they can help.
Next door you’ll find the Baby Care Center. Here you have nursing rooms with rocking chairs, feeding room with high chairs, changing tables, a microwave and sink, small chairs with a t.v. and even tiny toilets perfect for small children. This room is staffed with cast members and child and infant supplies like formula and diapers are available for purchase there. It’s a really nice place to get away with a small child for some quiet and privacy as the parks can be overstimulating. This is also where lost children will be taken and cared for until parents can be located. The Baby Care Center at CA is next door to the Ghiradelli Chocolate shop.
The third door is an insider secret!Jedi Training in Tomorrowland is way fun! It’s a 30 minute program that some lucky kids get to participate in. They will be taught in the ways of the Jedi on stage and then battle Darth Vader or Darth Mal as they defeat the dark side. Kids ages 4-12 can participate by preregistering at the kiosk at Star Wars Launch Bay. Registration opens when the park does and is first come, first serve. It’s really fun and the kids LOVE it.

Insider knowledge to impart:

The Disneyland Railroad: You can up your Disney game by getting yourself a rare and pretty exclusive experience on the railroad. If you have a kid or kid-at-heart who loves all thing locomotive than you’ve just hit the jackpot. Check with the conductor at the Main Street train depot to see if they are allowing “tinder seat” rides. If so, the conductor can add you to a list of lucky guests who get to ride at the front of the train with the engineer and fireman! You’ll watch them stoke the fire and they can explain how the train works and point out the round house where the trains are kept. You’ll feel like the Grand Marshall of the parade as the crowds wave to you in astonishment and wonder how they can get a turn on that seat. It’s a very cool experience and one that a limited amount of guests ever get to experience. Only two guests per trip around the park are allowed. You must board and disembark at Main Street depot only.
A similar experience can be available with the Lilly Belle caboose car. Walt Disney named this car for his wife and is a private car that isn’t generally open to the public. Ask if Lilly Belle is available and you might get special access.

The third door is one I stumbled upon out of curiosity. It’s not meant for general guests to visit but I love that it’s available to the parks most honored guests. A pull of a gilded door handle reveals the Make A Wish room. It’s a lovely fantasy inspired room with plush furnishings, a huge T.V. playing Disney movies, and decor that would make Aladdin feel right at home. This space is made available to the families visiting the park through the Make A Wish foundation. It’s a place to rest or do treatments without having to leave the park. It’s a testament to the magic that happens in the park.

Club 33 is an ultra exclusive club for the super rich and lucky. I’ve never been. I’m not super rich or lucky. You’ll find the discrete entrance to the club down the alley in New Orleans Square near the Blue Bayou restaurant. Look up! Guests take an elevator up to the club which stretches over the street.

The Dream Suite at Disneyland is located above the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. There are two staircases that lead to the suite and the balcony looks onto the Water of America for prime Fantasmic viewing.

The real Disney family apartment is located over the Fire Department on Main Street. (Walt Disney never stayed in the “Dream Suite.”) There is a lamp lit in the window which makes it feel like Walt is still there watching over the place.

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