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The 9 essential Disneyland tips to make the most of your visit

Whether you’re a Disney parks veteran or a first timer, follow these tips to cut through the crowds and have a blast at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure

Michael Juliano
Written by
Michael Juliano

Spending a day at Disneyland is practically a rite of passage for Angelenos. But as you trek around the two theme parks, it’s easy to let crying children, aching feet and overwhelming crowds come between you and the best Disneyland rides and restaurants. Thankfully, we’ve put together these essential Disneyland tips to ensure that your visit to the beloved attraction lives up to the tagline of “the happiest place on earth.”

9 essential Disneyland tips

Plan ahead
Photograph: Courtesy Disneyland

1. Plan ahead

We’re not saying you should plan your day to the minute—that’s not fun for anyone—but Disneyland has become increasingly overbearing if you just try to wing it. There are over 50 attractions between the two parks, and that doesn’t even count shows, shops and restaurants. It’s a lot to manage, so we suggest adding a bit of structure to your day: Are there any parades or nighttime shows you want to see? Do you have dinner reservations? Which ride reservations should you get first? (See tip #2.) These are all timely events that you should absolutely build your day around.

In general, a little bit of research is always a good idea. Ticket prices fluctuate between about a half-dozen price tiers based on any given day’s predicted demand. And for the foreseeable future, you’ll need a date-specific reservation tied to your tickets (available starting about four months in advance). If your entire trip hinges on a certain ride, make sure to check the construction schedule. If dinner at Blue Bayou is a must, for example, make reservations online (up to 60 days in advance). Have a toddler with you? Make sure to check the ride height requirements. Just remember not to get too attached to your plans: Rides break down, lines swell and Disney doesn’t control the weather, so make sure to have a backup itinerary.

Pro tip: Not sure how crowded it’ll be? Check out some predictions and consider weighing those against the annual pass blockout dates (try not to visit on some of the last days before or first days after an extended passholder blockout). In general, holiday weekends tend to be packed, as do the opening weekends of seasonal promotions (like the first days of Halloween and Christmas decorations).

Stay one jump ahead of the crowds with Genie+
Photograph: Courtesy Disneyland Resort/Christian Thompson

2. Stay one jump ahead of the crowds with Genie+

Even on a cold, rainy winter weeknight you’ll still inevitably face the most despicable of all Disneyland rituals: waiting in line. Enter Disney Genie+, the park’s app-based ride time reservation system. It’s the third iteration of such offerings, and unlike the free FastPass originator, this one will cost you.

Within the Disneyland app, you’ll find Disney Genie, a free digital assistant that’ll take your interests, location and pre-existing reservations into account to serve you with attraction and food suggestions throughout the day. Within that, the paid Genie+ service (starting at $25 per day, per ticket) is what actually allows you to make ride reservations: Scroll through the list of attractions and you can secure an hour-long return window at a specific time that’ll allow you to skip much of the standby line via expedited entries dubbed Lightning Lanes. Once you’ve made a reservation, you can make another after two hours or the start of your recently booked return window, whichever arrives first.

Most but not all of the rides have Lightning Lanes, and to complicate things even further, two of the parks’ biggest attractions are excluded from Genie+ but have their own separate ride reservation systems: individual Lightning Lane reservations for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance in Disneyland and Radiator Springs Racers in Disney California Adventure. These work effectively the same as the Genie+ reservations, except that they each have a standalone cost (up to $25 per ride, based on current demand) that don’t require you to have purchased Genie+. Despite the high price, these are both remarkably popular rides that otherwise have multi-hour standby waits, so these Lightning Lane reservations do tend to get snatched up quickly.

With Genie+, maximizing your time becomes a numbers game, and if you’re comfortable spending the money, it’s one you should absolutely play. So where should you start? If you have your heart set on a certain ride, you might be inclined to begin there; return times for beloved attractions like Indiana Jones Adventure and Space Mountain quickly tick up into the afternoon and evening hours before they’re entirely booked for the day. But if you’re up for a bit more flexibility—and admittedly a lot of app refreshing—we’d suggest always aiming for the soonest return time. If it’s noon and you book a ride with a 4pm return time, you won’t be able to make another reservation until 2pm. But let’s say you find something with a 12:30pm return time? You can book another ride in just a half hour.

There’s also a maddening amount of value in frequently refreshing the app. During a busy holiday visit, we found that both Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Space Mountain had Genie+ return times for more than four hours later in the day. But after persistently refreshing the app, we lucked out and found return times for each only about a half hour later. Is constantly staring at a smartphone app the best way to spend a day at Disneyland? Absolutely not. But might it squeeze more value out of your ticket? Absolutely—albeit at the expense of some extra battery drain (see tip #3).

Whether or not each of these extra expenses is worth it depends on your personal preference and budget. You could always get in the standby lines for Rise or Racers right at opening or just before closing for a somewhat more bearable wait. As for Genie+, on all but the quietest days (an increasing rarity) you’ll simply get on way more rides if you can stomach the extra cost.

Pro tip: Struck out with Lightning Lane reservations for the major thrill rides? Consider using the single rider line if you’re okay being split up from your group. On Radiator Springs Racers especially, this can sometimes knock the line down from over a two-hour wait to about 30 minutes. Check out Disneyland’s site for a full list of single rider attractions.

Bring a portable phone charger with you
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Yulissa Tagle

3. Bring a portable phone charger with you

Phone battery life at Disneyland has kind of come full circle. For the first decade or so of smartphones, you were pretty likely to drain your battery quickly enough that you’d need to have a portable charger with you. But then battery life got better on phones so lasting a full day sans topping off wasn’t too much of a stretch (the rollout of in-park Wi-Fi helped, too). Now, though, we’d once again recommend toting a portable charger along—and not just because we’re all snapping and sharing way more photos and videos than we used to.

If you’re securing Lightning Lane reservations, checking wait times, mobile ordering and scanning your ticket, you’re going to find that you’re using your phone way more than you might expect. Especially if you’re trying to maximize your Genie+ usage, the logistical duties of a Disneyland visit these days can ask a lot of your time and battery life. So here’s our suggestion: Let the most smartphone-savvy, planning-obsessed member of your party handle all of the Disneyland app responsibilities, and in return give them unfettered access to a phone charger.

Dress comfortably (even at the expense of style)
Photograph: Courtesy Unsplash/Clayton Cardinalli

4. Dress comfortably (even at the expense of style)

We’re a pretty handsome bunch in Southern California, so it’s no surprise that fashion is a priority among many visitors. But halfway through the day as your feet start throbbing from logging thousands of steps, you’ll really wish you’d worn this ugly-but-comfy shoes. Comfort outweighs style in opinion—and, with all due respect to the fine folks who frequent Disneyland, there will always be someone dressed worse than you.

Decide on a pair of shoes that you won’t regret eight hours later. It’ll probably be cool (if not outright cold) in the morning and after dark, but roasting in the afternoon sun; wear a hat and sunglasses, and carry around a sweatshirt or consider renting a locker (lest you want to trek back to your car or hotel). However cold you expect it to be at night, it’s probably going to feel even colder (especially in front of the fine mist of World of Color), so we really can’t stress that sweatshirt part enough.

Pro tip: Pack an extra pair of socks if you plan on riding Splash Mountain or Grizzly River Run. Nobody likes blisters and stinky socks.

Pace yourself
Photograph: Michael Juliano

5. Pace yourself

If you’re staying from opening until closing, Disneyland can be a grueling 12-plus hour day. In between tearing through nearly-empty rides in the morning and navigating the nighttime spectaculars, slow things down in the afternoon.

Ride out the post-lunch sleepies with a loop around the Disneyland Railroad, a tropical serenade inside the Enchanted Tiki Room or an American history refresher on Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. In Disney California Adventure, the Animation Academy is a relaxing (and air conditioned) option. Consider a caffeine boost from the Starbucks located on Main Street, Buena Vista Street and in Downtown Disney.

Pro tip: If you’re looking to soldier on with a bit of liquid courage, stake out a seat on the patio at Lamplight Lounge at Disney California Adventure or hole up in Trader Sam’s at the Disneyland Hotel (be warned, though, that both have become increasingly popular).

Pack accordingly
Photograph: Stephanie Breijo for Time Out

6. Pack accordingly

You’re planning for a day at Disneyland, not a week in the desert, so don’t bring more than you can comfortably sling over your shoulder or in a ride vehicle seat back pouch. Don’t forget sunscreen and make sure to bring a reusable water bottle. Unless you plan on sustaining yourself on corn dogs and churros—which sounds wonderful, honestly—consider stashing a few small snacks in your bag, too. And while Disney caters to many common food allergies, consider packing a few extra bites if you have any specific dietary restrictions. A backup phone battery or charger is a good idea, as well; you’ll also find chargers built into the Main Street lockers (currently down at the time of publication).

Pro tip: Consider turning off your data or going into airplane mode, especially on reception black holes like Indiana Jones and Soarin’, to keep your phone running all day.

Turn your flash off (and other photo tips)
Photograph: Courtesy Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort

7. Turn your flash off (and other photo tips)

Trying to take photos of the fireworks? Turn your flash off and you won’t get bright heads and that humid haze across your photo.

For that matter, just leave your flash off, period, especially on rides: Pirates of the Caribbean looks considerably better without a bath of LED flash bulbs. But really, it’s just annoying for everyone else and your photos will look far better without the flash.

As for that frontside camera, leave the selfie stick at home—seriously, Disneyland banned the devices in 2015, though we also haven’t really seen many people use them in public, period, in years. Instead, take advantage of Disney’s PhotoPass photographers. These cameramen stationed throughout the park are technically there to sell you on Disney’s own freemium photo service, but if you hand them your iPhone they’ll happily take that group shot in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Pro tip: As you leave attractions with an on-ride photo, don’t forget to snap your own shot of the screen. Alternatively, if you’ve shelled out for Genie+, complimentary photo downloads are included.

Don’t follow the crowds
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Listener42

8. Don’t follow the crowds

At some points there’s no avoiding the swarms of sweaty tourists, but a massive bottleneck of people is often a cue that you should consider heading elsewhere. If a queue splits into two lines and one’s significantly shorter, it’s probably not because the long-line-waiters know more than you. And as far as staying informed, the wait times and mobile order return times in the Disneyland app can work wonders and helping you to keep your itinerary flowing.

When entering the park, look to the outermost turnstiles for the shortest lines—the same can be said for quick service food lines (most of which you can now mitigate with mobile ordering) and the parking garage pay stations. Speaking of parking, if there’s an overwhelming line waiting for the tram back to the parking garage, sometimes it’s quicker to just walk back (assuming you have the stamina left).

Pro tip: If you’re looking to travel to and from the Downtown Disney area, the monorail is a fun, retro alternative that typically doesn’t have a huge wait.

Timing is everything
Photograph: Time Out/Michael Juliano

9. Timing is everything

So you know what you want to do, but when is just as important. Here are a few helpful timing tips:

– Arrive early. Lines are shortest in the morning because, let’s face it, who wants to wake up that early? You do.

– If you can stay awake for a few extra hours, the late showings of Fantasmic and World of Color are significantly less crowded.

– The classic, kid-friendly Fantasyland attractions like Peter Pan can become staggeringly crowded in the afternoon. You’ll find the shortest waits first thing in the morning; alternatively, going during a daytime parade offers a slight relief from the crowd crunch.

– Just about everything is less crowded during the Disneyland fireworks (except for Fantasyland and Toon Town attractions, which close during the show).

– If you’re tall or not too concerned about finding the perfect spot, don’t waste more than 20 minutes or so lining up for fireworks or a parade.

– The attractions around New Orleans Square and Frontierland are least crowded during Fantasmic—but if you get in a line right as the show ends and you’re in for a world of pain.

– The rides don’t shut down at park closing, rather the entrance to the line does. So at one minute before closing, hop on that last ride.

– That said, everyone flocks to Space Mountain at the very end of the night.

– The shops on Main Street and Buena Vista Street stay open for up to an hour after closing, so save that ice cream cone and souvenir shopping until after hours. Or stop at World of Disney in Downtown Disney to find everything in one spot.

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