For my daughter’s fifth birthday, she and I took a trip to Disneyland—a girls-only getaway. And my, it was magical, just as Disneyland has promised since its opening day in July 1955. From our encounter with Mary Poppins as we neared the end of Main Street to each happy birthday that the cast members practically sang when they noticed my daughter’s birthday button, everything about Disneyland was “practically perfect,” as Mary would say!
This birthday vacation wasn’t my first Disneyland experience. I visited the west coast destination a few times as a child, again as a teen, and once with my husband shortly after we were married, too. But this experience was definitely one of the most memorable. Adventuring through Disneyland with a child is like that. They’re fully consumed by the sights and sounds, and when you’re with them, you are too. It’s like someone sprinkled pixie dust all around, and you just fall in love—with the rides, the characters, the atmosphere. Everything makes you smile at Disneyland (aside from the occasional meltdown, which is bound to happen!), and before you leave, you begin crafting a plan to come back.
But Disneyland isn’t free—not even close. Preparation is important, because you don’t want your vacation investment, from the money to the potential moments, to be wasted. When at Disneyland, it’s ideal to maximize everything from the time you enter the gates until you bid the castle adieu.
Casey Starnes, creator of the blog Disneyland Daily, which aims “to help guests plan the best Disneyland trips possible,” visits the park at least once a week. Thus, she’s one of the top Disneyland experts I’ve come to know. Her tips and tricks have made my family’s trips efficient and fun, and now she’s chiming in—alongside some other avid Disney fans—to share amazing hacks that will improve your vacation to the Happiest Place On Earth.
When you go, visit during this week of the year.
I’ll confess, I’ve never been to Disneyland during the summer months. I think my parents knew it was the peak time then, so we always avoided it. Over the years, I’ve been to Disneyland in March, October, November, and December. All of them had their benefits, but Starnes says there is one week out of the year that is better than most.
“I would likely choose sometime around the end of October and into the beginning of November,” she says. “For example, October 29–November 4 would allow you to see all of Halloween Time and a bit of Christmas, as it starts building in the park before Halloween even arrives.”
Maybe a hotel isn’t the place to stay.
Disneyland and California Adventure boast three on-site hotels—Disneyland Hotel, Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel, and Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa. They are beautiful and truly enhance the Disney experience—stay there if you can! But if you can’t swing that luxury, there are plenty of places you can stay within walking distance.
Browse the map of Disneyland’s surrounding streets and research Good Neighbor Hotels, which are Disney approved. In the past, I’ve seen great hotel deals on sites like Groupon, too!
Of course, the convenience of being at a property hotel is huge, but there is a pretty fluid transportation system, ART, that services nearby hotels on multiple routes. Uber, of course, is another good transportation option.
There is another option when it comes to accommodations: “The last few trips, we’ve rented a house near the parks instead of staying in a hotel,” says Kristin, a mom of three who visited with her immediate family and extended family. “We love having the space and conveniences of a house, and we try to go back for nap time when the little ones need to rest up for a fun second half of the day at the park.”
It’s time to get your ride (and app) on!
There is one way to make sure you see a lot of characters while at Disneyland, and it’s not by wandering around with binoculars. “Use the Disneyland app,” says Starnes. “It shares the most information on when and where to find your favorites.” That’s not all the app is useful for, though!
Do you have fond memories of rides like Peter Pan’s Flight, It’s a Small World, or Splash Mountain? I sure do! The rides at Disneyland are classic, and there is so much to love about them. But there is one thing I’m not a fan of…lines. You too? Well, there are some surefire ways to skip many.
If you’re traveling with a little one, take advantage of Disney’s Rider Switch Service. Here’s how it works: You stand in line as a family, even if some of your kids aren’t tall enough to ride. The first parent rides with the older kids, while the second stands off to the side. When they disembark, you swap kids and quickly get put on the ride.
Kristin utilized this on her last trip. “Since the passes let three people go on the ride the second time,” she says, “it usually works out that our older kids get to go on again!”
Kim, now a grandma, has a great strategy when it comes to rides: “When you enter the front gate at the beginning of the day, make a beeline for the farthest areas,” she says. “You’ll hit them before the crowds—we got a private audience with Minnie Mouse by doing this—and by the time you get back to the front, the crowd has gotten down to more normal sizes.”
Starnes has the scoop, of course, on a great way to maximize the ride experience: “MaxPass, Disneyland’s newest product, makes even the busiest days a breeze. I worked with Disney prior to its launch to learn the system and firmly believe that it’s worth every penny.”
You can read more from Starnes about how FASTPASS and MaxPass work and interact together here. It’s a little intense, but remember, the prep work you do before your feet land in Disneyland will pay off.
Outside of line strategy, Starnes notes that it’s wise to take your Disneyland essentials in a crossbody bag versus a backpack. “Cross body bags can be worn on many attractions, so you don’t have to constantly add and remove your bag.”
Embrace the shows!
Disneyland is so much more than the rides. Our family adores the show selections (both the stage and out-and-about ones), and nothing is better than a Disneyland parade. To get prime seating, Starnes recommends “setting up with a blanket prior to parade time to section off your space.” She notes that you can’t leave the blanket unattended.
“… I encourage you to be polite and to think of others when you claim your space,” continues Starnes. “But carving out a small area will allow you a little room to breathe and enjoy the show.”
I know, sitting on a blanket just waiting doesn’t sound fun, but I promise, the experience is worth it! Plus, my group and I would often use this down time to eat, let a little one nap, or switch with another adult in our group to take individual kids on a ride or shopping date.
When it comes to budgeting…
Most people I spoke with talk about finding a balance of enjoying everything at Disneyland while not going too overboard in the money department. When it comes to food, Starnes recommends “eating breakfast at your hotel and then splurging on one meal per day, if your budget allows. Otherwise, visit quick service options for the best prices.”
Here’s my personal tip: Before you embark on your Disneyland adventure, visit a Disney Store, either in person or online (Amazon has some!), and stock up on Disney merchandise and travel essentials. There are tons of fabulous souvenirs, dress-up outfits, stuffed animals, and other goodies at a fraction of price you’ll see at Disneyland.
You know your kids well, so try to anticipate what they’ll love. Then, when they’re drawn to the stores, remind them that there is a surprise (that you’ve pre-bought) waiting back at the hotel for them. Not only will this help you keep your spending in line, but it will save room in your suitcase!
I’m not a Disney villain. I do let my kids choose something special from the park. But we window shop most days and return on the last day to purchase their chosen item right before we leave.
If you’re planning a trip to Disneyland soon, or even if a Disney vacation is simply in your dreams, make a point to do your research long before you arrive.
Advance preparation will allow you to relax and fully experience the timeless perfection of the wonderful place called Disneyland.
“Six months is enough time to plan a Disneyland trip,” says Starnes. “Walt Disney World veterans will start planning a year out, which is totally fine, but our park is more laid back … .”