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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Disneyland: A Beginner's Guide

It's day 2 of the Blog Every Day in May Challenge and today's topic is to educate readers on something you know a lot about or are good at. After writing down a list of things that I know a lot about (which was short) and a list of things that I'm good at (which was even shorter) I decided that there was one thing I would have no problem giving lots of unsolicited advice about, and that is navigating Disneyland.

Just get me to Space Mountain ASAP.

If I wrote down every piece of advice I had regarding all of the parks, we'd be here for days.  DAYS.  Instead, I decided to write down a few things I would recommend to anyone who is going to Disneyland for the first time.  (Not to be confused with Walt Disney World.  They are two entirely different beasts... and they are on opposite sides of the country.  If you're still not sure, you should check to make sure you know which resort you're going to, so you don't get on the wrong flight.)  I've broken it up into sections: getting to the parks, navigating attractions, and of course, my favorite, eating.

Getting to the parks
  • Disneyland is located in Anaheim, CA, NOT Los Angeles.  It is within driving distance from Los Angeles (about 30-60 min depending on traffic) but it isn't actually in Los Angeles.  So no, you can't walk there from Hollywood.
  • If you have any sort of choice in when you're going to visit the park, know that Saturdays and holidays are the busiest.  Like, so busy that the park can hit capacity and you won't be able to get in (and if you only have one day and you already bought your ticket, that will SUCK my friend.)  Tuesdays-Thursdays are the quietest, but the park also closes earlier in the evening.  Keep in mind school vacations, and events, such as Micky's Not So Scary Halloween Party, or the Disneyland Half Marathon weekend.
  • Get there early.  I can not emphasize this enough.  A day at Disneyland is not a day where you sleep til 11 am and then stroll into the park.  If you are staying at a Disneyland hotel, you can take advantage of the Extra Magic Hour option on certain days which gets you into the park before it officially opens to the public, which equates to at least 2-3 spins on Space Mountain or substantial amount of time with the characters (if you're into that.)  If you are staying at a Good Neighbor Resort (area hotels that have transportation to the park) you won't get the Extra Magic Hour BUT you don't have to deal with the parking structures, and can hop on the designated bus outside your hotel.  If you are driving to Disneyland, I highly recommend trying to arrive to the resort area around the time the park opens to the public.  The parking structure located on resort property hits capacity quickly, and the closest two lots are a 10-15 minute bus ride back to the park.  Arriving early will also eliminate the potential for the park to hit capacity and keep the tears at bay.  And the kids will be happy, too.
Navigating attractions
Disneyland is shaped like a hub, with Sleeping Beauty's Castle in the center, and the themed lands surrounding it.  You enter the park via Main Street USA; once you arrive at the courtyard outside the castle, you can choose to go to Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, or Tomorrowland.  New Orleans Square is just northwest of Adventureland, Critter Country is just north of Frontierland, and Mickey's Toontown is north of Fantasyland.

Don't get used to this - this RARELY happens.
  • Get a map.  Park maps are easy to find at the entrance, and great to have on hand if you've never been to a Disney park and are unsure of where everything is.  They also list things to note, like what rides have Fast Passes, where the closest bathrooms are, and what time to expect the parades.  You can also download the Disney Mobile Magic app which is free and a great tool to have on hand if you don't want to keep a map around.  (It also tells you the current wait times for rides!)
  • Get a locker.  Renting a locker is a huge help.  Unlike the Disney World parks where the heat and humidity sticks around, evenings in California can cool down drastically; having a locker allows you to store a sweatshirt, jacket, hat, spare socks (for when yours get soaked on Splash Mountain) - you name it.  You can rent them for the entire day, just make sure to remember your locker number and access code.  It also helps eliminate the amount of stuff you have to carry, and therefore, have to shove into those tiny mesh bags on the rides and keep your fingers crossed none of it falls out.
  • Fast Passes.  The invention of the Fast Pass was genius - rides that typically have long wait times usually have a Fast Pass option.  Lets say you want to ride Splash Mountain, but the stand by line is a 2 hour wait.  Head over the Fast Pass kiosks, enter in your ticket and a FP will pop out.  Each FP gives you an hour window in which to return to that attraction and skip the majority of the line.  Up until last month, Disney never enforced this and you could return to that attraction and use your FP at any time AFTER that hour window started; however, now they are beginning to enforce it, so make sure you remember when you're supposed to head back!  Also note that if you get a FP for one attraction, you can't get another until that hour window begins, so make sure you check the return time sign posted above the FP kiosks.  Fast Passes are limited for each attraction as well, so the most popular attractions on a busy day will usually get rid of all of their Fast Passes early.  The best example of this is the Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land at California Adventure - Fast Passes for that will sell out within an hour of the parks opening, and the stand by line is typically over a 2 hour wait.  (I'm not making this up.)
  • Try to plan at least some of the day.  Imagine this - lets say you don't have a Fast Pass, and you stand in line for Space Mountain for 2 hours.  You get off the ride, and realize that the stand by time is now only 30 minutes, and you're like, say what?!  I just waited two hours!  Then you hear the sound of a parade in the distance, and realize that the line just went down because the parade began.  During certain times of day, the wait time for certain rides will lower substantially, allowing you to do more in less time.  It's not an exact science, but you can generally expect that when a parade is going on, the rides will quiet down.  Same goes for the lunch (11:30-2) and dinner (5-7) hours, as well as during the fireworks.  If you could care less about a parade, check the parade times on your map and plan to visit some rides during that time.  If you're staying at one of the resorts, use that Extra Magic Hour wisely.  If you're planning on staying in the park til close, consider checking out Space Mountain or Big Thunder after the fireworks - a large portion of the attendance will clear out after the fireworks are over.  With the addition of the apps as well, you can keep an eye on which attractions have a shorter line, and even which attractions are currently out of service.
  • Ask, ask, ask.  Last time we went to Disneyland, we wanted to ride the Matterhorn, but the wait was over an hour.  A friend had told me that some rides (not all) have a single rider option, meaning that if your party is okay with sitting with strangers, you can get through the line faster.  We asked a cast member at the Matterhorn about this, and lo and behold, she gave us passes to a separate line and we only waited 10 minutes.  If there is one thing that Disney does NOT like, its unhappy guests.  If you don't know where something is, ask the closest cast member.  If you stood in line for 2 hours for Big Thunder and it broke down, ask for a pass to come back later.  I could write a whole other blog entry about the times in which something has come up and a cast member has helped me out tremendously - but then we'd be here for days, remember? ;)
Here is where I would insert a disclaimer and say this is the part where I am more of a beginner than novice.  I haven't eaten everything at Disneyland yet; however, I've eaten enough to have some recommendations.  Eating at any Disney park can be a stressful situation.  It's good to plan ahead a little bit, because the last thing you want on a long, hot day is a hungry human who's reading to snap at you because you can't decide what you want for dinner.  (In case you're wondering, that person is me.)

Any food that comes in a container I can also eat is a serious win.

  • Read the menus.  Between the official Disneyland website and fan-supported sites like, you can generally find the official menus for all eateries in every park, or at least get an idea of what they serve.  A little research ahead of time will keep you aware of what your options are, especially if anyone in your party is sensitive to certain foods, or just really picky.
  • Call Disney Dining.  Certain restaurants will take reservations up to 180 days in advance of your trip, so if there is a restaurant you want to try, book it ASAP!  (This applies to all Disney parks, by the way - I feel its far more useful at Walt Disney World, but its good to be aware of.)  The restaurant you'll have the toughest time getting a reservation for inside Disneyland is the Blue Bayou, but trust me, its worth it.  Disney Dining is happy to make reservations for you, or find other restaurants that may be a better fit if Blue Bayou is booked.
  • Have a game plan for meals.  Taking a break to eat, especially in the heat, is wonderful; standing in line for a long time or wandering around trying to find a table is not.  Try to plan ahead with what you're willing to put up with, or, alternatively, what you aren't.  Some people I know will only eat their big meals at the full service restaurants; others only do counter service and eat entirely on the go.  However you want to do it is up to you, but knowing what you're willing to do and aren't willing to do ahead of time will help.
  • Get out of the park.  Thankfully for Disneyland guests, Downtown Disney literally lies in between Disney and California Adventure.  This means you can leave the park, stroll Downtown Disney, and come back later.  Disney Dining can also help with reservations at the restaurants in Downtown Disney as well, and there are plenty of options to choose from.  It also gives you a break from the crowds inside the park, and offers much more commercial options for anyone who isn't interested in park food.
  • Ignore your diet.  I'm half kidding.  Obviously if you have a food sensitivity or are on a particular diet for health reasons, you should eat within your parameters.  (Nothing is worse than getting sick while at Disneyland - ask me about the time I ate too many pickles.)  But part of the fun of going to a theme park is indulging, and Disney is FULL of indulgences.  There are plenty of healthy options every where you look, but you should definitely eat a Mickey ice cream bar, a churro or a bag of beignets and you should definitely NOT feel guilty about it.
Those are my lengthy beginner tips for navigating Disneyland for the first time. What are your tips?  Do you think I'm crazy for revolving my whole day around Space Mountain?  (I will allow anyone to argue with me on this.)

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