by Character Diva
So a lot of you may be familiar with Disney World, but being on the opposite coast, you may not know Disneyland as well. As someone who grew up going to Disneyland on a regular basis, I often get lots of questions from friends asking for travel tips. And while here are some of a few of my general tips, I also thought I’d give you a much more thorough list of some of my most valuable planning advice.
Rides- If you guys are wanting to do any of the big attractions (HyperSpace Mountain, Splash Mountain, etc.) you probably want a Fastpass. Fastpasses are completely free and you can get these for select rides (generally the big ones or the most popular). How Fastpasses work at Disneyland is you can get one at a time and use it to wait in a shorter (i.e. faster) line than the usual standby line. Disney Diva Tip: World of Color and Radiator Springs Racers in CA Adventure operate separately from the other Fastpasses, so technically you could have fastpasses to say Radiator Springs Racers, World of Color and the new Frozen musical all at the same time. Otherwise, if you have a Fastpass that’s good from 1:05-2:05, you can’t get another Fastpass until 1:05… so sometimes it’s better to actually do the standby line if your Fastpass time slot won’t be available until several hours later. So if you want to get Fastpasses for Hyperspace Mountain, but all of the Fastpasses are taken until 7 or 8 pm and it’s only one in the afternoon, you may want to see if there are any other attractions with earlier Fastpass times available and opt to spend an hour waiting in the standby line. If you travel during peak times of the year such as holidays or the summer it’s going to be crowded, so I’d try and get Fastpasses as quickly as possible. Also, July is the worst month as far as crowds, so if you want to go in the summer, if you can go late May/early June or late August/early September, that’d be best.
And for those of you with little kids who don’t quite meet the minimum height requirements, never fear, they also have a thing called Rider Swap. Basically if you guys wanted to ride Splash Mountain and someone didn’t meet the height requirement, you would have everyone in your party go to the line entrance and ask the cast member for a rider swap. The cast member will give you a special pass and then one person from your group can get on the ride while one person in your party hangs out with whoever is too short or doesn’t want to go on the attraction. After the ride is done and your party gets back to where you’re waiting, you can use the special “rider swap” pass and go with up to 3 extra people (i.e. if you have older kids or other people who want to ride again, they can) and you can basically get to go through the Fastpass line without having to start all over again. It varies slightly from attraction to attraction, but cast members will be happy to walk you through it. It can eat up time though (though it’s a great thing if the kids want to ride it again) since you are “riding it twice” so just be aware of that. Here’s a video clip for DW explaining it, but the program is basically the same at Disneyland. You can also check out my recommended attractions for toddlers at Disneyland and California Adventure here.
Fastpass Selection for California Adventure- If Radiator Springs Racers is on your “Must Do” list, I’d get a Fastpass for that one right afterwards (remember, you don’t have to wait around for your time slot for Radiator Springs and World of Color so as soon as you leave the Frozen Musical Fastpass Center, head over for that near the Bugs Land entrance… For whatever reason, it’s not in Cars Land.) Then, get a Fastpass for World of Color. Even if you don’t stay for the show and decide to leave early, if you have any intention of seeing it or think it’s a remote possibility you’ll want to see it, you’ll want to go there next. (That’s located over by the Grizzly Bear River Run.) There’s 2 Fastpass sections, yellow & blue. If you go to that, you’ll want to get there about 30 minutes before you’re allowed in. This is to ensure decent seating as it goes fast. I wasn’t a huge fan when we saw it a couple years ago, but I know it’s been updated a couple times and most people enjoy it. If you have any desire to ride Tower of Terror before it closes, I highly recommend a Fastpass for that as well. California Screamin’ and Soarin’ Around the World are also popular attractions that you may wish to consider getting Fastpasses for. Grizzly River Run is also a great Fastpass attraction for those of you needing to cool off.
Fastpass Selections for Disneyland- If you have any thrill seekers in your group, you will definitely want Fastpasses for Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, and Star Tours. Fastpasses are not available for the Matterhorn, but there are two lines (going in two different directions around the Matterhorn) so generally it isn’t too bad of a wait. Also, if you are traveling during the holidays (Halloween-Christmas) and want to see the Nightmare Before Christmas version of the Haunted Mansion, you will probably want a Fastpass for that.
What to bring- Strollers. You can rent them, but if there’s any way you can bring one from home, do that. People are less likely to mistake it for theirs, it’s free, and it can be a life saver with small children. Even if you just bring one normal stroller and an umbrella stroller, kids will get tired and you’ll have fewer breaks and less whining if they get to rest their little feet. (Also bring a change of clothes, and a pair of sandals for the kids in addition to tennis shoes. If they go on any wet rides or decide to go through the Dot’s Puddle Park in CA Adventure to cool off, they’ll be soaked and you don’t want to deal with wet shoes or blisters.) For my general packing list, click here.
If you want to save some money on souvenirs or just do pin trading, you can usually find Disney pins pretty cheap on Ebay, but you have to be careful not to get “scrappers” (fake ones). If you want to stay up with Disney Pin Trading Lingo, you can find more info here.
PhotoPass- Sadly, Disneyland no longer offers the PhotoPass+ (which I would always recommend in the past.) What Disney offers now, is PhotoPass One Day or PhotoPass One Week, and you have the option to pre-order it in advance, buy it while you’re there, or up to a few weeks after your trip. (Just make sure to order them before they expire!) Disney PhotoPass is Disney’s way of you being able to purchase all of the pictures the Disney photographers take of you and your family with characters or around the park, any ride photos, special experiences like Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, Jedi Training Academy or the Wilderness Explorer ceremony, and any character meal photos. Basically, if Disney takes a picture of it, you can get a copy of it. Disney currently has a one day option that costs $39 (where you can select any of the picture opportunities mentioned above for any one given day) or if you are staying for multiple days, you can get any pictures in a seven day time frame for $69. Remember, the more picture opportunities you take, the better the deal it is… you can end up with only a couple pictures or hundreds…. it’s really up to you, so if you want to buy the package, make sure to make the most of it! Disney Diva Tip: Unlike in the past, Disneyland no longer mails you cds of your images (you can only download them digitally, or pay extra if you want physical prints). They also no longer let you add borders digitally… you can only add them at the photo shops in California Adventure and Disneyland. So if you want to add any of the fun borders or character autographs, make sure you do that while you’re in one of the parks.
Something else to consider- not all characters have photographers, so I’d still bring your camera (or at least a phone to take pictures). I also recommend using your camera even if they do have a Photopass photographer. That way if any of your pictures are missing, you can check the timestamp and see what time your picture was taken. It’ll be easier for a cast member to locate them all (they will actually go through every picture in their database until they find yours, but the more info you can give them to narrow it down, the easier it is to find them.)
Also, ask the Disney photographers if they have any “Magic shots”. You can get some really unique shots where Disney photoshops Disney images into your prints. I have a great one of my daughter holding Tinkerbell in her hands and my aunt holding a bouquet of Disney balloons. I only asked two photographers for magic shots on our last trip, but in hindsight, I wish I would’ve asked more.
Characters- Personally, I’m all about the characters. You can use the Disneyland app to find them. Unfortunately, while the Disney app can also tell you how long the wait for attractions and stuff are, the Disney app sucks up your battery life, so make sure you bring an extra battery or your charger or try this one here. Worried that your kids won’t react well to meeting a five foot tall mouse? Check out my tips here.
I really recommend taking videos of the characters interacting with your kids. My daughter’s first experience with Rapunzel was priceless, and I wish someone would’ve gotten it on video. Oh well. But learn from my mistake.
The Frozen Sisters- As far as Anna & Elsa goes, Fastpasses are no longer an option to meet the royal duo. So IF seeing Anna & Elsa is on your “Must Do” list, I’d say get to California Adventure first thing in the morning (like when it opens), and then head straight to the Animation Studios Building near the Off the Page store. Anna and Elsa’s meet and greet is inside. They do not have the long lines that they had a couple of years ago, but if someone in your family has Frozen Fever, you may want to cross this off your to do list right away. Disney Diva Tip: If you have any desire to see the new Frozen musical at the Hyperion, Fastpasses are available for that and I’d recommend getting them before meeting the sisters. You can find the Fastpass Distribution Center for that at the end of the street, across from where Mike and Sulley’s Monsters University Meet and Greet is. If you want to attend that show, you will still need to arrive early, as seats for your section are on a First Come, First Served Basis.
Ticket options- Base ticket vs. Park Hoppers- Disney tickets work in the following ways- You either have a base ticket which allows entry to either Disneyland or California Adventure (not both), or you have a park hopper (where you can go back and forth as much as you please.) So if you have a 3 day base ticket, you can go to either park, but once you’re there, that counts as your park for the day (meaning you can’t go to the other one that day without upgrading to a hopper pass.) Honestly, if this is your first trip, I’d skip the hopper. There’s enough to do at both parks that I wouldn’t use it. We had park hoppers this last trip because we got discounted tickets through runDisney, and it was cheaper to have a hopper pass through them than a base ticket through Disney, but otherwise, we would’ve skipped it. We did use the hopper on the last day, but that was more of a catch up thing. There was plenty of stuff on our “to do” list at both parks (in fact, we still have quite a few things I wanted to do that didn’t get done) to make however you do it fine. My recommendation if you just get the base ticket is to spend one day at Disneyland, one day at California Adventure, and then use the last day hitting whichever park has more leftover on your to do list.
Hotels-, I recommend staying off-property at a Good Neighbor Hotel. We have family down there, so I’ve only stayed in good neighbor hotels a couple of times and that was always with church or school groups, but there are a few that our writers recommend. I’d personally lean towards the Howard Johnson Hotel in Anaheim. It’s right down the street, and it also has a water park in it, so if you decide to take a day off in between, you can hang out at the waterpark. (Which I definitely recommend doing… our last trip we did Disneyland, California Adventure, took a day to relax and go to the beach, and then went to both Disneyland and California Adventure the last day). Good Neighbor hotels usually offer the same deals as Disney (early magic hours, meaning you can get into the parks early), and some have continental meals, free shuttles, and free parking (and I could be wrong as I’ve never stayed there, but I’ve never found a free continental meal listed at the Disney hotels and I’m pretty sure they charge $17 for parking… which is the same parking fee if you drive your car). So if you can stay at a good neighbor hotel, save the $17 a day on parking and just walk over with strollers (or take a shuttle if they provide one). For some of our other Good Neighbor Hotel reviews check out:
Dining- Unlike Disney World, Disneyland doesn’t offer a formal dining package. Personally, I tend to skip the sit down places and opt for quick service (fast food type stuff) to allow more time for rides and characters. I like to eat at Village Haus (the Pinocchio themed restaurant in Fantasyland. It’s centrally located and is a great place to stop), Rancho del Zocalo (a Mexican place in Disneyland that is still pretty quick) and Cocina Cucamonga in California Adventure (pretty similar to Rancho del Zocalo) are also yummy. If you don’t mind eating in Downtown Disney, I suggest Earl of Sandwich (You can sign up ahead of time for coupons off of the main Earl of Sandwich website) and Rainforest Cafe is also good and most kids really like the environment… but some kids do find it kind of scary (there’s animatronic birds, animals, and thunderstorms inside). If you do want to eat at the Rainforest Cafe, I’d book a reservation ahead of time if you plan to eat there. You can also go to the Disneyland website and under the dining section, you can view all of the menus and prices. I’ve only done one character meal (Storyteller’s Cafe), but if you want to splurge and pay more, that can be fun, and it’s a great way to meet characters and get autographs. Disney Diva Tip: Storyteller’s Cafe is the only character meal that DOES NOT include pictures. Personally, I liked the food, but my husband was not impressed, and I will admit that in many ways, it was just like any continental breakfast buffet you’d find at many other hotels… however, the nice thing about this hotel was that it typically features characters you may not see elsewhere, such as Meeko, Kenai, and Koda. (Though on our trip, it was Chip, Dale, Kenai, and Pluto.)
Water- DO NOT PAY FOR WATER! That is just a waste of money. You will get hot and you want to stay hydrated (especially in the summer), but fortunately, you do not need to spend an arm and a leg. If you go to any quick service place (i.e. any where where they sell fountain drinks) you can request a cup of water and they’ll give you as many as you’d like for free. Most of the time the cups are pretty small, but some places give you normal sized-soda cups of water. (Cocina Cucamonga gave my husband a whole tray full of giant water cups for free). I would stress asking for a cup of water (or you can always say the free water just to play it safe), otherwise, you may be handed a bottle of water. Those aren’t free… so make sure you ask for a cup. You can also ask for a cup of ice (which is also free) if you need ice for anything.
Extra Experiences- More than anything, to me, the trip is about experiences. Some of the free things that you can do are the Wilderness Explorers (kind of a mini-scavenger hunt in California Adventure and then there’s a little ceremony where kids can become Senior Wilderness Explorers… you don’t need to finish the scavenger hunt to do the ceremony). There’s also the Jedi Training Academy in Tomorrowland at Disneyland. When we went there, we had two experiences. The first day, we couldn’t sign up in advance and they just randomly drew kids from the audience (hint: If they do it that way on the day you are there, sit in the front row, closest to the blue tape… according to a cast member, that’s how they typically pick kids. Dressing in a jedi costume or wearing a Star Wars shirt supposingly helps too, but isn’t guaranteed… my daughter was dressed in a jedi costume and was in the second row and didn’t get picked and both of us were devastated). Fortunately, we tried again another day and that day they were testing out a sign up system, so I was able to sign her up in advance and just had to bring her back shortly before so she could put on the jedi robes the kids wear. It was much easier and way less stressful for everyone… especially since I knew she was going to be able to participate. It seems that this is now the official way they run it, but if you’re interested in having your kids participate (they must between the ages of 4-12), I’d head over as soon as possible and ask a Cast Member how it works. Also, we missed it both days we were there, but I think at around 1pm Alice and the Mad Hatter come out at Coke Corner at Disneyland and play Musical Chairs with guests (again, check with a Cast Member). All of those are free activities, but they make your trip more memorable.
If you want to do something like Anna & Elsa’s Boutique in Downtown Disney (makeovers and hairstyles for girls and hair for boys) or Bibbibi Bobbidi Boutique (a much more elaborate and more expensive package in Disneyland where the girls can be princesses and the boys can be knights), that can be fun too. There are pros & cons to both. Bibbibi Bobbidi Boutique has a photopass photographer, and if you bring your own costume(s) from home, you’ll save a TON of money. Anna & Elsa’s is much cheaper, and I like that it was in Downtown Disney (my daughter got to do it on a non-park day so we weren’t “wasting time” getting a makeover instead of riding the rides or meeting characters). I didn’t like that there wasn’t a photopass photographer. They recommended we could go to one of the parks and have them take pictures, but since we weren’t going to Disney that day, I wasn’t about to waste a day of admission for a picture. I did take some with my camera both while she was getting it done, and around their different backgrounds…. it’s a giant Frozen themed store that plays Frozen non-stop. It’s also fairly close to the Lego Store, so kids not receiving a makeover can always hang out there if they don’t want to wait. There’s also the Harmony Barbershop on Main Street in Disneyland where you can get your hair cut (they also have a special thing for baby’s first hair cut), and they can sprinkle pixie dust on you too at a much cheaper rate than either of the boutiques.
Costumes- If you have Disney costumes at home (or clothes with characters on them), I suggest bringing them. Cast members interact a lot more with you… my daughter was constantly complimented on her Cinderella costume on the day she wore it and was referred to as a princess all day long. I really recommend Mom Approved Costumes. They’re lightweight, durable (not like some of our Target/Walmart costumes that have torn), and they’re machine-washable (which makes it worth it in itself). Depending on where you buy costumes, they may be cheaper or more expensive, but overall, I think they’re worth it. You can also get a discount if you use the code DISDIVA . Also, you may want to bring props or have the kids ask questions. For example, you may bring a frying pan to see Rapunzel, or you may ask Tinkerbell if she has any pixie dust for you (sometimes the fairies actually do, but not usually at Disneyland).
Autograph Books vs. alternatives- This last trip, I bought my kiddos each an autograph book, but we also did an alternative idea. Some people bring picture frame mattes to sign, make their own autograph books at home, or bring a backpack/pillowcase/t-shirt for the characters to autograph (Note: If you do the t-shirt, don’t have characters try and sign it while you’re wearing it). For our trip, I had my mom make some fabric squares for a quilt, and we brought fabric markers and had the characters sign those in addition to my kids’ books.
There are a few types of autograph books sold at the parks. Some can hold photos and autographs, while others are just autographs or autographs with stickers. We bought the 60th anniversary ones (which only held about 25 autographs I think) and ours were full. I know in the past I’ve bought one that held more autographs… I was a little disappointed that it didn’t have more pages, but at least we filled it up.
And if you need help planning your next Disney vacation, we recommend using Authorized Disney Vacation Planner, Patricia Payne from All For Dreams Travel. She is wonderful and will give you even more tips for making your vacation magical, and her services are FREE! Click here for a free quote!
So these are some of my Disneyland tips for first timers. A lot to digest I know. But what are your tips? Feel free to share in the comments below!