It has become fairly well-known that our family likes Disneyland. Traditionally, we have made our journey out to the Magic Kingdom about once per year, which is nowhere near the "true" Disneyland fans, but for a NorCal family, that's not bad. Friends frequently ask us for advice when they're planning their trip, and we're only happy to oblige because we believe we had really nailed down the Disneyland process.
Then we had a kid.
Now we're redefining our process to account for newly added variables. We took our five-year-old to Disneyland for his first time. And, yes, it was a long time to wait. We actually took a trip once when he was about a year old, but back then he didn't have a clue. If we were to tell a four-year-old that we were going to Disneyland without him, he would DEFINITELY have a problem with it. We wanted him to top 40", which would allow him access to just about every ride in the park. He may not WANT to (and we won't force him), but he should be ABLE to. It also aligned well with the appropriate maturity level for Disneyland. I don't understand bringing babies to the park. What's the point?
So, what follows is our general Disneyland process. Notes have been added where modifications had to be made due to shorter legs, shorter patience, and shorter minimum height requirements.
I'm not sure how, but Get Away Today managed to get their catalogs distributed to every department at UC Davis, which is how I first heard of them. It's not like they offer universities any better prices than anyone else, but the packages are easy and relatively inexpensive.
We have decided that the optimal amount of time to spend on this trip is three days in the park, and three nights in the hotel. We've done four days before, but we ended up getting bored. Two days is okay, but everything just feels rushed. We like driving down Thursday night (no traffic by the time we hit LA), spending the first night in the hotel, and rising early on Friday for the first day in the park. We usually get get one "Magic Morning" (early-entry) which works best for Saturday. Then, on Sunday, we'll leave the park in the early afternoon (again, when LA traffic isn't so bad). We always get the park-hopper passes. If you're only going for one day, save your money and don't bother with California Adventure. For two or more days, though, it's worth it just to be able to ride Soarin' Over California.
We usually stay at one of the hotels on S. Harbor Blvd within walking distance of the park entrance. Our favorite is the Del Sol Inn. We also like the Castle Inn and Suites, but it's a little farther of a walk. (This makes a BIG difference when dragging a five-year-old behind you at the end of a big day.)
Okay, so now that we have the itinerary out of the way, let's talk about having some fun IN the park. The first thing everybody needs to master right away is the FastPass system. Most of the popular rides allow you to take a ticket with a time printed on it. You come back after that time, and you can skip most of the line. This is a key Disneyland strategy and if you work it right, it can lead to a lot less time waiting in line.
Like any good crowd-control system, there are rules:
- You can only get your next FastPass after the start time of your last FastPass. Example: at 9:30am, you get a FastPass for Star Tours that says "10:30am-11:30am". You cannot get your next fast pass for any ride until exactly 10:30am. The machines are all networked, so they know.
- FastPasses all expire at the end of the day, but not before. This means that, even though your FastPass says "10:30am - 11:30am", you can, in fact, use it any time after 10:30am for the rest of the day. (UPDATE: A commenter notes that they're cracking down on this and won't accept expired passes. I haven't verified that myself, so YMMV.) (UPDATE: VERIFIED! However, they will usually give you a 15-minute grace period, but they'll scold you while they do it.)
The strategy here is to collect FastPasses early in the day for rides you want to go on later on in the day. Early in the day, the lines aren't so bad anyway, and the FastPass start times are usually only 30-45 minutes away, so you can accumulate 1-2 FastPasses per hour while still riding the rides with relatively no line. (This is a great time to check out popular rides that don't have FastPass, like Peter Pan and the Matterhorn.) Then, later in the day, when lines are 1-2 hours long, you can happily gloat at the poor suckers who are stuck in the long lines. This works particularly well for Splash Mountain since you want to be sure your FastPass becomes valid before evening falls and it starts getting cold outside.
This actually represent the most drastic change to our process. With a kid that doesn't necessarily enjoy the big rides, accumulating fast-passes became far less useful. Moreover, it requires more walking, which tended to wear him out.
The next thing you need to know is the "Single Rider" system. A few rides, including Indiana Jones, Splash Mountain, Soarin' over California, and California Screamin', allow you to get a "single rider" ticket from the cast member near the entrance and hop straight to the front of the line. Obviously, this doesn't work very well if you're in a group, but it's great when you're trading off the kid who's too short for Indiana Jones. It also works great for the teenager who is cruising the park on his own and doesn't want anything to do with his parents.
As far as the rides themselves, they're pretty much all a matter of opinion, so I'll let you figure out your favorites for yourself.
I can honestly say that food in the parks has dramatically improved in the last 15 years. There will always be expensive junk food, but there is also decent healthy food that isn't really all that expensive. This time I managed to get through the whole trip eating vegan (except for a corn dog).
- Pizza Port has some good pastas and salads.
- The best corn dog on the planet can be bought at the trolly cart on Main Street near the Photo store.
- Blue Bayou is undoubtedly nice, but far too expensive now that they serve the same menu for lunch and dinner. It's also not much fun for the small one.
- Cafe Orleans, right across from Blue Bayou, has similar food for about 1/3 the price. I recommend the ratatouille.
- Rancho del Zocalo Restaurante has decent Americanized Mexican food, and very decent vegetarian options.
- Tiki Juice Bar. Get the Pineapple Float.
- Mint Julep Bar serves the classic Disneyland Mint Julep (with free refills!), but also espresso and coffee drinks.
- Royal Street Veranda has excellent vegetarian gumbo. They have chicken gumbo too.
- In California Adventure, the only place we bother to visit is the Pacific Wharf, which has a variety of different options including Boudin (clam chowder in a bread bowl!)
Souvenirs can be a tricky thing at Disneyland to keep under control. There are a LOT of things to buy and they're none of them markedly inexpensive. As expected, there's a lot of total crap: cheap Chinese-made plastic shiny stuff that's far too attractive to kids. I usually try to get out of there with a shirt, coffee mug, and/or something from the Star Trader. I also make sure my Pressed Penny collection is up to date. That being said, I always like to browse around some of the more interesting stores, like the Adventureland Bazaar, Pieces of Eight, Off the Page, as well as the art and jewelery shops on Main Street. An interesting tip: all the stores on each side of Main Street are interconnected along the back side, which makes for an easier walking lane if Main Street is otherwise mobbed parade spectators.
More random advice:
- PLEASE don't take flash photos inside the dark rides. If you don't know how to disable the flash on your camera, just turn your camera off and enjoy the ride.
- I know it hurts, but if you can wake up early enough to get your butt in the park right when it opens, you'll have a better time all day long. (See: FastPass) Think of it as an investment.
- You see the best and the worst from parents at Disneyland. Try to land on the side of the former. It takes conscious effort, believe me.
- Go back to your hotel for a nap or at least a chill-out some time in the middle of the day when it's hotest and crowdedest in the park.
- If the art gallery above Pirates of the Carribbean or at the entrance to Mr. Lincoln is open, do yourself a favor and pay a visit. Warning: the kids will complain. Ignore them.
- If you REALLY want to spend a fortunate at Blue Bayou, you pretty much have to make a reservation up to a month ahead of time. Consider reservations for Cafe Orleans as well.
- Ride Star Tours several times. They combine a variety of different destinations so it's different just about every time. Some day I'll be the rebel spy.
- If you're lucky, you can ride Alice in Wonderland while there's a parade going by.
- Don't bother staking an early claim and waiting hours to get a good spot for Fantasmic or the fireworks. (Unless you really like sitting on your butt while everyone else is having fun.) It's easy enough to squeeze in at the last minute.
- Find some time to run around and explore Tom Sawyer's Island and Toon Town. Elsewhere, Disneyland tends to blast stuff AT you. These places allow you to interact with the environment at your own pace.
- I know Disneyland is childish and foolish. That's exactly the point. Use this as an opportunity to be a child; be a fool. If you're too cool for Disneyland, you'll just be miserable and waste a LOT of money.