21 Hacks to Get the Most from a Disneyland Visit

An insider’s guide to avoiding crowds, shortening wait times, and saving money

A visit to the Disneyland Resort can be a rich, unforgettable experience, but it can also be expensive and shockingly crowded, especially with the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which opens May 31. As a Disneyland annual passholder who first visited the park 55 years ago, I’ve earned my mouse ears. Here are my best tips to get the most from your trip:

1. Buy tickets online before you arrive, so you don’t have to wait in line at a ticket booth. Note that, nowadays, Disney takes your photo and attaches it to a digital image of your ticket when you first arrive, so you can’t swap tickets with anyone.

2. Go on a weekday. Disneyland now has three tiers of pricing, based on crowd projections. Weekends and holidays are usually the most expensive. The least-expensive time to visit is the off-season, i.e., when it’s not summer, spring break, or Christmastime. 

3. Consider a Park Hopper ticket, which allows you to travel between Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. When one park gets crowded, dip over to the other park. The Auto Club sometimes sells discounted multiday tickets that include Park Hoppers.

The pools at the Disneyland Hotel

4. Stay at one of the three hotels at Disneyland—the Disneyland Hotel (pictured above), Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa, or Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel. You’ll pay a premium, but it might be worth it. You’ll not only be within easy walking distance of the parks, but you’ll also probably get an Extra Magic Hour, which enables you to enter the parks an hour before the rest of the visitors. (You might also get a guaranteed reservation for Galaxy’s Edge; ask when you reserve.) My favorite non-Disney lodging is the Howard Johnson Anaheim Hotel and Water Playground, about a seven- to 10-minute walk from the Disneyland entrance. It has a small water park (good mostly for small children), a view of the fireworks, and a cool midcentury vibe. Keep in mind that a hotel that advertises itself as “across from Disneyland” might be on the back side—and a long walk from the gate. A professional travel agent like those at the Auto Club can help you find the best deals and packages.

5. Arrive at the parking garage 60 to 90 minutes before the park opens, so you can be at Disneyland for the “rope drop.” Seriously, it’s worth it. You can get a beverage at the Market House coffee shop, and wait at the ropes at the end of Main Street USA. At the exact moment the park opens, a welcome announcement goes out over the loudspeaker. Immediately head to your favorite ride. You’ll have at least an hour to enjoy the morning before the hordes descend.

6. Get free FastPasses. This reservation system puts you into a shorter line at a designated time—say between 2:05 and 3:05 p.m. You’ll still have to run around the park to each attraction to get them and you'll still have to wait in line, but it will be a shorter line than the stand-by queue, which can be excruciating.

7. Get MaxPass. It costs an extra $15 per person, but allows you to order FastPasses electronically. This means that, while you’re standing in line for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, you can acquire a FastPass to ride Space Mountain later in the day. Also note that MaxPass gives you unlimited digital photo downloads, so every time you see a Disneyland photographer, ask to have your picture taken. You must be inside one of the parks to order a FastPass; you can’t do it from home.

Carthay Restaurant at Disneyland

8. Reserve a table at a sit-down restaurant, such as the Carthay Circle Restaurant (pictured above) in California Adventure, to take a relaxing break. You must reserve with a credit card, and you can reserve up to 60 days in advance. Cancellation is free until the day before arrival. Reserve at disneyland.disney.go.com/dining or 714-781-DINE. You can also look at menus online. 

9. Buy souvenirs in advance. You can save half or more on souvenirs—for kids and adults—at a Disney Outlet store. (These places might also sell merchandise made for the outlets that might not be a deal, so be careful.) Or head for the Target store on Harbor Boulevard, near the Toy Story parking lot for Disneyland. The licensed Disney merchandise here will cost a fraction of what you’d pay for a similar item inside the park. Buy matching Disney T-shirts for the whole family. It’s fun, and it makes it easy to find each other in a crowd.

10. Be aware of smoking rules. As of May 1, you cannot smoke inside Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, or the Downtown Disney District. You can smoke in designated areas outside the entrances to those places and at designated areas at Disney hotels if you’re a guest or you have a dining reservation.

11. Download the Disneyland app in advance. It’s chock-full of information ranging from real-time wait times for rides to food choices and locations.

12. Bring your lunch. Rent a locker for $5–$7 at Disneyland or the Downtown Disney District and leave a small cooler there. Downtown Disney has a small picnic area near where people disembark from the parking tram; it’s a nice place to enjoy a meal while people watching.

13. Take non-alcoholic beverages from home. Disneyland allows you to bring your own drinks into the park as long as they’re not in glass bottles. Take frozen water bottles to keep sandwiches cold, and when they thaw out, drink from them. NOTE: As of May 1, you cannot bring ice or dry ice into the park, although reusable ice packs are okay. You can ask for cups of ice at quick-service dining locations.

14. Bring a battery backup charger. You’ll probably use up your phone batteries with all the picture taking and app using. Do not count on being able to find an outlet. If you have a Fuel Rod brand charger, look for kiosks where you can swap yours out for a new one—or buy one there. 

15. Buy rain gear in advance. If there’s even a hint that it might rain, stock up on cheap, single-use ponchos. You can find them at nearly any dollar store. (Inside the resort, ponchos are expensive.) Also, dollar-store umbrellas can be useful for sun protection.

16. Take a photo of your car’s location in the parking garage. For example, you might be near “Goofy 3D.” Trust me: Later, you’ll want to know that.

17. Get your FastPasses for your most sought-after rides as soon as you enter the park (use your MaxPass or run around and get paper ones). Don’t delay, because the most popular rides sell out. 

18. Order and pay for quick-service meals in advance. On the Disneyland app, select a counter-service restaurant that appeals to you, then enter a time frame for picking up your meal. You can browse the menu and pay for your meal in advance; then, when you get near the restaurant, the app will ask you if you’re ready to eat. When you say “yes,” your meal will be ready to pick up within minutes at a special window. If you change your mind, you can cancel your order. You can mobile order food only in the parks, not before you enter them.

19. Feel free to ask for water. You don’t have to pay $4 for a bottle of water; any restaurant will gladly give you tap water in a cup.

20. Keep an eye on your stroller. You’d be surprised how many disappear. Either leave the expensive strollers at home or stick a tracking device inside them. You’re not allowed to secure the stroller to anything in the park, in case employees have to move it, but you can disable the front wheels so it’s not easily wheeled away. Police suggest you put your name and information on the bottom of the stroller, in case it’s found. Also, snap a photo of your child inside the stroller when you enter the park. And, of course, never leave valuables inside. NOTE: As of May 1, you cannot bring into the park any stroller wagons or strollers larger than 31 inches-by-52 inches.

21. To beat the heavy crowds leaving the park at the end of the day, jump on the Disneyland Railroad at any station and ride it to Main Street, then exit the park easily from there. Alternatively, take the Monorail from Tomorrowland to Downtown Disney, where you can disembark only a few hundred feet from the tram that takes you to the parking lot. When you’re driving home from the park–tired and, hopefully, happy–you’ll reflect on your family’s Disney day.

Galaxy edge

Galaxy’s Edge

Between May 31 and June 23, you must have a reservation to enter the new Star Wars–themed land. There’s no extra charge, but reservations are subject to availability. If you’re staying at one of the Disneyland hotels during that period, you automatically get a Galaxy’s Edge reservation (theme park admission required). Starting June 24, upon arrival at Disneyland, parkgoers will be given a boarding pass and an assigned time to enter Galaxy’s Edge, subject to availability. Check disneyland.com for updates. (Get a sneak peek at Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.)

More information about visiting Disneyland is at 714-781-4636, disneyland.disney.go.com, and on the Disney Parks Blog at disneyparks.disney.go.com.

Top photo: Main Street USA looking toward Sleeping Beauty's Castle in Disneyland | All photos courtesy of Disney Parks