By Jeanette Marantos, Adam Tschorn, Danielle Dorsey, Michelle Woo and Lisa Boone, Los Angeles Times
Attention Disneyland veterans! If you haven’t visited for a while, here’s a little heads-up: Everything you know is wrong.
I’ve been visiting Disneyland since the Matterhorn was its coolest ride, so I’ve rolled with a lot of changes over the years. But when I went in January, after a four-year hiatus, I spent most of the day reeling between sticker shock and frustration. By the end, I’d mentally composed a seething letter that started like this:
“Dear Bob Iger: As you’re ‘fixing’ the Walt Disney Company, there’s something you should know. Disneyland’s new pricing, policies and app have sucked the joy out of the Happiest Place on Earth.”
It wasn’t just the staggering ticket prices that ruined my day, or the new caste system that allows people to cut the line if they pay an additional $25 to $50 for Lightning Lane passes, or the death by a thousand cuts while trying to make sense of the Disneyland app designed to create “your best Disney day” — especially when your phone battery dies after all the scrolling.
No, it’s the death of spontaneity that’s the real blow.
Once upon a time, before COVID-19, I would grit my teeth and plop down my credit card to buy three tickets for my sons and me. But there was always that little thrill as we gleefully plotted our strategy for the day. We’d use our Park Hopper tickets, cunning and strategies honed from years of experience to nab free Fast Passes (now costly Lightning Lane passes) and visit all of our favorite rides.
We were Disney warriors; we owned those parks, and we shared a camaraderie with our fellow travellers. Now, we just share a confusing app. If you aren’t willing to download the app and figure out how to use it ahead of time, prepare yourself for a long day of endless lines and frustration.
Even getting a cool, creamy Dole Whip to savour in the Enchanted Tiki Room — my favourite midday escape — had been upended. When we lined up at the tiki hut outside the entrance, the server wearily told us we couldn’t get the treat at that counter anymore, unless we had preordered on the app. We could order our Dole Whip on our phones and come back later, she said, in, maybe 30 minutes? We could also go stand in line at a new cafe behind the Tiki Room to make our order, which we did, but by the time we got back I was feeling a lot like Pele, Hawaii’s fire-breathing goddess, and my already high state of frustration climbed another notch.
Or take making a reservation at the popular and pricy Blue Bayou Restaurant. Visitors must log on at 3 a.m. 60 days before their visit to try to score a reservation. There are some third-party services like mousedining.com that alert you to open time slots, but those still require coordination.
“Disneyland is not a spontaneous trip anymore, and with the amount of money you spend on it today, it shouldn’t be spontaneous,” said Allison Mertzman, a super fan who specializes in Disneyland trips through her travel business, Adventures With Allison Wonderland.
“People need 30-plus hours to plan a Disney vacation these days,” she said. “And they can do it on their own, but unless you’re really well-versed in the parks and the app and all the changes Disney has made, going without a travel agent to guide you is really difficult.”
To be fair, I returned to Disneyland in March with my adult kids and it was a much smoother visit. I had gotten tips from co-workers and friends and mastered the app, using it to order food and check out line times. We didn’t spring for Lightning Lane passes on principle, which we slightly regretted after waiting 95 minutes for the truly terrific Rise of the Resistance ride. We passed the time answering trivia questions and savored the chance to be together.
For the stalwart DIY-ers unfamiliar with the intricacies of Disneyland and California Adventure these days, we’ve pulled tips from park-goers like Mertzman to help you visit without having a meltdown. — Jeanette Marantos
Tips have been edited for length and clarity.
Preparation and planning
1. The Disneyland app is your best friend, but it can be a bit confusing to use, so take some time to figure it out before you go. There are some great YouTube instructional videos. Create an account and input your credit card before you go. — Meghan Wood, visits Disneyland once a month, created a 30-page guide to help friends with kids plan visits
2. Start planning your visit as early as you can, especially if you’re doing the work yourself. Reservations for sit-down dining open 60 days in advance at 3 a.m. Pacific time, and the slots fill quickly. — Allison Mertzman
3. Check out the crowds on the day of your visit before deciding to buy line-cutting passes. If you decide Lightning Lane passes are worth the extra money, then buy them through the Genie+ feature on the Disneyland app that day. — Dana Johnston, former Disney World cast member, co-creator of the Gen D podcast and part-time Disney travel adviser
4. If you’re going with a large group, have everyone provide their No. 1 “must” thing they’d like to do in advance and then design your daily itinerary so that it includes everyone. — Melanee Berman, a nurse who goes to Disneyland every other month and creates custom itineraries for visitors @the—Disney—RN
5. Wear shoes that are really comfortable, not fashionable. I average around 20,000 steps a day at Disneyland. Condition yourself before you go. — Melanee Berman
6. Check the Anaheim Convention Center events calendar before you go, as Disneyland can be extremely congested during large conventions. The least crowded times to visit Disneyland tend to be late January through February and late April (unless Easter falls at that time). The busiest: spring break, Halloween season, the week before Christmas through the first few weeks of January, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. — Gavin Doyle, author of “Disneyland Secrets: A Grand Tour of Disneyland’s Hidden Details”
7. Buy a portable charging kit before you go. It’s a lightweight item to carry and ensures your phone doesn’t go dead. You can also buy them at the park, but they’re cheaper on Amazon. — Allison Mertzman
8. Park at Disneyland parking lots if you’re going to hang out at Downtown Disney for longer than six hours. Downtown Disney is $66 for a full day of parking and Disneyland is $30. — Stephanie Breijo, L.A. Times Food reporter who’s been to Disneyland on the job and for fun.
9. Last year, we booked a trip through Costco Travel, which included park tickets and a two-night stay at a Good Neighbor Hotel. We compared booking the tickets and hotel separately as opposed to the package, and it turned out the Costco deal would save us hundreds of dollars. We used that money as down payments for Magic Key passes (formerly known as annual passes). — Josh Ferreira, co-creator of @alldayalldisney
10. If you get there when it opens, go to the back of the park and work your way forward. — Gina Cantabene, seven-year annual pass holder
Experiences and shopping
11. Instead of entering Disneyland through the main entrance, you can enter via the monorail entrance next to the Star Wars Trading Post in Downtown Disney. — Mary Melton, annual pass holder for more than 30 years
12. Get there early for “rope drop,” when rides and attractions open. You want to be at the gate before 8 a.m. I usually get there by 7:30 a.m. because you have to account for 30 minutes of parking and security. The first two hours of the day are crucial. You can either go on rides that don’t have Lightning Lane passes, like most rides in Fantasyland, or do beloved popular rides, such as Indiana Jones or Space Mountain, so you can do them twice. — Meghan Wood
13. For annual pass holders, I’d recommend a day devoted to simply noticing details. Do not stand in line. Do not board any attractions. Just work your way through the park, focusing on everything from banisters to building second floors (what’s up there?) to foliage. — William Baerg, former Golden Horseshoe Revue employee
14. Disneyland has awesome nighttime spectaculars, but if you want to spend less time waiting around for a great spot for shows like “Fantasmic!” and “World of Color,” watch the second viewing. These shows usually run twice each night, and the second showing is often after 10 p.m., when many other guests are ready to head out of the parks. So you can show up 20 minutes before the later show starts and still get a great view. (Check the online calendars for “Fantasmic!” and “World of Color” showtimes.) — David Vaughn, who shares his Disneyland tips via Instagram at @davidvaughn
15. If you go into the stores and want their cool fixtures and lights, you can ask a cast member at the register where they got them. They have a binder with information on the companies they source their decor from. So you can reach out to those companies directly and decorate your home to look like Disneyland! — James Dusenberry, former annual pass holder
16. At 9 a.m., go see what is on the Animation Academy schedule at Disneyland California Adventure and plan your day around drawing your favourite character. It’s a low-key amazing experience. Animation Academy is also the best place for parents to rest while their kids run around — especially with the AC during the hot summer months. — Genevieve Becker, annual pass holder
17. If you want to buy merch and the line is really long, you can just use mobile checkout. — Katie Goto, creator of @2.adventure.and.beyond on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube
18. If you want that perfect spot for watching a parade or the fireworks and you’re with a larger group, take turns camping out at that spot. We’ll be like, “OK, we’ll go take the kids on a ride and you sit, and then you go get food and we’ll sit.” You have to create teamwork so you’re not having to sit there for five hours by yourself. — Katie Goto
19. If you have young children, consider renting a stroller, especially if you plan to be there all day. Disneyland has same-day stroller rentals, but you can avoid their long lines by renting from third-party stroller vendors who will deliver to your hotel for around $15 to $20 a day. — Allison Mertzman
20. Try to “stack” your Lightning Lane reservations. You can make a new reservation every two hours, so if you know you’re going to be in a certain area later in the day, you can plan your Lightning Lane passes so they go back to back. For instance: You could do Indiana Jones at 3:30 p.m. and Haunted Mansion at 4 p.m. This saves a lot of time and simplifies the process so you’re not running all over the place. — Emily Moneymaker Harding, former annual pass holder, visitor 40-plus times
21. Do all of Fantasyland after the fireworks. The kids have gone and you can walk on most of the rides. You can usually do all rides before the park closes and avoid the stroller parking mess there during the day. — Alexys DeMaria, Imagine Magic Key holder, visits three to four times a month
22. When a ride goes down for whatever reason, monitor its Lightning Lane status (if it offers one) on the app. The time that shows up next is when they anticipate the ride reopening. You can plan a snack, bathroom break or shop until it’s time to linger near standby again. — Anne Marie Panoringan, annual pass holder
23. Rider Switch is great for parents who like the thrill rides but have small kids or kids who don’t like the thrill rides. One parent goes on the ride, comes out, and then the parents “switch.” The second parent gets on the ride without waiting in line again. — Genevieve Becker
Food and drink
24. When ordering the famous corn dog at Disneyland, skip the chips that normally come on the side and order a la carte to save a few dollars. This trick also works at other eateries. — Joshua Wong, annual pass holder from 2009 to 2018
25. Order your food via mobile app. You can schedule the time you want to pick up your food, even for hours later in the day. — Nancy Broderick, five-year annual pass holder, twice-a-month visitor
26. If you’re not hungry when your scheduled meal time approaches, you can always push meal times later, but it’s not easy to make them sooner. — Dana Johnston
27. At night, head to Salt & Straw in Downtown Disney. Buy a pint of ice cream in the freezer section. Take your pint and sit on a blanket between Disney California Adventure and Disneyland and get the full fireworks show. You don’t even have to pay for a ticket. — Katie Goto
28. Something my daughters and I like to do is get the beignets in a white bag at Royal Street Veranda (formerly at Mint Julep Bar). We save the bag with the sugar and then we go buy a pack of popcorn. We dump the popcorn in the bag and shake it up. And now we have savory-sweet kettle corn-like popcorn. — Katie Goto
29. The beignets at Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen are better than the ones at Royal Street Veranda and made fresh to order. Stop by their Express Kitchen at Downtown Disney. — Stephanie Breijo
30. Get your Dole Whip with a shot of rum at Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar and Tangaroa Terrace at the Disneyland Hotel, which are open to the public. — Stephanie Breijo
31. If you have a Park Hopper ticket and want to start your alcohol buzz early — and maintain it all day — start on the Disneyland side and, as soon as you enter the park, make a Kessel Run straight to the Star Wars portion to put yourself in the queue for Oga’s Cantina. If you find the queue is closed on the app, refresh and be patient; it’s updated as people enter and exit. We find the best time to get an early buzz started is around 10 a.m. (there’s a two-drink maximum), and then let it ride until we can switch parks and reup at California Adventure, where there are many more alcoholic beverage options. — Zachary Harrison, two- to three-time-a-year visitor for the last six years; proposed to his fiancée at Disneyland
32. The best drinks are at the Lamplight Lounge at California Adventure. There’s a secret menu with cocktails like the Sea Witch (made with raspberry vodka and peach schnapps). — Dunya Dost, a Disneyland enthusiast who visits weekly
33. When we have a larger-than-usual crew (more than seven), I head to California Adventure and buy one turkey leg at any stand (US$12.99), one sliced loaf of sourdough from Pacific Wharf Café (US$6.49) and an arugula side salad (US$5.29) from Pym Test Kitchen. Stop by any condiment area and grab packets of salt, pepper, mustard and mayo. Pick a table, get to work with two forks pulling all the meat off the turkey leg, spread mustard on half the slices and mayo on the other half, add the arugula and the turkey, a dash of pepper and salt. You will get 10 sandwiches — enough to feed all your Mouseketeers — and spend less than $25. Winner winner, turkey dinner (or lunch). — Carmelita Ramírez-Sánchez, 22-year annual pass holder and twice-a-month visitor
34. Make a reservation at Plaza Inn or Jolly Holiday to enjoy a convenient seat and view for the parade rather than vying for sidewalk space and getting jostled by other guests. — Stephanie Breijo
35. My favourite food at Downtown Disney is at the Blue Ribbon Corn Dogs stand, which sells a hot dog inside a pickle that’s deep fried in batter — so good! You can also pay extra for a side of peanut butter dip. — Dunya Dost
36. The best way to end your night at Disneyland is with the grilled cheese and tomato soup at the Jolly Holiday. It’s so good, especially after a long day of walking around the park. There’s also a grilled cheese birria sandwich that’s available seasonally and comes with a side of consommé. — Dunya Dost
37. If you want a good experience with a “fuzzy” Disney character covered by a costume, remember that the people inside those costumes aren’t permitted to talk and have no peripheral vision. So if you’re standing behind Pluto or off to the side of Winnie the Pooh, they can’t see you or answer if you shout at them. The best way to have a good interaction is to plant yourself directly in front of the character and start a conversation that’s pertinent to the character, such as, “Hey Winnie, have you lost your honey again?” They can’t answer, but they will happily respond with gestures and hugs. — Dana Johnston
38. Face characters like Alice in Wonderland, Tinker Bell and the Mad Hatter can talk, but they always have to stay in character when they’re interacting with park visitors. So when you talk to them, talk to the character, not the person wearing the costume. Questions like “How can you stand that hot costume?” or “Where do you really live?” will be politely ignored or deflected. Alice is a 12-year-old girl from Oxford, so the answer to “Where do you live?” will always be “Oxford.” For the best interaction, ask questions pertinent to the character and play along. You’ll both have more fun. — Piper Gillin, former Disneyland cast member for nearly 12 years, who most frequently portrayed Alice in Wonderland or Tinker Bell
39. Don’t overlook Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, because that’s the least crowded, best air-conditioned spot in the park to rest your feet on a hot day. However, it seems to be where all the teenagers go to make out. — Anna Glynne, frequent childhood visitor in the ’70s, who as a parent brought kids back “every spring like clockwork”
40. I love hanging out in the lobby of the Grand Californian Hotel. Anyone can picnic there and listen to the wonderful piano music by the fire. There’s an easy entrance to it from California Adventure. — Sara Levine, 40-plus-time visitor
41. There’s a little patio on the water between the Matterhorn Bobsleds and It’s a Small World where few people go. The far decks of the Harbour Galley overlooking the river also provide a nice respite. — Sara Levine
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