Disneyland is well Disneyland. With children, you can’t really go wrong surprising them with a few days at the parks. And the California version of Disney is much smaller than the combined parks in Florida so you can see much more in a shorter period. There are so many Disney planning websites who specialize in these visits which are all great – but our hope is to help families who want quick notes on how to make the most of their stay.
First, any Disney trip is much better if you plan to arrive at when they open. Arriving mid-morning is a sure way to spend your entire day waiting in lines and wondering why you spent so much money on tickets. After all, this part of your trip is for your kids and it costs a lot so an early morning is simply part of the experience. The amusement park is divided into two parts – Disneyland and California Adventure Park. In Florida, we rarely purchase the Park Hopper option as the parks are far apart and you can spend an entire day at any one of them so there is little reason to spend time visiting two in a day. However, at Disneyland, the two parks are right across the parking lot from each other and it is worth it to add the Park Hopper option. We are also fans of the dining plan as we have found you can use the snacks to cover an entire meal (don’t waste these on water bottles – buy those cash and focus on food) and the meals work at the character dining which you will want to book beforehand as they fill quickly. Our recommendation is to make reservations for Ariel’s Grotto, breakfast at Chip and Friends at Storyteller’s Cafe, and again at the Plaza Inn for Minnie’s breakfast and dinner at Wine Country Trattoria your last night.
As for how to plan your day, there are a lot of mobile apps which show wait times and how busy rides are but they are often wrong (and some guests will even try to submit wrong wait times to try to get people to move to other areas so they can reduce lines in their area). The best option we have found is purchasing the Ridemax application (link below) before your visit. It is a small amount $15 or so but it allows you to see ratings on everything in the park (what is good and what is not), choose the day of the week you are visiting, select the items your kids would enjoy, enter breaks for lunch or downtime and the software will then print an itinerary of how you should visit those attractions (and where you should get Fast Passes for later in the day) so you spend the least amount of time in lines. We’ve used it a number of times and it’s made a huge difference in how you spend your day. So if you arrive when the park opens, pre-plan your meals and spend $15 on the app, you can build your own plan for visiting the park which reduces all of the stress of visiting these two parks.
For lodging, Disney is set up to give their hotel guests all of the advantages. You can fight the system or simply go along with it. Disney hotel guests get added time at the parks; which especially in the morning hours let you get Fast Passes for later in the day to the most popular rides and to visit (using RideMax) the busiest attractions early so once the park gets busy you can ride the less known rides later in the day. If you purchase items at the park, you don’t have to carry them around all day as they will ship them back to your room directly to be there in the evening. We chose a small room at the Grand Californian as you and your kids will likely fall asleep each night immediately, so there is little value to a big suite or multiple rooms in our opinion.
Finally, a small tip which doesn’t get advertised is you will most likely want to see the Fantasmic show on one of your nights. But what they don’t tell you (and you quickly notice once the show begins) is some of the kids will have mouse ears which have transmitters that make the ears glow the same colors as the lights. It’s one of those small details you see on vacation and you wonder how did these people know about that? Be sure to find a vendor who sells “Glow with the Show” ears before it starts and don’t tell your kids as they’ll love that they are in on the show.
Again, there are hundreds of websites which specialize in Disney trips, rides and meals, but for those of us who are busy and don’t want to become Disney experts, our tips are – add the park hopper, Disney meal plans, make dining reservations well ahead (months ahead if possible), arrive early, buy Ridemax and print a plan, and stay at a Disney hotel. After an afternoon, a full day and then a late morning, we were ready to head back to LAX and home from our trip.
And for more details on surrounding areas see our full itineraries for Ojai, Catalina and Southern California or destination notes for Ojai, Catalina Island, San Diego, Joshua Tree/Palm Springs, Newport Beach and Los Angeles.