Disneyland Tips: How to Make the Most out of Your Day at Disney with the Family

This is a guest post by Dori Kaplan.

My family is not one to dilly dally when it comes to Disney. Our motto is: structured, organized fun. In our most recent visit, we managed to go on all of the best rides within three hours of arriving at the park. Not only that, but we did not wait in a single line longer than half an hour. Those of you familiar with Disney lines will understand how big of an accomplishment this is, especially for a beautiful day during spring break. To help out other families who are hoping the maximize their day at Disney, here are some tips from my family.

**Note: usually we go to California Adventure and Disneyland – each for one day – but this year we just went to Disneyland. These tips apply for both parks.

Fantasyland – copyright Deborah Abrams Kaplan

1. Get there when it opens. RIGHT when it opens.

To ensure that you make it on all the best rides before the lines grow unbearably long, it’s important to arrive right at opening time. For regular old customers like us, that means waking up at 6 a.m. and scarfing down breakfast to make it there at 8:00, opening time. After getting into the park, knock down all the other tourists and run to your favorite ride. They are just obstacles in the way of a short wait time. If you are staying at a Disney hotel, you get the bonus of being able to go to the park at 7. Take advantage! Some factors to remember when deciding what time to wake up and leave, include parking, taking the tram into the park and security (it usually takes us an additional 20 minutes for all of that once we arrive before opening bell).

2. Master the Fast Pass system

Disney is very generous because they have a great system that allows you to get on the best rides without a wait if you use it right…and it’s totally free! Here is how the Fast Pass works: You go to the ride you would like a Fast Pass for (most big rides, but not all have them). There will be a machine – all you have to do is insert your park ticket and it will distribute one Fast Pass. The Fast Pass has a one hour time range on it. You must wait until that time to use the Fast Pass, and it expires by the end of that time range.

The various lines for Hyperspace Mountain. Copyright Deborah Abrams Kaplan

You can get multiple Fast Passes and here is how that works: you can get one every two hours OR get another once you have hit the start time of the most recent Fast Pass you got. There will be a special line for Fast Pass holders that will bring you almost right to the front. There are only a certain number of passes per ride, so they can be distributed quickly. You might want to get ahold of Fast Passes for the most popular rides early on.

The starting and ending time of a Fast Pass. Copyright Dori Kaplan

For example: Hyperspace Mountain (Disneyland), Star Tours (Disneyland), Splash Mountain (Disneyland), Soarin’ over California (California Adventure) and Radiator Racers (California Adventure). Consider sending one person to get Fast Passes while the others wait in line for a ride. There is no better feeling in the whole world than walking right on a ride, and watching everyone else standing there waiting.

3. Waiting in line

Unfortunately, sometimes you just need to suck it up and wait in the long line. For this, I would suggest getting games like Heads Up on your phone to play. It is very fun, social and very popular (you will find MANY other groups playing this game in line as well). Bonus: you can download the Heads Up Disney deck (you find it in decks to purchase inside the app) FOR FREE if you are inside a Disney park. You must turn your location for this to work. You can also play verbal games that do not require a phone, like Mad Libs. Every family has their own versions of these, but things like I Spy, Ghost and Umbrella are good.

4. Not everything is a hidden Mickey

I’m sure you have heard of Hidden Mickeys, Mickey Mouse heads secretly placed on rides and attractions throughout the park. These can be a lot of fun, but don’t over analyze it. Just because you see three circles does not make it a Hidden Mickey. That being said, there are a lot of cool ones throughout the park (there are many websites and books about it if you are interested). Some of our favorites include on the globe poster at Astroblasters (in the line and after the ride), on a wall during the bomb scene on Pirates of the Caribbean, and on a shield at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Debbie’s 2nd highest score

5. Bring your own food

This is a big one! Food at the parks can be expensive and quite frankly, most of it sucks. To avoid the food, bring your own meals and lots of snacks. Especially when you are travelling with pesky kids like me, it’s good to be able to whip out snacks in line at a moment’s notice. Some snack ideas include trail mix, apple slices, squeezable applesauce, goldfish, pretzels and grapes. We usually go to Trader Joe’s and pick up salads before heading to the park. This allows us to eat whenever and wherever we want, and work (I mean, go on rides) through lunch, when lines typically get a little smaller.

**Extra tip: Put all your stuff in a backpack. You can bring so many things in them for the family, including food. You will be able to get on all the rides with it (even California Screamin’, the upside down coaster in California Adventure. I promise you won’t lose it!). You can even have a kids’ backpack that they take turns wearing.

6. Ask and you shall receive

If you want to go in the front of the ride, don’t stand there praying for it. Just ask! They will probably let you on. This tip applies to anything else you need in the park and life in general. They might say no, but they will never say yes if you don’t ask. You’re welcome!

7. Get a Disney app

There are several great Disney apps that you can download if you are going to Disneyland. They will become your lifeline in the park. The one I have is the official Disney app, it’s just called Disneyland. The main feature is an interactive map. You can set it to locate the rides, bathrooms, characters or shows. If you click on the rides, it tells you the wait time which is immensely helpful if you are planning to do everything as efficiently as possible, like us. It also shows you where you are on the map, and includes other features that I have not needed to use. The one my mom has is called DLR Lines. It shows you all the wait times for both parks in a list. It can always be helpful to have multiple people downloading different apps to cross-check the wait times.s a Small World!

It’s a Small World clock tower show. Copyright Deborah Abrams Kaplan

8. By night, the employees have given up

Okay, not always true, but by night the employees stop looking so closely at your Fast Passes. You can get away with more things like handing them Fast Passes for the wrong time, or showing them the right amount in the beginning then turning in less when they collect them. Sometimes, they neglect to collect your passes. This is how we once went on Big Thunder Mountain four times in a row at 10:00 p.m.

9. Ditch your group (aka go single rider)

Going single rider is a great strategy to skip lines, as long as you don’t mind riding alone (or especially if you want a break from your family). We usually do this midday in between Fast Passes when the lines are too long. You can significantly reduce your ride time by going single rider (most major rides have a single rider line). This is especially helpful on Big Thunder Mountain (Disneyland), California Screamin’ (California Adventure), Indiana Jones (Disneyland), and Radiator Racers (California Adventure).

10. Conserve your phone battery

Conserving your battery is essential for a day in the park. Turn on battery saving mode and close every app when you’re done using it. I also read that it’s best to turn on airplane mode in underground rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and Hyperspace Mountain, because your phone expends extra energy searching for a WiFi signal. However, my family keeps our phones on airplane mode for the entire time, except of course when checking ride times on our Disney apps or if we’re separated.

11. Get ice cream for dinner

Self explanatory. Just do it! It’s delicious and better than regular park food. Plus, your kids will think you’re the coolest parent ever.

Get some ice cream for dinner at the Golden Horseshoe. Copyright Deborah Abrams Kaplan

12. Be careful where you buy your food.

All the restaurants in Disney are overpriced, sorry! There is nothing you can do about that. You can however, make sure you get the most for what you pay. For example, the Bengal Tiger (near Jungle Cruise) has pretty good skewers, but you barely get any food (at least if you order chicken). The Golden Horseshoe has decent ice cream in huge portions, but their fries are small. Almost all the fries on the park are small, but are delicious by Disney standards. In California Adventure, there is both a Boudin and Ghirardelli Square (so amazing) on the pier. The churros at Disneyland smell intoxicating, but we have never had any as we usually go on Passover. Be careful though, as they pump out fake smells to make their way into your wallet!

You can wear your ears on Astroblasters

13. Don’t lose your ears¬†

We had two close calls this trip. In both instances, my cousin and I left our Mickey ears in those under the seat compartments. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you will remember them, because you won’t. Instead, leave them in your backpack or hold them between your legs on the ride. Wear them as much as possible on rides (unless the ride moves quickly). Only take them off when you have to. If you forget them, don’t go into panic mode or start mourning the loss. Instead, talk to a ride employee and they will help you retrieve your ears.

14. Don’t buy merchandise in the park if you can buy it cheaper online

I acknowledge that for some people, shopping is part of the Disney experience. But $14 for a pin? No thanks. Instead of submitting to their outrageous prices, do some online shopping (going to the Disney Store does NOT count) to find a cheaper t-shirt, stuffed animal, pin or whatever you are looking for. You can even make your own stuff! Here are some things that my cousin Caroline and I have made throughout the years (I am willing to sell them too, so let me know if you’re interested! This will be my only plug).

Necklace by Dori and Caroline

15. Hack the photo system

We all love getting photos on rides, but here’s something shocking – they’re expensive! There are two solutions if you are committed to keeping these photos. The first one is to take a picture of the picture when you get off the ride. It won’t be the highest quality, but what were you going to do with that photo anyway? The second best option is to purchase a Disney photo pass. They go for $39, and allow you to get all your photos from any ride. It’s a much better alternative to purchasing every single photo. This pass includes photos taken by the Disney photographers, who like to panhandle you as you walk past Main Street and the castle. Additionally, if you ride Astroblasters (which I highly recommend), you are able to email your photo to yourself for free. See it above.

16. Work the water rides

Most people are pretty grumpy about water rides, they just don’t want to get wet. First of all, I say this from experience, but it doesn’t really matter if you get wet (publisher’s note: she said this because she wasn’t sitting in front). The weather is normally good and you will dry off quickly. If you still are going to moan and groan about getting splashed on a WATER RIDE, then think ahead and bring a rain poncho or jacket and stick it in your backpack. We usually use ours to cover our legs instead of upper bodies (legs dry slower, plus who likes wet jeans?). Finally, if you really hate getting wet, sit in the middle. Rides like Splash Mountain (Disneyland) soak the person in front, but don’t affect the middle and back too much. *Side note – the only time the single rider line isn’t much faster is on Splash Mountain. The only real bonus is they will most likely stick you in the back and you’ll get less wet.

17. Jungle Cruise maps!

Jungle Cruise is a very iconic ride with a lot of character. I read online that you can ask for an antique map at the end of the ride and they will give it to you. I was a little skeptical, but we asked someone in a booth after getting off, and she gave us all maps.

Get a free jungle cruise map at the end of the ride – by asking! Copyright Deborah Abrams Kaplan


18. Look up Disneyland secrets before you go

The aren’t actually secrets, but you can find out a lot of interesting facts. Go to more than one website and try searching different things to get a variety of fun facts.

19. Have a pedometer

If you do Disney as hard as we do, you will surely take an astounding amount of steps. We took around 25,000 on our most recent trip.

20. Take a picture of the back of your ticket

If you lose your ticket (you need it for fast passes) it is easier to replace if you have the photo.

21. Get a birthday pin if it’s your birthday!¬†

This doesn’t get you anything free, but people will be really nice to you and you’ll feel fancy. You can get them at City Hall, check to see if there’s a second line. Sometimes you can avoid the wait.

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