As I participate in the various online forums dedicated to the Disney universe, one of the most frequently asked questions I read is “I’m going to Disneyland for the first time, what do I need to know?” Of course, there are many ways to respond to that question, but I’ve learned thru many years of experience that there are 10 things that every first-time visitor should know in order to have the most magical and carefree experience possible. My response falls into three main categories: tickets/passes, hotels, and what to do in the park. So, here is my list of ten must-knows, in no particular order…
1) Buy your tickets online before you go
Every time I visit Disneyland Resort, I watch in agony as dozens of people wait in line to buy their entrance tickets to the parks. Tickets to Disneyland are a sizeable spend, and as they say “time is money”, so don’t waste your time and money standing in line at Guest Relations to buy tickets. The most effective and efficient way to get those precious tickets is to browse on over to the Disney website at https://disneyland.disney.go.com/ There they lay out all of your ticket options, and once you decide, the purchase is fast and easy. Then, Disney will send them right to your email inbox. When you get to Disneyland go straight to the turnstile, show your digital tickets to the cast member on your phone, they will scan them, take your picture and print out your park tickets right there. Voila! You’re in. No waiting 🙂
2) Do not park hop
I know, I know, all of those fanatics out there will be aghast when they read this, but once again, time is money at Disneyland, so plan to get the most bang for your buck by not park hopping. We park hopped for years, then only our teenagers park hopped, now we rarely hop. A few things factor into that, not the least of which is the fact that buying 1 park per day is less expensive. Also, your feet will thank you no matter how old you are. It is approximately one mile from the middle of Disneyland to the middle of California Adventure, and with moderate crowds, and without running, it takes about 20 minutes to make the journey, so hopping once takes nearly an hour round trip. Don’t waste the time and energy. There are only 2 parks, Disneyland, and California Adventure. Each park takes a whole day to enjoy. I recommend a 3-day park-a-day ticket, which costs only slightly more than a 2-day pass. There is more to do and see at Disneyland so go to Disneyland the first day, California Adventure the second, then back to Disneyland to re-ride your favorites and catch anything you missed the first day.
3) Make a Disneyland attraction plan
The offerings at Disneyland Resort are so many and so varied, that there is literally something for each person. A lot of somethings in fact. In order to sort thru all of those offerings and find the ones that most appeal to you, and not waste your time wandering the park trying to figure out what looks good, I recommend that you read up on each attraction and make a list ranking them from most important to least. Then spend your day checking them out and checking them off.
4) Download the Disneyland App
If you haven’t already, download the Disneyland app and create a free account. Then login to the app and get familiar with it. Luckily, Disney has created an app that’s very intuitive and easy to use. This app will be the key to most of your Disney experiences during your stay. With the app you can do quite a lot, including:
- Navigate the parks with the map
- See what attractions are available each day
- See show times and locations
- See all of the attraction wait times
- See which attractions open and close throughout the day
- Order food
- Get fast passes (if and when they reinstate the fast pass system or it’s next iteration)
- Access your photos (when and if this is available)
- Much more
If you are with a group that plans to stay together, link your park tickets in the app so you can access things as a group. Use the map in the app (sorry for the alliteration 🙂 ) to get acquainted with the park layout before you go, and note the locations of the attractions on your list. Throughout your stay, you can use the app to see which of your chosen attractions have the shortest wait times and plan your day accordingly.
5) Wear comfortable shoes - not kidding here
Disneyland Resort is fairly spread out, and to get to all of the attractions requires quite a bit of walking. We average 10 miles a day at Disneyland, and lots of standing, sometimes on hot pavement, so your feet will be taxed to their limits. So wearing comfortable shoes is a must. Preferably not brand-new ones. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say their new shoes were killing them at Disneyland, I could buy Bitcoin 🙂 Make sure you’re wearing good-fitting comfortable shoes that are intended for walking or running. I also discovered that good comfy socks make a big difference too. Everyone’s feet are different, so before you go to the parks, take some time to find the shoes that work best for you. Sometimes I bring a change of shoes just to give my feet a break and believe me it helps.
6) Make dinner reservations at a restaurant in the park - and well in advance
We prefer dinner reservations rather than lunch because the locals are arriving, and it gets pretty crowded at that time. My favorite restaurants in Disneyland are the Carnation café and the Blue Bayou. Everything is delicious at the Carnation Café, but I love the fried pickles and Walt’s favorite meat loaf the most and they are reasonably priced. I also recommend reservations at Blue Bayou if available. This restaurant is in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and has incredible ambiance. The food is a bit pricey, but you will not regret it. Ask for a view of the water, it is worth the extra wait.
7) Stay at a hotel near the parks
Just outside the East entrance to Disneyland, along Harbor Blvd, are several very nice Disney Good Neighbor hotels. Most of these are very nice and the prices are what you’d expect. I recommend staying at one of these if possible. These are the closest hotels to the turnstiles for both parks and give you the chance to run back to the room if you forgot anything, to take a mid-day break (which I strongly recommend), and I can’t tell you how nice it is to get to the end of a long Disney day and not have to stand in line for a bus or shuttle, or have to walk a long ways to another property or a BnB. You can read my top hotel picks here. If you can spare the cash, or have time share points, stay at the Disneyland Hotel, Paradise Pier, or Grand Californian. These are the Disney hotels within the resort, so Disneylanders refer to these as “staying on property”. These are all very nice hotels, with Disney theming and top notch amenities. Possibly the best perk from staying on property is getting into the parks an hour early each morning (during normal operations anyway, we’ll see how this plays out with the reopening of the parks this month). And if you stay at the Grand Californian, it has its own entrance into California Adventure – come on in! We felt like royalty the first time we used that entrance 🙂
8) Buy the Fast Pass if it is available
The Disneyland Fast Pass system is a way to bypass the attraction queue, called the Stand-By queue. Before Covid changes took place, Fast Pass was integrated into the Disneyland app. All you had to do was link your ticket or annual passport, and those of each person in your group if riding together, then request Fast Passes with the app. Disneyland allowed one Fast Pass every two hours. Disney is apparently re-doing the Fast Pass system and we don’t have details as of this writing, but we suspect it will be replaced with something like the Magic Pass used at Walt Disney World, but run entirely thru the app. We anticipate a small fee for the ability to access the new Fast Pass system, but we felt the old system was well worth the small cost and we’re sure the new system will be too.
9) Take advantage of Disney photographers
Disneyland is a place for making memories, so take as many photos as you can, and take advantage of the Disney photographers. The shots these photographers take are always in the most desirable locations and are top quality. They even include cute graphics and overlays. The process is simple, just show the photographer your photo pass in your Disneyland app, they scan it, and you take your pics. Easy. To access these, and photos taken on attractions (like those fabulous pose-pics everyone does on Splash Mountain) Disney previously had Max Pass, which allowed guests to view and download all of their photos using the Disneyland app. Also, if you purchased the Fast Pass, you got Max Pass for free. Photos taken by a Disney photographer automatically appear in the photos section of the Disneyland app. To add your attraction photos as well, just look for your photo on the screens at the exit of the attraction, find the code at the bottom, then go to the photos section of the app and add the photo using the code. Photos are usually available for viewing immediately or after a short wait. We are sure that Disney will roll out a new version of Max Pass as well, and we suspect that they will keep the fee low. Should still be worth it.
10) Attractions not to miss
Here is my personal list of attractions and shows not to miss during your first trip:
- Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance
- Indiana Jones: Temple of the Forbidden Eye
- Pirates of the Caribbean
- Haunted Mansion
- Space Mountain
- Big Thunder Mountain
- Fireworks Show (when it returns)
- Toy Story Midway Mania
- Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout
- Radiator Springs Racers
- Ariel’s Undersea Adventure
- Soaring Around the World (Soaring Over California)
- Wonderful World of Color (when it returns)