We recently returned from Disneyland, and I was less than prepared. We didn’t quite have the magical experience we anticipated, as I shared here. Despite the hard times, there were great memories created too. Our experiences, both the good and the bad, inspired me to write my Disneyland for Dummies: Part One guide. I wasn’t going to break it into 2 parts, but the word count just kept growing, and I thought it would be easier for readers if I broke it into more manageable chunks. Disneyland for Dummies: Part Two will be coming soon.
I wanted to address our Disneyland trip in this manner because I felt like I was prepared. I had read online articles and asked friends for advice. So many of the posts I found online seemed to be along the theme of “How to Do Disney Like a Pro” and targeted more seasoned park goers. I think a more dumbed down Disney guide is more helpful for first time park visitors.
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Disneyland for Dummies: Part One
The biggest mistake I think we made was not going in with a plan. We could have saved so much time, had a better experience and moved with more purpose and yet allowed for a more laid back experience if I had put more effort into preparation.
Part of preparing to go is packing, and if you want my #1 tip for packing with kids, this is a must read post.
Let’s move forward with my best BEGINNING TIPS in this Disneyland for Dummies: Part One post.
Must Buys Before You Go to Disneyland
If you want to save yourself some money, like we did, I have a a few tips for what to buy before you head to the park.
- Pin Trading Paraphernalia – Pin trading is a super cool Disneyland tradition. Many park employees and loads of the guests of Disneyland have a lanyard filled with official Disney trading pins as pictured above. Employees will trade any of their pins and some guests will trade as well. These pins can be expensive to buy individually in the park. We went to eBay and were able to buy 30 tradable pins for $15. I went to the Dollar Store and bought a lanyard for each child and let my kids take turns choosing from the 30 pins. Therefore, each child (I have 3) started out with a lanyard and 10 tradable pins that cost a total of $6 each (pins + lanyard). In the park, you can approach any employee, ask if they want to trade a pin and then pick out the ones you want to exchange. The kids LOVED trading pins throughout their Disney experience, and it became an inexpensive and yet meaningful souvenir that also kept them entertained.
- T-Shirts – We decided to avoid purchasing clothes in Disneyland and instead bought our t-shirts online so the Mickey Mouse shirts could be part of the Disney announcement. It was fun to be able to wear these on our plane trip and first day visit to Downtown Disney, a shopping and restaurant area outside of the parks and a good place to visit to get your feet wet the first day you arrive if you don’t have tickets for the parks that day.
- Hand Sanitizer and Baby Wipes – Even if you don’t have a baby, baby wipes are fabulous to have on hand. We used them a number of times and my kids are 5, 7 and 8. Hand sanitizer is a must too. We did not get sick after Disneyland, and I think it’s because we were more diligent than usual about using hand sanitizer.
- Snacks – We were able to pack our stroller (a must have in my opinion) with ZBars, Horizon Super Squeeze, Apples and water bottles. Having simple snacks on hand saved both time and money.
- Dramamine – If you have issues with motion sickness, having some Dramamine available to take at the beginning of the day is a great option.
Planning Your Accommodations for Disneyland
There are a lot of different views about where to stay when you are visiting the Disneyland parks. I reached out to my Facebook friends and got a varied amount of opinions.
Some of my friends have done both the Disney hotel and alternative, cheaper hotel options. Many said it is not worth it to pay the extra to stay in a Disneyland hotel. Others wouldn’t do anything but stay in a Disney hotel – especially the first time.
With a variety of thoughts, it’s hard to make the decision, but we opted for a mid-priced hotel right outside of Disneyland – The Fairfield Inn by Marriott. It was decent experience, with my only real complaint being that it was fairly noisy when we were trying to go to bed.
In retrospect, I wish we had chosen the Courtyard Marriott. It was a little bit pricier, but it has the fun waterslides at the pool. We were at Disneyland, so I thought the pool didn’t matter. However, the kids were begging to go back and be in the pool by mid-day, and we did have one day dedicated entirely to being at the hotel. For our family, the pool was an unexpected priority, so it would have been nice to have the slides.
Here are some other hotels recommended by my own friends and what stood out to them about their experiences:
- Hilton Convention Center – water park, gate to gate shuttle service or a cheap public transit bus.
- Staybridge Suites – They offer large suites with kitchens, a free full cooked breakfast every morning and an evening reception with hot dogs, burgers, etc. This keeps the food costs down.
- Good Neighbor Hotel – 6 blocks from Disney, had free breakfast (which was great) and was significantly less expensive.
- Candycane Inn – breakfast, a shuttle, and a great price
Preparing Your Kids for Disneyland
We did not do a good enough job preparing our kids for Disneyland. Of course they have all kinds of expectations built up in their minds…we did too. Sometimes expectations can lead to disappointment, and this was our experience.
For our sensory kid, I wish we had prepared her for the overwhelming sights and sounds. We brought ear plugs, but she didn’t like those and her noise cancelling headphones may have been a better option. Being mentally prepared for the experience is super important for sensory kids, and I wish I had done a better job. Making a plan with her would have been beneficial.
We needed to explain more to our kids about the wait times and crowds. We had planned our trip for when the crowd predictors said “ghost town,” but the crowd predictors were not right. It was so busy, and I don’t think any of us was prepared for the congestion.
We did successfully prepared our kids for souvenirs. We gave a budget and explained we would be making choices on the last day. Many of the major rides spit out into a themed store. Preparing them ahead of time that they could briefly look but that we wouldn’t be buying at that moment was important. Instead, they could make a mental note or we could take a picture of something that interested them so we could be better prepared for making final choices.
Understanding Magic Mornings and How to Make the Most out of Them
I have to mention Magic Mornings because, as a beginner, this was yet another thing we did wrong. That said, we were not the only ones who did not understand how it worked. We were in good company as we stood in long line 2 hours early to get into California Adventures because of this misunderstanding. There was much chatter in the line about how people didn’t quite get how it works.
What is Magic Morning? “With Magic Morning, an early admission option, Disneyland Resort Guests (with valid 3+ day ticket) enjoy one early admission (during the duration of theme park ticket or Southern California CityPASS) to select attractions, stores, entertainment and dining locations in Disneyland park for one full hour before the parks open to the general public on select days.”
That’s the explanation from Disney. Let me break it down a bit more. Magic Morning is available to be purchased and gets you into the park early. That said it can only be used at Disneyland on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
What we did wrong: We thought we were able to use this at Disneyland on Tuesday or Thursday but at California Adventures on Wednesday. That was not correct. We had confused it with the extra magic hour, available for Guests who book and stay at a Disneyland Resort Hotel. The extra magic hour can be used in either park but I repeat the Magic Morning can only be used at Disneyland on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Therefore, we showed up early to California Adventures on Wednesday to use our early morning and were not allowed in. We had been told to use the extra hour to try and get on Radiator Spring Racers. It was still the first fast past we obtained in California Adventures, but not quite as quickly as we had hoped.
We ended up using our Magic Morning in Disneyland on Thursday and used it to get in line for Jedi training. Jedi Training is a stage performance where the kids get to train to be a Jedi and then take on the dark forces in lightsaber battles and using the force. The line is long. When you get into the park early, you still have to wait until the park opens before they start processing the line. We watched the line grow out of control and were glad we were toward the front even though we used up our Magic Morning hour. That said, my husband waited in line while I took the kids on other rides in Tomorrowland until they had to be back present to sign-up.
If Jedi training is not a priority, I would definitely go to the most busy and high priority rides at park first. I’d also grab a fast pass for a desired ride.
Apparently I didn’t read up and understand about FASTPASSes well enough before I went to Disneyland. I thought I could gather up a bunch of FASTPASSes to organize my day. Therefore, when we entered the park on the first day we went directly to Star Tours for a FASTPASS. I then had my family wait while I ran down to Hyperspace Mountain to gather more FASTPASSes. What I quickly found out is that you really can only have one FASTPASS per person at a time…kind of.
A FASTPASS can be obtained in a short, quickly moving kiosk line. You grab the FASTPASS, and it gives you a window of time where you can return to ride to get in the fast pass line. I would say that if the standby line is about a 40 minute wait, you will get through in the fast pass line typically within 10-15 minutes. The FASTPASS ticket will say something like: Return to the ride between 1:15 and 2:15 to get in the fast pass line. It will also say at the bottom, “Your next FASTPASS is available at 1:15.”
What we would do is grab our next fast pass before using our current FASTPASS. For example, if I had a 12:00 FASTPASS to Indiana Jones, I would go to Splash Mountain at 12:00 to grab my FASTPASS before heading to Indiana Jones to ride the ride. These two rides are reasonably close together, and one adult can go run to get the next FASTPASS while the other does another ride, grabs a snack or explores a bit more before the appointed ride.
One thing to note is that you can hold two FASTPASS tickets simultaneously if you have one from Disneyland and one from California Adventures. Therefore, if you do have park hopper tickets, you can grab a FASTPASS in one park and then immediately head to the other park to obtain another FASTPASS. We did not do this, and I would probably only recommend it for the more seasoned Disney family, but I thought I would mention it if it sounds worth it to you.
Another note about FASTPASSes is that if you want a FASTPASS to the Color of Wonder show at California Adventures, you need to get that first thing in the morning. These are distributed on a first come first serve basis and give you access to reserved seating with better viewing for the show. You can hold a Color of Wonder FASTPASS and a ride FASTPASS at the same time.
I wouldn’t use a FASTPASS if the wait is 25 minutes or less. FASTPASSes do run out, so make sure to hit the most popular rides like Radiator Spring Racers first. Save time by having only one family member get into the line to obtain a FASTPASS.
Arranging Character Dining Experiences at Disneyland and California Adventures
One of the tips I was given and grateful for was to plan a character dining experience. We planned this event for breakfast of our first morning. We wanted to start things out as magical as possible. I also loved that, for us, meeting a bunch of the characters at breakfast (Goofy, Chip & Dale, Minnie Mouse, and Pluto) helped get meeting characters out of their system. This experience seemed to fill their tank in that area.
I asked my friends and Goofy’s Kitchen was highly recommended. We loved it. It is a bit of money, but I felt like it was worth it. It was a really fun buffet that including items like peanut butter and jelly pizza, Mickey Mouse pancakes, Mickey Mouse waffles, and a huge variety of traditional breakfast food. Everyone will find something they like at the amazing buffet. We kind of let our kids do a free for all, grabbing whatever they want. I’m not sure that was a great idea in retrospect, but hey, we were on vacation.
There were times where the character would come out and dance with the kids, and everyone would parade around swinging their napkins together.
If the kids in your group are more into Princesses, I hear Ariel’s Grotto is also fabulous. Visit the character dining experience link to get a list of all the locations available for this dining experience. You will want to make a dining reservation through this link prior to your trip.
Tips for the Paint the Night Parade at Disneyland
Disney pulls out all the stops in the Paint the Night Parade and Fireworks show. Paint the Night and the Fireworks show are in Disneyland. The World of Color Show is in California Adventures.
I began to notice that the sidewalks were filling up 3 hours – 3 hours! – before the Paint the Night Parade began, and so I sat down to save our spot. I would recommend checking Main Street starting about three hours before and continue peeking every 30 minutes or so if you want a prime spot. I also recommend taking turns reserving the spot and letting the other adult keep the kids entertained by other rides or experiences. One thing I noticed is that people could slip in and make room for themselves later so maybe 3 hours wasn’t necessary.
We grabbed spots on the circle at the end of Main Street. Please note that the parade circles around the right side of the circle (Tomorrowland side) if you are looking at the castle, so do not claim spots on the left half of the circle. Main Street is another great place to claim spots.
Fireworks happen about 20 minutes after the parade ends, so stay in your spot to experience the magical show that happens next. People are able to fill in the streets at that time, so know that you can do that too or just remain where you were for the parade.
If you don’t want to wait and are willing to spend money, one option is to to pay a bit more for dinner that night and receive a voucher for a reserved location. These can be obtained through meal packages available at Aladdin’s Oasis or Blue Bayou. This seems like a great option if money isn’t tight. You can make your reservations online.
Tips for World of Color Show at Disney California Adventure
When we made our way to get a FASTPASS for the World of Color show, they were all out. Passes are available on a first-come, first-served basis outside Grizzly River Run. I would pick these up first thing in the morning to reserve your spot.
We had to arrive early to the show (I think about 1.5 hours early) to claim a sidewalk spot right outside of Ariel’s Undersea Adventure. It was an OK spot, but the kids did have a hard time seeing. We had to be there pretty early, but we did take turns saving the spot so the other adult could continue taking kids on rides.
There are dining options available for premium seats at the World of Color show also. I wish we had taken advantage of planning a meal at Ariel’s Grotto, but there are also options available at at Wine Country Trattoria or Carthay Circle Restaurant. Reserve a spot before your trip here.
Disneyland for Dummies: Part Two…
Disneyland for Dummies: Part Two will be coming soon. I have reserved some of my best tips from a newbie for that post. I’ll be sharing the things I wish I had known and the ways I wish I had prepared to make our Disneyland experience better.
I hope you have found this post helpful as you are planning your own trip.