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Ultimate Guide to Planning Your First Disneyland Vacation

Ultimate Guide to Planning Your First Disneyland Vacation

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Planning your first Disneyland vacation requires some advance research and preparation. There’s must-know information shared here to make a first visit run more smoothly. This ultimate guide offers up the best Disneyland tips for an enjoyable trip to the Happiest Place on Earth!

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This post originally published April 17th, 2016 and has been updated and republished with a new date.

Planning Your First Disneyland Vacation

Never been to Disneyland before? Rather than just showing up and hoping that your vacation days fall into place, there are definitely a few things to consider when planning your first Disneyland vacation.

While there are certainly LOTS of things to know about taking a Disney trip, this article will cover the top things to know before planning your first Disneyland vacation!

2020 spring disneyland guide map

This complete guide offers an outline of the Disneyland California park and tips on how to best plan a first time trip. I’ve included an overview on pre-vacation requirements like purchasing park tickets, choosing best Disney hotels, and making park reservations.

Keep reading to find out about avoiding long lines for favorite attractions, height restrictions and mobile ordering food. There are additional articles linked in this post that cover Disneyland travel in more detail, so click and read for more help in planning your first Disneyland visit!

Why is Planning for Disneyland Important?

A friend of mine went to Disneyland a few years back with her granddaughter, son and daughter-in-law. The overnight trip was planned on a whim and they had one day to spend inside the Park. They’d done no research ahead of time and sadly, it turned out to be an unfortunate visit.

The Park was busy and crowded and they didn’t arrive until afternoon. The trip was a surprise for the 4-yr old, who ended up terrified of every character and ride because she wasn’t familiar with anything. The family (who were on a special diet) didn’t know what to eat. They ended up staying only a few hours in the Park and returned home, disappointed that things hadn’t worked out as they’d envisioned.

Certainly, this story broke my heart because it didn’t have to end that way at all! With a bit of preparation and planning they could have made the most of their visit. These are my tips on what you need to do before your first Disneyland vacation.

Do Your Pre-Planning Disneyland Vacation Research

Disneyland, having a smaller footprint than Walt Disney World, requires less upfront planning. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to think ahead of your trip. There are definitely things you’ll want to decide ahead of time to make the most of your vacation.

I’ve traveled to Disneyland countless times and have included many links to helpful articles in aid of your trip planning. The following sections include questions you should ask yourself in the Disneyland vacation planning process.

Get the Answers to These Questions and More In This Article-

  • Where can we get Disneyland tickets? Are reservations still required for Disneyland entry?
  • How much will a Disneyland trip cost?
  • How do I know if the parks will be busy?
  • What events are happening during our trip?
  • What hotels near Disneyland are the best?
  • Is Disney Genie+ worth the extra cost?
  • Should we pay for Individual Lightning Lane and what is it?
  • What is a Virtual Queue?
  • How do you mobile order food at Disneyland?
  • What accommodations are available for guests with special needs?

First Disneyland Vacation Basics

  • Where is Disneyland located? – Disneyland and Disney California Adventure theme parks are in Anaheim, California. This Southern California city is south of Los Angeles.
  • What is a Cast Member? – This is the term that Disney parks use for their employees. All Disneyland Cast Members wear a name tag (except for characters).
  • Can I really see Mickey Mouse at Disneyland? – Yes! Favorite characters are available for meet ‘n greet, autographs and hugs all around the parks. Use the Disneyland app to find locations and times. Read more about how to find Disney princesses at Disneyland.

I answer more of the basic questions throughout this article, so keep reading!

Deciding Which Disneyland Ticket to Buy

One of the biggest deciding factors when planning a Disneyland trip is what type of ticket to purchase and for how many days. Disneyland ticket prices increase each year, which is a good reason to purchase as soon as you can.

The Disneyland Resort offers two theme Parks – Disneyland and Disney California Adventure park. These two parks face each other across a short esplanade, only a few minute walk between them.

Ask yourself these questions before buying tickets:

  • How many days do you want to visit the parks? – The best value is in multi-day tickets. The worst value is a single day ticket.
  • Are you going to stay in one Park for the entire day? – Guests must choose to either Disneyland park or California Adventure when making reservations on a one-park per-day ticket.
  • Would your family prefer a “Park Hopper ticket”? – A Park Hopper allows guests access to both Parks on the same day.

Disneyland Theme Park Reservations

Theme park reservations are required to enter the parks. Once you have received your tickets, use the code to make reservations on the Disneyland website or through the Disneyland app.

READ MORE: Everything to know about Disneyland tickets, including how early you can book reservations and where to buy discount Disneyland tickets.

Discounted Disneyland Tickets

My travel partners at Get Away Today offer both discounted Disneyland tickets and Anaheim-area hotels to fit any budget! Many hotels include exclusive discounts like free parking, complimentary breakfast or even free nights, just for booking through Get Away Today.

Disneyland tickets purchased now are good through January 12th, 2024. Purchase your multi-day tickets through Get Away Today now.

When you’re ready to book your Disneyland vacation, my friends at Get Away Today are ready to help! Mention code REWRITTEN to receive an extra discount off your SoCal vacation package of two or more days.

What is Your Disneyland Vacation Budget?

Before you can even schedule the trip, you’ll need to figure out what your travel budget will be. Find out how much a Disneyland trip will cost and print out the free checklist to calculate your budget for the trip.

Main entrance to Avengers Campus

A few thoughts to consider when working on the budget – 

  • Are you driving or flying to get there?
  • How many days will you spend on the trip?
  • Where are you going to stay? I’ll cover more about hotels in a separate section.
  • Purchasing souvenirs in the parks, and what is your budget per family member?
  • Are you pinching pennies or going all-out? There are ultimate Disneyland splurges that can be worked into your Disney trip budget.
  • Are you dining in the parks or packing in food? Keep reading for a full section on Disneyland restaurants and tips to save money.

Disneyland Vacation Layaway

If you’re budgeting for travel, consider using a reliable Disneyland layaway plan. For just $200 down you’ll be able to book a trip to lock in current pricing and pay for it leading up to your trip. 

I recommend my travel partner Get Away Today for great hotel rates with free nights and complimentary breakfast. They also sell discounted tickets and the only refundable Disneyland tickets you’ll find!

If the cost of your vacation drops, they’ll adjust the cost for you, too. With the added Peace of Mind plan, adjustments can be made to your trip without any fees for changes.

How Much Will a Disneyland Vacation Cost? - Check out this Free Printable Checklist and check this link for tons of money saving ideas.

What Time of Year Are You Planning a Disneyland Vacation?

Every family has their personal reasons for choosing a particular vacation date. Read the section below for reasons you might consider when scheduling your trip.

Disneyland Crowd Levels

Certain times of year are going to be much more crowded than a visit in the “off season”. Disneyland is going to be more busy when kids are on school break, during holidays and over the weekends.

You may not have a choice of when your vacation break falls. In that case, read more about how to deal with crowds at Disneyland.

What Disneyland seasonal events are happening?

Disneyland offers fantastic seasonal events year-round that draw in families like the Food and Wine Festival and the Holidays at Disney California Adventure park.

Special ticketed events that take place after park hours, like Oogie Boogie Bash: A Disneyland Halloween Party are also fun and exciting to work into your trip!

Food and Wine Festival Chocolate Macaron

What is the weather like at Disneyland?

Southern California weather is generally beautiful and temperate, in the mid-70s. However there are some weather extremes, including cold, wet weather or high heats.

These ten tips will help you to survive a rainy day at Disneyland in California.

Disneyland Grand Openings

Disneyland is always changing and growing. If you’re a super-fan or want to be one of the first to experience, consider planning your trip around a new opening.

Being present for the grand opening day of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge was exciting. Highly anticipated openings, like Avengers Campus, always brings in fans.

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland Park - Millennium Falcon

Which Hotels Near Disneyland are the Best?

In addition to the 3 on-property Disneyland Resort hotels, the Anaheim area is surrounded by “Good Neighbor Hotels”. Take a look at a map of Anaheim and Garden Grove to determine which area hotels will work best for your family.

Is a Disneyland Resort Hotel a good choice? – The Grand Californian Resort & Spa, the Disneyland Hotel and Paradise Pier (soon to be Pixar Pier Hotel) are “on-site”. The costs can be very high, though there are some added perks to choosing a Resort hotel. These are a few examples:

Exclusive access for Grand Californian Hotel guests through the private Disney California Adventure theme park entrance.

Beautifully themed swimming pools with water slides. Read more about Disneyland Resort Hotel Swimming Pools.

The Disneyland Resort hotels offer their guests Early Entry to the theme parks. This extra 30 minutes in the morning can be a major perk for those looking to beat the crowds!

Having a challenging time deciding? This article compares the Disneyland Resort Vs. Anaheim Good Neighbor Hotels.

Questions to Ask When Deciding Where to Stay at Disneyland

Location & Transportation

  • Is the hotel within reasonable walking distance?
  • Is there a shuttle or is the hotel located on the ART Shuttle route?
  • Will you have a vehicle to drive to the theme parks and do you want to pay daily parking fees?
  • Is rideshare a good option?
Castle Inn and Suites is within close block walking distance

Room Type and Size

  • How many beds do you need for your group size?
  • Will a standard sized room be enough space or do you need conjoining rooms or a suite?
  • Does the room have features that are ideal for your family (separate rooms, two bathrooms, etc.)?
  • Is a kitchenette a must-have? Check out this list of 9 Hotels with a Kitchen Near Disneyland.
Homewood Suites has a full kitchen

Hotel Amenities

  • Does the hotel have what you need for your visit, including onsite dining, free Wi-Fi, or a gift shop?
  • What other activities are included in the cost, including movie night, scavenger hunt or sports?
  • Can you view fireworks from the hotel?
  • Is there a swimming pool?
View of the disneyland matterhorn and pool water park from the Courtyard Marriott in Anaheim
Courtyard Anaheim theme park entrance has an amazing water park

Budget

  • What is the cost of the room, plus taxes, resort fees and parking?
  • Does the hotel offer complimentary breakfast?
  • Are there specials for this hotel, including free nights? Use the filter on Get Away Today to find out which Anaheim hotels offer free breakfast, parking, shuttle and nights!
Springhill Suites offers complimentary breakfast

Which Disneyland Rides and Attractions Are Can’t Miss?

Before a first Disneyland vacation, your family should have a general idea of the rides, attractions and shows you want to see. Use the Disneyland website and app to gain basic knowledge and details about the rides and attractions.

Child standing in line waiting for the Autopia cars at Disneyland

Theme Park Layout – Take a look at the Park maps online to get an idea of location so you’re familiar with the “lay of the Lands”.

Itinerary – Create a loose itinerary. Check out the must-do Disneyland attractions to round out your day. Don’t forget to work in time for dining, restroom stops and rest breaks.

Consider purchasing a Disney Pocket Planner to keep track of all your travel plans as you make them.

Create a “Must-Do” List – Once everyone is somewhat familiar with the parks, ask each family member what they want to accomplish. Write this down and aim to stick to it. While you might not be able to do “all the things”, each person should be able to do/see/ride the first thing on the top of their list!

Height Restrictions – Measure all the kids and brush up on Disneyland ride height requirements. You’ll want to verify that your child will be tall enough to get on the thrill rides, especially if they’ve added them to the must-do list. There’s a free printable checklist on this article!

Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run height chart in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland
Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is 38″, which many older preschoolers hit.

Ride Questions Answered for a First Disneyland Vacation

Which rides can babies and little kids go on? – Some of the attractions at Disneyland have strict height requirements. Babies can go on any ride that doesn’t have a height restriction.

What are Single Rider Lines? – Some attractions feature a short-cut line for those who don’t mind riding separately from the rest of their party. These “single riders” are used to fill in seats in the ride vehicles. Check the Disneyland app for which rides accept Single Rider, including Matterhorn Bobsleds and Space Mountain.

What is Rider Switch? – This service is available for young guests who do not meet the height requirements for certain attractions. The Rider Switch allows adults to swap places without having to wait in the stand-by line again. Read more about Rider Switch in this article about doing Disneyland with a toddler.

What should we do while standing in line? – Check out wait times on the Disneyland app before your trip to get an idea on queue times. Stock up before your vacation with a few helpful items and things to do while waiting in line at Disneyland.

Should You Pay More for Disney Genie+?

First off, what is Disney Genie+? Disney Genie+ permits guests to schedule access to the shorter queue. This line is called Lightning Lane. Guests can book return times for the Lightning Lane on select attractions through the Disneyland app on their smart phone.

The purchase of Disney Genie+ also permits downloads of unlimited PhotoPass images taken on rides or by Disney PhotoPass photographers around the parks.

Photo credit: Disney PhotoPass

Disney Genie+ is available for purchase during your Disneyland visit to help ease line wait via access to a shorter queue. Gone are the days of free FASTPASS. For guests that want a shorter line experience, paying the extra cost for Disney Genie+ is a must.

Disney Genie+ is purchased on top of your Park ticket. Expect to pay up to $25 per guest, per day for this added benefit. My travel partner Get Away Today offers Disneyland tickets that include Disney Genie+.

Yes, it’s an additional cost to budget. But I’ve used Disney Genie+ many times. On busy days in particular, I’ve found it to be well worth the extra charge.

Should You Buy Individual Lightning Lane?

Several attractions are not linked in the Disney Genie+ system. These rides do offer a stand-by queue as well as a Lightning Lane. In order to access the shorter queue through the Lightning Lane, guests have the opportunity to purchase “a la carte” access, aka: Individual Lightning Lane.

The cost of Individual Lightning Lane varies, depending upon the attraction and demand for the day. Generally expect to pay between $15-25 per person to access the quick line for these rides.

Current rides offering Individual Lightning Lane:

  • Radiator Springs Racers
  • Rise of the Resistance
  • Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway (this ride is not currently offering a stand-by queue; only accessed via Virtual Queue or the paid Lightning Lane)
Guests riding Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure park

All About Disneyland Virtual Queues

Disneyland uses a virtual queue system for some popular attractions and shows. The “rules” for using the virtual queue may vary, depending upon which attraction you’re aiming for. I highly recommend researching on the Disneyland app before your visit to know the particular rules for each attraction using the virtual queue system.

There are often windows of opportunity that open in which guests can secure a virtual queue for that particular attraction. The virtual queue fills within seconds, so knowing how to use this feature is extremely important!

Read my friend Leslie’s tips at Trips with Tykes for securing a virtual queue for Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Disneyland.

Get Familiar with Disneyland Before You Arrive

I’ve been going to Disneyland with my kids since they were babies. Disney characters and rides are ingrained in them! But maybe your family is not as familiar with Disney lore as we are, especially if you’re just planning a first Disneyland vacation.

These are a few ways you can help get more familiar with the parks of the Disneyland Resort:

Disneyland App – Download the Disneyland app to your smart phone and play around with it. Just like the website, you’ll be able to see locations of rides, character locations, dining menus and more. Using the app before your trip will help you be more savvy with it during your vacation.

Disneyland app screenshot

Disney+ – No need to watch every Disney movie ever made before your first Disney vacation, but a general familiarity with some of the characters can be helpful, especially for young children. Many of the Disneyland parks rides are based on Disney movies.

Watching a few relevant movies before your trip will give first timers to the parks a bit of a background. Here is a post about what recommended Disney movies to watch before your trip.

YouTube – Watch YouTube videos of Disneyland attractions by searching “Disneyland ride videos”. I prefer to experience the rides during the trip rather than watching ahead of time. However this can be a useful tool if you have skittish kids.

Nervous kids can be prepped ahead of their vacation with the additional tips in this guide about everything scary at Disneyland.

Kids are scared at Disney? Check out these 5 tested tips to help kids who are nervous, anxious or scared at Disney enjoy their vacation.

Who Are You Bringing on the Disneyland Trip?

The people that you bring with you to Disneyland will determine the kind of trip you’ll have. Families with very young children will have different looking vacations than those traveling with older kids. Travelers with special needs, disabilities or pregnancies will have varying trip experiences.

I’ll outline a few notes with helpful links, based on various ages and special needs.

Teenagers holding Black Tap Crazy Shakes at Anaheim Downtown Disney District Disneyland
  • Special Needs & Disabilities- Whether traveling with someone who has autism, seated in a wheelchair or has other special needs, Disneyland offers a Disability Assistance Service (DAS). This pass allows families (up to 6 members) an alternative waiting location or line access. My friend Becca at This Crazy Adventure Called Life outlines all the details of Disneyland’s Updated Disability Access Service.
  • Pregnant – Expecting mothers might not realize that there’s a lot they can still do at Disneyland while pregnant. Many attractions do not have height restrictions, which means even expectant moms can ride with their families.
Pregnant at Disney? Expectant Mom's Complete Disney Packing List of Important Needs

Make Decisions As a Family Before You Get There

If you are taking the first Disney vacation alone, then it’s no sweat to make decisions on the fly. But if you’re traveling with your family, it’s best to have a game plan in place and get decisions made before the trip.

Know that everyone will have expectations about what they want to see and do on their first Disneyland vacation. You’ll want to make sure that those dreams are fulfilled!

As the resident “Disney fan”, I am guilty of having a plan in my head about how our Disney day is going to play out…without letting my husband know! Oops. This can lead to major disappointment if the adults aren’t on the same page.

I like dining in the Parks and my husband prefers to pack food in. I take my breaks in quiet areas inside the parks. My husband likes mid-day breaks at the hotel for swimming and napping. I like to stay in the Parks way after dark but he’s ready to leave after sunset.

If you don’t discuss these things upfront before your trip you might run into some big frustrations.

Make a rough plan of your day including what time you expect to wake, what time to get to the parks, whether you’ll take breaks back at the hotel during the day and what time you’ll leave at night.

Is a Surprise Disneyland Vacation a Good Idea?

There are many reasons why surprising kids with a Disneyland trip isn’t a good idea. Whether a “surprise trip” works for your family, definitely depends upon your child and their temperament. It can be fun to surprise kids with a Disney vacation but it can also backfire!

Also I try to dissuade parents against the Disneyland surprise vacation because half of the fun is in the anticipation and planning! Letting kids know about your vacation and having them help you in the planning stages is especially important if your children are nervous or have special needs.

Kids are scared at Disney? Check out these 5 tested tips to help kids who are nervous, anxious or scared at Disney enjoy their vacation.

Insider Tips for a First Visit to Disneyland

Have a few more Disneyland questions? These are a few of the things you won’t find on the Disneyland website but can help make your trip magical!

What’s “Rope Drop”?

Rope drop is a term that means arriving to the parks before official opening. Want to maximize your time in the Parks? Plan on arriving at “rope drop” bright and early before the gates open.

Arriving in the first two hours at Disneyland can help make the most of your day. Early morning and late night hours tend to be the least busy and allow you quicker line access to your favorite rides.

How should we pack for our Disneyland trip?

Be sure to check the 10 day forecast before your vacation to have the best idea on weather conditions.

Read up on what comfortable but cute clothes to wear at Disneyland, with suggestions from top to bottom for the entire family.

What to Eat at Disneyland

Before traveling, decide where and what you’re going to eat at Disneyland. Planning ahead can help save time and money when you can budget in advance. These are a few suggestions and tips for dining at Disneyland, along with answers to newbie questions about restaurants during a first Disneyland vacation:

Little girl in Minnie dress holding a Minnie Mouse waffle

Full-Service Dining

Table service meals include wait-staffed restaurants and character dining. These full service restaurants are often popular and include locations like Blue Bayou, Lamplight Lounge and Napa Rose.

What is Character Dining? – These are restaurants where Disney characters greet guests at their tables throughout the meal. Read more in this complete guide to Disneyland Character Dining.

Storyteller’s Cafe

Do I need Advance Dining Reservations? – Yes, for highly-coveted meals, an ADR is required. I highly recommend using MouseDining to score these hard-to-get reservations.

What’s a Walk-Up List? – Didn’t get the advance dining reservation for the table service restaurant you hoped for? Try joining the walk-up wait list on the Disneyland app or by scanning the QR code near the location.

What is a dining package? – Certain shows offer a dining package, which is a pre-set meal and voucher for a special viewing location to that show. This can include this World of Color dessert party, Fantasmic! or parade/fireworks viewing.

Each guest receives a dessert platter during the World of Color

Quick-Service Dining

These restaurants are the “fast food” of Disneyland. But don’t write off these locations, as many offer the best dining in the parks! Quick service is the best way to eat without Advance Dining Reservations, especially when used with mobile ordering.

What is Mobile Ordering? – Use the Disneyland app to place quick service dining orders. Guests can choose a time window when ordering their meal through the app. Simply press the “I’m Here” button and Cast Members at the restaurant will prepare their food. There are separate mobile order pick-up windows so you can avoid standing in long lines!

Can I bring my own food? – Disney theme parks allow all guests to pack in their own meals. This includes snacks and bottled water. Rules include no alcohol, glass containers, loose ice or hard sided containers. There are lockers for rent both inside & outside the parks for storage, if you need it.

Is there anything I can eat on a restricted diet? – Disneyland menus are easy to read on the app. Scroll to the bottom of each location’s menu to see what you’ll be able to order. There are specially made items for vegetarian, vegan and dishes for particular allergies to ingredients including gluten, egg or dairy. Read more about How to Find Healthy Food at Disneyland.

What Else is There for a First Disneyland Vacation?

Disneyland is more than just the theme parks. There’s plenty to do at the resort and surrounding SoCal area to fill your travel time.

What is the Downtown Disney District? – This outdoor shopping center is a full entertainment district, located between the Disneyland theme parks and resort hotels.

Downtown Disney can be a fun place to spend time, including restaurants and live entertainment. There’s plenty of shops including The World of Disney. Check out the family activities like bowling and dining at Splitsville Anaheim.

Splitsville Luxury Lanes is a unique retro-themed bowling alley and restaurant that's family friendly. Find out what to eat, when to visit and how to do Splitsville Anaheim with kids
Bowling at Splitsville

What’s a Hidden Mickey? – Hidden Mickey are the three circular shapes that make up Mickey’s head silhouette, “hidden” in plain sight all over the theme parks and resort. This is a fun diversion that doesn’t take any extra time. A guide book, like Disneyland’s Hidden Mickeys can help you spot them!

Are there other things to do in the area? – When planning your travel days, figure out if you’ll schedule off-park days on your trip. Consider adding days to your trip to do things outside of the Disneyland parks.

Leave time for exploring the Disneyland Resort hotels, character dining, swimming, and other Southern California attractions.

Best Ways to Research a First Disneyland Vacation

The first Disney vacation research stop should be the official Disneyland website. Guests will be able to access an entertainment schedule, see which rides and attractions will be closed for refurbishment during your visit. There’s also complete dining menus and prices for all restaurants.

These are additional research must-dos:

Ask a friend who has been to Disneyland

There are tons of people who’ve been to the parks and are ready to share their top tips for a first Disneyland vacation. Chances are you know someone who has been to Disneyland and who can verse you a bit with their “story” and sage advice for your visit.

Naturally, as someone who has been visiting Disneyland regularly, I consider myself quite knowledgeable on the subject. That’s why I was disheartened that my coworker hadn’t asked for my advice before the trip! Knowing her family dynamic, I’d have been happy to offer her customized tips that would have maximize their Disney day.

Buy a Disneyland planning book

Disneyland vacation planning books are a helpful way to inform travelers with everything in one accessible location.

Read Disney blogs

Read personal blogs (like this one!) that offer practical tips and personal advice from parents about Disneyland travel.

Join a Disneyland Chat Group

Join the Disneyland With Kids on Facebook. This is a group that I co-own that 3 other writers. It’s a place for travelers to chat about upcoming trips, ask questions, and help others plan their Disneyland vacations!

Research on PlanDisney

Ask your questions or do research on the PlanDisney website. These seasoned Disney travelers are able to offer you a personalized response.

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2016 – A Look Back at the Year that Was on Saving Up for Disney Blog

Friday 30th of December 2016

[…] 5 Things You Need to Do Before Your First Disney Vacation […]

Jessica

Tuesday 19th of April 2016

Having the adults be on the same page is such good advice! Thanks for sharing.

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