Planning Your First Disney Vacation
An old 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.
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 –
Crowd Levels: Know that certain times of year (when kids are on school break, holidays and even weekends) are going to be much more crowded than a visit in the “off season”. 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. If you’re wanting to avoid crowds and can plan your dates around this, read more about the dates to avoid when planning a Disneyland vacation.
Seasonal Offerings: 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!
Weather: Despite the fact that Disneyland is in California, we do still experience “weather” in SoCal! Late winter and spring brings in heavy rains to Disneyland. And summer and fall weather can be very hot at Disneyland. Keep these weather tips in mind when scheduling the trip.
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. The recent grand opening day of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge was exciting. Highly anticipated openings (like Avengers Campus, based on Marvel characters) will bring fans.
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.
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? In Anaheim, consider whether you’ll be staying on-site at a Disneyland Resort vs. Anaheim Good Neighbor Hotel.
- Are you pinching pennies or going all-out? There are ultimate Disneyland splurges that can be worked into your Disney trip budget.
- Are you eating in the parks or packing food? One major way to save money at Disneyland is by budgeting on food. Pack in your own water bottles and snacks, share meals and use these additional tips to save money on food at Disneyland.
- Purchasing souvenirs in the parks, and what is your budget per family member?
Disneyland Vacation Layaway
If you’re budgeting for Disney travel, consider using a reliable layaway plan. For just $175 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 discounted tickets (the only refundable Disneyland tickets you’ll find!). If the cost of your vacation drops, they’ll adjust the cost for you, too. And with the Peace of Mind plan, adjustments can be made to your trip without any fees for changes.
Best Ways to Research a First Disneyland Vacation
Your first Disney vacation research stop should be the official Disneyland website. You’ll be able to access an entertainment schedule, see which rides and attractions will be closed for refurbishment during your visit as well as view complete dining menus and prices for all restaurants.
These are additional research must-dos:
- Disneyland vacation planning books are a helpful way to inform travelers with everything in one accessible location.
- Read personal blogs (like this one!) that offer practical tips and personal advice from parents about Disneyland travel.
- Listen to a podcast, like the Disneyland with Kids Podcast. These recordings are short (usually 30 minutes or less), to give travel planners helpful tips in a conversational way.
- I’ve been a contributing writer at TravelingMom for years, sharing my advice on Disneyland and Disney World vacation planning.
- If you can’t find an answer to your Disneyland vacation question, ask on the Disney Parks Moms Panel. These seasoned Disney travelers are able to offer you a personalized response.
Get Everyone Familiar with the Disney Parks
I’ve been going to Disneyland with my kids since they were babies. Disney parks 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:
- 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. Working on the app before your trip will help you be more savvy with it during your vacation.
- 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.
- 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.
Is a Surprise Disneyland Vacation a Good Idea?
I’m not big on surprising kids with a first Disney vacation. 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.
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. In these uncertain times of travel, some families may consider making other arrangements and consider not taking kids to Disneyland (this post explains everything you need to know about Disney parks reopening guidelines and safety measures).
- 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.
- Babies – A trip to Disneyland with a baby takes some advance prep. Find out what babies can do at the Disneyland parks. Disneyland travelers with a baby can also take advantage of Rider Switch and Disneyland Maxpass so that adults in the group can still enjoy thrill rides.
- Toddlers and Preschoolers – If taking toddlers and preschoolers to Disneyland, read this itinerary and tips for having a happy day at Disneyland with little kids.
- Teenagers – Teens and thrill-seekers will be happy to hear that Disneyland is an entertaining place for all ages. Read more about travel tips for teenagers that will help your trip run more smoothly!
- 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.
Which Disneyland Rides and Attractions Are Best for Your Family?
Before your visit, your family should have a general idea of the rides, attractions and shows you want to see. Use the research section outlined earlier in this article to gain basic knowledge and details about the rides and attractions.
- Once everyone is familiar with the parks, ask each family member what they want to accomplish and write it down. 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!
- 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.
- Take a look at the Park maps online to get an idea of location so you’re familiar with the “lay of the Lands”.
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.
Disneyland Pre-Planning Family Musts
These are the first Disneyland vacation must-do items to hash out ahead of time with your family.
- Chat with each person in your family about what their top three things are and make sure those happen during your trip. This is especially important when traveling with young kids!
- Consider purchasing a PassPorter Disneyland Resort Organizer to keep track of all your travel plans as you make them.
- 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.
- Will you work in any off-park days into your trip? Consider adding days to your trip to do things outside of the Disneyland parks. This leaves time for exploring the Disneyland Resort hotels, character dining, swimming, and other Southern California attractions.
- Decide where and what you’re going to eat. Do you want to pack in snacks, enjoy sit-down full-service dining for every meal or eat counter-service all day? Certain dining locations will require reservation and others you’ll be able to walk right up to and get a seat. My family likes to plan what restaurants and meals we eat upfront so the decision is already made when hunger strikes. Make sure to book Advance Dining Reservations if certain dining locations or character dining is a must-do.
Deciding on Disneyland Tickets
One of the biggest deciding factors when planning a Disneyland trip is what type of ticket to purchase and for how many days. Read more about what you need to know about Disneyland tickets, including where to buy cheap Disneyland tickets.
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. Are you going to stay in one Park for the entire day? Or will you purchase a Park Hopper that allows you access to both Parks on the same day?
Should You Pay More for Disneyland MaxPass?
While Disney World guests need to book Fastpass+ reservations far in advance of their visit, at Disneyland you’ll schedule FASTPASS tickets throughout the day. Your Disneyland day can therefore be more spur-of-the-moment. But that doesn’t mean you should just show up at the gates without a plan.
FASTPASS is free to use during your Disneyland visit to help ease line wait via access to a shorter queue. MaxPass is an additional charge, with features that might save you time in the parks.
MaxPass can be purchased on top of your Park ticket (my travel partner Get Away Today offers Disneyland tickets that include MaxPass). MaxPass permits guests to schedule FASTPASS on their smart phone as well as downloads of unlimited PhotoPass images. Yes, it’s an additional cost to budget. But I’ve used MaxPass many times over the years and find it to be well worth the extra charge.
Ask Someone Who Knows About Disney Vacations
Naturally, as someone who has been visiting Disneyland regularly since she was just a baby, 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.
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. If you aren’t able to chat Disney with anyone on your personal circle, you can search online for just about anything you need to plan the best vacation.
Don’t know anyone who has been to Disneyland? We still have you covered! Join a chat group, like 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.
Insider Tips for 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. These are a few of the things you won’t find on the Disneyland website but can help make your trip magical!
- Want to maximize your time in the Parks? Arriving in the first two hours at Disneyland can help make the most of your day. Plan on arriving at “rope drop” bright and early before the gates open and stay until the Park closes. Early morning and late night hours tend to be the least busy and allow you quicker line access to your favorite rides.
- Not sure what to pack and prepare for? Read up on what comfortable but cute clothes to wear at Disneyland, with suggestions from top to bottom for the entire family.
- How much can you expect to stand 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.
- What exactly is Downtown Disney? This outdoor shopping center can be a fun place to spend time, including restaurants, live entertainment and family activities like bowling and dining at Splitsville Anaheim.
This post originally published April 17th, 2016 and has been updated and republished