Every year our family heads to California for Thanksgiving. We have many traditions and one is going to Disneyland the Tuesday before turkey day. We’ve been to the original House of Mouse at least 10 times so I’ve gathered some tips.
It may be the happiest place on earth, but days in the park are l o n g and kids can experience a range of emotions when expectations for fun and joy are higher than the flag on Cinderella’s castle. Here are 7 suggestions for a magical Disneyland trip.
—Get there early. Seems obvious, but every year we plan to rise at dawn, and it never happens. This year, we actually got to the park before 10a and it made a huge difference. We headed straight for Splash Mountain where there was no line (45 minutes later, the wait was nearly an hour.) Then we banged out the nearby Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean, which saved us oodles of time. The rest of the day we waited at least 20-30 minutes for each ride but it was ok because we had a few under our belts already. The park opens at 8a so if you’re not slugs like us, take advantage of the empty early morning hours.
—Wear layers and comfortable shoes. We go in November when it’s about 65 degrees, but can get up to 80 or dip down to 50 anytime so clothing is key. My kids (ages 12, 9, and 7) dress in shorts, a t-shirt, and sneakers and I wear yoga pants with a tank top and long-sleeved t-shirt. We carry a backpack with sweatshirts for everyone. Unless it’s summertime, as soon as the sun goes down, it gets surprisingly cool in the park and on the rides. If you like Splash Mountain or other water rides, you’ll need the extra layers to change or get warm. Also remember you will be walking and standing all day. Don’t be the martyr who prides herself on always being stylish in heels or boots. I wear sneakers or my most comfortable rubber-soled flats and my feet still feel like they were run over by Goofy’s car at the end of the day.
— Bring snacks. Load up your backpack with healthy snacks before you go and you’ll save money and patience. While there are snacks sold all over the park, they’re never really what you want to eat and each snack– from a fruit cup to a cookie– is outrageously expensive because it has Mickey’s face on it. Snacks stave off hunger until you can get to meals and make the long line for Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters ride (my favorite!) go much faster. Bring pretzels, yogurt, applesauce, fruit, cookies, cheese sticks from home and you’ll be golden. I would also recommend bringing water bottles– or hanging on to a bottle you buy in the park– for refills throughout the day.
—Use Fast Pass and ride vouchers. By now you probably know about the Fast Pass but it’s knowing when to use it that’s key. By 12pm, the Fast Pass window for Star Tours (a cool 3D Star Wars ride) was already at 7pm. We don’t usually stay that late so we had to wait on the regular line for 40 minutes to get on the ride. If we had Fast Passed by 9 or 10am, we could have gone on the ride with no wait in the middle of the day. Also, Fast Passes can be used more than once so after you Fast Pass one ride, you can Fast Pass another. But if you use it too late, that is not usually an option. (For more Fast Pass rules and ride lists click here.) Another secret I discovered this year is ride vouchers. If a ride is not working– this year one of our favs, Indiana Jones Adventure, was being serviced– you can go to Disney Town Hall and request a ride voucher. Next time you visit the park, if the ride is working, you basically get a Fast Pass for up to 6 people to ride it. Bonus!
—Eat lunch on the Tomorrowland Terrace. You have to eat lunch and though none of the park’s food is stellar, this is our preferred option. The menu has some healthy choices for adults, and the kids meals include sliced apples or carrots and milk or water. Make sure to check your park map for the scheduled showtimes and plan your meal to coincide with the Jedi Training Academy show. It’s fun to watch the live action, featuring several kids selected from the audience to don the famous brown robes and train with a Star Wars Jedi Master. After training, they battle Darth Vader and Darth Maul with light sabers. 7-year-old Eli really wanted to be in the show so I asked one of the handlers how to get him selected. She recommended making signs and standing by him, cheering loudly. We did and he got picked!
—Cheating the ride photos. Disneyland tickets are up to $81 for kids ages 3-9 and $87 for ages 10 and up so even one day at the park is an expensive endeavor. So I’m always looking for ways to save money without losing out on any part of the experience. Our cousin used a clever trick this year. On certain roller coasters, the park takes a photo of each car as it flies down the deepest drop. The pictures are then shown on a screen as you exit the ride. If you want to purchase the photos, they cost a minimum of $15. The problem is, it’s never a perfect photo– it inevitably has some random guy grinning as he blocks your kid in the back– so not worth the money. If you hustle to the screens quickly and find your photo, take a picture on your cell phone of the picture. It’s not the highest quality, but you can still capture the moment for free!
—Buy glow-in-the dark souvenirs. If you’re so over the monogrammed mouse ears, see the light instead! My kids have every version of souvenir, but the best are those that light up. It gets dark quickly at the end of the day and right around parade time, there are several carts and stores that sell all different toys — from princess wands to space radar guns to spinning character lights– that can help you walk safely and entertain the kids. And light up toys will still be fun at home. Want to avoid souvenirs altogether? Throw a bunch of dollar store glow sticks in your suitcase before you go.
Would love to hear your tips in the comments. Wishing all your dreams come true in the land of Disney!