My husband also has Disneyland ties. His grandpa wrote the screenplay for Disney's Swiss Family Robinson movie, and, because of this, my father in law grew up around the Disney lots.
Growing up, there was no such thing as season passes, but we would go to Disneyland often. For awhile, when I was little, we had a ticket stub in the paperwork drawer with the E tickets we had bought on a visit. I remember shorter lines and long gone attractions like The Tuna Boat/Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship and Restaurant whose location now hosts the Dumbo ride, the People Mover ("You are now entering the world of Tron"), the original Rockets in tomorrowland--above the Tomorrowland Terrace (remember the elevator to the top?), Journey to Inner Space, and Bear Country Jamboree (I can still hear the snoring bear at the entrance to Bear Country). I remember parking directly in front of the gates--long before the Mickey and Friends parking lot was built and trams were a given part of your visit.
Some things remain the same, though. Thunder Mountain is still my favorite ride. New Orleans Square is still one of my favorite views in the park, and Disneyland is still a place that makes me happy--now because I can see my young boys enjoying all the fun I used to discover.
My husband and I have had four years of season passes, and through the years, we have learned some tricks to making the visits more productive and stress free for a family with young kids--especially kids with different ride preferences. I want to share some of our tips for your next visit!
The character breakfast at the Storyteller Cafe is less crowded than Goofy's Kitchen
1. Go early.
My husband and I laugh because when we got married, he introduced me to Disneyland at night, and I introduced him to getting to the park when it opens. He grew up in a night owl family who never went at opening, and my family was the early to rise sort of family who never stayed past 3 p.m.
Though night has advantages with cool breezes, decorative lights and fireworks, the way to beat the crowds is to get there right when the park opens.
We have to go on Sundays due to our passes, which is notoriously the busiest day. However, we get there right when it opens (8 or 9 depending on the season) and leave around 1:00 as the park is starting to feel the strain of the crowds. It is a perfect amount of time when you have young kids.
2. Fast Passes are your best friend if you have any kids over 40 inches--or if you just want to take a mommy or daddy break to ride a roller coaster and then swap turns watching the kids.
Almost every high demand ride and/or roller coaster has a fast pass. Almost all--there are none for Toy Story or Matterhorn, for example. (Speaking of Matterhorn, make note that they upped the height requirement from 35 inches to 42 inches.) Like many people, Space Mountain is always the first ride my oldest son wants to ride at Disneyland. If the line is short, they do one wait. Otherwise, they go there first for a fast pass and meet up with us on the Teacups or further into the park. (Further into the park, such as Pirates or Splash Mountain, is pretty much EMPTY early in the morning).
Fast passes, in case you don't know, are special tickets you get from machines near the fast pass rides. You slide your ticket or season pass in the machine and it prints up a special ticket. They have a time window printed on them. You come later than the starting time on the ticket and get to bypass much of the long line for the ride.
Many people don't know this, but you can use fast passes AFTER the time on the time span window--just not before the time printed. They don't expire that day--but you can't use them the following day or later--only that day.
You can get a limited number of fast passes at a time, but once the start window time on your fast pass starts, you start over--able to get fast passes again and still use your fast pass you already have.
Since we have four passes in our family but only one kid who is tall enough for fast pass rides, we can get fast passes for two rides at a time (two tickets at each). For instance, my husband can use the passes to get two fast passes for Space Mountain and then use two other passes to get fast passes for Thunder Mountain. Once the start time for when we can get the fast passes hits, he purposefully goes and gets more fast passes for different or the same rides. By the end of the day, we have TONS!
Rides that have fast passes are Autopia, Star Tours, Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, Indiana Jones, World of Color, the new Cars ride--Radiator Springs Racers, Soarin' over California, Tower of Terror, the Grizzly Rapids, Goofy's Sky School and California Screamin. I might be missing one or two rides, but that is a pretty thorough list.
When it is really crowded, the fast passes run out quickly. For instance, the fast passes for the new Radiator Springs Racers were gone by 9:00 a.m. the other day, and the park opened at 8. That is extreme, but when it is crowded, for instance, you probably won't get a Space Mountain Fast Pass after 5:00 p.m.
This leads us to how both he AND I get a turn on the ride . . . switch passes.
3. Use switch passes if you have kids under 40 inches.
When my husband finally goes to use his fast pass ticket, he asks the ride workers for a switch pass--which functions like a fast pass ticket. The idea of a switch pass is that he and my oldest can go on the roller coaster, but I can't because our youngest isn't tall enough and I have to stay and watch him--he is only 36 inches.
Even if you have a fast pass, you can ask for a switch pass when you go on the ride.
Once my husband is off the ride, he gives me the switch pass and then I get to go on the roller coaster with my son--I can get both of us (my older son and I) on the ride with one switch pass ticket. (The adults have just essentially "switched" places).
Like fast passes, switch passes are good for the entire day, so I can go do other rides with my youngest rather than sitting outside the exit and waiting to do the "switch."
4. Avoid Certain Rides
Certain rides always have long lines. You have to decide if it is worth the wait for your family visit.
We have learned that unless there is a freakishly short line, we don't go on Peter Pan in Fantasyland. The line is always long. It doesn't look really long, but it is a slow loading ride that is, indeed, long. The ride itself is short and just okay. My boys don't love Peter Pan, so we are okay skipping it.
We also don't go on Toy Story very much since my husband hates long lines. There is no fast pass for that ride, and it is usually 40 minutes to an hour wait to ride. Once in awhile we'll break out snacks and go through the line wait, but not very often.
Always check the wait time when you enter a line. Some lines "look" short and are deceptively long waits--Bug's Land rides, Peter Pan, Casey Jr. Train, and Dumbo for example. Some lines look long but are fast moving and not that bad--like Pirates or Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters.
5. Know Options when Crowded
The park will have times when you can't avoid crowds. Sometimes it is bad and you get grumpy.
We know that we will go run around on the Pirate Cove Island when it is crowded or go have fun over at the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail at CA Adventure.
Sliding at the Redwood Creek Challenge play area
Also, on hot days, everyone is going on the rapids, Pirates, or Splash Mountain. Think of less crowded shady rides--Innovations, any of the films (Captain EO, Muppets or the Bugs Land movie). The Tiki Tiki Room, or the Rivers of America boats.
If you aren't sure, ask a castmember (employee) what rides have smaller crowds and will lend shade, or be age appropriate for your younger ones, etc. They will be helpful.
6. Bring Snacks and Water
Disneyland will let you bring in anything but alcohol and glass. As with all amusement parks, snacks, drinks and meals are pricey. Plan ahead and bring your food.
My kids love the churros at Disneyland, which are expensive. I went to the market and found frozen churros. I can cook them ahead of time and bring a couple as special treat snacks, saving several dollars in the process. Bring some great protein snacks to give the kids energy throughout the day--cheese sticks, nuts in a bag, even sandwiches. You won't get the fits and meltdowns that come with the sugar lows.
We put everything in our stroller, but they have lockers you can rent at the park fairly inexpensively.
There is a bag/security check area before you can enter the park.
When we do eat at Disneyland, our favorite restaurant is Rancho del Zocalo in Disneyland. The boys get to watch the Thunder Mountain train go by, I get a delicious Mexican chicken Caesar salad and Ryan gets his favorite snack--chips and salsa. Again, it isn't cheap (about 11-12 dollars per adult meal), but it is better than the burgers and fries around much of the park.
Sometimes we leave the park and eat at Downtown Disney--also pricey, but less. We love the little Napoli restaurant on the end, and they have a little area where you can buy slices of pizza and salad "to go".
7. Double Stroller Tips--
Double strollers are a must with two small kids, but they are hard to place on the tram (which takes you from the parking lot to the park). The tram has two sections--very front and back--for double strollers, and when it is crowded, you wait several trams to get a spot. SO, walk from the parking to the park. There is a trail leading to the park. Ask any employee in the tram area, and they will point you in the right direction. We've timed it a couple of times, and the tram and walking are about equal times on light waiting days--walking quickly, though. When the trams are crowded, walking is much faster.
Also, when you enter Disneyland, there is an entrance for wheelchairs and double strollers on the far right of all the gates. Often this line is actually shorter and people don't realize it isn't just for wheelchairs. The gates for Disneyland weren't built for double strollers, so it is a tight squeeze to get through--doable, but tight. California Adventure was built for the double stroller, so there is no special entrance on that side.
8. Know the Right Time of Year for Hotel Visits and Missing Crowds
The park gets crowded around Christmas. It is gorgeous, but people are on break and regular passholders come to see the holiday decorations and special ride makeovers for Christmas. We are blocked out pass-wise for much of December, but we don't mind.
A rare Christmas visit
October can get crowded due to the Halloween decor and special rides they offer. The Haunted Mansion, for instance, gets a makeover, as does Space Mountain--scary extras. . .
Of course, spring break season gets very crowded with families on vacation and college kids blowing off some steam. Again, we are blocked out for many of the crowded times.
If you come during a school break or holiday season, use the tips of coming early and using fast passes to help you get to more rides despite the crowds.
9. Slow down and see the day through your kids' eyes.
If you try to get on as many rides as possible, never stopping to enjoy the parades or throw a penny in Snow White's well as she sings, you will miss much of the magic of Disneyland. Sometimes when I go without my hubby, I am glad we can't do the roller coasters and fast pass routine (I have both kids alone when he isn't there). I walk slowly, we stop and get character signatures, and we watch the swans swimming by the castle. It is low stress and calm. We get on only a few rides in a morning, but we have passes, so we can do the whirlwind visit next time. It is fun having both kinds of visits.
If you have kids all under 40 inches or you have one adult with any kids under 40 inches, you are blessed! You don't have to worry about the roller coasters and fast passes. You can see them get excited about going on It's a Small World and grab your hand in amazement when a character walks by. It is such a short amount of time that they really just love BEING there and you don't have to get on Space Mountain and Star Tours to call the day a success.
Enjoying a rare night visit--we prefer early with fewer crowds.
Posing by Splash Mountain and Winnie the Pooh Ride
Whatever you do--enjoy your time. It is easy to let heat or crowds get you grumpy. Sometimes the happiest place can seem anything but when you look around. Take it all in stride and put it all in perspective. You are in a very fun place enjoying time with your family. Have a fabulous visit!