Last Updated on August 25, 2023 by Happily Ever Park Hoppers
Ultimate Disneyland Planning Guide
Planning a trip to the Disneyland Resort? Here is a step by step guide on everything you need to know when planning a Disneyland Resort vacation.
Believe it or not, there is a right and wrong way to take a Disney vacation. KIDDING! But there is a way to ruin a Disney vacation and that’s by poor planning. The first mistake you can make and ensure you’ll have a bad time at Disney, is to assume it’s like any other theme park… it’s not!
1. Check your dates!
Before doing anything else, your very first step should be to check the Theme Park Reservation Availability. To enter either Disneyland Park or Disney California Adventure Park you must have a Park Reservation.
Depending on the type of ticket you are looking to buy, certain days either both parks will be available, only one park is available or neither parks are available.
I like to tell people that checking your dates should be your first step because if the dates you are planning to go are sold out, you will not be able to enter either theme park if you do not have a theme park reservation, regardless if you bought tickets. However, know that the availability can change because of people changing their plans and dropping their theme park reservations. But, you should not count on that happening as it can be very last minute.
Once you’ve checked your travel dates and know when you want to go, you then need to decide where you are going to stay. Staying On-Property at a Disney Resort hotel or staying Off-Property at a Good Neighbor hotel.
Staying at a Disney Resort hotel and really immersing yourself in the “Disney Bubble” or across the street at really any hotel on South Harbor Blvd are my go-to options. I also like staying within walking distance because we always like to head back to the resort around Noon-1pm. Taking a mid-day break is a must for my family. It can get very hot in Southern California, if you hit the park right when it opened, by Noon time your kids are most likely hot, tired and ready for a nap (and you probably are too). Heading back to the resort for a nap, swim, cool off and resting your feet will help you so much in the long run. You’ll return to the parks refreshed and your little ones won’t be spent come 4pm.
When pricing out hotels, there are three Disney Resort Hotels: Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, the Disneyland Hotel and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel. Each hotel is in a different pricing category. And remember to always check the Special Offers page to make sure you are getting the best price possible. You can also look at Disney’s Good Neighbor Hotels on Disney’s website. As I said, I prefer to stay across the street on South Harbor Blvd. There is a filter option to filter Off Property hotels by distance. Select the option that says “Across the Street”. PRO TIP: When booking Off Property hotels, only use the Disney website for searching. When it comes down to actually booking, book directly with that hotel or through travel sites like Expedia or Travelocity. That way you can be sure you’re getting the lowest price available.
3. Park Tickets / Length of Stay
Your next step is to purchase your Park Tickets. If you are staying at a Disney Resort hotel, you will most likely do this all at once. But you should have an idea of how many park days you plan on doing. When you go to finalize your Disney Resort hotel reservation, you will be brought to a screen where you can add on your Park Tickets, Park Hopper Options, and Disney Genie+ Service.
If you are staying Off-Property you will be able to purchase your tickets separately. You will have the same ticket options as if you stayed at a Disney Resort hotel, you will just have to go to the Disneyland Theme Park Tickets page to purchase them.
When considering how many park days you are going to do, if you’ll get hopper tickets and if you will be purchasing Disney Genie+, also think about how long you are going to be there. If you are staying 2 nights and not going into the parks on your arrival or departure days, you will most likely buy a 2-Day Ticket. But if you are staying say 3 or 4 nights, you may decide to do a resort day and then you’d only buy a 2 or 3-Day Ticket. Planning for a resort day is something my family always does. So keep that in mind when you are selecting how many park days you want.
Now that you have your Park Tickets, you can make your Theme Park Reservations. As I said earlier, in order to enter any theme park you must make a Park Reservation. You can only make Park Reservations after you’ve purchased & linked your Theme Park Tickets. At the Disneyland Resort, the theme park reservation window only extends out to 4 months in advance.
So if you are planning on going during the holidays, school breaks, three-day weekends, or over the summer, these are the dates that book up the fastest. It is best to buy your tickets just before the 4 month window opens. That way when the window opens you are ready to make your theme park reservations.
Other reservations you will want to make are your Advance Dining Reservations or ADRs. Advance Dining Reservations are dining reservations that can be made on the Disney Dining page or the My Disneyland app, exactly 60 Days in advance starting at 6am EST. There are some very popular Table Service restaurants at the Disneyland Resort. Ones that you will definitely need a reservation for and want to be online or the app exactly at 6am (The Blue Bayou will book up within the first hour!). It is important to know when your ADR window is.
You can also make reservations for some fun experiences like building your own Droid at the Droid Depot in Disneyland Park. And you can pick up some “scrap metal” at Savi’s Workshop to assemble your very own custom Lightsaber. Both of these can be booked 60 Days in advance.
5. Park Priorities
Another tip is to know what your priorities are. Are you trying to see and do everything? Are you wanting to eat all the snacks? Do you want to take it easy, sleep in and relax by the pool and get to the parks when you get there? Or is there a ride you have to ride? It’s definitely helpful to have an idea of what you want to do.
If you are someone who wants to maximize your time, you should definitely consider Rope Dropping. “Rope Drop” is a term that means entering a park before or at the posted park opening time. And the Cast Members literally hold a rope at the entrance of every land and either remove the rope or walk guests into the land (to deter guests from running). The benefit of rope dropping is that this is when the wait times are at their lowest. Within the first hour that the park is open, you might be able to get on 2-4 rides. This is dependent on how early you get to the park before park opening and what rides you choose.
Another way to maximize your time in the parks and accomplish everything on your priorities lists is to consider adding on extras to add that little bit of pixie dust. All of these are completely optional but do serve their purpose.
- Special Events Tickets
- Additional Hard Ticketed Event for After Hours events like Disney After Dark, Oogie Boogie Bash or Disney Merriest Nites
- Disney Genie+
- A paid add-on service that allows you to make bookings for a specific attraction’s Lightning Lane so you can skip the standby line.
7. Budgeting & Packing
In the time leading up to your trip it is good to have a budgeting strategy. At this point in your planning journey you should have an idea of how much everything is going to cost. Once you have priced out your hotel, tickets, airfare/car rental/gas, anticipated food cost, you will know how much this trip is going to cost. Will you be saving up in the months ahead of your trip? Are you planning on using a credit card and paying it off over time? Maybe you have some airline miles that you can use and avoid paying for airfare all together. It is good to have a budgeting plan.
As the countdown is reaching the single digits, that’s when the excitement and anticipation really starts to ramp up. I like to use a Packing List to keep me organized. This way I don’t forget anything. If this is your first trip to the Disneyland Resort, there might be a lot of things you didn’t know you should have packed or that you could even bring to the parks. Be sure to check out the Planning & Packing post for all my planning, budgeting and packing tips!
8. Dining & Food
Another important factor is food. A big misconception about Disney Parks is bringing in your own food & drinks. You can 100% bring in your own food or drinks. A great way to help cut back on overspending in the parks is to bring in your own snacks, lunch and/or drinks. Disney prices can be up there and it is totally avoidable in some instances.
NEVER pay the insane price for a water bottle (roughly $5) in the parks when you can easily buy a case of water for the same price and bring in your own water. If you are traveling via car, it is super easy to pack your own groceries. But if you are traveling any other way, have groceries delivered via Amazon Prime, Walmart delivery or InstaCart. Buy things you know your family will eat that will help get you by while in the parks. By skipping just one meal, and avoid paying for all three meals in the parks, you can save yourself $10, $20, $30 or upwards of $100 per day!
When it comes to eating in the parks, make sure you know how to utilize Mobile Ordering. Mobile Ordering is a new way to order from Quick Service Restaurants.
Mobile Order is done on the My Disneyland App. You will need to make sure you have a credit card linked to your account before placing your order.
From the app, you will see a little + sign. When you tap that, you will see the option to “Order Food”. Then all of the Quick Service locations will pop up with the next available Arrival Window. Depending on the day and time you’re attempting to place your Mobile Order, the next available Arrival Window might be a little ways away from the current time.
PRO TIP: Quick Service restaurants offer FREE water cups. When placing your Mobile Order you will not see an option for it. When you go to the Pickup window, ask the Cast Member for how many ever cups of water you would like and they will give them to you.
Once you’ve placed your order, you will be able to see your Mobile Order in your “My Plans” section of the home tab on the My Disneyland App. When your Arrival Window has started and you are in the area of the restaurant, you will want to tap the “I’m Here, Prepare My Order” button. You will then be notified when your order is ready for pickup and what Window to go to. A Cast Member at that window will ask for your order number.
As of 2021 there are a few ways to see Characters once again. One way is by waiting for a parade pass you by OR by paying for a Character Dining. Character Dining is modified (at a distance) from how you would previously interact with characters. But you can at least get to see some of your favorites.
Another way to spend some time with your besties is at one of the “Character Sighting”. Up close Character, Meet & Greets are finally back!! Well…sort of. They won’t return to the good ‘ole days. But you will be able to take pictures of or with certain characters throughout the parks. Characters are staged at a distance where you and your kiddos can stand at a distance from the characters. Some characters in Galaxy’s Edge or Avengers Campus will walk through the land or be on top of a landing.
If you are traveling with little ones; which you most likely are, you will want to make sure you take a look at each attraction’s height requirements. There are many, many rides for children of all ages, thrill levels, and heights.
Whether you’re on the My Disneyland app or on the desktop site, you can see what rides are “any height” or what the height requirements are. It’s best to know how tall your kids are before your trip. It can be very upsetting to little ones who go up to a ride thinking they are going to be able to ride and they’re told no. Even if they are just barely under the requirement, they will not be able to ride.
If you have little ones who aren’t tall enough or maybe someone that doesn’t do rollercoasters, that doesn’t mean someone has to miss out. Rider Switch allows your party to have one adult that waits with the non-rider(s) while the rest of your party goes on the ride. Then when the first group is done riding, the adults that rode “switch” with the waiting adult(s). Now, the adult that was waiting gets a turn to ride and skip the regular standby line and ride. This allows each parent/family member to be able to ride with each other or a child (so some people in your party will get to ride twice!)
*Note that if the waiting adult waited alone with the non-riders, other adults may or may not be able to ride again. To use this feature, approach the entrance of the ride with your entire party and ask a Cast Member if they can issue a Rider Switch. The waiting adult(s) will then be issued the entitlement and the first group gets in line.
Now all that’s left is to go and enjoy the magic! I hope you have a wonderful time visiting The Most Magical Place on Earth. If you find that you still have a question, please drop a comment below.
Spreading magic one post at a timeKristin