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Disneyland Article
Even Seasoned Pros Are Doing Disneyland Wrong Right Now

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Katie Dowd
July 23, 2021
July 31, 2021
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a local who used to visit the parks every week, the Disneyland experience has changed tremendously in 2021. Advice that was once sound no longer applies, and many old rules of thumb to maximize your experience at the park have gone out the window.

I feel like my Disneyland strategy is pretty fine-tuned — I rarely wait more than 15 minutes for a ride and I never, ever wait for food — but on a recent trip I had to adjust a lot of longstanding blueprints. Even after doing a ton of prep work, I was surprised by how different Disneyland and California Adventure are in the post-shutdown world, often in subtle ways that had a huge impact on the day.

If you’re going into the parks with year-old tips, you’re going to have a rough day. So here’s how you should do Disneyland right now to get the most out of your (very expensive) ticket.

Make dining reservations 60 days out

Before you even step foot in Anaheim, you should have made your dining reservations. Reservations open up 60 days prior and can be made at most of the popular sit-down spots. You’ll need to submit a credit card number (Disney will charge you a fee if you miss your reservation). I made dinner reservations for each day in the parks to guarantee one meal per day wouldn’t require planning or waiting. Once you’re ready to check in, you can do so on their mobile app and you get a text when your table is ready. It's easy and stress-free.

For meals where you don’t have a reservation, you can try to add yourself to the walk-up list (spots that offer this have a QR code outside that you can scan with your phone to access the wait list). There’s also mobile order, where you can select your food items on the app and set a pickup window to grab them. Keep in mind that busy spots may not have an available pick-up window for hours, so don’t wait until the last minute to put in that lunch order.

Get there 30 minutes before the posted opening time This applies to Disneyland in particular. My party passed through the gates three minutes after the opening at 8 a.m., and lines were already lengthy as Disney had opened up attractions earlier than officially listed. In retrospect, I wished we’d gotten there even sooner to take advantage of some surprise ride time. It seems Disneyland is consistently opening up rides before the actual opening time, and it doesn’t hurt to get there an extra 20-30 minutes early just in case. At worst, you’ll have a little more time to grab a coffee or snack before starting your day.

If at all possible, do NOT start your day after 10 a.m. In the afternoons, we'd run into parties complaining they hadn't done a single ride yet because of long wait times. The common dominator? None of them had started their day before 11 a.m.

Do not go to Radiator Springs Racers first Unless you are among the first few rows of people in the surge of the opening crowd, don’t bother hitting the popular Cars Land ride first thing. Wait times are often the worst right when California Adventure opens because everyone rushes to the attraction. Instead of doing that, we walked on to the Incredicoaster, Toy Story: Midway Mania, Goofy’s Sky School and Soarin’, never waiting more than five minutes for any ride. Once done, we went back to Radiator Springs Racers and took advantage of the single-rider line to practically walk on there. By 11 a.m., we had done basically every big-ticket attraction in the park, something we never could have done if we’d lost 90 minutes to start the day in the Radiator Springs line.

Crowd fluctuations are very different than they used to be Friday nights used to be hellish for crowd control, as thousands of additional annual passholders arrived in the parks after the end of the school and work day. During the pandemic, Disney ended the program, which offered discounted tickets to locals for a flat yearly fee.

Without annual passholders, the crowd stays a lot more consistent throughout the day, as the people who cross through the gates in the morning are likely the bulk of the crowd for the entire day. There isn’t a massive surge around 5 p.m., which means you can do more rides in the evenings than you used to. Many families with little ones left after 8 p.m., and we were able to get in extra rides on Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and Big Thunder before park closing at 10.

Don’t keep pushing when you’re exhausted and/or hot This is my No. 1 tip all of the time, but it’s particularly useful now that evenings aren’t as slammed. Anaheim is hot and sometimes it’s humid, too. Parts of the parks have very little shade, and when you’re standing in a sun-baked line at 3 p.m., nothing is fun anymore.

When that feeling hits, call it an afternoon and head back to your hotel. Around 2 p.m. each day, we go back to the hotel for pool time and a long nap. Refreshed and armed with a different set of shoes, we head back as the afternoon heat is waning. There is no point in forcing your family to “get your money’s worth” when you’re hot, miserable and annoyed. A two or three hour break back at the hotel will ensure your day actually feels like a vacation, not an endless slog.

Be flexible Look around you. The people having the worst day at Disneyland are often the ones who are forcing their party from one activity to the next. Even the best-laid plans will need adjusting once the day starts. There’s just no way to anticipate every variable: crowd size, wait times, rides going down for hours at a time. If you create a minute-by-minute schedule, you are setting yourself up for failure.

Instead, make a general outline. Ask yourself and your party which activities are must-dos, which are nice if you can get to them and which are not crucial at all. Strategize to get those must-dos crossed off the list, and then leave the rest of the time open ended. While you’re in line for one ride, use the Disneyland app to check the wait times for others. Don’t get hung up on doing things in a certain order; let the day take you where the wait times are lowest, or even take an unscheduled snack break when you can’t stomach a 45-minute wait for another ride. By the time you’ve had that delicious raspberry macaron, you might just be able to sneak in that second trip of the day on the Matterhorn.
Attractions Referenced

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Haunted Mansion

Matterhorn Bobsleds

Pirates Of The Caribbean

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