Disneyland Hacks: Planning a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth

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disneyland hacks, disneyland planning, disney 2 day pass

After fending it off for a long time, we decided to bell the cat and take our kids (6 and 3 years) to Disneyland in California.

For me, Disneyland planning was High Intensity Interval Training – mental and physical preparation was everything. I wanted to max out on the number of rides, thrills, shows and smiles.

To add to the complexity, my two kids – a boy and a girl – had two very different ideas of what they would enjoy at Disneyland. There are two parks in Disneyland – Disneyland (old world charm) and California Adventure (targeting the older kids). 

Our basic premise was to go at a time when the crowds were less, to stay close enough that kids could take a break or nap if need be and come back rejuvenated. And also be well in time to be as ahead in queues as possible and maximise the shows, the parade, the fireworks!

When to Go

The trip timing alone can be a very important determinant of the happiness in your experience.

It is more important to remember when NOT to go.

We avoided public holidays and weekends. This is the perfect place for 2 days and the whole world knows that. A lot of people have annual memberships and passes. Disneyland has specials for local and neighbours all year round.

disneyland hacks, disneyland planning, disney 2 day pass
Timing is everything!

We chose to go there in February (on Wednesday) when the winter is receding and New Year break is over so most people are not keen to travel right away. In the past, I have visited Disneyland, California in August-September, and distinctly remember being boiled. Fortunately, no kids that time.

Getting There

I think the best way to find out how to get there is to tell your kid and he/she will be back next day with all the low-down 🙂 That was the level of involvement and enthusiasm in our kids in our household!

Los Angeles (LAX) has multiple incoming flights from around the world and there are a gazillion cabs, Uber/Lyfts and buses to get you to Anaheim. The closest airport is John Wayne Orange County airport, but the flight options may be fewer especially the international ones.

I would recommend that one stays put in Disneyland for 2-3 days instead of trying to combine it with sightseeing in LA. Kids will be tired and it just won’t work well if you want to maximise the park. Therefore, a car rental won’t be necessary. On our last day at the park, we decided to hire a car from Alamo at Downtown Disney District to venture out in LA.

Where to stay

Disneyland is surrounded by big hotels and lots of conventions happen in this area. So, there are plenty of options. Booking in advance is always advised as one never knows which convention may be on.

We chose to stay in one of the on-property Disneyland resort hotels. Sure, the off-property options are cheaper.

But staying in the Disney resort hotels gave us one-hour early (called Magic Hour) entry on alternate days for each park. Trust me, given the long lines, this was a big plus.

Plus, as they are on-property, one really gets to maximise time in the park. Disney resort hotels also offer Disney character meets and breakfasts. So, this choice makes it an immersion experience for the kids.

Having said that, if I had teenage kids, I would probably be in the off-property hotels.

TIP: Do not forget that there will be a line to get into the park as well. Plan to reach the gate ahead of the entrance time. Research in advance the route you want to take.

Also, read – Traveling the world with a toddler

Disneyland 2-Day Pass

Always, always buy tickets in advance.

They are available at hotels in and around the parks and are available online too. There are options of the one-day park hopper, two-day park hopper and three-day park hopper tickets.

We chose two-day park hopper as we felt we could spend one day each in both parks and switch if we wanted to. Some specific tickets also give you the early admission option.

We bought a package at Costco – that covered our stay, our tickets and PhotoPass for the family. The single-booking window made it extremely easy to manage and coordinate. It wasn’t cheaper except that Costco threw in a small gift card and a lanyard and pin for the kids!

disneyland hacks, disneyland planning, disney 2 day pass
PhotoPass is a hassle-free option, you have to manage kids and rides.

TIP: Take the PhotoPass. It saves the hassle of taking photos all over the place. Professional photographers are standing at key points and next to characters to take pictures. All ride pictures are included as well. These pictures are linked to your Photo Pass and you can get them downloaded and burnt on a CD at the photoshop on your way out.

Planning the rides at Disneyland

As part of planning a trip to Disneyland, it is important to figure the order of rides to be taken.

I downloaded a map of the rides ahead of time and as a family, we decided on the order of the rides. Given that kids may not want to go on the same rides or not able to (like my daughter who missed the height requirement at many places), it is useful to have a plan so that your spouse and you can divide and conquer!

I also downloaded a Disney app that showed me wait-times for different rides, where the characters were and where the photographers were standing. I started using it a week in advance to see general patterns on wait-time and used it to guide my ride-order decision. Yes, I was that extensive!

TIP: Be aware that Disney staggers the opening time of some of the popular rides to manage crowds.

The Magic of Rider Switch and Fastpass

Disney caters to parents of young kids and has a facility called Rider Switch. If you have a baby or a toddler (not allowed on the ride) and still would like to go, the ride handler will give you a rider switch. The Rider Switch allows an adult to wait with an infant/toddler (anyone who is unable to ride) while the older kid/parent enjoys the ride and then simply switch – instead of going back in the line and waiting again for the turn. It also allows you to take 2 additional people with you.

disneyland hacks, disneyland planning, disney 2 day pass
Rider Switch proved to be really useful for us, with my son able to do popular rides twice over in a short time.

For the most popular rides, Disney issues Fastpass. These are issued at kiosks located throughout the park. The Fastpass books a time slot for you at the ride. Each rider needs their own Fastpass. You need to show up for the ride at the time mentioned on the Fastpass and you can bypass the wait-time entirely. It is a great way to plan your day in the park. We used the Rider Switch and Fastpass effectively on both days to save time and have my son do the popular rides twice at Disneyland & California Adventure rides.

TIP: Disney’s Max pass comes highly recommended as it lets you book Fastpass online on your mobile.

What to take inside the park

  • We carried a knapsack with water, t-shirt/sweater change for the kids (as in some rides you encounter water, fruit, cheese sticks and other munchies). The wait-time may be long for food and rides so it is best to have some options. Bags are not allowed on the rides, but in our case, one of us was always waiting in another line so it worked out well. There are baby-care centers spread throughout the park where you can change the kids. Food heating stations are also provided.
  • We carried my daughter’s stroller too – though all it carried was the knapsack as my daughter was too excited to sit down. One can hire strollers inside the park as well.
  • We also carried a portable battery for our devices and that came in handy.

Our Disneyland adventure turned out to be the most fun vacation I have had with my kids. The careful trip planning had paid off!

Read – Disneyland California Itinerary: Enjoy the best rides with your kids


This is a guest post by Sonal Sarin. 

An ex-Googler, Sonal loves to travel and dance. After working for more than a decade, Sonal is currently enjoying her time taking care of her family and basking in the Californian sun. Her favorite destinations so far have been New Zealand, Norway, and Greece.


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