Planning a Trip to Disneyland? Here’s What You Need to Know Before You Go

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One of the most popular search terms regarding Disney is “Disneyland know before you go.” Many of us understand that the world of Disney parks is not as spontaneous as it was in past years, so its not surprising people are wondering how to prepare for Disneyland. With Genie+, high crowds, and new rides, the experience can become a bit overwhelming.

But, Disneyland is not as complicated as Disney World, and with a few simple tricks, you can make the best of your magical vacation.

The biggest Disneyland know before you go fact is that there are 2 parks inside of Disneyland: Disneyland and California Adventure. I know, this can get a bit confusing, as Disneyland is the name of the entire “resort” which includes the three hotels, and the two parks, but also the name of the original park.

Disneyland park and California Adventure can be accessed from the same place. Both their entrance gates are across the promenade from each other, I’d guess they’re not even 1,000 feet from each other.

There are a few things to note on how to prepare for Disneyland, and we will cover them all below.

Disneyland Can Get Busy, Tips for Avoiding Crowds

The biggest Disneyland know before you go category is regarding crowds. We have all been packed into an amusement park, waiting in endless lines just to experience a few rides, and it’s miserable.

How to prepare for Disneyland: The Disneyland Castle
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But, with a little planning and some caffeine, you can accomplish all you need to inside the parks, with minimal waits.

Our biggest advice when it comes to how to prepare for Disneyland is to wake up early. This may sound like a miserable thing to do on a vacation, but trust us on this one.

During our recent trip to Disneyland, we utilized early theme park entry, which allows onsite resort guests to enter the park and ride a list of selected rides 30 minutes prior to the park opening to the public.

To do this, we arrived at the security gates 30-45 minutes prior to the early theme park entry time. Each time we were able to score a great place in line. Security will then open and allow guests through and to walk to the park gates. From here, we entered the park, and scanned our room key to allow access to early entry. Meanwhile, those without early theme park entry will wait at various rope drop locations.

Disneyland know before you go: Thunder Mountain
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Thirty minutes may not sound like much, and it is not, but, we were able to ride many of the more popular rides before the park even opened.

Another thing to know before you go to Disneyland is that crowds in both parks do not typically get out of control until 12-1pm, and then dwindle again the later it gets. This means, if you do not have Early Theme Park Entry, you can still avoid crowds by arriving early and waiting at the rope drop.

Additionally, crowds are greatly impacted by days of the week and holidays. Any days where school does not take place, such as weekends and holidays, are guaranteed to be more crowded than school days.

How to Prepare for Disneyland: Know the Best Places to Stay

As mentioned above the biggest search term for Disneyland is  “Disneyland know before you go.” The next one is regarding places to stay at Disneyland.

Disneyland does draw in many locals, much more than Disney World does in Orlando, so there are fewer places to stay “onsite” at Disneyland.

Additionally, there are many accommodations within walking distance that are not owned by Disney. Many of these are a bit cheaper and some even have Disney packages.

Disneyland Hotel Interior
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In our opinion, and experience, the Disneyland onsite hotels are worth the extra cost, due to the benefits you get.

Above, I mentioned Early Theme Park access. This perk allows Disneyland onsite resort guests to enter the parks 30 minutes prior to opening and can really make or break your day.

For example, we were able to ride all of the Fantasyland dark rides, (none of which are eligible for Genie+,)   all before the park had even opened. Because we were ahead of the crowds, we were also able to experience Space Mountain with no wait. Once the park opens, all of these rides see higher wait times, particularly as the day goes on.

If you’re ready to take our advice and stay on site, it’s important to know which hotels are owned by Disney and offering these perks. The Disneyland resorts are the Disneyland Hotel, the Grand Californian, and Paradise Pier Hotel which will soon become Pixar Place Hotel. All of these hotels offer Early Theme Park Entry, easy access to Downtown Disney and to the Disneyland monorail, as well as the magic of the Disney bubble.

The Disney bubble is the immersion and illusion of magic and theming only Disney can provide.

When it comes to things to know before a Disneyland trip, your hotel options are an essential one.

Know the Disneyland Park Layout Before You Go

When Disneyland was built, the hub and spoke design was revolutionary for easy access to the various lands, as well as traffic flow.

Today, after added rides, many remodels, and higher traffic, the hub and spoke design inside of Disneyland has become a bit warped. With many narrow paths and crowds blocking your distance vision, it is easy to get turned around.

California Adventure has a similar problem. Many of the lands do not flow together seamlessly. There are bottlenecks in most of the main pathways, and Avengers Campus is full of impromptu and scheduled shows that clog up the walkways.

Cars Land in Disneyland 
How to Prepare for Disneyland: Memorize the maps.
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Another Disneyland know before you go tip is to help ease the confusion and frustration of navigating the parks by simply viewing the maps prior to your visit. If you have a general idea of the layouts, and even more importantly, alternative routes you can take to get to places, your days in the park will be less frustrating.

Additionally, we highly recommend grabbing a physical paper map when you enter the parks. In today’s technological world, that may seem shocking, but trust us on this one.

The physical map is so much quicker to pull out of your pocket, and much clearer to navigate than the map on the Disneyland app. The on-app map is small, and it’s nearly impossible to see the entire park at once on your phone screen.

How to Prepare for Disneyland: Get the Disneyland App

Speaking of the Disneyland app, download it before your trip. The best advice regarding how to prepare for Disneyland is to learn how to navigate the app before you leave home. You do not want to be the person blocking the walkways staring at the app because you cannot find your next destination, or cannot figure out how to book that Genie+ or dining reservation.

The Disneyland app is an important thing to know before you go to Disneyland because it shows wait times for the rides, has a park map, allows for booking reservations and genie+, and it even holds your park tickets.

You will be delayed entry to the parks if your tickets are not hooked up to the app correctly. Be sure to follow the app instructions before you arrive at the parks for linking tickets. Additionally, it is worth it to note that if you are visiting with kids without phones, you will also need to add their tickets to your app as well or purchase MagicBand+.

Disneyland Know Before You Go: Understand Your Dining Options

Another important thing to know before a Disneyland trip is dining, specifically if you have a food allergy. Disneyland dining options are greatly dominated by burgers, fries, hot dogs, corndogs, and, of all things, pickles. (Sort of kidding about the pickles; they’re a snack option, and you WILL see guests walking around with a giant pickle clutched in their fists.)

For quick service dining, expect burgers, fries, hotdogs, and maybe a chicken sandwich here and there. If you are visiting for a day or two, this will most likely not be a problem, but after a couple days of the same overpriced fast food, you will be craving something new.

You can find a quick service Mexican restaurant in Frontierland, a Teriyaki Skewer place in Adventureland, and a Chinese and Mexican restaurant in California Adventure. Besides these quick service offerings, expect burgers, and fried foods.

Due to lack of food diversity, the table service restaurants fill up quickly, so Advanced Dining Reservations are necessary during most visits. These can be booked as early as 60 days prior to your trip. ADR might be one of the most important aspects when it comes to how to prepare for Disneyland.

Food Allergies at Disneyland

Another Disneyland “know before you go” tip is regarding food allergies. If you have been to Disney World and dined with food allergies, you may be expecting the same procedures here.

Disneyland’s treatment of food allergies is poor at best. Their allergy menus are often not available online, making it impossible to plan ahead, and once in the park, you may find the allergy menus for your allergy are quite limited.

I have a gluten/wheat allergy, and found my offerings limited to 1-2 options at each restaurant, with many of them being the exact same food choices across restaurants. I cannot tell you how many bland burgers with a gluten free bun I ate during my last trip.

Additionally, staff are uneducated and often unaware of allergy procedures. At one buffet, the waiter stated that all options were gluten free, except one. Upon perusing the buffet, I quickly realized that was not true, as many of the dishes he stated as gluten free were not. The same waiter offered to bring gluten free rolls and dishes to the table from the kitchen for me, and then never did.

At one coffee shop, a coffee ordered with oatmilk was instead made with whole milk, causing some major issues later in the day. And, a life threatening mango allergy caused many staff to check with the cook at one restaurant, only to have none of them come back with a definitive answer.

So, here is the final word to the wise. When working on how to prepare for Disneyland, be prepared to advocate for yourself at Disneyland and to stress the importance of your food allergy to staff.

Must Visit Attractions at Disneyland

If you’ve never been before, one of the things to know before a Disneyland trip is what attractions there are, and which ones are must do.

For example, if you only have one day to do both parks, or even one day per park, you will need to prioritize which rides you want to experience, and leave some out to do during another trip.

If your trip is short, we highly recommend purchasing Genie+ for an added fee so you can “skip” the line on some attractions and fit more rides in your day.

At Disneyland, the top rides for thrill seekers would be the Matterhorn, Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain, Rise of the Resistance, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, and Indiana Jones.

If you are a big Disney fan, and would like to add in some of the fan favorites, you may have to remove some of the above and add in Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, the Fantasyland dark rides, and Jungle Cruise.

Both these lists still leave out many attractions, as well as parades, shows, and character experiences.

At California Adventure, thrill seekers should plan to prioritize Radiator Springs Racers, the Incredicoaster, Guardian’s of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout, Grizzly River Run, and believe it or not, the Pixar: Pal Around Ferris Wheel. (That last one may not make sense, but watch the video below, and you will understand.)

Additionally, California Adventure has the brand new Web Slingers, Toy Story Mania, a couple fun flat rides inside Cars Land, many rides in Pixar Pier, and shows and character interactions.

Prioritizing your rides is one of the most important thing to know before you go to Disneyland, even if planning is not your thing. If you have little ones in your group, be sure to check height requirements before planning your ideal ride list.

What to Pack for Disneyland: Know Before You Go

Another Disneyland know before you go tip is in regards to your packing list. It may seem easy to pack for a trip where you can simply walk back to your hotel, but it is best to ensure you bring everything you need to the parks to make the most of your day.

Be cognizant of the weather, and plan accordingly. Bring layers in the chillier months, and plan ahead with a poncho in case of rain, or sunscreen on hot days, as many places inside the parks have no shade. 

We always recommend a battery pack for your phone, as well as a charging cord, because you will need access to the Disneyland app to get into the park, use Genie+, mobile order food, and more.

This next item has been defunct in Disney World, due to the new security processes, but in Disneyland, bag checks are still in full swing. If you are bringing a bag to the park, as most of us do, expect a lengthy bag search.

To shorten this time, bring a bag with as few pockets as possible, or even better, bring a clear backpack.

If staying onsite, bring an extra pair of sneakers. There will be A LOT of walking. If you’re staying onsite, the walk from the resorts is quite lengthy, as you will have to walk through Downtown Disney to the park gates. Rotating shoes is one of the best way to avoid blisters, particularly if your fee get wet during the day.

Insider Tips for a Magical Experience at Disneyland

There are endless things to know before a Disneyland trip, including these insider tips and tricks from our recent visit.

The Magic of Genie+

If you are planning a short trip to Disneyland, you should definitely plan on using Genie+. Genie+ allows you to book a time to come back to ride, and join the much shorter Lightning Lane. For a full outline of Genie+ and how to purchase and book, click here.

We used Early Theme Park Entry and Genie+ together, and never had to wait in a line for more than 10 minutes during our entire trip. 

We entered the parks as early as we could, and headed straight to Fantasyland, to ride the rides that do not allow Genie+ access. We were able to ride them all before the parks opened. Then, we began booking Genie+ passes for rides with longer waits, like Space and Thunder Mountain.

Be aware, that many people do not utilize Genie+ in Disneyland and California Adventure, so your return times are often 5-10 minutes away in the mornings, but do space out further into the day.

Other Disneyland Entertainment

Another Disneyland know before you go tip is to not skip the entertainment. Disneyland has stunning parade floats and some dazzling performance, but you will want to arrive early to score a good seat.

Parade times and planned character meet and greet can be found in the app. But, many character experiences in Disneyland and California Adventure are impromptu. It’s common to see characters roaming the walkways taking photos and interacting with guests. (Bonus Tip: Lightning McQueen and his friends can be seen driving around Cars Land, where they stop for photo ops with guests.)

Watch the Small Details

This one applies more to Disneyland, as Disneyland is the original Disney park, and the only one that was entirely overseen by Walt Disney himself, due to his unfortunate early death.

Disney fans should consider adding research to their list of how to plan for Disneyland. There are so many easter eggs and fascinating finds throughout the park.

Disneyland has many places you can see Walt’s hand and whimsy. For example, Main Street USA, has fun mannequin displays in the Emporium, different unique chandeliers in each shop, and even a half red and half white lightbulb by the Coke shop.

Also, while walking down Main Street, notice the writing on the windows. Many are nods to the parks creators, or fun ways to interact.

For example, behind Starbucks, the “hotel guests” can be heard going about their days as you sip your coffee. Telephones can be found inside the Main Street shops and restaurants, allowing you to eavesdrop on conversations.

One of our favorite magical details can be found in each popcorn cart. Each Disneyland popcorn cart has a different character “making” the popcorn. Outside the Haunted mansion, a ghoul is running the popcorn machine, and a yeti can be found doing the same job outside of the Matterhorn.

Disney World and Disneyland have recently developed a cult following for their popcorn, well popcorn buckets in fact. The buckets are intricate, some have lights, some have working wheels, and some would never even be useful at holding popcorn, but all Disney fans still have to have them. You can learn more here.

Walkup Dining

Advanced dining reservations can be hard to score in Disneyland and California Adventure, as there are not many sit down places. But, there is another way to score a table.

In the Disneyland App, you can join the walkup list for many of the restaurants, from anywhere in the park. You will then get a notification that your table is ready, and you will have ten minutes to arrive.

When using this method, it is more beneficial to those with smaller parties, as getting a table is a bit easier. Additionally, be sure to select text message notifications, rather than push notifications through the app. The app notifications often do not work, and cause guests to miss their arrival window.

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Kathleen Hesketh and Ali Patton, mother daughter travel bloggers

We're Kat and Ali, a pair of mother daughter travel bloggers sharing our knowledge and experience from multiple years of Disney travel with other Disney lovers and first-time visitors, hoping to simplify your vacation experience and help you enjoy all of the magic of a visit to Disney World. As Disney vacation planners, we can now book vacations through Mickey World travel, at no additional charge, and help you realize all of the magic of a trip to Disney.

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Ali Patton

Ali is a travel blogger for Seconds to Go, where she shares her experiences traveling the U.S. with her co-blogger Mom, Kathleen. She is also an avid Disney travel enthusiast, and with multiple Disney World trips under her belt, is a knoweldgeable resource for all things related to Disney vacations. Ali can be found managing the Seconds to Go social media accounts as well as the famed Double Z Farm pages on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok.

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