A first-timer's guide to Disneyland California

First time visiting Disneyland California? This Disneyland guide has everything you need to  plan a successful trip to the happiest place on Earth.

Disneyland is located in Anaheim, California. It actually consists of two parks, Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park. The two parks are only a few metres away from each other so it’s very easy to visit both parks on the same day and to stay in a hotel that is close to both park entrances.

Disneyland opened in 1955 and was the first theme park opened by The Walt Disney Company. It is the only park that was designed and constructed under the direct supervision of Walt Disney himself. While there are now parks in Orlando, Paris, Shanghai, Toyko and Hong Kong, California’s Disneyland is the true original park and is referred to by many as having the most “Disney magic”.

A First-timer’s Guide to Visiting Disneyland California

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What age is best for Disneyland?

Honestly, any age! Disneyland caters to all ages from 0-100 as long as you love Disney. I’ve been as an adult without kids, with a 2 year old, 4-year-old, 7-year-old, 9-year-old and most recently 11-year-old. Each time is different but equally enjoyable.

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What time of year should we go?

Disneyland is gorgeous to visit all-year round. They have special seasonal events around Halloween and Christmas in particular, making these two times of year a really special time to visit. Check out the crowds at the time of year you’re considering visiting at this website – if you can visit during a slower time, I would suggest doing so. We have visited twice in June or July and both times it has been very hot and very busy.

Where should we stay?

There are so many choices! Disneyland have their own hotels that are on the park grounds and give you special benefits – the biggest two being early entry into the parks every day (30 minutes before general admission) and a special entry to Disney California Adventure Park through Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa so you’ll never have to line up. There is also now an entrance straight into Disney California Adventure Park from Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel.

The Grand Californian Hotel & Spa at Disneyland California

While the Disneyland hotels also offer other great features that carry the Disney magic to all areas of your stay, they are also the pricey accomodation option – so if you’re on a budget you’ll want to consider staying at a “good neighbor” hotel instead.

All the benefits of staying at a Disneyland hotel

We have stayed at the Grand Californian Hotel and loved it. You can read our review of the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa here.

We have stayed at three different “good neighbor” hotels, the Howard Johnson Hotel and Water Park, the Carousel Inn and Suites and the Grand Legacy at the Park. All three were half the price of the Disneyland hotels and had excellent locations – directly across the road from Disneyland, making our commute each morning a mere 5 minutes walk.

You can read our review of the Howard Johnson Hotel and Water Park here and of the Grand Legacy at the Park here.


How long should we stay for?

We have stayed for three days twice and four days once (with the Halloween party taking up one day). We spent one day each at Disneyland and California Adventure park, and one day hopping between the two. Ideally I would suggest going for five days as we always feel like there’s never enough time to fit in everything.


What’s “early entry”?

Guests of the Disney hotels can enter either Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park 30 minutes early every day. Not all areas of the parks are open however at this time so plan your ride strategy accordingly. The big headliner rides are NOT open for early morning entry. See what is currently available here before your trip.


What is “rope drop”

If you talk to any regular Disney park goers and you will hear them talk about “rope drop”. This is the time when visitors in the park are allowed to enter and speedily make their way to their first ride of the day at park opening. Disneyland cast members usually have an actual rope up to hold crowds back and drop it, hence “rope drop”. A major strategy to get on rides that otherwise have a long line is to “rope drop” it, AKA line up as early as you can before the park opens, and then when the rope drops, get to the big popular ride quickly so you can ride it without lining up or paying extra.

What tickets should we get?

You have a choice between single park passes, which allow you entry into one park per day, or “park hoppers” which let you go back and forth between the parks. If you buy multi day passes (which is the cheapest way to buy tickets), you will have to choose between the two types, you can’t mix and match. With older kids, I’d recommend park hoppers, particularly if you will be there three days. I found a full day at each park was perfect, plus that extra day to jump between the two and finish up a few things we missed or wanted to do again.


I always advise buying tickets at least a few days in advance. While the queues have always been short to buy tickets when we’ve arrived, it just cuts out one extra step to get into the park. When you buy a ticket online you can choose an eTicket which you then present on your phone (or printed out) at the gates for entry.

More info on ticket types and prices

Park Reservations

Since Covid, park reservations have been required to enter the park on the day, even after a ticket has been purchased. Once you have bought your tickets, link them to your Disneyland account and select which park you want to start at for each day of your trip. You can change the park reservation up till the night before so don’t worry if you initially book one park but then change your mind before your trip. Just cancel the reservation and book the other park.

You must have a park reservation to enter on the day and parks do reach capacity during busy times, so book your reservations as soon as you book your tickets if possible and then change them alter if needs be.

Get all the info you need on the park ticket booking and reservation system.


What time of day should I arrive?

The parks open at different times throughout the year – anywhere between 8am and 10am.  My best advice on getting the most out of a Disneyland day is to arrive well before the park opens. At least 30 minutes. It can take quite a while to get through security, and also through the gates. When you use your tickets for the first time, you will have a photo taken and linked online to your pass, and you will need to sign the tickets they give you – all making the entry process that much longer.

We enjoyed the early mornings the most as there were the fewest people in the park, so lines were shorter.

Check the Disneyland calendar here to find out what time the park opens for your visit.

Disneyland via christineknight.me

How do I plan a day at Disneyland?

My best advice is to plan to do all the rides first thing in the morning. As soon as the gates open, go straight to the rides you want to do the most that are the most popular rides, and either do the rides immediately, or book a Lightening Lane (see more below) to return and do the ride later without having to line up to do so.


We typically spend the first three hours just doing all of the rides, then take a break for lunch and spend the afternoons watching shows, meeting characters, shopping, eating ice cream, and watching the parades.

Find out the height requirement for rides in advance and plan accordingly!

This site gives you the average wait time for each ride, so you can see which ones are the most popular.


Skip the queues with Genie+

Genie+ is a fee-based add-on to the standard Disney Genie in-app planning tool which is built into the Disneyland mobile app. We don’t find Disney Genie at all useful so we only use the app for the Genie+ service. Disney genie is supposed to help visitors curate their day by giving custom recommendations based on their preferences, however we prefer to just look at the ride wait time screen on the app and base our decisions on that. If you want to give the free Disney Genie planning tool a go however, instructions on how to use it are here.

In a nutshell, Genie+ lets you skip the general stand by line for certain popular attractions. It has replaced the old FASTPASS and MAXPASS systems.

Genie+ is a paid addition to your Disneyland ticket. You can buy it at the same time as you buy your park tickets or each day ad hok. Genie+ at writing costs $25USD per ticket per day. For this cost you will be able to skip the general stand by queue and instead use a special Lightening Lane entrance on certain rides at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park. You can also download your PhotoPass and ride photos at no extra cost.


How to use Genie+

Purchase Genie+ at the same time as your park tickets in advance or from midnight the day you want to enter the park. You will be able to book your first Disney Genie+ Lightning Lane attraction on the Dinseyland app after you scan into the park and the park officially opens.

Once you’ve redeemed your initial selection (or the arrival window has passed), you can use the Disney Genie service Tip Board or My Day itinerary to see when you’re eligible to make another selection. You can make selections, one at a time, all day up to regular park closing, subject to availability and limited to one Lightning Lane selection per attraction per day.

Lightening Lane ride selections are not available for a few big headliner rides at each park – these must be bought separately as an Individual Lightening Lane for an additional per person fee.


What is Individual Lightening Lane (ILL)

For the headliner rides that aren’t included in Genie+, guests may purchase and select the next available arrival window for up to two attractions per day, for an additional individual fee. All guests with valid theme park admission and park reservations can purchase the Individual Lightening Lane (ILL) rides —with or without Disney Genie+ service.

Pricing for individual purchase of Lightning Lane entrance arrival windows will vary by date and attraction, and purchase is subject to limited availability. Be sure to check the Disneyland app on the day of your visit for current prices and attraction availability.


How to Purchase Individual Lightening Lane

Upon entering a theme park, you can make individual purchases within the Disney Genie Service Tip Board or My Day itinerary in the Disneyland app, (subject to availability). You can purchase individual selections for up to 2 different attractions per day. Note: Lightning Lane entry for these attractions will only be available to purchase individually and are not included with Disney Genie+ service.

At time of writing, rides that needed an ILL to skip the queue included Rise of the Resistance, Radiator Spring Racers and Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Rollercoaster. You can still line up for these rides however and not pay an additional fee, you will just need to include this in your rides strategy and run straight to these rides to line up when the park opens.

Read more about Genie+, Lightening Lane and Individual Lightening Lanes here.

Disneyland via christineknight.me

What are some tips for watching the parades?

The parades are incredibly popular, with people staking out their front row spots over 45 minutes before the parade begins. If you watch carefully around the park from an hour before the parades start, Disneyland staff will begin marking out the areas for crowd control. Grab a spot on a bench or on the gutter edge and either all sit with some snacks and wait, or leave one adult there while the rest of the family entertain themselves in other ways while you’re waiting.

The parades wind their way from the back of the park to the front, so if the start time is 4:30pm, it will reach around the front of the park around 4:45-4:50pm.

Disneyland via christineknight.me Disneyland via christineknight.me

Can we take food and drink into the park?

Yes you can. Take a large refillable water bottle – you can refill with water at any drink station through out the parks. You can also ask for cups of ice water at any restaurant/fast food outlet. You are allowed to take whatever food and snacks you like into the park, which is a great way to cut down on costs.

We didn’t take many snacks with us as we were staying at a very basic hotel with nowhere to keep food, however we did take in little bags of nuts and things like that to keep us going.

Food inside the parks

If you’re like us and travel to get to the Disney parks, you’re likely to not have much in the way of food to take in and will be buying your food all day. The food outlets are a mix of sit down and quick service (takeaway) and there is not a really good amount of food for people who have allergies plus plant-based vegan options.

I highly recommend eating outside popular meal times to avoid lining up and struggling to find a seat, ordering using the mobile app for the same reason, or booking a sit-down meal.

Disneyland via christineknight.me

Our all -time favourite quick meal at the parks is the grilled cheese and tomato soup at Jolly Holliday in Disneyland. It’s delicious!

Disneyland via christineknight.me Disneyland via christineknight.me Disneyland via christineknight.me

Should I take a stroller?

If your child fits in one, absolutely yes. Many hours of walking will tired even older children. There is stroller parking at every ride, and every restaurant/facility is stroller-accessible. I also like having a stroller to put our stuff in, like water bottles and snacks, and the canopy provides much needed shade during the heat.

Effective May 1, 2019, strollers that are greater than 31” in width and 52” in length will be prohibited. Stroller wagons will also be prohibited.

Read about Disneyland’s stroller restrictions here.

Should I use the Disneyland photographers?

Personally, I always utilise the Disneyland photography service, called PhotoPass. For an additional fee you can download all of the images taken by the Disneyland photographers.  The photographers are scattered around both parks all throughout the day and take some really great quality photos – with the entire family in them! I love that I can get out whole family in the same shot with zero effort, and I also like to leave my giant SLR camera at home and just take my point and shoot with me, knowing the Disneyland photographers will have their excellent cameras to snap portraits for me that save me lugging around my behemoth for the day.

Having said that, the PhotoPass photos are very much hit or miss and I do tend to get a lot of photos back that are out of focus, so I would suggest asking the photographer to take a photo on your phone as well as using their camera.

At time of editing (March 2023), purchasing Genie+ for $25 per person, per day also gives you the PhotoPass images.


When getting your photo taken, you can either download the Disneyland app to your phone and present the app to the photographer and add the photos to your account, or the photographer will give you a small card with a bar code that you can then add into your account yourself later on.

You can take the cards to a Disneyland PhotoPass store to buy the images at the park, or log into the Disneyland PhotoPass website later to buy and download them.

Disneyland via christineknight.me

How do I keep on top of what’s happening during the day?

I love the excellent (free) Disneyland app. It allowed me to see the wait times on every ride, has a map with a compass so you know where you are, and also shows what characters are where for meet and greets, where food outlets and bathrooms are, and times for entertainment such as shows and parades.

How do I meet characters at Disneyland?

Characters roam around the parks all day. Some have designated spots and times that you can find either on the app or by asking at Guest Services inside the park. The core characters such as Minnie, Mickey and friends and the princesses have designated places where they can be found.

Disneyland via christineknight.me

Others simply roam and you have to be lucky to spot them, such as Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter, and Mary Poppins. If you want an easy way to meet lots of the characters all together, book in for a character Breakfast or dinner.

What are the character dining options?

There are five character dining options at Disneyland. One is inside the park: Minnie & Friends at the Plaza Inn, which is available for breakfast/brunch. This character dining experience requires a park ticket to attend.


Minnie & Friends is our top pick as it has the most variety and volume of characters. We met Minnie Mouse, plus core Disney faves like Donald Duck, Hook and Chip & Dale, Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore. Peter Pan, Rafiki and other lesser characters also feature.

Review of Minnie & Friends at the Plaza Inn

Outside the park there are three options:

Goofy’s Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel, which is open for breakfast and dinner. This is the only character dining experience which is open for dinner. We met Mickey, Minnie, Chip, Dale, Pluto and Goofy.

Review of Goofy’s Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel

Mickey’s Tales of Adventures at the Grand Californian. This is a fun buffet experience with Mickey, Minnie, Chip, Dale and Pluto. Breakfast/brunch only.

Review of Mickey’s Tales of Adventure at the Grand Californian

Donald Duck’s Seaside Breakfast and Brunch at Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel. Daisy and Stitch are at this dining experience.

More info on Donald Duck’s Seaside Breakfast  and Brunch here.

Disney Princess Breakfast Adventures at the Napa Rose, Grand Californian. This is the only princess-themed dining experience. It’s a pricey meal with plenty of interactions and take-home gifts.

More info the Princess Breakfast here.

Book in for a character Breakfast or dinner here.

How do I meet the Disney princesses?

You can meet three princesses at any time of day at the Fantasy Faire inside Fantasyland, Disneyland. The princesses change regularly so you won’t know which ones will be there until you go inside.

The princesses are in seperate rooms and you walk around to meet them one at a time. You can also happen upon princesses outside Cinderella’s Castle – we found Aurora this way. As of Jan 2018, this is the only way to meet multiple princesses at the same venue.

Princesses also roam around the park. Check the app to see where they will appear and when.

You can also book in for the Disney Princess Breakfast Adventures at the Napa Rose, Grand Californian. This is the only princess-themed dining experience. It’s a pricey meal with plenty of interactions and take-home gifts.

More info the Princess Breakfast here.

What about Anna and Elsa?

Meet Anna & Elsa | Disney California Adventure Park

The sisters are located inside the Animation Academy in California Adventure Park, and are the only princesses you meet together. We really enjoyed meeting Anna and Elsa – they have a great repartee together, making the sisters a really fun duo to chat with.

What is the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique?

This is a must (but pricey) experience for little girls who want a princess makeover. You can read about our experience and more info on the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique here.


I want to visit Star Wars Land

Star Wars land is located in Disneyland. Get all the info you need about Star Wars land rides and attractions here.


Where to go for a break from the crowds

The crowds can be incredibly overwhelming in both parks. My favourite spots to escape the crowds are Tom Sawyer’s Island in Disneyland Park (and island reached by a raft with tunnels to explore), the The Redwood Creek Challenge Trail (a forest-themed play area) and the Animation Academy (where you can learn to draw Disney characters and visit the Beast’s library) at Disney California Adventure.


What services does Disneyland offer for disabilities?

Disneyland has a range of services and guide for people living with disabilities. The service most people are interested in is the Disability Access Pass (DAS) which allows people unable to queue for the rides the ability to wait elsewhere for their ride and return at a designated time and use the Lightening Lane queue to board the ride. You can pre-register for this service in advance through a video interview or in person on arrival at Disneyland.

I highly recommend pre-registering as you will then be able to select two rides per day to pre-book for your party to enjoy. Once you are in the park and using the DAS, you can select one ride at a time similar to the Genie+ booking system. One differences is that once you book a DAS ride selection, you can use it at any time that day once your booking window commences. Genie+ ride selections expire after an hour if they’re not used.

Do I need Genie+ and DAS?

With both tools you will be on and off rides all day with pretty much minimal wait times, however the DAS operates so similarly to the Genie+ that I don’t think it’s a necessary additional purchase myself.

What is the World of Colour nighttime spectacular?

World of Color is an evening show inside Disney California Adventure Park, which is generally on either once or twice per night. Jets of water shoot into the air, with lasers shooting colors and video montages from classic Disney movies onto the water “movie screen”. It’s a magnificent production well worth watching.

World of Color Dessert Party Disney California Adventure Park

In order to enter the reserved viewing areas, Guests must present one of the following:

A valid virtual queue selection for World of Color (one per Guest)
A valid voucher from a World of Color dining package or World of Color Dessert Party (one per Guest). We highly enjoyed the World of Color Dessert Party (read our review here).

World of Color Dessert Party Disney California Adventure Park

Do you have any questions about how to plan the perfect Disneyland holiday? What else do you want to see in a Disneyland guide?

More Disneyland tips

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How to survive (and enjoy!) Disneyland with a toddler

Get ready for your Disney trip with these packing tips

Celebrating the holidays at Disneyland

Celebrating Halloween at Disneyland

A guide to the best desserts at Disneyland

A first-timer's guide to Disneyland California

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