All you need to know to plan one day at Disneyland California: first hand tips on how to escape the crowds, how to book and what to do for a truly magical stay at the ‘Happiest place on earth’.
It has taken me 4 years to take the plunge and get tickets for one day at Disneyland for our family.
I knew it would be magical, I knew both the kids and us would love it, I even felt guilty when I dragged the kids across the world to Southern California without including a Disney stop.
However, honestly: for the longest time, I couldn’t book because reading about it on the web simply made me terrified of Disneyland!
If you have read much about Disneyland, you may know what I mean.
I started reading articles knowing some planning was required but most of the guides I found made me feel like I needed a PhD in Disney to even begin to thinking of going!
Fast passes, mobile ordering, hacks – did I really need to learn all that for a day at Mouse Central? Could I not just show up at the gates?
After much debating, in the end I decided to face my fears and booked and you know what happened? We had the most amazing day!
I know this is their tagline buy Disney truly is magic and the best thing?
While all the tips were useful, you really don’t need to know too much or plan too much to have a great day at Disney Anaheim.
What I really felt I needed to know and you may find useful is in this guide: a simple Disneyland California guide for first timers and Disneyland novices.
How to spend a perfect day in Disneyland CA, based on our experience
Where is Disneyland California
Disneyland California is in Anaheim, a town in Orange county, south of LA, California.
While Los Angeles is the biggest city near the park, Disneyland in NOT in LA: by car it takes about 30 minutes or so to drive there from the central/Southern part of the city or longer if coming from Santa Monica or surrounding area.
If spending the day at Disneyland is your main reason to go to LA, then I highly recommend you pick one of the on-site hotels to avoid commuting time.
If you select accommodation in LA, opt for the South (we were in Hermosa Beach which is amazing and in an excellent location for Disneyland) or near LAX for easy access to the freeway.
How to get from Los Angeles to Disneyland Resort
There are a couple of ways to go from Los Angeles to Disneyland (or Disneyland Resort, as it is officially called).
Los Angeles to Disneyland by car
The easiest way to get to Disney is by car. The freeway from LA is quick and convenient and the park is equipped with massive parking lots: you pay a day fee to park and you know that you car is in a well kept, shaded space.
From the parking lots, a handy and free shuttle train brings you Downtown Disney ® District, where you find shops and food options and the main esplanade with the entrance to the parks.
LAX to Disneyland without a car: metro, bus, shuttle service
If you don’t have your won car or prefer not to drive, you have several options to choose from, all connecting LAX, Los Angeles airport, with the Disneyland Resort.
These options include:
Shuttle: The Disneyland Resort Express connects the airport (all terminals) with the resort at regular intervals during the day.Reservations are not required and the cost is around 40$ per person at the time of writing.
Bus and metro: It is possible to get to Disneyland from Los Angeles by public transport, specifically combining a trip on the G bus, then a ride on the green line and finally the metro express line 460.
While good, it goes without saying that this type of solution is not idea if you only have one day at Disneyland as it will eat significantly into your time at the resort.
The best time to go to Disneyland
Disneyland California is a year round destination but some days are better than others, mostly in terms of crowds.
The best tip I got about Disneyland was to check a website called ‘Is it packed‘: this is a super handy site that gives you a forecast of crowds so you can know if the day is likely to be crazy busy or ok.
We trusted its findings and chose a midweek day that was marked as ‘our best bet’ and indeed it was perfect – we had lines but nothing excessive and never had an issue getting access to rides or restaurants (It was a Wednesday in summer, in case it helps)
Disney also has a somewhat similar tool in the form of their fees: high affluence days in high season are marked as such and come with a higher price tag while other days are cheaper.
Mixing the info from these 2 sites gives you a good idea of the bet day to go to Disneyland to minimize the risk of crowds (and going bankrupt!).
Where to buy Disneyland tickets
We very simply bought tickets the day before from the official Disneyland app.
The process is quick and straightforward and while it does not give you discounts, I believe is the safest way to get one day tickets for non California residents.
While for locals and multi day passes we found you could get good deals (for these, you do need the Disney experts!), what I was told by locals is that day passes are hardly ever discounted and also that you must beware of non Disney sellers and their scams.
So, for peace of mind, official Disney site it was for us!
They Disneyland app: why you want it and how to use it
When we went on the Disneyland site to get tickets we discovered the Disney app and quickly downloaded it.
I am very much an app-lite person (aka: I have only essential apps on my phone and resist new ones unless they are on the life saving end of the spectrum) but the Disney one seemed good and indeed I was happy I got it.
You simply download it on your phone, create an account (this is the only annoying part about it) and then you can use it for several things including:
- Buy and store your tickets
- Have access to the Park map
- Book and order your meals (see below)
- Check the nature of rides (each has a description so you can gauge if it is interesting/suitable for your party)
- Check the waiting time for rides
- See and purchase official photos
- Shop merchandise
- Keep the kids internalized while queuing with the Play part of the app
Disneyland and Disney California adventure: what park to go to?
When you go buy your tickets you will notice that Disneyland Resort California is actually 2 parks, Disneyland ‘proper’ and Disneyland California adventure (A little bit like Walt Disney World has Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios).
The parks are beside each other (the entrances are on the two sides of the same esplanade) but they have different admissions systems and different prices.
You can buy tickets for one, the other or a park hopper ticket, that allows you to visit both.
While it is technically possible to do so, I do not recommend visiting the two parks in the same day unless you have some rides you absolutely want to do and they happen to be in two different parks.
To choose the best one for your family, I highly recommend to download the Disneyland app and study the attractions: they are clearly laid out on the map and you can gauge type and age/height suitability.
With our children, who are more into small rides than big ones and a Star wars lover, we opted for Disneyland and left California Adventure for another trip.
How long do you need for Disneyland?
We stayed one full day (10 am to 11.30 pm) and wow, we needed it all! While we did get moments of tiredness during the day, Disney clearly has entertainment down to a fine art.
You are tired? no problem, just sit for a drink
Tired again and ready to go home? No problem, but first look there, there is the parade, or look up, there are the fireworks!
Each of these things makes you fall in love with the place over and over again so yes, if you have one day at Disneyland, make it a very long one!
How to plan your one day in Disneyland: things to see
The best way to plan a day at Disney is to get an idea of what there is to do in Disney before you go and the get to the gate early, to maximize your time there.
Disney is effectively a destination (you visit a little like you would a small European town!) so I studied the map and attractions like I do before any tourist visit.
Disneyland is made of several areas, these is what we saw in each.
Main Street USA
Main Street USA is the first thing you encounter when entering Disneyland, after ticket checks. It is the main street leading into the park and it is and old style USA main street lined with shops with souvenirs and food.
Old cars go up and down (super slow, don’t worry) and everything conjures to make you feel you stepped into a Disney version of the 1950s
Main street USA is lovely but being the first area you encounter is also very full: don’t let this first impression scare you though. On the day we were there, it was busy here but very possible to escape crowds elsewhere in the park.
Fantasyland is the part of Disney Dumbo, Alice and many of the oldest Disney character and is is a lovely part of Disneyland.
Here you have rides for all ages but mostly you have a the magical atmosphere Disney is famous for.
Here we rode the mad Hatter’s coffee cups, flew with Dumbo, joined Toad on a mad ride across London, got all mellow in It’s a small world’ and this is also where you have Sleeping Beauty’s castle, which is smaller than we expected but still manages to tower over the rest of the park.
If you love Mickey and friends, this is the place to be. We can here right after lunch and it is a lovely part of Disneyland for little kids.
More than rides here you have characters encounters: we saw Minnie and Micky and visited their houses which was tiring Micky’s house is massive) but truly special for little kids.
Our family will forever remember this part of Disneyland for the Winnie the Pooh ride, which is super sweet and perfect for small kids (and nostalgic parents).
However, this is also the area with rides such as splash mountain so definitely one to seek out!
Frontierland is mostly a Western themed part of Disneyland and is a fun one both for rides (my son had his most favorite here) and non riding thrills: this we had the only non included attraction we found on the day (a shooting gallery, one dollar per turn), some nice shops and a lovely Mexican restaurant with a gorgeous patio. This for us was a good end of the day stop.
New Orleans Square
I have never been to New Orleans proper but you can fool yourself and believe you are dining there if you just head to the square by the same name in Disneyland.
This is an area with New Orleans theme restaurants and architecture and it also hosts two of Disney’s famous attractions, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and the haunted mansion.
We ended up being in Tomorrowland at different times during the day, once to ride the fun car track they have there and then back in the evening for the Star wars tour.
The area has several attractions that are great for active and space loving kids and we found our 9 year old son took to it more than out 7 year old girl, who much preferred the mad hatter’s teacups (and the shooting gallery, for some reasons!)
Star wars Galaxy’s edge
The star wars area of Disneyland had only recently opened when we visited and wow, it is spectacular!
This area of the park really is an impressive experience: even more than in other locations, here you feel like you are walking into the Star wars world and it makes quite an impression to be just outside the Millennium Falcon!
We pondered a while if the ride on the Millennium Falcon was worth and in the end we went: it was a little scary for our 7 year old but myself, my son and husband loved it and we would highly recommend it
Adventureland is the area where you have attractions such as the Tarzan tree-house and island-themed adventure: this is a lovely area, full of restaurants and we found it gets exceptionally pleasant in the evening, when the colonial/exotic theme comes to life.
We climbed to the top of Tarzan’s tree after dinner and the view over the park with the lights shining was magical!
How to get onto Disneyland rides
Rides are everywhere in Disneyland and getting on is as easy as stepping in line and waiting for your turn.
Outside each ride, there is a display with an estimate of the waiting time so you can decide if it is worth your time waiting there and then or you want to come back later or get a fast pass (see below).
On some rides there is only one line but in most you will find some alternatives such as the ‘single rider line’ (if you don’t mind riding alone or separate from your family) and the fast pass line, that can help you save time.
What is the Disney Fast Pass
Disney rides can have very long waiting times so Disney has come up with a solution: time slots.
While you can always simply queue for an attraction, you can skip part of the line going to the ‘fast line kiosk’ and requesting to be a assigned a time slot for a certain ride.
This request results in you receiving a time to show up at your attraction and access to the fast pass line, usually much shorter than the main one.
The fast pass some rules so you cannot get fast passes fist thing in the morning and set your whole day schedule but is a good system if waiting time is too long.
Just check the slots available before committing: some of the most popular rides in the morning had slots available only late at night!
Because of this, we actually didn’t get a fast pass and always queued: honestly, it wasn’t that bad as all, especially when the queue was inside the attraction like for the star war millennium falcon ride.
From here you can walk everywhere: everywhere is really near and while you will find yourself walking a LOT at Disney, the distances are all manageable.
The best day to plan your day at Disney is to pick in advance your must do rides and head there first. If you can, you get on straight away and if the line is too long you can get a fast pass (more about it later). If you don’t have your heart seer on a specific ride, you don’t need any planning!
How to get around Disneyland
Disneyland is a like a town and the best way to get around it is on foot although be prepared: in Disney, you walk A LOT!
We spent at the park the whole day and by then end of it I had clocked in over 25.000 steps, which is as many as we did on the longest sightseeing day in Rome!
Disneyland also has a railroad which serves stations in pretty much all lands: a little bit like we can say that Disney is a town, the rail road is like a train: you have stops, stations and waiting times to get on!
In what order to see Disneyland’s rides?
I studied extensively before going to Disneyland but honestly: there is not right way or order to do the rides.
My main tip for your day is this: if you have certain rides you absolutely do not want to miss, go there first and decide case by care whether to wait or get the fast pass.
For the rest, stay flexible
Where to eat in Disneyland and how to use mobile ordering
Disney has many restaurants offering a decent variety of options.
A little bit like the rides, you can just show up at the restaurant and order or you can also book your meal from the Disney app.
This is super handy and there are a couple of ways to do it.
If you want to make sure you get a meal at the restaurant you want and at the time you want, you go on the app, book your time-slot and place your order.
Once at the restaurant at the agreed time, you go back onto the app, click, ‘I am here prepare my order’ (not the exact wording, but as easy to spot as this) and in a matter of minutes you can go pick it up.
The other way is the one we used: we went to a restaurant of our fancy when we saw a nice one and used the Mobile ordering to place our order without the queue.
It worked amazing, all you need to do I get a table and get online (Disneyland has free WiFi to connect to its app) and get choosing!
During our day we used this twice at the Beauty and the Beast themes restaurants while we queued at the Mexican one for the evening as we opted for this buffet style solutions.
In term of variety of food, we tried some all american dishes (burgers, corn dogs etc), pizza and Mexican but from restaurants to ice cream and cold drinks the choice is pretty wide.
Some restaurants also have healthy options for kids and we were for instance able to order apples with burgers rather than chips.
Water is available extensively around the park for free (bring a bottle)
With the information above, I believe you equipped with all you need to know for one day in Disneyland. However, if you are like me and want to know even more before committing to a day at the Disneyland resort, here are some ore handy tips.
What to wear for a day at Disneyland
When getting ready for a day at Disneyland I recommend you take into account:
Comfort: this is a full day out and you want to make sure both your shoes and clothes are comfortable.
Opt for breathable clothes and make sure you have always an extra layer as California’s sun can be deceiving!
Park rules: I didn’t know this but Disney has a dress code or at least, some rules to abide.
These mostly have to do with the park being for families and the organization wanting to make sure nothing that can be deemed in appropriate enters the park: they include in this explicit prints on clothing, some tattoos and more.
Have a look at the dress code on the Disney app to make sure you know what they approve on
Photo ready: a day in Disneyland for us was a one in a lifetime experience and we know we would take lots of photos.
We didn’t go over board with it but part of me wishes we did: people dress in all kinds of ways in Disneyland but you could see those having the most fun had made an effort (some with Disney gear, some without).
Without getting stressed about it, if you can look cute at Disneyland you will probably be happier when looking at the photos!
Best shoes for Disneyland
The best shoes for a day at Disneyland are comfortable walking shoes. We wore sneakers (one child, dad) and walking sands (other child / me) and they worked perfectly.
Make sure your shoes are well broken in and breathable – we say so many people suffering with blisters and over heated feet and they truly looked miserable, it must have ruined their day!
So for Disney think confront all the way.
What to bring in your day bag for Disneyland
The park is really well equipped and you do not need to bring much with you. My must haves for a day at Disneyland are:
- Reusable water bottle / cup: the park is full of free water fountains so you can stay hydrated without buying excessive amounts of plastic
- Sun screen, sun hat, sun glasses
- Extra battery pack for phone and camera – I didn’t knot see charging stations although this may just me not being observant on this point
- A tote or crossbody bag with extra buts your kids may love to have (princess dress, mouse ears etc)
- If you have toddlers, all your changing bag basics
- If you have stroller age kids, a good reclining stroller to help with naps (the one in the park did not look comfortable, at all!).
I hope you found this guide to Disneyland in one day useful. Safe travels!