Disneyland Trip Planning Guide [2018 Edition]

If you're planning a trip to Disneyland, you've come to the right place! In this guide, we cover everything from flights to hotels to riding all the best rides. If you have any questions, let us know and we'll try to answer or find someone who can!

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Basics of Disneyland Resort

Disneyland Resort comprises the following:

  • The castle park, Disneyland Park
  • A second park, Disney California Adventure Park
  • Three hotels (Disneyland Hotel, Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, Disney's Paradise Pier Hotel)
  • A shopping and dining area, Downtown Disney

Disneyland Resort is located in Anaheim, California, about an hour outside of downtown Los Angeles by car.

Overview of the Parks

Disneyland Park is THE traditional castle park. The park is dedicated to "the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America." All other castle parks bear the marks of the Disneyland Park roots. Zealous fans will point out that while Walt Disney had a significant role in planning and designing Walt Disney World, Disneyland is the only park he actually set foot in.

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Disneyland Park features Main Street U.S.A., Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Adventureland, New Orleans Square, Critter Country, Mickey's Toontown, Frontierland, and, soon, Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.

Disney California Adventure is, at least in name, a park dedicated to those who built the Golden State. In actuality, it is sort of a place for Disney to put a great collection of attractions with some measure of Disney theming. We don't want to sell Disney California Adventure short, it's actually quite a good "backup" park.

When to Visit Disneyland

In deciding when to visit Disneyland, you're going to need to consider events specific to 2018/2019 (that is, the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge) and other seasonal events.

Should you visit Disneyland in 2018?

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge is expected to open in Disneyland in 2019, so we'd understand if you wanted to wait until then to visit. If you're a Walt Disney World fan, you'll probably be planning to visit Galaxy's Edge in Hollywood Studios, and at this point we don't really know what (if any) differences there will be between the two lands.

Personally, we feel like Disneyland already has a crowd problem, and it can already occupy up to five days. If you're on the fence and 2018 makes sense for you, go ahead and visit. Galaxy's Edge will be around for years to come.

Crowd Levels at Disneyland

Disneyland Resort "suffers" from a huge demand problem. This is chiefly the product of its placement adjacent to the second largest metropolitan area in the United States. There are lots of annual passholders at Disneyland and lots of people just spending a day or two visiting from within California.

Disney moderates this somewhat with tiered annual passes with a variety of blackout dates, but really what this all boils down to is that there is no "off season" at Disneyland. We've written more about crowd calendars at Disneyland, if you want more in-depth thoughts on those.

Seasonal Events at Disneyland

Disneyland celebrates a variety of events, including Halloween, Christmas, Lunar New Year, Food & Wine (in Spring), Dia de los Muertos, and others. We think the most compelling of these are Halloween and Christmas, primarily because they feature the Haunted Mansion overlay "Haunted Mansion Holiday," which is a Nightmare Before Christmas overlay on Haunted Mansion.

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How Long to Visit Disneyland

We recently spent five days at Disneyland Resort and felt like it was a fine amount. This might be a bit surprising—surely even four days for two parks would be overkill! Well, here's what we think...

Could two days be enough? Maybe. Would we stay six days? Probably not. Really, Disneyland has a sweet spot at three to five days. Three to experience both parks. Five to fully take in some time at the resorts and Downtown Disney while really experiencing the parks. Four to do something in between. This could be because we're hardcore enthusiasts, so lean toward three to four days if you're completely new to Disney parks.

Getting To Disneyland

Disneyland Resort is located in Anaheim, California, about one hour outside central Los Angeles by car.

Flying to Los Angeles

If you're flying to Disneyland Resort, you'll need to choose between Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and John Wayne Airport, Orange County (SNA). SNA is closer but served by fewer flights. LAX is farther but one of the busiest airports in the world.

Economy flights to both airports can be found as low as $100 to $200 per person, sometimes even lower. You can get the best flight prices by learning to book your flights like a "travel hacker."

If you want to use miles, you're likely looking at 25,000 round trip. We've written about flying domestic using points before.

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Get to Disneyland from LAX

LAX to Disneyland is probably the worst of all the airport-to-park trips. There is a bus that takes you from LAX to a wide variety of hotels on or near Disney property, the Disneyland Express (or Disneyland Resort Express). It is operated by Coach USA and altogether seems like a fine option. Only problem: the one time we tried, we didn't see it. We waited at a designated pickup spot and never saw it.

The Disneyland Resort Express recommends you buy your ticket in advance via their website. We're obviously glad we didn't (since we didn't see the bus). If you don't do so, be sure to know you'll need to pay with a card on board. Prices are listed here, and currently come in at $48 adult round trip, $14 child round trip. The biggest downside to these we've heard is that because of the number of stops, you can wind up on the bus much longer than the trip actually should take. 

We wound up taking an Uber from the airport to the Disneyland area for $50. Obviously this means that at two adults, you probably won't want to pay for the bus. It's worth noting that when we got off the plane, Uber quoted us $80. While waiting for the bags, it was about $70. Then when we finally decided we missed the bus, it was down to $50. Keep in mind, for such a long ride it is polite to tip the Uber driver $10 or 20% (20% could be overkill, though, as Disneyland is itself a high-demand area for Uber drivers).

Given our experience, we'll probably stick to Uber in the future. There are shared shuttles as well, and MouseSavers has more information on those.

Getting to Disneyland from SNA

Disneyland Resort Express also operated from SNA, and at that airport they actually have a ticket booth. This should help you to be sure (1) that you find the bus and (2) that the schedule works for you. Prices come in at $35 round trip adult and $11 round trip child. With Ubers often coming in at under $30, our recommendation would definitely be to Uber from SNA.

Where to Stay

Visiting Disneyland, you have two good options for accommodations: hotels and Airbnb.

The Hotels of Disneyland Resort

There are a huge number of hotels at and near Disneyland Resort. The three Disney-managed hotels are: Paradise Pier (located about 10 - 15 minutes by foot from the park entrances), Disneyland Hotel (located adjacent to Downtown Disney about 5 - 10 minutes by foot from the park entrances), and Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa (with direct entry in Disney California Adventure and about 5 minutes from the entrance to Disneyland Park by foot).

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Beyond the Disney hotels, there are a variety of hotels that partner with Disney in some fashion (e.g. "good neighbor" hotels) and many that are nearby but don't partner with Disney. Before we get to our two cents, we're going to direct you to Disney Tourist Blog. They have extensive firsthand experience with hotels at Disneyland, while we have absolutely none. Nevertheless, we wanted to offer a quick 2 cents about the one objective aspect we can comment on...

Prices of the Disney Hotels

Look. We love the Walt Disney World deluxe resorts, even club level. We stayed at Shanghai Disneyland Resort, Tokyo Disneyland Hotel and Tokyo DisneySea Hotel MiraCosta. We're not ones to hold back on spending money at Disney resorts. But Disneyland Hotels are EXPENSIVE. Here are the average pre-tax room rates for some Disney hotels for a week in June 2018 (while both resorts have ongoing deals):

  • All-Star Sports (Walt Disney World) - $138
  • Paradise Pier (Disneyland) - $364
  • Yacht Club (Walt Disney World) - $402
  • Disneyland Hotel (Disneyland) - $484
  • Grand Floridian (Walt Disney World) - $532 
  • Grand Californian (Disneyland) - $614

Paradise Pier is supposed to be the "value" resort at Disneyland. So, a Walt Disney World value comes in at just over 1/3 a Disneyland value. And a Walt Disney World deluxe can be had at just 10% more than a Disneyland value. 

Keep in mind, by the way, that the only Disneyland hotel originally designed and built by Disney is the Grand Californian. The other hotels predate the building of the resort and were acquired by Disney and redesigned.

Taking it with a grain of salt, we imagine that our opinion of Disneyland hotels is what many people think of Walt Disney World hotels—it isn't worth the money if you're on your first visit. The thinking here is simply that the parks and Downtown Disney offer so much, plus you can visit the hotels even if you're not staying there, that the premium for staying at the Disneyland hotels just isn't worth it.

Airbnb at Disneyland

Airbnb is a thriving business around Disneyland. We paid $101 per night for two of us to stay in a nice RV ("glamping") about 2 miles from Disneyland. Our nightly Uber rides cost between $5 and $10, and our morning walks took about 30-45 minutes.

While we would certainly consider staying at a Disney hotel in the future, Airbnb is far and away our go-to. With Uber being so convenient and Airbnb rates easily beating hotels, it just makes the most sense.

Disneyland Tickets

As with Walt Disney World, you have a variety of ticket options when visiting Disneyland. Here are our tips for what tickets to get and where to get them.

Where to Buy Disneyland Tickets

Our choice ticket broker for Disneyland is Get Away Today. You'll be getting better prices for the same product that you'd get buying directly from Disney.

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To Hop or Not to Hop?

If this is your first trip to Disneyland, get park hopper. The reason is simple: you won't know what park you or your kids prefer in advance. If you have very small children and will be catering entirely to them, then one-park-per-day tickets could work (because you'll easily prefer Disneyland Park). Otherwise, it's best to see where the wind takes you.

Park hopper also enables you to better take advantage of MaxPass, which we discuss in the next section, as you'll have a wider selection of rides to choose from on any given day.

Fastpass and MaxPass at Disneyland

Disneyland offers a standard, paper-ticket based Fastpass system for 15 rides. Additionally, you can purchase a MaxPass upgrade.

Fastpass at Disneyland

Fastpass is offered at 9 attractions at Disneyland and 6 attractions at Disney California Adventure. The Fastpass system is straightforward:

  1. Go to the Fastpass kiosk
  2. Observe the current time window (an hour long) for which Fastpasses are being distributed
  3. Scan your park ticket
  4. Get your Fastpass and your paper Fastpass receipt
  5. Return to the ride during the designated window
  6. Scan your park ticket
  7. Skip (some or most of) the line
  8. Get your next Fastpass
 2:09 at Roger Rabbit. Grab a Fastpass for 2:55 or wait in line for 40 minutes...

2:09 at Roger Rabbit. Grab a Fastpass for 2:55 or wait in line for 40 minutes...

A few notes...

When you get a Fastpass, the machine spits out a receipt. The receipt is not a Fastpass. To redeem your Fastpass, you need to scan your park ticket at the ride. Your next Fastpass will be available (roughly) the earlier of: 2 hours following when you got your Fastpass OR when your next Fastpass window opens.

So, if you 11AM you get a Fastpass ticket for 1:30PM, you'll be able to grab a new Fastpass at 1PM. If at 1PM you grab a Fastpass for 2PM, you'll be able to get a new Fastpass at 2PM.

In our opinion, Disneyland is leagues behind Walt Disney World when it comes to quality of Fastpass experience. The Fastpass queues get quite backed up, in part because people get confused about what to scan (at Walt Disney World they simply use Magic Bands). Even once you're through the gates, you can wind up waiting 20+ minutes to get on the rides. Nevertheless, you're skipping much longer lines.

Disneyland's MaxPass System

MaxPass is (as its name suggests) sort of a super Fastpass feature for those willing to fork over $10 per ticket per day. Personally, we think it's incredibly worth it.

If you have five days at Disneyland Resort, MaxPass probably isn't necessary. At four days, it's a close call. Any fewer, and MaxPass is arguably essential to truly experience both parks.

MaxPass allows you three perks:

  1. Book Fastpass through your phone via the Disneyland app
  2. A maximum time to wait to book another Fastpass of 90 minutes instead of 120 when using paper tickets
  3. Free access to your Photopass photos

We understand that for a family of four, we're talking about $40 per day. That said, we think the first perk alone is worth the cost. We're diligent Fastpassers, and we still found ourselves remembering in lines and at meals that we needed to book a Fastpass. Rather than running across the park to grab the next one, we just pulled out a phone and continued with our day.

Combining the first two perks, you're talking about maybe an extra three to five Fastpass reservations each day. That's significant in a park that regularly sees two-hour waits.

Our Disneyland Fastpass and MaxPass Strategy

We don't have a full touring plan for Disneyland Park or Disney California Adventure Park. But we will offer a quick rundown of how we used MaxPass at the parks. 

Rule 1. Always have a Fastpass. There are exceptions to this (mainly those rare times you need to wait to grab a later Fastpass), but whenever you get a Fastpass you should set an alarm on your phone to remind you when you can grab another Fastpass.

Rule 2. Target the Right Rides. At Disney California Adventure, aim for the following rides in this order of preference: Radiator Springs Racers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Toy Story Midway Mania, Soarin', and then Grizzly River Run. At Disneyland: Indiana Jones, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Matterhorn, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

Rule 3. Build Your Evening Backwards. When you start your day, you'll probably be able to grab Fastpass reservations less than an hour out. As the day rolls on and afternoon arrives, you'll be looking at 2+ hours, with some rides being pushed all the way into the evening. Our tip: once you see a reservation for a major ride for after 8PM, grab it. Then wait the 90 or 120 minutes until you can grab another reservation, and you should be able to get another major ride, again sometime in the evening. This allows you to pack an evening full of great rides, and all you're missing out on is quick Fastpass slots for rides you've hopefully already gotten done in the morning.

Disneyland vs. Walt Disney World

At some point we will have a full post on this, but for now, we'll keep it brief. I (Ken) grew up with Walt Disney World as my annual family vacation. Visiting Disneyland never entered my mind. It seemed too small. It lacked "the bubble." Well, I was wrong.

My first visit wasn't until 2018. Disneyland Resort was actually the last Disney Parks resort I set foot on. And, quite possibly, my feelings toward it were a product of having visited Florida, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, but as soon as I spent a day at Disneyland, my World made so much more sense.

Disneyland Park is the best Disney castle park in the world. It has its shortcomings. We found the Cast to be a bit shorter with people and the guests to be a bit to handle. There aren't four parks. The dining isn't quite world class. And your bubble will be burst by a nightly influx of teenagers and AP holders. But whether you're talking about attractions or a sense of place, Disneyland Park is fantastic.

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It's hard to capture exactly what makes the park so good, but we'll try a few things.

Disneyland has more charm. Disneyland has the least impressive castle in the world (along with its twin in Hong Kong), and it doesn't matter one bit. Disneyland has the original Jungle Cruise. Once you're in Disneyland, you can't help but see how much it influenced (not just superficially, but down to the core) the other castle parks.

Disneyland's Tomorrowland is hands down the best Tomorrowland in the world. Disneyland has Indiana Jones. Disneyland has a superior Haunted Mansion. Disneyland has Matterhorn. Disneyland has Mr. Toad's Wild Ride (an amazing dark ride that ends with a trip through hell!!).

If I could justify a trip to Disneyland in one anecdote, it would be that on our third day, with the park closing at midnight, I had to call it quits at 9PM. I've done 10-day trips to Walt Disney World and hit every extra magic hour. I'm a pretty seasoned world traveler who can easily go 24+ hours if a layover demands it and still be ready to explore a new city. But Disneyland absolutely kicked my butt. I couldn't stop taking it in for three days straight (okay, Disney California Adventure got some time in there too). I exhausted so much energy experiencing that park that I just had to leave. I don't have kids. I don't have an excuse. I just loved it that much.

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Am I an outlier? Definitely! But if you're still reading this, aren't you sort of an outlier too? If you've been doubting Disneyland, give it a try. Maybe you'll find it as Magical as we did.