School’s almost out, and you’re thinking of dashing down to Disneyland with the kids for a few days of fun and fantasia.
Just you — and many, many others.
On a summer day, tens of thousands of people will push through the turnstiles at Southern California’s sibling theme parks, Disneyland and California Adventure. Everywhere you look, you’ll find lines growing faster than Pinocchio’s nose — for food, rides, shows … even restrooms.
Yet, it is possible to visit the Happiest Place on Earth at the Busiest Time of Year without spending your entire vacation standing in lines. Try these five strategies to make the most of your visit.
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1. Pull a fast one
The Walt Disney Co. — experts in crowd- and queue-control — introduced the ingenious Fastpass system in the late 1990s. It lets you go to a popular ride, insert your park-entry ticket into a kiosk, and reserve a spot on that attraction for a preset time later in the day.
That way, instead of standing in line, you can roam around and sample other park entertainments while you wait. Then you return to the ride at the appointed time and walk right past the standby line.
On a recent visit, my family used Fastpasses to waltz by a 90-minute lineup at Radiator Springs Racers (one of California Adventure’s newest, biggest and most in-demand attractions). The hitch: We had to wait in a 30-minute line first thing in the morning for the Fastpass — a wait that can stretch to an hour at high season. But waiting for Fastpasses is the exception; at most times, for most rides, you can walk right up to the kiosk and reserve.
Typically, you can hold only one Fastpass at a time. But at times you can hold two or more for rides with particularly long waits or for certain nighttime events (for example, the World of Color light-and-fountain show at California Adventure).
Tip: If you’re traveling with a group, appoint one person to fetch Fastpasses using everyone’s park-entry tickets while others explore and play.
2. Watch the clock
Plan your assault on the parks’ most popular attractions early in the day, late in the evening or during parkwide events like parades and fireworks shows. On our recent trip, California Adventure’s Paradise Pier (California Screamin’! Toy Story Mania!) practically cleared out at dusk when an Aladdin parade was afoot.
Start by researching exactly what time the park opens every morning of your visit, and when it closes at night (hours vary by day and season). If you’re staying at one of the on-site Disney hotels, you may qualify for one-hour early entrance on certain days (inquire at the hotel about Magic Morning entry). Arrive a few minutes before the gates open, proceed directly to your first-choice Fastpass kiosk, then continue to the standby line of another popular ride.
How do you know which attractions are most crowded (and therefore best approached early or late)? The thrill rides that offer Fastpasses are among the most sought after. Though there are a few without Fastpasses that also tend to back up, because of their enduring popularity and small capacity. (For example, see the jumbo lines for Dumbo the Flying Elephant.)
Especially if you are toting small children, consider going early, leaving midday for lunch and a swim, and returning at night for more fun. In the summer, the parks often stay open till midnight.
Tip: There is no “hard close” at the parks. That is, if Disneyland is open till midnight, they don’t toss you out at 12 o’clock on the nose. You can stay and play till the last minute, then take your time exiting, perhaps even stopping to pick up a souvenir along the way. (Shops stay open past closing time.)
3. Be cool
Keep an eye on the thermometer as well as the clock. Water rides like Splash Mountain and Grizzly Bear Run are less busy when it’s cool or cloudy. We had so much fun on Grizzly Bear Run on a drizzly morning that we went three times in succession with practically no waiting. (We were already wet, so … why not?)
Tip: Pack a pair of flip-flops and a folding poncho in your backpack and you won’t have to walk around soggy afterward.
4. Go solo
Many of the most crowded rides also have a singles line for people who are willing to split from their group and fill empty seats in cars of six or eight.
Remember that 90-minute wait at Radiator Springs Racers? After we went on the ride using Fastpasses, we circled back and got in the singles line for a second go. We waited only 15 minutes for individual spots and were still close enough to each other that we finished almost at the same time. The next day, we used the singles line for a second run on the Matterhorn Bobsleds, reducing a one-hour wait to 15 minutes.
5. Don’t worry, be ‘appy’
Disneyland has inspired a whole mouse-house full of mobile apps designed to keep users apprised of events, character appearances, wait times and more.
Some are free, such as MouseWait, a popular app with a strong social dimension, and Disney’s own Mobile Magic. We used Mobile Magic for part of our visit, and found that it slightly underestimated wait times, but still gave a reliable sense of relative line lengths. The map function can also be helpful for park newbies.
The Ferrari of Disney apps is RideMax, which crafts a custom ride/event itinerary based on day of attendance and the things you want to see and do. Friends who used this tool found it very helpful. The drawback: The cheapest RideMax option is a 90-day subscription for $14.95. But who goes to Disneyland to save money?
Most Disneyland apps are available for both iPhones and Androids.
Tip: Cell reception can be spotty inside the park, depending on your carrier. Make sure you have a map and a written list of rides you’d like to experience as a backup.
This is vacation, not a to-do list. So don’t stress about seeing and doing absolutely everything. Decide collectively on two or three top priorities, get those out of the way early, or with Fastpasses, and then allow yourself some time to wander and discover.
No matter how you strategize, you will spend some time standing in lines. Take advantage of the pauses to hang out and talk with friends or family — ultimately the most magical part of the Magic Kingdom.
Lynn Jacobson: 206-464-2714 or firstname.lastname@example.org