Travel Story An insider's guide to Disneyland California

Photo of Brad Kruger

A long-time Disney fan — and former "cast member" — gives his tips, tricks and advice for visiting the "happiest place on Earth".

As I step out of the car at the Disneyland Hotel, I’m greeted by a familiar figure. Resplendent in red dress with white polka dots, Minnie Mouse, the long-term girlfriend of Mickey and a former workmate of mine, is an unexpected surprise. In the lobby, I am checked in by the most helpful guest services team member imaginable and it is immediately apparent that staying “on property” — in a Disney hotel in Disneyland — is a wise decision. I feel like I’m home.

As a regular visitor to the original “Magic Kingdom” in Anaheim, 45 minutes south of Los Angeles, and a former Disney cast member (that is, employee), I’m often asked by friends for advice on visiting the “happiest place on Earth”.

I have stayed on property at other Disney locations around the world and think it offers the best convenience. Quite simply, Disney bought up tracts of land surrounding every other new theme-park development, creating a barrier between the “magic” and the “real” world.

Anaheim is the lesson from which Disney learnt. Here, the outside world is right on Disneyland’s doorstep. Before my most recent visit, my advice had always been to book moderate accommodation on the streets surrounding the parks (the hotels along South Harbour Boulevard are a good option), the logic being that I would be in the parks all day and would only need somewhere to rest my head. And for the budget conscious, this is a good option.

For those looking for the complete Disney experience, staying on property in Anaheim is the ideal and most convenient, albeit more expensive, option. Everything at the Disneyland Hotel was of the highest standards, from the service to the gardens.

Another advantage of staying at a Disneyland hotel is the ability to charge food, beverages and merchandise to your room, saving currency-conversion fees and other charges that can add up if you’re using your credit card each time.

Regardless of where you stay, the prices change according to the time of year — the more expensive dates are the most crowded in the parks, and when park tickets are more expensive. For maximum enjoyment, avoid the busy dates.

My plan to drop my bags and head straight into the park on arrival was dashed when I opened the door to my room. Above the two queen beds was a carved wooden mural of the Disneyland castle. When I flicked a switch, “fireworks” appeared above the castle, complete with musical accompaniment. The room was set out in three zones, with a large fold-out couch, which can be converted to an extra bed, a desk and large bureau. The attention to detail was obvious, from Mickey tapware and gloved mouse hands holding up the lights to the subtle “hidden Mickey” (three circles representing the head and two ears) pattern in the carpet, and the historic photos of Disneyland and Walt Disney.

Access to the parks from the Disneyland Resort hotels is easy, with both Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park a short walk away. By staying on property, guests can access “extra magic hours” — one hour before the gates open to the public. Disney hotel guests can also avoid lines at the gates by catching the monorail from Downtown Disney, close to the hotels, into Disneyland Park.

I had a Park Hopper ticket for the three days of my visit, giving access to the Disneyland and California Adventure parks. It’s good if you want to maximise opportunities to see shows, parades and evening displays across the two parks. The other advantage is the ability to manage your day — and avoid long waits — using the new Disneyland app, which shows waiting times for every attraction, plus character appearances and times, and information such as dining options. (I had a US SIM card that included unlimited data.)

Avoiding crowds became the main theme of my visit. I had expected my final day would be the busiest — a Friday, the first day of the Memorial Day holiday weekend and the world premiere of the new Frozen musical at California Adventure. But I had not expected that my first day would be so busy. I saw wait times for attractions like I’d not seen before (up to 120 minutes for the most popular), yet cast members assured me it was not a particularly busy day. In addition, the park was flooded with high-school students celebrating graduation and end-of-school-year trips.

My first and most easily accessible tip for avoiding long waits is the Fastpass, which allows you to revisit an attraction at an allocated time and skip the queue. There are rules as to how many you can have at a time, and when you can get your next one, but you can hold one for each park concurrently. I would suggest getting your Fastpass early for popular attractions such as Hyperspace Mountain.

Some attractions have the option of a “single riders line”, whereby you fill empty seats. This can cut wait times dramatically but your party will be split if you are with a group. I have stepped straight on to attractions that had wait times of 60 minutes or more but there is no guarantee as to how quickly you will get on.

I’d also avoid areas that attract younger families, such as Fantasyland, in the mornings. The parks are generally quieter later at night and attractions are less busy during the fireworks and parades.

Flexibility is key. A cast member told me the best thing is not to have a plan because trying to stick to it can cause disappointment. Attractions can be closed temporarily, lines to meet characters can be longer at certain times of the day and there is no crystal ball to see which areas will be busy. Cast members recommended the first two weeks of November as one of the quietest times.

I chose to visit California Adventure Park first. After several short waits for photos with characters at the end of Buena Vista Street, I called in to the Disney Animation attraction in Hollywood Land. There was a 90-minute wait to visit Anna, Elsa and Olaf from Frozen, but revisiting later the next day, the wait to meet Anna and Elsa had dropped to 30 minutes, while Olaf had no line.

A must-see attraction is Cars Land at night, where the streetscape is lit up by neon following a lighting ceremony with music, just like in the film.

I chose the single riders’ line for California Screamin’ rollercoaster, and for Radiator Springs Racers, one of the highlights at the park. This cut a potential 60-90 minute wait down to about 10 minutes and 25 minutes respectively. The newly opened Luigi’s Rolickin’ Roadsters was a vast improvement on its predecessor.

I then headed to Disneyland Park for the fireworks and to check out the new, enhanced Star Wars-themed attractions. Star Tours now includes a potential visit to Jakku (every ride is different) and the classic Space Mountain is now Hyperspace Mountain. Nearby was the Star Wars Launch Bay, with props and costumes, as well as meet and greets with Kylo Ren and Chewbacca. Outside, I bumped into some First Order Stormtroopers on patrol. I look forward to seeing the new Star Wars Land when it opens in a few years time.

Over the following days, the crowds seemed to settle down and I experienced most of the classic attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Splash Mountain and, my favourite, the Indiana Jones Adventure. It was great to see some love being given to older attractions such as Alice in Wonderland, which had new digital effects.

There are also many opportunities to meet lots of characters in the parks, providing that essential sprinkle of magic dust that’s integral to Disneyland.

Frozen Live is one cool show

The hottest ticket during my visit to Disney’s California Adventure was the brand-new musical Frozen — Live at the Hyperion.

Disney has not held back on this production; large-scale digital projections are much in evidence, as is a raft of Disney magic. The animated feature has been brought to life in the most inventive way imaginable, with beautiful costumes, puppets and scenery. The hit song Let it Go was a clear highlight, with a snowstorm in the theatre, an ice bridge that swung out over the audience and Elsa magically transforming before our eyes.

Admission to this show is included with your park ticket, but with only three shows daily and limited seating, my advice would be to arrive at park opening and get a Fastpass, which will guarantee seating for the show. On the day I was there, Fastpasses for all three shows were all gone within the first hour, so be quick.

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