Disneyland — though significantly smaller than it’s Florida counterpart Disney World — can be a beast to tackle in a single day. But with the right preparations and expectations (plus shelling out a little extra cash), it’s very doable.
Speaking as someone with 26 years of Disney experience who just did Disneyland in a single day for my honeymoon, I’m confident that following the itinerary below will give anyone an excellent park experience.
The first essential step is booking a night at a Disneyland Resort Hotel. This means either the original Disneyland Hotel, the Grand Californian, or Paradise Pier. Though a one night stay at any of these will cost a minimum of about $300, the extra expense is worth it.
Hotel guests automatically receive what’s called the “Extra Magic Hour” — which means you get into the park a full hour before the general public is allowed in.
The Extra Magic Hour alternates days for Disneyland and its sister park California Adventure — the Disneyland days are currently Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Which means if you want the extra hour at Disneyland, stay in one of the official hotels on either Monday, Wednesday, or Friday night and go to the park the next day. We suggest staying on a Monday and hitting the park Tuesday, since crowds will likely be more manageable.
Another key thing to do ahead of time is make either dinner or lunch reservations. If you want to eat in one of the fancier restaurants (like the Blue Bayou which is actually INSIDE the Pirates of the Caribbean ride!), make sure to book a table well in advance. You can do this either on the phone or online up to three months early.
You can bring food and water bottles into the park though, so stock up if you want to save some dollars once you’re through the gates.
The Early Morning Plan
Extra Magic Hour begins as early as 7 a.m. depending on the day, so be prepared for an early start. There are a few coffee shops open in Downtown Disney you can hit up on the way — try to get fully caffeinated and fed before you get in line. Don’t waste part of the extra hour buying mochas or breakfast sandwiches!
You should be in line outside the park no later than 15 minutes before the magic hour begins. When the gates open, make a beeline for Space Mountain (currently operating as “HyperSpace” Mountain in celebration of “Star Wars”). Not only is this a great ride to get out of the way when the line is shortest, but it will definitely wake you up if the coffee hasn’t.
By the time you finish riding Space Mountain, around 20 minutes of your magic hour will probably be up. Now’s the time to make some tough choices: Fantasyland or Critter Country.
If you’re jonesing for a twirl on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride or Peter Pan’s Flight, you should definitely do so before the park opens up to everyone. These rides have no Fast Pass option, and tend to get bogged down with children very quickly.
If the kid rides aren’t your thing, head for Critter Country. Hop onto Splash Mountain (which should be a walk-on this early in the morning), and then slip over to Pirates of the Caribbean for a more relaxing ride experience. Getting these two out of the way early is ideal since their lines tend to get long as the day goes on.
By now, depending on crowds and lines you encounter, the magic hour will probably be over. But the good news is you’ve already been on at least three rides and the day is far from over! You should trot over to Indiana Jones and grab a Fast Pass. There’s no point trying to get Fast Passes during the Extra Magic Hour, because they aren’t available until the park officially opens to the public.
Now would be a good time to stop and take a breather, maybe grab some food if you’re starved from all the adrenaline. One of the best off-the-beaten-path Disneyland foods is Mickey Beignets: Soft, pillowy doughnuts freshly fried and tossed into a paper bag with an unholy amount of confectioner’s sugar.
You can buy a three or six pack at the Mint Julep Bar window, just behind the garden patio area of the larger French Market Restaurant. Grab more coffee with the beignets, and then head to the line for Haunted Mansion. You can eat while you wait — a win win.
After Haunted Mansion, go to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad for another rollercoaster adventure. Make sure to keep an eye on your Indiana Jones Fast Pass — you should use that as soon as the window of time opens.
Midday and Afternoon To-Dos
The park will begin to get the busiest around noon and onwards, so this is a great time to take advantage of Fast Passes and also just walk around and enjoy the park. Stroll by the castle for a good photo-op, and pick up some souvenirs, if that’s your thing. The biggest collection of general shops is on Main Street, but the Tomorrowland store right next to Space Mountain has the best set of “Star Wars” themed products.
If you’re doing lunch on the fly, Rancho Del Zocalo is my favourite spot. They have tasty and filling Mexican food with shaded outdoor seating, and its right next to Frontierland and Adventureland. Afterwards you can walk over to the Tiki Juice Bar for a Dole Whip — a Disneyland staple most food bloggers insist is a must-have.
If you’re dying to get out of the sun (Anaheim can have hot ones!) then the Tiki Room is a fun show experience, and its conveniently located right next to the Tiki Juice bar. Enjoy your Dole Whip while you wait for the next show.
The rest of the afternoon’s activities depend on your mood. Want to relax in a boat and listen to terrible puns? Go on the Jungle Cruise. If you’re into video games, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters is a fun ride in which two players shoot laser guns at targets placed around the ride.
Indiana Jones is a must, and really doable at any time of the day. The line may get long (sometimes up to an hour+), but Indiana Jones has hands-down the best in-line experience. From start to finish there are great photo ops, and things to keep you occupied.
Rides To Skip
We might as well go over the rides you shouldn’t spend time on if you have a single day. First: the Matterhorn Bobsleds. I know, I know, it’s a classic. But it’s a classic in dire need of a makeover. The ride is extremely bumpy and stressful, and not worth the wait (no Fast Pass here) if you only have one day.
Another hyped-up ride you can skip is the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. This is another one without a Fast Pass option, and for now the line will remain too lengthy for minimal payoff. You also don’t have to go on It’s A Small World. If you haven’t been to Disneyland before, then you probably already know what it is, and seeing the ride in real life isn’t necessary.
Also, sorry but not sorry, don’t go to ToonTown. This area of Disneyland is far enough removed from the regular walkways that you likely wouldn’t even go there accidentally, which means its not worth your time for an out-of-the-way trip.
By nighttime, you’ll probably be feeling a bit burned out. Having another square meal will help, and make sure to keep hydrating. The fireworks start at 9:30 p.m., and experience tells me the best view of them is actually from smack dab in the middle of Main Street. You won’t be able to see the hubbub at the castle, but you can still see the pyrotechnics and it’s a less competitive spot. This does mean you might need to be on your feet for a while, so make sure your dogs aren’t barking too much by the time 9 o’clock rolls around.
The fireworks are a more important entertainment feature to see (versus the parade earlier in the day), mostly due to the sheer volume of explosives used. The amazingly synced music adds to the experience, and is a perfect way to close down from your day of Disney magic. Make sure you have a churro or some popcorn before the show starts, though.
If fireworks really aren’t your thing, this can be the perfect time to ride some last minute rides. Lines often shrink when the masses head to Main Street for fireworks time. And even if you do watch the show, make sure to pop on one last ride before the night is over. Space Mountain is often very crowded at the end of the day, but it could be a good time for another whip on Thunder Mountain (super fun at nighttime since it’s outdoors).
By now you should be practically dead, but chock-full of magical memories that will last a lifetime. Happy Disneylanding!
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