Anaheim: Disneyland Game Plan, By Age

Learn how to navigate Disneyland like a pro with tips from our expert who’s visited the Magic Kingdom nearly 100 times.


Navigating Disneyland can be daunting: The park is often overcrowded, and the enormity of the place can be overwhelming. After close to 100 trips to Disneyland, my family and I have formulated a game plan that makes the most of what the park has to offer. Follow these tips to save time and money, to target your activities to those best suited to the ages of your children and to discover must-see activities, and you’ll leave Disneyland understanding why this theme park is the most beloved in the world.

Beat the Crowds

  • Line up at least 30 minutes before the posted park hours. The gates usually open earlier than advertised (although not every ride operates early; check the park schedule for specifics on attractions).
  • Eat meals during off hours (lunch before 11:00 or after 2:00; dinner before 4:00 or after 8:00) to avoid long lines at restaurants. Or consider skipping formal meals altogether. Kids are perfectly happy to graze every few hours, and snacks are available throughout the park. In addition to standard fast food, you’ll even find a couple of healthy alternatives. The “Tiki Juice Bar” in Adventureland offers fresh tropical fruit and frosty pineapple whips, and the “River Belle Terrace” in Frontierland sells Mickey-shaped PB&J sandwiches to go.
  • Cut to the front of the line using the Disney FASTPASS, a priority ticket available for a dozen or so of the most popular attractions. Insert your park pass into a machine near the attraction entrance, and you’ll receive a pass that will allow you to return during a given 60-minute window, at which point you’ll enter the attraction via a much shorter line. Note that there are a limited number of FASTPASS tickets available and you cannot acquire a subsequent FASTPASS until the time frame of the previous one expires.
  • Seek out lesser-known attractions during crowded times. Good choices include the “Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island,” where you can explore caves and hunt for pirate treasure; “Tarzan’s Treehouse” (formerly the site of the “Swiss Family Treehouse”), which generally has no wait to enter; and “Main Street Cinema,” where you can giggle over black and white cartoon shorts starring Mickey and friends. (Steamboat Willie is everyone’s favorite.)

Save Money

  • Save up to $10 a day on multi-day Park Hopper passes by buying and printing your tickets online before you arrive.
  • Ask about discounts for Southern California residents (if you’re a local)—which will save you a few dollars on daily admission as well as significant discounts on select annual passes.
  • Look for special offers on the Disneyland Web site; you’ll generally find package deals for tickets and hotels (regardless of your state of residency).
  • Bring along a picnic instead of purchasing pricey Disney meals and snacks. Although you cannot bring food into the park, there is a shaded picnic area near the entrance where you can enjoy treats from home; just be sure to get your hand stamped so that you can come and go from the park.
  • Tote a water bottle to soothe your thirst; soft drinks in Disneyland can fetch upwards of $4, and water fountains allow you to fill up plastic bottles and carry your refreshments with you. My daughter doesn’t like the taste of tap water, so I always bring along several packets of lemonade or iced tea mix designed to be mixed in with the water.

Must-Sees for Toddlers

  • Head straightaway to “Dumbo the Flying Elephant.” When my daughter was a toddler, we’d run to this attraction as soon as we got through the gates—both because it was one of her favorites and because the small capacity of the ride makes for long lines later in the day.
  • Check out “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” for a light-hearted trip through a storybook favorite. The lighting of this inside attraction is bright enough that even very young children will feel comfortable.
  • Glide through the Tomorrowland Lagoon in a bright yellow submersible on the newly opened “Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.” Young children will be thrilled to encounter Crush, Shark and other beloved characters from the popular movie. (Because this is a new attraction, waits can be oppressive. Be sure to visit this ride early in the day—or very late, after most young children have gone home to bed.)
  • Warning: Keep toddlers away from “Snow White’s Scary Adventures.” The day-glo interior is truly creepy, and the darkness and dramatic music are too much for little ones. (My husband and I made the mistake of taking our daughter on this ride when she was 2, and it was so traumatic that we couldn’t coax her on an inside ride again for several years!)

Must-Sees for Children Ages 6-10

  • Roar along the “Big Thunder Mountain Railroad,” a runaway train coaster ride thrilling (and gentle) enough for children 6-10. (Sit in back for the fastest ride.)
  • Brave the long lines for “Pirates of the Caribbean”—it’s well worth the wait. (Note: This is a mild motion ride, but the noise of simulated cannon blasts might be too intense for children sensitive to sound.)
  • Crawl inside a video game with “Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters,” where you’ll shoot lasers at Toy Story-themed targets and rack up points for each successful hit. It’s fun for family members to compete to see who gets the highest score—something children especially appreciate, because they are generally better at video games than their parents.
  • Catch the classic “Jungle Cruise” in Adventureland; this tame boat ride floats through a simulated African jungle, and children 10 and under will crack up at the captain’s corny jokes (which haven’t changed since I was 10).

Must-Sees for Tweens and Teens

  • Go directly to the thrill rides! Although Disneyland’s rollercoasters are relatively tame compared with other theme parks, they still pack a punch.
  • Hurl through the galaxy onboard the newly revamped “Space Mountain,” an indoor rollercoaster designed to feel like a rocket blast through the universe.
  • Buckle up and hold on for an intense, fast-paced race through “Indiana Jones Adventure,” which combines realistic animatronic characters (including a Harrison Ford look-alike and an oversized cobra), convincing special effects and a runaway vehicle. My 11-year-old nephew loves this ride almost as much as my 40-something husband does.
  • Bump and bounce through a faux snow-covered alp on the iconic “Matterhorn Bobsleds” (replete with an abominable snowman with glowing red eyes). Note that this small-scale indoor rollercoaster ride is too rough for anyone with back or neck problems.

Don’t-Miss Experiences

  • Meet Mickey and Minnie in person (along with dozens of other Disney characters, who show up for 30 minutes at a time throughout the park); you’ll receive a schedule listing times and places for character greetings as you pass through the turnstiles. Some children enjoy purchasing an autograph book in the morning, and then filling it throughout the day with signatures of their favorite characters. (Many characters will even embellish their autographs with cartoons of themselves.)
  • Claim a curbside seat on Main Street 45 to 60 minutes before “Walt Disney’s Parade of Dreams,” an uplifting performance with music, dancing and a cast of characters. In general, I do not love a parade (and the crowds that go along with them), but Disney’s elaborate floats and costumes make this a memorable exception.
  • Stay up late to watch the “Remember…Dreams Come True Fireworks Spectacular,” which lights up the Anaheim night most weekends and holidays. Watch for Tinker Bell, who makes a dramatic, aerobatic appearance from the very top of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

[Read Disney Deals and Anaheim Discounts for travel deals, including getting in to Disneyland for free on your birthday.]

Destinations: Orange County, Anaheim

Themes: Amusement Parks, Family Travel

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