Let's goooooo

11 Tips For First-Time Visitors To Disneyland, From Someone Who’s Been Hundreds Of Times

Don’t let your hard-earned Disney dollars be in vain.

by Carly Caramanna
Russell rides Kevin in front of Carl from the movie Up during the "Better Together: A Pixar Pals Cel...
MediaNews Group/Orange County Register/Getty

You're going to Disneyland! As the Mouse-fueled excitement builds ahead of your first visit to the Happiest Place On Earth, I can promise you one thing: Preparation will make or break your trip. It's all Mickey Mouse and turkey legs until something goes amiss faster than you can say "bibbidi-bobbidi-boo."

The vacation destination is massive, comprising two theme parks, dozens of restaurants, an entertainment district, and on-site hotels. On top of that, there's a complex system of ride reservations, mobile ordering, and more to navigate. There's endless walking and winding lines, and no guests are immune from meltdowns. But it's also a place of magical fun and core-memory-making like no other (I promise!).

I've visited Disneyland hundreds of times and have discovered a few fool-proof tips along the way that will ensure your hard-earned Disney dollars are not in vain.

1. Buy Genie+.

Genie+ is the park's expedited line system, similar to the former FastPass. Prices vary based on demand, but the mobile system allows you to book reservations for ride time windows and skip the standard queue. Now that's Disney magic. It can prove absolutely essential on a busy day, especially if your little one is dead set on experiencing favorites like Peter Pan's Flight.

Some in-demand rides, like the Cars-themed Radiator Springs Racers, are not included and must be purchased separately for expedited access through what is called an individual lightning lane. You can also take advantage of a single-rider line on select attractions.

Start by ensuring you've downloaded the latest version of Disneyland's app on your mobile device. It will serve as your hub for Genie+ as well as list showtimes, characters, restaurant menus, and more.

Pro tip: An external battery charger is a must, and I swear by FuelRods. They are compact, and exchange stations throughout the resort will quickly swap yours for a fully charged battery pack free of charge.

2. Rope Drop.

The early bird catches the worm — and that holds true at Disney. Rope drop is Mouse-speak for arriving before the park opens and being among the first inside the gates. This approach lets you experience the park's most popular attractions, like Space Mountain and Indiana Jones Adventure, before the lines inevitably swell. I'd suggest arriving at least 45 minutes before the scheduled opening.

PSA: If you stay at a Disneyland Resort hotel, you can take advantage of 30-minute early entry.

3. You can't do it all (and that's OK).

To say there is a lot to do at Disneyland would be a massive, Big Thunder Mountain-sized understatement. You simply can't do it all, and it's best to set expectations.

Part of what makes Disneyland magical is just soaking it all in. Spending an afternoon immersed in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge can be just as, if not more, fun than hitting all the rides. At Disney, it's all in the details. And you'll miss them if you're rushing from attraction to attraction.

4. Don't miss the dark rides.

Disney continually pushes the envelope with pioneering attractions, like the nearly 20-minute Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. But there's something to be said about the classics. These are called dark rides, and many have undergone very few changes in their decades of existence. Family-friendly, these slow-moving rides offer a heavy dose of nostalgia, taking you through some of Disney's most beloved stories, like Pinocchio's Daring Journey and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

5. Some of its best attractions aren't rides.

Some of Disneyland's best attractions aren't rides. Animation Academy is a unique hands-on experience that invites guests to sketch much-loved characters with the tutelage of a professional animator. And the best part? You can keep your drawing for a special souvenir (and it's free!).

Walt Disney himself conceived the show Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln for the 1964 World's Fair. It's undergone some changes over the years, but it's a delightful taste of Disney yesteryear, featuring one of the earliest concepts of audio-animatronics — a now-park staple.

The newly revamped Mickey's ToonTown is a kid-centric land with tons of greenery and outdoor playscapes ideal for burning off some steam.

6. Take advantage of exclusive Disneyland rides.

There are Disney parks all over the globe, but some attractions can only be found here. Don't miss Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!, a reimagining of the former Twilight Zone Tower of Tower featuring the adorable Rocket. The IncrediCoaster is a thrilling, family-friendly roller coaster themed to "The Incredibles" that offers wonderful views of the park (and is quite a delight at night).

7. Don't overbook dining reservations.

It's tempting to load up your schedule with table service reservations — but resist that urge. Table dining can offer a welcome respite to sit back and relax, but it also eats up precious park time. I'd suggest not booking more than one a day.

Disneyland is a hotbed of delicious bites, from dishes with local Southern California flair (try the QuesaBirria!) to elevated eats, many of which you can enjoy from walk-up locations known as quick service. By using the app's mobile ordering, you'll completely avoid lines and pending hunger pains. If you change your mind about reservations, last-minute availability is in the app's walk-up feature.

If meeting characters is a priority, booking a character dining experience is a surefire way to meet your must-see favorites. Goofy's Kitchen at Disneyland Hotel is a standout experience with approachable eats.

8. Try the iconic treats.

Disneyland has a number of iconic treats and eats, like Dole Whip and hand-dipped corn dogs. Churro toffee is a tantalizing mash-up of two favorite sweets. Bengal Barbecue is a favorite of regulars, offering freshly grilled skewers of meat for the perfect park protein-boost that won't weigh you don't like sugary laden snacks.

9. There's also plenty to do outside the theme parks.

Unlike its East Coast sibling (aka Walt Disney World), Disneyland Resort has the added benefit of being compacted into one walkable destination. And outside of its two theme parks, there's much more to explore — no theme park ticket required. Neighboring Downtown Disney is a culinary hotbed of restaurants, including an outpost of the famed ice cream shop Salt & Straw and Michelin-chef-led concepts.

Also, take advantage of the hidden gems inside Disneyland's hotels, which any guest can visit. Favorites include Trader Sam's Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel and Craftsman Grill at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa.

10. Time your trip around seasonal events.

Holidays are a big deal, to say the least, including Halloween, Christmas, and Lunar New Year, which bring dozens of limited-time experiences to the parks, including entertainment, food, and décor. Dates are announced well in advance, and it's worth planning a visit to see that extra dose of magic fill the parks.

11. You don't need to stay on property.

Disneyland Resort is home to three on-site hotels, but you don't need to stay on property. There are dozens of hotels from major brands, like Hilton and Marriott, just steps away from the parks. If that mid-afternoon nap is inevitable, you can relish the fact that your pillow is nearby.

Staying on-site can be costly but does come with perks, like early park entry. And there's something to be said for being fully immersed in the magical bubble.