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10 Steps to a Strategic Disney Day

Last week, on a random school holiday, my friend Rachele and I surprised our kids with a spontaneous mommy-and-me day at Disneyland.

Ten Steps to a Strategic Disney Day

Since I posted about this on Facebook, wondering if anyone else was out of school, I got a lot of responses and ideas about “doing Disney” for a day – most from other San Diegans who have experience with trying to make the most of their time in the Magic Kingdom.

I thought I would post some of what I learned – both from friends and from our one-day-at-Disney experience.  Parents visiting San Diego with their families may be interested in finding out how to incorporate a day at Disney into a San Diego vacation.

1) First, check when choosing your day to go. The more people in the park, the longer the lines, and (of course) the fewer rides you get to go on and the less fun you have . . . maybe. My brother-in-law explains that, even if it is packed, he still takes his family to Disneyland at certain times of the year (Halloween, Christmas) to enjoy the ambience. Those trips are called “non-ride” Disney days, when they focus on shopping, food, watching shows, trading pins, and basically anything but going on rides. We found out on that the day in question would not be busy, so our plan was ON. I also quickly checked the Disneyland web site to be sure the day was not blacked out for our annual passes.

2) Buy tickets online, in advance, and focus on ONE park for a single day’s excursion.  Our family has annual passes (Southern California Select), but our friends do not.  The one-day tickets are available online and are printable.  No need to stand in line for “real” tickets upon arrival.  Look at the Disneyland Maps App for information on closed rides.  Our decision to choose California Adventure this time was clinched by having early information that Small World and Space Mountain would both be closed.   There is no way to hit both parks in one day and feel like you have “conquered Disneyland.”  We suggest a strict one-park-a-day rule (especially when purchasing tickets . . . the ParkHopper tickets are much pricier!).

3)  Pack breakfast and snacks.  Since Disneyland is filled with expensive, naughty things to eat, it is a good move to bring some healthy breakfast foods and snacks along.  We decided to eat breakfast on the road, so we had ziplock bags of healthy breakfast cereals, cutie oranges, and breakfast-type granola bars on hand.  During our waits in line, we kept the kids busy eating trail mix while the moms sneaked dark chocolate-covered almonds and dark chocolate Acai.  We also brought water bottles, which kept us from having to purchase drinks.

4) Bring a stroller.  Our kids are 9 and 5 (two of each age).  We brought a stroller.  I think we’ll ALWAYS bring a stroller to Disneyland.  Five-year-olds are kind of wimpy walkers, for one thing, but even more than that . . . a stroller makes a great place to stow your gear when you are in line, without having to go to the trouble of renting a locker.  Things like snacks, water, and jackets can be safely left in a parked stroller, but of course we brought our cameras and wallets with us on rides.

5)  Get up early!  On that Monday in February, we got on the road by 7:15 and arrived at Disneyland about 9:30.  There is always traffic between San Diego and Anaheim, so it’s important to figure it into your travel time.  Since we ate on the way up, we had no stops.

6) Park anywhere but where they tell you.  The worst thing about Disneyland, in my opinion, is the parking structure.  It is way on the other side of Downtown Disney (the cool mall-like area near Disneyland) and accessible only by tram, so you have to lug your heavy stroller and exhauted kids onto a jam-packed tram again at the end of the day.  Not. Fun.  My family LOVES Downtown Disney.  It is all pretty and sparkly all year long, with live music, twinkle lights, yummy restaurants, and toy stores.  This time, we parked at Downtown Disney (for $30 as opposed to $15 for theme-park parking) and made reservations at Rainforest Cafe right away. All of the 6:00pm reservations were booked up, but we snagged a 5:30pm and it worked perfectly.  Rainforest Cafe is at the end of Downtown Disney closest to the parking lot, so it was a relaxing and delicious way to end our day, and it made us feel better about ignoring the “no theme-park parking” sign.  Ahem.  For over-night trips to Disneyland, we have settled on the Anaheim Hotel as our hotel of choice.  It is just a short walk from Disneyland, and you have to get to go through Downtown Disney to get there.

7) First things first.  Go through the park gates before “opening time” (this is allowed – they just won’t let you on the rides yet) and position yourself for a mad-dash to your number-one top priority ride.  Let’s face it:  There’s always one ride or attraction that is new or especially fun, and everyone at the park is going to want to ride it at one point or another.  Figure out which one that is (Radiator Springs Racers) and get in line for it right away.  You’re fresh and determined . . . get that long line under your belt right away.  While you’re waiting, apply sunscreen, eat snacks, take family pictures, play charades with an app on your phone.  You might also choose to send a “runner” with all your tickets to get FastPasses for another historically long-line ride.  My brother-in-law’s words of wisdom:  “Never stand in line for a big ride without a FastPass.”

8) Use the DL Maps app to divide and conquer.  Often, moms and dads deal with big kids and little kids, girls and boys, who have vastly different ideas of what a perfect Disney day looks like.  In our case, we had two five-year-olds who were too short to go on California Screamin’ (the big wooden roller coaster at California Adventure) and two nine-year-olds who cared little about anything else.  Our solution came in the DL Maps app.  We identified rides that were close in proximity and wait time  (the wait time is a key ingredient here), and we maximized our time by sending the little ones on a ride more to their taste (in this case, Mater’s Junkyard), while the big kids went on the rollercoaster.  Since I was born without a sense of direction, the DL Maps app was a lifesaver in another way, as well!  There is a very accurate “You are Here” dot on the map, so that you can track yourself in real time.

9)  Lunch.  Food at Disneyland is expensive.  If you have an annual pass, be sure to present it for a small discount at the restaurants.  This time, we opted for the Mexican food place in California Adventure, Cocina Cucamonga.  I love the Mexican Caesar salad there, and I’ve had it three times now.  Unfortunately, no one else is ever impressed with their meals, and the kids meals, in particular, are dismal.  The toddler meal is minuscule (so don’t even bother), and the $6.99 regular kids meal is very, very small.  The quesadilla is the size of a small corn tortilla (though it is flour) folded in half, and there’s no way you could possibly feed two children with one kids’ meal.  Also, the rice is reportedly “tasteless” and the apple sauce is plain.  My kids were asking about cotton candy immediately after lunch.  In retrospect, I think (despite my love for the salad at Cocina Cucamonga) we’ll go back to the hamburger place near Soarin’ Over California next time.  The hamburgers are delicious and the kids meals are larger.  For the kids’ “special treat,” we split one cotton candy between the four of them.  No complaints.

10)  Leave Early.  It was a good idea to get that 5:30 reservation at Rainforest Cafe.  By the time we got on the road, it was after 7:00, and driving in the dark for over two hours is no picnic after a long day of fun.  Don’t torture yourself (or your hubby).  The kids were tired, and ending with a peaceful sit-down dinner (near the parking lot!) was a great way to reminisce about the fun of the day.  Last time, we wrapped up our day at Tortilla Jo’s (the Mexican place in Downtown Disney) and enjoyed watching the expert balloon artist make just about every conceivable Disney character out of balloons.  While we waited for our meal, we recounted all the rides we went on, from the beginning, and made a list on a napkin.  If you have time, the Lego Store and Build-a-Bear are located near the restaurants in Downtown Disney, and both are Disney-wonderful.  Since the inside-the-park paraphernalia is wildly expensive, try encouraging the birthday girl or boy to wait for a special Lego set or Build-a-Bear after dinner.  That will teach delayed gratification, you’ll get more for your money, and everyone will end the Disney day on a high note.


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