Tips for Avoiding Crowds at Disneyland

It’s the heart of the summer tourist season at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, with the parks booked for many dates in July. This post offers tips for avoiding crowds, with advice for rope drop, where to eat, how to “hack” Mobile Order, why bucket hats might be a “good” idea, and more.

Despite ending the Annual Pass program, Disneyland and DCA have sold out of park reservations for many dates since reopening. That’s happening less frequently in July 2021, but only because Disneyland continues to increase the attendance limit, which means even more people. This is not a huge surprise, as there’s a ton of pent-up demand for all things Disney among Californians after the year-plus closure.

The more surprising news is that wait times are not terrible for most attractions by normal summer standards. Only Radiator Springs Racers, Guardians of the Galaxy Mission Breakout, Grizzly River Run (midday), Splash Mountain, and Space Mountain are averaging wait times of over an hour thus far over the course of July 2021. With that said, “feels like” crowds tell a different story, which is in part due to other factors explained here…

Regardless, summer is California’s peak tourist season and it never hurts to try beating the crowds at Disneyland. Even in previous years, most Annual Passholders were blocked out while schools were out of session. The result is less predictable crowd patterns, and busier parks than many people expected with the reservation system and attendance cap in place.

Additionally, many visitors are still unaccustomed to congestion after staying at home for the last year. In that spirit, here are some tips for making the most of your visit to Disneyland or Disney California Adventure on crowded days…

Arrive 90 Minutes Before Opening – We’ve long sung the praises of arriving to Disneyland or Disney California Adventure in time for rope drop. It’s the same deal now–check out everything we accomplished in our Disneyland Rope Drop Report: Summer 2021.

However, being at the front of the pack is also more challenging. Due to more guests arriving from Harbor Boulevard than before, there are tremendously long lines on that side to get through security, which can take a while. Accordingly, if you’re planning on rope dropping Disneyland or DCA, arrive at least 75 minutes before park opening–preferably a full 90 minutes.

Arrive After Opening – This isn’t one of those stupid “Surprise! Actually, both ways are the right way” things. To the contrary, there absolutely is a wrong way to do mornings at Disneyland, and that’s arriving shortly before or exactly at park opening time.

At that point, you’re too late to benefit from the low crowds in the park and too early to benefit from shorter (or nonexistent) lines at security and the turnstiles. If you’re not going to do 75-90 minutes before park opening, the next best option is at least 30 minutes after park opening. It’s not what we’d recommend in an ideal world, but if you need the extra sleep in order to make it until park closing, do it.

Stay Late – Skipping ahead to the end of the day, another longstanding piece of advice has always been to stay late. This has also taken on more significance post-reopening at Disneyland. Despite park hours being shorter than pre-closure, fewer guests “last” the entire day. There are likely a range of causes for this, from fewer things to do to fill the day to frustrations with dining.

Regardless, those who outlast the masses will be rewarded. Not just with lower crowd levels and wait times, but with superior ambiance and weather. In fact, the wait times during the last two hours of the day are typically shorter than during the first two hours. We did Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Indiana Jones Adventure as near walk-ons several times in the last hour of the day.

Mobile Order Early – On normal days, the mobile order arrival window for counter service restaurants in the Disneyland app will start with “Now.” On busy days, the earliest pick-up time could be 30 minutes in the future or longer. We’ve seen many restaurants with times several hours into the future. In fact, sometimes Pym Test Kitchen fills up entirely hours in advance, and the only option for dining in the new Avengers Campus restaurant is getting in the long standby line, which also gets cut on occasion.

Avoid this by placing your Mobile Orders early in the day while waiting in line for an attraction. You can often modify later to push back your pickup time (sometimes you can also move it forward). Also be mindful that tables can be in short supply during peak dining hours, which is especially relevant if you want one of the limited outdoor tables in the shade. Not to rag on Pym’s Test Kitchen, but we dined there a few times and almost always had to walk over to a temporary overflow seating area near Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!

“Arrive” Early for Food We’ll preface this piece of advice by saying it likely has an expiration date of early fall. Before doing this, you should do one normal Mobile Order scenario to observe for yourself whether this is still accurate during your visit to Disneyland. 

Currently, counter service menus are incredibly scaled back all around Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. There are a number of reasons for this, but the end result is that normal, non-customized dishes are not made to order, but instead constantly prepared as quickly as possible. The notification that “your order is ready” does not mean your specific dishes have been plated up, put on a tray, and are waiting for you.

Rather, the Mobile Order system is controlling the flow of guests into restaurants, pulsing people through at a level that doesn’t overwhelm kitchens. Essentially, getting the “your order is ready” notification means it’s your turn to go inside the restaurant and wait in the physical line. When you actually arrive, there’s a Cast Member at the restaurant entrance who enters your order number into an iPad. That entry into the iPad then causes constantly-prepared food you to be pulled from the line and put onto a tray for you.

This distinction is significant because there have often been lengthy wait times after hitting the “I’m Here, Prepare My Order” button. (Our longest wait was a little over 30 minutes at Smokejumpers Grill.) That can eat up a lot of your day if you’re doing two meals and standing outside the restaurant each time you Mobile Order.

Consequently, we’d advise you to hit that button well before you arrive and enjoy atmospheric activities in that same land or general area while waiting for the notification that your order is ready. Do things like character greetings, exploring hidden corners of the land…don’t get into a 90 minute line for Radiator Springs Racers. When you’re done, arrive at your leisure rather than racing to the restaurant upon receiving the push notification. This way, the restaurant “waits on you” instead of the other way around.

Dine at Hotels – Three of our absolute favorite restaurants are located in the hotels. First up, GCH Craftsman Grill, which we rank as the #1 counter service dining option at Disneyland Resort. That distinction was bestowed upon GCH Craftsman Grill pre-closure, but the gap between it and the next-best in park dining option has widened, as GCH Craftsman Grill is serving (almost) its entire normal menu, whereas in-park counter service restaurants are not. Read the above review for recommendations.

We’re also fans of GCH Craftsman Bar, which is essentially a poolside table service version of the same menu. The atmosphere here is a step above the counter service option, and prices are the same. Reservations are also easier to score than in-park restaurants, and there’s often walk-up availability.

Finally, there’s Tangaroa Terrace Tropical Bar & Grill at Disneyland Hotel. While we don’t love this as much as GCH Craftsman Grill (except for breakfast), it’s still superior to 90% of the in-park options right now. Even though you have to leave the parks for both, they’re more relaxed, efficient, and have better menus, making it a good use of your time to dine at either.

Try for Two Virtual Queues – Currently, both Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure in Marvel’s Avengers Campus in Disney California Adventure and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance in Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland are using virtual queues. There’s no other way to access either, neither have standby lines.

As covered in How to Score Same-Day Star Wars & Spider-Man Boarding Groups, you can access both attractions in one day. It requires a lot of skill and a little luck, but if you follow those tips, it’ll make the rest of your day easier.

Bring Bucket Hats – Did you know that bucket hats are apparently in style right now? I mention that not because it gives me free reign to look like a (stylish) doofus wearing this hat, but because one of our best pieces of advice pretty much requires a hat or a sun umbrella.

If you miss out on rope drop–or even if you arrive in time but don’t accomplish everything–you’re going to find the shortest wait times of the day for Fantasyland attractions between around noon and 2 pm. This is likely due to a mix of midday heat, families taking lunch breaks, and it being prime Park Hopping time. These queues are all partly outdoors, uncovered, and fairly congested. Plan accordingly.

Salt & Straw > Snowman – Above is the queue for Adorable Snowman Frosted Treats at Disney California Adventure. I’m not one to disparage ice cream, but this is just ordinary soft serve. Long lines are a common scene here and at other snack spots around Disneyland Resort.

In our experience, Downtown Disney is a ghost town midday during the week. Consequently, its snack spots and dining options typically have short or no lines. In the name of very important research (since it’s coming to Walt Disney World…which we did not know at the time), we bought ice cream at Salt & Straw several times. Never once was there a wait and it’s superior ice cream!

Use Itineraries – Failing all of this other advice, follow our 1-Day Disneyland Itinerary and 1-Day DCA Itinerary. Those offer step-by-step plans of attack for efficiently getting attractions done, and will help you have great days at Disneyland Resort!

Ultimately, these are just some ways to minimize the impact of crowds during your visit to Disneyland and DCA. There are a range of other options, from doing more table service meals to dedicating more time to slowing down and relaxing. Stop for character greetings, try to spot all the Marvel Easter eggs in Avengers Campus, take the Grand Circle Tour of Disneyland. (Side note, but it’s fantastic visiting a castle park with a railroad!)

Honestly, even just adjusting your expectations, removing the pressure to accomplish X attractions per day, and having a more laid back approach can make a world of difference. That’s the best way to do Disneyland, anyway. As with so many things in life, crowds are what you make of them, and an exceptional Disneyland vacation is entirely possible every single week of the year! Same with an awful one.

Planning a Southern California vacation? For park admission deals, read Tips for Saving Money on Disneyland Tickets. Learn about on-site and off-site hotels in our Anaheim Hotel Reviews & Rankings. For where to eat, check out our Disneyland Restaurant Reviews. For unique ideas of things that’ll improve your trip, check out What to Pack for Disney. For comprehensive advice, consult our Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide. Finally, for guides beyond Disney, check out our Southern California Itineraries for day trips to Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, and tons of other places!

YOUR THOUGHTS

Have any tips for beating the crowds at Disneyland or DCA? If you’ve visited this summer, what has been your experience with crowds and wait times? Thoughts on the attendance levels? Strategy for Mobile Order? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

10 Responses to “Tips for Avoiding Crowds at Disneyland”
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