5 Tips for Surviving the Crowds at Disneyland
The busy holiday season is upon us, with the weeks leading to Christmas and New Year’s being two of the busiest weeks of the year. This post will help you avoid the long lines at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure if you’re visiting during these two highly crowded times (or any other busy holidays, for that matter, such as Easter, July 4th, etc.) with 5 of our best tips for surviving the crowds at Disneyland Resort.
Before we get started, let’s make it abundantly clear that Disneyland and Disney California Adventure are both madhouses on holidays. Based on comments and questions we receive, a lot of people seem think they can “outsmart” others by visiting on days like Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or New Year’s Eve, and are surprised to find that tens of thousands of their closest friends have also had the same idea. It’s like the movie theater: it seems like people would want to stay home with their families instead of going to movies on holidays, and yet the theaters are slammed, too.
That’s the unfortunate thing. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize your time spent waiting and line and maximize what you accomplish. To be clear, you will encounter hordes of people and lines in the middle of the day for popular attractions will be ridiculous. There’s no magical hack to avoid that. This post is not written from the perspective of having the most amazing time ever with no crowds—it’s about making lemonade out of lemons. If you envision a day skipping around from one headliner thrill ride to another, it’s time to adjust your expectations.
With that said, here’s what you can do to improve your experience, based on our holiday visits to Disneyland Resort when the parks have been crowded…
1. Arrive Early, Stay Late
Disneyland’s operating hours are tied directly to anticipated crowd levels, and Disney is pretty adept at predicting based upon bookings and other factors. Check park hours before you go. If daily operating hours are long, expect heavy crowds. Whenever Disneyland and Disney California open at 8 am or 9 am and Disneyland closes at midnight (or later), you can be assured that this is because heavy crowds are forecast. (If you’re planning when to go now and have stumbled upon this article, a better resource for choosing a lightly-crowded time to visit is our When to Visit Disneyland Guide.)
These are the type of hours you can expect Christmas or New Year’s weeks at Disneyland, as compared to the 10 am to 10 pm hours that occur some days earlier in December when crowd levels are lighter. Disney doesn’t extend the park hours out of some sense of Christmas spirit–it’s to spread out the operating day to better handle the crowds, and increase guest satisfaction, which is directly tied to how many attractions a guest experiences in a day (and when it’s busier, it takes more time to experience the magic number of attractions to be “satisfied,” hence the need for more operating hours).
With that said, on holidays themselves, crowds are always lightest first thing in the morning, getting progressively worse until about 2 pm, then tapering down the rest of the day, with crowds again being light(er) the last couple hours each park is open. The first two hours of the day are the absolute lightest of the day.
During holiday weeks, but not on the holidays themselves, the first two hours are still the best time to visit, but the parks get progressively worse over the course of the entire day, especially around 5 pm when local Annual Passholders start getting off work and descending upon the parks. There’s still a bit of a reprieve at the end of the night, but 1 pm is less crowded than 7 pm.
2. Use Wait Times Apps
Visiting Disneyland Resort during the holidays is an ‘eat or be eaten’ scenario that requires an advanced degree in theme park touring. If “FastPass”, “Wait Times App”, and “Single Rider” are foreign concepts to you, you need to start from square one, reading our Disneyland Resort Trip Planning Guide.
Here’s the CliffNotes version: you will want to download a third party wait times app before you even get to Disneyland or Disney California Adventure. TouringPlans and MouseWait are both popular options for that, and both sites have a lot of other services, such as crowd calendars (although it’s a bit too late for that!), itineraries, and more. We also have a roadmap of our Ideal 1-Day Disneyland Itinerary, although it’s more focused on a leisurely and relaxing day at the park, rather than efficiently accomplishing everything.
A wait times app will give you an overview of posted and predicted wait times around the park without having to go to the Tip Board or wasting time running around looking at the marquees in the park. This way, you can determine your plans on the fly.
3. Avoid Lines with FastPass and Single Rider Lines
Once the parks start getting crowded after the first couple hours of the day, your primary plan on busy days at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure should be to acquire as many FastPasses as possible. You should focus your FastPass strategy on attractions that don’t have Single Rider lines (assuming you’re willing to use the Single Rider option), and you should grab a new FastPass as soon as your window to do so opens. In other words, don’t jump into a line with a 90 minute wait 5 minutes before your window to get your next FastPass opens.
The holidays are a special time of year meant to be spent with loved ones, but sentimentality like that is for the meek when it comes to busy days at Disneyland. Plus, the crazy crowds are probably going to stress you out, so maybe a respite from Cousin Eddie and his crazy stories is in order. As such, you should use Single Rider lines when available to bypass long waits.
You can still wait in the Single Rider line with your party, but you will ride separately (basically, the line works to fill in “gaps” in ride vehicles created by groups riding together). In Disneyland, only Indiana Jones Adventure and Splash Mountain (and sometimes the Matterhorn) offer the Single Rider option. Single Rider is a much bigger deal in Disney California Adventure, where most headliners offer Single Rider. You can find it in DCA at the following attractions: California Screamin’, Goofy’s Sky School, Grizzly River Run, Radiator Springs Racers, and Soarin’ Over California.
4. Do Less Popular Attractions
Although I hate crowds of people wandering around like they are lost, or (worse yet) large groups stopping in the middle of walkways to review a park map, visiting Disneyland Resort during busy times of the year doesn’t really bother me. This is probably because some of my favorite attractions aren’t all that popular, meaning there are a lot of things I can do that don’t involve long waits.
You can gather for yourself what some “unpopular” attractions are just by looking at the wait times apps, but I’ll throw some of my favorites out there, too. In Disneyland, you should make a point of doing the following: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, The Disney Gallery, Disneyland Railroad, Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, Sleeping Beauty Castle Walk-Through, Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes, Mark Twain Riverboat, and Tom Sawyer Island are all fun experiences. At Disney California Adventure, Disney’s Aladdin — A Musical Spectacular, Red Car Trolleys, The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, Animation Academy, and Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue are good options that typically won’t have as long of waits as the headliner attractions.
Now, I wouldn’t want to do a full day of these, but they are good filler material between FastPass attractions during the midday hours. Just remember not to succumb to herd mentality: just because something has a short wait doesn’t mean it’s bad, and a long wait time doesn’t ensure quality. You can see our recommended attractions and ride ratings for the parks in our Disneyland Attraction Guide and Disney California Adventure Attraction Guide.
5. Eat During Off-Hours
Most people like to eat lunch around noon and dinner around 6 or 7 pm. Because of this, and because there are more guests in the park than there is space in the restaurants, every restaurant in Disneyland and Disney California Adventure will develop a long line around these hours. We know you have to have your Christmas Yule Log at the Plaza Inn (or other delicious Disneyland Christmas Treats) on Christmas. But you don’t have to eat it right at noon.
Eat when restaurants first open or later in the afternoon. The best time of day to have a meal is around 10:30 am, 3 to 4 p.m., and again after 8 pm.
That covers it for maximizing what you accomplish at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure when it’s busy. Hopefully these tips help you survive the insanity!
If you’re using these tips to plan for a Christmas week or New Year’s week visit, it’s also worth remembering that almost all Christmas entertainment runs until New Year’s Eve (some entertainment goes even further into January), so check out our Ultimate Guide to Christmas at Disneyland to determine what Christmas offerings you want to experience.
As for figuring out the rest of your Disneyland trip, including how to save money on Disneyland tickets, our Disney packing tips, whether you should stay off-site or on-site in a Disney hotel, where to dine, and a number of other things, check out our comprehensive Disneyland trip planning guide!
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Have you ever visited Disneyland Resort during the holidays? Would you ever do it? Have any additional tips for making the most out of the experience? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share your thoughts and questions in the comments!
Hi! We actually planned a trip to Disneyland for Nov 10 specifically because I thought it would be not fully Christmassed! I’m sure it’s lovely but it’s my kids first visit so I wanted to be more neutral lol! Also the crowd calendar predicts a slow day. But now I’ve learned it’s the first day of the full holiday decor and I’m afraid lots of people will want to show up to see it! Is it extra busy on the premier day of holiday decor?
We are planning to go to California Adventure on Christmas Day 2016. I assumed California Adventure will be less crowded than Disneyland Park on Christmas Day. What is the typical park hours on holiday weekend? We plan to come early in the morning, leave around 2pm to get some rest at the hotel and come back around 5 pm. I heard if the park reach its capacity, we will not be allowed to get back in?
Hello – we are considering heading over to DL on 12.24 and CAL AD 12.25, then hopping for 3 more days. How did your timing work out?? thank you for any advice you can offer!
We are planning to visit Disneyland Dec 14-16 and we are trying to avoid the holiday rush. I read from your blog that the first 2 weeks of December is the best time to do this, but since December has 5 weeks this year, do you think its safe to stick with our schedule or move it up a week?
Thanks so much for your website. I definitely learned a lot of tidbits that i can use when we go.
I want to go in Dec what is the best time when it wont be crowded and when does disneyland decro for Christmas
I have a trip planned for the week of March 25th. After reading your blog I am really nervous about the time of year we are going. I’m sure it will be crowded but are the crowds unbearable for a 5 yearso old child? I’m also wondering if the measles outbreak scared mist tourists away?
We are taking our 3 year old grandson to Disneyland on May 22, 2015 for a week. I’m a huge fan of your site. However some times I feel a little overwhelmed trying to plan our three days that we’ll be spending at Disneyland. If you have any unread tips for grandparents taking grandkids please pass them along. I’m am over the moon with excitement that we’ll be making his first memories (with him and his mom) at Disneyland.
I’ll for sure keep reading all post
I’ve been a huge fan of your site for awhile now, and I am reading up to get ready for our trip to Disneyland next month. Thank you!
That last photo with the castle, Matterhorn, and the full moon is absolutely spectacular. Where did you take the photo from? Wow!
That was taken from the Mark Twain Riverboat.
Great tips. I utilized all of these well during our trip earlier this month. Helped a lot on Saturday and Sunday, especially.
It blows me away that people still arrive to the parks at noon… but I am glad they do, since the opening hours are still by far the most useful!
Well…if everyone showed up at park opening, there would be no advantage to getting up early. I think people underestimate just how busy the parks are later in the day, or they simply can’t get out the door that early because of kids, etc.
Huh? It takes kids to keep you from getting out of the house early? We aren’t going to DL until December and I am already worried about getting there when it opens. Love your site, from a retired night owl…
Huh? It takes kids to keep you from getting out of the house early? We aren’t going to DL until December and I am already worried about getting there when it opens. Love your site, from a retired admitted night owl…
Great tips Tom! My family has been at Disneyland the past few days and we have found that getting to the park at 7am. (resort early hours) ensures that you will have a few hours of relatively short wait times before the crowds get unbearable. And we in fact did spend a full afternoon having a blast at the Tarzan tree, Tom Sawyer’s Island, and Winnie the Pooh ride. None of which had a wait to speak of at all.
The one additional piece of advice I would suggest would be to check the parade schedule and make sure to attempt no movement whatsoever between the different sides of the park during those times. What a nightmare!! We almost missed a fastpass for Space Mountain because we were on the wrong side of the park when the parade was going through!! Have a Merry Christmas!! 🙂
Great tip regarding the parade times. Way too easy to get trapped by it, especially at the front of the park. Disneyland has new crowd corridors, but I’m surprised at how *little* they are using them thus far.
If you are staying at a hotel (or live close) just leave for a couple of hours. You’ll be gone during the busiest part of the day, and can recharge your batteries so that you can stay until park closing.
This is especially true with little ones, for whim a full day at Disneyland would be very tiring. Heck sometimes I need a nap too.
This is a tip I normally include with Walt Disney World versions of this post, as those are tourist parks where it’s absolutely true, and I’d still recommend the same on actual holidays themselves, but with a lot of Annual Passholders arriving when they get off work, the parks in California just seem to get busier and busier as the day goes on–at least on weekdays.
I just found your blog today and have been glued to it! We are going with our kids for the first time in mid June. I found this article to be so helpful and I will definitely keep these tips in mind in June! We plan on staying at either the Desert Inn Suites or Best Western next to it.
Glad you’re enjoying the blog! While these tips are definitely written from the perspective of a Christmas or New Year’s visit since that’s topical, they apply to a summer visit when school is out, albeit on a smaller scale. You’ll encounter summer vacation crowds and these are the ways to “beat” those crowds, but you won’t experience anything like the level of crowds this week, spring break, Easter, etc.
FWIW, Desert Inn is my favorite off-site hotel (it’s not amazing, but I like it for what it is) at Disneyland Resort. Never stayed at Best Western.
We stayed at the new Springhill Suites on S. Harbor Boulevard in November (I think it just opened in October). Not as close as the Desert Inn, but still an easy walk. Free breakfast, free wifi in the rooms, and there is a CVS in the adjacent building.