Disneyland Park Opening Strategy & Rope Drop Tips

Arriving to Disneyland early in the morning, before park opening is essential to an efficient day. In this post, we share strategy and rope drop tips for California’s busiest theme park, including what time to arrive, which attractions to prioritize, and more. We also offer speculation as to how this will all change when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens in Summer 2019.

To be honest, Star Wars land is the reason we’ve put this post off for so long…and why we’ve been hesitant to cover Disneyland strategy, in general. Galaxy’s Edge is going to upend conventional park touring, and is likely to have a far-reaching impact on every aspect of visiting the California parks. There will be a ripple effect felt pretty much everywhere from bag check to third party hotel pricing, and that’s going to require a lot of updates in our existing Disneyland Resort coverage.

Knowing that, we’ve been reluctant to ‘pile on’ to our future workload by adding new posts that will need to be edited in a few months. Rope drop at Disneyland is one area that’ll likely change significantly. Most notably, in terms of crowd flow, what gets prioritized by guests (or doesn’t!), and in terms of congestion; this includes wait times to park, take a tram, get through bag check, and into Disneyland.

Even though this will all change in profound ways, part of why we’re posting this now is because we feel it’s something we need to address somewhere in our Disneyland planning coverage. Those you reading our guides today for trips you’ll be taking in June or July 2019 need to hedge your expectations in terms of what can be accomplished in a single day, and plan for delays.

Basically, if you’re planning a trip to Disneyland post-Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, it’s imperative to pack your patience, prepare for heavy crowds, and temper your expectations. It’s going to be chaotic for the foreseeable future, with no reprieve from the crowds until at least January 2020…or on rainy days.

In the meantime, rope drop at Disneyland is an experience that can be enjoyable or miserable, depending upon how you prepare for it. First of all, let’s address what rope drop is for the Disneyland first-timers. It’s simply when the lands and attractions officially open, which is synonymous with the published park opening time.

However, since the turnstiles usually admit guests before park opening, Disney fans have demarcated the two times with the ‘rope drop’ term. If it’s easier, just think of “rope drop” as “first thing in the morning” at Disneyland. In addition to rope drop being a time, it’s also a verb (“we’re rope dropping Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”).

Rope dropping things has spread beyond the realm of Disney parks, too. We have been known to say, “we’re rope dropping In-N-Out Burger,” which is really just us banging on their door at 10:20 a.m. yelling, “WE WANTS THE DOUBLE DOUBLE!” (A joke I’m recycling from my Magic Kingdom rope drop post since it’s actually more relevant to Californians.)

Note that rope drop differs from Extra Magic Hour and Magic Mornings, both of which allow select guests (those booked at Disney hotels and certain ticket holders) access to Disneyland on select days an hour before rope drop/official park opening.

If you are eligible for Extra Magic Hour/Magic Mornings, you should absolutely take advantage. If you are not eligible, you should avoid Disneyland first thing on the days it’s occurring (Extra Magic Hour/Magic Mornings are published on Disneyland’s calendar) because your rope drop will effectively occur after thousands of other guests have been in the park for an hour.

Accordingly these tips only apply to non-Extra Magic Hour/Magic Mornings days. With that said, let’s take a look at how rope drop plays out in Disneyland…

When you should leave your hotel to arrive at Disneyland for rope drop is a pretty common question. It depends upon where you’re staying. Conventional wisdom is to arrive an hour in advance. I don’t disagree with this advice, but I’d clarify what “arrive” means–be through bag check and standing in the Esplanade (the area between Disneyland and Disney California Adventure) an hour before official park opening time.

If you’re at a hotel directly across the street, this means leaving your hotel 75 minutes before the published park opening time. Down the street a bit farther? Plan to leave your room 80-90 minutes early. If you’re staying far off-site, driving and parking, it could mean leaving your hotel two hours in advance.

This “arrival” point of clarification is significant, as many first-time visitors don’t realize there are 2-5 points of friction to the arrival experience: Southern California morning rush hour traffic, lines to get into the parking structure/lots, parking tram lines, bag check lines, and turnstile lines. (All of these will only get worse with the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.)

Do not underestimate the lines or congestion in any of these scenarios. While Disneyland is much more compact than Walt Disney World, its crowd flow infrastructure outside the parks is noticeably worse, and this has become a more pronounced problem in the last couple of years. All of these friction points can be significant and stress inducing, and you eliminate 3 of them just by staying at a hotel within walking distance.

We like to arrive at the bag check line about 70 minutes before park opening because this is almost always early enough to beat the crowds and breeze through. On busier days, if you arrive at bag check under an hour in advance of park opening, you could be waiting 15 minutes at bag check. If you arrive right at park opening, you could wait 30 minutes or more, depending upon the season.

If you’re impatient like me, the wait at bag check is excruciating. It might be 15 minutes, but it feels like 55 as you slowly creep forward, eye the lines around you that invariably seems to be moving faster, and groan as the security guard at your table opens every single pouch and sunglasses case, while every other table instead receives a quick once-over. I understand that security is important and all that, but Disneyland’s process is painful and inconsistent.

I’d rather arrive before the hordes of other guests, breeze through quickly, and spend that same time waiting in the relative comfort of the Esplanade between Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. The area is spacious, inviting, has a great background music loop, and is just flat-out a better way to get you in a good mood for starting your morning at Disneyland.

Disneyland’s turnstiles typically open 30-45 minutes before park opening. If you’re at the front of this line, you might get lucky with your ticket being scanned in even earlier than this, which really only matters if you’re using MaxPass (read more about that recommended digital FastPass service here). It’s not a huge head-start, so if you’d rather hang back and enjoy the Esplanade without being in a cramped line, don’t worry.

A few minutes later, the turnstiles open and Disneyland begins admitting guests to Main Street. The exact time depends upon crowds, but we’ve experienced this as early as an hour before park opening, but more commonly around 30 minutes before official park opening.

If you are using MaxPass, you’ll want to book your first FastPass of the day for Space Mountain as soon as you’re able. Ideally, you’ll have an early return time and will be able to do Space Mountain after your first wave of attractions, once lines start building.

Once inside Disneyland, we enjoy savoring the leisurely stroll up Main Street. Perusing the many gift shops that are open on Main Street without people is a nice experience. It’s also nice to grab a cup of coffee at Starbucks from the Main Street Bakery as a pick me up.

Towards the end of Main Street or near the Central Plaza, you’ll encounter Security and other Cast Members who won’t allow you to proceed any farther into the park. Sometimes they’ll actually use a rope to block the path that will later be dropped once the park officially opens. (Hence the term rope drop!)

Once that rope drops, Disneyland’s attractions open, and you’ll have to decide where to head first. Most of the crowd will head to Fantasyland. There are a bunch of competing theories about how you should ‘zig when others zag’ and go to some other land instead. Those are all ostensibly compelling, especially if you’re a contrarian or want to think you’re smarter than everyone else.

Those strategies are also all wrong. Follow the masses (or lead them) and head to Fantasyland. Even if you don’t have small children, this is the right approach. Not only are these timeless attractions a quintessential part of the Disneyland experience, but several don’t have FastPass and are easy to knock out in the morning in quick succession.

The reason that Fantasyland is the “correct” place to start is quite simple: the minimum completion time for every attraction in Fantasyland is significantly less than alternatives around Disneyland. Fantasyland dark rides are mostly old school, no-nonsense attractions. They have short queues, no pre-show, and dump you right out near other attraction entrances. The minimum ride time for most Fantasyland attractions is under 5 minutes.

By contrast, the duration of Splash Mountain, plus walking through the queue, boarding the attraction, and exiting is over 15 minutes. Space Mountain is over 10 minutes. Haunted Mansion is over 15. And so on. Then, when those attractions dump you out, you still have a modest walk to the next attraction.

Fantasyland is the most condensed land at Disneyland, and you can really clean up by doing these short dark rides in quick succession before the crowd builds. In our 1-Day Disneyland Itinerary, we cover the most efficient order for doing these Fantasyland attractions, plus everything else after the morning rush.

Even though these Fantasyland attractions never peak as high as Space Mountain or Indiana Jones Adventure in terms of individual wait times, the time you’ll save in aggregate by starting in Fantasyland far exceeds the time you can save by rope dropping a different part of the park.

This is something that could change when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens (well, once it concludes the timed entry) as the wait times for both of those attractions will likely be measured in hours by midday. Saving ~200 minutes by rope dropping one of those rides probably will outweigh the time you’ll save by starting in Fantasyland.

It’s too early to make any predictions with rope dropping Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, though. We don’t know how Disneyland will handle Star Wars land at rope drop, and what the crowds/chaos level will be like on a daily basis. Plus, once available, MaxPass/FastPass will be the best option.

At this point, it should be about an hour or so after rope drop, and you’ve probably been awake for at least a few hours. While you could keep the ‘efficiency’ train rolling at full steam ahead, it’s not a bad idea to head to Frontierland and New Orleans Square at this point to decompress a bit. Both of these lands are gorgeous in the morning, and you’ll still be ahead of the full wave of the crowds in them. It’s great to soak up their ambiance, maybe enjoy a morning snack, and appreciate  the “little things” that make Disneyland special. These quiet moments of pure whimsy are when the magic happens, and what keeps us going back.

If you’re preparing for a Disneyland trip, check out our other planning posts, including how to save money on Disneyland tickets, our Disney packing tips, tips for booking a hotel (off-site or on-site), where to dine, and a number of other things, check out our comprehensive Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide!

Your Thoughts

What is your Disneyland rope drop strategy? Do you follow the tried and true Fantasyland strategy, do you go for thrills in Tomorrowland, or start somewhere entirely different? Do you like to savor the low crowds and have a leisurely experience later in the morning? Do you agree or disagree with our advice? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!


16 Responses to “Disneyland Park Opening Strategy & Rope Drop Tips”
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