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. (Updated November 1, 2022.)
A lot has changed in the last couple of years. Substantively, the new land, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, has opened along with its two attractions, Millennium Falcon Smugglers Run and Star Wars Rise of the Resistance. That changes the rope drop dynamic, as many guests are drawn deep in Disneyland to Star Wars land.
Then there are the many operational changes. Extra Magic Hour and Magic Mornings are (temporarily?) not happening, meaning that this park opening strategy applies every day of the week. More significantly, Disneyland has replaced FastPass with a paid alternative, with is pretty similar to MaxPass. (See our Guide to Genie+ and Lightning Lanes at Disneyland & DCAfor more on how this complicated paid FastPass works.)
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.)
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.
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.
Our Late 2022 update to this park opening strategy incorporates the addition of Early Entry at Disneyland. This is an on-site guest perk that allows those staying at the three Disney-owned hotels at Disneyland Resort to enter the parks 30 minutes prior to park opening each morning. This makes it materially different from Extra Magic Hours/Magic Mornings in a few significant ways.
First, it’s 30 minutes shorter than its predecessor, so that’s less of a head-start over off-site guests. Second, Early Entry is not included with any tickets or Good Neighbor Hotel packages (yet). Finally, Early Entry is offered at both parks, every day of the week, which makes it unavoidable. This itself is a huge downside for off-site guests, who now cannot avoid Early Entry to strategize around it. In theory.
Thankfully, because it’s only 3 hotels, no one else is eligible, and it’s every single morning in both parks…the pool of eligible guests is quite small and diluted across both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure on a daily basis. This makes it hugely advantageous for those who are eligible for Early Entry, as few others are around to take advantage of it.
It also makes Early Entry minimally impactful to off-site guests, because by the time Early Entry is over, most of those guests have “moved on” to attempting to rope drop Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. While they do have a distinct advantage there, that dynamic means Early Entry has almost zero impact to regular rope drop in Fantasyland. See our Guide to Early Entry at Disneyland & DCA for advice about taking advantage of this on-site perk.
For now, back to your regularly scheduled rope drop strategy, already in progress and unaffected by Early Entry…
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 buying Genie+ or Individual Lightning Lanes. 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 Genie+, you’ll want to book your first Lightning Lane of the day for Space Mountain at some point early on. 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. See our 1-Day Disneyland Itinerary Using Genie+ and Lightning Lanesfor specific strategy.
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. A lot of the crowd will head to Fantasyland, but now many guests also head to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Tomorrowland. 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. Stick with the tried and true–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 offer Lightning Lane line-skipping access via Genie+ 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. In particular, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance takes forever from start to finish, and it often has delayed openings.
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. You can easily accomplish a half-dozen Fantasyland attractions, if not more, in the first hour that Disneyland is open.
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. At most, you can only do 3-4 of these attractions in the first hour that Disneyland is open.
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.
Ideally, you’ll start with Peter Pan’s Flight, which will have the longest line later in the day. However, if you’re further back in the pack or its line is spilling out of the indoor queue, skip it and do Snow White’s Enchanted Wish, Alice in Wonderland, and other attractions instead. The goal here is to ride the wave and stay ahead of the crowds–that requires thinking on your feet and skipping rides as necessary.
Even though these Fantasyland attractions never peak as high as Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, 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.
With that said, if you’re absolutely uninterested in Fantasyland dark rides, the best alternative is Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. If you hit Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance early (assuming no morning downtime) and then bounce to Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, you can typically follow up with Big Thunder or Splash Mountain, Haunted Mansion, and Pirates of the Caribbean. That’s not a bad way to start the day!
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. If you did start in Fantasyland, 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.
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!