We’ve all been rookies experiencing something new at some point. Our first trip to Disneyland was a comedy of errors, as we thought we were Disney pros based upon our experiences in the Florida parks. In this post, we’ll offer tips for avoiding common mistakes people make when planning a Disneyland vacation for the first time, and during their first visit.
Our experience is a common refrain: Walt Disney World veterans head to Disneyland for the first time armed with a ton of erroneous assumptions, many of which are not true about the California parks. The good news, I guess, is that these ‘mistakes’ usually take the form of over-planning. Disneyland has that laid back Southern California vibe, and even though planning is definitely necessary and there are a ton of potential mistakes to be made, it’s an easier experience.
With that said, one thing to keep in mind when planning your first visit to any Disney park is that no amount of planning can prepare you for the inevitable mistake. Even though Disneyland is more easy-going, that’s relative to its Florida counterparts. In the grand scheme of vacation destinations, Disneyland Resort is still a pretty complex place to visit, and you’re bound to screw up something. That’s not meant to scare you–but rather, give you solace and let you know that you’re in good company…
This post takes a look at what we feel are the “top” mistakes first-timers make when planning a vacation to Disneyland. This is based upon a mix of our own blunders, reader blog post comments, social media feedback, and more. It’s hardly a scientific list, but hopefully it provides some good food for thought, nonetheless.
So what are the biggest mistakes first time Disneyland visitors make? The answers may SHOCK AND ASTOUND YOU. Well, probably not, but we have to trick you into reading this somehow… 😉
10. Being Under-Prepared
In the introduction, we covered how Disneyland was much more laid back than the Florida parks, and it’s not nearly as important to plan. That’s true, but that does not mean you should go in with no plans whatsoever.
While ADRs made months in advance are not necessary and there’s not even a way to make FastPass+ in advance, having a rough plan of attack for each park (consult our 1-Day Disneyland and 1-Day DCA Itineraries for that) and an idea of which attractions to prioritize. Just like WDW, wait times get long, and going in without good strategy is a recipe for disaster.
9. It Gets Cold in Southern California
California is known for its perfect weather, and there’s no shortage of songs about the fun you can have in the sun there. This overlooks one important thing: those Hollywood (Land) nights. It can get cold. Currently, nightly temperatures are in the low 50s and that coupled with a crisp breeze can make for jacket weather.
Obviously, California’s weather is better than in the vast majority of states, but a common first-timer mistake is assuming the weather is always perfect. Yeah, if you’re visiting during the summer, you can pretty much pack nothing aside from shorts and flip flops, but it’d be a mistake to assume it’ll be all sunshine all the time. Consult our Tips for Packing for Winter at Disney post if you’re taking a trip from around November until February.
8. Overlooking MaxPass
This is bound to be a controversial one, especially since our early take on MaxPass was that it was a cash grab that was only a means of saving a bit of walking. Now, we want to be very clear here: we are not saying that MaxPass is for everyone, or that you should purchase it without any thought.
Rather, we are pointing out that viewing MaxPass as “only” a digital substitute for walking to get FastPass would be a huge mistake. Admittedly, this is not just a first-timer mistake–it’s one we made as locals, too. Beyond MaxPass also offering unlimited PhotoPass downloads, MaxPass will allow you to get several additional FastPasses per day as opposed to pulling them by hand.
There are a variety of reasons for this, but it’s not just a matter of saving the time it would otherwise take you to walk to the FastPass machines. From getting FastPasses during a midday nap break when you’re outside the park to obtaining them while standing in other lines to other quirks (and unadvertised features) that give you a nice advantage over traditional FastPass, it’s definitely something to at least consider. For longer trips, it might be cost-prohibitive (or even unnecessary), but if you only have a couple of days in Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, give it some serious thought. Our updated Guide to MaxPass & FastPass at Disneyland covers all the pros and cons of this new system.
7. Visiting on Sundays or Major Holidays
Before even booking your trip, you should consult our Disneyland Crowd Calendars to determine the best and worst times to visit. Depending upon the day of the week or time of the year, Disneyland can be lightly or heavily crowded. That makes a big difference in your experience.
By and large, the busiest times of the week to visit will be weekends (particularly Friday nights and Sundays) when locals are off work. This is true unless the lowest tiers of Annual Passes are blocked out, hence Saturdays tending not to be as bad. (Unless you’re visiting during the off-season when APs are not blocked out on Saturday, in which case the weekend is the worst time to visit.)
There’s also a misconception that holidays are not busy, because everyone is at home with their families. Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and the Super Bowl (not technically a holiday, but celebrated as such in many households) are all busy, despite urban legends to the contrary. Some holidays are slightly less busy than others, but all holidays are busier than the norm. All.
6. A Diet of Burgers and Pizza
Theme park food has a reputation for leaving something to be desired. Like sporting events and other entertainment venues, parks often try to appeal to the lowest common denominator, realizing they have a captive audience that will simply have to eat during their visit.
While there are a lot of restaurants at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure that fit within this stereotype–we’re looking at you, Redd Rockett’s Pizza Port and Galactic Grill!–there are also a ton of options that are far more ambitious, and offer some exceptional cuisine. Basically, the “safe” restaurants are the worst ones.
Counter service burgers are almost universally bad, as is heat-lamp pizza. The only truly good comfort foods are Plaza Inn fried chicken (it’s a spiritual experience) and the (life-changing) corn dogs in both parks. Check out our Disneyland Restaurant Reviews for more things to try…and to avoid.
5. Sleeping In
The first 2 hours Disneyland and Disney California Adventure are open are going to be the most productive hours of your day. Rope dropping the parks is an absolute must, and you’ll want to be arriving to Disneyland about an hour in advance (particularly if coming from Harbor Boulevard hotels, as security backs up in that direction first thing in the morning).
Getting up at the crack of dawn and being to Disneyland or DCA early doesn’t fit with the notion of relaxing and unwinding on vacation, but the reality is that you’d be better off showing up for the first 2 hours and last 2 hours and skipping the ~8 hours in between than you be doing only those middle-of-the-day hours.
If relaxation on your vacation is important, take a break in the middle of the day to go back to your hotel and nap or enjoy the pool. You really benefit greatly from being in the parks right at rope drop, though. Likewise, crowds are lightest again at the end of the night (and the atmosphere then is unbeatable).
4. Buying the Wrong Tickets
Disneyland tickets are highly customizable, which is both a good and bad thing. On the downside, if you haven’t done your research and are prone to being upsold on things, you might end up purchasing more than you need. On the upside, if you have done your research, you can pay for only the options that you really need, passing on extras you likely won’t use.
For example, going from park to park takes (literally) less than 5 minutes, so the Park Hopper option can be very valuable, especially on the (regular) nights when DCA closes earlier or opens later. Conversely, you might be able to get away with no Park Hopper if you have small kids. We cover the possibilities, pros and cons of each, and offer some recommendations in our Tips for Saving Money on Disneyland Tickets post.
Over-planning and under-planning on the same list? Tricky. There are two aspects to this one. First, you don’t need to devote nearly as much time to planning a Disneyland trip as you would a WDW one. As a general rule, spend no more than half as much time planning. (Realistically, even less than that is probably fine.)
Beyond that, there’s the issue with over-planning in general. Planning everything down to the minute or even hour leaves no room for spontaneity, and Disneyland is all about the spontaneous experiences. Characters appear out of nowhere, there’s atmospheric entertainment you never knew about, and a wealth of “little things” you’ll want to stop to experience. These spontaneous little moments can be the highlight of a Disneyland vacation, and planning everything down to the smallest detail might “force” you to skip these things when you see them.
The final problem with such a detailed itinerary is that it sets unrealistic expectations. If you plan a trip checklist style with 15 things that you “must accomplish” in a given day, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. The practical realities of navigating crowds, weather, longer-than-expected lines, attraction downtime, or other unplanned variables mean you might not be able to get everything done.
It’s better to go into a Disneyland trip with a rough plan of attack with plenty of downtime–and be prepared to bail on even what you do have on your schedule. Sometimes we have the most fun when we toss aside our plans!
If you’re a veteran of the Florida parks, you probably have a strong opinion in the never-ending ‘Disney transportation v. rental car’ debate. There’s a decent chance you rent a car, given how spread out everything is and how slow transportation times can be.
For most visitors to Disneyland, a car is not only unnecessary, but counter-productive. Most of the best hotel options are directly across the street from the parks, which are literally <100 yards from one another. Driving to the parks will take significantly longer than walking to them. Significant is not an understatement; due to the parking configuration, it can take 30+ minutes to drive, park, go through security, and take the tram to the parks, whereas it’s a 10-15 minute walk from many hotels.
Likewise, you might consider booking a hotel that’s a bit of a commute to the parks. Coastal communities like Newport Beach and Laguna Beach and lovely and don’t seem too far on paper. Trust us as people who make that commute to the park: it can be miserable. Southern California traffic is a soul-crushing beast, and that coupled with having to park, going through security, etc., is one way to start your day on the wrong foot.
Additionally, you’ll be paying for parking. Often, this is the case both at your hotel (even the Disney-owned ones) and at the parks. For all of these reasons, we typically recommend those visiting Disneyland plus other parts of California rent a car after finishing the Disneyland leg of their trip. (See our Disneyland Transportation Tips for more info.)
Instead, take an Uber/Lyft to your hotel, and get around via foot. Disneyland Resort is so compact that a car really doesn’t make sense. Just plan accordingly: book a hotel within walking distance, fly into SNA, and skip the rental car until the non-Disneyland portion of your trip–or skip it entirely if you’re not going anywhere aside from Disneyland. (If you’re going elsewhere, book a one-way rental from Anaheim to the airport, starting the day you leave Disneyland.)
1. ONLY Doing Disneyland
I’ll be perfectly honest with you, this is one of those “do as we say, not as we do” scenarios. During our first visit to Disneyland, we also were in Huntington Beach for a wedding (the real purpose of the trip), but during our next few visits, we did not venture beyond Disneyland Resort once. Granted, we made separate trips to Northern California to see San Francisco and Yosemite National Park, but we didn’t spend any time in Los Angeles. It took us several trips back to finally get to Los Angeles and Burbank and start learning the error of our ways.
Finally, we moved to California and invested considerable time into exploring the state. We made a concerted effort to see and do as much as possible while living here, and the recurring thought we have is, “why didn’t we do this all sooner?!” California would be one of the greatest countries in the world (were it one), and is easily the best state in the US. When we go back as tourists now, our time is split roughly 50/50 between Disneyland and the rest of Southern California.
California has so much to see and do, amazing food, and natural diversity. Go two hours (or less) from Disneyland and you have beaches, mountains, and deserts. Californians boast about being able to surf and ski in the same day, but it’s absolutely true. While you don’t need to trek out to the desert, you should absolutely see one of the beautiful beaches (~30 minutes away) and the city of Los Angeles. (Quick plug here for our Ultimate Guide to Los Angeles over on TravelCaffeine.)
I think that about covers it for the “top” mistakes newbies make when visiting Disneyland for the first time. Now, there are no shortage of possible mistakes…this is really just the tip of the iceberg. So, if you don’t mind sharing some of the mistakes you or a “friend” have made when visiting Disneyland Resort, please share them in the comments. Remember, your learning experience could help someone else avoid running into the same problem. Feel free to change the names to protect the innocent.
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!
Do you agree or disagree with our first-timer tips for Disneyland? Any other common mistakes or pitfalls you’d recommend avoiding? Any questions? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!