7 tips for tackling Disneyland in a day

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

I’ve been to Disneyland hundreds of times over the last two decades and have been writing the Funland theme park blog for about four years now. As a result, people are always asking me how to do everything at Disneyland in a single day.

The short answer is you probably can’t. It can be a struggle for even hard-core fans with military assault-like strategies. The longer answer is there’s lots of ways to maximize your time in the park and get on the most rides possible.

PHOTOS: How to do Disneyland in a day

So in honor of Disneyland’s 24-hour Leap Day celebration, here are my seven tips for tackling Disneyland in a day:

Tip 1: If you’re trying to get the most out of your day at Disneyland, I always recommend arriving just before the park opens in the morning, staying until the park closes at night and taking a long break in the heat of the afternoon at your hotel pool or cocktail bar. It may sound like a long day, but you’ll get more done in the first two hours and the last two hours of your day than if you spent 15 hours straight at the park.

And I’m dead serious about the afternoon break. I’d say get out of the park from 1 to 4 p.m. Let the kids play in the pool while you recline in a lounge chair, munch on inexpensive supermarket snacks and sip a cocktail. Trust me, your feet, brain and nerves will thank me. The time you “waste” not being in the park during the hottest and busiest part of the day will be rewarded tenfold when you jump on 10 rides in the early morning and 10 more in the late evening. And, no, it doesn’t count as a “break” to eat lunch in the park, watch a parade and take a ride on the riverboat, monorail or train (although those are better alternatives than standing in back-to-back two-hour lines for Star Tours and Indiana Jones while you wither in the sun).

Now, before we talk about a specific strategy for tackling the rides, we need to go over your two best friends in the park: the ride board and the FastPass system.

Tip 2: I have a rule of thumb that I won’t wait more than 20 minutes for any ride. For you, I’d try to keep your wait times under 30 minutes.

That’s where the ride board comes in. Just off the main hub near the castle you’ll find an attendant who keeps a running tally of the wait times for all the big rides. You should stop by here every chance you get. There are, of course, smartphone apps that do the same thing, but the ride board is still indispensable. Use it to avoid hour-plus lines and find short waits.

Tip 3: I’ll assume you understand the basic premise of the FastPass line-cutting system. What you need to know is how to game the system. When you’re issued a FastPass, you get a window of time to return (say between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m.). But only the first time matters. You can come back any time after your window opens, right up until park closing. What’s important to understand about the line-cutting system is you can get only one FastPass at a time. But what’s equally important to know (and exploit) is that you can get another FastPass as soon as the window opens on your previous FastPass.

So let’s say you get a FastPass for Star Tours at 9:30. You can go get another FastPass for Space Mountain at 9:31 (and you should). Then, if the FastPass for Space Mountain is for 11:20 a.m., you can get a FastPass for Splash Mountain starting at 11:21 a.m. And don’t wait an hour or two to get the next FastPass. Get it right when your window opens.

Keep gathering FastPasses until you’ve got all of the top rides covered. I’d recommend, in order, Star Tours, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain and Indiana Jones Adventure. Those are by far the busiest rides in the park.

Whatever you do, don’t get FastPasses for Haunted Mansion or Big Thunder Mountain. You don’t need them and you’ll just burn a window unnecessarily. And I’d personally skip Autopia and Roger Rabbit’s Car-Toon Spin. But that’s just me. It’s up to you to decide what you want to ride the most and set your strategy accordingly.

You should have all your FastPasses in hand before you take your afternoon break. And here’s the important part: Don’t use your FastPasses until you look at the ride board and see that every ride in the park has a 45-minute-plus wait. That’s when you strike, skipping to the front of the most popular rides.

If Disneyland should ever start enforcing the closing times on the FastPass windows (as has been rumored), you’ll just have to adjust your strategy accordingly.

Tip 4: Now let’s break down the rest of the bigger rides into a few strategic categories.

Several are what we call people eaters. They never have big lines. And if they do, you should avoid them at all costs. Because they are guaranteed to have only a 10-minute wait sometime later in the day. Hit these rides when everything else in the park is off the charts and only if the line is under 15 minutes. They include: Big Thunder Mountain, Haunted Mansion, Jungle Cruise, It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean.

Next up is a set of rides that can swell to 45-minute-plus lines at times, then quickly drop to walk-on status. You’ll want to hit these rides when the tide ebbs: Matterhorn, Buzz Lightyear, Snow White, Mr. Toad, Pinocchio and the Tiki Room.

Similarly, these rides tend to have longer lines that move quickly: Dumbo, Tea Cups, Winnie the Pooh and the carousel. Use your judgment, but don’t be discouraged by bigger crowds at these smaller rides.

I usually avoid rides that tend to have long lines that move slowly. The list includes two of my favorites (Finding Nemo subs and Peter Pan) and two of my least favorites (Autopia and Roger Rabbit).

Obviously, you can save time on Autopia and Roger Rabbit with the FastPasses. But you have to ask yourself, “Would I rather ride Autopia or Indy?” For me, that’s an easy answer. If I ran Disneyland, the first thing I’d do is put FastPass on Nemo. I’m still waiting for that call from Mr. Iger.

Also in the long-and-slow-line category is the character meet-and-greets: Princess Fantasy Faire, Pixie Hollow and Mickey and Minnie’s Houses. Disney World has begun offering FastPasses for the character meet-and-greets. But not Disneyland (yet). You could spend an entire day just getting autographs from all the Disney characters and posing for photos. There’s absolutely no way to meet every character and hit every ride. You’re going to have to choose.

Last up are the attractions that simply aren’t worth the time: Astro-Orbitor, Captain EO, Innoventions and Gadget Go Coaster. The good news is EO and Innoventions never have any lines. Not so for Astro-Orbitor and Gadget. Both can drag on forever.

That covers just about everything except for a few smaller attractions in Fantasyland and Toontown.

Tip 5: One of the things that drives me crazy is seeing people camp out for the fireworks, Fantasmic or a parade. I’ve been an annual passholder for 15 years now. I’ve seen all the big nighttime shows and daytime parades dozens of times. For me, the big people-sucking events are prime time for jumping on rides with relatively short lines.

But that’s me. If you want to see a parade, I recommend finding a spot up on the elevated train station platform on Main Street or down at the terraced viewing area near Small World. You can usually walk up at the last minute and find a decent spot in either of those two locations.

For the fireworks, I like to stand between the two light posts on Main Street just in front of the soda fountain and camera shop. You can see the castle projections and the hub pyrotechnics just fine. I usually roll up a couple of minutes before show time and find a spot. Trying to get into the hub or in front of the castle is simply insane (and not worth it).

Fantasmic is a tougher nut to crack. It can be a nightmarish traffic jam along the Rivers of America just before showtime. But you can usually find a decent spot on the terraced steps in front of Café Orleans or the bridge over Pirates. I simply can’t understand people who camp out for three hours waiting for Fantasmic.

Tip 6: Last but not least is food. Generally we avoid eating in Disneyland. It’s expensive and just not that good. People will tell you it’s gotten better over the years, but it’s still theme park food. We usually try to eat at Downtown Disney or Garden Walk. My favorite restaurant around the park is Napa Rose in the Grand Californian Hotel. We like to order appetizers in the wine bar (where kids are welcome) to keep the tab down.

But if you absolutely must eat in the park, Blue Bayou is your best bet. This is not an original idea, as you’ll find out if you roll up to the hostess station around mealtime. Use the Dine Line -- (714) 781-DINE -- to book a reservation a few days in advance.

Hands down, my favorite meal at the park is the Monte Cristo sandwich at Café Orleans. It will literally make your heart stop. But it is oh so worth it.

And no mention of Disneyland food would be complete without a shout out to the greatest food-on-a-stick ever conceived -- the corn dog sold at the little red cart near the Plaza Inn. As they say on Yelp: The. Best. Corn. Dog. Ever.

Whatever you do, don’t buy your kid one of those giant lollipops. In fact, steer them away from any and all candy during your Disneyland visit. You’ll thank me and so will everyone else at the park. There’s nothing worse than seeing a stroller-bound kid crashing from a sugar high.

Tip 7: Disneyland occasionally has deals on tickets. I usually check Mouse Planet, which has the most comprehensive listing of available discounts. And I think it goes without saying that hitting the park midweek rather than a weekend or holiday will make your visit more enjoyable.

So, there’s how I’d do Disneyland. How would you do it? Let us know down in the comments below.