Disneyland for Newbies

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I’m not a true Disneyland newbie, but so much has changed in the 20 years since I have been there, that I may as well be. I mean, there were only minor changes to “It’s a Small World” and “The Pirates of the Caribbean” (Jack Sparrow looks so life-like, btw, I wondered if Johnny Depp was working at Disneyland permanently now), but the logistics of the park have changed quite a bit, so I thought I would share what I have learned on this trip!


Big thanks to my friends on my Facebook Page for answering lots of questions and giving me advice before the trip!


Gone are the days of the massive parking lot with Disney characters on signs, helping you remember where you parked.

tram girls    tram me

(Us on the tram–one of the only pictures of me from the whole trip.)

Instead you park at a massive parking structure and take a tram to the park. The system is quite nice, but you need to plan a bit of extra time. You will likely have to wait in line for a bit to get on the tram, and depending on which side of the parking garage you end up, there may be a bit of a walk to get to the tram. The other thing to be aware of is that parking in the garage costs $15/day.


There is a whole shopping area outside of the parks, called Downtown Disney. There is no admission required and lots of fun stores like a huge LEGO store and lots of places to buy Disney merchandise. Parking is free for this area, but I have to tell you, it is a hike away from the action. We stopped by on a day that we weren’t going to the park and I got so turned around trying to get to the area. After a bit of trial and error, I think the only way to get there from the parking lot is to walk through the Grand Californian hotel (which has a really cool lobby, btw–would love to stay there someday). Correct me if you know of a better way.

There is a store right at the entrance of Downtown Disney called World of Disney, which is right where you wait to pick up the trams to head back to the parking garage. If you can talk the kids out of buying every souvenir they see in the park, they can find most of them at this store, and you can buy them on the way back to the car, instead of carrying them around the park all day. Our exception was my son’s build-it-yourself light saber. Otherwise, we let everyone pick out their one memento at the very end of our last day, just before we hopped on the tram to go home. Shopping is often open later than the parks, so it saves ride time to shop then, as well, if you are trying to cram as much as you possibly can into each day–which is what we were doing.


Everyone told me to take advantage of Fast Passes but I was so confused about how they work, so I will tell you what I learned. For most of the big attractions, there are machines located somewhere near the entrance to the attraction, where you can insert your admission ticket and get a Fast Pass ticket for that ride. The fast pass ticket enables you to cut to the front of the line (there will still be a short wait in most cases). The catch is that you have to come back to the ride during the designated window of time, and you have to wait a certain amount of time before getting another fast pass. One person can take all of the tickets and go get Fast Passes, while the others go on other rides. It is a great way to get a little more bang for your buck and pick up your spirits when you are sick of standing in lines!

When wouldn’t you use a Fast Pass? There were times when the waits for the rides we were going on were not terribly long, and while using a fast pass would have meant a shorter wait time, it would have meant coming back after we had planned to leave that part of the park, and the back and forth would not have been worth it. Also, check the window before getting the fast pass, to make sure it won’t conflict with a show you were planning to see, etc.

Sometimes the line to get Fast Passes is longer than the regular line. Ok, I only saw this for the Cars Racers ride, but the line for Fast Passes was forever long before the park even opened, and I worried that I might wait in line for an hour only to get a time that wouldn’t work with our schedule or that the Fast Passes would be all gone by the time I made my way through the line. I’m guessing that during the peak season, there are some serious Fast Pass lines for more of the main attractions. I would pick your top priority rides and go for those Fast Passes first thing. If you don’t get a fast pass, check back through out the day for times when waits might be shorter, like during a parade or at meal times.


If you have children that are too short to go on some of the rides, you have to take advantage of the rider swap program. One adult takes the big kids on a ride while the other waits with the smaller children that can’t ride. You ask for a stroller pass, or rider swap ticket, at the entrance to the ride. After the ride, the other adult can take one big kid with them and go on the ride they missed. We used this a lot, and usually with out a hitch. It made it so that we could divide and conquer. The one hitch came at Carsland. I guess the Racers ride is so popular that lots of people are trying to abuse the system. I sent my husband with the big kids to wait through the long line. At the same time I took the younger kids to get ready for the Turtle talk show with Crush. That is when I got a call from my husband saying they would not give him the pass if they couldn’t see me and the stroller child. I told them to hold on and that I would be right there. I knew we didn’t have time for both of us to wait in the line for an hour each. I grabbed the children and booked it over to the ride with the hopes of still getting back in time for the the turtle show. I think I went the long route and this is probably why I couldn’t walk the next day. But I made it! When we arrived at the Racers ride, the guy told me he had finally let my husband go, and given them the pass, when they realized, he wasn’t bluffing. *sigh* They were also doing the system a little differently with a lanyard, that you were then supposed to trade in for the rider ticket. They hadn’t been doing that anywhere else, so we got a bit confused. Just pay attention on the really popular rides to whatever instructions they have to give.


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California Adventure did not exist, the last time I visited “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Before this trip, I was under the impression that California Adventure wasn’t nearly as much of an attraction as Disneyland. I knew we had to visit Carsland, but beyond that, I thought we might get away with half of the day there and head back to Disneyland for the rest of the day. I was surprised how much I enjoyed California Adventure and how much there was to do there. We ended up spending the whole day. If I understand correctly, when it first opened, CA was all about California, and not so much about Disney. Fans didn’t love that, so over time they have adapted most of the attractions to include the characters and Disney magic everyone comes for.


Carsland really is awesome, but it is also “the thing” to do right now, so be prepared for really long lines there. You might spend several hours just in Carsland alone. Getting on the Radiator Springs Racers ride was harder than any other ride in either park, so I wish I could tell you to skip it. But I can’t. I really liked that ride. It was kind of a combination of one of the story-telling attractions and a rollercoaster ride–The best of all of the Disney attractions rolled into one. I’d love to go back when it isn’t the new thing anymore. Carsland is a great place to just hang out. You really feel like you are in the movie Cars. Carsland-6292

Some of our other favorite attractions were Soaring over California (don’t miss this one, it is very cool!), Turtle Talk with Crush, Midway Mania with Toy Story characters, and the Monsters Inc ride. The Little Mermaid ride is fun, and we walked right on to that one. My older kids liked Tower of Terror, but my husband didn’t so much (I didn’t make it on that one). BSB had complained that he didn’t think the big rollercoaster “California Screamin'” would be much to write home about. I got a text from him, while lunching with Princesses and my younger children that read, “I was wrong! It is awesome!!” I had fun on that one, too. It goes really fast!

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One thing that took a bit of time was dining with the Princesses at Ariel’s Grotto. This was a splurge (I’ll talk about money in the next post), but when I realized we’d have to stand in line for more than an hour at Fantasyland to meet any princesses there, this seemed like a much more pleasant option to satisfy my Princess-obsessed daughter, and a better use of our time in the parks. We got to meet five princesses, get their autographs and pictures with them, while enjoying a fancy meal. It was so fun to watch my youngest hugging all of the pretty princesses in his flirty way.

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You’ll notice I let my daughter wear her Rapunzel dress for the occasion. There were some little princesses dressed that way the whole day, but since we were moving around fast and doing lots of different things, we opted to bring the dress in the back-pack and let her change just for the lunch.


We saw the Aladdin show, which runs about an hour, but is pretty much a condensed version of a Broadway play. It is very well done and quite fun. Genie has updated all of his material to be VERY contemporary, so watch out for jokes about Justin Bieber and the Kardashians. If you don’t do any shows or sit down meals, you might not need as long.

The World of Color show is very cool. You have to get Fast Passes for it (at machines located by the River Run ride) the morning of the day you are going to attend. Be aware, that you will be standing for the show, and likely kind of up close and personal with strangers. If you are short, you’ll want to get to the show early (maybe an hour early?) to have a better chance of being toward the front and having a better view.

There is so much still to tell and show! Do you have any questions about Disneyland or California adventure you’d like me to answer? Next post, I will tell you how we managed to make this trip for very little out-of-pocket expense, because I’m all about being cheap.

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  1. Fantastic! You guys crammed in so much! I’m totally impressed! Bummer about them needing to SEE you to get the stroller pass for Cars. That was not the case when we were there just a month before you, so obviously they’ve had a problem. They’re cracking down on fast pass windows too, making sure everyone uses them during the times on the fast pass. I’m so glad you went to Ariel’s Grotto! I’ve heard it’s a very neat experience and you’ve convinced me to go next time we visit. Caelyn will be older then and she’ll really love it. Soarin’ Over CA and CA Screamin’ are some of my favorites too. Great rides!!!

  2. Someone apparently forgot to tell you the best part about fast passes. While there is a window of time on them you can use them anytime after that window until the park closes. The window really just determines when you will be able to get another fast pass in the same park. If you are park hopping you can have fast passes for each park in any given time slot.

    • Good tip! Thank you!

    • The window of time is enforced now….went this summer. We thought we could use the fast passes anytime…but that is not the case anymore. Most rides check the window…it needs to be close (within 30 minutes one staff member explained…..)

  3. A couple of things to add to this. If you’re aiming for the front for World of Color, be prepared to get wet. The mist from the show really hits the front section. (I’ve seen folks bring plastic ponchos for this. Those ponchos can also come in handy for Grizzly Rapids in CA Adventure and Splash Mountain, especially if you’re in the park on a cool day and still want to go on those rides.) Second, there is a charge for parking at Downtown Disney. Parking in those lots is free for the first three hours (and for an additional two hours with a validation from the movie theater or one of the sit-down restaurants). After that, there’s a charge for parking and it adds up pretty fast to the amount you pay to park in the Disney structure. So parking in Downtown Disney likely won’t save you money.

    • Thanks for your tips, Susan! Great things to keep in mind if/when we make it back. And I didn’t know about the charge to park at Downtown Disney, but without a shuttle, it wasn’t very appealing to me anyway. Good to know!

  4. You mentioned build your own light saber where is that at? My sons first visit in June and he would love that

    • Jenny, sorry I didn’t see your message sooner. You’ve probably already been by now, but I believe it was in the gift shop after Star Tours in Tomorrowland. Look for storm troopers wandering the area and find a gift shop there. 🙂


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