Disneyland Decoded: Navigating the Magic – A 101 Guide for First-Timers!

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re gearing up for a magical journey to the happiest place on Earth – Disneyland! And lets face it- planning a trip to Disneyland can sometimes kind of feel like a chore- Disney blogs that go in to way too much detail, changing rules, etc. But we are here to help! We’ll tell you exactly what we’d tell a friend, before their first trip. Everything you NEED to know before you first Disneyland trip and nothing else.

And we’ll let you in a little secret. Disneyland is SO much better than Disney World (in our opinion) simply because its so much easier to visit! Once you understand the basics, you’ll be set for a perfect Disneyland trip!

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Getting There

The closest and easiest airport for visiting Disneyland is John Wayne Airport (SNA) in Orange. But LAX is totally fine as well.


Unlike Disney World, Disneyland does not have a ton of Disney-owned properties. And there aren’t huge incentives to stay at Disney-owned properties. However, the one thing you do gain from staying at a Disney hotel is early entrance in to the parks (assuming you have tickets for that day).

My family typically stays at one of the nearby good neighbor hotels because the incentive just isn’t enough for us. We love the Courtyard Anaheim Theme Park Entrance & Waterpark Resort because of the amazing waterpark, close proximity to the parks, and larger rooms (many have bunkbeds!) The Hyatt House at the Anaheim Convention Center is another great choice with rooms, free breakfast, and a pool!

Looking for more tips for traveling with kids? Start here!

The Parks

Disneyland is actually now two parks- Disneyland Park, and Disney California Adventure. There are gate between them and they are ticketed separately (though there is a park hopper ticket option).

Tickets and add-ons

Over the last several years, there have been a lot of changes to Disneyland ticketing policies, making just getting in the gate a bit confusing. But don’t worry- we’ve got you covered.

All you need to do is:

  1. Buy tickets in advance
  2. Make a reservation

that’s it. The rest is optional. But lets get into anyway.

When buying Disney tickets, you’ll have a few options: first, where you purchase- from a travel agent like Get Away Today, or directly from Disneyland. Then you’ll chose number of days, 1 park or park hopper, and then the option to add on Genie+

Where to Buy

Travel agents like Get Away Today will periodically offer deals on tickets or discounted package deals. For example, when Disneyland raises ticket prices, Get Away Today will typically let you purchase at the old price for a couple of weeks. Booking with Get Away Today is often a great choice.

Right now, Get Away Today is offering a great deal on kids tickets as low as $50/day!

However, it’s important to note that you need BOTH a theme park ticket and a theme park reservation to enter the parks. And if you book through Get Away Today, you will not automatically get a reservation. You will need to upload your ticket information and make the reservation. If you buy directly from Disneyland, you will be making your reservation as you purchase your ticket.

A couple of limitations:

When buying tickets directly from Disneyland, you cannot buy more than 180 days in advance

Get Away Today does not sell 1 day tickets, only 2, 3, 4, and 5 days.

Number of days

This is pretty self explanatory. When purchasing your tickets, you need to decide how many days you want to visit the parks. The more you buy, the lower the price per day…. usually. One kind of confusing thing happens though, if you are buying 1-day tickets. The 1-day ticket price varies based on how busy the particular day you are visiting. So it’s possible the 1 day ticket is cheaper per day than the multi day ticket.

Park Hopper or no?

Should you do the park hopper? For us, the answer is always yes at Disneyland! The two parks are close together and easy to walk between, making park hopping super easy. We love being able to bounce back and forth where ever there is a shorter wait time, or a snack we are craving. Because Disneyland is so much smaller than Disney World, bouncing between the parks makes sense for my family.

Adding park hopper is a significant price increase, however. And you are not allowed to park hop until 11am, so you’ll still need to make a reservation for whichever park you want begin your day. So you and your family may decide that it’s not worth the extra cost.

Genie service, Genie+, and Individual Lightning Lane

Genie, Genie+, and Individual Lightning Lighting lane might be the biggest cause of confusion when it comes to Disneyland.

Of course, all of these services are optional. You can still just purchase a Disneyland ticket, go and wait in lines for any ride or attraction except when there are rides that are virtual queue only. Disneyland sometimes does this for brand new rides, or attractions but its usually only one or two things all of Disneyland. See the list of current virtual queues here.

Genie Service

Genie Service is a free service to help you plan your day at Disneyland. Its basically just a part of the My Disney Experience app, and not particularly helpful, to be honest.

Genie+ Lightning Lanes

Genie+ is a paid add on to your ticket. When purchasing your ticket, you have the option to add on Genie+, or you can add it on later (when you enter the parks). Genie+ allows you to use Genie+ Lightning lanes, which are essentially a reserved time slot for many of the Disney attractions that tend to have longer lines.

If you have Genie+, once you are in the parks, you’ll be able to go into the Disneyland app and see which Genie+ Lightning Lane reservation time slots are available. You will only be able to ‘reserve’ one ride time slot at a time. Once you’ve either scanned into the first ride, or two hours have passed (whichever is first) you’ll be able to ‘reserve’ another ride time slot.

However, not every ride has the option to use Genie+ Lightning Lanes. The list of current Genie+ Lightning lanes is here. Some rides are just a regular line, and some have use the Individual Lightning Lane, which we’ll discuss next.

Individual Lightning Lane

A group of stormtrooper on Rise of the Resistance, Galaxy's Edge, Disneyland
Storm Troopers on Rise of the Resistance, Galaxy’s Edge, Disneyland

The last thing to discuss here is the Individual Lightning Lanes (ILL). The ILL rides are the rides with the longest wait times- right now there is only one ILL ride in Disneyland and one in Disney California Adventure. If you would like to skip the line, you can pay for that service. The fee is typically $20+/person and you can only pay to ride 2 ILL rides per day. Here is the current list of ILL attractions.

The Disneyland App

The Disneyland App is a necessity for your Disneyland vacation. You’ll upload your reservations into, it has park maps, wait times, you will set up Genie+ and ILL within the app, and you can even order food for quick and easy pickup!

We recommend downloading the app before your trip. That way you can become familiar with how the app works, and get an idea what to expect on typical Disneyland attraction wait times.

Rope Drop

What is it?

“Rope dropping” is a term you’ll hear many Disney ‘experts’ use. But what does it mean? Rope drop simply means that you are there in the parks when Disneyland Cast members open the parks – there is an actual rope that is dropped allowing everyone in to the attractions.

In order to get to rope drop location, you’ll first need to go through Disneyland security, and get in line at the ticket kiosk, then go through into the streets inside the parks. Typically the ticket booth will start allowing people in through the gates 15 minutes before the parks officially open, but you’ll be stopped at ropes prior to accessing any of the rides. Disneyland cast members will count down the time to opening, and drop the rope.

Of course, the earlier you get there, the closer you’ll be to the front of the line when the ropes drop. We typically shoot for getting to security about 30 minutes before the official opening for a decent position. If you want to be close to the front, you’ll want to get there even earlier- 1 hour+ before opening depending on the how busy the day is.

Which ride to rope drop?

You’ll hear people saying they are going to ‘rope drop’ a particular ride or group of rides, which just means they will head straight to that ride when the rope drops in hope of walking on to the ride. The most popular rides to rope drop are the ILL rides. And if you want to do the same, you’ll need to be quick (but don’t run- Disneyland does not allow you to run), and near the front of the group. Those rides fill up quick and the queue will quickly go from 0 minute wait time to 90 minutes wait time.

Another popular rope drop location is Fantasyland. Fantasyland has many of the classic Disneyland rides, and you can buzz through a ton of them in your first hour in the parks if you head there first thing.

Of course you can rope drop whatever you want. Some people even rope drop certain seasonal food items, like Disneyland candy canes or raspberry macarons.

Disneyland Dining

In order to make reservations at one of Disneyland’s sit-down restaurants, you’ll want to make reservations 60 days out. Reservations are supposed to be released 60 days out, at 6 am. But that’s not always the case, unfortunately. The hardest to get reservations are typically Oga’s Cantina and the Blue Bayou. And if you miss out 60 days out, consider signing up for Mouse Dining (free service) and/or MouseWatcher (paid) to get an alert whenever there is an opening due to cancellation.

A fun meal at Pym's Test Kitchen, DCA. Assemble your own PB&J- Pym Particle Bread with peanut butter and jelly served with a mandarin orange and yogurt
A fun meal at Pym’s Test Kitchen, DCA

But our recommendation? Skip it! There are tons of great quick dining options in both parks with good food, and places to sit and relax. My family prefers to just keep our schedule opening and eat when we are hungry. We just don’t find it’s worth our time to go to reservation-required restaurants.

However on non-park days (the evening we arrive, or the day we are leaving Anaheim), we love eating at one of the restaurants located outside of the park gates, like Goofy’s Kitchen, Napa Rose, or Splitsville.


My family loves park hopping, and we getting through as many rides an attractions as we can. And that means we walk a lot- 10+ miles per day. I’m telling you this for a few reasons.

First, if you are going with a child who can ride in a stroller, you are going to want to put them in a stroller. Most kids can’t or won’t walk 10+ miles in a day without a lot of complaining, so the stroller helps a ton.

Secondly, wear comfortable, supportive shoes and clothing. And if you going for multiple days, consider bringing a backup pair of comfortable shoes just in case you have any rubbing or discomfort after the first day.

View of Disney California adventure Pixar Pier

Disneyland Ride Research

How much ride research and planning do you need to do before you’re trip to Disney? Here are our recommendations:

DO take a look through the rides list. Get an idea which rides you and your family are very interested in

DO measure your child, keeping in that Disneyland takes height requirements very seriously. If you’re child is even a hair under the limit, they won’t be getting on that ride.

DO prepare fearful younger children by reading ride descriptions and watching ride videos on YouTube

DON’T obsessively plan your day at Disneyland. You can never know exactly how long things will take, which rides your kids will love, which snacks you’ll see. Too much planning will set you up for failure

DON’T try to cheat Disneyland’s height requirements. They are for your safety, and you risk getting kicked out of the parks

For specific tips on visiting Disneyland with younger kids, check out our post here.

Your Day at Disney

Ready for your first day at Disneyland? Here are a few last things to keep in mind

  • Rope dropping is awesome because that first hour after opening is SO much quieter
  • Crowds are usually worst in mid afternoon. This is a great time to take a break- maybe even go back to the hotel and take a swim!
  • Order food in the app! It is so much easier and saves so much time!
  • Things will get pretty quiet close to closing time, if you can make it that long!

And that’s it- the basics to make your first trip to Disneyland magical, and easy!

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