If you visit Disneyland and its neighboring park, California Adventure, you can easily spend half a grand while sitting in giant lines with screaming kids all day. One-day park-hopper passes start at $155 per person, parking runs $18 and that’s before you get into the world of overpriced food, water, souvenirs and endless lines.
There are only a few windows during which I’ll visit Disneyland and every time I go I stick to the same strategy that works every single time. When I go to Disney, I spend as little money as possible, wait in the shortest lines and visit the best attractions the parks have to offer without dealing with any of the crowds. If you follow this plan step-by-step, you can visit Disney and California’s Adventure for free (or very cheaply) while encountering the shortest lines throughout the day.
1. Visit on a shoulder season weekday
This sounds obvious, but it makes all the difference. There are only a handful of times that I’ll go to the park and it’s when crowds are at a minimum. You can check the park’s least-crowded days online, but there are some obvious ones you want to avoid. Never go to Disney over Christmas break, any three-day weekend (MLK Day, President’s Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day), Spring Break, Easter or Veteran’s Day. If you can take a day off of work in the fall or spring, that’s even better. You never want to go to Disneyland on a weekend, over the summer or especially a summer weekend. Never. Go to the beach instead.
The best times to go to Disneyland are on Spring and Fall weekdays when rain is in the forecast. Go in early-November or early-December. Weekdays in late-January through early-March (minus three-day weekends) offer cooler weather, fewer crowds, fewer screaming kids and shorter lines. You get the exact same Disney experience, but much, much better.
2. Park for free Outside of Disneyland
All the streets surrounding the park strictly enforce permit parking or don’t allow street parking at all. That’s why most people opt to pay $18 for the Micky and Friends parking structure then take a shuttle to the park entrance. I don’t like this for a few reasons. First is I’d rather spend the $18 elsewhere, second is it’s time consuming to park, get to the shuttle, wait to the shuttle and then ride it to Downtown Disney before walking to the park entrance. If you are willing to walk a little bit (a little less than a mile) then you can drop your companions directly at the front gate and then park for free.
The entire neighborhood NORTH of Interstate-5 is free neighborhood street parking. Take the exit AFTER the main exit for Disneyland Drive, this is Exit-110A for Harbor Boulevard. If you want to drop anyone off at the park entrance before parking, turn right on S Harbor Blvd. and the main gate will be on the right (this is where Ubers and Lyfts drop off). If you want to park for free, when you get off the highway, turn left onto S Harbor Blvd. Travel north on S Harbor Blvd. Cross W Ball Rd and then as soon as you reach W Vermont Ave the entire neighborhood offers plenty of street parking. The only thing you need to be careful about is that there is street cleaning one day a week. Aside from that, parking is totally free.
Once you have parked, you have a few options to get to the park. You can walk one mile down S Harbor Blvd. crossing the overpass for I-5 and the park entrance will be on the right. You can take an Uber or Lyft which will cost less than $5. Or you can take the OCTA (Orange County Transit Authority) bus. Local line 43 picks up at Harbor and Vermont or express line 543 stops at Harbor and Ball. Both buses drop off at the park entrance, the fare is $2 each way or $4 for a day pass.
3. Get Free Disneyland Tickets from a Disney Employee
The Walt Disney Company employs hundreds of thousands of employees worldwide. Many of those employees enjoy the company benefit that they can visit Disney theme parks for free, or go with friends or family. Find one of these people! I don’t care if you have a distant third cousin who has an ex that works in marketing, this can save you over $150 per person for a one-day park-hopper ticket. Sometimes these aren’t only good for Disneyland, they work at all Disney parks and resorts worldwide.
If you can’t find a friend or family member to provide a ticket, you’re out of luck. Disney rarely offers discounts. There was a time in the past where they would provide a free ticket if you performed an act of charity through a program they offered. Outside of that, your best bet is being part of a corporate function or volunteer organization so your job can get you in the park. Other than that, pick which one you want to visit (or both) and pay the hefty fee.
Generally Disneyland is the better park for younger kids and offers the classic Disney “magic” experience, but because it is older and more popular, it can get more cramped. Space Mountain and Indiana Jones are fantastic rides. California Adventure is more spacious and newer but lacks some of the charm that makes Disneyland famous. It’s a better park for teenagers. Radiator Springs Racers, Grizzly Falls and California Screaming are excellent attractions and it’s the only of the two parks where you can purchase alcohol (they also have a winery within the park).
4. Be at the park gate 30 Minutes Before Opening
Have your tickets ready, be in line and be set to go at least 30 minutes before the park gates open. If you are only doing one park, you don’t have to choose where to start. If you’re doing both, see if one of them opens an hour earlier than the other and go there. I find this best when Disneyland opens at 8:00 A.M. and California Adventure opens an hour later at 9:00 A.M. Wear comfortable walking (or running) shoes and be prepared to clock a lot of distance. On my last visit, I logged 26,000 steps and 12 miles of walking between both parks.
5. Do the Most Popular Rides First Thing in the Morning and Utilize Fast Pass and Single Rider
Beat the crowds. I don’t care if it’s early or your coffee hasn’t kicked in yet. As soon as the gates open, head straight to Space Mountain, pick up a fast pass and then knock it off your list immediately. Get your fast pass, ride Space Mountain and then you’ll have your second ride ready to go either for right now or later in the morning.
As soon as you finish that, start making your way back across the park. Since it’s still early, ride Star Tours and Astro Blasters along the way before the lines start to grow. After that, cross the park and head straight for Indiana Jones. If there’s already a line then hop into single rider to avoid the crowds. In a best-case scenario, when you finish Indiana Jones, you will be eligible to receive a second fast pass.
The way fast pass works is you are assigned a time when you can return and skip the line. If you get a Space Mountain Fast Pass first thing in the morning, it might say, “Return between 8:15 A.M. and 9:15 A.M.” As soon as 8:15 A.M. rolls around, you are allowed to get your next fast pass (regardless of whether or not you’ve ridden Space Mountain). When you finish riding Indiana Jones, pick up your second fast pass for later in the day. Or go to the other end of the park and get a Splash Mountain fast pass for the afternoon when it’ll be a bit warmer.
Now it’s time to use the Space Mountain fast pass to get a second ride on the park’s most popular attraction without waiting in line. Go back to Tomorrowland, hit your second ride on that and then it will probably be around 8:45 A.M. (assuming the park opened at 8). You have a few options at this point.
If you are doing both parks, you can leave Disneyland and go to California Adventure. Follow the same strategy with the second park. As soon as the park opens (assuming it’s an hour later than Disneyland), head straight for the Fast Pass for Radiator Springs Racers (located just outside It’s a Bug’s Life). The fast passes for the two parks are completely independent of each other, so you can have passes at the same time for both parks. Go to the rear of the park and visit the Toy Story Midway and California Screamin’. If you have time, squeeze in Tower of Terror before you can redeem your Radiator Springs fast pass. Use your fast pass to skip the line at Radiator Springs Racers and congrats, you’ve done both parks’s busiest attractions before 11:00 A.M.
If you are only doing Disneyland, then keep attacking the most popular rides early in the day and retrieve fast passes when they become available. Get a fast pass for Splash Mountain so that you can return when it’s warmer in the day. Visit Matterhorn and Thunder Mountain before the lines grow. You can usually save rides like Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean for later in the day when you want to recover in lines that move fairly briskly.
6. Pack Your Own Lunch and Water
You can bring a small backpack with you onto all the rides at Disneyland and California Adventure. Load up the backpack with sandwiches, water, juice, snacks, trail mix and a small ice pack (if necessary). All the rides have little pockets where you can stow the backpack. If you have a small salad in some tupperware then the ride will mix it for you. When you enter, you’ll have your bag checked. Selfie sticks are confiscated.
At around noon when the park starts to get slammed, this is when you take your lunch break. Time it before everyone else hits the expensive cantinas and before your afternoon fast passes on gentler rides. Haunted Mansion, Ariel’s Grotto, Pirates of the Caribbean, Astro Blasters, Monster’s Inc. and any ride in Fantasyland is safe for after a meal while the rest of the park deals with lines for food and meltdowns. Pack your own refillable water bottle so that you can top it off as needed throughout the day and avoid paying several dollars every time you need water. Plus you need to stay hydrated for all the walking you’re doing.
Spend the hours from 1:00 to 3:00 taking advantage of earlier fast passes you picked up. This is when lines will be at their worst. If you want to do rides that are popular, try their single rider lines, some of which are not advertised. For example, you have to ask the attendant at Grizzly Falls for a little pass that says you’d like to be a single rider. Once you’ve crossed off a few more attractions, you can either leave by 4:00 or gear up for the evening.
7. If You’re Staying Late, Take an Afternoon Break at the Grand Californian Hotel or in Downtown Disney
Find some air conditioning, a soft couch, take a nap, check your phone, rest and relax for a little bit. If it’s around 3 or 4 P.M. this is the perfect time to bounce if you’re good on rides or get recharged for another round. Maybe you have more fast passes for later or you want to watch fireworks or a parade. The version of yourself a few hours in the future will be very thankful if you take a break earlier in the day.
There is a separate entrance and exit gate to and from the park near Grizzly Falls in California Adventure. Make sure you hand is stamped and your ticket allows for reentry. Leave the park, make your way to the hotel lobby (or sneak into the pool area) and just relax for an hour. It’ll make all the difference if you’re staying in the parks later that night.
Don’t do Disneyland and California Adventure the same way that everyone hits those two parks. Do the opposite of what everyone else does and you’ll have a much better experience. Park north of I-5 for free, get tickets from a friend or family member who works for Disney, do the most popular rides as soon as they open, pack your own lunch and rest while everyone else is being insane. Then kick back for some fireworks knowing you did Disney better than everyone else.