FOUR TIPS for Beating the Disneyland Crowds — Summer 2016 Edition

Disneyland Summer Crowds

As the author of RideMax for Disneyland, I sometimes have friends ask if I have any “tips” for visiting Disneyland. Sometimes these friends are using RideMax to plan their visit, and sometimes not.

With the busy summer season now upon us, I thought I’d share some of the same tips I give to these friends who are visiting Disneyland. Some of this is advice that I don’t think you’ll see in more “mainstream” publications, so I’m hoping these will make a difference for *you* if you plan to visit Disneyland this summer of 2016. (And if you’re visiting Walt Disney World this summer, stay tuned. I plan to do a separate post on that topic in the next few days.)

With that, here you go…

Tip #1: Visit Disneyland on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Sunday. Visit California Adventure on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday.

Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty Castle

If I have a friend who is visiting the park, one of the very first things I’ll normally ask is which park he or she is visiting on which day(s) of the week. If they plan to visit Disneyland park itself, I’ll strongly encourage them to visit on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Sunday. If they plan to visit Disney’s California Adventure (DCA), I’ll advise visiting that park on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday.

What’s so important about the day of the week? The “correct” day of the week, along with arriving early, which I’ll discuss in a moment, are absolutely key to getting a jump on the crowds.

See that empty castle in the picture above? This was taken on a Friday morning, right after the park had opened for the day. Had I taken this picture on one of my “non-recommended” days, you would have seen a huge crowd around the castle and in Fantasyland instead — at the exact same time of day.

The reason the day of the week makes such a huge difference is because Disneyland hosts something it calls “Magic Morning” at Disneyland on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and a similar program called “Extra Magic Hours” at DCA on the other days of the week.

These two programs give guests staying at Disney’s hotels access to the park one hour prior to the official opening time. So even if you make the effort to get out of bed early and arrive at the park in time for opening, you’ll still be faced with huge crowds already inside the park, offsetting much of the advantage of arriving early. In addition to Disney’s hotel guests, those visitors with special park-hopper “bonus” tickets are also allowed access to Disneyland’s Magic Morning hour, further increasing the crowds there. (These guests are NOT allowed early access to DCA, however.)

Something I’m proud of is that even though we offer a money-back guarantee for RideMax, we have a pretty low refund rate overall. This tells me that customers are generally happy with their RideMax plans, which in turn makes me happy.

Often, however, when I ask a customer who *does* request a refund more about his or her visit, I’ll find that they went against the advice I’m giving you here and visited Disneyland or DCA on one of those OTHER days of the week. Even with the RideMax plan in hand, the day got off to such a rocky start thanks to early entry, that they just weren’t able to recover. In those cases we’ve still honored our guarantee and granted the refund, of course, but I still sort of cringe inside when I wonder how much better their visit might have been had they simply chosen the right day of the week to visit the park.

Disneyland Magic Morning

So, what if you have access to the early entry program yourself — should you use it?

There are pros and cons to this question, so let me list a few of these, and you can decide for yourself if you want to use your early entry access.

In the “pros” column, you can find lower crowds inside the park during Magic Morning or Extra Magic Hours. Just be aware that you’ll want to be there at the very *beginning* of the early entry hour, not near the end.

Another advantage to early entry is that it allows you to hit just one or two attractions you might want to visit in the early entry park, before switching parks and heading to the other one. Let’s say, for example, that you really want to get in an extra ride on Radiator Springs Racers. A good strategy is to hit that ride first thing during the early entry hour, then make your way over to Disneyland before that park opens for the day. Just realize that during the summer months, you’d want to be in line at the front gates of DCA no later than 6:30am if you plan to do this, which means arriving at the security gates even earlier. If you miss the 7:00am EMH opening time, you’ll wait way too long in the Radiator Springs Racers line to make it over to Disneyland in time for the 8:00am opening there.

So, what are the “cons” of using your early entry access? I’ll name just three of them:

First, you’ll need to arrive EARLY. Unless you can arrive at the very beginning of the early entry hour, I’d advise skipping it entirely. During the summer, this means getting in line at the security gates no later than about 6:20am for the 7:00am early opening, to help ensure you’re among the first guests to enter the park. And since a 6:20am arrival probably means you’re getting out of bed at 5:30am or earlier, you might find that it’s simply not worth it, especially if you’re traveling with young children.

Another other disadvantage to visiting during early entry is the backup you’ll see at some of the FastPass machines. Disney doesn’t issue FastPass tickets during the early entry hour itself, but waits until the “official” opening time before they open the machines to start giving out tickets. The result is that guests often start lining up *really* early for the FastPass tickets to popular attractions. You could see a line starting to form at the Hyperspace Mountain FastPass machines at 7:30am, for example. So if you want to get your FastPasses as early as possible (something I’ll discuss shortly), you’re looking at wasting a good portion of your early entry hour just standing in the line waiting for the machines to open. And if that’s the case, why did you get up so early? You could have entered the park first thing on a non-early-entry day instead, and found a much shorter line for those same FastPass machines.

The third (and final) disadvantage to early entry is that it can bring more guests into the park than would otherwise be there. Think about it — there are *thousands* of guests staying at the Disney hotels, and Disney has sold them on the idea that they’re getting this really cool thing by getting into the park an hour early. Even though *many* of these guests will arrive late enough during the early entry hour that they’ve essentially lost any advantage it could have given them, they still head to the designated early entry park, boosting the crowds there over what you’d likely see at the non-early-entry park.

In summary, if you can’t tell, I’m generally against using early entry, even if I have access myself. I personally would mostly only use it if I’m trying to “cherry pick” one or two rides before heading over to the other park for the bulk of the day, and then only if I’m able to arrive well before the 7:00am opening time — something many or most guests are simply unable to do.

The bottom line? If you’re visiting Disneyland, do it on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or Sunday. If you’re visiting DCA, visit on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday.

Tip #2: Use the RideMax Planner

OK, you knew this one was coming, right?

As the programmer behind RideMax, I realize I’m biased in favor of using an optimized itinerary to visit the various attractions you want to see. But still, in the year 2016 when a computer can do the work of figuring out an optimized, customized itinerary for you, why would you NOT use this?

With RideMax, gone are the days when you need to depend on some guidebook author to decide what you’re going to visit and the order in which you’ll be seeing them. *You* choose the rides that will comprise your plan, and RideMax gives you the touring order.

I realize that there are free “wait time” apps out there as well, but how much good does it really do you to look at that app in the heat of the day, only to be told that the wait for Splash Mountain is now 90 minutes long? I think you probably realized there would be a long wait there before you even pulled up the app. I don’t know about you, but whether the wait is one hour, 90 minutes, or even longer, I don’t want to be waiting in that line. And to AVOID that long line, it helps to have your game plan in place before you even enter the park. Some rides are best done first thing in the morning, and we can take advantage of FastPass for others. RideMax can help you figure all of this out, given the specific attractions *you* have selected.

I know I’ve said this before, but it’s good to remember that you could be spending literally THOUSANDS of dollars on this vacation to Disneyland. Debating whether to spend another fifteen bucks to help you make the most of that vacation seems just plain silly.

Radiator Springs Racers Queue
Follow the tips on your RideMax plan to help you get closer to the front of the line at Radiator Springs Racers when the park first opens for the day.

In addition to the optimized itinerary, RideMax also includes tips, listed on the plan itself, to help you get the most from that plan. So, for example, if you’re trying to visit Radiator Springs Racers first thing in the morning, as shown in the picture above, those tips can help you know where to line up and how to navigate that long walk to the attraction entrance in such a way as to help you get closer to the front of that crazy-long line.

So yes, buy RideMax. Use it. Have a plan!

Tip #3: Arrive Early

OK, so this tip is pretty well known, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it, but it’s really hard to overstate how important it is to arrive at the park early in the morning, well before the park has opened for the day. Following this tip even gives you a two-fold advantage: you can beat both the crowds AND the heat.

As I said, the castle picture in the first section was taken right after Disneyland opened for the day, and even though park guests filled the scene just seconds later, the crowds still weren’t nearly as large first thing in the morning as they were by early afternoon.

Fantasyland - Low Crowds Early in the Morning
The early-morning scene in Fantasyland. Except for the line at Peter Pan, outside the left of the frame, things were relatively quiet.

As you can imagine, there are some attractions where a short line exists ONLY after opening first thing in the morning, so if you miss the opening “rope drop” by even just a few minutes, you’re putting yourself at a huge disadvantage.

A second advantage to arriving early is that it allows you to get the most out of Disney’s FastPass system. For the uninitiated, FastPass is free to all guests, and basically gives you an advance reservation for a specific attraction. If you come back during your hour-long reservation window, you’ll be able to skip most of the regular line (or the “standby” line in Disney’s parlance).

One gotcha with the FastPass system is that the reservations can “sell out” early in the day for the more popular attractions. Your reservation window, while just 40 minutes away early in the day, can extend out to several HOURS away later in the afternoon. So, if you arrive at the Hyperspace Mountain FastPass machines right at 8:00am, your reservation window would be from 8:40-9:40am. Wait until noon to get that same FastPass ticket, and your reservation window would likely be well into the evening.

Also note that in order to get your *next* FastPass ticket, you’ll need to either wait until the reservation window for your first FastPass has arrived, *or* until two hours have passed since getting your first FastPass ticket, whichever comes first. So in our example above, if you got that first FastPass at 8:00am sharp, you could get your next one just 40 minutes later, at 8:40am. But if you had waited until noon to get that same FastPass, you’d have to wait a full two hours, or until 2:00pm, to get your next one.

The early bird really does get the worm!

Of course, there is a lot more to the FastPass system, and I’ll cover more advice for FastPass in the next tip. Note that if you are using RideMax to plan your day, your RideMax plan should help you know which FastPasses to get first, then next, etc. But for now, just realize that arriving early is key to both beating the crowds AND to getting the most from the FastPass system.

Bonus: By arriving early, you’ll also be hitting those rides in the cooler part of the day, reducing your exposure to the summertime heat of Disneyland.

Tip #4: Take Maximum Advantage of FastPass

In addition to arriving early, there are several things you can do to take maximum advantage of Disneyland’s FastPass system.

FastPass Ticket

First, each time you obtain a FastPass ticket, you’ll see a short blurb near the bottom of the ticket indicating the time at which you can get your next one.

As an example, on the ticket above from last year, it indicates that another FastPass ticket will be available after 12:45pm. My recommendation is to get that first FastPass ticket shortly after the park opens, and then to keep an eye on the clock. As soon as the “availability time” shown on the first ticket rolls around, be prepared to pounce on that next FastPass, and so on.

Another FastPass tip is to make sure you get FastPasses for two very popular shows playing at Disney’s California Adventure: Frozen — Live at the Hyperion, which runs several times throughout the day, and World of Color, which is shown after dark in the evening. (The same advice would apply to Fantasmic! across the way at Disneyland, but it’s closed this summer due to construction of the new Star Wars area at Disneyland.)

World of Color
World of Color at DCA – Make sure you get a FastPass ticket!

The great thing about the FastPasses for these two shows is that they don’t count against other FastPass tickets you may be holding. So even if you’ve just obtained a FastPass for another attraction, you can get FastPasses for one or both of these shows immediately — you don’t have to wait for the “next available” time slot shown on the first FastPass ticket.

Disneyland's Buzz Lightyear Attraction - It's Zurg!

A final FastPass tip is that just like the two shows mentioned previously, you can also get a FastPass ticket for the Buzz Lightyear ride at Disneyland even if you just recently obtained another one elsewhere. Its FastPass machines are “disconnected” from the rest of the FastPass network, opening up this loophole in the system that allows you to hold a FastPass here independent of any others you may already hold. I don’t know how long this quirk in the system will last, but it’s something we might as well take advantage of in the meantime.

Oh, and if you’re using RideMax to plan your day and see aggressive use of FastPass on the plan as it relates to the Buzz Lightyear attraction, now you know why.  :-)

And Finally…

That wraps up my four tips for making the most of a visit to Disneyland in the summer of 2016. As always, if you’re looking to save time in line at either Disneyland or Walt Disney World, please check out RideMax.

Finally, did I miss a tip you’d like to share? Please tell us all about it in the comments below.

And enjoy that summer trip to Disneyland!

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6 thoughts on “FOUR TIPS for Beating the Disneyland Crowds — Summer 2016 Edition”

  1. In the “early hours” tips section of the app, you say that the early hours are the only worthwhile way to visit Fantasyland on a 9a opening weekday. We’re visiting on a Wed, Thur, Fri where both parks are currently scheduled to open at 9a each day. We had planned to do DL on the Wed, DCA on the Thur, and DL on the Fri, which matches with the days you suggest. But with our (non-Disney hotel) 3-day park hopper, we have access to the early DL on the Thursday. Are we better off sticking to our plan and just hitting Fantasyland at the 9a open on the Wed, or should we move everything around to make Thur a DL day to take advantage of the early hour? Note that means we would then have to open DCA on a non-preferred day, and we won’t get to do Fantasyland (a priority with two small kids), and maybe DL park at all, until Day 2! Thoughts?

  2. Michael, if I were in your situation I’d probably just forego the early entry and not make use of it. ONLY having access to DCA on an EMH day would be enough of a disadvantage that it wouldn’t be worth it, in my opinion. I’d just do Disneyland Wednesday, DCA Thursday, and Disneyland again on Friday.

    I hope this helps… Have a great trip!

  3. That’s what I figured, thanks! But can you say a few words about how the first hour in DL differs when the park opens at 9a vs. 8a? (when there are no early hours in either case, I mean.) How much more crowded is the park at a 9a open vs an 8a open, and how much does it impact planning? After all you did say Fantasyland is only worth doing with EMH if the Park has a 9a open!

  4. The RideMax guide is awesome! I’ve subscribed several times prior to DLand adventures. I’ve imputed several scenarios, different ride combinations to get MAX rides each day, then I choose the best plan for our family. I appreciate the extra tips on the best way to approach the most popular attractions. This has helped us save us valuable minutes NOT waiting in line! Thanks for keeping info up to date and creating Apple format.

  5. Michael, I will comment to your inquiry. It’s all about the timing, so much easier to get your family up, dressed, fed and to the gates by 8:30am than 7:30am. Hence bigger crowds expected the later in the morning.

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