Disneyland has a magic about it that I haven't experienced anywhere else.
Walt Disney's dream was for Disneyland to be a place "where parents and children can have fun together" and he certainly achieved that. Adults seem to happily unleash their inner child and children revel in seeing their parents enjoying the same rides and experiences in such a joyous manner.
Our family has visited Disneyland three times in recent years and we've picked up tips and tricks that have helped us best use our time in the park, including how to make the most of the Disability Access Service Card for those with special needs.
We like to allow three full days so we can explore both Disneyland and California Adventure Park without rushing. It gives our kids time to line up for photos and autographs with the characters, to watch the parades and ride their favourite rides, “just one more time.” In my opinion, Disneyland should be savoured, not rushed.
When planning your holiday take into consideration the busiest times of year and if you are flexible with your dates try to avoid visiting the park during the US school holidays and other peak times like Spring Break (around April). Weekdays are also quieter than a weekend, which reduces ride wait times.
If you have no choice but to travel in the peak times there is a plus side; all the rides should be fully operational. Some rides close in the low season for general maintenance. You can check the Disney website for scheduled ride maintenance closures well in advance to make sure your favourite one is scheduled to be operating.
A three-day or great Disney pass entitles guests to enter the park early on one day of their visit. These mornings are referred to as ‘magic mornings’. They only occur on certain days of the week and a limited number of areas of the park are open at this time, which is before general admission. It is worth checking the Disney site and planning your days around this to take advantage of the reduced queues.
Although the rides are the main attraction, adults and children alike can be seen running and then jostling to have a photo and a chat with their favourite Disney characters. As none of the characters talk, the conversation is one-sided but what they lack in conversation they make up for in personality and there is lots of gesturing.
This is a wonderful part of a visit to Disneyland but it can be time-consuming. If you or your child has a favourite character you are keen to meet, ask one of the character cast members for information about location and appearance times. Being in the right place at the right time avoids disappointment and saves waiting in queues. Some characters are much harder to find than others. Daisy is particularly elusive and we are told the reason is because she loves to shop. A girl after my own heart!
Disney photographers are at many of the character ‘meet and greet’ locations around the park. They take photos of your family, which you have the opportunity to buy at the end of your time at Disneyland or later online. The photographers are also very happy to use your camera to take photos as well. They take great shots and because they are using your camera or phone there is no cost - so don’t be shy about asking!
The photographers can also work some magic during editing. One of my daughter’s favourite photos is Tinkerbell magically sitting on her hand in front of the Disney castle.
Getting into Disneyland as the gates open is the best way to make the most of your day. I recommend going to the most popular rides first and using the Disney Fastpass system. This gives guests a timed return for some of the most popular rides, which saves time in queues. Only one Fastpass can be active at any time, but it will definitely help you maximise how many rides you manage in a day.
If you are travelling with young children who are less adventurous, do some research online to see the suitability of the rides. A bit of pre-planning will avoid any scary experiences. There are many clever rides that will suit these children, like our favourites - Toy Story Mania and Buzz Lightyear.
I love a parade and Disney certainly knows how to do them well. Get your position early and ask cast members (staff) where is the best spot to sit for a good view, particularly if you have young children in a pram. Some of the characters who appear in the parade can’t be seen anywhere else in the park.
The fireworks and World of Color are definitely must-see shows. World of Color is a sound and light show that is projected on to water. It is out of this world and has the crowd gasping with amazement! Although this is a free show, tickets are allocated and visitors need to obtain a Fastpass (free) in the morning to get a good position for the show. The tickets go very fast, so get in early.
There are other fantastic shows throughout the two parks, with ‘Aladdin the Musical’ being one of our favourites. The quality and props in the show are as good as a regular stage show, which you would pay a lot to see at the theatre, but it’s included in your entry price.
Discount coupons for Disney stores can often be found on receipts from Disney food outlets, so don’t throw away your receipt from that cake and coffee, it may just save you money on some souvenirs for the kids later!
Our daughter loved doing the Disney animation drawing class, which is free and at the end you take home your own drawing of a Disney character – a souvenir she loved.
The pressed penny machines around the park are very popular and provide a lovely keepsake of a visit to Disneyland, without breaking the bank.
Take along an autograph book or buy one at the park and have your child’s favourite characters sign it. This is extremely popular with kids visiting the park.
We buy plenty of souvenirs within Disneyland, but it can get expensive if you need to buy gifts for classmates or other relatives back home. If you have a hire car, head to the local K-mart or Walmart, where you will find Disney licensed products at a cheaper price. However, keep in mind that many of the souvenirs in Disneyland are unique to the park.
For children or adults with special needs
I can happily report that the happiest place on earth is also one of the most accessible. Not only is it accessible, but the Cast Members (staff) are extremely knowledgeable and understanding of the needs of their guests with a disability.
My son has cerebral palsy, is non-verbal, uses a wheelchair and cannot stand waiting in queues, so it is very refreshing to visit an attraction that understands our needs as a family.
For wheelchair users, many rides have access via the exit point of the ride and there are also some with modified vehicles or seating.
In 2013 Disney introduced the Disability Access Service Card. This is designed for guests who cannot tolerate extended waits due to their disability.
On arrival at Disneyland guests with additional needs should head straight to City Hall, where a Disability Access Service Card will be issued with photo identification. This is valid in both California Adventure Park and Disneyland for up to 60 days from day of issue. If you go to California Adventure Park first, this card can be obtained from the Chamber of Commerce. The staff will advise the most efficient way to use the card, which operates in a similar way to a Fastpass in allowing the guest to return to the ride after a certain time without joining the regular queue. You may still have a short wait on your return but it is designed to shorten the time experienced in the queue. Only one ride time can be active on your card, but you can use this in conjunction with a Fastpass.
Throughout the parks there are Guest Relations carts with staff that will tell you the current wait time at any ride and add another ride to your card.
The first aid office in both parks has the best disabled toilet facilities. They are unisex, clean and have a large change table for those needing it (adult size).
The parks have maps for guests using a wheelchair, which can be downloaded prior to your arrival or can be picked up at the entry gate. This guide is helpful with comprehensive information for people using a wheelchair, guests with a visual or hearing impairment and guests with a cognitive disability.
Walt Disney’s vision for a magic kingdom can definitely be felt around every corner of Disneyland. Those that have visited will know what I’m talking about and those that haven’t been yet I can assure you it is worth the trip. Our family would hop on the plane tomorrow and head back for our fourth visit if we had the chance. Many of our happiest memories come from our time spent there as a family.
Julie Jones is the creator of Have Wheelchair Will Travel where she combines her skills as an ex-travel consultant with her life and experiences as a mother to her son BJ, who has cerebral palsy.