12 Tips for Doing Disneyland Right at the Holidays
Holiday time at Disneyland is extra magical. From the gorgeous, festive decorations around the park to the moving nightly fireworks display complete with holiday music and a fairytale snowfall ending, it’s guaranteed to put you in a holiday frame of mind. We’ve started an annual tradition by going over Thanksgiving for a few days, and then coming home inspired to decorate. The holiday decorations at Disneyland stay up until after New Year’s, so there’s plenty of time to take in the happiest place on earth on steroids. It is seriously amazing. If and when you decide to go, I’ve put together a list of tips and recommendations based on our family’s experience over the last several years going during the holiday season.
1 | Get the Free Disneyland App.
This relatively new app will help you find your way around Disneyland, California Adventure and Downtown Disney. You can check ride wait times, reserve Fast Passes, and stalk the Disney characters that your kids want to meet. It also doubles as entertainment for tired kids waiting in line – our daughter Christina is nine years old now and she had fun exploring in the app. Another bonus, last year she wasn’t as interested in the characters as she had been in the past, but the “stalking ability” of the app seemed revive her interest in getting their autographs and pictures with them. Anything to keep them younger longer!!
2 | Buy the Max Pass.
The new Max Pass is a revved up version of the Photo Pass. It’s $10 per day, but it will save you a ton of money in the end if you like to buy photos that you have taken by Disney photographers around the park. In the past, we ALWAYS ended up buying the CD with all our images on it to the tune of $80 plus dollars, so we could then savor the memories and own the images to print, post online, etc. With the Max Pass (for just $10 per day!), you get to download all of your photos digitally – it’s a great deal.
Tip: Be forewarned that you must pay for your Max Pass immediately on the day you use it! If you wait until the next day you cannot take advantage of the $10 offer. We had an issue the day of with our credit card linked to our Disney account from a previous trip having expired, had trouble updating it, and waited until our second day there to try to resolve the problem. Bam – they wouldn’t let us pay just $10 anymore to access our photos form the first day! The price jumped to $80. What??!! Needless to say, we were not happy, but kudos to Disney Guest Relations, after a visit to City Hall, the Photo Pass store, and then finally a call to them, Guest Relations released our photos for $10. Anyway, don’t make the same mistake we did.
We ran into a Storm Trooper by the Star Tours ride…
….and Darth Vader in the Launch Bay.
3 | Meet Your Favorite Characters.
Again, be sure and get the Disneyland app, so you can see which characters are where and when, depending whom is important to your kids. Certain characters definitely hang out in certain areas — for example, you’ll find Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto and Donald Duck in ToonTown or on Main Street in Disneyland or in the Town Square of California Adventure. The princesses are always in the princess area next to Sleeping Beauty’s castle or in and around Fantasyland. Tinkerbell and friends can be found in Pixie Hollow near Fantasyland. Moana is in Adventureland and Tiana by the Steamboat ride in Frontierland. Jack Skellington and Sally are really fun to meet and they hang out by Café Orleans in New Orleans Square or by the Haunted Mansion. Another popular new princess of Disney Channel fame is Elena of Avalor and she has an area in California Adventure by Goofy’s Sky School roller coaster. Of course, Star Wars characters like Darth Vader and Chewbacca are in the Launch Bay, not far from Star Tours and Space Mountain. We saw a lot of villains this trip, which was fun, like Dr. Facilier from Princess & the Frog, Captain Hook and the Evil Queen from Snow White, and snagged some new autographs.
Tip: Remember to have your camera ready as some characters have a photographer nearby, but others don’t and you don’t want to miss the shot! And, have your autograph book and pen ready as well if you want an autograph – they don’t carry one.
Peter Pan was HILARIOUS.
The Evil Queen from Snow Queen appreciated a curtsy.
Princess Elena of Avalor was so gracious…
…. and loves to dance.
4 | Must-See Holiday Rides.
While the whole park is beautifully decorated for the holidays, there are two rides that are also specially decorated for Christmas and you won’t want to miss them — the Haunted Mansion (based on the movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas — so cool!) and the iconic It’s A Small World ride. I promise it will inspire you to kick your Christmas decorating goals up a notch or two.
5 | Our Favorite Ride List. These are the ones we NEVER miss.
-Pirates of the Caribbean (classic!)
-Haunted Mansion (the décor is amazing)
-Thunder Mountain Railroad (super fast roller coaster – at night it’s extra pretty)
-It’s a Small World (classic and lovely for all)
-Peter Pan’s Flight (so pretty)
-Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups (fun and classic!)
-Space Mountain (completely dark and super fast!)
-Star Tours (Star Wars themed and awesome)
-Splash Mountain (be prepared to get wet!)
-Radiator Springs Racers in Carsland (great effects and not as fast as some so good for all)
-California Screamin’ (super fast coaster and an upside-down loop!)
-Soarin’ (so beautiful and it’s been changed to “around the world” vs. just California scenery)
-Grizzly River Run (this rafting ride is a blast but you are pretty much guaranteed to get wet and maybe soaked!)
-Goofy’s Sky School (fun coaster, although it was closed when we were there this time)
-Ariel’s Undersea Adventure (tells the story of Ariel – great for all)
-Guardians of the Galaxy (replaced Tower of Terror – make sure you like big drops!)
Santa stationed in California Adventure.
5 | Photos with Santa.
You can catch the big guy in Disneyland by the Winnie the Pooh ride in Critter Country or in California Adventure across from the Grizzly River Run rafting ride (we only waited 5-10 minutes to see Santa here!). It’s a great opportunity to check one item off on your Christmas activity to-do list. The Disney photographers are of course on hand taking pictures and will add them to your Max Pass.
Tip: Don’t go on the rafting ride before Santa pictures as you will get wet and potentially really wet! Actually I recommend going on it when you have time to go back to the hotel and change if you need to… this is why we love staying on property at the Grand Californian! (Keep reading for more on where to stay.)
The glittering scene on Main Street at night.
7 | Catch a Holiday Parade.
Plan to see the Christmas Fantasy Parade at least once while you’re there. It is really pretty and well done, like most everything at Disneyland. This time when we were there, the parades were only held in the afternoon at 1 and 3:30 pm, which is a bummer if you want to have your little ones take a nap in the afternoon so they can keep going at night and stay up for the fireworks show at 9:30. Plus, the parade at nighttime is extra festive and gorgeous with all the beautiful lights and floats.
Sleeping Beauty’s Castle is stunning. Photo Credit: Disney website
8 | Don’t Miss the Fireworks.
As I mentioned above, the nightly fireworks display – Believe… in Holiday Magic — is phenomenal. The show is set to holiday music and snow falls at the end while I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas plays. There are special projection light effects on the buildings on Main Street, and Sleeping Beauty’s Castle is lit up like a frozen winter palace at the end. The whole experience is beautiful and moving. Warning: You may get emotional.
Tip: Mark out your viewing spot early, at least a half hour or 45 minutes prior. It gets so crowded. The best viewing spots are near Walt Disney’s statue in front of the castle (but watch out for trees blocking your view!) or on Main Street in the center. It’s worth getting your spot early at least one night. Also, sometimes the fireworks are cancelled due to winds, but they will still do the music, castle lighting and snowfall.
World of Color – the dazzling light & water show in California Adventure – also has a special Christmas version set to holiday music. For this presentation, you can secure preferred seating and a Fast Pass. It’s another great option to the fireworks show, especially if you’re at the park for a few days.
9 | Best Photo Op Areas.
There are so many, but we love to take photos in front of Sleeping Beauty’s castle every year, and one right when you walk in the entrance to Disneyland with the train station and flowers in the shape of Mickey as your backdrop. There are always Disney photographers in those areas ready to snap your picture.
10 | Where to Stay.
In my opinion, it is well worth paying the premium price to stay on the Disneyland property, especially if you have young kids. We always stay at the Grand Californian — love that they have a direct entrance into California Adventure Park! I have heard good things about the Disneyland Resort as well (no direct entrance into the park though and it’s a little further to walk). Our daughter is nine now, but up until a few years ago we would come back to the hotel in the afternoon and have rest time for a couple of hours and she usually took a nap (!), so we could go back into the park for fireworks that night and stay up until midnight when the park closes. Note that hours vary depending on the day and week. You’ll get a schedule when you check in or it’s on the Disneyland website.
The Grand Californian Resort. Photo Credit: Disney website
Another HUGE perk to staying at one of the Disneyland resorts is the Extra Magic Hour. With your hotel room key and park ticket, you will get in an hour early before the park opens to everyone else. Early admission goes back and forth between the two parks. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, you’ll get in one hour early to Disneyland. Only certain rides are open though and we recommend hitting Peter Pan’s Flight, Space Mountain or Matterhorn first, followed by It’s a Small World. These rides will get crazy busy during the day and Peter Pan’s Flight does not have a Fast Pass option. On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, you’ll get in early to California Adventure. Go straight to Carsland and Radiator Springs Racers — this is the only time you won’t have a significant wait for this ride without a Fast Pass. Then, head over the California Screamin’ if you’re a roller coaster fan — Christina and I were able to get in 3 rides with just a 5-minute wait before the park opened. Awesome! It always feels good to start out the day strong.
Another option, if you can’t handle waiting in line for anything and you have the budget, is the Disney VIP Tour. You get to skirt all the lines and will have the inside track to other special perks and activities at Disney. Plus, you have your own personal tour guide. We haven’t done it personally, but I have friends that have and say it’s the only way to go.
Tip: We always book our trip through the Walt Disney Travel Company and ALWAYS buy the travel insurance. We’ve actually used it three times due to illness and a family emergency. The key is to not to check in to the hotel or park if you think someone is sick and you may need to end the vacation. We made that mistake one time and had to jump through a few hoops to get our money back. But, the other two times we’ve used it, we canceled before checking in and everything was refunded without any issues at all.
We happened to catch this awesome musical performance by Mary Poppins and friends.
11 | Where to Eat.
There are holiday-inspired foods and yummy festive treats scattered at stands and carts around both parks, from hot chocolate, holiday-themed macarons and flavored churros to giant roasted turkey legs. We always try to balance the treats with healthy choices, which is very doable. Many stands in the parks offer fruit (there’s a stand in Fantasyland with a number of options) and most of the sit-down restaurants have grilled chicken and veggie options in addition to the usual pasta, pizza, etc. Here are a few of our go-to eateries.
- Red Rose Taverne in Fantasyland is fast and has decent salads and flatbread. For kids, I like that they offer a turkey sandwich with fruit (a great healthy alternative to mac’n cheese) or the Kids’ Power Pack is a to-go as well.
- Galactic Grill in Tomorrowland has a broad selection of regular and healthy items (including the turkey sandwich and power pack for kids), so is another go-to for quick eats.
- Cafe Orleans (just past Pirates of the Caribbean) has a great patio and good food. We’ve had a delicious Thanksgiving dinner in the past, although it wasn’t offered this year. This is for when you want to sit down and eat.
- Wine Country Trattoria is Italian as you may have guessed, the food is great, and the patio is divine. Plus, most nights at around 5:30 pm, the Pixar parade goes right by (think Toy Story characters, Monsters Inc. – it’s a fun parade and entertaining while you have dinner and a glass of wine which you will be more than ready for at this point). Remember, Disneyland does not serve alcohol in the park, but California Adventure does, plus they have a Starbucks. Caffeine is key everyday, but even more so when you’ve woken up your tired kids at 6am after staying up until midnight to get in line by 6:30am for early park entry during the Extra Magic Hour at 7am!
- Starbucks! The usual snack and food fare, and COFFEE. Enough said.
There are a number of restaurants to choose from, but we tend to head to Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria or Tortilla Jo’s the night of our arrival (before we can get in the park). Both have great patios (have to take advantage of SoCal weather!) and the food is good. There’s also a Starbucks for a quick pick-me-up or La Brea Bakery for a quick breakfast or snack.
If you have little ones, a great way to have them meet their favorites is at one of the character dining experiences. To meet five Disney princess all at once, Ariel’s Grotto in California Adventure is the place to go. For the best breakfast buffet (seriously it was really good) and to meet other Disney favs like Chip & Dale, Mickey and Goofy (varies depending on the day), head to the Disneyland Resort. Generally it’s best to have a reservation through Disney Dining for these events as they can sell out, but sometimes you can squeeze in at the last minute.
The Tea Cups are a great place for a selfie.
12 | What to Wear.
This could easily evolve into a whole separate post, but here are a couple of key points.
- Check the weather. Over the years, we’ve had it be freezing this time of year and ended up spending the day in warm jackets and gloves. (Bonus: Gloves are great for helping fend off the germs and post-trip colds! Why is it that kids have to touch everything?! Be sure and put a pack of hand wipes in your handbag or backpack to use before eating or after each ride too.) Or in the case of this year, it was in the 90s! So hot. But the evenings were cooler and a jacket was needed. I have a lightweight jacket that was perfect and I can stuff it in my crossbody bag (see below for my favorite!).
- Wear comfortable shoes. This is maybe obvious, but really wear shoes that you KNOW you can walk a lot in. We logged over 30,000 steps a day on our FitBit. Wow. I love these sneakers — they’re like slippers and I wore them the entire time in the park.
- Layer under costumes. If your kids are wearing a costume, especially one that you just bought at the park so haven’t had a chance to wash or maybe it’s the type you can’t really wash (princess dress), bring a light tank and for princess dress fashionistas a pair of bike shorts to avoid itchy fabrics. Itchy, whiny kids… not fun.
- Use a crossbody bag or backpack. Your back will thank you. Leave your shoulder bag at home or in the hotel room! (I lugged one around the first year we went and swore never again!) This is the crossbody bag I use for Disney – it’s seriously the perfect size and I can take it on every ride. Plus, the studded bottom helps protect it and it is a super cool everyday bag. I bought it a few years back specifically for a Disney trip. There’s also a smaller version if you don’t need quite as much space as I do. Or, the new fanny packs are super cute! The ’80s are so back and the belt bag (aka fanny pack) is cool again – at least if it’s a designer one. Cheapie ones not so much. And, you have to OWN the look.
My last piece of advice — if you go during the holidays or another time during the year, remember to embrace your inner kid, put down your phone & be present, and make memories!!