What to Do at Disneyland If You Only Have One Day

Disneyland For A Day
Photo: Mariah Tyler

Visiting Walt Disney’s first-ever theme park is the ideal day trip outside of Los Angeles—if you know what you’re doing, that is. With a little help, you’ll be able to skip the lines, eat the best Mickey-shaped snacks and master Disneyland like a pro, even if you’ve only got a few hours. From the must-eat (and must-photograph!) foods and insider secrets to tips for enjoy alcohol just steps from the park, consider this your personal tour guide for the perfect day trip to Disneyland.

Arrive early.

The sooner you arrive, the shorter the lines will be: Disneyland opens as early as 8am and the drive from Los Angeles area to Anaheim clocks in at an hour. Getting from the parking garage to the tram to security check can be time-consuming—budget about 45 minutes from the time you pull in ‘til you’re in sight of Sleeping Beauty castle.

Buy your tickets beforehand.

Single day ticket pricing varies, so be sure to consult the ticket calendar prior to your visit. Discounts are hard to find, though there are often Southern California resident promotions. Decide, too, if you’re up for two parks on the same day. Admission to Disney California Adventure—which counts a Cars-themed land and Toy Story shootout ride among its many carnival-inspired attractions—costs $50 to $60 on top of one-day Disneyland admission, but juggling the two can be strenuous.

Master the FastPass program.

Disneyland allows guests to “skip the line” with Fastpasses, which are distributed at kiosks near many attractions. These Fastpass tickets are complimentary, and can be obtained about every two hours until the park closes or they run out. Our suggested itinerary: Space Mountain Fastpasses tend to go first, followed by Star Tours and Indiana Jones Adventure, so pull them in that order, riding smaller attractions like Mad Tea Party and It’s A Small World between your ticketed return times. Once the sun comes out, board Matterhorn Bobsleds and Splash Mountain—both have the potential to leave you soaked—and grab Fastpasses for Haunted Mansion and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in the afternoon and evening, boarding Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise in between.

Know where to find Instagram-worthy snacks.

Churros are for sale in every corner of the park, but other must-have munchies are trickier to find. Nibble on Matterhorn Macaroons from Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe on Main Street, USA, pineapple Dole Whip soft-serve in Adventureland, Mickey Mouse beignets in New Orleans Square, and Turkey Legs in Fantasyland. Because the park is completely alcohol-free, there are plenty of slushies and sweet drinks for sale as well—the mint julep in New Orleans Square is particularly popular.

Take advantage of tech-savvy knowledge.

The Disneyland App, which provides wait times for every attraction in the park, is a must-download. Disneyland has even started offering a “MaxPass” for $10 each day, allowing guests to book Fastpasses digitally from their phones. Pros never wait in line for Buzz Lightyear’s AstroBlasters, either; the Fastpass is “disconnected,” meaning you can hold two simultaneously.

Sit down for a proper meal.

Whether it’s lunch or dinner, it doesn't matter: you’ll burn out on theme park fare. Plaza Inn Restaurant is the go-to for fried chicken, the sandwiches and pimento cheese dip at River Belle Terrace are on point, and Cafe Orleans, which offers N’awlins-style cooking and a deep-fried Monte Cristo, is a home run. (If possible, make reservations in advance, otherwise prepare to wait for a table.) No time? Rancho del Zocalo’s Mexican food is the furthest you’ll find from corn dogs and hamburgers, and served speedily.

Leave the park for a happy hour drinks.

No alcohol is served in Disneyland, but there are plenty of bars within a five-minute walk from the gate. Grab a hand stamp on your way out (you’ll need it to return), and proceed directly to The Grand Californian for upscale concoctions and spirits at Hearthstone Lounge and Napa Rose Lounge, Downtown Disney for a full range of cocktails and beers at Uva Bar or margaritas at Tortilla Jo’s, or the hidden gem, Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel. It’s the furthest away, but the playful pours and offbeat theming is worth it.

Or do it all as quickly as possible.

Short on time? Splash Mountain, Matterhorn Bobsleds, and Indiana Jones Adventure currently offer single rider lines, which are often unmarked. If you’re craving adventure, these as well as Space Mountain are key. Peter Pan and Dumbo are must-dos if young children are in tow, as is Fantasy Faire, where the Disney princesses gather. Mickey, Minnie, and the rest of the gang have impromptu meet-and-greets by the park entrance on a rotating basis, but the best photo op for adults is deep inside Tomorrowland’s Star Wars Launch Bay, where Jedis and Dark Side sympathizers can smile alongside Darth Vader or Chewbacca.

Think twice about cutting out early.

If you’re not staying nearby, you’ll be tempted to head home at sundown, but the Electric Light Parade is having a limited-time run at the Disneyland Resort, a dose of truly quirky nostalgia that can’t be missed. Disneyland’s fireworks are unparalleled entertainment, as well as the ideal nightcap to a day in the parks. Walkways can get jammed once the show begins, so grab a spot early if you want a view in front of the castle. If it’s too busy, head towards It’s A Small World, which offers a good perspective.

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