How to Deal With Crowds at Disneyland
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
Do you have what it takes to go down… down… down the rabbit hole and brave a Disney park on a “can’t breathe because everyone is on top of me” kind of day?
Here is a little Heather Anne quiz to test your Disney crowd management skills.
On a crowded day at Disneyland do you:
Walk with your arms out in a V to protect your space?
Kick people in the shins as you walk by?
Scream at every cast member to get out your frustration?
Run people’s ankles over with your stroller while muttering loudly about slow walkers?
Use your child as a human shield?
None of the above
Of course, the answer is… F! None of the above! Believe it or not, it is possible to go to a Disney theme park on a peak crowded day and still manage to find the magic amongst the mayhem. Here are a few pointers to help you enjoy your day at the Happiest Place on Earth.
This article is ©2016 Heather Anne at Heather Anne Art and Soul. All rights reserved. See my copyright notice here.
Watch my YouTube video about dealing with Disney crowds and then read the article below for some Heather Anne tips and tricks.
1. Don’t go when it’s SO crowded!
Yeah I know… this one sounds ridiculous given the title of this article, but stick with me for a minute. If at all possible, try to plan your Disney vacation when everyone else is too busy “adulting” to hang out at a theme park. That means you should avoid the week of Thanksgiving (the busiest week of the year at Disneyland), the week before Christmas, New Year’s, the middle of summer, and Spring Break.
How do you know when the parks will be horribly crowded? Use an online crowd tracker. The one I use is IsItPacked.com. Is it Packed has daily crowd trackers and crowd forecast calendars that are pretty accurate in my experience.
They rank the crowd levels with this index: Ghost Town (best time to go), Hey, It’s Alright (still a good time to go), Yup, It’s Packed and… the very worst time you can go… Forget About It.
Unfortunately, not all of us have the luxury of traveling off season, so If you must go during peak crowded times, I do have some tips to help you not lose your mind and actually enjoy your trip.
2. Mind over matter…expect the crowds and chill out!
Disneyland is FUN right? Of course it is! So if you know that you chose to go to Disneyland with a million of your closest friends, because you checked the crowd trackers (like Heather Anne told you to) and they told you to forget about it, DECIDE that you are going to have FUN, despite the crowds. Even better… decide you will have fun of the crowds! Disneyland is nice and relaxing on a quiet day, but there is an electric energy in the air when a lot of people pack the parks, and it can be exhilarating if you have the right perspective.
Adjust your expectations of what you will have time to do, and be open to trying new things or taking a slower pace. Even on a quiet day, there is no way to do every ride and hit every show. Unless you are my friend Cole. He did go on every ride in one day because he is a Disney geek of the highest order. To do that though, you have to keep his pace, which means all cardio all day long. Up for Disney cardio? Then you might be able to squeeze in more rides like Cole. (One of my proudest Disney geek moments was the day I kept up with Cole for about twelve hours in the park. I learned that day that I CAN survive the zombie apocalypse by outrunning them!)
Choose your most important rides or experiences and make sure you get those in, and then everything else is icing on the cake.
3. Enjoy the scenery!
Be mindful as you stroll through the park, because there is a lot to see, smell and hear! Disneyland is an “immersive” experience, meaning the Imagineers immerse you in the theme in every possible way. The Imagineers decorate from floor to ceiling. I always say look up when you’re there because there is so much to see that is above our heads. Even the bathrooms are interesting! Check out the bathroom near Alice in Wonderland, or look up at the stained glass above the men’s room near Carnation Café.
Delight in the smells of churros, popcorn, waffle cones and Pirates water! Pirates water is one of the best smells at Disneyland! During Christmas if you are lucky enough to meet Mrs. Claus, she smells just like sugar cookies. If you tell Mrs. Claus that she smells like sugar cookies, she will say, “Of course I do. I’ve been baking all day.”
The landscaping is an important part of the magic, and the landscapers have a special kind of pixie dust they sprinkle over the park. The foliage changes with the seasons, and there are always little gems to see if you pay attention, like edible plants in Tomorrowland. Don’t just breeze by. Stop and really look.
The ambient music and sounds in the parks fit the theme of each land. It’s easy to just tune it out with all the hustle and bustle, but just stop and listen sometime.
Most of the time, even when it’s really crowded, I don’t notice the crowds because I am too busy enjoying looking at the ever-changing Disney decorations and landscaping. You could easily spend an hour or more just taking in the incredible Disney window displays (which I have documented in some pretty cool YouTube videos).
4. To Restaurant or not to Restaurant? That is the question. When do I eat and where do I eat?
Bring some snacks and have a flexible eating schedule. Try to eat big meals at off times, not during the normal lunch and dinner rush.
To save the most time, eat on the go… multi-task! Turkey legs, corn on the cob, corn dogs, chimichangas, popcorn and caramel apples (hey it does have an apple in it, so it counts as food right?) can all be purchased at kiosks around the parks and you can eat them while you stand in a long line or while you trek across the park. Refreshment Corner has hot dogs you can grab and go. (Locals call it Coke Corner. I’ve never heard anyone actually call it Refreshment Corner and I had to look up the real name online so… call it Coke Corner to sound like a pro.)
Keep a small blanket or sheet in a locker or under your stroller, and have a picnic of turkey legs and corn on the cob while you wait for the parade or fireworks.
Eat at the quick service restaurants to save time. Jolly Holiday, Smokejumper’s Grill, Hungry Bear, Pizza Port, Bengal Barbecue and quite a few other places will serve your food fast so you can eat and get on with your day. Familiarize yourself with the quick service restaurants and what they offer BEFORE your trip so you don’t have to waste time figuring out what to eat and where the restaurant is located.
Sit down restaurants are NOT a great idea on an extremely crowded day, unless you have made reservations and unless the Disney restaurant experience matters to you. You can call Disney Dining to reserve a table 60 days in advance for the California resort, but here is the catch… be certain you will want to eat there because they charge you a fee per person if you cancel on the same day.
If you are a foodie and the dining is part of the magic for you, like it is for me, then make a restaurant reservation and give yourself the time to truly enjoy it. Realize though, that a restaurant can take an hour or even two hours when they are busy. If you are at Disneyland for say ten hours, that can be one fifth of your day spent on that one meal! That is time you will not have to spend on rides, etc.
5. Rides… that’s what we really care about! How do we get on the rides???
I know you don’t want me to tell you this, but if you go when the parks are at “Forget About It” level, you are not going get on all the rides you want to ride. As a matter of fact, on “Forget About It” level crowd days, you might not ride very many of them at all. That’s just the reality that has to sink in. Then you have to accept it and let it go, just like Elsa. (Hey I heard you groaning! Too bad, I still love Frozen.)
But, since this is an article about tips, I’m going to give you a few practical ones.
GET THERE EARLY- Arrive WAY before the gates open and experience the famous “rope drop” where everyone waits behind an actual rope at the top of Main Street, listens to a cute little opening announcement and makes a mad dash for their favorite rides as soon as that rope falls to the ground. Fantasyland and Tomorrowland are prime destinations for the rope drop crowds, because rides like Peter Pan and Star Tours tend to have pretty long lines for a good portion of the day
STAY LATE- Most people leave after the fireworks. It’s like being in a sea of herring when the fireworks ends and there is a mass exodus. Swim against the current and head back IN to the park. I know you’re tired and your feet hurt, but take advantage of the exodus and get into those shorter lines. If you have small children, bring plenty of soft blankets and your OWN comfortable stroller so you can put them down to sleep in the stroller all wrapped up and cozy. Then mom and dad can do rider switch and enjoy the fast rides after others leave.
PRIORITIZE- Make a priority list of rides and categorize them something like this- My trip will be ruined if I don’t ride this; I’d like to ride this but I will survive if I don’t; and I don’t care either way. Then arrange your day accordingly.
Use FAST PASSES. Walt’s “original park” (meaning Disneyland) is my home away from home so this advice is Disneyland specific. Walt Disney world has a completely different system and since I don’t go there, this is not the blog for that. If you’re like most people, the “My trip will be ruined if I don’t ride this” category will be filled with rides that tend to offer fast passes such as Indiana Jones, Haunted Mansion and Big Thunder. Go to one of those RIDE OR I WILL DIE rides at rope drop, then grab a fast pass to the next one on your list and do something else in between.
USE AN APP- My favorite app is Mouse Wait because it’s so easy to use. My second favorite app is the official Disneyland app. Of course, it will be more accurate than Mouse Wait (yes I have tested this theory), because it’s the actual Disneyland app, but I find Mouse Wait to be accurate enough and just so much faster to navigate. The trick with apps is to check ride times throughout the day because the lines DO wax and wane. Big Thunder might be an hour wait at 2:30 and by 4:00 it has gone down to 20 minutes. Keep checking the apps and then run over to a ride you like when the line is a bit shorter.
7. Give the off the beaten path attractions a chance.
Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Main Street Cinema, the Tiki Room, the monorail ride around the resort, the Disneyland Railroad, the Mark Twain Riverboat and other attractions can be great to experience on a busy day. I have met so many people who have annual passes or go to Disneyland several times per year even if they don’t have passes who have never experienced these attractions.
8. The subject we don’t want to talk about… bathrooms.
When you’re planning your trip to Disneyland, you might not be very excited to study the map and figure out where the bathrooms are, but I suggest that you do. KNOW where the bathrooms are ahead of time and… go to the bathroom BEFORE you are dying. When you see a bathroom, just go whether you think you need to or not.
Do not take no for an answer from your kids. If they say they don’t have to go, make them try anyway because ten times out of ten, they WILL have to go and if they don’t go right then, they will be in an emergency situation in twenty minutes, forcing you to make a mad dash across the park and beg people to let your child cut the line before she has an accident.
If you schedule regular bathroom stops all day long, you will have time to go look for one with a shorter line if the one that is closest to you has a long wait.
You will find a bathroom tour video on my YouTube channel where I tell you which ones are the biggest, which are the smallest and which ones are tucked away.
9. Just go for it!
Crowds are part of the amusement park experience. There is no getting around it. You can still have an amazing Disney trip despite the crowds if you adjust your expectations, take a slower pace, plan ahead and decide that no matter what, the trip will be fun. So sprinkle on some pixie dust, wink and double blink and go down the Disneyland rabbit hole on a crowded day. As Walt Disney said, “When you're curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.” There is no lack of interesting things to do at a Disney park!
This article is ©2016 Heather Anne at Heather Anne Art and Soul. All rights reserved. See my copyright notice here.