How to navigate Disneyland right now — our latest tips and recommendations

Lots of friends, readers and strangers have been asking me the same question right now: Do you have any tips and suggestions on how to navigate Disneyland with all the ever-changing rules and conditions?

I’ve been responding to their questions in private emails and text messages, but as a theme park reporter I realized it would be worth gathering all my answers into one place.

Disneyland and Disney California Adventure returned on April 30 after a yearlong coronavirus closure with a 25% attendance capacity limit and a host of COVID-19 restrictions related to mandatory masks, ride capacity and physical distancing. The June 15 reopening of the California economy brought an end to most but not all of those restrictions.

After two weeks of the newest normal, it seems like die-hard Mouseheads are all wondering the same thing: How do you do Disneyland right now?

One important thing to know: The Disneyland experience is constantly changing and evolving at the moment. Hopefully this advice will help you plan your next visit. But remember to use it as a guide and not gospel. Your experience will likely be different.

My family recently visited Disneyland on a weekend day for my daughter’s 21st birthday. Hannah wanted to have her first legal drink at Oga’s Cantina and travel on her stomach across Disneyland and DCA on her big day.

We ended up riding 15 attractions, taking in four shows in Avengers Campus and eating or drinking at five different locations. It was a long day that lasted 14 hours from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m.

Needless to say, that is not the way we usually visit Disneyland. We live 10 minutes from the parks and Hannah has been a lifelong annual passholder. With annual passes on pause, Hannah felt like many seasoned regulars do right now. She wanted to cram as much Disneyland into one day as possible.

Hitting 15 attractions in one day is pretty amazing — and we took a lot of breaks to allow Hannah to flash her ID and imbibe as much as possible. We weren’t trying to break any ride count records. It’s just pretty easy to hit a lot of rides with the relatively low capacity limits right now.

Which leads to the first question I get a lot: How crowded is Disneyland right now? The answer: Not very crowded by Disneyland standards. But that answer comes with a bit of an asterisk. There are crowded spots and ways to avoid them. I’ll get into that a bit more in a moment.

A fully vaccinated reader who described herself as “AARP age” told me she was concerned about heading to Disneyland because of her husband’s underlying medical conditions. Like many people, she made reservations when Disneyland was restricted to 25% capacity only to have their visit happen after the state removed all capacity restrictions on California theme parks.

Her question: What’s Disneyland’s capacity level right now? Only Disneyland knows, but rough estimates put the park’s current capacity at about 50%. But that’s changing on a daily and weekly basis. Expect capacity to increase a few percentage points each week through the summer and into the fall.

Disneyland has become much more like Walt Disney World since the pandemic. In short, that means you have to plan ahead a lot more than you ever did before. Online advance reservations for the parks look like they are here to stay — at least through the fall and possibly forever. The reservation system offers a way to control park capacity and ensure an exceptional guest experience — a high priority for Disneyland.

There are still a few people showing up at Disneyland without reservations, mostly out-of-state visitors. Don’t do that — or you will be sorely disappointed. And make sure you bring your reservation with you to the park, even though nobody checked our reservations at the front gate when we were at the park.

Also part of that advance planning: Rides and food.

Our day started at 6 a.m. on our recent visit. That’s because we had to be up and ready by 7 a.m. to start our day at Disneyland — albeit from the comfort of our home. Securing virtual queue boarding passes for Rise of the Resistance and Web Slingers requires teamwork, multiple devices and precision timing.

We had parkhopper tickets that started in Disneyland. That meant we could only get in the Rise of the Resistance virtual queue at 7 a.m. We did that from Hannah’s bedroom. You have to be on top of things. Virtual queue spots typically disappear in 15 to 60 seconds. No typo there. Seconds.

You need a dedicated screen open with a universal time clock running with the seconds showing. The trick is to use every device you own to try to get in the virtual queue on the Disneyland app. Once one of your devices hits, drop the others and finish the process as quickly as possible.

The big upside: We got to get on both Rise of the Resistance and Web Slingers without waiting in long lines and had more time to play in the parks.

The other big pre-planning thing you have to do now more than ever before involves dining. Remember the good old days when you used to be able to walk up to a Disneyland restaurant or food stand and get something to eat. Not anymore.

Disneyland tried to move nearly every restaurant and food stand to mobile ordering after reopening on April 30. A mini revolt among diehards forced Disneyland to walk back that plan a bit — but not much.

You can still walk up and order at a few restaurants and food stands — but many of them are prioritizing mobile ordering. That means it’s hard to get what you want at lunch or dinner time. If you want what you want you better order it hours in advance.

My recommendation is to plan out what you want to eat before you get to the park and place your mobile orders as soon as you step foot in the park. Particularly if you think you’re going to eat at a red hot place like Pym’s Test Kitchen in Avengers Campus. Mobile order slots for Pym’s are often gone early in the morning for the entire day. Disney relented and allowed walk-ups for Pym’s after enough complaints.

The other side to the dining equation is restaurant reservations. We made three dining reservations weeks in advance for our recent visit — and we still got stuck with rotten time slots. Hannah wanted her first legal drink to be at Oga’s Cantina. We had to settle for a 10 a.m. time slot — not an ideal time to drink in a bar, but perfect if you’re finally 21 years old and you want to sip an Outer Rim cocktail for breakfast.

We were also able to nab a 4 p.m. time slot at Carthay Circle — because nobody wants to eat at 4 p.m. other than senior citizen early birds at Denny’s. Our other reservation was for 8 p.m. at Napa Rose. Hannah has very good taste and high standards when it comes to her food and beverage choices.

Planning what you want to eat days, weeks and months in advance takes some of the spontaneity and serendipity out of the visit, but it’s becoming increasingly necessary. Disney World visitors typically make restaurant reservations three to six months before they set foot in a park. Disneyland appears to be moving increasingly toward that model.

Disneyland and DCA are in the process of adding more dining locations, capacity and tables. That means additional restaurant reservations can open up after you first visit the Disneyland website or app. Check back regularly if you don’t initially get the restaurant reservation you want. You can always cancel your second choice.

As you can see, we haven’t even stepped foot into Disneyland or DCA yet. The very beginning of the day is when you’ll likely experience the biggest lines and largest crowds of the day.

We had my father-in-law drop us off on the Harbor Boulevard side of the resort. My father-in-law gets up every day at 5 a.m. and will do anything for his granddaughter. Grandpa Uber is not an option for everybody, but you’ll see in a moment why arriving on the eastside of the resort can be better than the westside — at least at the moment.

The Toy Story lot is the best Disney-operated option on the eastside of the resort. You are prescreened through security, take a tram bus rather than walking and get dropped off right at the Disneyland transportation hub.

I also recommend parking in non-Disney lots on the Harbor side of the park. The Anaheim Hotel has $25 parking (MiceChat has a coupon) and GardenWalk has $25 all-day parking for Anaheim attractions — the same price as the Disney lots and garages. I’ve heard of people parking at nearby regional shopping malls and taking rideshares over to Disneyland.

Whatever you choose, I’d stay away from the Disneyland parking garages if you’re planning an early morning assault on the parks and full day of drinks, food and rides like we did.

You need to arrive 90 minutes before opening time if you want to get an early start. That’s because Disneyland and DCA have been quietly opening the gates 30 to 60 minutes early to avoid crowding. On most days, the parks officially open at 9 a.m. right now. On the weekend day we visited, both parks were open by the time we arrived at 8 a.m. — a full hour before the scheduled opening time. You can get in three or four extra rides in that first bonus hour if you have a strategy and a plan.

Traffic can back up at the Disneyland garages on the westside of the resort if you arrive before 9 a.m. The big influx of early arriving visitors also leads to bogged down security at the garages. Then you have to walk the tram route and wait in long lines at the front gates of the parks. All that takes time and spoils the advantages of arriving early if you are hoping to get there before opening time and take advantage of that first bonus hour.

If you’re not interested in logging a full day, then I recommend parking in the westside Disney garages and arriving an hour after the parks officially open. I tell this to people all the time, but I don’t think any of them ever do it. The lure is too strong right now to get back into Disneyland and do everything you’ve missed for the past 15 months.

By 10 a.m., all the excitement has died down and there are no waits to get into the garages, through security or the front gates. If you want to avoid all the crowds, then show up around 9:30 a.m. or so with a plan of making it into the park by 10 a.m. If you’re not interested in running the Disneyland marathon, then you don’t need to be at the starting line with all the early birds at race time.

As you’ve noticed, we haven’t really talked much about rides and attractions yet. You can get a lot done during the first bonus hour between 8 and 9 a.m. before the park opens. You can knock off three or four of your must-hit rides in that first hour. We did Hannah’s favorite Peter Pan’s Flight, the refreshed Snow White’s Enchanted Wish, the always popular Space Mountain and the still relatively new Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run before 9:30 a.m.

Our Rise of the Resistance virtual queue boarding group was called around 10 a.m. — the same time as our Oga’s Cantina reservation. We spoke with an Oga’s cast member who recommended we do Rise of the Resistance first and then come back for mid-morning cocktails after the ride.

Hitting Rise of the Resistance before noon is important — as you’ll see in a bit when we get to the second virtual queue opportunity of the day. The cast member remembered us when we returned to Oga’s and we got a booth in the wretched hive of scum and villainy that we shared with two other parties. They’re done with social distancing on Batuu.

After our boozy breakfast, we hit Big Thunder Mountain and Haunted Mansion — popular rides that each had waits under 20 minutes.

Both parks are offering single rider lines again — which can shave off wait times on some of the most popular rides with the longest rides. We used it on Radiator Springs Racers — which turned a 50-minute wait into 10 minutes. We forgot to use it on Star Tours, but the original Star Wars ride only had a 10- minute wait time.

That’s one of the great things about Disneyland and DCA right now with reduced capacity and required reservations: Short wait times for many attractions. The other big benefit: Uncrowded walkways now that physically distancing has ended and indoor queues are being used again.

As always, it’s best to avoid long lines and go for attractions with the shortest wait times. Our rule of thumb is never wait more than 30 minutes for any attraction. Your favorite ride will be there next time you visit — or have a much shorter line later in the day.

It’s also important to remember there are no FastPasses right now — so you will need to factor that into your planning.

Looking at the Disneyland app as I write this, there are only three rides in the two parks with waits over 45 minutes: Radiator Springs Racers, Splash Mountain and Toy Story Midway Mania. Which is pretty good by Disneyland standards. And pretty typical of what you can expect at the moment during the reservation period of the phased reopening of the parks.

One of the things I’ve been recommending — that has largely fallen on deaf ears and resulted in bewildered looks — is to not think of this as the only time you will ever be able to visit Disneyland again. FOMO is strong right now after a year of missing out on your Disneyland fix. Plus it remains unclear when the Disneyland annual pass will return and in what form.

I’ve been trying to persuade people to consider riding some of the less popular attractions they haven’t been on in awhile. Web Slingers, Rise of the Resistance, Radiator Springs Racers and Toy Story Midway Mania will be there forever. So will Matterhorn Bobsleds and Jungle Cruise once they reopen. They aren’t going anywhere. But even Hannah looked at me like I was insane when I made this suggestion.

The one ride that may never be the same again is Splash Mountain — with the “Princess and the Frog” makeover coming soon. So if that’s your jam, then it might be worth the wait.

How crowded does Disneyland feel right now?

Disneyland hasn’t said what the capacity level is right now, but the rough estimate is likely about half of pre-pandemic levels. It’s higher than 25% or 35%, but it is certainly not anywhere near 100% capacity. Disneyland’s maximum capacity is likely around 85,000 — which means about 30,000 to 40,000 people are likely in the park each day right now.

That’s a lot of people, but Disneyland is more than 100 acres. The people are generally spread out and not everybody is there at once. But Disneyland is certainly more crowded than any place most of us have been in the last 15 months.

What’s the best way to avoid crowded days at Disneyland and DCA?

The best gauge of crowd size is ticket prices. Prices are lower when Disneyland thinks crowds will be lighter. If you’re paying top dollar, then expect bigger crowds. If you don’t care what day you go, pick a date with the cheapest ticket price.

How safe is it to be at Disneyland now that most COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted?

I am AARP age, fully vaccinated and wore my mask during our recent visit whenever I was indoors, on a ride sitting next to a stranger or in a crowded space like a queue. I would estimate about 20% of the people at the park were wearing masks. I found the walkways, shops and restaurants relatively uncrowded by Disneyland standards and didn’t wear my mask whenever I could maintain physical distance.

It is possible to maintain six feet of physical distance most of the time while you’re in the parks. And you can choose rides that have five- or 10-minute wait times if you don’t need to get on the most popular attractions and want to avoid crowds.

As always, you need to do what is best for yourself based on your risk level or underlying medical condition when it comes to coronavirus concerns.

Disneyland felt much more crowded than it really was before state COVID-19 restrictions ended on June 15. That was because the park was forced to socially distance queues and keep waiting visitors outdoors. As a result, walkways were crowded with snaking queues in unusual places.

That’s not happening as much any more. But if you see it happening, don’t get on that attraction. The same pre-pandemic rules that guided your visit in the past should be followed now.

Pirates of the Caribbean is a good example. When we were at the park the line was wrapping along the Rivers of America waterfront and impeding access to New Orleans Square. That happened a lot during physical distancing times at Disneyland. If you see something like that happen, go ride something else. Pirates of the Caribbean will be there the next time you visit.

Which comes to another bit of advice: You don’t need to do everything on this visit. And more importantly: You don’t need to ride all the E-Tickets on this trip. Try some of the less popular rides that you haven’t been on in awhile. They deliver the same nostalgic charm without the pre-pandemic memories of waiting in long lines.

You can’t park hop right now until 1 p.m. But you need to secure your second virtual queue boarding group for Rise of the Resistance or Web Slingers at noon. The noontime virtual queue is the same deal as the 7 a.m. virtual queue. Gone in seconds.

There are a few more caveats regarding the noon virtual queues.

First, you can only ride Rise of the Resistance and Web Slingers once a day using the virtual queue. You can ride both attractions one time each if you have a parkhopper ticket.

Second, you can’t book a second virtual queue until your first boarding group is called. That means if you move too slow at 7 a.m. and get a late boarding group that isn’t called until after high noon, then you are out of luck for the second virtual queue. You’ll want to keep your fingers crossed that neither ride experiences any downtime in the morning.

Third, if you are only going to one park and don’t have a parkhopper ticket, you get a second chance in the noon virtual queue if you miss out at 7 a.m.

The noon virtual queue is different from the 7 a.m. virtual queue in one other crucial way: You’re inside Disneyland or Disney California Adventure. You’ll be competing for bandwidth with two parks full of people trying to do the same exact thing as you. That likely wasn’t the case at 7 a.m. if you were at home, in your car or back at your hotel room.

The strategy for the noon virtual queue is to find a spot in the park where you get a lot of bars on your smartphone. Try to stay out of big crowds. And stay off Disney’s WiFi.

For lunch, we mobile ordered corn dogs two hours before we wanted them around 1 p.m — just before we parkhopped over to DCA. Hannah mobile ordered a Honey Buzz cocktail at Pym’s Tasting Lab with very little wait once we arrived at Avengers Campus around 2 p.m. — just before our Web Slingers boarding group was called.

After dinner ended at Napa Rose, we caught an Uber around 10 p.m. at Disney’s Grand Californian porte cochere — which was much easier and less crowded than walking back to the Harbor Boulevard dropoff/pickup area.

Overall, we had a great time at Disneyland and DCA — but it took a lot more planning and execution. Hannah made memories that will last a lifetime and it was a blast to celebrate her 21st birthday together as a family. Which is what a trip to Disneyland is ultimately all about.

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