There used to be a time when you could just decide on a whim you wanted to visit Disneyland , drive to the park, buy a ticket and walk in the front gate. Those days are long gone. Now, planning a trip to Disneyland requires weeks, sometimes months, of advance preparation. You can blame the pandemic for a lot of the changes: the company probably wouldn't have implemented a ticket reservation system if there weren't capacity limits, have scrapped the existing annual pass program without a park closure, or be facing such huge staffing challenges and the problems with dining availability that they've caused without shutdown-induced layoffs.
But some of the changes making things more complicated at Disneyland are coming from an increased reliance on new technology and systems. The park is now reliant on guests using technology for everything from tickets to reservations to wait times to food ordering to making purchases. It's a lot to take in, and it's overwhelming, even for people who have been keeping up with the changes and who have some knowledge base for the new protocols.
"Protocols" isn't a word we're used to using with Disneyland, and I'm not going to lie, it can be a downer to have to jump through all the new hoops to fully enjoy a day at the park. But if you don't read up in advance before you go, you're going to miss out on a lot of what the park offers, especially when it comes to new rides and getting to try the most popular seasonal treats . Take it from SFGATE columnist Rod Benson, who went to Disneyland recently without reading up on the changes since his last visit.
"Why does one need a community college-level course on how to just get by at Disneyland without ending up upset?" Benson wrote after he missed out on Star Wars Rise of the Resistance and had to wait an hour for a mobile food order because he didn't know the systems in advance. "How many degrees in Disneyology does it take to book a lunch?"
Here's everything you need to know about how to plan a Disneyland trip right now.
You definitely need a smartphone … and a spare battery
Before the pandemic, a smartphone was a nice bonus to have at the park: you could check ride times through the Disneyland app, and take photos. Now, a smartphone is a necessity. Magic Keys are only scanned through the app, and many food sellers are now mobile-only, meaning that you place a mobile food order in the Disneyland app and then show a code to pick it up. Even if you do wait in line to order, you're strongly encouraged to pay with a card or the mobile wallet in your phone. That means if you have a Magic Key discount, you need to have your app open to scan your pass, then close that app, open the mobile wallet app on your phone, then choose your payment method and go through the steps to pay. Lines for physical ordering have been long lately, especially during the California Adventure Festival of the Holidays, and that process is a huge contributor to the delays.
Smartphones are also the only way to gain entry to virtual queues for rides.
Given how much more time you're going to spend on your phone at the park, you're going to run down your battery life quickly. Make sure to bring a spare battery with you. A phone charger isn't a great choice because there are very few outlets around, and you'll have to sit there and wait for your phone to charge. Better to charge on the go. External battery chargers are available at Disneyland if you forget, though, but they're pricey.
You need a ticket and a reservation
Since Disneyland reopened from its pandemic closure, there has been a system in place to keep capacity limited. First, that was a requirement of the state for its tiered reopening system, but Disney kept it in place to manage crowd size and attempt to lower ride wait times, both of which were pain points for guests before the pandemic who claimed that too many annual passholders were allowed into the park at a time and took away from the experience of vacationers. (More on that later.)
To get into Disneyland now, you need to buy a ticket in advance, and then make a park reservation for that day. There are six tiers of tickets, the most expensive of which is for the most popular days and tops out at $164 for a single day, single park adult admission. The simplest thing to do is go to the Disneyland website's ticket portal . You choose how many days, what kind of ticket, and then pick either a single park Disneyland Park or Disney California Adventure or park hopper (two park) ticket. From there, you pick your date, and the site will tell you how much that day will cost you. If the date you want isn't available, try backtracking and choosing the other option between single park and park hopper. Sometimes there are tickets available for one ticket type but not the other.
As of publication time, the only two dates available to purchase Disneyland tickets in 2021 are Thanksgiving Day and New Year's Eve. This presents a significant challenge for people who need to travel to the parks, because they can't plan ahead unless they're doing so for January or beyond. Locals have it a little easier, because tickets often open up the day before or the morning of.
Parking isn't as easy as it used to be
The Mickey and Friends garage, which is the main garage for day-trippers to the parks (and was the impetus for a massive lawsuit in which 25,000 Cast Members sued Disney for a living wage), is still where you'll likely park when you visit. That's the one that signs direct you to when you take the Disneyland Drive exit off the 5. However, be prepared for a long walk: the parking garage trams aren't running now, and you'll need to hoof it about three-quarters of a mile from your car to the park gates.
If you park at the "Toy Story" lot on Harbor Boulevard, there are shuttle buses that will take you to the Disneyland entrance on that street. There are upsides and downsides to both. The walk is long from Mickey and Friends to the parks, but between security and the walk, you'll be at the gate in about 20 minutes. If you park in the "Toy Story" lot, you'll get a ride to the park, but it will still take at least 20 minutes to get there between walking from your car to the shuttle stop (which can be a hike in itself, depending on where you park), waiting there for a shuttle, riding to the park, then going through Harbor Boulevard security.
The real downside to "Toy Story" is at night, when the wait can be half-an-hour or more for a shuttle back to your car. You might be tired and have to slog through a long walk back to Mickey and Friends, but at least you won't have to stand in a long line and then have a long walk to your car. Parking at either is $30 without a Magic Key discount, and goes up for larger vehicles or Mickey and Friends preferred parking.
Disneyland has said that trams are coming back in 2022, but no date has been announced yet. As of last month, Monorail service has returned to the park, shuttling people between the Disneyland Hotel end of Downtown Disney and Tomorrowland inside Disneyland Park.
You might not be able to get an annual pass
At the beginning of 2021, Disneyland scrapped their Annual Pass program , which was rumored to have about 1 million subscribers. The replacement, launched this summer, is the Magic Key program , which costs about the same and has about the same perks as the old program did. However, it's much harder to get reservations.
Reservations are an especially touchy subject for Magic Key holders. Availability is so limited that the majority of people can't get the dates they want. You're allowed to book your reservations 60 days out, but as soon as the in-demand weekend dates are opened up, they're scooped up almost immediately by people who set calendar reminders to book their park reservations.
To alleviate the problem of limited availability for Magic Key holders, Disneyland paused sales of the top-tier Dream Key, and is only selling passes with more blackout dates at the moment.
Dining reservations are complicated, but not strictly necessary
Disneyland says it releases availability for restaurants 60 days out. Depending on which blog you read or Facebook group you listen to, the release could happen at midnight, 3 a.m., or randomly. The truth is the reservations are released when they're released , sometimes 50 or 40 days out. You either need to check the Disneyland app several times a day to snag a coveted Blue Bayou or Carthay Circle reservation, use a third-party reservation site that alerts you to availability, or hope to get lucky and snag a last-minute cancellation.
It's not all bad news, though. There are walk-up lines for every restaurant in the parks, and the earlier you go up and ask, the better your chances of sitting down at a place like Napa Rose. (Pro-tip: The nicer you are to Cast Members and the more politely you speak to them, the more likely they will be to find you a spot somewhere. This applies to almost every situation in life, but Cast Members have an especially hard job right now with all these new procedures.) There is also a virtual walk-up line through the Disneyland app, but it uses your location to determine eligibility, so you can't put yourself on the 90-minute wait list for Trader Sam's while you're in line at Space Mountain.
How to handle virtual queues
Virtual queues are a tricky subject. There are some rides at Disneyland that have been virtual queue only since they opened. Star Wars Rise of the Resistance now has a regular line you can wait in to get on the ride. Up until this week, it had a virtual queue that required a complicated procedure at 7 a.m. to get a spot on the ride. The same with Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure, which switched to a physical queue earlier this fall. Many have said the physical lines are better, even with the two hour-plus wait times Rise of the Resistance has seen this week, because if it's your must-ride you'll be willing to sacrifice that much time of your park day to get on.
There are no fast passes, but there will be soon
The advent of a physical queue for Rise of the Resistance, though, means that Genie Plus is coming soon to Disneyland. This is the new, paid fast pass system that will cost guests $20 per person per day for access to shorter Lightning Lanes that replace the old, free fast pass lanes. In addition, Rise of the Resistance and a few other highly in-demand rides will cost a separate fee to ride. The system has had a bumpy rollout at Walt Disney World, with many guests confused as to how the passes work and disappointed that rides like ROTR sell out before the park opens for the day. Disneyland's system hasn't been implemented yet, but there are signs up throughout the parks, and the company has been saying the release would be this fall. Signs point to that being very soon. When Genie Plus debuts, it's going to require a lot more explaining — but for now, as with almost everything else at Disneyland these days, just keep an eye on the app, and you'll have the most up-to-date information.
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