Let me start by saying that in an ideal world, you will have a Park Hopper ticket valid for both Disney California Adventure and Disneyland Park, with Maxpass attached so that you can get Fastpasses whenever you want. But if you find yourself strapped for cash and holding a one-park-only ticket, here's our basically fool-proof way to best enjoy your trip to Disneyland (assuming the park hours are 8am-12midnight, but remember, park hours vary, so adjust this suggested schedule according to the daily times!):
Aim to get to the resort area at least an hour before rope drop (when the park officially opens - hours can vary, according to the Calendar). You’ll want to use this time to park in the Mickey and Friends parking lot (all the other lots are the worst), get through security, and take the tram (unless the lines are horrible, then just walk - it’s about a 15 minute walk from the structure to the park gate).
We usually put a mobile Starbucks order in when we get on the tram for the Starbucks closest to the park entrance. That way when you offboard the tram, you can just swing by Starbucks (a few feet away) on your way to the entrance.
Be sure to get a locker first-thing before entering the park - they fill up fast, especially during peak times. We usually get a locker to the left of the main entrance to Disneyland, by the Information Booth. Lockers are great for storing souvenirs that you don’t want to carry all day, and keeping your coats out of your hands until it cools down at night.
7:30 - 8:00 AM
You’re allowed into Disneyland to mosey around Main Street before the park officially opens. If you’re early enough and you didn’t want to face the lines at the Starbucks in Downtown Disney, you can get coffee at the Starbucks on Main Street while you walk to your rope-drop position.
Strategy is key for the first few hours of your day - this is maximum ride time! Have a snack before the park opens so you won’t have to stop for breakfast and slow your whole day down. Making the decision for what land to start in is important.
The majority of the morning crowd of Disneyland heads for these locations:
Peter Pan’s Flight - The line is shortest first thing in the morning, but it will be up to 45 minutes in no time unless you’re the very first person there, so unless you’re feeling particularly lucky, try something else instead.
Space Mountain - Nearly everyone heads for Tomorrowland first, so do yourself a favor and get a FastPass for Space Mountain later.
Indiana Jones - Indiana Jones is one of those rides that has a really unpredictable line, and usually at some point (or several points) in the day, the line will be just as short as it is in the morning. And don’t get a FastPass first thing - the lines are so short that you’re likely to get a return time of about a half-hour later.
People rarely start at these locations:
Splash Mountain - especially if it’s cold, no one wants to ride this one first-thing. Of course, the price you pay for no line is being freezing all morning.
All of the rest of Fantasyland - If you start with Alice (the ride that usually has the second-longest line in Fantasyland), you can ride pretty much all of Fantasyland’s rides (minus Peter Pan) in the first hour.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - if you want to walk on, Big Thunder’s line doesn’t get bad until about an hour after park opening.
8:00 - 10:00 AM
Ride as many rides as you can. Do not stop for Fastpasses. Do not stop for snacks.
10:00 - 2:00 PM
Have breakfast / lunch as close to 11:00 as you can, as lunch crowds will make getting food at noon annoying, unless you have a reservation somewhere.
By noon, the park will be crowded. Lines will be stacking up. If the Pirates of the Caribbean line has wrapped around the ramp outside of the entrance, it’s a good sign that it’s time to get some Fastpasses and consider taking it easy for a while.
This is a good time to ride the rides that rarely have lines. Small World is a good ride to count on, unless it’s the Holidays. The Train rarely has too long of a wait, especially if you plan to board at New Orleans Square or Tomorrowland station. Jungle Cruise nearly always has a wait of 15 minutes (if you see the line on the second floor, skip this one). Winnie the Pooh is also a good stand-by, plus you can get a treat at the end!
Now’s also a good time to enjoy the more laid-back attractions: take a cruise on the Mark Twain, watch Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, try the Sleeping Beauty Castle walkthrough, have a Dole Whip and watch the show at the Enchanted Tiki Room.
You can also single-rider some rides if you’re still feeling high-octane: Matterhorn rarely has a long single-rider line, and you can go for Indiana Jones if you want (though it’s not particularly hard to get a good wait time and go with your party on that one).
If you’re planning on seeing Fantasmic! Pick up a fastpass by noon - they don’t usually run out, but it’s good to have. Remember, Fantasmic fastpasses aren’t on the same system as the others, so it won’t hinder you from getting another Fastpass right away.
2:00 - 4:00 PM
Have a late lunch. If you’re overwhelmed, venture outside the park to Tortilla Jo’s or Trader Sam’s in the Disneyland Hotel. Take the monorail back to the park when you’re done - the entrance is right by the Disneyland Hotel, and the best view of the Park is on the trip back from the Hotel.
If you don’t have a reservation, good places for lunch are: The French Quarter, The Hungry Bear, possibly Cafe Orleans if you’re lucky enough to get in without a reservation, Rancho del Zocalo, The Plaza Inn (for fried chicken!).
Hopefully you’ll have a Fastpass or two lined up for this time by now. Ride your big ticket rides, and stroll through the shops throughout Disneyland.
This is also a great time to take a circle-tour of Disneyland on the train. Sit back and enjoy the full loop. If the crowds are still rough, ride on one of the many Main Street Transportation vehicles - the Omnibus is particularly fun if you have a seat on the top tier.
4:00 - 6:00 PM
Now is the perfect time for something like Mickey and the Magical Map, if you’re tired. It’s also the perfect time for some more caffeine, so hit up Starbucks like your life depends on it.
Have a snack to keep you going - you’re going to need your strength for Night Time at Disneyland. It just so happens that the snacks at the Troubadour Tavern by Mickey and the Magical Map are some of the heartiest and best in the park - try the Brat, the baked potato, the pretzel bites, and the sweet twist (whatever the flavor).
6:00 - 8:00 PM
Eat dinner. Hopefully you have a reservation. If not, try: Hungry Bear, Plaza Inn, Downtown Disney.
Between the hours of 4 and 8 are prime meltdown time. Make sure you’ve brought something like Advil, because your feet are probably killing you by now. Have some more caffeine if you need it, and have a snack even if you don’t think you’re hungry. Don’t be afraid to take it easy for a while! There’s a lot to do in Disneyland but being exhausted will really sour the experience.
8:00 - 11:00 PM
Time for a nighttime spectacular or two!! Line up for Fantasmic! On the Rivers of America at least half an hour before the entry starts on your Fastpass. You can view the fireworks and projections from Rivers of America after Fantasmic! If you see the first show.
Pro tip: crowds are always less for the second showing of Nighttime shows, because the majority of guests leave after the fireworks.
11:00 - 12:00 AM
Now’s your last chance to ride whatever you feel like you’ve missed. Remember, as long as you’re in line when the park closes, you can still ride whatever you’re lined up for - so make sure you’re using your time down to the last second!
The Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage usually has its’ shortest wait time first thing in the morning or at night - the problem with riding it at night is that it’ll put you right to sleep.
Other lines that are particularly short at night are: Splash Mountain (again with the freezing thing), Fantasyland, the train, Autopia.
The best time to get on Peter Pan’s Flight is either first thing in the morning (if you’re at the park super early) or at 11:59 at night, because if you’re going to wait 45 minutes for a non-thrill ride, you might as well make it 45 minutes that you couldn’t use to do anything else.
Plan on Fastpassing:
Haunted Mansion (during Summer or Holidays)
Small World (during the Holidays)
Big Thunder (possibly)
Indiana Jones (possibly)
Do Not Get in Line if the Line is Longer than 15 Minutes:
Pirates of the Caribbean
Winnie the Pooh
Any Fantasyland Ride
Any Ride You Can Fastpass
Food You Should Eat (Without a Reservation):
Cookies from Any Treat Counter
Gumbo in a Breadbowl
Plaza Inn Fried Chicken
Hungry Bear Crispy Chicken Sandwich
Food You Should Eat (With a Reservation):
Plaza Inn Breakfast (Character Meet and Greet / Breakfast Buffet)
Remember, you’re in Disneyland to have fun! Give yourself time to experience the Disney Magic, whether it’s watching the Dapper Dans perform on Main Street, or spying Peter Pan and Captain Hook parading through Fantasyland. Take some time to rest and relax and don’t push yourself too much - you’ll have a much better time if you come at your trip with a little bit of strategy and a lot of flexibility. And don’t forget our Rules of Disneyland!