Having just returned from Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, I can confirm that there is quite a bit that you need to know about visiting these popular theme parks after their reopening.

I grew up in Orange County, so I have been visiting Disneyland Resort since I was in diapers. I would say that the experience is both familiar but yet different in 2021.

So, I’ve put together all of the Disneyland tips and tricks in mind as you plan your trip now and for the future.

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1. Buy Disneyland Resort Tickets and Make Reservations in Advance

A Disneyland paper ticket held up in front of Main Street USA.
You will still receive a paper ticket.

Guests ages 3 and above need a valid ticket and a reservation for the day they intend to visit the park. Believe it or not, we were behind people in line who had tickets but no theme park reservations.

I think this confusion is coming from a couple of places. First, if you had tickets for before the parks closed, these tickets are still valid through December 17, 2021. You can still use them, but you will need to make Disneyland reservations online.

You can also buy discount Disneyland tickets to save money on admission for two days or longer. I actually sell them through this site. Buy your tickets and then separately make a reservation for the dates you’d like to go. You can check available dates before you purchase tickets. I recommend a Park Hopper ticket because the two park gates are so close to each other.

Either way, be sure that you have a reservation and that you are arriving on the date of that reservation. Out-of-state residents are also allowed to visit California theme parks starting on June 15.

2. You Must Bring a Mobile Device with the Disneyland App Installed

I’ll dive deeper into this topic but want to mention this up front and center. You can’t enjoy Disneyland to its fullest unless you have the Disneyland mobile app downloaded on a mobile device.

If you have older kids in your party who will split off from you during your visit, this applies to them, too. My daughter signed up for her own Disneyland account so that she and her friends could have access to mobile ordering.

I was in line behind a lady who did not have a mobile phone and she was having a difficult time ordering food.

There is free WiFi in the park so you don’t need to tap into cellular service to use the app.

3. Check the Face Covering Policy

Ages 2 and older are currently required to wear face coverings fitting securely around the chin that cover the nose and mouth at all times in the parks, except in the designated dining areas.

Bandanas and neck gaiters are not permitted. You can read up on the policies here.

4. Arrive at Least an Hour Early

Distanced lines in front of Disney California Adventure Park entrance

Right now, park hours begin at 9 a.m. (though they can open at 8 a.m.). If that’s your goal, plan to arrive around 8 a.m. to navigate the security and entrance queues. We walked over from JW Marriott Anaheim and entered through the Harbor Blvd entrance.

The security line is now also a health and safety check line that weaves through what is otherwise the tram and bus lot. The line did move, but it took us a good hour from the time we got in it until we actually entered the park turnstiles.

The spacing of guests in the line is meant to be 6 feet apart, and most were obeying the markers. Everyone was subject to a temperature check (ending on June 15, 2021) before going through the bag check and metal detectors.

Once past security, you’ll get in line for the park you are entering first. These lines move slower than usual because guests are fumbling with their apps, reservations, and tickets.

The parks had only been open for two weeks, but many guests thought their reservation QR codes were their tickets and vice versa.

5. Get There Even Earlier to Be Inside of the Parks at “Rope Drop”

During normal times, guests are allowed through the turnstiles and up to the end of Main Street U.S.A. or Buena Vista Street. The end is roped off so that guests can not pass through. Every morning they will “drop” the ropes there right at opening time so that guests near the rope can rush to their favorite rides.

These guests have an advantage because they are already in the park. The strategy is to head to the most popular rides first. If you’re into thrill rides, make it Space Mountain or Matterhorn. Families with small kids should head to Fantasyland rides that normally have long lines like Dumbo or Alice in Wonderland. Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean are good choices also.

If you’re at Disney California Adventure, head straight to Cars Land for Radiator Springs Racers or Guardians of the Galaxy.

If you are this deep into the parks before most other people, it’s possible to clock in a couple of rides early that you otherwise would wait in long lines for.

To arrive in time for rope drop, through security and at the park gates 30-45 minutes before the park actually opens.

However, we’re in an era where people gathering isn’t ideal. Right now, there isn’t a rope drop. It’s actually better. They’ve been letting people inside the parks before they technically open. No rope barrier is holding people back. People have been able to get deeper into the parks well before opening time and even ride several rides before the official opening time.

As they say, the early bird gets the worm (or rides the rides). When FastPass is active, you can also start selecting FastPasses once inside the park, even if it’s before the official park opening time.

Families ride Dumbo at Disneyland.
A classic Disney ride.

Whether you’re at rope drop or not, lines are shorter earlier in the day. So, make a plan to hit the popular Disneyland rides with short lines first.

Another reason to download the Disneyland app is to get a feel for wait times which you will want to check regularly. The main reason is because the parks are not issuing FastPasses. FastPasses allow passholders to join a shorter ride line at a designated time window. Without FastPasses, all guests are waiting in the same general line.

Those of us used to managing FastPasses may find this difficult.

Note also that sometimes the wait times on the app are longer than they appear. This happened to me several times during our recent visit.

Also, there are no single rider lines to take advantage of right now. Single riders queue with everyone else.

7. Use the Virtual Queue Strategy to Pick Disneyland or Disney California Adventure as Your First Park

Guests walk through Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland.

When you purchase Park Hopper tickets, you’ll make a reservation for the park you’d like to visit first. You can visit the other park after 1 p.m.

If you’d like to ride Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance (which I highly recommend making a priority), choose Disneyland as your first park.

If you’d like to ride WEB SLINGERS: A Spider-Man Adventure, choose Disney California Adventure as your first park.

The reason is that you’ll be given two opportunities to make a virtual queue reservation at 7 a.m. and 12 p.m. for the ride inside of the first park you enter. You are eligible to enter a virtual queue at the second park only in the 12 p.m. timeslot.

8. Plan Time to Make Your Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance Ride Reservation (and Prepare Not to Get One)

Stormtroopers lined up during Rise of the Resistance.
This is the best Disney ride ever.

You’ll want to be focused and available to join virtual queues around 7 a.m. and 12 p.m.

Now that people know how to join virtual queues, it’s becoming harder and harder to secure a place in it. I recently read that nearly 70% of people are unsuccessful in securing a Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance reservation. All spaces in the queue will be gone within seconds of the clock striking 7 a.m. and 12 p.m. This is no joke. Hopefully, the addition of WEB SLINGERS: A Spider-Man Adventure in the new Avengers Campus will dilute the mad rush and allow more people to join in the fun.

Here’s what you need to do. Ensure that your group’s tickets are linked together in the Disneyland app on every group member’s phone. So, if there are four people in your group, all four of you need to have four tickets linked together in the Disneyland app.

(This is really easy to do and the app gives instructions. Basically, use the app to scan the ticket bar codes so that they pop up in your Disneyland app. You can unlink members of your party later if you want to.)

Screenshots of the Disneyland app home pages where you link tickets and more.
You’ll be prompted to link tickets from the app’s home feed (left) or by clicking the hamburger menu (right) and then Tickets and Passes.

Everyone in your group should be ready with fast fingers at 6:59 a.m. and 11:59 a.m. Make sure all other apps are closed on your phone so that it can operate efficiently. It is a race, and every millisecond matters.

If you can nail it right as the clock turns noon, that’s ideal. The next screen will show the members of your party automatically checked. Blow right past that screen because if you hesitate there even for an extra second, you’ll be out of luck.

If you can secure a boarding group number, check the app periodically to gauge what time your boarding group boards the ride. This estimated time can change and is based on how quickly other riders pass through the queue.

In the event that you don’t secure a spot in the virtual queue, you may be placed in a backup boarding group. Backup boarding groups can ride if all of the initial boarding groups ride at a faster than expected pace.

We were unable to secure a place in the virtual queue during this visit. And, I know what I’m doing. Our apps stalled.

You’ll use this same strategy to make WEB SLINGERS: A Spider-Man Adventure virtual queue reservations.

9. You’ll Wait in Other Ride, Restaurant, and Store Queues Outside

We were lucky to visit on an overcast day. But sunshine is a real pleasure and concern in Southern California.

You will spend most of the day outside. Even retail stores around the parks had queues outside because only a certain amount of people are permitted into indoor spaces right now.

Because of the space required between each person in line, the queues wrap around the park in creative and unusual common places that do not usually have lines. Many of these places are unshaded. And, the lines look much longer than they actually are.

Be prepared with sun protection. Bring a hat and wear sunscreen.

10. Plan Your Meals and Snacks Ahead of Time with Mobile Ordering

Disneyland mobile ordering sign in front of Bengal Barbecue.

The parks place a huge emphasis on mobile ordering. In fact, some outlets only take mobile ordering. Here’s an example.

The walk-up Tiki Juice Bar where you can normally purchase Dole Whip on the fly is temporarily closed. Instead, you can get it at The Tropical Hideaway quick service restaurant around the corner. I arrived around 1:15 p.m., thinking that I could walk up and grab a long-awaited Dole Whip.

The staff member patrolling the line told me that I had to use the mobile app to order from The Tropical Hideaway. The next available time slot was 4:30-5 p.m., over 3 hours later. We experienced other similar but not quite as long waits for other food pick-ups around the park.

I thought I could order lunch at Angry Dogs in Disney California Adventure when it opened at 11 a.m. but instead had to wait for a noon pick-up time. The first available Jolly Holiday Bakery cafe pick-up time was about 90 minutes from when I placed a mobile order around 2 p.m.

The moral of the story is that you can not wait until you’re starving to order food because the pick-up times may be later. I am unsure how the park will navigate this when they can operate at a higher capacity.

One nice thing about mobile ordering is that you’ll be given a 30-minute window to pick up your food. That doesn’t necessarily mean that your food has been sitting under a heat lamp for that length of time. As you walk up to the restaurant, click the “I’m here” button. You may still wait in line for a little bit while they prepare or gather your food.

This brings me to another point. Don’t assume that mobile ordering means that you’ll be able to walk right up to a window to pick up your food. You may need to join a queue behind other people who are waiting for their mobile orders.

11. Research What to Eat in Advance

Matterhorn macaroon from the
Matterhorn macaroon from the Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe.

Disneyland food is actually pretty good. I personally think that infrequent visitors to the park will get the most out of a visit by looking into must-eat desserts, snacks, and meals before they arrive.

That way, you’ll know that this Matterhorn macaroon is one of the best things to eat and where to find it when the hankering strikes. I like it better than Dole Whip even (getting both is better.)

12. Bring Your Own Water and Snacks

If paying $4 for bottled water doesn’t appeal, you are allowed to bring your own water. You can also bring your own snacks and food. They do not allow glass containers.

Some other limitations include that food must not have pungent odors and that you can not bring in alcoholic beverages.

If you have specific dietary restrictions, I would encourage you to bring your own food right now unless you have a table service restaurant reservation where you can speak to waitstaff about your preferences. Mobile ordering gives some ability to customize, but it’s minimal.

13. You Can Only Eat and Drink in Designated Areas

Current face covering rules require guests to only remove them when in a designated dining area. Luckily there are many of these places scattered throughout both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. They could be actual dining tables or benches.

So, technically, skip the sips of bottled water until you reach one of these areas. Cast members will instruct guests to mask up if they see one out of place.

14. Make Table Service Reservations in Advance

Select Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, and Downtown Disney restaurants take reservations up to 60 days in advance.

Plan to make your dining reservations as soon as that window opens up for you. Time slots will fill quickly. You can make dining reservations through the app without having already purchased a ticket. But, of course, you will need a valid park ticket and a theme park reservation on the day you plan to dine.

Here is the list of Disneyland restaurants that take reservations. One important note is that your entire party must be present before Cast Members will seat you.

15. You Can Find Adult Beverages

Yes, you can find alcohol now at both parks. At Disneyland, Olga’s Cantina in Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge serves galactic cocktails and Blue Bayou now serves wine, beer, and New Orleans-inspired cocktails like hurricanes.

It’s quite pleasant to sip a glass of wine while resting tired feet at Carthay Circle in Disney California Adventure. You can do the same at Lamplight Lounge, Mendocino Terrace, Hollywood Lounge, and a couple of other dining locations in this park.

Tip: One of the most popular events of the year is the Disney California Adventure Food and Wine Festival.

16. Character Greetings from a Distance Are Still Great

Elsa waits to greet fans.

Character greetings look a little different in 2021. There are no hugs or selfies. Instead, kids and families get to chat with their favorite Disney characters from a safe distance. Kids still burst with joy and they’ve done a nice job of making sure everyone gets a photo op.

You’ll also see characters cleverly scattered around the park in unexpected places. We saw Chip and Dale in the woods and Goofy fishing from a building, to name a few. To be honest, the characters are more visible than usual this way. I think this is because they are not always at ground level being mobbed by enthusiastic guests.

17. Wear Your Best Walking Shoes

A day at Disneyland Resort, let alone multiple days, is a lot of walking. Wear your best walking shoes. Bring some Band-Aids or Compeed blister bandages just in case. Even the best shoes may not spare your feet from some wear and tear.

You may also want to pack an extra pair of socks just in case the ones you’re wearing get soaked on the water rides.

18. Lockers Are Temporarily Closed (But Helpful When They’re Not)

One of my favorite Disneyland tips is to get a locker for the day. You can find them on Buena Vista Street in Disney California Adventure or Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland as well as The Esplanade in Downtown Disney.

This way you can carry only what you need around the park. And perhaps stash some extra snacks or bottled water in them in addition to perhaps an impulse merchandise purchase.

19. Bring an External Battery

The Disneyland app will drain your mobile phone battery. Bring your own external battery (I use this one) or buy a Fuel Rod kit at one of the several park locations.

Fuel Rods are a bit of a last resort because one Fuel Rod really equals one phone charge. You need to buy the kit which is $20 for one Fuel Rod plus cords. Then you can exchange the Fuel Rod for a new one for $3. Having your own external battery that can power your phone multiple times over is a more economical solution in the long run.

(That being said, I carry Fuel Rods to theme parks because I’m grandfathered into a plan that doesn’t require me to pay for swaps. They are more lightweight than my external battery.)

20. Stay in a Nearby Hotel

When Extra Magic Hour is available, I am a huge fan of staying in one of the three Disneyland Resort hotels. This is when you get early admission to the parks — which park it alternates by the day so you could visit one on the day of check-in and the other on the day of check-out.

However, there are also plenty of hotels near Disneyland that are within a very short walk. You’ll probably save money and perhaps even score free breakfast or parking. And though we live just over an hour’s drive away, I prefer to stay overnight because we are always exhausted after a day at the parks.

If you are looking for luxury within walking distance, I highly recommend the JW Marriott Anaheim. A full review of this new hotel is coming.