Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Disneyland Tips, Tricks and Secrets #1

Good Morning. We are off to Disneyland, again, over Mother's Day weekend. It's my favorite place, ever. Its my happy place. But not just mine, my family's too. I love to share why its my favorite place and I love sharing how we tour. Disneyland can be expensive, frustrating and down right not worth it if you go in unprepared. I've seen it many times and I always feel sorry for the victim. Whether it be the crying, over tired child, or the frustrated and frazzled parent, I feel sympathy for their plight, especially when I know my experiences and advice could have likely prevented the entire situation. I share these same tips and tricks with friends and family who even mention they are going to Disneyland. I share in lines while there. And now I'm gonna share with you. Join us every Wednesday!

So, without further ado...

I make it a point to read this sign when I enter Disneyland at the beginning of each trip. Yes, each and everyone. And you should too. It sets the stage, so to speak, that Mr. Walt Disney so carefully planned for us nearly 60 years ago. He wanted to create a place the parents could play WITH their children and provide fun for the entire family. This series is all about taking that simple premise and making it apply to the reality of today's Disneyland.

First, when do we go? 

It used to be that there were weeks, even months in the year that were not busy. You got lighter crowds, but you also missed out on some of the rides and entertainment options. You see, when it isn't busy, Disney will take advantage of that opportunity to impact the least number of guests and do maintenance on rides, restaurants and other attractions. And give a vacation to some of its performers. It has to happen and it used to ONLY happen during slower times. Like September, October and November before Thanksgiving and then again in February and March leading up to Spring Break season and again after the Spring Break weeks until mid June. These rules aren't really true any more. Disney has done a remarkable job of taking one of the all time slowest months, October and transforming it into one of the busiest months with their special Halloweentime offerings. And special they are! We will cover that another day.

The marketing gurus have done that for most of the year. So now, the only quieter times in the park are in January after the kids are back in school and again in May before school lets out for the summer. Its just not enough time to get all of the maintenance done that a busy park requires. So they rotate the attractions throughout the year. January and May are known for attractions being down and for entertainment offerings being slim (especially during mid week). Its a trade off. Less crowds = shorter lines and cheaper hotels, but they also mean rides being closed, shows dark except on Fri, Sat and Sun and shorter park hours. Sometimes Disneyland will only be open from 9am to 8pm. 

The busiest times of the year are summer (duh!), Thanksgiving thru New Years and the Spring Break Season in March and April. Those months see far fewer ride closures, shows and entertainment will run at full capability (some shows show multiple times a day) and longer park hours. Disneyland will usually be open 8am to midnight every day. But that means more crowds (that are somewhat alleviated by more rides to be on and more shows to see and more hours to be in the park) and higher costs, especially for your hotel. 

If you are planning on a one time vacation to Disneyland Resort, I highly recommend going when the parks are operating at full capacity with as few things down and out as possible. The crowds can be managed, but you will never get to see that closed attraction or dark show.

If you have been before or plan to return again soon, off season can be a lot of fun. Sometimes you feel like you have the park to yourself. Its a trade off. We are going in May and know that Thursday will have almost no entertainment and shorter hours and the whole trip has a couple of killer rides closed. BUT we have been before and know we will be back. We will catch it all next time.

Something else to complicate the "when to go?" question is blackout dates for various Annual Pass holders. I recommend Googling Disneyland Annual Pass Blackout Calendar. There you will see when the different levels of Annual Passes are allowed, or not, into the parks. When the Southern California Resident ones are not blocked, it will likely be busy with locals that come later in the day, especially on the weekends and just before or just after a long stretch of blackout dates. You will see this little phenomenon just before and after the summer season, holiday and spring season blackouts. Like I said, they tend to come later in the day, but they definitely impact the parks.

So, now you have an idea of when to go. Next up...

Where do I stay?

You have choices. 
Stay on Disney property at one of their three hotels. The Grand Californian, Disneyland Hotel or Paradise Pier.
Stay off property. Nearby in one of the motels or further away in the bigger properties (like the Hilton).

Easy, right? Wrong. I have done them all (on some level); let me share my thoughts.

My first choice is always to stay at a Disney property. Its a top notch vacation choice. Especially the Grand Californian, which is practically in California Adventure (Disneyland Resort's second park) and steps from Disneyland itself. The other two are close as well. Staying in any of the three Disney hotels means you get early entrance to the park on each day of your stay that its available (meaning Tues, Thurs, Sat and Sun you get to enter the park 1 hour before the it opens to the rest of the public). This is some of the quietest times I have been in the park. Its amazing. We will talk about early entry more as we discuss park tickets and making your touring plan. Disney is known for its quality service levels and you will experience that same level of service at the hotels. And their pools are way cool kid magnets with water slides and kiddie splash areas and drink service for the adults. A real resort vacation experience.

But, Disney hotels are expensive. At least to me. $400 plus a night for their nicest hotel, the Grand Californian, is a bit rich for my blood. There are deals and discounts to be had, but they are becoming harder to come by. Something to discuss another day...

The alternative is off property. Disneyland is in the middle of a thriving, populated area. The Convention Center is just down the road and so is Angels Baseball Stadium. With those kinds of attractions comes a multitude of accommodation choices. For ease we are going to split them into two groups, the nearby (as in you can literally walk to Disneyland) properties and the larger, nicer hotel chains that you would need to drive to and from the park to utilize. 

We usually choose off property, but still within walking distance. Although the motels along Harbor Blvd that  are literally across the street are not 4 star resorts, they offer the easiest, most sensible (IMO) choice. 

I highly recommend researching the properties along here. They vary greatly in amenities, upkeep, service, location and cost. There are some that we will never stay in and others that we adore. The diagonal line at the tp of the map is I-5; I don't recommend  staying north of this point. I also don't consider anything south of # 31 and #34 as walking distance. #7, 11 and 1 require walking around the resort (yellow) to the entrance, which is at #9. The ones floating to the east (32, 35, 29, 30 etc) require a trek around the local streets too. Loong walk. Two of my personal favorites are the Howard Johnson (known as HOJO Anaheim) #26 and the Candy Cane Inn (not on the above map, but next to #16). Both run around $130 a night, both are about a 7 minute walk and both are clean, offer great service and pools with hot tubs. And you really can't go wrong with the tight knit group directly across the street, but they can be more expensive.  

 HOJO offers a second kids splash area with a small water slide and a water park style play structure. Great in the summer. And you can snag a deal on half price rooms if you keep an eye on their RETRO rates in the forums on their website. The RETRO rate can be illusive, but it mean $59/nite. All you need is an Entertainment Card or Annual Pass. Even if the RETRO rate isn't available during your dates, you can get 15% off with the Entertainment Card and 20% with an Annual Pass. Not too shabby when you are on a budget. 
Candy Cane Inn offers repeat customers and Annual Pass holders $10 off per night. What they don't have in discounts they offer in amenities. They have a private (and free) shuttle to and from Disney every half hour and they offer a fantastic continental breakfast (the BEST I have had in any hotel/motel). The service is impeccable and their landscaping  is classic southern California.

My other choice (if I need a budget choice and the HOJO Retro rate is not available) is Anaheim Plaza Inn. This property is also missing on the map above, I have no idea why, but its near #34. Its also a 7 minute walk to the park, but its a little older than the other two properties. Its clean, but worn. No shuttle, no breakfast. But they are usually around $60/nite and have a ton of parking. And an olympic size pool with a hot tub. 

Have you noticed a hot tub is important? At the end of a long day of walking around the parks and riding roller coasters you may be a touch sore. Hot tubs are an excellent cure.

Walking distance is a must have for us. If I am going to spend my hard earned cash and time off on vacation, I do not wish to spend it on the area's streets or in parking garages or on shuttles that make multiple stops. They are time sinks and take away from my trip to the Happiest Place on Earth. I prefer to park my car and not see it again until its time to go home. Plus, parking costs an additional $15/day at Disney and the "nicer" name brand hotels often charge additional for parking on their lots too. Even when your car is parked at Disneyland all day. Most offer a shuttle service called Anaheim Resort Transit, but it stops at almost all of the hotels in the area, fills quickly and can take forever! I'd rather just walk along the landscaped paths, drink my morning cup o' joe and discuss our plans for the day. 

Walking distance has another big plus too. Especially during busy times of the year or if you want to save money or if you have young children. You can go back to your hotel at any time, easily. Kids need a nap? You too? No problem. Want to eat a cheap lunch out of your cooler? Yep, you can do that! Or order a pizza for delivery! Hot? Go take a swim. Cool off, have a beverage of your choice and relax pool side.

By staying nearby you can change clothes easily, take a nap, eat cheaply, swim the hottest part of the day away, or escape the crowds on busy days! So important and invaluable for a successful experience. So much better than waiting for shuttles or being stuck in traffic or finding a parking space in a huge concrete parking garage.

Now, how long do we go for?

Most people can comfortably see the major things Disneyland Resort has to offer in three full days. If you have little ones or like detail, go for five. Trust me. Now, don't get me wrong it can be done in a day, and I will tell you how, but you won't see it all. Not even close.

The more days you enter the park, the cheaper each day gets. The other up side to three or more days is a perk that is normally reserved for Disneyland Resort Hotel guests. With a three day or longer park hopper ticket (meaning you can visit Disneyland and/or California Adventure at any time, on any day) you get to enter the park one hour before regular park opening once. We call these opportunities Magic Mornings. They are usually offered on Tues, Thurs, Sat and Sunday. With your three day (or longer) ticket you get to take advantage of this perk one time. That hour is magic. There is practically nobody in the park. I have ridden every ride in Fantasyland and Pirates of the Caribbean and Space Mountain in that hour. Seriously.

Next week we will discuss how to plan your time in the parks and do it all without driving yourselves, and your family, nuts. It can be done I promise.

Please chime in with your thoughts and experiences. I love to hear about other's trips and would love to learn a new tip, trick or secret! Its always a learning process.


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