Tips from my recent Disneyland visit
From the Desk of Rich on Tech
It’s been a bit since we’ve been to Disney as a family, but with pandemic restrictions mostly gone and a AAA SoCal Disney ticket offer on my laptop screen, I decided to take the plunge.
I bought four 3-Day Park Hopper passes with Genie+, which includes the new Lightning Lane feature. Read on for my take on the new tech-forward Disneyland (and California Adventure), the best things I brought with me and the worst part of the entire experience.
Let’s start with your tickets. As soon as you buy them, you want to link them to your Disney account using the Disneyland App. Since you currently need a reservation to get into the park, this is the easiest way to see any potential blockout dates and pick the park you want to attend first thing in the morning.
Yep, everything must be scheduled in advance right now. There is no walking up. There is no choosing a park when you arrive. Once you select your ticket inside the app, you’ll see a calendar which will show which park is available that day. These selections are constantly changing as people change and cancel their reservations, so keep checking if your first choice isn’t available.
We chose to start at Disneyland on the first day and California Adventure on the second day. At 1 PM, you can switch to the opposite park. Keep in mind, you don’t have to walk over right at 1, it can be any time after this.
We stayed at a nearby hotel, specifically the Hilton Home2 Suites. It’s a newer hotel about a 10-minute walk from the entrance of the park. We arrived in the afternoon before our park reservation and spent two nights there. I think arriving the day before is the way to go.
I am not a fan of backpacks, but when you have two kids in tow, that’s just the way it needs to be. I packed sanitizer wipes, sunscreen, a cooling towel, water bottle, a sweatshirt jacket, and a backup battery for my phone.
People don’t realize something about California: in the sun, it’s blazing hot, but as soon as you step into the shade or the sun goes down, it’s cool enough for a jacket. Layers are always your best option for any California trip. That way you can always adjust for the temperature.
I debated bringing the reusable water bottle, as they sell water bottles all over the park and I wasn’t sure if they had refilling stations. Turns out they have plenty of water filling stations everywhere except near Main Street. You’ll need lots of water throughout the day and a reusable bottle will save you a lot of money. At lunch, I tossed in one of my favorite hydrating tablets from Nuun, which also has a bit of vitamins and caffeine.
The best thing I brought along was a backup battery. Since you are constantly using your phone in the park, the last thing you want is a dead battery. I used a MagSafe battery pack from MyCharge, but there are many others from Anker and Mophie that will do the trick. If your iPhone is a 12 or 13 I highly recommend a MagSafe charger since it will wirelessly charge your phone without any cables. Otherwise, if you’re Android or have a previous model iPhone, this Anker battery pack will do the trick.
Before I get into the Disneyland App, Genie+ and Lightning Lane, let me give you a quick tip about a real Starbucks in the park. It’s Market House on Main Street. You can get specialty Starbucks drinks they let you pay with your Starbucks App, handy if you don’t want to miss out on your reward Stars.
Once you scan your tickets at the front entrance (just show them on the Disneyland App!), you are ready to use Genie, Genie+ and Lightning Lane.
Disney Genie is free and included in every ticket. It’s an AI driven itinerary for your day, which takes into account your preferences and attempts to help you find the best times to visit various restaurants, attractions and shows. You tell the Genie what you want to do, see and eat, and it will suggest what to do next or what time to go. I found this to be interesting but ultimately, not that helpful.
Genie+ is a paid add on, I believe it’s $20 per ticket and includes Lightning Lane and unlimited photo downloads from the people that take your pictures around the park. I know that Disney tickets are already expensive, but this add on is worth it if you have bigger kids because it includes many of the most popular rides.
Lightning Lane is the new name for FastPass, which is no longer available. That used to be free, Lightning Lane is not. Many rides are included in Genie+ but not all of them. You can pay a one-time fee to access Lightning Lanes on several of the most popular rides including Spider Man, Cars and Star Wars.
We opted to pay the one-time fee for the Cars ride (Radiator Springs Racers) which was $15 per person, for a total of $60 to ride for a family of four - on top of the ticket price, on top of the Genie+ price. Yes, things can add up quickly at Disney.
I experienced one hiccup with the Genie+ service when I first entered the park: it didn’t work. I just kept getting an error message, which was frustrating for a service we paid for. Also, we were wasting valuable time not going on rides while we waited in line at the customer service booth to figure it out. They made us a manual Lightning Lane reservation, which worked, but I still couldn’t make one through the app.
I used the Disneyland chat feature to no avail. They couldn’t figure it out either and referred me to customer service in the park. Desperate, I ended up deleting an old Disneyland ticket I had saved in the app and suddenly, the Genie came to life.
I screenshotted the ticket so I didn’t lose access to it permanently, and I doubt this will happen to you, but you never know.
I really enjoyed having photos included in Genie+. There are photographers all over the park waiting to take your picture. Once they do, they scan a QR code displayed on your Disneyland App and their pictures are ready to download to your camera roll. You even get the choice of downloading them in low or high resolution.
Photos taken on the rides themselves are also included. This means no more snapping a photo of a screen at the end of a ride instead of buying the overpriced print. Pro Tip: take a picture of the picture, but use iPhone’s Live Text feature to select and copy the code on the picture. Paste this code into the Disneyland App for instant access to the digital version of these pictures.
Lightning Lane is simple. Eligible attractions are listed in the app, you can choose one reservation at a time and it will give you a window when you can redeem your front of the line pass. It’s best to go with the attraction that you can redeem soonest since you can’t make another reservation until that pass is redeemed (or it’s 2 hours later).
When you get to a ride, you go to a separate Lightning Lane line and scan the barcode on your phone. You still might have to wait a few minutes to board the ride, but it is always faster than the standby line. Once you scan and redeem your Lightning Lane pass, it’s a good idea to choose your next ride immediately. This way you can walk off one ride and pretty much walk onto another, depending on how crowded the park is.
You can also do a kid swap if you have different aged kids who might not want to go on the thrill rides. One parent goes with the first kid while the other parent stays back with the second kid. Then the other parent can go on the ride with the first kid again. This is technically supposed to be handled at the Lightning Lane point of entry, so be sure to say something as you scan your pass. We found many rides that would do the swap right where you board.
Keep in mind, you can only use the Lightning Lane option one time for each ride. Once you redeem it, that’s it. You can still ride again, but you’ll have to use the standby lane.
There are two major downsides of this new system.
First, people are looking down at their phones even more than ever since they are constantly checking wait times and researching their next Lightning Lane move.
Second, while you used to explore a section of the park and ride all those rides before moving on, there’s now much more jumping around from area to area as you hit up the next ride on your Lighting Lane, which might be clear across the park.
One thing I really liked about the Genie system is that it will help you discover things you might have overlooked in the past, especially shows and entertainment around the park.
Now, let’s talk about food. Like the rest of the world, Disney has gone mobile ordering. The process is easy: order food from your phone, check in when you’re close to the restaurant and in your allotted time and your phone will send you a notification with a pickup window number when your order is ready.
A few things to know about this process. First, I was impressed with the ordering system. You can modify your selections, which is handy for picky eaters but it also gives you an idea of all the possibilities available with that food item.
Also, there might be a few places where you can just walk up to someone and place an order “the old fashioned” way but a lot of the park functions with mobile ordering. We were turned away from a Churro booth in Cars land and asked to order from the app. Alternatively, I was able to just walk up to a popcorn stand, order and pay.
If you order food through the app and realize you can’t make it there in time, there is an option to cancel the order, but you can also reschedule your window, too.
I highly recommend setting up Apple, Samsung or Google Pay on your phone before you go into the park. Not only can you use these to tap to pay at most locations in the park, but you can also use Apple Pay for in-app transactions. I did not test if Google Pay or Samsung Pay works within the Disneyland App.
If you make reservations for sit down dining, Disney requires a credit card to hold the reservation. They say they charge a $10 no show fee per person. Reservations open 60 days in advance and require you to cancel 24 hours in advance if you can’t make it. We found that many desirable reservation times open a day or two before your visit because many people shuffle around plans.
If you find yourself stuck with a reservation you no longer want but you are past your 24-hour cancellation timeframe, you can politely ask the host to cancel it for you. We did this for Blue Bayou, which was under construction and not what we expected.
For another reservation, I tried a cancellation hack that seemed to work. You can use the app to change the reservation to a date in the future, then once that’s confirmed, you can go in and cancel it completely. Just keep in mind you might not be able to find a new time in the future for highly coveted places or Disney could put an end to this workaround at any time.
One more food tip: you can use the Disneyland app to search for the specific food item you’re craving. Just enter a keyword and it will surface the restaurants that serve it. Handy if you’re looking to chow down on something from a list like this.
When it comes to the two parks, Disneyland is much more of a classic experience, while California Adventure is more modern. They are both great in different ways, but California Adventure seems much more like a party atmosphere, with alcohol at every turn.
While parents might feel the squeeze of high prices and upsells around every turn, there is no denying the Disney magic. The attention to detail in both parks is impeccable and the quality of the attractions is top notch. Also, the parks are well maintained, with helpful and friendly employees around every turn.
However, I did find one area that was sorely lacking since my last visit and that is the restrooms. Disney restrooms used to be the cleanest of any theme park and typically there was always an attendant inside sprucing things up. Disney has cut back on this aspect of the park as multiple restrooms we visited were unkept.
Overall, we had a fantastic time and even with two days in the parks and many, many miles covered, there was still more to do. I checked my Apple Watch and we covered 11.6 miles the first day, 9.7 miles the second day and 43,214 steps total.
One mistake we made: trying to cram too much into one day without taking a sensible break. I was hesitant to go back to the hotel room midday to take a break from the parks and it ended up backfiring the first night.
We arrived at the park at 8 AM and planned to go until 9 PM for the fireworks show, but we all started falling apart around dinner time. Thus, we ended up leaving the park just before the fireworks and felt guilty about it.
In the end, we were able to see them from our hotel room window, but I would recommend taking a break midday in the form of a nap, hotel room rest or even a sit-down lunch where you can rest your feet for a bit.
Disney is one of those places where anticipation and expectations run high. My advice is to enjoy the little aspects of the experience and don’t try to do it all. By focusing on the shared experience of being together as a family or friends, you’ll have many memories, smiles and pictures to look back on.