How to Have a Magical Time at Disneyland in 2021
Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on our lives this past more-than-a-year in so many ways. But as our world slowly works its way back to normal, so too does our taste for Disney magic.
On April 30 this year Disneyland re-opened its doors for the first time in forever, with limited capacity, physical distancing rules, hand washing stations, and a couple of changes to the Disneyland experience we’ve maybe all come to know and love (or not love, depending on who you are).
My partner and I were lucky enough to secure ourselves a trip to our magical home away from home in early June (we wanted to make sure we were fully vaccinated before venturing out to such a public place), and we couldn’t be more thrilled! It’s been sooo long since we’ve been to Disneyland though, that I was initially pretty nervous about the trip. Aside from the obvious crowd issue (since capacity limits continue to rise as we get closer to lifting restrictions), I wanted to make sure that I rode all the rides I wanted, had all the treats I craved, and took all the pictures I adored in the limited hours of 9AM-9PM with the efficiency and fun that I felt I had so perfectly honed as a Disneyland annual passholder, and I was afraid I would be too rusty to make the most out of my time there.
I scoured the internet and different Facebook groups to look for tips and tricks on making the trip the best it can be, but of course no matter how you prepare, everything can change on the day of, so the best piece of advice I can give is to stay flexible and be patient. But of course, having a plan set in place will give you the best chance at making sure you hit all the spots you want to for the day. So today I’ll be sharing a combination of tips I’ve found from others and ones from my own experience! For context, I visited on a Tuesday, so crowds were likely smaller than they would be on a weekend and because it was early June capacity is still lower than it will be later in the year, so please keep that in mind! Let’s get started!
Get your boarding group on time
Whether you’re headed to DCA and want to ride the newest Web Slinger ride, or want to be the next rebel spy and are gunning for Rise of the Resistance, get your alarms set so you’re prepared to grab your boarding group on the Disneyland app at 7:00AM PST.
Open your Disneyland app around 6:58 AM and make sure you’re logged in.
I used someone’s tip of following the atomic clock and clicking “Join Boarding Group” at 6:59:59. However! I ended up getting to the virtual queue menu too early! So the blue “Join” button that is supposed to appear so you can grab your boarding pass wasn’t there yet!! So I had to rush back to the main menu then back to the queue menu and was able to join a boarding group and snag Group 75!! My boyfriend ran into the same exact issue as me since we both tried to join at 6:59:59, so I almost feel like the best thing is to just wait until 7:00:00. I was so relieved we could still get it since it boarding groups get snagged in seconds!
If you’re trying to get into the WEB Slinger queue, you can click “Join Boarding Group” at 6:59, which will bring you to the Disneyland tab, then at 7:00:00 click the DCA tab and click “Join”. Since we didn’t go to DCA I didn’t give that a try, but that seems like your best bet.
Of course, if you miss this opening at 7:00AM or if you’re doing a park hopper and Disneyland is your second park of the day, you have another chance to get in at 12:00PM.
Another thing to remember is that if you’re heading to both parks, you can only have an active boarding group for Web Slinger or Rise of the Resistance at once. Which isn’t really a problem because you can’t park hop until after 1:00PM anyway, but be sure to prioritize.
Indiana Jones also has a virtual queue. But it doesn’t start until the standby line in the parks fills up. So if you want to guarantee a chance to ride Indiana Jones, I would recommend making it one of your first rides of the day, since the virtual queue can pretty much open any time during the day.
If you’re lucky enough to be somewhat close to the parks, I’d stay in your home/Airbnb/room to get your boarding pass since your internet is likely better than trying to go off data at the parks. I took advantage of my internet, and I thoroughly believe it’s what enabled us to get in despite the slip-up. After we got our boarding passes, it was time to head straight to the parks!
Get to the parks early
We got to the Harbor entrance of the parks around 7:20AM and the line to get to security was already very long and snaking in so many directions!
It looked very intense and I was immediately nervous about the crowd. But it’s important to remember that because of all the spacing, lines look much longer than they actually are! And actually once you get into the esplanade, crowds don't look so large anymore. Lines didn’t start moving until around 8:00AM and we got past security and into the esplanade around 8:30AM. Security is much the same as it’s always been: you’ll open up your bags and pass them over to the cast member who will check your bag and walk through the metal detectors and you’re good to go! In general if you’re willing to walk to the farther lines, they’re typically shorter. Pro tip from me to you.
We scanned our tickets and passed through the magical Disneyland gates by 8:45AM and were headed straight to the wonderful, amazing, magnificent, beautiful Main Street U.S.A. I took a moment to take it in, take some pictures, skip down Main Street, and revel in the fact that we were actually back!!!!
Plan your rides accordingly
If rides are what you’re after (which is almost always the case for me), try to have a rough plan in place so you can get to them efficiently! Check out my schedule for the day below if you want an idea of how I organized my rides plan. The rides that had the longest wait times throughout the day were: Indiana Jones, Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Smuggler’s Run, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, and Snow White’s Enchanted Wish.
As I mentioned, Indiana Jones may have a virtual queue at some point in the day, so if you want to wait for that you can. But most of these rides do have lulls where the wait times are around 20 minutes that you can take advantage of, but also I think the longest wait I saw was 60 minutes for Haunted Mansion, so rides even at their worst wait times weren’t so bad.
I didn’t want to wait for the virtual queue, and I knew Indiana Jones would get busy later in the day (with good reason), so we made Indiana Jones our second ride of the day. The standby queue took around 30 minutes, which was great!
It’s also helpful to know what rides almost always have short wait times so you know what you can ride to fill some time. My favorite and most reliable short-wait rides are The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, Gadget’s Go Coaster, and Alice in Wonderland.
I was constantly checking the Disneyland app to find short wait times and kept an eye out on the larger rides to find those wait time breaks.
If you and your party can be flexible with your meals, I’d recommend eating at off-times. This not only helps with getting your food quickly and finding places to sit, but will also give you an opportunity to ride popular rides at a time of lower demand during typical lunch and dinner times. This worked out great for us because we were able to ride Big Thunder and Space Mountain during dinner and waited around 30 minutes for each instead of almost an hour.
Don’t let the lines fool you
Basically all of the ride queues look deceptively long. This is because of the physical distancing that’s set in place by markers on the ground. The lines also loop and curve all over the place because they made an effort to keep all lines outdoors, which I really appreciated. Basically once you reach the inside queue, it’s a walk-on straight to the ride. Take Indiana Jones for example. Since they don't have any part of the queue indoors, walking through the tunnels is so quiet and empty, it's almost eerie.
So if you’re looking at the line and thinking it can’t possibly be only 20 minutes long, you can more likely than not trust the app. If anything the queues sometimes move faster than what’s estimated on the app. The only instance that wasn’t the case was when the ride broke down, so I’d say that’s an excellent track record!
My one critique of this experience though is that because the lines loop in unexpected directions, it’s difficult for guests to know where the line starts and ends. On so many occasions we saw groups get in line behind another party only to find out that they weren’t even close to where the line was supposed to start. Admittedly we did that ourselves a couple times, but hey, it really does get confusing. There are CM’s around to help guide traffic and there are some who have an “X line starts here” signs so you can look out for those, but they’re not always around and sometimes you don’t realize how far away from the ride you have to walk in order to find them.
For example, the Snow White’s Enchanted Wish ride extended all the way through Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, through the Royal Hall, and out on to Main Street near the popcorn stand at Central Plaza.
This is not at all a criticism towards the CMs though. They did a great job and were really kind, but I think there maybe just weren’t enough of them, or enough signage to make these lines a little more clear to reduce confusion. I noticed with the Star Tours line that the two CMs who were there to direct traffic were busy answering people’s questions and helping them while more and more guests got into the wrong spots in line because they didn’t know where they were going and thought they found the right spot.
But like I said at the beginning: have patience, and when in doubt just ask! People in line will be more than willing to tell you what direction to head in to find the line.
Plan your meals and mobile order whenever possible
This one is definitely a play-by-ear kind of tip. This is because not every food place is going to support mobile orders on a given day, some food places only do mobile orders, and others may not have the things you’re looking for, so make sure to have some backups ready or, again, just be flexible. Like I said and will continue to emphasize, plan your day. If you’ve got your plan, you’ll know exactly what time window you’re going to want to eat, so you can pre-order all of your food before the day even begins, and all you’ll have to do is remember go to your app and click “I’m Here” so your food can be prepared for you! While I was still in line to get through security, I checked the app around 8:00AM and mobile orders were open, so I went ahead and ordered all the food I wanted for the day just like that and my meals were ready in a matter of minutes. The day I went, though, Tropical Hideaway did not open their mobile orders at all. So that’s where the playing by ear comes along. Some days Tropical Hideaway will only accept mobile orders, so you’ll just have to wait and see what day you get. And I’m assuming that could happen with any food place, so that’s just something to be prepared for. Food places may also run the risk of not having the things you're looking for! I was so excited to try the PB&J mochi from Tropical Hideaway, but unfortunately they were out :( And from speaking with a cast member, they likely weren't going to get anymore until the end of the month! I've heard of a similar experience at some point after re-opening with the chimichangas also, so this is just another thing you'll just have to wait and see about.
The other thing you’ll want to keep in mind is something I pointed out earlier: try to eat at a non-typical meal time if possible. I’ve read from other park goers that ordering your food at a normal lunch or dinner time results in long waits even at mobile pickup, which is a total bummer. Plus, because of Covid regulations, you can only eat at designated seating areas, which means if everyone is eating at the same time, it’ll be a challenge to find a table. We had all of our meals at off-times so I had no problems getting my food, which was ready as soon as I clicked “I’m Here”, and there were plenty of tables for the choosing.
So those are probably my top tips for getting through Disneyland in this new age. With these suggestions, you will hopefully be nimble, quick, and well-fed throughout your busy park day!
But now I want to get into my actual experience at the park!
Here’s a schedule of how my day went, just to give you an idea of what to expect!
My Day at Disneyland
For the most part, I felt like most people were pretty respectful of the spacing, but I definitely found that when waiting in the queues, many if not most people pretty much ignored the markers on the ground. It can be a bit non-intuitive because the markers aren’t placed evenly throughout the queue, but that’s because they consider not just the 6ft separation in front and behind you, but all around. So particularly when the queue involves some snaking the markers are placed much further apart than 6ft. I really liked that and I felt like it would make for a much more comfortable line experience if people followed it, but they pretty much didn’t. Most people were considerate enough to leave some gap in front and behind, but essentially went with their own estimate of distance rather than relying on the markers. Others were not so considerate and would stand right behind us, which made me super uncomfortable, but I also didn't want to step forward more because that would put me closer to the people in front of me. That part of the experience wasn’t great, but at the points where cast members can’t regulate the lines, there’s not much you can do short of politely requesting the party behind step a little further back and hoping they respect your wishes.
As far as mask-wearing went though, it seemed like everyone was pretty great about following those rules! I only saw maybe a handful of people either incorrectly wearing their mask or not wearing them, but I did see CMs intervene when they were aware of it.
I really liked having the hand washing stations around the park! They were super convenient and a great way to keep your hands clean without having to find your way to a bathroom. Even after Covid fears pass, I really hope those stick around.
Notable Trip Moments
Honestly, what can be better than a 5-minute wait for Peter Pan’s Flight? As luck would have it, the park had opened slightly earlier than 9:00AM and we were in line for Peter Pan’s Flight, our first ride of the day, before the park had even officially opened! And yes, I know Peter Pan’s Flight is an overrated ride for many people, but it’s my absolute favorite no matter what anyone says, so it had to be my first ride back! I don’t know about you, but I sure think a 5-minute wait is a good deal if I ever did see one for one of the consistently longest wait-requiring rides in the park!!
It was soo great to have some Mickey-shaped beignets again! They were huge, airy, and coated in powdered sugar. A perfect recipe and a great snack to kick off a great day!
I tried the fried chicken at Plaza Inn for the first time ever, and I have been missing out! I didn’t think I was a huge fan of fried chicken before and didn’t trust that Disneyland could make fried chicken so tasty and moist, but they can so deliver! The chicken was crispy and yummy, the green beans were flavorful, and the mashed potatoes and gravy were smooth and delicious! The biscuit was a tad dry, but as far as biscuits go it was still pretty good! For $18.49 (minus passholder discounts for you legacy APs out there!) it’s a bit on the pricey side, but it’s definitely worth a try or a splurge! We ate around 11:30AM and were able to get our food right away and eat inside the Plaza Inn in a completely empty dining room. As we were finishing up around almost 12:00PM the dining room’s spaced out tables were definitely starting to fill up, and so were the tables outside. So glad we were able to dodge that!
Rise of the Resistance is a highlight all on its own because it’s still such a phenomenal ride. But imagine only waiting 8 minutes to get on!! And most of those 8 minutes was just walking through the queue and experiencing the pre-ride show. So really, it was pretty much a walk-on! They’ve currently suspended the first pre-ride show, but you still experience the second one, and within the transporter there are plexiglass walls installed throughout so you can try to situate yourself spaced out from other guests. I've heard reports from other park guests here and there that sometimes the full experience is available and other times you get no pre-shows. It might depend on the crowds that day, but seems like something you'll just have to take as you get it. Fingers crossed the ride is operating during your visit!! I’m still so amazed at how immersive the ride is! Still one of the best experiences by far.
For dinner we grabbed our ronto wraps from Ronto Roasters earlier in the day and carried them with us since they were conveniently boxed up. And when we were ready to eat, we scouted for a table, and went to one of my favorite secluded areas, Harbor Galley. The food shop here is currently closed, which is why it’s a great spot to eat if you want to be away from other people since there’s so little foot traffic. There are three tables at the little nook behind Harbor Galley that are both distanced and shaded, so it’s a really wonderful place to enjoy some food, and some peace and quiet in case you need a bit of a break.
There were characters galore throughout the park albeit at a distance. I was a bit sad that I didn’t get to see any of the fabulous five, but I also didn’t make it a point to seek them out during my trip. I was able to see lots of the princesses though, like Aurora, Ariel, Mulan, Tiana, and Elsa! I also got to see Alice, the Evil Queen, and Miguel which was great!
I would say one of the great things about these social distanced lines is that it makes for great photo opportunities! (At least when people respect them...) I got some photos that I absolutely love at two of my favorite rides, and it’s all thanks to the extra space!
Not to mention pictures in front of the castle with little to no crowds? Yes please! Though keep in mind that CMs are not allowed to handle your phones (which makes sense given Covid), so you can go full-on selfie-mode, take turns with your party getting pictures, or ask a kind stranger to help you out (then proceed to sanitize your phone because, again, Covid).
Other General Tips
Wear comfortable shoes! You’ll be walking a lot, and it may have been a while since you’ve taken so many steps in a single day (I walked 11.4 miles! A huge jump compared to my average less than 1 mile a day)
Bring a hat, sunglasses, and/or an umbrella to shade yourself from the sun. It’s always sunny in Disneyland, and with all the queues and eating areas being outdoors, you’ll be outside basically all day. I’ve sure got some tan lines and sunburns to prove it.
And of course one of the best ways to beat the heat is to stay hydrated. If you’re a fan of bringing along your favorite reusable water bottle, there are filling stations throughout the park for you to refill your bottle. If not, you can always ask for cups of water at whatever food place you happen to be nearby.
But most of all have the best trip, whatever that means to you! It’s been such a long time since we’ve been to this magical place. So enjoy it. Take all the pictures you want, skip, dance, laugh, eat. Do all the things you want to do and just have fun!