Our family have visited Disneyland in California three times in recent years and the feeling of excitement and anticipation about a visit does not change for us. As I walk toward the park entry I find I have an extra bounce in my step. The Disney music piped through the speakers carries me along in anticipation of the wonderful day ahead. Disneyland has a magic about it that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. When I asked one member of staff how he keeps his enthusiasm every day, his reply was “you guys, our guests, keep us going! The look on your faces is what it’s all about. Seeing you having fun!” The cast (as the staff are known) go out of their way for everyone but go that extra mile for guests with a disability. The Disneyland Park was built before the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) but they have done their best to make most things accessible. California Adventure Park is ADA compliant being a newer park.
It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the experience on your first visit but we hope our tips will help you prepare before your arrival and maximise your time in the park.
As far as accessibility arrangements for families with special needs I think “the happiest place on earth” does it best.
GENERAL DISNEY TIPS
- If you are still in the planning stages of your trip, keep in mind weekdays are much quieter than weekends. This makes a big difference when it comes to wait times for rides. Also use the Disney website to plan your Disney days. If you have a disability or you are travelling with someone with a disability check the Disney website for information regarding guests with disabilities.
- If you can be flexible with travel dates avoid major holidays and spring break. These are exceptionally busy times of year. The upside to travelling to the parks at this time of year is that the parks should be fully operational, in other words rides should not be closed for routine maintenance. We travelled in February for one of our trips and we had very short lines for rides but a couple of the bigger rides were closed for maintenance. The parks also have longer opening hours in the busier months. For major holidays like Christmas, Easter and Halloween the parks are decorated and have special events surrounding these times. AJ had a wonderful time doing an Easter treasure hunt around the park on our last visit. Our last trip coincided with spring break and we noticed a significant difference in wait times for rides so if possible avoid the major holidays.
- If you purchase a three day or greater Disney pass you are entitled to enter the park early on one morning. These mornings are referred to as ‘magic mornings’. They only occur on certain days of the week and a limited number of areas of the park are open at this time which is before general admission. It is worthwhile checking the Disney site to plan your days around this if you would like to take advantage of it.
- Learning about the different rides and their suitability prior to getting to Disneyland helped us make the most of our days. Downloading the Guide for Guests with Disabilities is extremely helpful for information about the accessibility of rides. Although it is available at the gate it is good to get an idea of the park before you arrive. You can download it here. Disneyland is overwhelming but in the best possible way. I also read the Unofficial Guide to Disneyland. Much of the planning they suggest I found unnecessary due to the Disability Access Service Card. What I did find helpful in the guide was the description of the rides. The guide gave us a good idea of what each ride is like (eg. scary, tame or thrill ride) and we found the scare rating helpful when travelling with less adventurous riders. The guide also helped us choose where to eat based on the food available (try and eat outside of busy times. For example we ate lunch at 11.30 beating the crowds and taking advantage of the rides being quieter while everyone else had lunch at the peak times)
- Stop and smell the roses – or in Disneyland’s case, take time to admire the detail of Disney. When you are waiting in line use it as a time to take a good look around. The imagineers, as they are called, put in so much detail that must go unnoticed by those that stand in the line huffing and puffing about the time it is taking to get on the ride. One example of details at the park is the Jolly Holiday Bakery. There is the most beautiful detail in this Mary Poppins themed bakery. Just look at the penguin stain glass windows pictured below. Once the pastries come into view you probably won’t notice much else and beware of the extra kilos you may gain just from looking at them. Surely all the walking around the park counteracts that? Well, that is what I told myself anyway as they are delicious.
- Our family spent much time spotting the characters. Not everyone is into this but for those that are it is a really fun time. Main Square near the Town Hall is a favourite place to find the characters throughout the day but given it is so close to the entrance it isn’t always convenient. Daisy Duck is the hardest character to come across as we were told by the cast members, “she loves to shop”. A girl after my own heart.
- If there is a particular character you or your child want to meet go to the Town Hall and ask for the character appearance times or ask one of the character ‘minders’ as they have the most up-to-date information. They can tell you if they will be in the park, where they will be and at what time. It can save disappointment if your child is looking for one particular character. This avoids queues and saves precious Disney time. The characters have very short times out and about (for obvious reasons) so once the time is up the queue is closed but it is never too long before another character comes out. Toon town is a good place to head to see Mickey and Minnie at their respective houses.
- Disneyland photographers are at many of the character meet and greet spots and throughout the park. They give you a photo passport which is a piece of cardboard with a barcode printed on it. This is your photo passport for your entire time at both parks. Each time a photographer takes your family’s photo they will scan it. I recommend letting the photographers take your photo. There is absolutely no pressure to buy and the photographers offer to use your camera to take a photo as well. They are very generous with taking photos on your own camera and that way everyone gets in the shot. They can also work magic on some of the photos like the one below. You may note that AJ had a visit from Tinkerbell thanks to the clever work of the Disney photographers. Very cool.
- We bought a package that allowed us to return home choose the photos we wanted put on a dvd and it had fun extras like borders to choose and we did it all online. We also purchased other products with our Disney photos printed on them.
EATING IN DISNEYLAND
- There are plenty of choices in the park for food or you can leave the park and go to Downtown Disney to the many restaurants and cafes in that area (you will have to go through a security check again when you re enter the park). My main tip is to eat outside the usual times for meals. Eat a bit earlier to avoid the crowds and queues (consider having lunch by 11.30 am for example). All the different restaurants have a set 4 choices so there isn’t a huge menu that takes time to navigate. It is well organised and I think the food is quite good. It’s not cheap but it’s reasonable. Keep in mind that the food portions in the US are usually large so often sharing a meal is a good way to go unless you have a huge appetite. There are fruit stands and other healthy alternatives if you don’t want everything deep fried. My unhealthy delight was definitely The Jolly Holiday Bakery where they had a delicious range of pastries and cakes. I only dared go in once.
- If you are intending to go to the extremely popular Rainforest Cafe in Downtown Disney, book ahead. The wait time there when we went on a Friday night was 2 hours.
Disney Character Dining – Meeting the characters was definitely a highlight for our kids. Somewhere to do it without the queues is one of the restaurants that have character dining. We did breakfast with Mickey and friends at the PCH Grill and the kids had a ball. Mickey is a guaranteed character and the others vary. The morning we went we had Stitch, Goofy, Pluto. The breakfast was a nice buffet breakfast with my favourite – made to order omelettes. These character breakfasts are on the expensive side but it is a unique experience not just about breakfast. Mickey got up danced and encouraged the kids to join him. The characters come around to your table to meet the kids, have photos and sign autograph books. You need to book ahead and sometimes you will still wait for a table. It takes quite a bit of time in all so it would be a great thing to do on a day when you weren’t going into the park (ie the day you arrive in Anaheim or your departure day) or to do it quite early. Be on time for your booking and be warned a gratuity is automatically added to your bill so you don’t need to tip on top of this. There are many different experiences at the different Disney dining rooms so take a look at the options and see what will appeal to your family. Ariel’s grotto would be my pick next time!
OUR TIPS IN SUMMARY
Pre purchase your ticket before you travel. My experience has been that we have received very good deals in Australia for these tickets. Before you gasp at the price just remember when you enter the park everything is included. If you or your family want to go on a ride ten times the only thing that limits you is the queue waiting time. It costs no extra. How much you spend on food and shopping is up to you of course.
Security checks – Disneyland has bag check points prior to going into the park so to save time have backpacks etc off your back and open ready to be searched. They will search pockets in the wheelchair but the cast are all very pleasant and it is important to remember the checks are for everyone’s security.
Entry – Looking at the entrance to Disneyland, on the far right there is an entrance for wheelchairs and scooters. It is an accessible gate and at this gate you should be given a general park map, a times guide for the park that week and at that particular gate they should have an access guide to rides. If you don’t get it there it is available at City Hall which is in the Main Street Square. But my advice is to download the ride access guide before you go. If you have someone in your family with special needs and you require the Disability Access Service Card you will need to head to City Hall to obtain this. Read more about our experience with the DAS Card here.
Rides – In Disneyland you enter many rides via the exit. There is usually at sign at the start of the general queue which will have a wheelchair symbol and an arrow as to where people with a disability can enter the ride. There are also provisions made at the park for children who have disabilities other than mobility. If a child has a disability that makes queuing for a long time difficult they must obtain a Disability Access Service card from City Hall which allow you to return to the ride at a set time rather than waiting in the queue. This does not mean you will get immediate entry into the ride but it will shorten the wait time in a line.
- If you are a wheelchair user you will be asked at the ride if you can transfer from the wheelchair for the ride. If you can transfer you will leave your wheelchair with the attendant. If you cannot transfer or prefer not to you will need to check the guide to see which rides have an adapted vehicle. This allows a wheelchair user to experience the ride in their wheelchair. For example, It’s a Small World has a boat with a spot for a wheelchair. The Disney website really does have a lot of information and my advice as always is plan before you go.
- Toilet/change facilities – The map has a list of facilities throughout the park for people with disabilities. Everyone’s needs in this regard vary greatly and Disney has it all covered. If a person does not need an attendant then most public toilets will have a larger stall in either the mens or the ladies toilet. If the person with a disability needs an attendant or more than one attendant (so for example if the person with a disability is male and they need a female to take them to the bathroom it is a little awkward going into either the mens or ladies facility. There are two options, using one of the family/handicapped bathroom facilities (my experience with these is that the queues are lengthy because you have families going in changing babies etc which takes time and often toddlers along too) or you can head to First Aid. This is a little oasis in amongst the busy Disney scene. In the first aid room they have large toilet facilities. In each cubicle there are lounges that can be used if the person with a disability needs this to be changed. It is quiet, clean and the staff are really helpful. First aid is also good to keep in mind if you need anything else during the day or you need medication stored in a cool place etc. I think if you are not too far away from First Aid this is the best facility in the park. It doesn’t seem to be promoted but it is so much quicker and cleaner that this is my best tip. I know a toilet tip isn’t glamorous but it’s practical.
- Time – If you have the time don’t try and do the park in just one day. On our last trip we only had 3 days to hop between Disneyland and California Adventure Park and we really felt rushed to fit in everything the kids wanted to do. It is nice to be able to sit down for the parades and shows and relax in between the rides. It is lovely to sit in a cafe and absorb the atmosphere of the park and to spend time people watching. We wanted to have the time for the kids to line up to have photos and autographs with the characters. And lastly we always wanted to have time to ride our favourite rides “just one more time.” In my opinion DIsneyland should be savoured not rushed.
Disney have extensive information for people with mobility restrictions, hearing disabilities, vision disabilities and more so please take time to research your trip and plan ahead by using their website.
- If you would like to read about our personal experience with the Disability Service Access card visit our blog here.