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Disney Theme Parks for Absolute Beginners

Growing up in Australia, Disneyland sounded almost like a fairy tale. If you live in the US (or visit!) chances are you’ll want to go to Disneyland at some point (or you’ll be dragged there!) Here are the absolute Disney 101 basics for the uninitiated.

Disneyland or Disney World?

You probably know that Disneyland is in California, and Disney World is in Florida. It is a hotly debated topic among Disney fans which park is the best. It is my highly biased opinion that this decision actually matters less than you think it might. A large number of attractions, especially the famous rides you are probably most looking forward to (e.g. the Dumbo ride or Pirates of the Caribbean) are featured at both parks.

This may come as a surprise as Disneyland is geographically smaller in size than Disney World and has two parks: Disneyland and California Adventure. Meanwhile Disney World has four parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom (and additional water parks if they are your thing).

But while Disneyland has a smaller footprint, it still has some rides that are not featured at Disney World and vice versa. Disneyland is the original park, but Disney World is just enormous, and I think you really see this in the volume of stage shows and opportunities to meet characters.

If you are looking to just spend a day or two at Disney, you will see more at Disneyland. If Disney is the main attraction of your vacation, there is more to see at Disney World.

Should you stay at a Disney resort?

Disneyland has 3 resorts, which are all on the luxury side of things. But it does have many hotels within walking distance nearby.

Disney World has 25 resorts, each with their own unique theme. Within the range of resorts there many more affordable options than Disneyland, but most resorts are still a shuttle bus away from the parks, not walking distance.

Staying at a Disney resort means you are fully ensconced in all things Disney for your entire stay. However if you are planning on doing other things on your trip, maybe a non-Disney hotel makes more sense. Just remember that the parking lots for both parks are enormous and take a decent amount of time to navigate to and from your car.

Also if you stay in a Disney resort you may get early entry into the park or extended hours. Promotions are always changing, but many Disney resort hotels give you access to the parks 30 minutes early. If you’re thinking “why would an extra 30 minutes matter?”, well then, let me introduce you to…

Planning for the Happiest Place on Earth

When I first visited Disneyland as a kid, I poured over The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland for so many hours, I could tell you every ride in every land, ranked by popularity. To my great pleasure, the unofficial guide is still updated every year, and I highly recommend it if you love planning out your vacations in detail.

If you’re more like “this article is my Disney prep”, the most important tip I can give you is to get to the park as early as you can. First thing in the morning is when the lines for rides are at their shortest. You can potentially go on 3 rides in 30 minutes that will take you multiple hours later in the day. Hence the importance of getting into the park 30 minutes early!

Do I need the Disney app?

Of course the Disney parks now have apps, where you can plan out your entire day, see live wait times on attractions and a lot more. For Disneyland it’s the Disneyland app, for Disney World it’s the My Disney Experience app.

These apps are where you can purchase Disney Genie+, which allows you access to Lightning Lanes. These are shorter, faster lines that you can pay to join either by buying Disney Genie+ for the day, or by purchasing a Lightning Lane for an individual ride. However you are only able to purchase 2 individual Lightning Lanes for rides per day. There are many hard-core Disney bloggers out there who can guide you through maximizing your Genie+ or Lightning Lane strategies for either park, if you are so inclined. I would recommend at least checking them out on the app so you know what the Lightning Lane is before folks are breezing past you in line. 

I Am Overwhelmed Planning My Disney Trip

Honestly, I think getting overwhelmed in planning stages for any trip, decreases the chances of being overwhelmed when you actually get there.

In terms of advance planning, restaurant reservations open 60 days in advance. This is important as there are many character dining experiences at both parks, which guarantees meeting a favorite character or two if this is important to anyone in your family. Reservations can go quickly, so put the 60 day mark in your calendar if you simply must eat at Cinderella’s Royal Table, for example.

But if the 60 day mark has already passed — don’t stress. There are so many food options around the parks, and saving time on sit down meals means more time for rides! Also on the Disney app it shows where you can meet characters each day.

For everything else, plan out what is important to you, and do those things first thing in your early morning/s. Don’t feel like you have to do every ride. Or if you do in fact need to do perhaps close to every ride, put in the research to plan out your exact order of rides on each day, and get some good running shoes!

Final Fun Tips

Some magic to set you on your way:

  • The characters sign autographs. In this age of selfies I love that this still exists. Get a thicker pen or sharpie/permanent marker to make it easy for the costumed characters.
  • Make sure you see a parade and a fireworks display. Even growing up on Sydney New Year’s Eve fireworks, the Disney fireworks are magical.
  • Disney goes all out for The Holidays, especially Halloween and Christmas. This means crowds are crazy, but so are the decorations and themed events. Some events do need separate tickets, so if you’re planning a Halloween or Christmas trip, this is one last thing to check out well in advance. 

Even if you’re “not a theme park person”, or have grown out of your princess stage, or are Uncle Scrooge himself, it’s hard to not have a good time and make some fun memories at Disney. I still remember my first time meeting Belle and going on Alice’s Teacups (which are truly giant!) Please add your favorite Disney tips and magic in the comments! 

Micharne Cloughley

Micharne Cloughley

Micharne is a writer for TV and theatre. She hails from the Blue Mountains NSW, and currently lives in Jersey City NJ. Her favourite Aussie words are daggy and mate. Her favorite American words are y’all and Kansas City BBQ.View Author posts

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