Attention Disneyland veterans! If you haven’t visited for a while, here’s a little heads-up: Everything you know is wrong.
I’ve been visiting Disneyland since the Matterhorn was its coolest ride, so I’ve rolled with a lot of changes over the years. But when I went in January, after a four-year hiatus, I spent most of the day reeling between sticker shock and frustration. By the end, I’d mentally composed a seething letter that started like this:
“Dear Bob Iger: As you’re ‘fixing’ the Walt Disney Company, there’s something you should know. Disneyland’s new pricing, policies and app have sucked the joy out of the Happiest Place on Earth.”
It wasn’t just the staggering ticket prices that ruined my day, or the new caste system that allows people to cut the line if they pay an additional $25 to $50 for Lightning Lane passes, or the death by a thousand cuts while trying to make sense of the Disneyland app designed to create “your best Disney day” — especially when your phone battery dies after all the scrolling.
No, it’s the death of spontaneity that’s the real blow.
Once upon a time, before COVID-19, I would grit my teeth and plop down my credit card to buy three tickets for my sons and me. But there was always that little thrill as we gleefully plotted our strategy for the day. We’d use our Park Hopper tickets, cunning and strategies honed from years of experience to nab free Fast Passes (now costly Lightning Lane passes) and visit all of our favorite rides.
We were Disney warriors; we owned those parks, and we shared a camaraderie with our fellow travelers. Now, we just share a confusing app. If you aren’t willing to download the app and figure out how to use it ahead of time, prepare yourself for a long day of endless lines and frustration.
Even getting a cool, creamy Dole Whip to savor in the Enchanted Tiki Room — my favorite midday escape — had been upended. When we lined up at the tiki hut outside the entrance, the server wearily told us we couldn’t get the treat at that counter anymore, unless we had preordered on the app. We could order our Dole Whip on our phones and come back later, she said, in, maybe 30 minutes? We could also go stand in line at a new cafe behind the Tiki Room to make our order, which we did, but by the time we got back I was feeling a lot like Pele, Hawaii’s fire-breathing goddess, and my already high state of frustration climbed another notch.
Or take making a reservation at the popular and pricy Blue Bayou Restaurant. Visitors must log on at 3 a.m. 60 days before their visit to try to score a reservation. There are some third-party services like mousedining.com that alert you to open time slots, but those still require coordination.
“Disneyland is not a spontaneous trip anymore, and with the amount of money you spend on it today, it shouldn’t be spontaneous,” said Allison Mertzman, a super fan who specializes in Disneyland trips through her travel business, Adventures With Allison Wonderland.
“People need 30-plus hours to plan a Disney vacation these days,” she said. “And they can do it on their own, but unless you’re really well-versed in the parks and the app and all the changes Disney has made, going without a travel agent to guide you is really difficult.”
To be fair, I returned to Disneyland in March with my adult kids and it was a much smoother visit. I had gotten tips from co-workers and friends and mastered the app, using it to order food and check out line times. We didn’t spring for Lightning Lane passes on principle, which we slightly regretted after waiting 95 minutes for the truly terrific Rise of the Resistance ride. We passed the time answering trivia questions and savored the chance to be together.
For the stalwart DIY-ers unfamiliar with the intricacies of Disneyland and California Adventure these days, we’ve pulled tips from park-goers like Mertzman to help you visit without having a meltdown. — Jeanette Marantos
Tips have been edited for length and clarity.