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THE FAB 5 -- The classic Disney characters welcome visitors outside Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. (L-R) Pluto, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck (Scott Brinegar/Disneyland)

8 Tips for Navigating Disneyland

Ready to experience the magic, but not so keen on the long lines? Use these tested tips to shorten wait times at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park.

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Three decades after my first childhood visit to Disneyland, and the 85-acre California theme park is still one of the happiest places on earth—which explains why an estimated 44,000 patrons visit on a typical day, according to the LA Times.

But don’t let the masses stop you from taking your kids to Disneyland. Orange County’s John Wayne Airport is a short and affordable plane ride from Denver International Airport, making Disney a perfect destination for Colorado families in need of a quick getaway. Don’t worry: We’ve scouted out plenty of ways to navigate the crowds on your next trip to Anaheim.

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Visit Disneyland during the Off-Season

There are several times of year when Disneyland sees significant drops in attendance, and those can be ideal times to plan your vacation. Our favorite time to go is right after winter break, around mid-January, when other families are tired from holiday hoopla and travel. Aside from President’s Day weekend, February is generally a slow month, too, along with late April and early May, between spring break season and summer vacation.

Bring a Raincoat

We’re not just trying to prepare you for Splash Mountain! If you’re willing to explore Disneyland on a soggy day, you’ll likely be rewarded with super-short lines, and the drizzle will probably clear up throughout the course of the day.

Play Hooky from Work and School

If you can arrange your trip so you’ll be in Anaheim on a weekday—instead of over the weekend—you’ll find shorter lines and cheaper airfare, too. I recommend frequenting Disneyland on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays whenever possible.

Enter the Park Before it Officially Opens

If you’re staying at a Disneyland Resort Hotel, then you’ll have the option of entering the theme parks an hour early, long before other guests have arrived. “Extra Magic Hour”—known as EMH—is available to all Disneyland Resort Hotel guests with valid room keys. Disney California Adventure hosts EMH on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, and Disneyland picks up the slack on the remaining days. And you don’t have to stay with Disneyland to get extra playtime, either: If you buy a 3+ day park pass, you can enter early on one day through the “Magic Morning” program.

If You Can’t Be Early, Be On Time

You can take advantage of the morning sluggishness just by being ready to enter the park the minute the gates open. To make this happen, be in the Disneyland parking garage an hour before the park opens. Once parked, you’ll go through security and take a tram to the gates, where you’ll purchase your tickets. In our experience, this process takes time with little ones in tow. But it’s worth the effort. When I visited Disneyland with my family in October, we were at the gates when the park opened at 8 a.m., and we didn’t have any significant wait times for nearly two hours—during which time one of my kids rode Splash Mountain three times in a row, without getting off.

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Navigate the Park Like a Pro

Start your day early (see above) and start it with the most popular attractions. At Disneyland, those include Star Tours, Indiana Jones Adventure, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World, Peter Pan’s Flight, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, and Splash and Space mountains. Don’t waste time walking up and down Disney’s charming main street in the morning; instead, hang a left toward the attractions in Adventureland and New Orleans Square before cutting across to Tomorrowland. When the park starts getting crowded, enjoy some of the less packed offerings: Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough, Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes, Mark Twain Riverboat, and Tom Sawyer Island are all excellent midday filler material.

Don’t Eat Lunch at Lunchtime

Check the stats and you’ll see that wait times often peak around 11 a.m. and again at 2 p.m., dropping slightly around noon. When other families stop to eat lunch, hand your kids the granola bars in your fanny pack and forge onward. The last thing you want to do is get stuck waiting in a line to eat lunch. If you need a meal, take it when the restaurants open, around 10:30 a.m., or midafternoon—say, 2 p.m., when other families have jumped back in line for the rides.

Try Disney’s Free FastPass Service

In 1999, Disneyland introduced Disney FastPass to manage its lines, and this free service allows savvy families to return to certain attractions at preset times, skipping part of the line and shortening wait times significantly at the most popular rides.

It’s pretty easy to add FastPass service to your Disneyland ticket at FastPass distribution machines, which are located near rides offering FastPass service. If the return-time window listed works for you and your family, simply insert your Disneyland admission tickets into the FastPass machine. Everyone in your party needs to do this! The machine will generate FastPass receipts with your return-time window, and you’re free to wander off until then, enjoying other activities while you’re not waiting in line. When you return to the FastPass ride, it shouldn’t take more than about 10 minutes to board the attraction.

Download the Disneyland app for free and purchase MaxPass for $10, which gives you access to FastPass and Disney PhotoPass downloads on your mobile device.

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The days at Disneyland go by fast, especially when you’re using these time saving tips to fly through lines. Take advantage of every minute you can, but don’t forget to slow down every once in a while to enjoy precious family moments.

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