Is one day enough at Disneyland? No, and here's why Disney fans may want to avoid it.

·11 min read

I spent 13 hours at Disneyland, and it wasn't nearly long enough.

I'd spent weeks planning my one day at the Southern California landmark, hoping to make the most of every minute by studying park maps, talking to Magic Key annual pass holders, watching vlogs, narrowing down what I wanted to see and eat, and checking wait times in real time on the Disneyland app.

Disney fans can definitely get a feel for Disneyland in a day, and if you only have one like I did, you won't be disappointed. You'll probably just want to go back for more.

Here's everything I did at Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park and what I would do differently, so you can avoid my mistakes.

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Which parking deck is better for Disneyland?

Guests know they're heading for the Mickey & Friends parking structure when they see this.
Guests know they're heading for the Mickey & Friends parking structure when they see this.

The best parking is no parking at Disneyland. If possible, I suggest staying at a hotel within walking distance of the resort or getting dropped off by Uber or Lyft because it took me more than an hour to get into my first park with parking.

I parked at Mickey & Friends, one of Disneyland's two massive parking structures; the other is Pixar Pals. Parking costs $30 per day for cars and motorcycles. Even though I prepaid when I bought my park ticket, it only saved a minute or two. I still had to wait my turn for the toll booths to show proof of payment, snake through the parking structure, park, make the trek down to security, go through security, wait in one of the longest lines of my day for a tram, take the tram, walk to the park entrance from the tram stop in Downtown Disney, and finally wait my turn to scan my ticket and enter the park.

A cast member later tipped me off to another option, which would have spared me the wait for a tram. Guests who park in Pixar Pals can access a pedestrian bridge to Downtown Disney from the second floor of that parking structure. They go through security at Downtown Disney and still have to walk to the main entrance of the park, but it's one less line in a long day.

My waits might have been shorter if I arrived earlier or later than 10 a.m. Usually I advise arriving well before parks open to take advantage of rope dropping, being one of the first guests inside the park and beating later crowds for rides, but the timing didn't work out for this trip.

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The whimsical attractions at Pixar Pier and Paradise Gardens Park cast an energetic, carnival atmosphere on Disney California Adventure.
The whimsical attractions at Pixar Pier and Paradise Gardens Park cast an energetic, carnival atmosphere on Disney California Adventure.

How do you get a perfect day at Disneyland?

Sleeping Beauty Castle shines at dusk in Disneyland.
Sleeping Beauty Castle shines at dusk in Disneyland.

There is no recipe to the perfect day at Disneyland. It depends on what you want to do. If Fantasyland is on your list, it's better to head there as early as possible because most of those rides don't have Lightning Lanes, and lines only get longer as the day goes on. If you're a Star Wars fan, soaking in every experience at Galaxy's Edge can take hours. If you like live entertainment, you could spend a whole day watching various performances without going on a single ride. If nighttime spectaculars are a priority, you'll want to make sure you're not too tired by the end of the night to enjoy them.

Better yet, don't do it all one day. If possible, spend a full day at each park so you can take it all in at a leisurely pace.

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Is Disney Genie+ worth it at Disneyland?

Because I had limited time, I purchased Genie+ to cut down on waits.

Genie+ costs $20 per day at Disneyland, which is more than the $15 price at Walt Disney World but includes the added perk of unlimited Disney PhotoPass downloads for the day.

I wound up using Genie+ for four attractions, which would have otherwise cost me hours in line. That alone made it worth it to me.

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Guests gather around the Millennium Falcon in the heart of Disneyland's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.
Guests gather around the Millennium Falcon in the heart of Disneyland's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.

Is Disney California Adventure worth it?

I could have skipped Disney California Adventure and focused my day on the original Disneyland Park. Adding the park hopper option to my already three-figure, one-day ticket cost $60, which isn't cheap, but it was less than adding a second park day, and I wanted to see both parks.

Cars Land in Disney California Adventure makes guests feel like they've stepped into a "Cars" movie.
Cars Land in Disney California Adventure makes guests feel like they've stepped into a "Cars" movie.

While many of Disneyland's lands and rides may sound familiar to guests who've visited Disney World's Magic Kingdom, California Adventure is entirely unique. It leans heavily into its namesake California theme with areas like Pacific Wharf, Pixar Pier and Grizzly Peak but is also home to Cars Land and Avengers Campus.

The first thing I did when I stepped into the park was make a Genie+ reservation for Guardians of the Galaxy - Mission: BREAKOUT!, the one attraction I didn't want to miss in California Adventure that didn't offer a single rider lane. Unlike at Disney World where guests can start making Genie+ reservations at 7 a.m., Disneyland guests must wait until they enter a park.

By this time it was after 11 a.m. and the first available return window wasn't for a couple hours, so I had time to explore. I headed straight for Incredicoaster because there is nothing like starting the day with a roller coaster rush. It only took a few minutes in the single rider lane to board.

Families with young children may not be able to take advantage of single-rider lanes, but they're great time savers for guests who don't mind splitting up from their party and solo travelers. Using the single rider lane, I virtually walked onto one of the park's most popular rides, Radiator Springs Racers. I also used the single rider lane for Goofy's Sky School and another one of the park's most popular rides, WEB SLINGERS: A Spider-Man Adventure, which still had a 30-minute wait even for single riders.

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Single rider lanes help guests save time in line but split them up from the rest of their party.
Single rider lanes help guests save time in line but split them up from the rest of their party.

Another option that saves time, but costs money, is for guests is to purchase a la carte Individual Lightning Lane access for WEB SLINGERS or Radiator Springs Racers, neither of which are included with Genie+. Individual Lightning Lanes cost $7 to $20 each, with a maximum of two a day per guest. 

I only used Genie+ for two attractions at California Adventure: Guardians of the Galaxy - Mission: BREAKOUT!, my favorite ride of the day, and Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue.

There were a couple of other rides I had hoped to experience at California Adventure, but Golden Zephyr was down because of high winds and Grizzly River Run was held up for reasons I didn't have time to find out on my tight schedule.

I was only at Disney California Adventure for less than five hours, but they were worth it to me. I could have easily spent the full day there.

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I'm just here for the snacks

The crispy Monte Cristo is a fan favorite dish at Disneyland, but the Pommes Frites served alongside it Cafe Orleans made the dish for me.
The crispy Monte Cristo is a fan favorite dish at Disneyland, but the Pommes Frites served alongside it Cafe Orleans made the dish for me.

Part of my time constraints were self-induced. I had scheduled table-service meals for lunch and dinner because they were the only options for trying two iconic dishes: the Lobster Nachos at Lamplight Lounge - Boardwalk Dining and the Monte Cristo sandwich at Cafe Orleans. The sit-down meals were also a chance to take a load off my feet.

I did take advantage of mobile and counter ordering, too. Over the course of the day, I ordered QuesaBirria tacos at Cocina Cucamonga Mexican Grill, a Choco-Smash candy bar at Pym Test Kitchen, a Matterhorn Macaroon and Raspberry Rose Mickey Macaron at Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe, Summer Stuff from Red Rose Taverne, Churro Toffee from Candy Palace and Candy Kitchen, and various drinks. 

Of course, I didn't eat everything then and there. I actually brought along a small soft cooler, which I kept filled with fresh ice, and several Ziploc bags to take treats to go. For me, food is as much part of a theme park experience as rides. But you don't have to buy any food or drinks at Disney parks. You're allowed to bring them in.

If I were to do it all again, I would stick to quick-service dining and skip table-service meals to save time.

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'The Happiest Place on Earth'

The newly reopened and refurbished Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage takes guests on an underwater journey with Nemo and his friends.
The newly reopened and refurbished Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage takes guests on an underwater journey with Nemo and his friends.

My first stop along Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A, shortly before 4 p.m., was to pick up snacks I mobile ordered hours ago, then on to Sleeping Beauty Castle to snap selfies. I could have waited for a cast member to take a professional photo, which would have been free to download with Genie+, but I had enough lines for the day.

My longest wait was just ahead: 80 minutes for Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, with no Lightning Lane or single ride lane available. When possible, I try not to wait longer than 45 minutes for any attraction because it's simply not worth it to me. But Finding Nemo had just reopened on July 25 after being closed for months of refurbishment. I had never ridden it, and it had been decades since I experienced its equally popular predecessor, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, so I was willing to set my usual standards aside. I wouldn't do it again – for any ride.

Choosing to stand in that line cost me the chance to experience several other attractions in Fantasyland, for which there are also only traditional lines. Pinocchio's Daring Journey, Snow White's Enchanted Wish, Alice in Wonderland and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, which have no counterparts at Disney World, would have to wait for next time. 

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"it's a small world" is a beloved attraction at both Disneyland and Disney World.
"it's a small world" is a beloved attraction at both Disneyland and Disney World.

I did wait 30 minutes for Storybook Land Canal Boats, one of Disneyland's original rides, but hardly waited for anything else. I used Genie+ for "it's a small world" and Indiana Jones Adventure, zipped through Matterhorn Bobsleds' single ride lane and walked onto Pirates of the Caribbean with no wait during Fantasmic! Guests who are willing to miss nighttime spectaculars can pack in multiple rides while the masses enjoy the shows.

I had intended to watch all three of Disneyland Park's nighttime spectaculars that night: Disneyland Forever, Fantasmic! and Main Street Electrical Parade, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary and ending its limited run on Sept. 1. But I only made it for the full duration of the Main Street Electrical Parade. I caught snippets of the others and decided to duck out before Fantasmic! ended to beat the crowds. There was so much I didn't get to, but after more than 20,000 steps, I was ready to go.

Once I walked out, it took about 30 minutes to make my way back to my parked car. It was well after 11 p.m. by the time I hit the road, a long, memorable day and an expensive one.

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How much is a day at Disneyland?

Disneyland's Matterhorn Macaroons are inspired by the park's iconic Matterhorn Bobsleds.
Disneyland's Matterhorn Macaroons are inspired by the park's iconic Matterhorn Bobsleds.

I spent nearly $400 on my one day at Disneyland, but I definitely splurged.

My one-day ticket with park hopping and Genie+ cost $229. One-day, one-park tickets start at $104 for guests age 10 and up. Adding the park hopper option costs an additional $60. Genie+ costs $20.

Parking cost $30. You can save time and money by staying within walking distance of the resort or at a hotel that provides free transportation.

I spent more than $100 on food and drinks, but it would be easy to bring in your own, as long as there's no alcohol.

My one nonedible souvenir, a pin, cost $13. Realistically, most guests will buy some sort of souvenir.

You could spend $104 for a full day at Disneyland if you brought in all your own food, didn't park, didn't buy souvenirs and didn't purchase Genie+, but you will probably spend more.

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Is Disneyland free on your birthday?

No. You can get a birthday button at just about any shop in Disneyland.

If you wear it on your birthday, not only will cast members wish you happy birthday, but you may be surprised with a free dessert or some other kind of pixie dust. 

There's no guarantee on treats, but one thing is certain: Unless you're under age 3, admission is not free.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Disney fans can do Disneyland in a day, but here's why I won't again