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How You Need to Do Disneyland Differently in 2021: Tips from the Reopened Parks

The Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California has now been back in operation for more than six full months! Since its triumphant return on April 30, 2021 after a 13+ month closure, a lot has changed at the Happiest Place on Earth.

Since the reopening, I have been able to return to Disneyland on five different trips to see all that’s new, changed, and sometimes even still closed. I’m happy to report from all of these visits that the Happiest Place on Earth still exudes all its usual magic – made all the more special and appreciated after its long absence.

Practically speaking, however, there is a LOT at Disneyland that is different in 2021. Those differences continue to change and evolve. Each time I visited, I witnessed a number of major operational shifts, from the opening of a new land – Avengers Campus – in early June to the lifting of state restrictions on the parks June 15 to the return of the first after hours special event party in fall, Oogie Boogie Bash. It probably goes without saying that there were new tricks and tips to uncover each trip as a result of so many frequent changes.

As a guest, that means you need to come prepared for things to work in very new ways at Disneyland. Because many of the old tricks and hacks won’t work anymore, you need to have a few new tools at the ready to have the best vacation experience. That’s where this guide comes in!

Last Updated: November 3, 2021.

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Basics of a Reopened Disneyland in 2021

Theme parks have reopened around the world at various points in the past year, so modifications are pretty much a given to most of us. But we are now in the stage where there are modifications to the modifications! If you need a refresher on what Disneyland requires exactly at the moment as of late fall 2021, here are the highlights.

  • Masks are no longer required outdoors for any guest. All guests must wear masks indoors except when dining.
Minnie Mouse mask worn in Disneyland in 2021
(I got Disney mask designs from this Etsy seller – so cute and comfortable for all day in the parks!)
  • Park capacity is (likely still somewhat) reduced. Disney has been free to set its own capacity since last summer and is no longer under state mandates, but is likely keeping crowds a bit below capacity with its reservations system (more on that later).
  • As of June 15, 2021, there are no longer any geographic restrictions on visitors. Out-of-state guests can visit freely.
  • Testing or vaccinations for visitors are strongly recommended but not required.
  • Guests self-determine their own distancing and cast members may encourage guests to fill in all available space in many environments. There is little to no distancing at rope drop and in queues anymore.
Disneyland Star Wars Rise of the Resistance Plexiglass in Queue
This plexiglass has now been removed from the Rise of the Resistance queue.
  • All space on ride vehicles are filled. Single rider lines have in fact even returned on most attractions.
  • Hand sanitizer stations still remain in many strategic locations (but it never hurts to pack your own).

Essential Tips for Disneyland in Fall & Winter 2021

But where the rubber meets the road is how guests need to adjust their planning and touring strategies. Here’s how to truly do Disneyland differently in 2021 for the rest of the year:

Plan Much Earlier

With Disneyland currently at reduced capacity and an increasing number of Americans feeling comfortable traveling the last several months, the demand for Disneyland sometimes exceeds supply. That means you need to plan early to be able to go at all.

One of the advantages of Disneyland over Walt Disney World has always been that Disneyland worked well for those who like to plan vacations last minute. But that’s not quite the case right now. You really need to be planning for a Disneyland vacation well over a month in advance in 2021 due to Disneyland’s theme park reservation requirement (more on that later) – and ideally up to 120 days in advance which is the length of the open reservation calendar.

But it’s not just reservations that are making it important to plan Disneyland early. I’ve already seen a number of hotels selling out of certain room types or skyrocketing in price as demand has returned.

Hotels that are in walking distance of Disneyland are especially booking up quickly. A lot of travelers don’t want the hassle of shuttles or harder-to-find ridesharing to the parks, making these locations extra valuable. And with no parking tram running between the main Mickey & Friends parking structure and the parks, it’s fewer steps for guests to walk from some of the nearby hotels than it would be to drive and park.

Get Park Reservations ASAP

The news that Disneyland now requires theme park reservations has still not reached a lot of people, making it a place where some guests are still tripping up. Don’t be one of them!

Be sure to read my comprehensive guide to Disneyland reservations as you are planning your Disneyland trip. The bottom line is that you need to a) check to make sure there are reservations even available for the days you want to visit and the ticket type you plan to buy before planning a trip and b) book those reservations immediately before they disappear. Ideally, you should be booking exactly 120 days out on the day the reservations calendar opens for your travel date, especially if you plan to go at a high demand time like Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays.

Practically speaking, reservations have consistently remained open for almost all dates more than a month out (especially if you have park hopper tickets, where availability is more generous). No, that shouldn’t make you complacent. Availability can really fluctuate.

There are a lot of factors that might cause the parks to book up more quickly as the rest of the year progresses as we enter into the 2022. Improving public health conditions and vaccine availability for younger kids, the return of annual passes (now known as Magic Keys), the draw of seasonal offerings like the upcoming Disneyland Holidays. In short, it’s possible the parks could book up more quickly even as capacity continues to gradually increase.

Buy the Right Ticket Type

Disneyland Tickets at Pixar Pier

Disneyland recently brought back annual passes (now called Magic Keys). But it’s safe to say that a larger percentage of guests right now are buying regular park tickets – either single day or multi-day (up to 5 total days). There is an optional park hopper add on to both of these as well.

I’ve been hearing a lot of stories of guests who bought the wrong ticket in the first place or who changed their minds as to what ticket was right for them after more research. You really can’t afford to do this right now. You need get your ticket purchase right out of the gate because Disneyland doesn’t make it easy to change or upgrade tickets with the reservations requirement also in place.

For this reason, I highly recommend buying multi-day Disneyland tickets from Trips With Tykes partner Get Away Today. Get Away Today is the only place that offers refundable Disneyland tickets if you get this ticket purchasing step wrong (free if you purchase their $75 Peace of Mind Plan or otherwise a $50 per ticket fee). Plus, their tickets are discounted off of regular Disney direct prices! Book discounted Disneyland park tickets from Get Away Today here. (And also be sure to peek at their discounted Disneyland hotels and vacation packages too – use code TYKES10 for $10 in additional savings.)

So what else do you need to watch for in terms of tickets? Here’s what is tripping up many guests and what to know:

  • One day tickets can only be purchased through Disneyland directly. These tickets have 6 different prices, corresponding to 6 different tiers. Only Tier 6 tickets can be used every day on the calendar. Other tiers have blockout dates. Be sure that the tier you purchase will allow you to even go on the day you want!
  • Multi-day tickets thankfully do not have tiers at all, so you are eligible to book any day on the calendar with them.
  • Multi-day tickets expire 13 days after first use. This makes them great for a single day vacation for out-of-towners as well as for locals who can bunch up several single day visits in a two week window.
  • Park hopper tickets and single-park-per-day tickets each have their own separate reservation availability calendar, regardless of the number of days you purchase on these tickets. Make sure you are checking the reservation calendar that matches the ticket type you intend to buy. The single-park-per-day reservation calendar seems to be filling up first. If you are booking more last minute, paying extra for park hopper may open up more days on the reservation calendar to you.
  • Magic Key (annual pass) reservations are a totally separate system. Magic Key dates open up 90 days in advance, and many popular dates become booked almost immediately. Consider carefully whether a Magic Key will really enable you to go on the dates you want. Personally, I’m sticking with regular theme park tickets right now until the Magic Key reservations shortage is sorted out.

Adjust Your Restaurant Plans & Expectations

Pixar Pier Lamplight Lounge Sign in Disney California Adventure park

Disneyland is known for its food experiences. When the parks first reopened last spring, things simply weren’t up to speed on the restaurant front. So many locations were closed or had massively pared back menus. Gradually over the summer, many more restaurants returned. As of fall 2021, the vast majority of dining locations are back. But capacity is still limited and reservations have never been harder to find. How does that change how you approach dining?

Table Service Restaurants:

For table service restaurants, book early (and often). Reservations didn’t used to be incredibly hard to get at Disneyland except for a very few popular restaurants, but they are much harder now.

Disneyland has always opened reservations at table service restaurants 60 days in advance, but hasn’t been reliably doing that for all restaurants lately. That makes it hard to know even when to try for reservations and it makes it a very piecemeal process for guests that take a lot more time.

My best advice is to try at midnight and then in the pre-dawn hours 60 days in advance (3:00 am PT & 6:00 am PT are the best bets). Then just keep checking. Disneyland often appears to be releasing these reservations in dribs and drabs.

If you can’t get a reservation though, don’t despair. Because of the scarcity, a lot of guests are booking multiple reservations to hedge their bets and cancelling some as their plans firm up. Snagging those cancellations is possible with some persistence and refreshing, especially a day or two before your trip.

Websites like Mouse Dining are great tools to help you snag a hard to find reservation by notifying you of cancellations or Disney adding capacity. Mouse Dining has both a free and a paid version, and I’ve had personal success using it to snag over a half dozen dining reservations – just since Disneyland has reopened.

Note that there is some walkup availability offered for table service restaurants. You can join a same day walkup wait list on the Disneyland app on the day of your visit.

Quick Service Restaurants & Mobile Ordering:

Mobile Ordering Sign in Disneyland

If you don’t want a fancier or longer meal, head for one of Disneyland’s quick service restaurants. Actually, don’t physically head there. First, you need to open the Disneyland app. The new normal for these dining locations is that you need to mobile order your food on the app. A few cashiers have thankfully returned to many of these restaurants the last few months to enable walk up orders again, but they are in smaller numbers than before. Mobile ordering will still save you time almost all the time.

To use mobile ordering, the app will first display a list of available time windows for you to return to each restaurant to pick up your order. The closer you get to lunchtime, the more other guests start to place their mobile orders. And the farther out the return times become – sometimes even a couple of hours later – although this thankfully has improved lately for a lot of restaurants.

The bottom line? It’s essential to order early, especially if there is a particular restaurant that is a must-do for you. You can always cancel an order with no penalty if you change your mind.

See the quick and easy guide to Disneyland mobile ordering that my friend Casey at Disneyland Daily has created with step-by-step instructions.

Snack Carts

There are several smaller kiosks and carts located in the parks as well that sell snacks – churros, sodas, popcorn and the like. Most of them are now back open! Thankfully, these are all walk up and order. Use them when you need more immediate gratification on the food front.

Master the Disneyland App

Speaking of the Disneyland app, it’s important for more than just mobile ordering. It’s a backup for your theme park ticket, your way to book virtual queues, your park map, the way to access your PhotoPass images, and more. Disneyland has even been testing a way to check out of stores by allowing guests to self-scan merchandise in the app.

It’s essential that you download the app, know your login and password, and load a credit card to your account. Every adult doesn’t need to have it, but the most tech-savvy adult in your party (or at least the one managing the Disneyland vacation planning) should.

Note that Disney gift cards are now a permitted method of payment in the app. So if you’ve acquired Disney gift cards at a discount, you can finally use them to save on food too. The only problem is that the app doesn’t store the gift card each time, so be prepared to enter the 16 digit code anew for each purchase.

My friend Jessica from the Happiest Blog on Earth has even more detail and information in this detailed guide to the Disneyland app.

Have a New Lines Strategy

Fastpass, MaxPass, Extra Magic Hour…. all those tricks and hacks we have used to use to shortcut lines over the years are pretty much GONE. Single Rider lines are back, but those are not really an option for families. That means that for every attraction except Rise of the Resistance all guests are standing in a standby queue together. Oof.

When the park first reopened in spring 2021 and for many days in August and September, crowds at Disneyland were quite reasonable. These days are much less common now – limited to a few midweek dates far away from school break and other holiday periods. If you happen to be lucky enough to go on a low crowd day, having a detailed touring plan isn’t that essential. Use the app to get a sense of relative wait times for attractions and follow where the shorter lines are. Know too that the app almost always overestimates wait times, especially for non-thrill rides, so you are usually pleasantly surprised. I find it helpful to watch the app wait times in the couple of days before each trip to get a sense of current crowd patterns too.

But for busier crowd days that are increasingly the norm, how can you minimize your wait times in this environment? This is an ever changing target. But here’s what I’ve noticed, particularly from my most recent trip on the busy October Columbus Day/Indigenous People’s Day holiday weekend:

  • Rope dropping still works. Starting early is vital. Get in the front of the line to enter the parks at little more than an hour before park opening and you’ll be in prime position for your first ride of choice – and maybe even your second and third. While Disneyland was previously letting guests in to ride attractions before official park opening time, that is no longer the case with the official return of rope drop, so plan accordingly! Also be aware that rope drop crowds are very tight and may not be comfortable for everyone.
  • Expect longer waits for the newest attractions. Everyone wants to see what’s new. In the first few months, there have been longer lines at the newly redone Snow White’s Enchanted Wish (which is extremely well done, by the way) compared to all other Fantasyland attractions except the always popular Peter Pan. Haunted Mansion Holiday always posts longer wait times when it is back in the fall and winter. WEB SLINGERS in Avengers Campus is new, and has just moved from a virtual queue to a regular standby line, so expect reasonably long waits there too.
Snow White's Enchanted Wish Entrance at Disneyland
  • Understand the effect of park hopping. Park hopping isn’t permitted until 1pm or later. This creates some artificial constraints on crowd flow. Historically, more guests go from California Adventure to Disneyland right at 1pm than the reverse, although the opening of Avengers Campus and food festivals like Festival of Holidays help to even things out. Watch for lines for some attractions to drop right around 1pm as a result of guest movement (and take advantage!).
  • Know about the Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance virtual queue. Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is still exclusively using a virtual queue for access, but the rules are different than they were in 2020. You can now try for a boarding group twice a day at 7 am and 12 noon. The first boarding group drops don’t require you to have entered a park for the day. Check out the latest in my Rise of the Resistance boarding group post. While the brand new Spider-Man attraction in Avengers Campus, WEB SLINGERS, opened using this same procedure, it is mainly operating a standby line now. I may occasionally use of a different kind of virtual queue that guests can only enter once they have scanned into Disney California Adventure.
App screenshots showing new Disneyland Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance virtual queue in 2021.
  • Hop in line for one last ride a minute or two before closing time. As long as you are in line before the park officially closes, you get to ride. Lines are often very short at this hour as many guests head for the exits. Squeeze in one last ride, especially if you are a night owl!
  • Ride during the fireworks or parades. Fireworks are back at Disneyland, which means a lot of guests won’t be on rides in the minutes that lead up to and during the show. While Fantasyland attractions close during the fireworks, head elsewhere in the park to find shorter lines. The same is true for parade times – A Christmas Fantasy parade is back during the Disneyland Holidays and will draw crowds away from rides.
  • Get ready for Disney Genie, Disney Genie+ & Lightning Lane Individual Attraction Selection. Remember how I mentioned Fastpass and MaxPass are gone? They are, but their replacements/successors are coming to Disneyland some time Fall 2021. And when they do, your lines strategy is going to need to change in a major way. See my complete guide to Disney Genie+ and Lightning Lane at Disneyland for all the details. And check this space for a date certain as soon as it is announced.

Make New Transportation Plans

If you have a tried and true way of getting to the parks from previous trips, you should probably think through your transportation plans to make sure they still work in these unique times.

For locals driving (or anyone driving from a more distant hotel), know that the parking lots aren’t reliably opening until 1 hour before park opening time. Plus, the parking tram still also isn’t running from Mickey & Friends/Pixar Pals. You’ll need to walk that route instead. If that’s too many steps or gets you started too late, consider whether getting dropped off in an Uber or Lyft on the Harbor Boulevard entrance would be a reasonable alternative.

On the flip side, consider whether you feel comfortable with shared vehicles right now – like ridesharing, shuttles that many more distant hotels run, or the Anaheim Resort Transit system (ART). If not, this might be the trip to rent a car and drive yourself.

The Toy Story Lot reopened June 18, 2021 with buses transporting guests to the parks, providing another alternative but often long wait times at park open and close. Guests who stay in hotels near the Toy Story lot often take these shuttles as well.

Disneyland Anaheim Resort Transit new electric bus

Be aware too that not all off-property hotels are running their normal shuttles (or at least on as frequent of a schedule as before). Uber and Lyft rides are sometimes harder to come by with so many drivers having left the platform when demand was lower, so wait times for those can be longer than before.

Personally, I think walking distance hotels are great choices for out-of-towners right now. Take transportation issues out of the equation.

Additional 2021 Disneyland Tips & Details to Know

That wasn’t enough for you? Here are a few more tips and details that are good to know as you plan your vacation.

  • PhotoPass is available for single days for $19.99. You can purchase in the app. The app also shows the locations of PhotoPass photographers in the map.
  • While traditional character meet-and-greets aren’t permitted, there are characters aplenty in the parks for distanced selfie and interactions. The locations are now marked in the app but not all the characters are listed.
Disneyland Distanced Character Meet with Rapunzel and Flynn Rider in Royal Hall
  • If you’ve already been to Walt Disney World this past year, don’t expect Disneyland to work exactly the same way. Even the same attractions operate differently. See my guide to 50th anniversary visits in 2021-2022 at Walt Disney World for more on the current operations in Florida.
  • Lockers are back! While they were initially closed in the parks and only open in the esplanade locations, all of them are now open.
  • If you are using old tickets that you pre-purchased with Maxpass (which is not currently offered), Disney will give you a Disney gift card as a substitute for a refund. Just go to guest services in the park or submit a help request in advance of your trip on the Disneyland website (select “Online Ticket Purchase”). (H/T to Becca Robins of This Crazy Adventure Called Life for doing the legwork on opening weekend to find this out.)
  • Disneyland character dining is back – and all restaurants with character meals have now returned, with some modifcationns of course.
  • There are several special events this fall and winter that will result in the closure of one park early on some evenings. Check park hours closely around both Oogie Boogie Bash which closes DCA early in September and October and the brand new Disney Merriest Nites which will close Disneyland park early some nights in late November and early December.

Where to Book Your Disneyland Vacation — and Save Money!

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For park tickets, don’t purchase direct from Disney and pay more! Book discounted Disneyland park tickets from Get Away Today here. Tickets purchased now are valid through the end of 2022.

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Current Get Away Today Specials & Deals for Winter 2021 & 2022 Visits:

Headed to a reopened Disneyland in 2021? Your planning and touring strategies need to change for the many differences in place right now! These essential tips from the first days the parks opened will help you navigate ride wait times and lines, limited restaurant availability, tickets and reservations, new character meet and greets, and more.

Want more? See this web story summarizing the 2021 Disneyland differences!

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