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🏰 Product Managing Your Trip to Disneyland
All our pro-tips for a family trip to the happiest place on earth
What happens when two product managers plan a family trip to Disneyland? Lots of best practices and a good retro, of course.
👋 Mind The Beet: Two working parents (both product leaders in tech) discuss our journey with career, parenting, and life. We publish every Sunday. Subscribing is free.
One quick reminder, though: While a trip to Disney now requires more planning and hacks for using the Disneyland mobile app than ever, don’t forget to just enjoy the moments and don’t be ruled by the clock or a bucket list of must-dos. The point of planning is to enable you to be more in Kairos time than Chronos time.
A short school week due to teacher in-service days meant we could plan a midweek trip in October (less crowds). 3 days in hotel, 2 days in park and we jointly traveled with another family with same aged kids (5 and 8 year old’s).
Wednesday: We traveled in the afternoon (watching the 1 hr Disney+ documentary on the making of Disneyland on the plane) and spent the evening poolside at the Grand Californian. Pools and hot tubs were open until 9PM (water slide closes at 6PM) and the grill attached to the pool served dinner – parents were in lounge couches and kids were in pool.
Thursday: 7AM hotel meet up to take advantage of the 7:30AM-8AM hotel-guests-only time in the park. We hit up Tomorrow Land with that time, then used the Disneyland Railroad train to New Orleans for second breakfast of beignets, spend the rest of the morning in Adventure and Frontier land, mobile ordered lunch at Red Rose, afternoon in Star Wars land & then jumped to Disney California Adventure for the rest of the day at Pixar Pier. It was 90 degrees out, so we needed to cool down with a couple hours of pool time back at hotel. Dinner in Downtown Disney completed the day for the kids. Dads got to go visit the park kid-less for a couple hours after bedtime before park closing at midnight.
Friday: 9AM Storyteller’s Café breakfast for character meet & greets with Mickey, Pluto, and Minnie. We then met up with our Tour Guide for the day and then hit up Fantasy Land, Rise of the Resistance & Adventure Land before lunch. Our younger kid and mom split off for the makeover process at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique while the rest of the family did Disney California Adventure’s rides like Spiderman & Guardians of the Galaxy & Soaring. Dinner in Cathay Circle and then fireworks show at 9:30PM.
Saturday: Checkout Day and we visited family in other parts of LA. This was a “just in case” extra day we could have been in park in case we had any travel or weather issues.
🤗 Philosophy: Making Sure Everyone Has Fun (and Helps Others Too)
Our youngest child (5 yrs old) was in transition between the toddler rides (Dumbo, Peter Pan) and being able to do some of the thrill rides (she was eager to do Big Thunder multiple times. Matterhorn and Space Mountain was not fun for her). Loud noises decreased her enjoyment of the ride. Meeting princesses and characters was high on her list.
Our oldest was into the thrill rides that went fast (Big Thunder, Incredicoaster). Jumping scares and ghosts were not her favorite (Indiana Jones and Haunted Mansion). She’s out of the princess meet and greet phase.
Helen loves the shopping and the story-driven rides (Pirates, Jungle Cruise). Adam has a lot of nostalgia from childhood trips and loves a good thrill coaster.
In short, we had some overlap in interests but also things each of us liked. We were traveling with another family who had their own interests as well.
Trips like this are a chance for our kids to learn what type of fun they like but also that the world doesn’t revolve around them. We want everyone in the party to:
Find and repeat the rides and activities they enjoy. Having opinions and expressing them are important.
Do a few new things even if they are a bit scared by them. Trying new things is part of travel, even in the Disney bubble.
Think about others in the family and what they enjoy (including parents!). Be patient, kind, and thoughtful and help others enjoy what they love.
Count your allowance money on hand ahead of time. Parents will pay for 50% of whatever souvenirs kids wanted – the rest comes from their allowance. Experiencing constraints and making tradeoffs is part of growing up.
Our net result is that we spend most of the days together, but found it useful to have 2 hours or so where our youngest daughter split off from the rest of the group with a parent. We also had time after kids were in bed where adults went back to the park (this time it was the dads who went out).
🏨 Hotel: Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel
Advantages: Stunning lobby areas with plenty of room to hang out, pool area with water slide and hot tubs, closest hotel to parks and it’s simple to return to hotel for midday breaks or put our name down for dinner in Downtown Disney and return to pool, early entry to parks (either park 30 mins before opening),
Cons: Cost: $7365, which included 3 days hotel and 2 days in park and Genie+. Yikes! A few things that increased costs for us:
We got a 1-bedroom suite, which increased the cost by a huge amount. This enabled a King bed for us as parents, a pullout for oldest, and a roll away for youngest. The roll away must be requested upon check-in and is only available if you book a suite. They only had two queens available for our first night, so we did a room swap after the first day, which was easy/seamless. Overall, we might ditch the suite if we did this again – it was very nice to have, but ROI for $$ was off in hindsight.
We could have checked our bags and saved a night of hotel by leaving after firework on Friday. We opted instead to stay for extra day, partly to also have a backup due to all the travel and weather unknowns that were persistent in 2022.
This particular date was more expensive than those around it by 10% or so, but we were committed to it because of the teacher in-service days.
Other pro-tips on hotel:
If you end up buying stuff – like Minnie Mouse ears (a family favorite), it’s convenient to have a Disney sanctioned shop on property to then be able to return things in it that were purchased on Disney properties.
There are lots of Disney channels on the TV in the room with all the Disney content you could imagine – you can also Chromecast your Netflix, Hulu, (etc.) content.
It was relatively easy (at least on Wednesday) to get a table by the pool and order food – helped us on our first evening to get settled.
We had heard about the famed “VIP Guided Tour” experience and decided to book it this time, in part because of the lack of travel spend these past couple years with COVID lockdowns meant that 2022 was a splurge year for us. While expensive, it was overall less expensive than our three nights of hotel and one way of thinking about it is that it adds about 17% to the cost of the trip.
The primary benefit is only partly about getting to do more rides and avoid lines. On Day 1 without the guide, we averaged 2 rides/hr after subtracting out food times et cetera. With the guide, it was 2.6 rides/hr. So it’s more about the experience itself – being able to live more in the moment and not ruled by the clock. You don’t need to be constantly on the phone booking things and optimizing the day to avoid 30-, 60-, or 90-minute queues and the day can be more whatever the mood strikes vs. what’s available.
If you are thinking about doing it, here is all that we learned:
What’s the experience like? Beyond ride access, discussed below, our guide was an awesome partner for the day. She told us the story behind each ride, history of the park, helped the kids find Hidden Mickeys, and engaged in a bunch of great conversations about her job, the park, shops, “behind the scenes” questions, et cetera. She also is good friends with many of the ride operators and it feels like you are being welcomed by friends to each ride. Overall, she can make the day smoother as well, for example: a) she was able to talk to the staff at a restaurant and move up our mobile orders to a more convenient time b) when our youngest needed to go to the bathroom when we were about to get on a ride, she was able to take her through various side doors with the ride operators quickly.
Who are these guides? There are about 140 tour guides, and they average about 40 tours/day. Our guide has been a guide for 6 years and is married to another guide who has been doing it for over 10. She had a cell phone with her (the only cast members to have them) and is communicating behind the scenes with folks who help directs tours to right place and she can check on ride operations/et cetera. They have a Slack channel to discuss best practices and also an external Facebook group that includes tour operators in Florida, too. Tour guides must work in Guest Relations before becoming guides.
What’s the booking process? We booked 6 months in advance. Our guide said they tend to fill up at least 2 months in advance. We booked 2 days of tours and then cancelled one of the days a couple weeks ahead of time, upon the advice of the booking agent. It’s not clear what events will be going on each day until you get closer and their 48-hour cancellation policy makes it easy to over book and then cancel. The only gotcha is that they will cancel any dining reservations they made for you if you cancel the tour that day.
Who does this? A good chunk of their business is external bookings like us (they apparently get about one Microsoftie/month) but they also do a fair amount of internal business – a perk for Disney executives or company partners. For example, a part of the contract for actors on some Disney’s produced TV shows is 1 VIP tour/year or something. There is a separate tour operation for celebrities/politicians who need security.
What’s the cost and length of the tour? It’s a 7 hour minimum at $700/hr so $4900 + guide tip (Bring cash for the tip. Appropriate tip is somewhere between $100 and $50/guest in your party). You can have up to 10 people in the party – same cost regardless of party size – so we split this cost across two families. We started at 10AM and extended by an extra hour to 6PM, which gave us a full day with the guide and 1 hour of downtime before our 7PM dinner. And we got to sleep in without worrying about hitting the park before crowds. You decide in the moment how long to go past the minimum with the guide depending on how it’s going. The guide can also get you some Lightening Lane passes for the rest of the day after the tour ends.
When to do it? Since we have been to Disneyland before, we made a good decision to book the tour for the 2nd day in the park and not the first. It enabled us to not feel bad about skipping something on the first day and gave us a better sense of where to spend time while “on tour.” If this is your very first time to Disneyland, doing the tour on the first day might be the better option.
How does ride access work? For anything with Lightning Lane, you join that queue. So 5-15 mins wait times and the guide had a good talk track for each line with history and backstory. You can do any ride as many times as you want except Rise of the Resistance, which is just once/day given its popularity right now. If you have multiple age groups or ride interests in your party, you can split the group into two assuming the two rides are close together (officially they don’t promise that, but if you build rapport with your guide then it’s easy…she takes one group to the Lightening Lane for first ride and then joins 2nd group). For anything without Lightning Lane, it’s a shorter wait as they have entry points right before you get on the ride. Overall, these methods are perfect for anyone looking to just truly enjoy the day at the park and remove worry/stress. There is some online chatter that “for that much money, there better be no lines” -> that sort of entitlement/expectations isn’t what the tour process is about and don’t go in with those expectations.
How do you partner with your guide? How do you manage this privilege with your kids, so they don’t feel entitled? We built a relationship with our guide, being curious about her life/job and thankful for the help. We offered to pay for her food (although she gets food for free so that wasn’t necessary). We also encouraged the kids to ask questions about the park to her and treat her as another family member for the day. It was fun to watch our oldest get in a very involved conversation with her about what souvenir she should use her allowance on. The guide is also a visible representative of the company – our guide was constantly asked directional questions by other guests as we walked around, and she paused to help a ride load wheelchair-bound people when it was busy. We got the impression that she deals with a lot of people who feel more entitled – she even told horror stories of being called a “slave for the day” by her guests or kids who “just wanted to know where VIP line was.” Yuck. I’m sure her job is to make everyone feel special, yet she seemed to really appreciate us as guests and that led to her going the extra mile for us and I think fostering that human connection helped us feel better about letting our kids experience this privilege.
Did you use the pre-bookings that the tour offers? There is a whole VIP Tour Back office that helps you schedule the day. They can buy your tickets and book dining ahead of time. This was one part of the well-oiled machine that didn’t work out too well for us. Lots of email traffic back and forth and they several times booked dining on the wrong day or forgot to book something despite promising to until I followed up. On the flip side, they surprised us with a private room at Cathay Circle for dinner, which we were not expecting and I guess shows the special access they have. But net net, I might suggest booking your own dining/tickets rather than relying on the tour office.
The best way to work with the tour office is by email and phone:
👸 Experience Recommendation: Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique
Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique at Disneyland inside the magic castle was a big hit for the 5 year old. We ended up booking last minute (because there was a cancellation) and it is a magical transformation experience where a Fairy Godmother’s apprentice transforms a child into a prince or princess.
You can pick a package anywhere from $110-500 that includes options like a dress, accessories, hair, light make up, a photoshoot, etc. It takes about an hour. Optimal age is 4-6. Anything younger, and it’s hard for a kid to sit through it.
The dresses are a step up from the Disney store ones -if you (or your child is into that, then it’s worth it, otherwise you can bring your own dress and just do the make over package without the dress).
Here are a few things we learned about food:
Favorite Breakfast: Starbucks in Downtown Disney, right next to hotel on way into Disneyland, does Starbucks mobile order. Order 30 mins ahead of time.
Favorite 2nd Breakfast: Mobile order beignets in New Orleans square.
Lunch Logistics: Mobile ordering lunch and snacks on the Disneyland app is key. Order lunch at around 10AM for a noon pickup.
Favorite Dessert: Carabelle’s Ice Cream in DCA was a highlight snack, including custom-dipped ice cream bars.
Dinner away from crowds: We were in a private room at Cathay Circle in DCA for our second night. It was nice to get away from the bustle of humanity. It was a two-hour affair from start to finish.
Arrival meal: Poolside grill in the Disney’s Grand California worked well for arriving night meal. Kids were in swimsuits and swimming while waiting for food to arrive. Parents were in lounge couches.
Genie+ is of course key for day we didn’t have a guide. It will increase average rides/hours from 1 ride/hour to 2 rides/hour. You shouldn’t bother using it until about 9AM-10AM. You can only use Genie+ on each ride once per day, so it’s a “waste” until the park fills up. But it’s generally possible to do only Lightening Lane rides, booking one after the other, until about 3PM or so. After 3PM, it tends to get a bit harder to find rides without LL windows that are 3-4 hours/away.
Soaring over the World is a rare ride that pleases everyone – young kids who don’t want scares but older kids who need the thrills.
Astro Blasters in Tomorrow Land was a good starter ride for Day 1 -> it has a game component, isn’t loud, and doesn’t have thrills/scares.
Big Thunder is a great introduction to thrill rides for 5 year old’s. It is the most mild of the coasters.
Day 1 Ride Count/Ordering: Astro Blasters, Star Tours, Space Mountain, Autotopia, Disneyland RR, Haunted Mansion, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder, Teacups, Matterhorn, (Lunch), Carousel, Royal Hall, Millennium Falcon, Incredicoaster, Toy Story Mania, Inside Out Balloons, Goofy’s Sky School (5PM). Late night park adults only: Star Tours, Indiana Jones, Splash Mountain (20 rides total over 9 hours)
Day 2 Ride Count/Ordering (with guide): Peter Pan, Dumbo, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Big Thunder, Rise of the Resistance, Splash Mountain, Winnie the Pooh (Lunch), Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones, Tiki Room, Jungle Cruise, Spiderman’s Webslinger, Soaring over the World, Incredicoaster, Toy Story Carousel, Toy Story Mania, Guardian of the Galaxy (17 rides total over 6.5 hours).
We almost didn’t include this section because it can be strange to discuss costs and personal situations greatly vary – but we ended up deciding it might help someone plan and make tradeoffs:
We could have cut the hotel bill almost in half with a better room config and/or not staying the final night. And the tour guide was a “revenge travel” splurge.
Hope this guide is useful! If you end up using it for your trip, drop us a line at email@example.com.