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The Grown-Ups’ Guide to Disneyland

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Serene moments outside Sleeping Beauty’s Castle are rare but treasured occurrences.

Photo by Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort

Serene moments outside Sleeping Beauty’s Castle are rare but treasured occurrences.

Think you’re too old to enjoy the Happiest Place on Earth? Think again.

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Most adults seem to fall into one of two camps when it comes to Disneyland: major enthusiasm or major skepticism. In reality, finding a middle ground between the two extremes is not that difficult. You can ride Space Mountain, have pork belly for lunch, sip rosé on a patio overlooking a California-inspired boardwalk and pier in Disney’s California Adventure, and not once touch a Mickey-shaped pretzel. You don’t have to find a seat for the many crowd-drawing parades throughout the day; you can use that time however and wherever you want. The parks aren’t just for kids—they’re for anyone who wants to have a good time.

At Bengal Barbecue, even the pad thai spring rolls sport a hidden Mickey.

What to eat (that isn’t a churro)

Disneyland is practically synonymous with “churro,” and while the cinnamon sugar–dusted batons of fried dough are exactly as tasty as everyone says, there are many more quick and delicious bites to grab in the park. For savory cravings, look to Adventureland for turkey leg alternatives. Bengal Barbecue’s meat-heavy menu includes a pork belly skewer that comes with pickled carrots and daikon, best enjoyed alongside the limited-edition pad thai spring rolls with shrimp. If you’re hankering for something with more heft, head to the Royal Street Veranda in New Orleans Square for a sourdough bowl full of hearty gumbo—it’s the same recipe used at the Blue Bayou Restaurant (the one you can see from inside Pirates of the Caribbean), but without the hour-long wait or reservations commitment.

To satisfy a sweet tooth, try one of the seasonal beignets from the Mint Julep Bar (think butterscotch in spring, peppermint in winter) or a French macaron from Alien Pizza Planet in Tomorrowland. The green cookies are decorated to look like a Toy Story alien, while the blackberry cream and lemon curd fillings come together for a lightly sweet and tangy treat. Fans of the classic Dole Whip, a pineapple soft serve, should try the new raspberry and lime flavors at the Tropical Hideaway near the Enchanted Tiki Room. When you’re ready to sit a while, consider the lounges at Carthay Circle (California Adventure) or Napa Rose (Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa). While the main restaurants at these locations typically require reservations, the upscale lounges accept walk-ins and offer the perfect environment for grown-up relaxation. After a full day of dodging strollers and living snack to snack, you deserve to indulge in grilled diver scallops and duck confit empanadas.

The mimosa flight at Disney California Adventure’s Sonoma Terrace includes three flavors: hibiscus, tropical, and mixed berry.

Where to drink

Although Disneyland itself has been dry since opening (with the exception of the ultra-exclusive Club 33 and upcoming Oga’s Cantina in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge), alcohol is served at California Adventure, Downtown Disney, and the three on-property hotels. The imbibing options are as diverse as the cast of characters marching in the Main Street Parade. Those hoping for a quiet and cozy experience should claim a couch at the Hearthstone Lounge, just off the lobby of the Grand Californian—don’t miss the artisanal pizzas or the Cold Brew XO, spiked with Patrón. Other casual watering holes include Sonoma Terrace (two words: mimosa flight) and Lamplight Lounge, both in California Adventure. At Lamplight, the vibrant cocktails and an impressive beer selection pair wonderfully with the Pixar theme (and the lobster nachos), but be sure to make reservations or prepare for a lengthy wait.

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For a more sophisticated experience, the aforementioned Napa Rose and Carthay Circle are your best bets, as well as the Lounge at Steakhouse 55 in the Disneyland Hotel. Here you’ll find spirit-forward classics in addition to special twists, such as the Blood Orange Margarita. All three also boast extensive wine lists, which beg to be paired with artichoke pesto dip or a cheese plate. However, if you’re in the mood for something more lively, nowhere compares to Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar. The speakeasy-like entrance near the Disneyland Hotel pool barely contains a rambunctious crowd that will shout things like, “You’re letting all the fun out!” when the door remains open too long. Many of the tropical drinks are accompanied by unique rituals that range from flashing lights and rumbling thunder to throwing cinnamon at a bowl of flaming rum to create sparks. It’s an experience, to say the least.

Parades and other celebrations are jubilant (and sometimes overwhelming) events at Disneyland.

How to dodge crowds

Avoiding long lines and dense hordes of fellow guests comes down to awareness: You picked up a Fast Pass to cut down on wait time for one ride, but what other attractions or snack stops are closest to that ride? What time is the next parade? When are schools on spring/summer/winter break? Those not bound to an academic calendar should try to visit in January, February, or early May, when fewer families are vacationing. If your group doesn’t mind splitting up on the rides, target Single Rider lines. These queues are for people who are willing to occupy stray seats on rides. For instance, the cars on Indiana Jones: Temple of the Forbidden Eye have four seats per row. If a family has three in their party, cast members will call on someone from the Single Rider line to fill the row to capacity. The Single Rider hack can turn a 90-minute wait into 15 or 20 minutes.

Another tip is to snag a schedule from the ticket turnstile. Whether or not you intend to watch the fireworks or take a photo with Eeyore, this schedule contains important information. Cast members block walkways before and during parades, fireworks, and the Fantasmic! river show to help manage foot traffic, which can cause major bottlenecks if you’re stuck on the wrong side of the rope. Check the schedule for times when these rope blocks are likely to pop up and plan to be on the other side of the park.

Sometimes the crowd is unavoidable for long stretches. Unless you’re able to visit midweek, it’s not a bad idea to take a leisurely dinner between 7 and 10 p.m., when the park is most crowded in anticipation of the big finales for the day: the last parade, the fireworks over Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, and two showings of Fantasmic! If you want to maximize your ride time but not your interaction with tens of thousands of fellow guests, keep an eye out for upcoming special events such as the Oogie Boogie Bash around Halloween and Disneyland After Dark. Tickets for these events are sold separately from general admission and at a much lower quantity. This means shorter lines (for both rides and food), fewer crowds, unique entertainment like villain-themed fireworks, and other perks that are well worth the price.

Hop on the Matterhorn Bobsleds at sunset or during the fireworks for prime views.

How to upgrade your ride experience (for free)

Disney offers VIP tours that grant guests priority access to rides for a pretty penny, but there are ways to make the most of the Disneyland Resort experience without any added cost. Some of the hacks are about timing: Sunset is a magical time to catch outdoor attractions such as Big Thunder Mountain and the Matterhorn Bobsleds. The pink and purple hues of Southern California’s dusk add to the western vibes on the canyon-reminiscent roller coaster, and the dim lighting ensures that your eyes can properly adjust to the Matterhorn’s dark, spooky caverns.

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For less ambience and more thrills, go straight to Splash Mountain when Disneyland opens for the day. Yes, first thing in the morning. The line will be so short that you can go twice with practically no wait. Plus, no cuppa joe matches the wakeup that the big drop delivers. Guests staying at the Grand Californian should instead make their way to Grizzly Peak River Run, which is right outside the hotel’s entrance to California Adventure. When it’s particularly hot—and when isn’t it hot in Anaheim?—wear clothes you don’t mind getting soaked and take advantage of Grizzly Peak’s Single Rider line. You’ll be able to cycle through the river rapids several times, dash up to your hotel room, change into dry clothes, and hop on the next ride while your adrenaline is still pumping.

On the flip side, when you need sit longer than a 40-second ride permits, look to Pirates of the Caribbean and It’s a Small World to rest your aching feet. The slow pace of these boat rides provides an extended break from walking, as well as some time out of the sun and in sweet, sweet air-conditioning.

The Mark Twain Riverboat departs from a dock outside Big Thunder Mountain.

Where to hear yourself think

Believe it or not, there are small pockets in both Disneyland and California Adventure where the exhausted and overwhelmed can claim a moment of peace. In Disneyland, a well-known reprieve can be found on the Mark Twain Riverboat, which moseys around Pirate’s Lair (formerly Tom Sawyer Island) while an easygoing voice narrates your surroundings. Less obvious is the mineshaft walkway near Big Thunder Mountain, which you can find by turning right when exiting the ride. This may change once Galaxy’s Edge opens adjacent to Frontierland at the end of May, but for now, the corner is a mercifully quiet place to regroup. For a less sunny escape, take a stroll through Disney Gallery on Main Street, which is to the left of the flagpole when you’re facing the park exit. Although no volume restriction is imposed on the area, most maintain hushed tones while perusing concept art, oil paintings, and a small-scale replica of what Disneyland looked like when it first opened in 1955.

Over at California Adventure, the best place to have a seat and sip lemonade is in the Animation Studio at the Hollywood Backlot. Dozens of projectors display iconic Disney scenes on screens of various shapes and sizes while classic movie themes play. The immersive experience is nearly impossible to explain and a must-see for fans of any animated Disney feature from Snow White to Aladdin to Frozen. The full montage loop lasts about 30 minutes, which is long enough to recuperate from hours of walking. Near Grizzly Peak River Run, there’s a relatively untrafficked area similar to the one outside Big Thunder Mountain: a good place to catch your breath between big attractions.

This mug with a key-shaped handle commemorates the 90th anniversary of Mickey Mouse’s introduction in “Steamboat Willie.”

What’s worth shopping for

You can’t leave Disneyland without swinging by a gift shop—literally. Main Street, USA, is flanked by stores on both sides of the street. Sure, you can pass the Emporium and continue on your merry way, but then you’ll miss the surprisingly cute dresses patterned with a flurry of Up balloons and the Tommy Bahama button-downs with muted postcard patterns. Beyond the dozens of Mickey ear hats and headbands, beyond the hundreds of pins in every store on property, Disney has vastly expanded its merchandise to suit multiple styles, and it’s refreshing. Whether you’re in the market for a retro Mousketeer letterman jacket, a corporate Star Wars tie, or a chic gold bracelet with a tiny Dole Whip charm, the stores have something for you.

Outside of apparel, Disneyland and California Adventure sell innovative mugs, such as an off-kilter stack of three tea cups to form one ceramic drinking vessel. For even more creative twists on Disney properties, look no further than Wonderground Gallery in Downtown Disney, where the walls are filled with prints and stationery that have been drawn and painted by a rotating roster of select artists. Here, you’ll find “Hipster Mickey” with a slouchy beanie and a cup of coffee, delicate oil paintings of Tinkerbell and Mulan, and everything between.

>>Next: Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge Is Opening Soon—Here’s Everything You Need to Know

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