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Originally published June 8, 2013 at 7:02 PM | Page modified June 12, 2013 at 4:54 PM

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How to beat the crowds at Disneyland

Disneyland and California Adventure are jampacked in summer. Here’s how to cut the line-time.

Seattle Times features editor

If you go

Disneyland and California Adventure

How to get there

Most Northwesterners fly to John Wayne Airport or Los Angeles International (LAX). John Wayne is closer to Disneyland (14 miles) and smaller, so easier to move through. But LAX (35 miles from the parks in Anaheim, Calif.) hosts more flights and is often cheaper. A Super Shuttle van is probably the least expensive public-transportation option from both airports at $10-$16. Book online to avoid a wait at the airport and qualify for Internet pricing: supershuttle.com.

Lodging and transportation

There are three Disneyland Resort hotels on park grounds: Disney’s Grand Californian Resort and Spa; the Disneyland Hotel and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel. They offer convenience and a premium experience at a predictably steep price. (A recent search turned up rooms in mid-June ranging from $400-$500 a night, without park entry.) Hotel/flight/entry packages could lower your costs slightly. Compare the three hotels at disneyland.disney.go.com/hotels.

Staying nearby is a less expensive option. Ramada Maingate, directly across the street from the park entrance, recently showed a room for the same mid-June date for $120, including tax (ramada.com). We stayed at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Anaheim (doubletree3.hilton.com) for about $125 a night, booked through Expedia (expedia.com) — about a mile from the entrance.

Look for hotels that offer free breakfast, free parking, or free shuttles to the park when comparing costs.

Anaheim Resort Transportation operates resort buses up and down Harbor Boulevard, the street that runs past Disneyland and many hotels; cost is $5 a day for unlimited rides, $3 for kids. Ask at your hotel for details.

Restaurants

It’s not easy to find good, affordable restaurants in or around Disneyland. Inside the parks, the food we ate ranged from fine (Hungry Bear Restaurant in Disneyland) to remarkably poor (Cocina Cucamonga Mexican Grill in California Adventure).

Outside the park, there are a few very high-end restaurants and lots of chains that stress quantity over quality. Two exceptions: The Pizza Press, directly across from the park entrance at 1534 S. Harbor Blvd., serves fresh, personal pizzas for $8-$10 (pizzapressoc.com). And La Casa Garcia, a family-run, hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint about a mile and a half south of the park at 531 W. Champan Ave. (lacasagarcia.com).

Tickets and information

Tickets for a single park on a single day range from $86 (ages 3-9) to $92 (10 and up). A one-day Park Hopper ticket, which grants you entry to both Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure, costs $131-$137. Prices then rise depending on the number of days and whether you want to visit one or both parks. At the upper end, a five-day Park Hopper ticket for both parks costs $279-$300.

For info on Disneyland, Disney’s California Adventure, vacation packages and more, see disneyland.disney.go.com.

Five rides worth waiting for

Face it: Disneyland and California Adventure are among the top tourist destinations in the country, so long lines are inevitable. You may just want to accept that fact, then focus on rides worth the wait. Below are five attractions my family flipped for on a recent visit.

Note that some of the most popular rides were closed when we attended (Soarin’ Over California; Space Mountain; Big Thunder Mountain Railroad), so you may not see your favorites on this list. Also: The youngest person in our family was 10, and rarin’ to roll on the coasters. Younger or less adventurous travelers may find some of these thrill rides too intense.

Fastpasses are available for all of these attractions.

California Screamin’

The longest and fastest roller coaster at the resort starts with a jolt and never lets up. Pure scream-inducing excitement. (Paradise Pier, California Adventure, 48-inch height minimum.)

Indiana Jones Adventure

Riders careen through dark caverns in jeeps, pursued by skeletons, lava, spiders and a huge, rolling boulder right out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” (Adventureland, Disneyland, 46-inch height minimum.)

Radiator Springs Racers

This attraction, which opened just a year ago, begins as an old-fashioned cruise through scenes based on the “Cars” movies, and then morphs into a pedal-to-the-metal auto race through scenic red-rock canyons. (Cars Land, California Adventure, 40-inch height minimum.)

Star Tours — The Adventure Continues

Combining 3D film technology with a flight-motion simulator, Star Tours creates the illusion of blasting through galaxies at dizzying speeds — with “Star Wars” characters as your traveling companions. (Tomorrowland, Disneyland, 40-inch height minimum.)

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

Strap in and prepare to plunge down an elevator shaft in a crumbling, vintage Hollywood hotel. The buildup (which includes a televised appearance by Rod Serling) is almost more terrifying than the ride itself. (Hollywood Land, California Adventure, 40-inch height minimum.)

Another five to try:

Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Matterhorn Bobsleds (all Disneyland); Grizzly River Run; Toy Story Mania! (California Adventure).

Lynn Jacobson

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School’s almost out, and you’re thinking of dashing down to Disneyland with the kids for a few days of fun and fantasia.

Just you — and many, many others.

On a summer day, tens of thousands of people will push through the turnstiles at Southern California’s sibling theme parks, Disneyland and California Adventure. Everywhere you look, you’ll find lines growing faster than Pinocchio’s nose — for food, rides, shows ... even restrooms.

Yet, it is possible to visit the Happiest Place on Earth at the Busiest Time of Year without spending your entire vacation standing in lines. Try these five strategies to make the most of your visit.

1. Pull a fast one

The Walt Disney Co. — experts in crowd- and queue-control — introduced the ingenious Fastpass system in the late 1990s. It lets you go to a popular ride, insert your park-entry ticket into a kiosk, and reserve a spot on that attraction for a preset time later in the day.

That way, instead of standing in line, you can roam around and sample other park entertainments while you wait. Then you return to the ride at the appointed time and walk right past the standby line.

On a recent visit, my family used Fastpasses to waltz by a 90-minute lineup at Radiator Springs Racers (one of California Adventure’s newest, biggest and most in-demand attractions). The hitch: We had to wait in a 30-minute line first thing in the morning for the Fastpass — a wait that can stretch to an hour at high season. But waiting for Fastpasses is the exception; at most times, for most rides, you can walk right up to the kiosk and reserve.

Typically, you can hold only one Fastpass at a time. But at times you can hold two or more for rides with particularly long waits or for certain nighttime events (for example, the World of Color light-and-fountain show at California Adventure).

Tip: If you're traveling with a group, appoint one person to fetch Fastpasses using everyone’s park-entry tickets while others explore and play.

2. Watch the clock

Plan your assault on the parks’ most popular attractions early in the day, late in the evening or during parkwide events like parades and fireworks shows. On our recent trip, California Adventure’s Paradise Pier (California Screamin’! Toy Story Mania!) practically cleared out at dusk when an Aladdin parade was afoot.

Start by researching exactly what time the park opens every morning of your visit, and when it closes at night (hours vary by day and season). If you’re staying at one of the on-site Disney hotels, you may qualify for one-hour early entrance on certain days (inquire at the hotel about Magic Morning entry). Arrive a few minutes before the gates open, proceed directly to your first-choice Fastpass kiosk, then continue to the standby line of another popular ride.

How do you know which attractions are most crowded (and therefore best approached early or late)? The thrill rides that offer Fastpasses are among the most sought after. Though there are a few without Fastpasses that also tend to back up, because of their enduring popularity and small capacity. (For example, see the jumbo lines for Dumbo the Flying Elephant.)

Especially if you are toting small children, consider going early, leaving midday for lunch and a swim, and returning at night for more fun. In the summer, the parks often stay open till midnight.

Tip: There is no “hard close” at the parks. That is, if Disneyland is open till midnight, they don’t toss you out at 12 o’clock on the nose. You can stay and play till the last minute, then take your time exiting, perhaps even stopping to pick up a souvenir along the way. (Shops stay open past closing time.)

3. Be cool

Keep an eye on the thermometer as well as the clock. Water rides like Splash Mountain and Grizzly Bear Run are less busy when it’s cool or cloudy. We had so much fun on Grizzly Bear Run on a drizzly morning that we went three times in succession with practically no waiting. (We were already wet, so ... why not?)

Tip: Pack a pair of flip-flops and a folding poncho in your backpack and you won’t have to walk around soggy afterward.

4. Go solo

Many of the most crowded rides also have a singles line for people who are willing to split from their group and fill empty seats in cars of six or eight.

Remember that 90-minute wait at Radiator Springs Racers? After we went on the ride using Fastpasses, we circled back and got in the singles line for a second go. We waited only 15 minutes for individual spots and were still close enough to each other that we finished almost at the same time. The next day, we used the singles line for a second run on the Matterhorn Bobsleds, reducing a one-hour wait to 15 minutes.

5. Don’t worry, be ‘appy’

Disneyland has inspired a whole mouse-house full of mobile apps designed to keep users apprised of events, character appearances, wait times and more.

Some are free, such as MouseWait, a popular app with a strong social dimension, and Disney’s own Mobile Magic. We used Mobile Magic for part of our visit, and found that it slightly underestimated wait times, but still gave a reliable sense of relative line lengths. The map function can also be helpful for park newbies.

The Ferrari of Disney apps is RideMax, which crafts a custom ride/event itinerary based on day of attendance and the things you want to see and do. Friends who used this tool found it very helpful. The drawback: The cheapest RideMax option is a 90-day subscription for $14.95. But who goes to Disneyland to save money?

Most Disneyland apps are available for both iPhones and Androids.

Tip: Cell reception can be spotty inside the park, depending on your carrier. Make sure you have a map and a written list of rides you’d like to experience as a backup.

Parting advice

This is vacation, not a to-do list. So don’t stress about seeing and doing absolutely everything. Decide collectively on two or three top priorities, get those out of the way early, or with Fastpasses, and then allow yourself some time to wander and discover.

No matter how you strategize, you will spend some time standing in lines. Take advantage of the pauses to hang out and talk with friends or family — ultimately the most magical part of the Magic Kingdom.

Lynn Jacobson: 206-464-2714 or ljacobson@seattletimes.com

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