It truly is the Happiest Place on Earth, and even to those first-timers daunted by the thought of Disneyland, it’s totally worth it, with a bit of planning. These tips will help you make the most of your family vacation—whether it’s a day trip from Los Angeles or San Diego or a journey from the Northwest.

Timing is everything
As you’re sifting through the family calendar in search of the perfect day, be sure to keep in mind the months when crowds are smaller–namely late fall, early spring and the winter months. Remember, it is Southern California so February is not that cold! The holiday season is particularly delightful as Disneyland transforms into a wintry wonderland with thousand of twinkling lights, a huge Christmas tree, and a fantastic fireworks show each evening. If you’re heading out during the school year, avoid the crowds by checking the local school district calendar for days off.

Where to Stay
Yes, it can be a fantastic experience to settle into one of the Disneyland Resort Hotels as they offer great perks such as convenience, character breakfasts and early park entrance. But there are more affordable and equally convenient options with the nearby Good Neighbor Hotels. The Tropicana Inn is a great choice as it’s a five minute walk from the resort—a perfect option for nappers. Plus, if they have availability, the hotel will give you a later check-out for a moderate surcharge. It’s a great option for local Angelenos as it provides a home base during your Disney day (with a one-night stay).

Ticket Tape
Instead of shelling out the full price at the gate, check for deals at Costco. The wholesale company often has multiple day deals that add up to big savings. If the deals apply only to Los Angeles area residents (it happens sometimes), start thinking about who you know in LA! Don’t you owe them a phone call?

What to Bring
Park rules say you cannot bring in food or drink to the theme park, but countless parents tote in snacks and drinks (including bottles) without any problem. Considering how much a bottle of water costs, it will help your bottom dollar tremendously to BYO and will give you a little extra for splurging. If you decide to bring lunch food, there are lockers just outside the gates (as well as inside) where you can store more items. You may also rent a stroller if you don’t want to lug yours on the airplane. And lastly, pick up some glow sticks at a local drugstore before you come so when night falls you can break out dozens and do up the kids. You’ll be glad you did when you see the hideous prices charged by the park for their glow gear.

Plan Ahead
The World of Color water and light show in California Adventure’s Paradise Bay is not to be missed. Ensure great seats by making a reservation at either Ariel’s Grotto or the Wine Country Trattoria. The prix fixe menu ($18.99-39.99/person) includes tickets to the preferred viewing section—up close and totally worth it. There’s also a picnic lunch option available ($15.99/person) with great seating as well.

Be Prepared
Avoid impatient kids and aching legs by scouting for short lines. You can get real-time info on which rides have the shortest waits by downloading an app for your phone. Check out Ride Hopper Lite, Parktastiq Disneyland iGuide, and Disneyland Mousewait.

Fast Times
Fast passes are the key to an efficient visit. These passes give you a specified time to return–say from 9:00 am – 10:00 am–and allow you to slip into a shorter, designated line. There are about 100 for each time slot, so the passes go fast. If you miss your time, you can go back later. Remember, you can only get one at a time, so work with your line app to create a plan of attack. Buzz Lightyear and Woody fans, listen up: Adventureland’s Toy Story Mania ride does not have the fast pass option, so hit it the first thing in the morning when lines are the shortest.

Day One
Begin the day by taking the monorail to get the lay of the land. The kids will get amped seeing all the rides and will be able to get an idea of what they don’t want to miss and it’ll help you navigate your way through the park. Kids particularly love It’s a Small World, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Casey Jr. Circus Train, the Storybook Land Canal Boats and the parade at the end of the day!

Pit Stop
A crucial resource for parents of little ones is the Baby Care Center (also known as the Lost Children Center…always a good thing to know about!). Complete with private breastfeeding rooms, plenty of padded changing stations, little potties, and little to no wait for these, as opposed to the other restrooms, this clean, quiet spot is worth planning your pit stops around.

Trading Up
If your kiddo’s into collectibles, you’ll want to consider the pin trading program. It’s a good way to get your children to interact with Disney employees, display mementos of their favorite characters with pride, and break the ice with fellow tots. Want to save a bundle? Invest in a bulk load of trading pins on eBay ahead of time. They run nearly $7 a piece at the park. For two kids, 30 pins is a good number over a 2-day trip.

Where’s Mickey?
There are hundreds of Mickey Mouse silhouettes throughout the park, make a daylong game out of finding the hidden Mickey’s. To get a jump start on it, hit up a couple online sources like the Hidden Mickey Guide (or check that app you downloaded) and lead your little spies in the right direction.

Autographs!
If your child is a total Mickey fanatic, be sure to show up at Mickey’s House in Mickey’s Toon Town, with an autograph book (sold at the park) and a black Sharpie (better than the pens sold with the books). Also, hit up the Princess Fantasy Faire for a signature from one of the Disney princesses…sometimes the lines get too long at their other appearances at other spots in the park to give autographs to all the kids waiting.

Breakfast With the Stars
Another way to ensure that your kid gets to meet his or her most treasured character is to book a spot at one of the character breakfasts. They have them at the PCH Grill and Goofy’s Kitchen, among others.

Parental Controls
Think that Disneyland with the kids equals no fun for Mom and Dad? Think again! It’s a little known secret that adults with kids in tow don’t have to stand in line at the adult-only rides like Space Mountain. Simply let the people working the ride know you’re with your family and they’ll steer you off to a shorter, designated line. Then mom can take a spin while dad watches the kid and then switch it up for the next ride.

Foodie Favorites
There are some items worth splurging on, such as the Corn Dog Cart. Dog aficionados consider Disneyland’s corn dog cart to be one of the best you’ll find (hence the line). The cart is usually located on Main Street, near the first aid center. The enormous, footlong dog is cooked to order, yum. Another favorite is the Dole Pineapple Whip just outside the Tiki Room. And no trip to Disneyland is complete without a Churro, it’s a must!

Resources
For basic information about Disneyland, call 714-781-4565 for pre-recorded information about Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure. For a list of ride closures, dial the same number and press 5. Or go to the Disneyland website’s listing of park hours and click on the date of your visit for a full list of rides closed for maintenance. If you need to speak to an actual person, call Guest Communications at 714-781-7290.

We want to hear from you! What tips do you have for family hassle-free fun at the Diz? What takes the trip from fun to over-the-top ecstasy for your kids? Let us know in the comments below! We’ll pick a random winner from the comments below for a super cute Red Tricycle Kiddie T’shirt!

—Lara Burnap