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Beating the Lines at Southern California’s Top Theme Parks

December 16, 2021 By Deborah Wakefield

Nobody wants to spend their vacation stuck in lines, especially long ride lines at busy theme parks. And while CityPASS can save you money on admission to the Golden State’s top amusement parks, each of those parks has its own options for reducing your wait times. But those options do come with a price tag. Here’s the skinny on beating the queues at Southern California’s most popular theme parks. You decide if the upgrades are worth the price.


THE DISNEYLAND RESORT

Disneyland Resort has added major new attractions in the past few years, including Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a captivating new land featuring entertainment and rides inspired by the Star Wars movie franchise. The land’s two marquee rides are the Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, where guests take their positions as pilots, engineers and gunners embarking on a daring mission, and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, whose multiple ride systems make this one of the most advanced and immersive Disney experiences ever.

Galaxy’s Edge is located in Disneyland Park. Across the plaza in Disney California Adventure Park is the brand-new Avengers Campus, chock-full of characters from the Marvel universe. Avengers Campus is where the next generation of superheroes (aka guests) can help rescue the Guardians of the Galaxy from the villainous Collector’s fortress (Guardians of the Galaxy—Mission: BREAKOUT!), team up with Spidey to help capture a pack of out-of-control Spider-Bots before they wreak total havoc (WEB SLINGERS: A Spider-Man Adventure), or explore the mysterious ruins of an ancient site with Doctor Strange (Ancient Sanctum).

And, of course, in addition to these new attractions there are scores of Disneyland favorites (Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones Adventure, The Haunted Mansion, Radiator Springs Racers, and more) waiting to delight guests.

The "Happiest Place on Earth" can seem a whole lot happier when you shorten the wait times for popular rides. While FASTPASS and Disney MaxPass (a fan favorite) are now retired, Disney has launched Disney Genie service to help guests maximize their time in the parks. This new service is built into the Disneyland App. (Visit the App Store or Google Play to download the app.)

It’s important to note that while the Disney Genie app’s itinerary planning services are free, Disney’s two options to save you time in ride lines—Disney Genie+ and individual Lightning Lane scheduling—have a cost and some restrictions. But, if money is no object, you can skip all the lines all the time with a Disneyland VIP Tour.

All prices quoted below are approximate as of December 2021. Prices subject to change.

Sleeping Beauty Castle
Sleeping Beauty Castle: ©Disney

Disney Genie+


Benefits:

  • Allows you to choose the next available time to arrive at select attractions/rides and use the Lightning Lane entrance.
  • Unlimited Disney PhotoPass digital downloads from your day at the Disneyland Resort.
  • Access to in-app Audio Tales, which are tailored to specific locations in the park. These podcast-like clips are a great way to hear stories and discover behind-the-scenes information about the parks.

Cost:

  • $20 per person per day. (Note: While you can add Disney Genie+ to your tickets or package at the time of purchase, most Disney podcasters and bloggers recommend purchasing Genie+ the same day you plan to use it. Since you can’t reserve rides until you’re in the park anyway, it makes sense to wait and purchase the service as soon as you enter the park. If the park isn’t particularly busy on a given day—or if you aren’t planning to do many of the rides that offer a Lightning Lane entrance—you might want to skip the additional cost for Genie+ that day).
  • The charge for Genie+ is in addition to the cost of your regular park admission ticket.

Before You Leave Home:

  • Download the Disneyland App to your phone from either the App Store (iPhones) or Google Play (Android phones). If you already have the Disneyland App, make sure you have the latest iteration. If you’re not sure, it’s best to delete the existing app and download the newest version.
  • Create a Disneyland account, if you don’t already have one. You’ll need this to use Disney Genie.
  • Complete your profile in the app and be sure to add a method of payment.
  • Link your park tickets and your park reservation to your account in the Disneyland App.
  • Optional: You can add the people in your traveling party, select must-see/must-do items, and let the app know if you need information on height requirements for rides or special accessibility information.

Once You’re IN the Park:

  • Open the app, purchase Genie+ for the day and start reserving. This is also the time to add a la carte Lightning Lane purchases for the three rides (see list below) not covered by Genie+.
  • Tip: Arrive at the park early if you plan to use Genie+ or want to make Individual Lightning Lane purchases. You’ll want to reserve rides while times are still available.
What You Should Know About Genie+:
  • To streamline using Genie+, be sure to download the Disneyland App, link your tickets and park reservation, and add a payment method before you leave home.
  • You can only use Genie+ to reserve one Lightning Lane access at a time. For example, if it’s 9 a.m. and the next available ride time for your preferred ride is 6 p.m., you’ll have to wait 2 hours before you can reserve a time for another ride. If the next available ride time is within the 2-hour window, you will have to wait until you redeem your reservation before making your next reservation. Pro Tip: As soon as you scan your Lightning Lane reservation for a particular ride, you can reserve your next ride while you’re in the Lightning Lane queue.
  • You can only make one Lightning Lane selection per attraction per day (e.g., if you’ve already used Genie+ to reserve a Lightning Lane entry to Autopia on a given day, you can’t make a second Lightning Lane reservation at this same attraction on the same day).
  • Genie+ offers Lightning Lane access at the following attractions in Disneyland Park (DP) and Disney California Adventure Park (DCA):
    • Autopia (DP)
    • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (DP)
    • Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters (DP)
    • Goofy’s Sky School (DCA)
    • Grizzly River Run (DCA)
    • Guardians of the Galaxy—Mission: BREAKOUT! (DCA)
    • Haunted Mansion (DP)
    • Indiana Jones Adventure (DP)
    • Incredicoaster (DCA)
    • “it’s a small world” (DP)
    • Matterhorn Bobsleds (DP)
    • Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run (DP)
    • Monsters, Inc., Mike & Sulley to the Rescue! (DCA)
    • Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin (DP)
    • Soarin’ Around the World (DCA)
    • Space Mountain (DP)
    • Splash Mountain (DP)
    • Star Tours—The Adventures Continue (DP)
    • Toy Story Midway Mania! (DCA)
  • Ride reservation times are subject to availability.
  • Rides may be closed for refurbishment or repair on a given day, making those attractions temporarily unavailable to Genie+ users.

How to Add Genie+ to Your CityPASS Disneyland Resort Tickets:

  • Download the app, add a payment option and link your CityPASS Disneyland Resort tickets to your account before you leave home. Once you enter the park, simply open the app, purchase Genie+ for the day and start making reservations.
CarsLand
Disney CarsLand: ©Disney ©Disney/Pixar

Individual Lightning Lane Purchases

Individual Lightning Lane purchases are available for three rides that are not included with Genie+. As these are considered a la carte purchases, you do not need to have purchased Genie+ to make Individual Lightning Lane purchases for these select rides.

Benefits:

  • Allows you to choose the next available time to arrive and use the Lightning Lane entrance for up to TWO of the following attractions per day:
    • Radiator Springs Racers (DCA)
    • Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance (DP)
    • WEB SLINGERS: A Spider-Man Adventure (DCA)
      Note: These three rides are not included under Genie+.

Cost:

  • $7-$20 per ride (prices fluctuate depending on the season, day of the week and attraction demand).
  • There is a charge for each individual attraction reservation. Those charges are in addition to the cost of your regular park admission ticket and the cost to purchase Genie+, if you choose to use that service, too.

What You Should Know About a la Carte Lightning Lane Purchases:

  • To streamline making Individual Lightning Lane purchases, be sure to download the Disneyland App, link your tickets and park reservation, and add a payment method before you leave home.
  • You may only use this reservation system for up to two of the above-listed attractions each day.
  • Ride reservation times are subject to availability.
  • Rides may be closed for refurbishment or repair on a given day, making those attractions temporarily unavailable for individual reservations.

How to Add Lightning Lane Purchases to Your CityPASS Disneyland Resort Tickets:

  • Download the app, link your CityPASS tickets and park reservation, and add a payment option before you leave home. Once you enter the park, simply open the app to start making reservations.

Disneyland Resort VIP Tour


Benefits Include:

  • A personal tour guide/concierge to escort you throughout the day.
  • Priority access to rides and attractions.
  • Assistance from a VIP tour coordinator in preplanning major items, such as special celebrations, specific group priorities, and special dining needs.
  • Assistance from a VIP tour coordinator in booking Disneyland Resort dining reservations.
  • A customizable, flexible itinerary.

Cost:

  • Prices start at $2,975 for a minimum 7-hour tour for up to 10 individuals. Prices increase during busier seasons/days. This cost is in addition to your regular park admission ticket. All guests (aged 3 and older) require separate park admission.

What You Should Know About Disneyland Resort VIP Tours:

  • The maximum number of guests is 10, including infants.
  • Separate park admission (for all guests aged 3 and older) and park reservations are required. Park admission is not included in the VIP Tour price. Disney Special Activities will obtain park reservations for guests with confirmed VIP tours.
  • Tour length is customizable to your needs, with a minimum of 7 hours.
  • Same-day visits to both theme parks—Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park—require separate admission to both parks.
  • Minors (guests under the age of 18) must be accompanied by an adult (18 years of age or older) for the entire tour.
  • VIP tours are outdoor walking tours, so pack those comfy walking shoes, and, depending on the weather, ponchos, umbrellas, sunscreen, gloves…
  • Complimentary strollers and wheelchairs are offered to VIP guests (based on availability).
  • VIP tours are nonrefundable when canceled four days or less prior to arrival.

How to Book a Disneyland Resort VIP Tour:


Flight of the Hippogriff
©2021 Universal Studios Hollywood. All Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOLLYWOOD


This theme park/movie studio is the ultimate Hollywood experience. Go behind the scenes on the famous backlot Studio Tour, immerse yourself in the magic of “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” come face-to-face with stunningly realistic dinosaurs in “Jurassic World—The Ride,” and get ready for an all-new, award-winning innovative ride, “The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash!

Ways to skip the lines include the Universal Express Pass, which allows one-time express access for each ride, attraction and seated shows, and the Unlimited Universal Express, which, as the name implies, gives you repeat express access for rides, attractions and seated shows.

There’s also the über-plush VIP Private Experience. The VIP Private Experience starts with valet parking and a stop at the VIP Lounge for snacks. You’ll feel like a superstar as your personal tour guide escorts your family/friends through the backlot, ushers you through the express lines at each ride, and finds you the best seats at shows. Oh, and did we mention the gourmet meal you’ll enjoy in the private VIP dining room, prepared by Universal’s very own executive chef?

All prices quoted below are approximate as of December 2021. Prices subject to change.

Express Pass / Unlimited Universal Express


Benefits:

  • Express—The Express Pass includes one-time express access to each ride, attraction and seated show.
  • Unlimited—The Unlimited Universal Express pass includes unlimited express access to rides, attractions and seated shows.
  • Both—Express Pass and Unlimited Universal Express holders queue in a separate line with shorter wait times.

Cost:

  • Express—Depending on the day of the week and time of year, Express Pass adds approximately $80-$150 per person to the price of a one-day general admission ticket.
  • Unlimited—The Unlimited Universal Express pass will add approximately $100-$170 per person to the price of a one-day general admission ticket.

What You Should Know About Express Pass / Unlimited Universal Express:

  • Both—Universal limits the number of Express Pass and Unlimited Universal Express passes it sells each day, to preserve the time-saving benefits for buyers. So, arrive early to upgrade your tickets.
  • Both—Does not apply to food/retail locations or non-seated shows.
  • Both—Cannot be combined with other offers, separately ticketed events, discounts, or sightseeing tours.
  • Both—Tickets are valid only on the selected date and are non-transferrable.

How to Upgrade Your CityPASS Universal Studios Hollywood Tickets to Express Pass or Unlimited Universal Express:

  • Both—Upon arrival at the park, upgrade your CityPASS tickets at the Universal Box Office. Remember, Express passes can sell out on busy days. Arrive early to make sure you can upgrade.

Silly Swirly
©2021 Universal Studios Hollywood. All Rights Reserved.

Universal VIP Private Experience (for families, friends and colleagues)


Benefits Include:

  • One-day admission plus unlimited express access to each ride, attraction and seated show. (Express access uses a separate line with shorter wait times.)
  • An expert guided tour, including the studio backlot.
  • Light snacks and refreshments.
  • Exclusive VIP gourmet meal (does not include alcoholic beverages).
  • Complimentary valet parking.

Cost:

  • Call Universal at (818) 622-8477 for pricing on VIP Private Tours.
  • Regular VIP tours (Universal will put you in a small group, but you won’t necessarily know the people in your group) start at $349 per person. Prices vary depending on availability and the day of the week/season. Note: There is an age minimum (5 years) for regular VIP tours.

What You Should Know About Universal VIP Private Experiences:

  • The VIP Private Experience is for groups of up to 18 friends/family members.
  • There is no age minimum for the VIP Private Experience, but guests must be at least 17 years old to participate without an accompanying adult.
  • Guests must arrive at VIP Reception 30 minutes before their scheduled tour departure time.
  • The VIP Private Experience does not apply to food/retail locations or non-seated shows.
  • The VIP Private Experience cannot be combined with other offers, separately ticketed events, discounts, or sightseeing tours.
  • Tickets are valid only on the selected date and are non-transferable, non-refundable and non-exchangeable.
  • Requests to change your reservation must be made at least 48 hours in advance.
  • Complimentary valet parking cannot be used for self-parking.

How to Book a Universal Studios Hollywood VIP Experience:

LEGOLAND The Dragon
Legoland: LEGOLAND® California

LEGOLAND CALIFORNIA RESORT

Awesome awaits at LEGOLAND California Resort, which encompasses the LEGOLAND California theme park, SEA LIFE aquarium, LEGOLAND Water Park, LEGOLAND Hotel and the LEGOLAND Castle Hotel. In total, there are more than 60 rides, shows and attractions to explore and enjoy.

New to the resort is THE LEGO MOVIE WORLD, where kids and families can step onto the streets of Bricksburg and straight into the colorful cosmos inspired by the blockbuster films The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part. Welcome to a universe populated by cheerful, earnest Master Builder Emmet Brickowski; Emmet’s reluctant, tough-as-nails sidekick Wyldstyle (aka Lucy); Princess Unikitty, whose emotions can instantly transform her normal happy-go-lucky personality and even her physical being into something scarier; and other fan favorites.

LEGOLAND California’s newest and biggest adventure takes guests from theater to theme park, fully immersing them in The LEGO Movie universe and featuring six interactive attractions. The flagship ride, Emmet’s Flying Adventure, invites riders to hop aboard Emmet’s triple-decker flying couch for a thrill-seeking race through such familiar movie locales as Middle Zealand, Cloud Cuckoo Land (Unikitty’s former realm), Pirates Cove and Sistar System.

You can fast track your experience at 14 different LEGOLAND attractions with Reserve ‘N’ Ride, an electronic ride reservation system with three levels: Express, Deluxe and Ultimate. There’s also the Ultimate VIP Experience for aspiring master builders.

All prices quoted below are approximate as of December 2021. Prices subject to change.

Reserve ‘N’ Ride


Benefits:

  • Assigns you a time to return to enjoy a ride. Depending on your Reserve ‘N’ Ride level, your wait times for rides can be reduced by:
    • 25% — Express
    • 50% — Deluxe
    • 90% — Ultimate
  • Allows you to enjoy other parts of the park while waiting for your reserved ride times.
  • Allows you to make as many reservations as you want for the same ride.
  • Works through the LEGOLAND California app that can be easily downloaded to your smartphone.

Cost:

  • Express—Starts at $35 per person per day.
  • Deluxe—Starts at $55 per person per day.
  • Ultimate—Starts at $100 per person per day.
  • Prices approximate as of December 2021. Prices vary by day and are subject to change.

What You Should Know About Reserve ‘N’ Ride:

  • Reserve ‘N’ Ride is available only on a first-come, first-served basis after you enter LEGOLAND Resort. If you want to increase your chances of using the system, plan to arrive early.
  • Download the LEGOLAND Resort mobile app to your phone before you go.
  • You can add up to six people on one Reserve ‘N’ Ride account.

How to Upgrade Your CityPASS LEGOLAND California Tickets with Reserve ‘N’ Ride:

  • After entering the park, open the LEGOLAND Resort mobile app, navigate to the “Shop” tab to open “Reserve ‘N’ Ride.” Then, enter your CityPASS ticket details to link your tickets to a Reserve ‘N’ Ride account. You’re now ready to maximize your fun.
Junior Driving School
Legoland: LEGOLAND® California

LEGOLAND California Ultimate VIP Experience

Benefits Include:

  • A personal VIP Host to escort you and your family around the park for up to 7 hours, sharing interesting park and LEGO model facts.
  • Exclusive behind-the-scenes model shop tour.
  • Priority access to all rides, shows and attractions.
  • Valet parking at the LEGOLAND Hotel.
  • Lunch and refreshments (alcohol not included).
  • A LEGOLAND gift for the children in the group.
  • Exclusive Ultimate lanyard and pop badge. (Pop badges are limited-edition, collectible, circular badges that can be “popped” onto lanyards or worn on your shirt.)
  • Admission to LEGOLAND and SEA LIFE Aquarium.

Cost:

  • $645 per person.

What You Should Know About LEGOLAND California Ultimate VIP Experiences:

  • VIP tickets are needed for all guests aged 3 and older.
  • Minimum party size is two; maximum party size is eight.
  • Once a VIP booking is finalized, a member of the VIP Experience Team will contact you to discuss the details of your visit.

How to Book a LEGOLAND California Resort Ultimate VIP Experience

Tentacle Twirl
SeaWorld San Diego: SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

SEAWORLD SAN DIEGO

SeaWorld San Diego is becoming as well known for its thrill rides as for its animal encounters and commitment to ocean preservation. One fan favorite is Manta, a launch coaster that seamlessly transitions riders from the awe of watching manta rays in underwater flight to the sensation of actually being one. Shaped like a giant manta ray, this exhilarating coaster incorporates such elements as a 100,000-gallon aquarium and an outdoor ray pool.

Ratcheting up the thrill factor is the Electric Eel coaster, opened in 2018 and now San Diego’s tallest and fastest roller coaster. Electric Eel riders drop from heights of 150 feet (46 meters) while being boosted 60 mph forwards and backwards through looping twists and an inverted heartline roll.

Guests can have quicker, easier access to these and other experiences with SeaWorld’s Quick Queue Unlimited and Quick Queue Premier upgrades. Or go all out with a Private VIP Tour that takes you behind the scenes with a personal guide.

All prices quoted below are approximate as of December 2021. Prices subject to change.

Quick Queue Unlimited


Benefits:

  • Unlimited single-day front-of-the-line ride access for Manta, Electric Eel, Shipwreck Rapids and Journey to Atlantis.
  • SeaWorld limits the number of Quick Queue Unlimited tickets it sells each day, in order to preserve the time-saving benefits for buyers.

Cost:

  • Quick Queue Unlimited upgrades start at $14.99 per person per day. This is in addition to the cost of your single-day admission ticket. Prices vary depending on the day of the week and season.

What You Should Know About Quick Queue Unlimited:

  • You’ll need to show your Quick Queue ticket to each ride attendant for admittance to the front-of-the-line admission queue at participating rides.
  • A limited number of Quick Queue tickets are available each day. If you want to upgrade, plan to arrive at the park early.
  • All regular safety and height restrictions apply to Quick Queue Unlimited holders. Note: Guests between 42” and 48” tall must be accompanied by a supervising companion aged 14 years or older.
  • Cannot be combined with any other offers, promotions or discounts.
  • Tickets are valid only on the selected date and are non-transferrable, non-refundable and non-exchangeable.
  • Rebooking requires a minimum 24-hours advance notice.

How to Upgrade Your CityPASS SeaWorld San Diego Tickets with Quick Queue Unlimited:

  • After entering the park, visit Guest Services to add Quick Queue. Remember, there are a limited number of these upgrades available each day, so arrive early to snag one.

Quick Queue Premier

Benefits:

  • Unlimited single-day front-of-the-line ride access for Manta, Electric Eel, Shipwreck Rapids and Journey to Atlantis PLUS unlimited reserved seating at Orca Encounter, Dolphin Amphitheater, and Sea Lion and Otter Amphitheater.
  • SeaWorld restricts the number of Quick Queue Premier tickets it sells each day, in order to preserve the time-saving benefits for buyers.

Cost:

  • Quick Queue Premier upgrades start at $19.99 per person per day. This is in addition to the cost of your single-day admission ticket. Prices vary depending on the day of the week and season.

What You Should Know About Quick Queue Premier:

  • You need to show your Quick Queue ticket to each ride and/or show attendant for admittance to the front-of-the-line admission queue and reserved seating areas.
  • Reserved seating is not included for Cirque Electrique or Nautilus Amphitheater.
  • A limited number of Quick Queue tickets are available each day. If you want to upgrade, plan to arrive at the park early.
  • All regular safety and height restrictions apply to Quick Queue Premier holders. Note: Guests between 42” and 48” tall must be accompanied by a supervising companion aged 14 years or older.
  • Cannot be combined with any other offers, promotions or discounts.
  • Tickets are valid only on the selected date and are non-transferrable, non-refundable and non-exchangeable.
  • Rebooking requires a minimum 24-hours advance notice.

How to Upgrade Your CityPASS SeaWorld San Diego Tickets with Quick Queue Premier:

  • After entering the park, visit Guest Services to add Quick Queue. Remember, there are a limited number of these upgrades available each day, so arrive early to snag one.

Electric Eel
SeaWorld San Diego: SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

SeaWorld San Diego Private VIP Tour (2, 4 or 6-hour tours available)


Benefits Include:

  • All tour durations:
    • Tours can be scheduled for 2, 4 or 6 hours.
    • Animal encounters tailored to your group’s interests.
    • Two-day admission to SeaWorld San Diego (second visit must occur within seven days of your tour date).
    • Up-close parking on the day of your tour.
    • Choice of a snack during the tour.
  • 4-hour tours include all of the above benefits, plus:
    • Additional time for animal encounters.
    • Reserved seating at shows.
    • Front-of-the-line privileges for rides.
    • Souvenir cup and all-day drink refills (alcohol excluded).
    • A meal in the park.
  • 6-hour tours include all of the above benefits, plus:
    • Even more time for animal encounters.
    • Dine with Orcas reservations.

Cost:

  • 2-hour tour—$225 per person.
  • 4-hour tour—$403 per person.
  • 6-hour tour—$508 per person.

What You Should Know About SeaWorld San Diego Private VIP Tours:

  • VIP tours should be booked at least three weeks in advance.
  • Once a VIP booking is finalized, a Tour Ambassador will contact you to customize your visit.

How to Book a SeaWorld San Diego Private VIP Tour:

  • VIP tours must be reserved through SeaWorld directly.

Header Image ©2021 Universal Studios Hollywood. All Rights Reserved.

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