Nomad by Trade

A travel blog for the kid at heart.

Tag: California

How to Visit Disney Parks Solo

When you tell someone that you’re going on a trip to Disney World or Disneyland, one of their first questions is usually, “Who are you going with?” If your answer happens to be “no one,” frequent reactions include disbelief, confusion, or, worst of all, sympathy because poor little you couldn’t find someone to go to Disney World with you. Solo travel isn’t for everyone, but for those of us who like it (or have no other options), it can make for some of the best experiences you’ll ever have.

As a veteran of several solo Disney trips to both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, here is my best advice for making the most of your time alone…with thousands of other people.

Paradise Pier at California Adventure

Have the right attitude

The biggest, hugest, most important thing is to have the right attitude. If you go in expecting to have a blast, there’s a pretty good chance you will. If you go in expecting to be miserable the whole time, odds are you will. Part of it comes from knowing yourself. I’m fairly reserved and can spend whole weekends happily talking to no one but my dog, so taking a trip alone is absolutely fine by me. If you’re a chatterbug who prefers constant companionship, you may need to do a little mental preparation for being by yourself for a few days. I absolutely look forward to my solo trips – whether Disney or elsewhere – largely because of the next item on this list.

Do whatever you want

Enjoy your total freedom. I mean it. Do whatever you want whenever you want without having to have a group discussion about it. Want to ride Splash Mountain seven times in a row? Do it, because no one else in your group is going to complain about getting wet. Want to get to the Magic Kingdom before the park opens so you can see the entrance show and be there for rope drop? Do it, because no one else in your group is going to complain about having to get up too early on vacation. Want to have a Dole Whip, a Mickey bar, and a churro all in the same afternoon? Do it, because no one else in your group is going to judge you.

No matter how well you get along with your friends and family, there’s always going to be some level of compromise involved in your plan for the day, whether it’s which rides to Fastpass, where to grab dinner, and what pace you’re going to go during the day. When you’re by yourself, you never have to compromise, and it is not a terrible feeling. On my solo Disneyland trip, I spent one day at each park. It wasn’t until I got back to the hotel after spending the day at Disneyland that I realized I had only sat down for about 40 minutes the entire day (while I was eating lunch at Blue Bayou), aside from the rides I was on. I just never stopped going the ENTIRE day and I got so much more done than I ever would’ve with other people. When I’m traveling, I have this crazy extra gear that kicks in and almost no one can keep up with me. I don’t have to worry about slowing myself down when I’m traveling alone.

Gorilla at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida

Go ahead and spend an hour taking pictures of gorillas if you want to.

Be prepared

If you’re traveling in a group and you forget to pack sunscreen, odds are someone else can let you use some of theirs. When you’re by yourself, you don’t have anyone else to rely on. It’s really important to make sure you bring everything you’ll need for your whole trip so you don’t end up wasting time and money buying overpriced essentials in the parks. I always start my packing lists about a month before my trip. I keep a basic list in a Word document on my laptop and then modify it as needed for specific trips. The advantage of starting it early is that over time, you think of other things you’ll need and can add them to the list. It sure beats having those “OMG, I forgot the toothpaste” epiphanies at the airport or in the car.

Plan ahead

Do a little research before you go. Find out which rides offer Fastpasses and which ones have single rider lines. Make your dining and Fastpass reservations as soon as possible. You’re not going to be able to book popular restaurants and rides if you wait until the week before to start looking for time slots. Get a general feel for how the parks are laid out. Make a list of your top 10 must-do attractions so you can make a rough plan for the day. You can always adjust your plans on the fly, but conquering the parks can definitely be overwhelming, especially if it’s your first trip.

Spaceship Earth in Epcot at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida

I could spend all day just taking pictures of this incredible structure.

Take your time and enjoy the scenery

Take tons of pictures. Wandering the parks on your own really opens up your eyes to the fantastic little details you can find in the parks. It’s easy to get absorbed in conversations when you’re there with a group, but walking around alone gives you a chance to spot great photo opportunities and notice things you’ve never seen before.

Mickey Mouse at Disneyland in Anaheim, California

Who needs travel buddies when you can hang out with Mickey Mouse himself?

Use PhotoPass

Take advantage of PhotoPass. Selfie sticks are banned in the Disney parks, so that’s not an option. PhotoPass is a great way to get beautiful shots. I’ve purchased Memory Maker at WDW, Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris. It’s well worth it at WDW and Disneyland, but was a waste of money in Paris. The American parks have Photopass photographers stationed seemingly everywhere so you can easily get hundreds of pictures on a trip that lasts for a few days. If Memory Maker isn’t in your budget, the photographers and/or character attendants will also take pictures with your own camera or phone if you ask. My favorite aspect of the PhotoPass pictures is the fact that they generally snap a whole bunch of pictures as you greet, hug, and pose with the character. They’ll usually only take one posed picture with yours. If candid shots are your thing, you’ll probably love the Memory Maker pictures. The other advantage is that you can download them very quickly on your phone so you can share them online and show people back home how much fun you’re having without them.

Ask other guests for help

Don’t be afraid to ask other people to take pictures for you. This is kind of going out of style with selfies taking over and talking to strangers not being a thing anymore, but every single group shot I have from the family vacations I went on as a kid was a result of my parents asking another tourist to snap a picture of us with our camera. They’re not always great, but in the age of digital photography, you can always just delete blurry pictures. It can definitely be awkward when you first give it a shot, especially if you’re fairly shy like me, but I’ve never had anyone say no or steal my camera. If you don’t want to start out by immediately asking someone for a favor, try looking around for people taking selfies or a parent taking a picture of their spouse and kids and ask them if they’d like a picture of all of them together. If they agree, take their picture for them (They’ll probably be thrilled to get a nice group shot. Great job adding to the Disney magic without even being a Cast Member.) and then ask them if they’d mind doing one for you afterward. Only a truly terrible person is going to turn you down at that point.

Monorail at Disneyland in Anaheim, California

I found myself alone in the Disneyland monorail, so I found a place to set my camera and take some pictures.

Use your self-timer

If asking other people to take pictures for you isn’t your thing, try playing around with the self timer on your camera. I’ve gotten some really good shots using the 10 second timer and setting my camera on an available surface. You could also try using a mini tripod. This strategy works better in quieter areas of the parks where other guests aren’t likely to accidentally wander into your picture as you’re waiting for it to snap.

Breakfast at California Adventure

Being alone isn’t going to stop me from having some Disney waffles for breakfast.

Book a table for one

Don’t be afraid to dine alone. This used to be the most awkward thing for me to do by myself. I was sure that people all over were snickering at me sitting in a restaurant all by my lonesome if I didn’t have someone with me. Then I started traveling for work constantly and I had no choice but to get used to it. It really doesn’t bother me at all anymore. Sure, I may have felt a teeny bit silly checking in for a reservation for one at the Blue Bayou, but I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and would’ve been really disappointed if I had skipped out on the chance to eat at one of the most famous Disney restaurants just because I was in California by myself. In all reality, other diners are much more focused on their own meals than looking around to mock other guests.

Take advantage of the single rider lines

Use the Single Rider lines. They’re not always super fast (I’ve seen Test Track’s showing upwards of an hour on the wait time sign before), but in many cases using Single Rider can be almost like having a free Fastpass. I use them even when I’m traveling with my family because it’s often worth it to get on the ride faster. If you’re traveling solo, you’re not going to be sitting with a group anyway, so why wait in the regular line?

Skip ahead in regular queues too

Don’t be shy about being a party of one in ride queues. Pay attention to Cast Members as you’re approaching a load area. A lot of times they’re looking for a party of one or two to fill an empty seat or row in a ride vehicle they’re loading. If you hear them calling for certain sized parties, raise your hand and you may get to skip a bunch of people. I’ve gotten pulled to fill the last seat of a Space Mountain train from way back in the line, skipping at least ten trains’ worth of people in line in front of me. It’s not a huge difference, but it can get you in and out a little quicker, and it’s good for CMs (they get to keep their ride throughput high) and other guests in line behind you (filling in those empty seats as efficiently as possible speeds up the line for everyone).

Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, Florida

Take your time and just gaze at the castle

Enjoy the atmosphere

Resist the temptation to pop in some headphones and listen to your own music all day. Being alone with no one to talk to makes this seem like a great way to pass the time in lines, but Disney is the one place I will not carry my headphones. There is so much great area background music and millions of uniquely Disney sights and sounds that you’ll be missing out on a lot by retreating into your headphones.

Find a way to entertain yourself

Figure out how you’re going to pass the time in line by yourself. Unless you meet some friendly strangers, you’re not going to have anyone to talk to. Some of the queues have fun interactive areas to distract you, but the majority of them still have plain old railings and ropes. I’m a reader, so I’ll sometimes toss a small paperback in my backpack to kill some time in line. If you’re going to spend the day playing on your phone, invest in a portable battery pack. You can buy them in the parks, but they’re expensive. I’ve used a Mimo PowerTube on a couple trips with great success. It gave me the freedom to not have to ration my battery life in order to get through the day.

Most importantly: just have fun! If you’re on the fence about taking a solo trip, just go for it. Even if you don’t have the time of your life, it’ll still be worth it. You can always find a travel buddy for your next trip if you don’t like traveling solo.

Have you ever visited Disney parks solo? Do you have any tips for my next visit? Let me know in the comments.

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Tips and tricks for making the most of a solo trip to Disney parksTips and tricks for making the most of a solo trip to Disney parksPin - Disney Solo3Tips and tricks for making the most of a solo trip to Disney parks

One Evening in San Francisco

I was recently sent to the Sacramento area for work, and as I had to fly in Sunday to be at the office first thing Monday, I hopped an early flight that landed around 12:30. It was almost two hours to San Francisco, but I’d never been there before and had always wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge so I went for it even though I wasn’t feeling great when I got off the plane.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

I began my visit in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the large park north of the bridge. I could easily have spent two days there because there’s so much to do. I had an hour.

I started out winding up the scenic road with overlooks offering great views of the bridge, but forced myself to keep going deeper into the Marin Headlands. I wanted to stop at the visitor center there to grab a National Parks passport stamp and some maps.

After considering my options for such a quick visit, I decided to see a couple things nearby and then head back to the bridge overlooks so I could enjoy that view before it got dark. There is an old Nike missile launch site in the park and I tried to visit that, but discovered that it’s only open for tours for a few hours on Saturdays.

South Rodeo Beach in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Instead I continued on to the Rodeo Beach parking lot. There were two trails available, and I picked the shorter one that took me to South Rodeo Beach. It was only a couple minutes of reasonably easy walking and opened up to some great views of the Pacific Ocean crashing against rocks along the shore. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I’ve seen dozens of pictures of sunsets behind the rocks off of the northern part of Rodeo Beach online, and I sort of regret not venturing further up. Unfortunately, it started raining that point, and I had to hustle back to the rental car to avoid getting soaked. The hike seemed a lot easier when I was casually walking downhill than it did when I was half-jogging back up.

Rodeo Beach in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area
I continued up the road to the Point Bonita Lighthouse parking area, but I decided to just snap some pictures of the bridge from the overlook there instead of making the walk out to see it. My queendom for more daylight.

Though there were some other tempting places on the map of the park, I decided it was time to head back to see the Golden Gate Bridge up close. I stopped at a couple of the overlooks with parking areas along the way and took some pictures. The two that were closest to the bridge looked like they’d had parking or at least a pull-off area at one point, but those were blocked off with barricades and accessible only to pedestrians walking on the sidewalk. (Recurring theme here) I wished I’d had time to park and really explore the area.

I parked in the lot at the north base of the bridge and found a stairway that led to a path underneath it, and without having any idea where it led, I followed along, listening to the cars rumbling above me as I passed under the lanes of traffic.

After climbing up the stairs on the other side, I emerged into a much busier viewing area that had a better angle to see it from. It was cool to see the bridge straight-on from the end with traffic flowing in both directions. I also got my first view of Alcatraz. I had considered doing a sunset cruise to see “The Rock,” but time would’ve been tight and I would’ve had to pre-purchase my ticket because that departure was almost sold out, so I decided to pass on it for this trip. There was also an entire family posing for a picture while standing on top of the rock wall keeping people away from a pretty significant drop, which reminded me of the old proverb, “The family that tempts natural selection together stays together.” Or is that not a thing?

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

After that, I crossed back under the bridge and hopped in my car for the drive into San Francisco. As you approach from the north, there are electronic signs regarding the cashless toll. Several of them said that the Fast Track pass is required, which concerned me a little as I didn’t have an account. I had checked with a park ranger when I stopped in the visitor center to find out if that meant that I actually had to open an account or if it would just be billed to my license plate if I didn’t have one. I was concerned that I’d get a ticket later on in addition to the toll and rental car company’s service fees if I didn’t have the Fast Track, but she assured me that it worked just like other cashless tolls that I’ve been to in other areas. She also cautioned me to NOT STOP at all because tourists occasionally get rear-ended when they try to stop at the old toll booth that still spans the southbound lanes.

I later found out that I could pay my toll online within 48 hours and avoid the rental car fees. After my first cashless toll experience (I hate toll roads with a passion) on a business trip, I was surprised by a $30 bill from the rental car company three months later that covered about $7 in tolls and $23 in fees. I was thrilled to be able to avoid this on the Golden Gate. The system they use there is fantastic for rental cars because you enter your plate number and the dates and times you’ll have the car there and any crossings that occur during that time are billed to your credit card. It’s great because you can be very specific with the times you enter to avoid paying another customer’s toll if the car you’re driving happens to get rented out again the same day, and you don’t have to worry about the rental company charging you a bunch of fees later on.

I thought it was neat to drive across the bridge, but it’s not worth renting a car or paying the tolls ($7.50 for people who don’t have an account, but you can save a dollar if you register beforehand) if you don’t have any other reason to cross. Still, it’s cool to say that you drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. As an admittedly biased Michigan native, I actually found the drive less spectacular than the Mackinac Bridge (ours is longer, just saying), and even though the Golden Gate is taller, the gratings in the Mighty Mac definitely make it a more intimidating drive.

Golden Gate Bridge
The visitor center on the south side of the bridge has a much bigger parking area, a large gift shop, and even some cafes. I discovered that it’s apparently the vantage point of most of the iconic bridge pictures that I’ve seen online before. Unfortunately, my visit was hampered by pretty steady rain while I was walking around the area so I didn’t stay as long as I had planned. The gross weather did give me a chance to see a little bit of the famous San Francisco fog though.

Golden Gate Bridge

The cables are actually made up of thousands of tiny ones.

There was a neat exhibit showing how the bridge towers were engineered to provide the least amount of tension when holding the roadway up. By pulling on the chains for the three miniature bridges, you could feel that the mid-range one took the least amount of strength to hold it up. The two options with tall and short towers required much more effort to support the bridge.

Golden Gate Bridge

I was pretty soaked at this point, so I tore myself away from the view to go find dinner.

Fisherman’s Wharf

After picking up a gorgeous puzzle (addict here) in the gift shop, I headed off in search of Fisherman’s Wharf for a much-needed dinner. The drive didn’t take too long, and on this rainy, miserable Superbowl Sunday, finding parking in the area was fairly easy, though decidedly not cheap at $6/hour for a meter. Luckily they take credit cards because I don’t think I’ve ever had $6 worth of quarters in my possession at any point in my life.

Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, California
I had no idea where I wanted to eat, so I grabbed an umbrella and wandered around for a while. I was almost roped in by a food truck selling custom made ice cream sandwiches, but decided that I wanted somewhere warm, indoors, and serving actual food since even though it was only around 5 local time, my stomach was still on an Eastern time zone eating schedule and my weird travel day hadn’t given me much opportunity to eat anything but junk so far.

During my wanderings, I was excited to catch a glimpse of some of the famous street cars. I was strongly tempted to hop on one for a ride, but I didn’t actually have anywhere to go, and I wasn’t sure how the fares worked.

Streetcar in San Francisco, California

I eventually found my way to a place called Tugboat Sally’s and ordered some fish and chips and beignets. They had a fairly small menu, but it was exactly what I was looking for. It was fast and cheap, and had a fun, quirky interior. They appeared to have some sort of outdoor seating (by the water?) because an employee was hauling in and stacking chairs while I ate, but I didn’t venture around outside. I should’ve, but I was exhausted by that point and really just wanted to get started on my 1.5 hour drive to the hotel I was staying at.

Fish and Chips at Tugboat Sally's in San Francisco, California
I wandered through some of the cheesy tourist stores for a little while because I was determined to use up most of the expensive parking I’d paid for and then hit the road. There’s so much to do in this area, from museums to Pier 39 that you could easily spend a whole day down there, but sadly a lot of the cool stuff was closed by the time I made it over.

I made one more regrettable choice along the way – I didn’t stop on Treasure Island on the way across the Bay Bridge. I saw the signs for it, but had no idea what it entailed, or what kind of area it was, so I passed right by. I did some googling later on, and was pretty disappointed in myself. It had mostly stopped raining by that point, so I suspect that I missed some good views, but I’m going to have to visit the city for real someday, so I’ll just add that to the list of things I missed.

There’s only so much you can do in three hours, but I felt like I got a pretty good taste of the city. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I left my heart in San Francisco, but I’ve wanted to see it for as long as I can remember and was thrilled to have even a rushed visit. Because the San Francisco airport is so far outside of the city (Google Maps clocks the trip to Fisherman’s Wharf at 30+ minutes by car or an hour on public transit), you might not be able to do a visit like this on a layover, but if you had an overnight stopover, it’s pretty doable.

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How to see the best of San Francisco in one evening

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