(updated 07/06/18) One of my favorite things to do is to plan "the perfect day" for my friends and family when we go to Disneyland. Since I bought my annual pass in 2015, I've been going to Disneyland about two times a month. I've tested out all different theories and countless "itineraries". What I've discovered is that most of the common tips are true. If you want the quickest wait times for the most popular rides, be there at rope drop (when Disney Cast Members officially drop the rope at entrances to the parks). If you want to hit up popular rides mid-day make sure you get a Fastpass for that ride (or expect to wait an hour +). If you want to eat at the most popular sit-downs, make a reservation in advance. Most of these are pretty intuitive. What's not as intuitive are what those most "popular" rides/eats/shows are at that particular time.
My first rule of thumb is to download the Disneyland Parks App prior to arriving. Check it out every day at various times for about a week prior to your arrival. (I do this for every park I visit and it hasn't failed me yet!) It'll pretty clearly show you which rides are the most popular right now. Unlike Disney World, Disneyland does not allow you to preschedule your Fastpasses in advance of your visit. Understanding what's popular and which attractions have Fastpasses will be crucial to planning your itinerary and avoiding unnecessary wait times. As a general rule Space Mountain (or Hyperspace Mountain) is the most popular ride at Disneyland and Radiator Springs is the most popular ride at California Adventure (both run of these run out of fastpasses the fastest). Of course there are always exceptions to the rule and no two days at Disneyland are exactly alike. For example, when the Frozen musical opened at California Adventure the wait to get a Fastpass for the show was a minimum of 30-60 minutes (just to get the Fastpass); and when Disneyland announced they were closing the Tower of Terror those wait times were usually never less than 60 minutes. So check out what's popular around the time you're going and plan to hit those attractions up first when you arrive and/or get those Fastpasses.
If you're most interested in getting all the rides in but not spending all day in lines, another tip is to knock out as many rides as you can before noon. Between noon and 1, Disneyland gets really busy. I usually eat breakfast on the road and wait until lunch to take a break if my main priority is rides. From 12 - 3 is a great time to take a long lunch, go shopping, meet some characters, and/or see a show. Then spend the rest of your afternoon using the Fastpass system for anything you didn't get in before lunch as well as shows, parades, and snacks!
I know I'm barely scratching the surface here and probably telling you a lot of what you already knew, but sometimes it's nice to have a reminder. I'll be delving into this topic further in future posts so make sure to check back. And if there's something specific you're wondering about, please leave a comment below. I'm always more than happy to help other Disnerds like me, plan their perfect Disney days.