Conquering Disneyland: A Guide To Visiting The Happiest Place On Earth
Disneyland has been entertaining and inspiring guests since it opened in 1955. It has a unique, charismatic, indescribable quality that other Disney parks lack. In many ways the original is still the best. In addition to being the only park designed by Walt Disney, it has a charm that isn’t present in other Disney parks.
Located in Anaheim California, it sits near the halfway point between Los Angeles and San Diego. In fact, its location was no accident as it was purposely put in the center of Southern California. Disneyland is an icon in a place full of them. It has become as synonymous with Southern California culture as movie stars and palm trees.
As other Disney parks became full scale resorts with multiple theme parks and hotels in short order, Disneyland remained one park for decades. Finally a 2nd theme park, Disney California Adventure as well as the Downtown Disney shopping district opened in 2001. It remains one of the smallest resorts in the Disney chain, but pound for pound offers the most to do of any Disney resort around the world.
When To Visit And How Long To Stay
Southern California is in the running for best year around climate in the world. Summer’s are dry with highs in the mid 80’s. Winter has highs in the 60’s and lows in the 40’s. Winter is when Anaheim gets the bulk of its rain, but still you are talking about a place that averages only 10 inches per year.
You may call Disneyland the largest locals park in the world. As a result, the busiest times are when you would expect a local to go. Various annual passes have complicated the crowd patterns as most locals have a local pass with blackout dates. An inconspicuous Friday night in March might be the busiest the park gets all year as local annual passholders flood in after work. To avoid the largest crowds, you should visit during an offseason weekday. The drawback is the parks scale back entertainment and so if Fireworks and other entertainment are a priority, you should plan on visiting on a weekend or more crowded time. It is getting increasingly rare to find a slow day unless it is raining, so be prepared for moderate to heavy crowds on any day.
If you are planning on visiting both theme parks, 2-3 days is enough for most people. The parks are smaller than other Disney parks, but pack a lot of rides in those spaces. For example, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure can fit inside Epcot. However, those 2 parks have roughly the same number of attractions as all 4 Disney World parks.
Money and Tickets
You may purchase tickets online or in person. It is recommended you purchase online in advance to avoid long lines at the ticket gates. Tickets online can be purchased through the website, the Disneyland app, or through authorized resellers such as Undercover Tourist at a slight discount.
Disneyland employs a dynamic pricing system with prices cheaper during the off season. In addition to lower crowds you also have cheaper ticket prices.
The first thing to determine is how many days and whether or not you want to visit both parks on the same day (park hop.) Parkhopping is easier at Disneyland than any other Disney park. As you walk into the theme park entrance plaza, to one side is Disneyland and the other is California Adventure. It takes about 30 seconds to walk from one entrance to the other. Many visitors treat both parks as one giant theme park.
Getting To Disneyland
Disneyland is centrally located in Orange County California. It is located approximately 30 miles south of Los Angeles and 95 miles north of San Diego. While public transit is improving, the easiest way to travel around Southern California is by car, even with the notorious traffic.
From Los Angeles and points north:
Take the 5 freeway south and exit Disneyland Drive. Follow the signs that lead directly into the Mickey and Friends parking structure. If you are staying in a Disney owned hotel, go past the parking structure and follow the sings to your hotel.
From San Diego and points south:
Take the 5 north and exit Disney Way. Head west on Disney Way and turn left on Harbor Blvd. The Toy Story parking lot will be located on the left side. The route is well marked with signs.
Most people flying into Southern California will arrive at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX.) The airport is about an hour away depending on traffic. If you are renting a car, you will take the 105 east to the 110 south to the 91 east to the 5 south and exit Disneyland Drive.
Uber or Lyft will be cheaper than a taxi, but you are still looking at close to $50 using one of these services.
The most economical option is using a shared ride van service such as Supershuttle, or Primetime shuttle. Rates begin at $15. There is also a Disneyland Express option. This should not be confused with the Magical Express at Disney World. The Disneyland Express cost is roughly $30 one way and $48 round trip.
From John Wayne Airport:
John Wayne Airport (SNA) is the closest airport to Disneyland. It is approximately 20 minutes away. From the airport take the 55 north to the 5 north and exit Disney Way.
The cost for Uber or Lyft is approximately $20 one way. There are also plenty of ride sharing van options. Supershuttle, Primetime shuttle and Snashuttle run approximately $11. The Disneyland Express is $20 one way and $35 round trip.
Long Beach Airport (LGB) is also a near by airport, approximately 30 minutes away from Disneyland. Same transportation options as John Wayne and LAX apply.
Disneyland consists of 2 theme parks, 3 on site hotels, and the Downtown Disney outdoor mall with shops and restaurants. First time visitors used to the sprawl of Walt Disney World may be in for quite a shock. The resort is packed into a small space right in the center of a large city.
What the resort lacks in size it more than males up for in attractions and entertainment options. If you compare Disneyland’s 2 theme parks and Disney Worlds 4 parks, you will find that that they have approximately the same number of attractions and Disneyland has more entertainment options. All of this packed in a small footprint.
Disneyland has 3 on site hotels. The Disneyland Hotel dates back to 1955, but Disney did not own the resort until 1988. It is the largest and most historic of the on site hotels. Anyone interested in Disney history will want to stay here.
Disney’s Grand Californian is a luxury hotel that is connected to Disney California Adventure. Guests have their own private entrance into the theme park. There is also a wind of the popular Disney Vacation Club located here.
Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel opened in 1988 as a non Disney branded resort. Disney bought the hotel in 1995 and eventually re-branded it to the Paradise Pier area of Disney California Adventure, which the hotel overlooks. This is considered the budget Disney hotel at Disneyland, although prices suggest that it is anything but a budget hotel.
The resort is very compact and walkable. The east side of the resort has the 2 theme parks. The entrances face each other. In fact, most visitors treat them as 1 large theme park and walk back and forth between them during the day. Heading west from the theme parks is Downtown Disney which connects the theme parks to parking and the resorts.
Disneyland has 7 themed lands. From left to right there is Adventureland, Frontierland, New Orleans Square, Critter Country, Fantasyland, ToonTown, and Tommorrowland. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is currently under construction.
Disney California Adventure’s theme areas include Buena List Street, HollywoodLand, Bugs, Land, Carsland, Paradise Pier, Pacific Wharf, and Grizzly Peak.
Disneyland and Disney California Adventure are packed with some attractions literally on top of each other. The resort not only has quantity but also quality. Some of the best attractions in the world are located here. The resort also has many of the original classic attractions dating back to the time of Walt Disney.
- Indiana Jones Adventure One of the best rides Disney has ever produced. Take a thrilling and bumpy ride through an ancient temple filled with booby traps.
- Pirates of the Caribbean The last ride Walt Disney personally oversaw is quintessential Disney. The classic ride spawned the popular film franchise.
- Alice in Wonderland Disneyland is home to several classic dark rides and Alice in Wonderland is a standout. It is also unique to Disneyland.
- Haunted Mansion The classic attraction takes you on a spooky tour of a mansion filled with 999 ghosts.
- It’s a Small World The original classic was first seen at the 1964-1965 Worlds Fair in New York before being transferred to its permanent home at Disneyland.
- Splash Mountain The popular flume ride takes you into the world of Brer Rabbit. It is a perfect way to cool off on a warm California day.
Disney California Adventure
- Radiator Springs Racers Ride through Radiator Springs before racing another car through Ornament Valley. The attraction has possibly the best backdrop of any Disney ride with the incredible rock work of Ornament Valley.
- Soarin Over the World Hang glide over world famous attractions such as the Eiffel Tower, Matterhorn, and Taj Mahal.
- Guardian’s of the Galaxy: Mission BREAKOUT! Help the Guardian’s of the Galaxy escape from the collectors fortress in this topsy turvy thrilling adventure.
- California Screamin The fastest ride at the resort and the only one that features a loop. Made to look like a classic wooden roller coaster seen on a coastal boardwalk.
Shows and Entertainment
Disneyland is loaded with entertainment options from small musical groups to impressive spectacles. The traditional end of the evening has been capped since nearly the beginning by a fireworks show. Using Sleeping Beauty Castle as a centerpiece, the fireworks shows changes based on the time of year, but always delivers a wonderful show.
The nighttime spectacular was created at Disneyland as Fantasmic! has wowed crowds for over a quarter of a century. A recent upgrade to the show brought in new technology to keep the show on the cutting edge. It should be noted that the fireworks shows and Fantasmic! only play on selected nights. Check the entertainment schedule for dates and times.
One of the charms of Disneyland is the constant barrage of entertainment circulating the park. In addition not a daily parade and large scale theater show Mickey and the Magical Map, smaller themed acts play throughout the park. The Dapper Dans can be seen on Main St. Musical acts can be seen in Frontierland, Tommorrowland, and Jazz can be heard in New Orleans Square. The famous Disneyland Band plays throughout the park. At pretty much anytime of day, music can be heard somewhere in the park.
The story is no different at Disney California Adventure. Themed musical acts are seen frequently on Buena Vista Street. Entertainment acts based on Disney charters like the green army men from Toy Story are seen in the Paradise Pier area.
Like Disneyland, California Adventure has a nighttime spectacular. World Of Color combines water fountain mist screens showcasing Disney movies, lasers, fire, and music to create a sensory overload experience.
There are plenty of special events at the Disneyland Resort. There seems to be something special always being celebrated. Some are obvious like Christmas and Halloween, but also expect smaller scale celebrations of Chinese New Year and Easter.
- Halloween The spooky holiday has become almost as popular as Christmas for theme parks. Disneyland goes all out at both parks. Disneyland features lots of decorations including Disney character inspired jack o lanterns. Ride overlays include a Nightmare Before Christmas theme overtaking the Haunted Mansion called Haunted Mansion Holiday and a ghost invades Space Mountain in Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy. Mickey’s Halloween Party is a separate ticket event that feature special fireworks, a parade, and lots of trick or treating stations to load up on candy. Disney California Adventure also has multiple ride overlays and decorations galore.
- Christmas Holiday Season Disneyland is all in for the holidays. Both parks are decked out with decorations and special food and merchandise. Disneyland has a Christmas parade and holiday fireworks show. Ride overlays include the Nightmare Before Christmas takeover of the Haunted Mansion in Haunted Mansion Holiday and It’s a Small World Holiday. California Adventure also has plenty of decorations, special holiday themed shows and food options, and World of Color Season of Light.
- Food and Wine Festival Disney California Adventure has food and win booths and special presentations and lectures themed around food and win inspired by California. The festival typically takes place in the spring.
During seasonal events ride overlays will have an uptick in popularity and therefore should be prioritized. The Haunted Mansion will typically have a 10 minute wait most of the year but during haunted Mansion Holiday the wait times can reach well over an hour long. Holiday shows also are incredibly popular and require waiting extra time in order to have a good viewing spot.
Food and Shopping
There is a lot of variety when looking for a place to eat at the Disneyland Resort. Some of the best quick service options are at Cafe Orleans, Carnation Cafe, Hungry Bear, Jolly Holiday Bakery, Paradise Garden Grill, and Pacific Wharf food court area. Fine Dining can be found at the Blue Bayou, Carthay Circle Restaurant, and Napa Rose at the Disney Grand California Hotel. Downtown Disney has plenty of options as well including Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen and Earl of Sandwich.
Snacks are essential at Disneyland. Some of the best are a hand dipped corn dog from the little red wagon, a dole whip outside the Tiki Room attraction, and ice cream from the Gibson Girl. Mickey Beignets are also a popular snack.
The best places to shop are on Main St at Disneyland, Buena Vista Street at California Adventure and World of Disney in Downtown Disney. You can expect to find a typical assortment of clothing and merchandise.
Limited edition merchandise is very popular and sells out quickly. The most popular choices include special popcorn buckets and sipper cups that are released during special events like Halloween, Christmas, or in advance of a new Disney movie. Disney pin trading is also very popular with special pins being released throughout the year.
To avoid crowds the best piece of advice is to arrive early. The park begins to get crowded about 2 hours after opening. Arrive prior to opening and hit popular attractions early in the day before the lines get long. Make use of Fastpass to avoid waiting in long lines. The following attractions have FastPass. They are listed in order from the most popular (run out first) to the least.
- Space Mountain
- Indiana Jones
- Splash Mountain
- Star Tours
- Haunted Mansion
- Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
- Roger Rabbit Cartoon Spin
- Buzz Lighyear
Disney California Adventure
- Radiator Springs Racers
- Guardian’s of the Galaxy: Mission BREAKOUT!
- Toy Story Midway Mania
- Soarin Around The World
- Grizzly River Run
- California Screamin
- Goofy’s Sky School
In addition Fantasmic! and World of Color use FastPass. To get the best viewing locations you either have to have a FastPass or be part of a special dining package for the show. MaxPass was introduced as a way to reserve FastPass tickets without having to visit the ride. You can reserve times from the Disneyland app therefore saving time. There is an extra cost for MaxPass.
The best park strategy for Disneyland is to arrive before the park opens and hit the Fantasyland rides first thing. They have a lower ride capacity than others in the park and do not offer FastPass. Then move onto the other parts of the park while collecting FastPasses along the way. At California Adventure you want to prioritize Radiator Springs Racers, followed by Guardian’s of the Galaxy and Toy Story. For more information see our article of maximizing your time at Disneyland.
- Be sure to download the free Disneyland app for wait times, show schedules, and to use MaxPass if you purchased it.
- Hours vary from day to day and season to season. See the park calendar for hours and an attraction refurbishment schedule so you know what rides and shows will not be operating on your day.
- Make use of Single Rider lines at select attractions to save time waiting in line. They can be found at Indiana Jones, Splash Mountain, Matterhorn, Radiator Springs Racers, Grizzly River Run, Calfornia Screamin, and Goofy’s Sky School.
- Wi-Fi is available in all the hotels and several hot spots throughout the parks. Coverage is spotty however so do not rely on it exclusively.