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Planning a trip to Southern California's Disneyland Resort

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Published: February 21, 2013 at 12:45 PM

American theme park fans -- as well as visitors to the United States -- have two choices for Disney theme parks. But while the Walt Disney World Resort attracts more visitors than any other theme park resort, theme park fans have an excellent alternative in California's Disneyland Resort.

Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland in Anaheim, California

Why Disneyland?

Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California is Walt Disney's original theme park -- the only park Walt ever visited. If you're a theme park fan with a sense for history, Disneyland must be on your life's to-do list. But this isn't simply a nostalgia trip. We've ranked Disneyland as the best Disney theme park in the United States, with its sibling, Disney California Adventure, right behind. The Disneyland Resort is the only place on Earth where you can find Disney's acclaimed new Cars Land, the highly-rated World of Color show, the Matterhorn and Indiana Jones Adventure, as well as the country's best versions of classic Disney attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Space Mountain.

Disneyland's a better buy than Walt Disney World, too. Sure, Disneyland offers just two theme parks, instead of WDW's four, but the Disneyland parks are jam-packed with attractions and located within walking distance of each other, allowing you to see more stuff in less time. You can buy a three-day adult park-hopper ticket to the Disneyland Resort for $250, which includes one Magic Morning early admission. The same ticket at Walt Disney World costs $318.44, and doesn't include the early admission. A night's stay at the Grand Californian Hotel -- Disneyland's top hotel, and the closest to the parks, costs about $150 a night less than a stay at the comparable Grand Floridian Hotel at Walt Disney World. Disneyland's dining options also consistently outrank Disney World's for value, too.

Getting to Disneyland

By air - The closest airport to the Disneyland Resort is Orange Country's John Wayne Airport (SNA), which connects with most major (and many not-so-major) cities in the western half of the United States. If want to fly to Disneyland and can avoid Los Angeles International (LAX) by flying into SNA instead, do it! LAX can be a daunting, confusing airport, and the nearby 405 freeway is one of Southern California's most congested. Compared to LAX, getting to and from John Wayne's a breeze.

Disney World veterans should note that Disneyland does not offer a Disney's Magical Express shuttle to and from any of the Southern California airports. You're on your own to find your way to Disneyland. You could choose to rent a car, but if you want to avoid driving, Gray Line buses run a Disneyland Resort Express [the link is to a PDF of their brochure] hourly from both LAX and SNA, with extra buses every half-hour in the mid-day. The only public transportation options to Disneyland involve buses and transfers and simply aren't worth the hassle. Pay for a car or the shuttle bus.

By car - Most visitors to the Disneyland Resort drive, and the resort has its own offramp from Interstate 5, leading into the massive Mickey and Friends parking garage. The downside to bringing a car to Disneyland? You won't need it once you're here, and you'll pay for parking every day of your visit, even if you're staying off-site and walking to the park. (Almost all off-site hotels charge for parking.) If you're flying to Southern California just to visit Disneyland, and won't be driving to other sites in the region, skip the expense, hassle and traffic frustration of the car in favor of taking the shuttle bus and then just walking around.

Where to stay?

Disneyland has three on-site hotels: The Grand Californian (multiple winner of the Theme Park Insider Award as World's Best Theme Park Hotel), the original Disneyland Hotel and Disney's Paradise Pier Hotel. In addition, you can find dozens of other hotels along Harbor and Katella Boulevards, all within easy walking distance of the park. Visit our Disneyland hotels page for listings and readers' ratings and reviews. You'll find lower rates at the off-site hotels, some of which are closer to the theme parks' front gates than Disney's own Paradise Pier. Given the hassle of Southern California freeway traffic, try to avoid staying too far away from the park. The few dollars you might save won't be worth getting to the park late because you were stuck on a freeway during morning rush hour.

If you're not up for the walk from your off-site hotels, many of them offer shuttle service to and from the parks. Anaheim Resort Transportation also runs buses from Disneyland to area hotels and other attractions (Route 18 goes from Disneyland to Knott's Berry Farm).

Getting around the Disneyland Resort

This one's easy: You walk. The two theme parks' entrance face each other, separated by only a few yards. California's Disney theme parks take up much less space than the ones in Florida, making park-hopping easy. In fact, most visitors simply treat the two parks as one, hopping between them throughout the day. Want to duck out of the park for lunch? No problem. Just get your hand stamped and walk across Harbor Boulevard to one of the many chain restaurants on the other side of the street. Or stroll the other direction into Anaheim's version of Downtown Disney. All that's closer to the parks' front gates than your car, which is likely in the Mickey and Friends complex, half a mile away.

Buying your Disneyland tickets

As always, buy your tickets in advance. Check Disneyland's website for prices, or ask at your local auto club, your school's student union or your employers' human resources office for discount tickets. Also take a look at Disneyland's offers and discounts page for special deals, particularly on hotel vacation packages.

Be aware that Disneyland's started taking pictures of anyone using a multi-day pass, so don't buy from ticket brokers offering unused days on previously-used passes. They won't work. Stay away from eBay and Craigslist "offers."

If you're planning to visit Universal Studios Hollywood or SeaWorld in San Diego on your visit, consider the Southern California CityPass (available on Disneyland's website). It covers three days at Disneyland as well as a day at each of the other parks.

With the exception of Knott's Berry Farm, all of Southern California's other theme parks are located about an hour's drive (or more, depending upon traffic) from the Disneyland Resort. So if you want to visit multiple parks on your trip, expect to spend a lot of time in your car, or book into other hotels closer to those sites on the evenings you'll visit them. Universal Studios Hollywood does offer a shuttle service to Anaheim-area hotels -- a one-day USH park ticket with the round-trip Anaheim-shuttle service is $105 ($25 over the regular one-day USH ticket price).

Arrive early and avoid the annual passholders

On many days, the majority of people visiting the Disneyland theme parks are the park's annual passholders. If you have some flexibility in when you visit Disneyland, look at the parks' blockout day calendar and select the days blocked to the most passholders. That'll reduce the number of potential visitors on the days you visit. Southern California's rare rainy days are your friend, as they'll typically deter thousands of potential visitors, too. But they shouldn't deter you.

As always, plan to arrive at the parks a half-hour before the park opens and start with the park that doesn't have early admission that day. (Check Disneyland's calendar to see.) Annual passholders typically crowd the park after work each day, so Disneyland parks don't clear out in the early evening, like Disney World's. They often get busier, so get as much done early in the day as you can.

Call 714-781-DINE for dining reservations before you visit (much easier to get than priority seating times at Walt Disney World), and go immediately to get Radiator Springs Racers Fastpasses on the morning that you visit California Adventure. You can get reserved viewing for World of Color with several dining packages (click the "Dining" tab after following the link), or by getting a Fastpass for the show early in the day.

Got tips for getting the most from a Disneyland Resort visit? Please share your best advice for Disneyland visitors, in the comments.

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Readers' Opinions

From Jay R. on February 21, 2013 at 5:42 PM
There's also the Toy Story Lot, that one is never as crowded as Mickey & Friends & you ride in AC / Heated buses as opposed to the crammed trams.

From 137.191.228.131 on February 22, 2013 at 2:32 AM
My next Disney trip will be either Disneyland or Tokyo Disneyland. Both huge trips for a European, but I want to see a Disney Park at the top of it's game. WDW at the moment just reeks of neglect and it's real shame that the management don't seem to understand the "Disney difference".
From Donna McKay on February 22, 2013 at 4:01 PM
Perfect timing! My first trip is in 10 weeks :)

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