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Plan your day at Disneyland

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Published: May 12, 2013 at 1:37 PM

Disneyland revolutionized the theme park industry when it opened on July 17, 1955. Today, Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California remains the nation's second-most visited theme park, behind its younger sibling, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom.

Disneyland

The Disneyland Resort now includes two theme parks, the original Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, which opened in 2001 on the site of Disneyland's old parking lot. (Disney now welcomes most drivers into the massive "Mickey and Friends" parking lot located about a half a mile north of the park entrance.) The entrance to Disneyland's two theme parks are located just yards apart, making "park hopping" easier here than at any other theme park resort in the world. That said, with a $1 billion-plus makeover of California Adventure in 2012, each park has more than enough attractions to fill an entire day, so adding the park-hopper option isn't necessary to get the full value of a day's admission.

What to do before you go

The Disneyland Resort offers three on-site hotels, but many motels on Harbor Boulevard in Anaheim are located as close to the theme parks' main entrances as Disney's Paradise Pier and Disneyland Hotels. Therefore, it should be easy to find an affordable room within walking distance of the front gate, whether you stay with Disney or not. So if you're planning to fly into Southern California for a Disneyland visit, you might want to consider whether or not to skip renting a car, at least for the Disneyland portion of your trip. You won't need it while at the resort, and almost all the hotels in the area will charge you $15 a day to park it in their lots -- the same price Disney charges for daily parking. You can find a list of the nearby hotels on our Disneyland Hotels page.

Grand Californian Hotel
Disney's Grand Californian Hotel and Spa has won the Theme Park Insider Award as the world's best theme park hotel for the past two years.

Walt Disney World veterans should note that Disneyland does not offer Disney's Magical Express -- the free bus service between the resort and the airport that Disney World offers its on-site hotel guests. You're on your own to get to the resort from the airport. Gray Line buses run a Disneyland Express that costs between $19-$32 round-trip from the airports.

Disneyland's crowds are dominated by locals -- with hundreds of thousands of Southern Californians holding various levels of annual passes to the resort. The best times to visit to avoid crowds are weekdays during the school year and days that are blocked out to the most levels of annual passholders. Check Disneyland's website for its blockout calendar, and try to avoid weeks in the spring and summer that aren't blocked out to any annual passholders, such as late May and early June, late August, early in Thanksgiving week, and certain weeks around Spring Break in March and April. Those are often the busiest weeks of the year, rivaling the weeks around Christmas and the Fourth of July.

Visitors staying in a Disneyland resort hotel, and those who buy certain Disneyland ticket and vacation packages can get "Extra Magic Hour" early admission to one of the two Disneyland Resort theme parks on selected days. If you don't have this perk, try to visit Disneyland Park on a day when it doesn't offer the Extra Magic Hour. Otherwise, you'll find yourself entering a potentially already-busy park when you show up at "opening" trying to beat the crowd. Check out Disneyland's calendar page and click through to each day's daily schedule to see which park has the early admission hours each day.

Visit Disneyland's Vacation Packages and Special Offers webpages for combination deals on hotels and theme park tickets. Then price those against booking a nearby off-site hotel and buying your tickets separately through Disneyland's website. If you're thinking about visiting other theme parks during your trip to Southern California, consider the Southern California CityPass, which includes tickets to Disneyland as well as Universal Studios Hollywood and SeaWorld San Diego, against buying tickets individually. (The CityPass is available on Disneyland's ticket webpage.)

If you are planning to visit other theme parks in the area, be aware that Southern California's theme parks are far more distant from each other than the parks in the Orlando area. Universal Studios Hollywood is located an hour's drive (in good traffic!) from Disneyland, and SeaWorld San Diego is nearly two hours' drive in the opposite direction. If you're driving during the hours of 7am-10am or 3pm-7pm on weekdays, you might end up spending an additional hour or two in the car for those trips, due to rush-hour traffic. Consider moving to a different hotel, closer to those destinations, when visiting those parks, to avoid a daily commute. Universal offers an Anaheim shuttle service, but otherwise, public transport between theme parks can be difficult to arrange. You'll want to rent up a car (in Anaheim or at the airport) if you're visiting other destinations in Southern California beside Disneyland.

Like Walt Disney World, Disneyland allows you to make restaurant reservations in advance, though getting reservations isn't nearly as competitive in California as it is in Florida. Unless you're visiting during an extremely busy week (such as around Christmas), calling 714-781-DINE a few weeks before your visit should suffice to get lunch or dinner reservations to the Blue Bayou restaurant, located inside the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. (Ask for a waterside table, and tell them if this is your first visit to the Bayou.) You also can reserve tables at the Cafe Orleans, Plaza Inn and Carnation Cafe, but advance reservations aren't necessary at those restaurants except on busy days, and even then, just call a couple days in advance, and you should get your desired table time.

When you get to Disneyland

Arrive at the entry plaza before the park opens -- 15 minutes in "off season" and an hour in advance during holiday and popular vacation times. When the park opens, make your way down Main Street, then bear right into Tomorrowland, where you'll pick up Fastpasses for Star Tours: The Adventures Continue. From there, walk on to Space Mountain for your first ride of the day.

After riding Space, stop in for a ride on Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters if you can get through before your Star Tours return time expires. In the past, you could use Fastpass tickets at any time during the day after your initial return time, but now you must ride during the specific return-time window specified. (If you show up to ride at your appointed time and find the attraction closed for any reason, just ask for a replacement Fastpass that's good anytime later in the day.) If you don't have time for Buzz now, leave it for later in the day.

After you complete your Star Tours mission, head back across the park into Adventureland, where you'll pick up Fastpasses for Indiana Jones Adventure. Theme Park Insider readers prefer the versions of Splash Mountain and Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, so if you've visited that park and are looking for a unique experience at Disneyland, you can skip those. But if not, or if you'd just like to compare the different versions, ride those now.

Pirates of the Caribbean
Photo submitted by Brandon Mendoza

Theme Park Insider readers have voted the Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean the best ride in the park. This is the original installation of Pirates, and much longer than the Orlando version. But it also puts through more people per hour than any other ride in the park, allowing it relatively short waits compared with other attractions, so it's a good choice to leave for later in the day, perhaps immediately after riding Indiana Jones.

Other Theme Park Insider reader favorites, either unique to, or original at, Disneyland include:

  • Fantasy Faire: New for 2013, this extension of Fantasyland, located next to the castle at the end of Main Street features an indoor meet-and-greet area with Disney princesses, as well as a fun collection of stage shows that visitors of any age will enjoy.
  • The Enchanted Tiki Room: The first attraction ever to use Audio Animatronics, presented in a more intimate and well-cared for setting than Disney World's version of the show. Plus, if you're in the mood for a popular Dole Whip frozen treat, you can take advantage of a much shorter line for those snacks from inside the Tiki Room preshow area. Disney allows you to take Dole Whips inside the show!
  • Sailing Ship Columbia: A replica of the first American ship to sail around the world travels around Disneyland's Rivers of America.
  • It's a Small World: The original version of this Disney classic first appeared at the 1964 New York Exhibition and now makes its home in Fantasyland. Disneyland's version also features a variety of Disney characters among Mary Blair's classic dolls, allowing you to play a fun "Where's Waldo?"-type game to see how many you can spot as you ride.
  • Roger Rabbit's Car-Toon Spin: The highlight of Disneyland's original Toontown. (Fastpasses available)
  • Disneyland Railroad: Walt's desire to have a life-sized railroad to play with probably did more to inspire him to build Disneyland than anything else. On the Disneyland Railroad, you can see the Grand Canyon dioramas that first appeared in the Ford Motor Company ride that Disney created for the 1964 New York Fair. And if you reserve at space early enough in the day at the Main Street Railroad station, you can get a ride on the "Lilly Belle," the private car named for Walt's wife.

Another fun way to enjoy Disneyland (if you have the extra cash) is to book a guided tour, such as the Walk in Walt's Footsteps tour, which provides an overview of the parks's history as well as visit inside Walt's private apartment above Main Street. Call 714-781-TOUR up to one month before your visit for tour options and current prices.

Where to eat

The most famous and beloved thing to eat at Disneyland might be the Blue Bayou's Monte Cristo sandwiches. A batter-fried ham, turkey and cheese sandwich served with jam, the Monte Cristo is served sliced in fourths, and is rich and filling enough that it might feed a family of four. The Monte Cristo's available only at lunch at the Bayou, but it's also available all day at the lower-priced Cafe Orleans next door. Both restaurants offer a wider variety of Creole and Southern-inspired meals as well. If you'd in the mood for fried chicken, the Plaza Inn earns good reviews, as does the Carnation Cafe, also on Main Street.

Monte Cristo sandwich
The Monte Cristo sandwich at Cafe Orleans

Disneyland's food earns consistently high marks from readers, which makes sense given how hard Disneyland works to appeal to locals. You'll find many Disneyland counter service locations using real plates and servingware, instead of the ubiquitous paper and plastic found at Walt Disney World. Mealtime crowds aren't as bad here, either, as there's no Disney Dining plan and plenty of excellent options within walking distance in California Adventure and Downtown Disney as well. Pick whatever sounds good to you, and you'll be fine.

Nighttime entertainment

The crowds at Disneyland typically don't thin during the day. With so many locals coming to the park after work, if anything, Disneyland gets more crowded as the evening comes.

That's the bad news. The good news is that Disneyland accommodates those crowds with excellent evening entertainment, making it well worth your time to stay late into the night. Disneyland's main parade is Soundsational Parade, which steps off at 7pm most days. If you're visiting on weekend or during the summer or holiday periods, do not miss Disneyland's original version of Fantasmic!, which Theme Park Insider readers have declared beats the Orlando copy in just about every way imaginable. (Okay, you'l have to sit on the ground for Disneyland's version, as there's no dedicated theater. So there's that. But the show's well worth that sacrifice.) Arrive at least an hour before showtime to claim a space along the banks of the Rivers of America. Yellow-jacketed cast members will tell you where you can and cannot sit, and can offer recommendations on the best available spaces to see the show.

What's next at Disneyland?

A new live stage show, Mickey and the Magical Map, debuts on May 25. After that, nothing's announced for the park, though rumors swirl that Disney is considering a Marvel-themed attraction for the park. We'll see.

We will update this entry, based on reader feedback in the comments. If you have a suggestion for this page, please use the comment section below to let us know. Thank you!

Next week: Epcot

Previously: Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

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Readers' Opinions

From 71.129.33.9 on May 12, 2013 at 2:06 PM
One tip: Disneyland's first roller coaster, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, is unique to Disneyland among the Disney theme parks (at least so far). It was refurbished in 2012 with new ride vehicles, though many park visitors complain that the leg room is very cramped since the refurbishment.

Although the Matterhorn doesn't offer Fast Passes, it does have a single rider line which can save a lot of waiting time if you are willing to break up your party when riding. Single rider lines are also available for Splash Mountain and Indiana Jones Adventure, and are especially useful next door in Disney California Adventure on the extremely popular Radiator Springs Racers.

From 64.12.116.206 on May 12, 2013 at 8:42 PM
Unfortunately, Disneyland botched that Matterhorn refurb. I recommend bringing a coat or something else that you can fold and sit on, so that you won't feel all the bumps in that ride.
From AJ Hummel on May 12, 2013 at 10:14 PM
Great article for first time Disneyland visitors. The plan given is very similar to what I usually do: Space Mountain, Star Tours, Indiana Jones Adventure, Splash Mountain, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean (even on busy days I usually get all this done within two hours without using Fastpass), then tour the remainder of the park in whatever way I choose and end the night with Fantasmic! (tip: if you go to the second showing you can often arrive ten minutes before and find a great viewing location, although it may be standing room only).

With the exception of Star Tours, I'd consider all of the above attractions must-sees even if visitors have experienced them at Walt Disney World, and I'd also note that while Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom are very similar, there are enough unique attractions at Disneyland that Magic Kingdom visitors should still plan at least a full day for Disneyland park itself (I'd recommend two days, or at least a day and a half, for first-timers who have not visited Magic Kingdom). One other tip: With the exception of Peter Pan's Flight, the Fantasyland dark rides usually experience significant wait time drops during the parade, so if you're not watching the parade this is the time to ride them.

From Zack McDonald on May 13, 2013 at 12:57 PM
We always Fast Pass Indiana Jones then go to the Matterhorn. After the Matterhorn we ride everthing in Fantasyland in a little over an hour.
From Mark Kausch on May 14, 2013 at 5:08 PM
Great tips! If you happen to be doing both parks in one day, I feel sorry for...I mean, get the Fastpass for Radiator Springs Racers in CA Adventure first if you're early.

As for eating, read the Blue Bayou's menu first before making a reservation to avoid sticker shock.

And if you need mobility help, especially ECV's, get them EARLY! They often sell out early, around noonish (OK, I'm a local. That's early for me), and you'll need to get put on a waiting list. Kinda like Fastpass, but much less fun. You'll give them your cell phone number, but Disneyland phone service is not the best, especially during heavier times.

From Mark Kausch on May 14, 2013 at 5:28 PM
Also note that as far as food is concerned - why do I keep coming back to that? - Downtown Disney is much closer to Disneyland than DD is to WDW's MK. Many good food choices are available right outside Disney's gate, including Disney's Californian Hotel. You can't miss seeing Downtown Disney as you're entering Disneyland unless you're really, *really* trying.

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