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Plan your day at Disney California Adventure

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Published: June 17, 2013 at 2:01 PM

Once the target of jokes about building a theme park on the cheap, Disney California Adventure in Anaheim today stands an example of how luxuriant investment can attract millions of new visitors to a park.

Mickey Mouse at Disney California Adventure

Disney California Adventure opened in 2001, then "reopened" in 2012 following a billion-dollar investment in new rides and shows including the centerpiece "Cars Land," based on the Disney-Pixar animated films. That's made California Adventure a much more popular park, one that demands some advance planning in order to get the most value from your day.

What to do before you go

Please read our guide to planning a day at Disneyland for information on scheduling your trip, booking a hotel, buying theme park tickets and arranging transportation to the Disneyland Resort. Disneyland and California Adventure are located within a few yards of each other, on either side of a football-field-sized esplanade, so many visitors choose "park hopper" tickets and treat the two parks as one during their multi-day visit.

California Adventure's new icon is the Carthay Circle theater, a replica of the movie house where Walt Disney premiered his first animated feature, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." This Carthay Circle isn't a movie theater -- it's a restaurant, and if you'd like to dine there, advance reservations are highly recommended. Call 714-781-DINE before you visit. Also note that with your reservation, if you choose at least two courses during your meal (entree and either appetizer or dessert), you'll get a Fastpass viewing location reservation for that night's World of Color show, saving you to have to pick up one of those reserved places on the morning of your visit. You can also get World of Color Fastpasses by booking World of Color dining packages at the Wine Country Trattoria or Ariel's Grotto restaurants.

Carthay Circle

Disney offers Extra Magic Hours in the mornings on selected days to its hotel guests, as well to Annual Passholders and holders of certain multi-day tickets. If you've got an Extra Magic early admission, use it on a day when you can get into California Adventure early, to secure a Fastpass or ride on the highly popular Radiator Springs Racers before it opens to the rest of the park's visitors. If you don't have Extra Magic Hour access, avoid California Adventure on an Extra Magic early opening day, as you'll find Cars Land filled with other visitors and many of the Fastpasses gone by the time you enter the park. Check Disneyland's online calendar to see which days have Extra Magic Hour early admission to California Adventure. (You'll have to look at each day's schedule -- it's not listed on the monthly view.)

When you get to Disney California Adventure

Please note that since we published our post on visiting the Disneyland Resort, Disney's raised the daily parking fee to $16. Plan to arrive at the parking structure at least one hour before park opening to allow time to park your car, ride the tram to the parks and go through the bag check in order to queue up at the park entrance early enough to be among the first in when the park opens. Pick up a show schedule as you enter the turnstiles -- you'll want it to find when the Aladdin show is playing, later in the day.

Radiator Springs Racers

Your first destination should be to get a Fastpass ride reservation time for Radiator Springs Racers, which are distributed just past the Carthay Circle Restaurant, on the pathway next to A Bug's Land, before you get to Cars Land. Your "must see" rides at Disney California Adventure, according to Theme Park Insider reader ratings, are:

And your "must-see" shows are:

If you've been to Walt Disney World, you should note that Toy Story Midway Mania here does not offer Fastpass, and has much shorter waits than the same ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. Soarin' Over California also offers shorter waits here than at its Epcot sibling.

World of Color has several reserved viewing areas for the night's shows (you'll be standing to watch the show), which are assigned by Fastpasses you can obtain in the morning. You also can get World of Color Fastpasses by dining at one of the park's table service restaurants (see above).

Disney California Adventure also offers a Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride, but readers rate it inferior to the Hollywood Studios version in Florida, so if you're pressed for time, feel free to skip it. But if you want to pick up a Fastpass while you're waiting for the Aladdin show next door, it's a nice way to cap off your day in the park before heading over to World of Color in the evening.

World of Color

If you're not using one of the World of Color dining packages, go ahead and walk over to the Grizzly River Run queue in the Grizzly Peak section of the park, where the World of Color Fastpasses are distributed, to get one after getting your Radiator Springs Racers Fastpass. Don't worry about Disney's traditional two-hour waiting period between getting Fastpasses. World of Color Fastpasses aren't counted against your "One Fastpass at a Time" limit.

From there, head back down to Condor Flats to ride Soarin' Over California, then cut back behind Grizzly Peak to Paradise Pier to ride Toy Story Midway Mania and California Screamin'. Don't forget your Radiator Springs Racers return time! Disneyland Resort is now enforcing return-time windows, just like Disney World, so don't be late and miss your return time.

We recommend seeing the Aladdin show later in the day, after you've hit the "must see" attractions on the other side of the park. Arrive at the theater 30-60 minutes before show time (depending upon the size of the crowd in the park), to ensure you get seats. If you're planning to ride Tower of Terror, get a Fastpass for it before queueing for the Aladdin show. Don't just walk into the standby queue after the show. The Aladdin crowd floods that ride after each show, leading to its longest waits of the day.

Other notable attractions: If it's a hot day and you're looking to cool down, try the white-water rapids ride Grizzly River Run in the afternoon, or, if you don't want to get wet or wait as long, choose the indoor, air-conditioned Little Mermaid ride in Paradise Pier. The Animation Academy in the Disney Animation building in Hollywood Land offers free classes where you can learn how to draw a Disney character, and take your work home for a free souvenir. Finally, locals flock to the nightly Mad T outdoor dance party in Hollywood Land, where the White Rabbit DJ spins dance tunes while street vendors sell a variety of alcoholic beverages.

Where to eat

Theme Park Insider readers highly recommend the Carthay Circle restaurant, especially its signature fried biscuits and Fire Cracker Duck Wings. If you don't have reservations and are looking for counter service options, try the Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Cafe in the mornings for Starbucks coffee and pastries (have one person in your party get the coffees while another gets the Radiator Springs Fastpasses), or Flo's V8 Cafe in Cars Land for a lunch or dinner of diner-style roast pork, turkey or beef platters, served with two sides. Over in Paradise Pier, readers also give high marks to Boardwalk Pizza and Pasta and the Paradise Garden Grill, which serves a variety of meat and veggie skewers.

What's next?

The year since Cars Land opened has provided a welcome break from the non-stop construction this park saw for years during its refurbishment. But rumors are flying that Disney's going to make changes to the Hollywood Land section of the park, perhaps retheming the area around the current Monsters Inc. ride as Monstropolis, adding another Monsters Inc ride in one of the sound stages next to the current ride.

Next week: Universal Studios Florida

Previously:

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Readers' Opinions

From Tyler Stover on June 17, 2013 at 3:43 PM
If you're going to do breakfast in DCA and be there for rope drop, I recommend getting a fastpass for RSR, then do breakfast at Flo's, sitting at the back patio overlooking RSR, then going on Luigi's Flying Tires. Or swap those if you're not too hungry yet and would rather have a shorter wait for Luigi's. The coffee at Flo's may not be as good as the Starbucks at the FFP cafe, but if you want more than pastries, the delicious hot breakfasts at Flo's with the views overlooking Cars Land just can't be beat on a nice cool morning.
From Daniel Etcheberry on June 17, 2013 at 4:32 PM
Since I was park hopping, I got my World of Color fastpass first thing in the morning, then headed to Radiator Springs Racers to the stand by queue. From there I crossed to Disneyland where I spent the whole day. Then I went back in the evening to DCA to ride The Little Mermaid, then Toy Story (twice) and then to Monsters Inc. Finally to World of Color. That was my plan :^)
From Jay R. on June 17, 2013 at 4:32 PM
I would suggest, if for whatever reason, you aren't able to get a FP for RSR.......use the single rider line.

With the single rider line, while your party may not be able to ride in the same car together, here's a good chance you'll actually race AGAINST each other..(this has happened a few times with me) and you'll save ALOT of time.

From Robert Niles on June 17, 2013 at 8:01 PM
Aaaugghh! I forgot about the single rider lines! I'll have to add that.
From AJ Hummel on June 17, 2013 at 11:16 PM
I typically do the following at DCA (although I don't see all the shows every visit), and have always been able to finish by early afternoon (excluding World of Color):

1. At opening, ignore the Fastpass line for Radiator Springs Racers and go straight to the ride. Since there is often a 15-20 minute wait just to get a Fastpass, you can usually get on quicker by using the Single Rider line first thing in the morning.

2. After Radiator Springs Racers, head to Paradise Pier. Get a Fastpass for California Screamin', then ride (in order) Toy Story Midway Mania, Goofy's Sky School, and The Little Mermaid, then return to California Screamin' and use the Fastpass.

3. Get a World of Color Showpass, then head to Soarin' Over California. If the wait is less than 30 minutes, get in line and ride Grizzly River Run afterward. Otherwise, get a Fastpass and ride Grizzly River Run while waiting.

4. Get lunch, then tour the Animation building. About fifteen minutes before the next Aladdin show, grab a Twilght Zone Tower of Terror Fastpass, then see Aladdin and ride Tower of Terror afterward.

5. Do anything else of interest in the park, then hop over to Disneyland until it is time for World of Color (get to the viewing area at least 30 minutes before showtime for the best view).

From Russell Meyer on June 18, 2013 at 8:46 AM
I think it's important to note that just because you have a FastPass or World of Color Dining Package doesn't mean you get to sit up front. We mistakingly thought our Carthay Circle passes would offer some of the best views, but ultimately your proximity to the lagoon is determined by the time that you get there. Guests who want to be up front not only need to procure FastPasses or book a dining package, but must also arrive 30 minutes or more before the show starts (we arrived 20 minutes ahead and were pretty far back).
From Daniel Etcheberry on June 18, 2013 at 9:09 AM
Russell, I did the same mistake like you; I arrived (with my Fastpass)like 15 minutes before the show, and I ended behind a lot of people. Since I'm in a wheelchair, I didn't see anything!
From 174.240.96.212 on June 18, 2013 at 10:16 AM
Just a note, Carthay Circle recently updated how World of Color tickets are dispersed. In order to receive World of Color tickets there is a three course menu for both lunch and dinner with options to pick in each category (appetizer, entree, dessert). The prices are $39 for lunch and $59 for dinner.
From Bryce McGibeny on June 18, 2013 at 11:22 AM
I would still make sure ride Tower of Terror. While it (apparently) isn't as great as here in Florida, it still seems like a very, very good attraction.
From 75.151.69.253 on June 18, 2013 at 2:22 PM
Have to disagree with Tower of Terror. While it might not be as good as WDW, it is different and still great. The only difference is the pre-lift off show is much shorter and different, but the fast part of the ride is still the same. Also, there was a time that we rode it that the ride operator was so incredibly fantastic that he freaked out half the people riding. It must be due to being in close proximity to Hollywood. Do not miss riding this. I think it is definately a must do at DCA.
From steve lee on June 18, 2013 at 8:04 PM
How was Carthay Circle, incidentally? I've been having a tough time determining which of the World of Color packages looked more appealing. It looks like it's between Carthay and Ariel's Grotto.

Also, did I miss where Robert inserted the Single Rider Line info?

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