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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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