The Theme Park Insider Way to Visit Disney California Adventure

November 7, 2015, 3:46 PM · When it opened in 2001, Disney's California Adventure was dismissed by many Disney fans as being a cheaply-made successor to the original and lacking the magic of Disney. As originally built, the park was a caricature of California, filled with a limited collection of mostly generic rides and attractions. The original park never lived up to the expectations of Disney fans and managers and was called a failure. However, after investing more than a billion dollars in a complete overhaul, Disney California Adventure (yes, it lost the 's) has become wildly popular and is a worthy second gate at the Disneyland Resort.

When to Visit

Crowd levels at Disney California Adventure Park (or DCA as it is commonly called) follow the same general pattern as Disneyland. While there are sites that will assess crowds on a 1-10 scale, the park really only has four crowd categories: Low (0-30 minute waits for headliners), Moderate (30-45 minute waits for headliners), Busy (45-60 minute waits for headliners), and Very Busy (60-120 minute waits for headliners). It is impossible to predict exactly how crowded any specific day will be, but the following calendar is a good approximation:

Disney California Adventure crowd calendar

In addition to the above calendar, note that certain days may be busier than expected due to special events. The most affected days include the weekends of the runDisney events (Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in January, the first weekend in May, Labor Day weekend, and Veteran's Day weekend) as well as the weekend of Gay Days (first weekend in October).

Common sense says to avoid visiting during very busy periods unless absolutely necessary. However, is it better to visit during low, moderate, or busy periods? The answer is very much up for debate. During the low crow periods, DCA has shorter hours and might have attractions closed for annual maintenance. During busy periods, most (if not all) attractions should be open and the park should have full hours. Moderate periods are somewhere between these two. With a good strategy, there is no reason to fear some crowds at DCA, so visiting during the moderate or busy periods is better for a first-time visitor than visiting during a low-crowd period. When determining the days of the week, DCA is generally least crowded on Tuesday and most crowded on Sunday, with crowds progressively increasing and decreasing as appropriate.

Lastly, for those planning visits in 2016, note that several new attractions will be opening at DCA in the coming year. Opening in early 2016 is Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters, a replacement attraction for Luigi's Flying Tires that features trackless ride vehicles. The attraction is similar to Aquatopia at Tokyo DisneySea and is a Cars-themed take on popular Italian dances. Coming in summer 2016 is a new Frozen musical show to replace the popular Aladdin show after its 13-year run comes to an end in January. Finally, also opening in summer 2016 is Soarin' Around the World, an upgraded version of Soarin' Over California that features scenes from Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America. Visitors who are interested in any of these attractions are advised to plan their trip for the second half of the year in order to ensure they will get a chance to experience them.

How Much Time is Needed?

Disney California Adventure Park is a smaller park than Disneyland, but it still features nearly 30 rides and attractions for visitors of all ages. In addition, very few of DCA's attractions are clones, so even those who have visited other Disney parks will have a lot to see here. While it is generally possible to do the park's signature attractions in a couple hours (especially for those who arrive early), first time visitors should allow a full day for DCA in order to see everything. Returning visitors will probably find a half day sufficient for the park.

Disneyland or DCA?

For those who have only one day to visit the Disneyland Resort, a common question is which park to visit. The answer to the question is largely a matter of personal preference, but in general visitors will get more value out of a one-day ticket at Disneyland. In addition, for first-time visitors it makes more sense to visit Disneyland as that is the original Disney park and has 60 years of history behind it. That said, those who have visited Walt Disney World and didn't particularly care for Magic Kingdom, or those who prefer higher-intensity thrill rides, will probably get more out of a visit to DCA. While it is possible to visit both parks in one day, this is generally not recommended for first-time visitors or anyone visiting during the busier times of the year.

While Disneyland is recommended for all audiences, there are a select few who might not wish to include DCA in their Disneyland Resort vacation. While DCA certainly has a wide variety of attractions intended to appeal to all visitors, those who fall into one of the following categories may wish to omit DCA from their travel plans or devote less time to the park:

Parties with Young Children — While DCA has a fair number of family rides, many of the park's signature attractions have a height requirement of 40" or more, and a lot of the kid-friendly attractions are basic spinners. If your party consists primarily of children under this height, you might be better off sticking to Disneyland and leaving DCA for a future trip.

Anyone with a Low Intensity Tolerance — Even though they are not up to the standards of iron-ride parks, many of DCA's attractions are more intense and thrilling than the rides found at Disneyland. In particular, California Screamin' and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror are serious thrill rides that tend to be too much for some riders. Those who have very little interest or tolerance for thrill rides will find more appeal with Disneyland's attraction collection and can probably stick with a half-day for DCA. A good rule-of-thumb is this: If you would consider Big Thunder Mountain Railroad too intense, you may want to pass on the following DCA rides:

General Touring Strategy

While arriving early is not as critical at DCA as it is at Disneyland, you should still plan to arrive well before opening time. At minimum, you should be at the park gates 25 minutes before opening. If you are driving to the resort instead of walking from a nearby hotel, keep in mind that it may take as long as a half-hour to park and take a tram to the park, so factor this in when planning. Approximately 30 minutes before official opening time, DCA will begin admitting visitors. While no attractions are operating, visitors are permitted entrance to Buena Vista Street and Hollywood Land. Ropes prevent further progress into the park until the official opening time. In addition, there will be a line in Buena Vista Street for Radiator Springs Racers Fastpasses. Anyone wishing to get a Fastpass for this attraction must join the queue in Buena Vista Street... rushing to the distribution point will only result in being turned away.

When the rope is dropped at DCA, the vast majority of visitors will all head directly to Cars Land. If this is your first destination, you should position yourself by the rope directly adjacent to the Carthay Circle Restaurant. Otherwise, it will be quicker to head through Grizzly Peak Airfield to access the rest of the park. Due to Cars Land, the remainder of the park usually takes a couple hours to fill and Paradise Pier is the only other section of the park that tends to get crowded. Everywhere else, the E-ticket attractions will get lines but the area itself is usually easy to navigate.

The general strategy for DCA is relatively similar to that used for Disneyland: Get a Fastpass first thing in the morning, do nearby attractions until your return time, use your Fastpass and collect a replacement, then repeat. The only exception to the above is if you wish to ride Radiator Springs Racers first thing in the morning, in which case you should proceed directly to the attraction and collect your first Fastpass afterward. DCA is also a lot easier when it comes to nighttime spectaculars. If you plan to see World of Color on your visit, simply grab a Showpass the first time you travel through Grizzly Peak and return to the Paradise Pier viewing area at the designated time. Remember, the World of Color Showpass will not affect your ability to collect Fastpasses elsewhere in the park.

Attraction Priorities

For a first time visitor, the following are DCA's must-do attractions, as rated by Theme Park Insider readers (attractions in alphabetical order):

In addition to the above, the following are recommended as time allows:

Note that the following rides have single rider lines, which should be used if you are traveling alone, or are willing to split your group:

*These attractions may be skipped for time if they have been experienced at another Disney park.

**As of this writing, these attractions are not yet operational. Their inclusion on this list is based on our expectations.

The Plan

Due primarily to its smaller quantity of attractions, visiting DCA is a lot easier than touring Disneyland. Despite this, there is still more than one way to tour the park. As with Disneyland, the following strategy is somewhat general and can be adjusted as desired in order to fit the preferences of your group. If you don't care about an attraction, skip it. If something is missing that those in your group wish to experience, insert it at the point where minimal deviation would be required (such as when doing other nearby attractions), or wait until you have free time to get to it. If something is down, simply skip it and try again later when convenient.

1. Before opening, join the queue for a Radiator Springs Racers Fastpass. Fastpasses for this attraction are typically gone within an hour of park opening and wait times are often 90+ minutes, so this is the only way to save time without using the Single Rider line. Note that once the park opens your wait time may be up to 30 minutes just to get a Fastpass (the earlier you get in line, the shorter your wait will be).

2. After securing your Radiator Springs Racers Fastpass, proceed directly to Paradise Pier and ride Toy Story Midway Mania. This attraction does not offer Fastpass, but by riding in the morning you will likely experience a wait of 30 minutes or less. After riding Toy Story Midway Mania, do California Screamin' and other Paradise Pier attractions until either your Radiator Springs Racers Fastpass return time arrives, or you are able to obtain another Fastpass.

3. Head to Grizzly River Run to grab your Showpass to World of Color, then continue to Soarin' Around the World. If the wait time is under 45 minutes and your Radiator Springs Racers return window has not yet started, get in line. Otherwise, collect Fastpasses for the attraction.

4. If your Radiator Springs Racers return window has started or will be starting within 30 minutes, head back to Cars Land and explore the area until it is time to ride. Otherwise, now is a good time for a lunch break. According to Theme Park Insider's readers, the top DCA restaurants (listed in alphabetical order) are:

***Carthay Circle Restaurant and Wine Country Trattoria are table-service restaurants that accept reservations. Use the official Disneyland website or call +1-714-781-DINE up to 60 days in advance of your visit for reservations in order to avoid a potentially lengthy wait. In addition, if you plan to view World of Color during your visit you may want to consider a World of Color Dining Package, which includes reserved viewing for the show.

5. After having lunch and using your Fastpass(es), collect a Fastpass for Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and check show schedules for any shows you wish to see. Plan the remainder of your day around your return time and show times. Arrive at shows early to guarantee seating (15 minutes minimum, 30 minutes recommended on busier days, 45 minutes for World of Color). After using your Twilight Zone Tower of Terror Fastpass, work around the park to any interesting attractions that you bypassed earlier, or revisit your favorites. Due to World of Color, the majority of Paradise Pier will close approximately a half-hour before the first showing of World of Color, but the remainder of the park will continue to operate until closing time.

Alternate Plan: Visiting with Young Children

Because DCA has a large number of attractions with height restrictions, following the general plan is not recommended for those who have young children under 40" tall in their party. In this case, start by heading directly to Toy Story Midway Mania in Paradise Pier. Do not bother with Radiator Springs Racers Fastpasses (or Fastpasses for any attraction except Twilight Zone Tower of Terror), as it will be quicker to have those wishing to ride use Single Rider. After riding Toy Story Midway Mania, do any other Paradise Pier attractions that interest you before heading to Hollywood Land, stopping to collect World of Color Showpasses on the way. Do everything here (including all the Frozen attractions if your kids are interested), and then explore the rest of the park. Outside of Paradise Pier and Hollywood Land, kids may be interested in A Bug's Land (which contains several generic kiddie rides given the Disney touch) and the smaller rides in Cars Land (Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters and Mater's Junkyard Jamboree), as well as the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail playground in Grizzly Peak. However, it will likely be difficult to keep smaller children occupied for a full day at this park, so consider heading back to the hotel (or over to Disneyland if you have park-hopper passes) during the afternoon.

Visiting with Special Needs

For the most part, visitors with special needs will be able to follow the general touring plan listed above. In an effort to provide equal access, most attractions at DCA can accommodate wheelchairs in the regular queue line. If you are unsure, ask a cast member at the entrance to the attraction. Guests with questions or concerns, or those who qualify for the "Disability Access Service" program, should see a cast member at the Chamber of Commerce on Buena Vista Street upon entering the park.

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Replies (11)

November 8, 2015 at 11:33 AM · It's worth noting that, although it has lots of good counter-service restaurants, for many there is limited or no indoor seating. This is fine in the summer but unless you are willing to pony up for a table service dinner, in the winter you will be eating in the cold.
November 8, 2015 at 1:08 PM · Good write up again but I don't see monsters inc. ride in anywhere. Maybe I missed something and it closed.
November 8, 2015 at 2:55 PM · David, I tend to stick to the TPI rankings when listing attractions for these articles and leave out those that either have a lower ranking or are not something I would consider a must ride. Monsters, Inc. is still at the park, and as it is in the Hollywood Land section it would be a great way to fill time while waiting for a Tower of Terror Fastpass or the next Aladdin/Frozen show. However, I would not consider it a must ride attraction for a first time visitor, particularly if they don't have a full day for DCA.
November 8, 2015 at 4:26 PM · Do many people attending DLR not do the park-hopper option and simply do 1 day at a particular park. I've always like the flexibility the park hopper and consider the 2 parks as 1 super-park.
November 8, 2015 at 5:01 PM · Grant, I think a majority still do park hopping, but ever since DCA was redone I've noticed an increase in one park per day visits (most commonly it is two day visitors doing one day at each park). Very few people who only visit the resort for one day will spend that day at DCA. Generally, I would recommend anyone visiting for two days or first-time visitors doing three days ditch the park hopping option for a more relaxing visit and to save a little money. For longer visits than that, use park hoppers. The plan in this article works for either a DCA day or for starting at DCA and going to Disneyland in the evening, but is not the best idea for people who only have one day for both parks. For people who want to visit both parks but only have one day, just wait for the next article.
November 8, 2015 at 5:37 PM · Another excellent and informative article AJ. So very useful for those attending the park or those interested in knowing about it. I look forward to your next article.
November 8, 2015 at 6:18 PM · Great articles on planning a trip to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. I like the touring strategies, the list of readers' recommended attractions, and all the background information.

I noticed some time ago that you were the go-to guy on the discussion forums for planning advice for visiting Disneyland and DCA. Really glad that Robert Niles arranged for you to write these articles. Maybe a book will be coming sometime in the future?

November 8, 2015 at 7:11 PM · Spaceman, thanks for your comment. As someone who has lived in Southern California my entire life, I am very familiar with all the parks in the region and am always happy to help out anyone traveling to the region. I have also been to a majority of the major parks in the US (though I still haven't visited Florida), as well as a handful of international parks. I'm glad I've had the opportunity to write these articles and I hope that visitors will find them valuable with planning their trips. I have no idea what parks will end up being covered in this series, though my guess is that we'll do all the destination parks and then possibly the larger regional parks that a fair number of TPI readers may visit. As for a book, there aren't any plans at the moment, but you never know what the future holds.
November 8, 2015 at 7:16 PM · What? Monsters Inc. is a must do for me.
November 9, 2015 at 12:48 AM · ^Everybody has different preferences when visiting a park, and that is completely normal. I've visited Disneyland with people who want to ride everything in the park, and I've also visited with some who just want to do every E-ticket once and leave. Personally, I'd highly recommend doing everything on both lists unless something is really of zero interest. The must do list is based mostly on TPI ratings to maintain consistency with other portions of the site and should be modified to suit the tastes of an individual visiting the park. It is simply meant to mean this: For someone who has never visited the park and is likely not going to return for a long time, these are the attractions you absolutely should not miss.
November 9, 2015 at 5:47 AM · Cars Land when the sun goes down and the neon lights come on is a must see. The music starts playing and to me is the best.

The new Disneyland App shows the current Fastpass return times being issued. It works great when you are trying to get the Radiator Springs Racer Fastpass around sunset.

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