I have a lot of thoughts about where to stay and what to do at “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Along with my daughter, I have visited every Disney Resort around the world. I also grew up in Orange County which means that I have been to Disneyland Resort in California more times than I can count. We’re now annual passholders and lucky enough to live just a car ride away. I know that it’s a bucket list destination for many people and families which is why I created this guide. My goal is to help you maximize your Disneyland Resort California visit by sharing tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over many visits to the parks and the Disneyland Resort Hotels.
The best time to visit Disneyland if your goal is to avoid crowds is during the middle of the week in January, February, and March. But if you want extended hours, fireworks displays, parades, and shows, the best time to visit Disneyland will be during the summer and holidays.
You don’t have to map out every minute of your itinerary, but one of my top Disneyland tips is that you should have a loose idea of how you’ll spend your time before your trip. After all, there are 50 attractions and rides, plus many shows, restaurants, and shops in Disneyland Park alone with more at Disney California Adventure. Think about what you want to do, eat, and see the most and build your day around dining reservations, FastPasses, and shows.
You can absolutely buy discount Disneyland tickets (click the link for info and options), but be careful because there are scammers out there. Make sure you are buying from a Disneyland Authorized Ticket Seller. Never buy partially used passes or try to “rent” someone else’s pass.
Want to breeze through security? The easiest way to get through the security line fast is to not be carrying a bag. The Harbor Boulevard security lines even have a special express line for guests without bags. If you have to carry a bag into the parks, have it open and make sure you stash anything metal on your person (keys, belt, etc.) in that bag before you get to the front of the line.
It’s also possible to enter Disneyland early. You can take advantage of Extra Magic Hour if staying at a Disneyland Resort Hotel on the day you check-in, the day you check-out and all days in between. If you’ve purchased a 3-Day or longer ticket, you can enter an hour before the parks officially open during Magic Morning. Just be sure to check the calendar because each park has early entry on different days of the week.
FastPass will save your sanity. Disney’s free ride time reservation system will help you avoid the longest lines by giving you a set boarding window. During that window, you can access the ride via a much shorter express line. Disney now has a paid option, too. MaxPass is a $20/day ticket add-on that lets you book all of your FastPasses digitally (which can potentially save you a lot of time and stress). I recommend it.
Classic kid rides like Peter Pan are usually most busy in the afternoons. If you’re worried that your little ones will get antsy in line, plan to hit these rides first thing in the morning when they will have the shortest wait times. The wait times are shortest for all rides across parks after 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Disneyland, Disney’s California Adventure®… Or Both?
It really isn’t a question of Disneyland versus Disney’s California Adventure. I recommend making time to visit both Disneyland Resort parks over at least two days but if you must hop between both in the same day it is doable. You may be dreaming of enjoying that old-fashioned Disneyland ambiance, but Disney’s California Adventure has come a long way and has a lot of great rides.
If you can really only do one, then the right choice will depend on what’s most important to you. Disneyland has the best rides for families with younger kids and classic rides like Pirates of the Caribbean®, Space Mountain®, and The Haunted Mansion®. Disney’s California Adventure has the more thrilling rides — like the Incredicoaster — but nothing here is as intense as the coasters you’ll find at other California theme parks.
Where To Stay: Disneyland Resort Hotels
If visiting Disneyland Resort will be a major stop on your California vacation, then I recommend staying close to the parks. If you want to enjoy an immersive Disney experience, then definitely stay in one of the Disneyland Resort Hotels. There are three: Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa, Disneyland Hotel, and Disney Pacific Paradise Pier. All of them offer guests perks like character breakfasts, themed decor, the Extra Magic Hour, preferred access to experiences like makeovers for kids at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, wake-up calls by favorite Disney characters, and easy access to the parks. Guests at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa can actually walk right into Disney’s California Adventure park via an entrance near the pool area.
There are also a lot of great hotels near Disneyland Resort that will generally cost less to book but are still close to the parks. Nearby hotels that meet quality guidelines laid out by Disney are called Good Neighbor Hotels. There are about 50 Good Neighbor Hotels, and 11 of them are just across the street from the parks.
Where to Eat at the Disneyland Resort
There is so much to eat at Disneyland Resort. I love the old standbys like the Dole Whip and the exotic small plates at The Tropical Hideaway, but there are plenty of delicious sit-down options, too.
One of my favorites is The Blue Bayou in Disneyland. Guests dine on a terrace overlooking the Pirates of the Caribbean. The Carthay Circle Restaurant in the Carthay Circle Theater (a beautiful replica of the theater that premiered Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) offers guests a surprisingly lovely fine dining experience — the perfect way to unwind after a long day at the park.
Disney’s California Adventure has great dining, too. Pixar Pier, in particular, has tons of counter service options and the Lamplight Lounge, which serves gastropub cuisine in an atmosphere inspired by all your Pixar favorites.
Just don’t make the mistake of thinking you can walk in and get a table. Many of the sit-down dining experiences at Disneyland parks are booked weeks or months in advance. Reservations are highly recommended, especially for Disneyland character dining.
Things to Do at Disneyland Resort
There are a lot of things to do at Disneyland Resort beyond just riding the rides, but like all families, we have favorites. Here are some of our top things to do at Disneyland. I hope this list makes your visit even better.
Get the ears — You won’t regret it. Once upon a time, the Mad Hatter haberdashers would only stitch real names on, but these days they’re usually happy to get creative.
Ride the Disneyland Railroad — Taking a relaxing grand circle tour around the park is a great way to begin and end your day, or to take a load off when you get overheated.
Spot the Hidden Mickeys — Disney mega fans make searching for and recording their sightings part of every trip, and it’s a lot of fun. There are over 100 of them, and if you’re impatient, check out my list of Hidden Mickeys.
Take a VIP tour — This is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime option because it’s not cheap at $500 per hour, but experiencing Disneyland as a VIP is pretty special. You’ll get insider info about your favorite rides and preferred seating for shows and at parades, too, along with front-of-line ride access for as long as your tour lasts.
What are your favorite things to do at Disneyland?