Disneyland and Disney World are SUCH different beasts. I know for Disney World there’s so much planning ahead of time which can be pretty stressful. Disneyland doesn’t require quite as much planning, but there are definitely some things to keep in mind and plan for so you can have a fun and successful trip. I’m here to give you a full rundown! From airports to hotels to ticket options to food and so. much. more. This could also be helpful for anyone planning a first trip in general, so give it a peek and comment below with any questions.
***Just an FYI, when I talk about the Disneyland Resort, I don’t just mean Disneyland Park itself, I’m referring to the entire resort area. That includes the two parks, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, the Downtown Disney District, and the three resort hotels; Paradise Pier, Disneyland Hotel, and The Grand Californian. It’s how Disney refers to the area as well, but I understand how it could be confusing!***
***Second FYI- I highly recommend downloading the Disneyland App long before you get to the resort. You can buy your tickets, book reservations, even grab fastpasses through the app (through maxpass which I recommend adding to your ticket). You can play around in the app and get a feel for the layout before you get to the parks so you’re not struggling to find what you need day-of.***
Before the parks
The closest airport to Disneyland is John Wayne (SNA) in Santa Ana at about 15 miles away. There are tons of ways to get from the airport to your hotel. You can lyft or uber if that’s your style. There are lots of Super Shuttles which you can book ahead of time if you want, but it’s not necessary. If you’re staying at the Disneyland Hotel there’s a special shuttle for resort guests. Beware that it only comes like once an hour. Last time I went I hopped in a cab and it wasn’t too pricey.
LAX comes in at around 35 miles away. While on paper it looks like it’s only a few miles difference from LBG, if you can, I recommend staying far far far away from LAX. It’s a huge international airport, it’s generally a mess, and you have to fight the thickest of LA traffic which could result in hours of added travel time. If you have to fly into LAX, Super Shuttle is probably your best and most affordable bet.
The hotel situation at Disneyland can be a bit tricky. Since we usually visit with a car and have free parking included in our annual pass, we generally use Hotwire to find the most affordable 3-4 star hotel within a 15 minute drive. But if you’re not driving or don’t get free resort parking, that can make things tough.
Unfortunately, unlike Disney World which has tons of on-property hotel options, Disneyland only has three, and they’re pretty pricey. There are definitely perks at staying on-property, you just have to weigh what things are worth it to you for your trip.
In order of price from lowest to highest:
Paradise Pier $$$
Paradise Pier is generally the most “affordable” of the three on-property hotels. It’s pretty much right across the parking lot from the Disneyland Hotel, so the difference in walking is minimal, but it’s technically the farthest away from the parks (but still a two minute walk from the monorail and like a seven minute walk to the parks). If you can, book a top floor with a park view and you’ll have a front row seat to World of Color, the nighttime show in California Adventure.
Disneyland Hotel $$$$
Our personal favorite. It feels the most magical to us, and like you’re still in Disneyland even when you’re in your room, but not in an overwhelming way. It’s home to one of our favorite bars on the planet, Trader Sam’s, and Goofy’s Kitchen is the best character dining buffet in the resort in our humble opinion.
Grand Californian $$$$+ (cash money)
The major perk to staying at the Grand Californian is the direct entrance from the hotel into California Adventure. However, since the hotel is so huge, it could take as much time walking from your hotel room to the special park entrance as it does getting from the Disneyland Hotel. And while it’s beautiful and definitely Grand as its name states, it’s missing some magic. We haven’t found it to be worth the huge price tag. If you’re going for a magical trip and you’re in the mood to splurge on the hotel, our personal favorite is the Disneyland Hotel (and hopping over to the spa at the Grand Californian for a massage every once in a while- so worth it).
If you’re staying at one of the on-property hotels you have access to a bunch of perks. This page gives you a run down of all the different perks. Make sure to utilize as many as you can! You’re paying a premium, might as well work it.
Walking Distance From the Park:
When choosing an off-property hotel within walking distance, the best place to look is on Harbor Blvd, ideally between Katella and Ball Road. You’ll have direct access to the security kiosks on the east side of the esplanade in between Disneyland and Disney California Adventure and the walk into the resort is reasonable.
While hotels along the North and West bordering streets of Disneyland look like they could be close, there actually aren’t many opportunities to get to the specific security entrances that lead either Downtown Disney or the Esplanade, both which lead to the parks.
Some hotel options along Harbor Blvd are:
There are TONS more hotel options on this little stretch of street. I recommend going to google maps and typing in Disneyland, on the right hand side you’ll see Harbor Blvd bordering the east side of the parks, and you’ll see a huge assortment of hotels to choose from.
With a Shuttle
There’s a pretty decent shuttle system that goes from certain hotels to the parks. Some hotels even have their own shuttles to the parks.
If you’re staying in a hotel along a shuttle route and you don’t care if you’re able to walk to the parks, you don’t need to be as concerned with specifically where the hotel is located, as long as there’s a consistent shuttle schedule.
I would call any hotels with shuttles that you’re interested in and double check that they still offer a shuttle service. Best to be safe!
Below is a map with the general layout of the resort complete with security entrances and parking, and where I suggest to look for off-property hotels.
If you’re driving into the resort, there are four parking lots for Disneyland Resort guests. Mickey and Friends, Toy Story, Simba, and Pumba.
Toy Story, Pumba, and Mickey and Friends offer shuttle/tram service from the lot to the park. Simba does not, but that’s because it’s right behind the Disneyland hotel, so the walk is super short, especially if you hop over to the monorail (a few steps away from the Disneyland Hotel) which takes you into Tomorrowland in Disneyland. You will need to go through security and present your park ticket to get into the Monorail station since it takes you directly into the park.
Since the Toy Story and Pumba lots are used for overflow on busier days, and Simba only occasionally opens for guests (it’s used for cast member parking a lot which is a bummer because it’s my favorite parking lot), you want to input the Mickey and Friends parking lot into whatever map app you use. If they’re diverting people to other lots there will be clear signs telling you which way to go.
From Mickey and Friends, you’ll have the option to take the tram into the park and go through security while still at the parking lot, or if you’d rather walk to Disneyland (not too far, and it’s a nice walk through Downtown Disney), you can ask a cast member to point you in the direction to start walking. From that starting point you can generally just follow the crowd. You’ll then go through security before entering Downtown Disney.
The Downtown Disney parking lot should only be used for guests visiting JUST Downtown Disney. It’s a three hour parking maximum, and is $14/hour unless you get your parking stub validated at the shops or table service restaurants.
You have to go through security to get into the Disneyland resort which includes Downtown Disney.
There are several security entrances. I’m gonna space them out into different paragraphs which isn’t great grammar but it makes it easier to read so YOU’RE WELCOME.
*There’s a security entrance in the Mickey and Friends parking lot, before you get on the tram.
*There are two security entrances close to each other on the Disneyland hotel side; one that goes between the Disneyland Hotel and Downtown Disney (you’ll use this if you’re staying at the Disneyland Hotel or Paradise Pier), and the other that goes from the Downtown Disney parking lot into Downtown Disney (if you walk from the Mickey and Friends parking lot instead of taking the tram, this will be the security entrance you go through).
*There’s a security entrance coming from Harbor Blvd (this will be the entrance you go through if you take a shuttle or stay in a hotel along Harbor).
*There’s also a security entrance from the Grand Californian hotel that goes directly into California Adventure. Anyone can use this entrance, not just hotel guests. HOWEVER. There is just ONE security table/guard/metal detector working this line, so while it’s an appealing thought, it can move slower than the other security entrances.
* There’s a security entrance from the Grand Californian Hotel that goes into Downtown Disney. Also with just one security table/guard/metal detector.
The security officers will look through any and all bags/ strollers/ coolers you have, and you’ll go through a metal detector. If you have your bag(s) already open when you get to the front of the line, that will help to cut down on time for you and everyone behind you.
Disneyland keeps an updated list of things permitted and not permitted within the resort here. Make sure to double check before you head in for the day because items on the “not permitted” list will be taken away from you (or you can walk back to your car or hotel room which is not fun at the beginning of a Disney day).
The Downtown Disney district is a non-ticketed (free) area with lots of shops (both Disney related and not), restaurants, and quick service food spots. You don’t have to pay to get into Downtown Disney, but you do have to go through security. If you want to go to Downtown Disney and JUST Downtown Disney, you can park in the Downtown Disney parking lot (input Downtown Disney into your favorite maps app), just keep in mind you want to get your parking validated to wave the huge hourly parking fee, and you can only park in the Downtown Disney lot for a few hours. You can get your parking validated at almost any of the shops or restaurants if you spend at least $20 (as of the time I’m writing this post).
We tend to see Downtown Disney as an extension of the parks. If the parks themselves are getting super full around lunch time, we’ll dip into Downtown Disney to grab some food and a drink (drank) and chill for a while. Dining in Downtown Disney can fill up fast though, so either consider grabbing a spot at the bar of your favorite restaurant, or see if you can make a lunch/dinner reservation at the beginning of the day.
Our favorite spot is Tortilla Joes for some tableside guac and their peach tree mojito. And if the beignet line in Disneyland is bonkers (like it usually is), the Jazz Kitchen in Downtown Disney has a quick service entrance separate from their sit-down dining entrance where you can grab a bag of fresh beignets and coffee.
You can either purchase tickets online or in-person. There are separate ticket-buying kiosks in the middle of the esplanade that are different than the entrance turnstiles to get into the actual parks.
We always recommend buying your tickets ahead of time online, so you’re not wasting time standing in the ticket-buying line which can be long and slow. Even if you haven’t purchased your tickets ahead of time, you can buy tickets through the app, which you can do anywhere i.e. pull over to the planter boxes next to the ticket booths and buy your ticket on the app. It’s so much faster. The only time you really need to actually wait in that line is if you’re doing something for an annual pass. So if you’re upgrading your park ticket to an annual pass, or buying a new annual pass, you have to visit the ticket window to get your physical plastic card.
When you buy your ticket online or through the app or online, you can go directly to the park entrance turnstiles and scan your ticket barcode either from your phone or from a print out if you’re fancy and own a printer. They’ll print your paper ticket right there from the entrance turnstile and take your picture to link with your ticket.
If you haven’t already, I recommend downloading the official Disneyland App. You can load your ticket and everyone else in your party’s ticket. That way you can book everyone’s maxpasses together, make dining reservations, check wait times, and more right from your phone. And if you don’t feel like digging out your paper ticket, you can use the barcode on your phone as your park ticket to get into each park.
One difference between WDW and DLR is the ease of hopping between parks throughout the day. Because of this, I absolutely recommend getting a park hopper pass over any of the other ticket options (single park, or one park per day).
Since the parks are right across the esplanade from each other, it’s easy to bounce from one to the other through the day depending on fastpass availability, shows, how busy the parks are, some random snack you might want to eat at any given point. It especially makes sense if you add the Maxpass option to your ticket...
Adding Max Pass
...Which is also recommend beyond a shadow of doubt. You can grab fastpasses for any fastpass capable attraction in either of the parks no matter where you are as long as you’ve entered the parks. Unlike WDW, where you have to reserve your fastpasses months in advance, you can get all your fastpasses the same day in DLR. Fastpasses that run out first are Space Mountain, Radiator Springs Racers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Indiana Jones, and Star Tours. HOT TIP: If the line is long for Small World, check to see the fastpass return. It’s often an immediate return even if the line is a half hour long.
Upgrading to Premiere pass for WDW passholders
If you’re a WDW passholder, it might be tempting to get a Premiere pass for your trip. However, coming from WDW to DLR, it might not pay off as much as you’d think.
The Walt Disney World Platinum annual pass gives you access to the four main non-water based parks in WDW for $894. The Disneyland annual pass we get, which only has blackout days the weeks around Christmas and New Years is $1,149 (honestly I cannot stomach how WDW gets FOUR PARKS for way cheaper than we get two). The Premiere pass that covers BOTH WDW and DLR is $1,949 plus tax.
It makes more sense for a Disneyland passholder visiting WDW to get one, but you’d have to be flying back and forth a bunch to make it make sense for a WDW passholder.
If you’re staying off-property, it’s worth the $10 to grab a locker. There are lockers available inside each park, and there are lockers in the esplanade to the left of each park if you’re looking at their respective entrances. I recommend grabbing a locker in the esplanade, because you never know in which park you’re going to end your day, and you don’t want to have to go back into a park as you’re leaving just to get your stuff.
We always bring a locker bag with us that has a full change of clothes for each of us (since it gets chilly at night), sunscreen, a backup phone charger, advil, midol, tampons, bandaids, extra sunglasses, cans of coffee (like the little starbucks double shots that don’t need refrigeration), water bottles, extra mickey ears, and probably more things I’m forgetting but you get it.
We use the locker to also store any souvenirs we get throughout the day so we’re not lugging around multiple bags. Once you start lugging everything around you get tired, and it’s worth splitting a $10 locker to avoid fatigue.
IN THE PARKS
Planning out your day at the Disneyland Resort looks a little different than planning out your WDW trip. There’s no scheduling fastpasses six months in advance. In fact, luckily, you can only get your fastpasses the day of your trip, after you’ve entered the park. I honestly prefer it this way because it feels like each day can be as relaxed or filled as you want it to be depending on your energy level and mood.
It may seem stressful coming in as a WDW local, but knowing that everyone else is on your same level and prioritizing different things, you’ll realize you can do just about everything you want to do as long as you’re smart about being consistent in grabbing your fastpasses when you can.
Here are some tips to utilize each part of the day to your advantage.
If your park hopper ticket has a magic morning or you’re staying at a Disneyland Resort Property hotel and you get extra magic hour (both are the same thing, you get in to the park an hour early), start at that park right when your magic morning starts and PACK IT IN.
If your magic morning is in Disneyland I recommend using your magic morning in Tomorrowland.
It’s gonna be tempting to head to Peter Pan right away. I’ve said this one billion times and I will say it another billion more but Peter Pan will always have a 30-45 minute wait. Usually 45. Even if you think you’re gonna be the first person there you will not be. You have to be willing to fling children out of your way and stomp on slower moving old people (look I’m not judging you), and if you have any sort of personal moral code, Peter Pan is not worth the effort, time spent, and ultimate heartache first thing in the morning.
If you’re determined to head to Fantasyland for Magic Morning, head to Alice first, which DOESN’T have a line first thing but will have a long line pretty soon after opening, and then Toad, and then Dumbo and then whatever else you wanna do. Take a nap mid-afternoon, and then you can get in the Peter Pan line right at park closing time. Then you don’t have to spend precious park time in that dumb long line.
Since most of the Tomorrowland rides fill up FAST right at normal park opening, I recommend heading there first and get in at least a couple rides. People tend to be more chill about Fantasyland (except Peter Pan and Alice, so the rest of the rides are usually free and clear) and Adventureland (except Indy, once again leaving most of the other rides open), it’s better to head to one of those lands after magic morning ends and still completely crush an entire land.
Space Mountain is a good thing to check first thing. But check the wait time! If it’s going to eat up too much of your magic morning, hold off until normal park opening and grab a fastpass first thing. After Space, you can check in on Star Tours which has the next longest lines. Astro Orbiters might seem like a silly first ride choice, but it’s a slow moving line and once people start filling in for the day it doesn’t ever go down so maybe consider that early on in the day. Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters can build up a line but it tends to have lots of available fastpasses throughout the day, so you don’t have to stress about mad-dashing there right away. Nemo is super busy throughout the day but really slows down to walk-on after the fireworks, so I’d say wait until then to ride.
Once you’re done with Tomorrowland, if you still have time, hop over to Fantasyland and ride Alice, which tends to fill quickly at normal park open. You can then ride as much of Fantasyland as possible. If you’re in Fantasyland even as it crosses over into park open, you can generally get all of Fantasyland ridden in under an hour.
If you’re still pretty close to normal park open and you’ve done what you wanted in Tomorrowland and Fantasyland, you can head over to Adventureland and see how long the line for Jungle Cruise is. Our standard is to never wait more than ten minutes for Jungle Cruise. If the line winds upstairs DO NOT RIDE. The line will thin out in the evening after Fantasmic. The same goes for Pirates and Haunted Mansion. They’re pretty clear first thing, their lines get wild in the middle of the day, and then they both completely clear out after Fantasmic!
If your magic morning is in Disney California Adventure, once again, it’s generally about priority but I’d recommend starting off in Hollywoodland. Head to Guardians first, knock that out super quick and then go over to Monsters. I don’t know what it is about Monsters, but that line has been SO LONG lately. You don’t have to wait in that line! After you ride those two rides, head over to Pixar Pier. Go for Midway Mania first, it shouldn’t be too long, then hop over to Incredicoaster. Every other ride should essentially be walk on still so enjoy!
I know magic morning is a big deal, but no one ever talks about what I like to call Magic Evening!
After the Fireworks, some people still hang around for the second showing of Fanstasmic! This is when Magic Evening starts. People are clearing out in droves, and whoever is left tends to be waiting for the show SO. Now is the time to ride attractions that have long lines throughout the day.
Winnie the Pooh is always walk on at this time, Haunted Mansion, Pirates, and Jungle Cruise are all pretty clear (NEVER wait in a Pirates line that snakes outside of the actual queue you just gotta wait it out), Nemo is totally walk on, along with Matterhorn. Now is also the time to head over to Fantasyland and ride any attractions you didn’t make it on in the morning, and you can also casually slip into that Peter Pan line right at close, which is when entry to lines close, but not the rides themselves.
Lucky for you, I have individual posts for ride order in every land in Disneyland specifically. Since most of the big ticket rides in DCA have fastpasses, ride order in DCA really depends on what your priorities are. Just keep grabbing those fastpasses as soon as you’re able early on in the day and you should be set.
I also have a full post on fastpass vs. maxpass and how to use them both.
Disneyland Ride Order Breakdowns
In WDW, the different parks are pretty far away from each other, making park hopping something that needs to be planned. At the Disneyland Resort, there’s just a little esplanade separating the two parks, making park hopping not just something that’s easy, but a key factor to getting the most out of your trip.
We tend to start our days in Disneyland (unless we have an extra magic hour in California Adventure), knock out as much as we can in the morning until it starts to get really packed around 11:30-noonish. Then we’ll head over to DCA, where there’s more space to stretch out. We’ll grab a fastpass, and find somewhere to grab a snack and drink and people watch for a while. Or honestly we’re probably riding Ariel’s Undersea Adventures over and over because it never has a line and it’s the most relaxing chill ride. By the time night comes along, we’re in whichever park has the nighttime show we want to watch, and then we’ll spend the rest of the night riding as much as we can in Disneyland until close.
TLDR; Beginning and end of the days are usually spent in Disneyland, but during the middle portion of the day we’re usually bouncing back and forth depending on crowd sizes, fastpass availability, any food reservations, and any shows we want to see. We typically finish in Disneyland, which tends to close later than DCA.
There’s so much good food in the Disneyland Resort. No lie like 75 percent of our Disneyland trips consist of eating.
You can enjoy your entire trip without making any dining reservations, just eating at quick services restaurants (which is what we do most of the time) because the food and environment can be just as good as table service spots, but if you want piece of mind or a little added magic for a special occasion, here’s a list of spots that you’ll generally always need a reservation for:
Carthay Circle (upstairs)
Trattoria (NOT WORTH THE RESERVATION)
If you weren’t able to grab a reservation or some place catches your eye last minute and you’re having regrets (Blue Bayou always seems like a good idea when you’re on Pirates), you can always check in at the beginning of the day and check to see if there are any openings and if there’s a waitlist you can add yourself to.
Some of our favorite places to eat are:
DL: Tomorrowland Breakfast (Tomorrowland)
DCA: Flo’s Breakfast (Cars Land)
DL Hotel: Goofy’s Kitchen character dining (reservation)
DL: Carnation Cafe Breakfast (reservation) (Main Street)
DL: Hungry Bear fried chicken sandwich, onion rings, and cold brew(!!!) (Critter Country)
DL: Plaza Inn fried chicken (Main Street)
DL: Bengal BBQ (Adventureland)
DL: French Market (New Orleans Square)
DL: Blue Bayou (reservation) (New Orleans Square)
DL: Cafe Orleans (reservation) (New Orleans Square)
DL: Jolly Holiday (Main Street)
DCA: Carthay Circle Upstairs Restaurant (reservation)(Buena Vista Street)
DCA: Carthay Circle Bar (open seating) (Buena Vista Street)
DCA: Smokejumpers Grill (Grizzly Peak)
DCA: Boudin and Lucky Fortune Cookery (Pacific Wharf)
DCA: Lamplight Lounge Bar (Heading into Pixar Pier)
Some of our favorite snacks are:
Dole Whip (Tiki Room and Tangaroa Terrace)
Churros (throughout both parks, just don’t get the ones from Downtown Disney)
Churro Toffee (Bing Bongs on Pixar Pier and Marcelines in Downtown Disney)
Soft Serve (Cozy Cones, Cars Land, DCA)
Pretzels (throughout both parks)
Smoothies (Shmoozies, Hollywood Backlot, DCA)
Popcorn (throughout both parks)
Twists and Boysen Apple Freeze (Maurices, to the left of the Castle)
Honestly everything at the Mickey and the Magical Map snack shack
Mickey Ice Cream Bars (throughout both parks)
Frozen Banana (throughout both parks)
Pickle (throughout both parks)
Chimichanga (throughout both parks)
Nachos (White Water Snacks in Grand Californian)
Tempura Green Beans (Trader Sam’s at the Disneyland Hotel)
Bacon Wrapped Asparagus (Bengal BBQ, Adventureland)
Matterhorn Macaron and Raspberry macaron (Jolly Holiday)
Corn Dog (Corn Dog Cart on Main Street and Corn Dog Castle next to Goofy’s Sky School in DCA)
Ice Cream Nachos (Golden Horseshoe, Frontierland, DL)
Beignets (Mint Julep Stand, New Orleans Square)
Clearly we love snacks.
This is just a list of our personal favorites for meals and snacks. As you can see, so many of our favorite places to grab some food don’t require a reservation. If you want to be fully prepared, check out the Dining section of the Disneyland website, which gives a full rundown of every single food spot within the resort. It’s best to team up with some friends so you can eat every single thing.
There’s so much going on at both Disneyland and California Adventure all the time, you might be fast tracking to the rides, but all the different shows are what add to the magic of being fully immersed in the parks, don’t pass them by! The parades and nighttime shows are the big draws of both parks, but the little shows like catching the Dapper Dans as they stroll down Main Street or getting to ride King Arthur’s Carousel with live music from the Pearly Band, can be just as magical as the Fireworks show.
If you’re mainly interested in the nighttime shows, in Disneyland there’s one showing of the Fireworks every night generally around 9:25 along Main Street with viewing going as far back as Small World. We generally watch around Small World because it’s less crowded and if there are projections, they’re also projected on the Small World building. However if you want the FULL experience with projections, if you stand on Main Street, there will be projections on the buildings lining the street as well as the castle. And there’s usually something (Tinkerbell, Dumbo, or something else depending on the show) that flies from Matterhorn to the Castle.
There are generally two Fantasmic! Shows every night at the Rivers of America. I know in WDW, there’s a specific section that’s used mainly (just?) for Fantasmic!, however in Disneyland they rope off a regular ole portion of the park up against the Rivers a couple hours before show time. At the time of writing this, Disneyland requires a Fantasmic! fastpass to reserve your spot. You can grab the fastpasses in the Frontierland portion of the Rivers of America, close to the loading dock for the Sailing Ship Columbia and Mark Twain Riverboat.
You can also do a dining package that includes reserved seating. Check here for lots of info regarding Fantasmic! Dining packages.
Be aware that people-traffic-control in the parks once the nighttime shows start can get a bit hectic and overwhelming. If you’re not planning on prioritizing shows, I’d recommend picking a section of the park you’re interested in tackling and sticking there until at least the fireworks are over and Main Street opens up again.
HEADS UP: It can get packed around this time. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and you are starting to panic, the downstairs seating at Hungry Bear restaurant in Critter Country stays open because there is a bathroom. There’s lots of dark, quiet space to stretch out away from crowds. Critter Country in general is pretty clear at night. If you’re in super panic mode, First Aid is on the left side of Main Street as you’re heading out, ask any cast member and they can direct you.
The nighttime shows are fun, but I totally understand getting overwhelmed with the crowd sizes. It’s better to prioritize your mental health over a show.
Okay, friends! I think that just about covers it. It’s a lot, I KNOW. I wanted to make sure to give you as complete a rundown as possible and somehow that turned into like a 13 page single space paper whoops. If you see something that’s missing, or have questions feel free to leave your question in the comment section. We’ll answer your question directly and keep growing this post.
Also be sure to check out our other blog posts! We have lots of subjects covered in more bite sized posts, but they’re all super informative. We just want you to have a magical time!