disneyland cover photo

As a frequent visitor of Walt Disney World in Florida, I found myself very overwhelmed when it was time to plan my family’s very first Disneyland trip. What do we see first? Which attractions are must-do’s? Where do we eat? How do we get around? What do you mean I can’t get Fastpasses ahead of time?!

I have good news for you – it’s not as overwhelming as it first seems. Here are some tips to help you plan your very first trip to Disneyland in California.

  • The best advice I read before my first trip: don’t compare Disneyland to Walt Disney World. Some attractions are similar, but they are completely different parks with completely different feels. Appreciate each park and each attraction for what they are. Remember that even though it’s small, Disneyland is the place where the magic started! And Imagineers have done a great job of packing as much magic as possible into the small footprint.
  • In California, everything is within walking distance to each other. There are 2 parks – Disneyland Park and Disney’s California Adventure Park. There are 3 hotels on property – Disney’s Grand Californian Resort and Spa, Disneyland Hotel, and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel. Downtown Disney is also within walking distance – no more late night bus rides back to your hotel.
  • If you want the “removed from reality” experience that you get at WDW, stay in a Disney resort. It’s true, there are no “value” resorts at Disneyland; but it is worth the few extra bucks to stay on property and get the true Disney experience. (If a Disney resort isn’t in the budget for you this time, there are some Disney Good Neighbor Hotels nearby.)
  • I have heard people say that because Disneyland is small, you don’t need a plan. WRONG! If you have a limited amount of time (3 days or less), make an itinerary so you don’t miss your must-do’s. Just like at WDW, you will be able to get the most done in the first 2 hours of the day. Eat a good breakfast, get to the park early, and have a plan.
  • At Disneyland, there are no MagicBands or My Disney Experience app, and Fastpasses can only be booked from inside the park on the same day that you are using them. Again, planning is key – a good plan will help you make the most of your time and those coveted Fastpasses.
  • Fewer parks and resorts means fewer dining options. Make reservations early for table service restaurants (60 days in advance), and expect to wait in line at most counter service restaurants, including bars. Here are some of my favorites:
    • In Downtown Disney, Tortilla Jo’s serves up very large portions; sit at the outside bar for a good people-watching experience.
    • In Disneyland, Blue Bayou is a great choice for a table service meal (it overlooks the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction). If you can’t get reservations, try the bread bowl soups at Royal Street Veranda. If you’re looking for junk food, don’t miss the corn dogs right outside of Plaza Inn and the sweet treats at Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor.
    • In Disney’s California Adventure, you have to stop by Flo’s V8 Cafe in Radiator Springs for the ambiance. The lobster nachos at Cove Bar are delicious; for a 21-and-over treat, ask for the secret menu item “Mickey’s Fun Wheel”.
      dca cove bar magic wheel
  • Remember when I said the parks are smaller? Well, the castle is smaller, too. Don’t let that surprise or deter you when walking down Main Street. There is an attraction inside this castle, and it’s very charming.
  • Calling all “vintage” Fantasyland lovers – you can find Snow White’s Scary Adventure, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and Mickey’s and Minnie’s Houses here! They are alive and well, and every bit as good as your childhood memories. And don’t skip it’s a small world, even though the song will be stuck in your head all day; the Disneyland version has a few special guests sprinkled throughout the attraction that you don’t want to miss.
    disneyland mr toad
  • Love Dinosaur at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida? Don’t miss Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland. Afterwards, head over to Pirates of the Caribbean and enjoy the longer ride and more detailed storyline.
  • If you are lucky enough to go to Disneyland during the holidays, Haunted Mansion Holiday is a must-do – especially if you love Jack Skellington and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
    haunted mansion holiday
  • Love Dole Whips? In Disneyland, you can bring your tropical treat into the Enchanted Tiki Room and enjoy it during the show!
  • Make sure you visit Radiator Springs at Disney’s California Adventure, especially at night. Take a stroll through the neon lit town, visit The Cozy Cone and Flo’s, and race through the desert, just like in the movie. This section of the park is so well-done, you’ll forget you’re in southern California.
    dca radiator springs
  • If you are a Marvel fan, you will find several favorites in Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure. New this summer, Tower of Terror has been transformed into a cleverly-themed Guardians of the Galaxy storyline.
  • Here are some attractions that are similar (but not exactly the same) in California and Florida:
    • Jungle Cruise
    • Haunted Mansion
    • Splash Mountain
    • Big Thunder Mountain
    • Frontierland Shootin Arcade
    • Winnie the Pooh
    • Peter Pan
    • Mad Tea Party
    • Buzz Lightyear
    • Space Mountain
    • Star Wars attractions – Star Tours, Jedi Training Academy, Path of the Jedi
    • Soarin
    • A Bug’s Life
    • Little Mermaid
    • Toy Story Midway Mania

Again, there are some differences – I highly recommend experiencing them all so you can pick your favorites.

  • You’ll find the nighttime favorite Fantasmic! at Disneyland, but in a way that you’ve never experienced before. The recently reimagined fan favorite includes all new projections, pyrotechnics, and a pirate ship! This is a nighttime must-do.
  • The other nighttime must-do is World of Color at Disney’s California Adventure. Think water screens, fire, and music from Fantasmic combined with the Bellagio Fountains in Vegas, and multiply by 1000. It is an amazing show.
    dca world of color

Ready to plan your Disneyland vacation? I’m here to help!

My name is Kate Oyer, and I love all things Disney. Since my first trip to Walt Disney World in 1989, I have always wanted to be a part of the magic. And now I am! As an experienced Disney traveler, a former Cast Member, and now an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner, I am ready to help you and your family make magical memories that will last a lifetime.  Kate@travelwiththemagic.com

Looking for military-specific travel information? I can help with that, too. As an Army family, we have taken advantage of Disney’s generous military discounts as often as possible. Contact me today to start planning your next unforgettable family vacation!