Recently, my family and I had the privilege of accompanying friends on their first visit to Disneyland. Although their visit was short, I know we all had an amazing time. If you’re contemplating a trip to Disneyland, this year is a great time to go. Disneyland is thriving with new features, and with several recent renovations, it’s better than ever. The entire resort has lots to offer everyone from ages 1 to 101.
The Disneyland Resort is divided into three distinct destinations: Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, and a shopping district named Downtown Disney. Amid these destinations, you’ll find three onsite Disney hotels. The Disneyland Hotel, Paradise Pier, and The Grand Californian. If you’re planning a visit to Disneyland, I strongly encourage you to stay onsite. The three Disney hotels keep the magic alive, but also offer tons of convenience and ease of getting to and from the parks.
1. Disneyland, the classic experience. Disneyland itself appeals to all ages, but has the most to offer families with younger children. Disneyland is divided up into 9 differently-themed regions, or in Disney’s terms, “lands”. Each land offers age and height-appropriate rides. You’ll experience parades, shows, singing, dancing, and shopping throughout the park. From the first walk down Main Street, to the Sleeping Beauty Castle at the center of the park, to random run-ins with all your favorite Disney characters from your own childhood. Disneyland is the classic destination that most visitors know they want to see and experience.
2. A modern California Adventure. California Adventure is much newer, especially after some major renovations. California Adventure is also geared toward all ages, but has more attractions geared for adults and older kids. You’ll still get the same thrills as Disneyland, but with a nod to unique California culture, geography, and its destinations. Newer Disney characters tend to hang out around the eight themed locations. Hollywood Land is where you’ll find a back lot movie experience, animation studios, and the Disney Junior cast of friends. In 2012, California Adventure had a grand re-opening with the addition of Cars Land, bringing an entirely new experience to the park. It’s one you won’t want to miss — you’ll feel like you stepped directly into Radiator Springs.
3. The low-down on Downtown. Downtown Disney is a packed shopping and dining district that spans from the entrance of Disneyland and California Adventure all the way to the Disneyland Hotel. If you stay in any of the onsite hotels, you’ll end up walking through Downtown Disney each time you go to and from the parks. There are lots of dining options here, and even a few places to enjoy adult beverages late into the night. You’ll also encounter a variety of live outdoor performers in the evenings that fill the promenade with different styles of music. And if you didn’t get a chance to grab a souvenir inside either of the parks, the expansive World of Disney store in Downtown Disney has plenty to offer.
4. The right time. The best time to visit is mid January through April when the weather isn’t as hot, and kids are all back to school. Holiday weekends and summer time will be the busiest time of year. If you must go in the summer, July is a good time to visit, but also one of the hottest times of the year. When the parks are at their busiest, it can be hard to do and see everything, as you’ll often end up waiting in long lines. I recommend a three-day stay at a minimum. One day for each park and another day to revisit your favorite moments or catch any rides or shows you missed. If you have the time, stay four days. We’ve been to Disneyland many times now and rarely stay less than four days. The more you can spread out your trip without the pressure of seeing everything in one or two days, the more enjoyable it will be. Note that you’ll need a Park Hopper ticket if you want to visit both parks on the same day.
5. The early bird gets on the rides. On the day of your visit, get to the park early, about 30 minutes before it opens. If you’re staying at one of Disney’s hotels, each day, you’ll have early access to one of the parks one hour earlier than the rest of the public. You’ll likely ride more rides in your first couple of hours than you will the rest of the day. Hit the most popular rides first. Disneyland rides like the newly renovated Matterhorn, Buzz Lightyear, Dumbo, and Peter Pan, as well as California Adventure rides like Radiator Springs Racers and Toy Story Mania have lines that will only get longer throughout the day. As the park crowd grows, ride the attractions that move a lot of people through quickly. Rides like Big Thunder Mountain, Haunted Mansion, Jungle Cruise, It’s a Small World, and Pirates of the Caribbean have lines that tend to move faster.
6. Dining at Disney. Make a few dining reservations in advance. Disney has come along way when it comes to food, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the options you’ll have in either of the two parks, and in Downtown Disney. If you have any kind of food allergy, talk to the Cast Member at the dining location. The chefs will do their best to accommodate you, even if you don’t see something on the menu. Don’t miss the beignets in New Orleans Square. They might seem like they’ll kill you, but they’re worth the extra pleasure.
7. Weathered wear. Although Anaheim is typically warm during the day, it can get cold at night. Make sure you dress in layers if you know you’ll be in the park all day. Be prepared to stay for the fireworks show if you can keep your little ones awake past sunset. It’s by far one of the best fireworks shows anywhere. Don’t forget your sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, and stay hydrated. It’s easy to forget about drinking water as you’re constantly running to the next amazing thing. Opt for a bottle of water with one of your meals or snacks, and keep it with you and filled throughout the day.
8. A bit of preparation. Visit the Disneyland site before you go. Get maps of the parks and familiarize yourself with what’s there. Disneyland is set up as a hub and spoke system. Start in one of the “lands” and move clockwise around until you seen everything you had hoped for. Plan to set aside time for shows, parades, and dining. If you’re traveling with younger kids, think about a Character dining experience to kick off your visit. This will give you a good idea of how your kid is going to react to the characters. Also, I advise knowing your child’s height ahead of time, and research the height requirements of some of the attractions you’re most interested in. Otherwise, you may be turned away after they’ve already built up their expectations.
9. Pad the budget. Expect that you’ll spend a little more money than your typical vacation. Food is often more expensive than what you’re probably accustomed to, and there are more opportunities to part with your hard-earned cash, especially with children in tow. There are lots of ways to save here and there that repeat visitors learn over time. But you’ll enjoy your visit more if you factor in a bit more to your budget that you would have normally, and you’re not feeling guilty or arguing over the cost of lunch or a special souvenir.
10. Your happy place. Most importantly, don’t forget the magic. If you spend too much time worrying and planning, you might miss those magical moments. Slow down a bit, and take in the sights. If you have kids with you, look at their faces often, and relish in the delight and wonder in their eyes. They’re probably why you’re visiting in the first place. Disneyland is the original Magic Kingdom. It’s the only park Walt Disney walked through, and it’s the original incarnation of his vision. There are lots of whimsical details in the park you’ll miss if you’re not savoring the moment. There’s a reason it’s called “The Happiest Place on Earth”. Allow yourself and your family to soak in as much happiness as you can while you’re there. You (and your kids) will remember it for a lifetime.