My family and I returned from our first trip to Disneyland last week and I have so much I want to share with you. If you have been to Walt Disney World before, but never journeyed out to the place where it all began, today should be a treat. I’m going to share my first look at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, along with some tips to make your first trip the best it can be.
It’s been over 60 years since Walt Disney first brought families together in a whole new way. As a lifelong Walt Disney World fan, I have been waiting for the day I could travel to see Walt’s first park. Having now walked where Walt walked, I have a better understanding of where the magic began. Disneyland is smaller than its Magic Kingdom counterpart, but the beauty of this place is in the details. Everywhere you look you can see the handcrafted work of the first Imagineers. As you move over to Disney California Adventure you get to experience a new generation of theme park thrills.
These two parks combine to showcase the past, present, and future of Disney theme park fun. Of course, you won’t find everything here that you will in the 4 parks at Walt Disney World. However, I found there was enough of the familiar to make me feel at home, and enough new to have me already planning a return trip.
I want to begin today by putting the history of the two California theme parks in perspective. That means its time for our…
Know Before you Go Essential Facts
- Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955
- In 2015 Disneyland was the 2nd most visited theme park in the world, with over 18
- million visitors. The Magic Kingdom was #1 with over 20 million.
- Disneyland has just over 40 rides
- Disney California Adventure (or DCA for short) opened on February 8, 2001
- DCA underwent an extensive expansion from 2007-2012
- In 2015 DCA was the 11th most visited theme park in the world, with over 9 million visitors
- DCA has just over 20 rides
- The two theme park entrances are within 100 yards of each other.
Each park has its own unique identity. On the Disneyland side you have a park, rich in history with twice as many rides and twice as many visitors. However, what DCA lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. When I asked all 6 adults in my family which of the two parks they would visit again if given only 1 day, they all said DCA! So, why did we all opt for the newer park when twice as many visitors go to the classic? I think it has a lot to do with our perspective and experience as frequent visitors to Walt Disney World.
Many of our favorite rides from Walt Disney World can be found in Disney California Adventure. These include Toy Story Midway Mania!, Soarin’ Around the World, and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Add to that our new favorite ride, Radiator Springs Racers, and you have 4 headliners all in the same park! Disneyland has the classics like Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Space Mountain. Plus, unique to this park are Indiana Jones Adventure and Matterhorn Bobsleds. These and others make both parks worth your time. I think for us the real difference maker was Cars Land located in DCA.
Before visiting Disneyland or DCA for the first time, I had heard so many great things about Cars Land. Honestly, I thought there was no way it would live up to the hype. One thing you have to understand about me, if you raise my expectations too high it is almost impossible for me not to be disappointed. That is one of my motivations for this podcast. I want to help you set your expectations appropriately so you can have the best time possible when you travel. So, when it came to Cars Land I was convinced it had to be a little overrated. Well, my friends, I am so pleased to tell you that it is not! Visiting Cars Land for the first time was one of the rare occasions where my high expectations were exceeded. I will have to save my thoughts on this place for a podcast all its own, but just know it is super cool!
Before I get too carried away talking about specific rides, I want to give you an overview of the Disneyland Resort. As a lifelong visitor to Walt Disney World, these are the things I feel it is important to know when planning a first time visit to Disneyland.
So, what distinguishes these two happy places? To me, the greatest factor is location. This, above everything else, influences the unique experience you will have at either destination. The size of the resorts, the proximity of the parks, the weather, and the crowds are all a product of the location. The Disneyland Resort is comprised of two theme parks, Downtown Disney shopping district, and 3 Disney owned hotels. This area takes up a total of 510 acres. To put this in perspective, Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida is 410 acres, making the 1 theme park almost as big as the entire Disneyland Resort footprint. Add 3 more theme parks, 2 water parks, Disney Springs shopping district, and 22 hotels Walt Disney World sits on over 25,000 acres. That is a significant size difference, which is a result of the two very different locations.
The Disneyland Resort is surrounded by busy streets, hotels, restaurants, retailers and more. In other words, it feels very much like the heart of a city. The economic boom that took place after Disneyland’s early success prohibited Walt from being able to expand his park and control its surroundings. That was a mistake he didn’t want to make twice, so when it came to finding the location of Walt Disney World, he wanted a LOT of land! As a result, Walt Disney World is a city in itself. That city does not include the same buildings you see on your everyday commute. Instead, the highly themed hotels and parks are surrounded by miles of trees and Florida swampland. When you are there, you feel transported to a place isolated from the outside world. Many refer to this as the “Disney bubble.”
The first big difference between the two destinations is this difference in atmosphere. Disneyland does not have the “Disney bubble” feel. I’m not here to say that is a bad thing or a good thing, but it is important to know. Walt Disney World veterans should go to Disneyland ready for a new experience.
Of course, the advantage of Disneyland’s smaller footprint is the ability to hop between the two parks and Downtown Disney. If you arrive by bus, you will be dropped off just outside of the three destinations. You must first go through a security checkpoint and then choose your adventure. Disney California Adventure is on your left, Downtown Disney is straight ahead, and Disneyland Park is on your right. You can literally stand in the middle of the plaza and see the gate to both parks and the downtown district. To me there is no reason not to have a Park Hopper pass at Disneyland. We spent time in both parks on all three days of our recent family vacation.
Now, I do want to dispel the notion that you will can easily walk back and forth between the two parks. Each time you leave one park you must go through the ticket counter at the other park. While this didn’t take up a lot of time, we did have to wait in some sort of line every single time we entered one of the two parks. Plus, walking back and forth between the two will add up over the course of the day. I only bring this up as you may find advice on blogs or other podcasts that suggest you bounce back and forth to obtain Fastpass tickets for rides in each park. While this is a practical way of getting more Fastpass tickets, it is a bit of a burden on the member who runs to get these Fastpasses. I can speak from experience as I ran from Jedi Training in Tomorrowland at Disneyland, over to the Radiator Springs Racers Fastpass booth in DCA, and then back to Tomorrowland in Disneyland. The roundtrip run took me about 10 minutes, but I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to do this multiple times during the day. A reasonable plan of attack is to start at one park and spend half your day there. After lunch take a break back at your hotel and rest for a few hours. Then return to the other park in the late afternoon and stay until it closes. Park hopping this one time will make your day more efficient and enjoyable.
Another reason you need a Park Hopper are the hours of operation. The two parks had different opening times and closing times for all 3 days of our stay. The Halloween Party was going on Friday evening at Disneyland, meaning the park closed at 7 pm to anyone without the separate party admission. However, DCA stayed open until 11 pm that night. So, as I suggested, we began our day at Disneyland and went until shortly after lunch. We enjoyed a nice 3 hour break at our hotel and then returned to DCA from about 5pm-11pm.
Let’s move onto something more exciting, weather! Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with a day by day weather report from our trip. I do want you to know that southern California weather is very different from the daily dose of rain and humidity associated with Orlando. This difference in climate not only affects how you will feel when you visit Disneyland, but also what the rides look like and how they operate.
I was amazed at the difference in ride queues between Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom in particular. These two parks share many rides like Peter Pan’s Flight, Dumbo, The Tea Cups, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, and many more. All of these rides at Walt Disney World are either covered or take place inside, plus they have queues that are primarily inside or covered. At Disneyland that is not the case. Most of the rides have queues that are outside and have little to no covering, and why should they? It hardly ever rains in Anaheim. Plus, unlike Orlando, the Sun doesn’t melt you like Olaf on a warm summer day. In some cases, like It’s a Small World, I found the Disneyland version much more visually appealing due to the outdoor queue and ride exterior. In other cases, like Toy Story Midway Mania, I missed the engaging, over the top interior queue of the Hollywood Studios version. Overall, I found necessity is the mother of invention and I have to give a nod to Walt Disney World for more innovative queues. Needing to protect from the elements has forced the Imagineers to view the time spent in line waiting as more of an extension of the ride.
The other way in which the weather comes into play is simply whether or not the ride can remain open. We came across this on our last night at Disney California Adventure. While Southern California is not known for getting much rain, we experienced a steady drizzle for several hours that afternoon. It let up for the most part by the evening, but every so often a small spattering would fall from the skies again. Because we had fallen in love with Cars Land and Radiator Springs Racers, we were in that part of park for one more go around. Due to time constraints earlier in the trip, we had waited to ride the new Luigi’s Rollicking Roadsters. This ride, along with Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree and Radiator Springs Racers, are all outdoor rides, each exposed to the elements. Well, sadly Luigi cannot rollick when it is wet. We were able to ride Mater and Racers but each time I checked on Luigi the crew was still pushing their squeegees across the wet cement. I was told they could open later in the evening, but each time it sprinkled a little they had to start all over.
Other rides that can close during the unlikely event of rain include:
- Alice in Wonderland
- Dumbo the Flying Elephant
- The Mad Tea Party
- Gadget’s Go Coaster
Please note, this is the current list according to Disney’s website, but other rides are subject to closing due to weather.
Let’s go ahead and move on to the crowds! Obviously, Walt Disney World and Disneyland can and will both be very crowded on most days. However, the pattern of increased traffic on the weekends comes into play even more at Disneyland. That is all due to the high numbers of locals visiting the park on their days off. Disney does not release the percentage of annual pass holders they have at either park, but one report from 2015 stated the number had grown 250% since DCA opened in 2001. It is no secret that Disneyland does not experience the same level of out of state tourists as those flocking to Florida. In fact, Disney has raised the price of annual pass holder tickets the past couple of years to try and allow more space for those coming from out of town.
We certainly saw this trend on our recent trip. Overall, the parks where more crowded than predicted, but Saturday was by far the busiest. Touring Plans predicted a crowd level of 8 out of 10 for the Saturday we were in town, but in reality it was a 10 out of 10! It was, without a doubt, the most crowded I have ever seen a Disney park. Now, in full disclosure, I try to avoid visiting any Disney park during peak crowd times. So, I have not been on days like Christmas or New Year’s when the parks turn away visitors after reaching capacity. After this experience in October, I can guarantee you I won’t be visiting Disneyland again on a Saturday any time soon. The crowds were so overwhelming and the lines so long it was hard to see or do much at all. By the end of the day our family was tired, stressed, hungry, and ready for a break. So, here’s what I learned from that experience.
We flew in on a Thursday and opted to visit Downtown Disney that evening rather than go to the parks. We thought we would make better use of our 3-day Park Hopper tickets by using them on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. In hindsight, I am convinced that we would have been able to do more in 4 hours on Thursday night than we did all of Saturday. Well, I’m convinced that would be true if traveling on a non-holiday week. After returning home, I did check the crowd calendar for the actual crowd levels on Thursday as well. It turns out that day was a 10 out of 10 also! The reason for that was because this was Fall Break for many schools. We selected this time in October to coincide with our nephews’ Fall Break, but evidently we weren’t the only ones with that idea. I think Thursday through Sunday was much more crowded in general due to the school holiday. For balance, the crowds at Walt Disney World were equally heavy that weekend as well.
With that said, I do recommend you plan a trip to Disneyland that avoids visiting the parks on Saturday and Sunday. These could be travel days, or days you choose to relax at your hotel. Speaking of hotel, let’s talk about where to stay.
As I said earlier, there are 3 options for Disney-owned hotels. These include the value priced Paradise Pier, the moderate level Disneyland Hotel, and the deluxe Grand Californian Resort. All 3 are within walking distance to the parks, but only the Grand Californian is actually connected to DCA and Downtown Disney. If you can afford this deluxe level resort, I would recommend staying there for the location alone. If you are like me, then price will probably dictate you look elsewhere. As I said earlier, there are buildings surrounding the Disneyland Resort. Many of these buildings are what Disney calls Good Neighbor hotels. These are non-Disney operated hotels that offer significant savings for staying a little further away. In many cases, you can find a bigger room or even a family suite at a Good Neighbor hotel for the same price as Disney’s value level Paradise Pier hotel. The tricky thing is figuring out how much the proximity of the theme parks is worth to your family.
My family found a good deal at the Hyatt Place at Anaheim Resort. This newer hotel is located 1 mile from the entrance to Disneyland. The hotel offers a complimentary hot breakfast and large rooms. My sister and her family enjoyed a room with a king bed and separate room with bunk beds for the twins. For us, choosing this hotel came down to the room size and free breakfast. For transportation, our vacation package included the Anaheim Resort Transportation pass, or ART for short. This gave us access to shuttles that picked up about a block over from our hotel with routes that take you to the theme parks. The shuttles are said to run every 20 minutes. Once aboard, the actual drive time is only about 5 minutes. So, in summary, big rooms, free breakfast, and convenient transportation. Sounds great, right?
So, was it worth it to stay “off property” from Disney? The answer to that question would depend on who you ask. I think my parents and my sister and brother-in-law would all say yes. Having two 7-year olds and a newborn, it was important to have enough space for everyone to relax. Plus, the savings on breakfast every morning was important to them. Now me on the other hand, I value proximity to the parks above those things. I enjoy staying on Disney property and immersing myself in the Disney experience. I want to get to the parks as quickly as possible in the morning and back to the resort as painlessly as possible in the evening. So, if the decision were up to me next time, I would spend a little more money and stay at the Disneyland Hotel. The time savings alone would be worth the extra money for me.
At first glance, a hotel that is 1 mile from the parks seems very close. In fact, you might think you could even skip the bus altogether and walk back and forth. While that is true, allow me to put it in a little better perspective for you. Curious how the walk would compare to the bus, I decided to test the two scenarios the night we arrived. When we got to the bus stop there was no bus and I was antsy from being on a plane the past few hours, so I volunteered to take the nephews and walk to the parks while the rest of the crew waited for the bus. With a nephew in each hand, we sat off down the sidewalk.
Not knowing the lay of the land, and relying on my phone’s GPS, we took a route that was definitely longer than necessary. Rather than taking the direct route straight down the street from our hotel, we ended up walking to the far side of Downtown Disney and coming in a back way. We arrived about 40 minutes after setting out. This put us in the middle of Downtown Disney at the same time as the rest of the family that had taken the bus. I should note we stopped about halfway through to let one of the nephews rest on a park bench for a couple of minutes. Needless to say, a 1 mile walk with children ends up taking a little longer than you might think. When it was time to head back to the hotel that night we all opted for the bus!
Without getting into the details of every trip from the hotel to the parks, it took us about 30-40 minutes on average to make the trip. We had to wait at least 20 minutes for the bus on most occasions, sometimes more, meaning it took about the same amount of time to ride as it did to walk. Of course, the bus ride saved extra mileage on our feet. That may not sound that important, but trust me, when you walk 12 miles at the parks, it is very important! Rachel and I stayed at Disneyland so late on our last evening that the buses had stopped running and we had no choice but to make the 1 mile walk back to the hotel. I am on my feet more than the average person on a daily basis, but my feet were hurting so badly by the time we could see the hotel I was almost hobbling.
Given the inconvenience of walking, and the unknown of when the bus arrive, I would happily opt for a Disney hotel on our next stay. Now, there are other Good Neighbor hotels that are closer than the one we selected, but these are still not close enough for my liking. Just remember this when planning your Disneyland vacation and you see a hotel that says it is 0.65 miles for Disneyland. It seems like a short distance on paper, but it will add up costing you time and convenience over the course of your stay.
Well, I think that about wraps up the everything associated with the location of the Disneyland Resort. The feel, the weather, the crowds, and the proximity are all different from what you may have come to expect at Walt Disney World. I haven’t even begun to dig into the theme parks themselves. There is so much to talk about there we will save it for future podcasts, including a two-part series beginning next week! If you have ever wondered how the rides compare between the two destinations, don’t miss the next two weeks. We will begin by looking at the Top 5 Rides Disneyland Does Better, and then follow that up with the Top 5 Rides Walt Disney World Does Better. It is going to be a lot of fun!
If you are new to Disneyland I hope today has been a helpful introduction. If you are a Disneyland pro I would love to hear your thoughts on what makes it unique. You can send us feedback by commenting over on our Facebook page, or sending an e-mail to email@example.com.
Thank you so much for joining me today! I know we have been off for a few weeks, so your willingness to stick with us means so much. Today is just the beginning of a new Disneyland chapter in our greater WDW library. I hope you will come back next week as we explore even more. For now, wherever you are, I hope today is a ride worth taking!
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