If you’re reading this, you’ve likely been to Disney World a fair amount. But if you’re planning a trip to Disneyland you can pretty much forget everything you’ve learned! This article will be jam packed with tips and tricks for both adults and kids alike in order to get the most out of your vacation.
For an inexperienced first-timer to Disneyland, I highly recommend working with an authorized Disney vacation planner like Zip a Dee Doo Dah Travel to make sure everything is squared away! They will help you plan, provide tips and tricks, and get you on your way faster than you can say Mickey Mouse. If you want to jump right in and coordinate a trip yourself, here’s my extremely in-depth guide:
ARRIVING AT DISNEYLAND
Disneyland is located near several major airports with direct flights or connections to practically every airport in the continental United States. As an east coaster, I recommend catching the earliest flight you can that is within your budget. With the three hour time difference, you can potentially arrive at Disneyland before noontime! This is a great way to get an extra day on that first time trip, giving yourself the extra time to visit the many attractions that Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure have to offer
The biggest change for Disney World vets is that there is no “Magical Express” service available from the airports to the Disneyland resorts. Transport options vary at each airport, but for many first timers, either a hotel shuttle or Uber will be your best bet.
LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (LAX)
The largest airport, and often cheapest to fly into, is Los Angeles International. LAX is 35 miles from the parks which means you’ll likely run into a lot of the famed L.A. gridlock en route to Anaheim. Despite its size, LAX itself is relatively easy and pain-free to navigate on foot.
LAX also offers a wide variety of rental car options as well as Uber and Lyft. Los Angeles International is also serviced by several car and van share services, such as Karmel Shuttle (a current Disneyland partner), which offers door-to-door service to Disney-owned and off-property hotels for a large fee. Limos are available, at a rate of between $80 and $100 one way. For a cheaper option, LAX is also a stop on the Los Angeles Metro system, which requires you to board a train and transfer to a bus to reach the Disneyland Resort.
JOHN WAYNE ORANGE COUNTY AIRPORT (SNA)
The closest airport to Disneyland property is John Wayne, which is a mere 14 miles from Disneyland. SNA serves a limited number of airlines and flights daily, but this is the airport I would recommend flying into if you are looking to maximize your time and minimize your stress.
John Wayne is served by rental car agencies, rideshare, taxis and limos, plus the Orange County bus system. Again: Rental or rideshare may be your quickest and least expensive options.
LONG BEACH AIRPORT (LGB)
Long Beach is 19 miles from Disneyland and serves even fewer airlines than John Wayne does. If you’re looking for a “small aiport” feel and you can find a flight that will land here, this one is for you!
Long Beach is serviced by car rental agencies, rideshare, taxis, limos and shuttle services.
All three Disney-owned hotels offer the legendary Disney service and amenities you’ve come to love (H2O+ products anybody?). You’ll pay a premium for that service and the immersiveness, though! The cheapest Disney-owned property will still be much more expensive than an a really nice off-site option.
As for access into your room, don’t bother to pack your magic band. All Disneyland resorts still use key cards for access, which, like a magic band, makes for great a souvenir after your trip is over!
One similar, and major benefit, is access to a morning extra magic hour. These are offered daily at one of the two parks and allow guests at Disney resorts exclusive early access to the parks and the MaxPass system. This is in addition to the “morning magic” admission you get when you buy a ticket (more on that later…)
Grand Californian Resort and Spa
The Grand Californian is the most luxurious of the Disney-owned properties and features both standard hotel rooms and the only Disney Vacation Club villas in Disneyland. This is also the only Disneyland resort that offers a stay fully inside the Disney bubble, since it’s completely surrounded by other Disney properties. All rooms overlook Disney property.
Additional special perks to staying here: imagine being able to walk right out of the resort and into a theme park! Well, that’s possible with the special dedicated entrance to California Adventure. Plus you have a dedicated security checkpoint to enter Downtown Disney which means you get quicker access to eateries and shops and you’re as close as you can get to the main park entrances.
Grand Californian is a 5-minute walk from the main entrances to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, and with the dedicated DCA entrance you can be deep inside that park in under 5 minutes as well.
The Disneyland Hotel
The granddaddy of the Disneyland Resorts, the Disneyland Hotel consists of several towers themed to the various lands at Disneyland, these rooms feature special “fireworks” displays in the headboards. Rooms overlook other towers, parking garages, or the city of Anaheim.
Disneyland Hotel lies outside the security perimeter and is a good 10-15 minute walk to the main gates for Disneyland and California Adventure. Access to the Downtown Disney security checkpoint is via a private pedestrian-only street, making for an extremely safe experience for families.
Paradise Pier was once an off-property resort until its purchase by Disney more than 25 years ago. The rooms are themed to the beach, and feature Donald Duck artwork and Pixar beach ball pillows, but that’s really where the theming and immersion ends. Rooms overlook the parking garage, the 4th floor pool, or the Grand Californian.
My honest opinion? Paradise Pier isn’t worth your money unless you’re on a bit of a budget and feel like you “have” to stay at a Disney-owned property. The rooms are older and in need of refurbishment, the hallways are loud, and the overall resort theming just isn’t up to Disney standards.
Paradise Pier is located approximately 5 minutes south of the Disneyland Hotel and you must follow a “red brick road” past the Disneyland Hotel to access the security checkpoint. You’re looking at a good 15-20 minute walk once you leave your room until you reach the main park entrances.
There are dozens of hotels within a mile or two of Disneyland property, some of which Disney has designated as “Good Neighbors”. Prices range from under $50 per night for Econo Lodges up into the high 3 figures for well-known luxury hotel brands.
If you want to walk to the parks, try to stick to hotels directly on Harbor Boulevard which will provide direct access to the east esplanade. Some hotels offer shuttle service, and a rideshare pick-up and drop-off is also located on Harbor Blvd. as well. Please be advised that Harbor is an extremely busy street so you’ll want to keep a close eye on young ones as you cross.
For any hotel, do your due diligence and check reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor and Google before booking. Some of the closest hotels are well-priced but sometimes rank low on customer ratings.
Overall, for the first time Disneyland visitor, unless you absolutely have to stay in the “Bubble” one of my pro tips would be staying at a “Good Neighbor” hotel. There are plenty of name brand hotels (Marriott, Sherton) within walking distance, allowing you theme park entrance in around 10 minutes. The savings will be great, allowing you a bit extra for things like character dining with the kids, the addition of park hopper tickets, MaxPass, and additional souvenirs.
Want the best price on tickets? The same sites you scour for cheap Disney World tickets also offer cheap Disneyland tickets. If you are booking yourself (and not using an Authorized Disney Travel Planner), there is no real advantage to booking directly through Disney unless you’re booking a discounted package deal.
Regardless of how you buy your tickets or where you’re staying, your ticket will include one “morning magic” early admission to be used at a designated park during the length of your stay.
Again: no magic bands here. Your tickets will be paper with scannable barcodes, similar to how Disney World tickets were prior to Magic Bands and MDE. You can also enter your ticket number into the Disneyland app for a virtual ticket.
How many days should you buy? That depends on your pace and how much you want to accomplish. Disneyland and Disney California Adventure can be covered in one day each if you want to utilize all the tips and tricks people have to offer and run ride to ride. My advice? If it’s your first time: take at least 3 or 4 days so that you can return to your favorites and check out all the special details that make Walt’s original park so unique and special!
I highly recommend tacking on both the park hopper option as well as the MaxPass to your ticket. With each park within walking distance of each other the park hopper is a no-brainer, and used in tandem with the MaxPass you can get a lot accomplished quickly. For more on the MaxPass benefits as well as some caveats, see the section below.
Remember having to run for Fast Passes at Walt Disney World? Well get ready to step back in time! That’s right: there’s no 60-day FastPass booking window at Disneyland. You’re grabbing them at a kiosk day-of once you set foot in the park, not through the Disneyland app
Now, not every ride at Disneyland has Fast Passes. The newer and more popular rides throughout the park all feature Fast Pass kiosks, but the older dark rides are all old fashioned stand-by queues. To obtain a Fast Pass, you can scan your ticket at individual kiosks and you’ll receive return times in your app.
Alternatively, adding the MaxPass feature lets you add passes without having to go to each individual kiosk. MaxPass isn’t active until you scan your ticket at your first park for the day. Once you’re through the turnstiles you can immediately grab one. You’re limited to how many Fast Passes you can hold at a time, but it adds to the spontaneity a bit. You are, fortunately not limited to how many Fast Passes you can attain per day.
Fast Passes for nighttime attractions / spectaculars Fantasmic and World of Color go quickly so try to grab those as early as you can. For first time guests, Fantasmic and World of Color are must sees, so be sure to grab a Fast Pass early.
We’ve covered all the business stuff… now let’s get to the fun part!
If this is your first trip to Disneyland you should definitely plan on starting out at OG park itself. There’s nothing quite like walking up to the iconic train station and realizing that you’re really at Disneyland! You might be tempted to run off to a ride quickly, but my advice is to slow down, enjoy Main Street U.S.A., and take it all in. This is your first time at Walt’s own park! Look for the lamp in Walt’s apartment above the fire station. Browse the shops on Main Street and take note of the magic shop that’s still a magic shop!
Whatever you do, grab a map or keep the Disneyland app handy, because once you hit the hub everything that’s so familiar will be vastly different! The first time in Disneyland I found myself hitting dead ends and walking in circles. Do yourself a favor and figure out where in the park that you’re going and how you can actually get there.
Now which ride to ride first? Well that’s up to you! Do you want to ride something familiar, but different, like It’s A Small World or Space Mountain? Do you want to let your kids pick and/or start a new tradition and pick a ride to start out with on each trip? Maybe revisit a lost favorite from Disney World’s past? Maybe there’s one ride that you’ve always heard about and just HAVE to get on? This is where you can make a little family magic!
A good thing about Disneyland? It’s mostly a locals park. The bad thing about Disneyland? It’s mostly a locals park. Both Disneyland and California Adventure parks are substantially busier in the evenings, on weekends, and during popular vacation times, as many guests can simply take a drive and spend an hour or two, or half a day in the park. The Disneyland parks are open early and stay open extremely late on a regular basis, helping to spread crowds out further, allowing guests to experience more attractions and ride more rides.
If you’re an east coaster, one of the best tips I can give is to get up “early” and take advantage of the morning magic hour. Most rides and attractions except for the most popular will be walk-ons, and stay that way for several hours. In my experience, even rides like Indiana Jones had 15-minute waits prior to 10am or so. Your other alternative is to return to the parks closer to closing. Disneyland regularly closes at midnight with the bulk of the crowds leaving after evening fireworks which occur around 8 or 9 nightly. If you have young kids, this may not be the ideal option, so getting up and out to a theme park in the morning might be the best option.
All that said: having personally experience Disneyland Park on Black Friday, which was a “10/10” day on Touring Plans, even those crowd levels and wait times are nothing like Walt Disney World experiences on one of its busier days. You’ll wait in lines and see crowds, but if you’re patient you’ll still be able to do practically everything you want to.
Even if you’re a Disney World veteran, each and every Disneyland and California Adventure attraction is well worth your time. After all… you didn’t go all the way to Anaheim for nothing! These are the rides that you want to ride first and as many times per day as you can.
Even classics like Peter Pan’s Flight have been “plussed” in different ways at Disneyland, leading to unique ride experiences that shouldn’t be missed. The same goes for Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, and even It’s a Small World. Don’t miss Big Thunder Mountain’s screen-mapped explosions, blast off with a much-smoother and extremely different Space Mountain, and explore the Jungle Cruise, which features different scenes and (in my opinion) much funnier skippers!
If the classic dark rides or the Matterhorn Bobsleds are on your list, try to get to them earlier in the day as they tend to go down for long periods of time by mid-afternoon and you’ll have to go back and try to ride later. Unlike at WDW, rides aren’t “shut down” in the app as quickly, nor are queues evacuated as fast, so you can be stuck in line without even knowing that the ride you’re waiting for is actually down.
Also, make time to do the entire train loop around the park. The track is much more highly-themed than at WDW and you won’t want to miss the “Grand Canyon” and “prehistoric world” dioramas! Pro tips: take a ride mid-day if you are not going to take a break at your resort. It is a nice calming ride that will get you off your feet for a while.
Over at California Adventure, there are multiple must do’s if you are visiting Disneyland for the first time. The Incredicoaster is awesome even if you don’t like looping coasters. This is the only one I’ll do! Even if you don’t like Tower of Terror, make sure to try Guardians of the Galaxy Mission Breakout at least once. I hate the “stomach drop” feeling but I was laughing so hard during Mission Breakout it didn’t even bother me!
Also at California Adventure, Cars Land is a must-visit, especially on your first time. Cars Land is where immersive lands started, and it’s done to a “t”! Radiator Springs Racers is one ride that is completely worth the wait, no matter how long the line is. Also, don’t miss Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree even if you hate Alien Swirling Saucers, even if you don’t, your kids will enjoy it. There’s something about the theming that makes the original a lot more enjoyable.
Rides/attractions you can skip
If you’re a Disney World regular there are five attractions you can skip without feeling bad, especially if you only have one day in each park and you are visiting Disneyland for the first time.
First up is Soarin’ (unless the classic California version is running) at Disney’s California Adventure. The entrance queue is chock full of aviation displays, but the ride is exactly the same and with one fewer theater the wait times are much longer than at Epcot.
The second ride you can skip is Star Tours at Disneyland. The one at Hollywood Studios was built as a clone of the one in Anaheim. Literally the only differences here are that the exit here dumps out to the left and there are two fewer “docking bays”.
The third and fourth rides are in Galaxy’s Edge. Really, if you’re pressed for time you can skip all of Galaxy’s Edge itself. Other than a couple cosmetic differences in paint jobs, both the east and west coast Star Wars lands are completely identical.
The fifth is over in Hollywood Land at DCA, and it’s Mickey’s Philharmagic. It’s the same show you can see at WDW only with clearer digital projections and no scent or water effects. This is a favorite of the kids, so you may have to venture into this experience.
Many of the popular attractions at both Disneyland and DCA feature single rider lines (utilizing single rider lines is one of the greatest tips I can give a solo traveler), but at Disneyland their locations aren’t clearly marked so I’ve included directions here:
Indiana Jones Adventure – ask a cast member at the ride entrance. Single rider isn’t always operational here. If it is you’ll be given a paper pass and told to enter via the exit.
Matterhorn Bobsleds– look for the “single rider” entrance signs in front of each queue.
Millennium Falcon Smugglers Run – look for the “single rider” entrance sign outside the queue.
Space Mountain – Go to the back of the exit area where the ride photos are posted and hang a left. Look for the “single rider entrance” sign and follow the corridor.
Splash Mountain – ask a cast member at the ride entrance.
Star Tours – see a cast member outside the ride entrance to receive a “single rider” pass and be shown into a side door.
Goofy’s Sky School – look for the “single rider” entrance sign outside the queue.
Grizzly River Run – look for the “single rider” entrance sign outside the queue.
Incredicoaster – look for the “single rider” entrance sign outside the queue.
Radiator Springs Racers – look for the “single rider” entrance sign outside the queue.
Soarin – look for the “single rider” entrance sign outside the queue.
If you’re a foodie like me, half the fun of planning a Disneyland trip is getting to try out an incredible new set of restaurants!
Advanced Dining Reservations
At the Disneyland Resort, advanced dining reservations are on a 60-day window. Pro tips: for many restaurants, you can find next-day or day-of reservations if you’re diligent about checking early. No dining plan is available here but your Disney Visa or DVC membership will get you discounts at most sit-downs.
Experience the Classics
At Disneyland, the classics are classics for a reason. Get the beignets and mint julep from the Mint Julep Bar (pro tips: make sure to mobile order to avoid the long waits). Book the Blue Bayou and enjoy the atmosphere while nibbling on a monte cristo. Oh and the churros? They’re not only edible here but they’re downright delicious!
If your family enjoys character dining, then it’s available at the Plaza Inn at Disneyland and at each of the Disney-owned resorts. Most character meals here are breakfast-only since they’re geared toward the out-of-town tourists.
If your budget allows, I highly recommend booking at least one “signature”-level restaurant, namely Napa Rose at the Grand Californian or Carthay Circle at DCA. Carthay Circle is especially cool since it’s themed after the theater that Snow White premiered at and features loads of memorabilia and hidden Mickeys everywhere. These are not really for the kids, so plan accordingly. If you can only get one of these, that’s ok, just make sure you get a reservation for the other one next time you are at the park.
There you have it folks, a comprehensive guide of information, tips and tricks for those Walt Disney World veterans that are looking to visit Disneyland for the first time. So, whether you are taking an adults only trip, or taking the kids with you, visiting Disneyland is something that all WDW fans should do at least once in their life. Walk where Walt walked, take that leisurely stroll down Main Street and soak in the fantasy that Walt brought to life and that we all adore. All I can say now is, “We’ll see ya real soon”.
If you liked this article on Disneyland for first time guests, you will not want to miss our “First Trip to Disney World: What You Need to Know” article. Also, don’t forget to follow us on Social Media and be sure to check out all of the podcasts on the Capture the Magic Podcast Network.