This is by no means a comprehensive travel guide to Disneyland, but it is a collection of our best Disneyland tips for Walt Disney World vets!
The big thing to know is that the “resort” (i.e., the two parks and Downtown Disney) is very compact and walkable. Unlike at Walt Disney World, you don’t have to take transportation everywhere—you can walk it! Disneyland itself is about 30% smaller than the Magic Kingdom, so it may feel a bit crowded to you. But before you write it off for not being as majestic as the Magic Kingdom, remember that Walt Disney actually walked in Disneyland, and you can see his personal touch in dozens of ways that are not evident in the Florida parks.
We have New Orleans Square instead of Liberty Square, and it is BEAUTIFUL! If you can afford it, it’s really nice to have a meal at the Blue Bayou Restaurant, which is inside Pirates of the Caribbean. Entrees cost $20–$40, and the food quality is on par with, say, Le Cellier. Most of the time… But it’s definitely not California Grill caliber. Make a reservation for 11:30am when they open, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a table by the water.
You will need a “priority seating” reservation (our version of Disney World’s “advance dining reservations”), but you can probably wait to make one until a few weeks beforehand. The farthest out you can book is 60 days. The number is 714-781-3463, or book online.
A less expensive alternative to the Blue Bayou is Cafe Orleans, if you want table service. You can split one of the world-famous Monte Cristo sandwiches for much less money and have a lovely view of the Rivers of America. They also have some pretty awesome garlic fries!
For counter service, Rancho del Zocalo has the best atmosphere, but the food isn’t that authentic or great. I don’t think any of our counter service food is very good, except Jolly Holiday Bakery on Main Street and maybe the corn dog wagon. But apparently many Walt Disney World vets find the variety of Disneyland’s counter service food a welcome relief from the homogeneity of the Magic Kingdom’s offerings.
California Adventure Dining
Carthay Circle Restaurant got off to a shaky start but has settled into general excellence. The service is still not as polished as it should be at this price point, but the food definitely is. The menu is quite ambitious for a theme park restaurant, so if you prefer the tame variations on beef, chicken and fish found on every Walt Disney World menu, you may not find much to your liking at Carthay Circle. The restaurant participates in the World of Color reserved-viewing program, so if you order off a special prix fixe menu you’ll get a FASTPASS to the round, central viewing area for the show.
The Grand Californian’s Napa Rose, which is virtually inside the park, continually ranks among the top restaurants in Orange County. Entrees cost the same as or a few dollars more than those at the Blue Bayou, but the food is WAY better, and it’s easier to get a reservation. Napa Rose also has a more traditional menu, so it might be a better route for groups that include picky eaters along with the foodies. We eat here for my birthday almost every year, so here’s a hot tip: If you’re angling for a free birthday dessert, be sure you don’t get the server who goes by the name “Saucy”—he’s stiffed us every time!
We have been pretty underwhelmed by California Adventure’s counter service. Although I’ve never found the food anything to write home about, Boardwalk Pizza and Pasta and Flo’s V-8 Cafe get a lot of love online, so you might give them a shot. My only favorite counter-service place in the park is the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain. There’s nothing better than sipping on an ice-cold peanut-butter-chocolate shake in line for Radiator Springs Racers!
Disneyland has introduced MAXPASS, a watered-down version of Walt Disney World’s MyMagic+. I have a detailed report on it HERE. There are no wristbands and you don’t have to be staying at a Disney resort. Basically, it’s just a way to collect FastPasses via your phone instead of running all over the park like a maniac trying to collect them. Also, you get unlimited PhotoPass downloads. Right now it costs $15 per person per day (or $100/annual passholder per year), and you need to have the Disneyland app on your phone. Here’s a good introduction to the concept.
The best thing to do during high season is get to the park about 30 minutes before it opens and then, when you get in, use the app to grab a FASTPASS for something as you head to your first ride. The app will tell you when you are allowed to collect another FASTPASS, and sometimes it may be less than an hour later. If you stay on top of these eligibility windows, you can collect multiple FASTPASSes in a very short time. Disneyland does enforce the one-hour return window, although there is usually a 5- or 10-minute grace period on the end of the return window.
Right now, Disneyland’s WiFi is only available in a few places (see below) and the cellular networks get bogged down at popular times, resulting in dropped connections. Be sure to take a screenshot of every person’s FASTPASS in case you aren’t able to access them via the app when you need them. The FASTPASS is automatically added to your ticket/annual pass, so you’ll still be able to ride, but without the screenshot you may not remember your return time.
Another note about opening: On days when Disneyland doesn’t open one hour early for Magic Morning (usually Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday), guests are allowed to enter 30 minutes early and congregate around the rope at the far end of Main Street, U.S.A. until the park officially opens and the rope is dropped. The shops and the bakery are open, so it’s a good time to grab breakfast without cutting into your touring time.
Of the most popular rides, it’s a good idea to do the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan early in the morning because they don’t have FASTPASS. Over at California Adventure, Radiator Springs Racers and Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout FASTPASSES are still selling out, so grab some of those first thing.
Single-rider lines (or back entrances) are a great way to cut waits, and your party should finish the ride around the same time even if you’re not all in the same car. At Disneyland, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, Matterhorn Bobsleds and Splash Mountain have single-rider access. At California Adventure, it’s California Screamin’, Soarin’ Over California, Grizzly River Run, Goofy’s Sky School and Radiator Springs Racers.
Rides that are better in Disneyland (or nonexistent in Florida): Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, Storybookland, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, and the Columbia Sailing Ship.
Haunted Mansion is different in fun ways, but you may prefer the Magic Kingdom’s more recently refurbished version. Winnie the Pooh is pretty disappointing in Disneyland. Don’t waste your time, unless you want to see the hidden trophy heads of Max the buck, Buff the buffalo and Melvin the moose—all that remains of the Country Bears attraction Pooh replaced. (Look up and behind you as you leave the Heffalump/Woozle room.) Buzz Lightyear is also not as good here.
The Disneyland fireworks shows are fantastic. They also change depending on the season. Our Fantasmic! is considered superior because it takes place right on the Rivers of America and involves the Columbia and the riverboat. If you go to the 10:30pm show instead of the 9pm one, you can show up right at 9:20 or 9:30 as people leave the first show and get a good spot without waiting for 3 hours. And don’t bother with Disneyland’s Fantasmic! dessert party—you still have to wait in line for an hour if you want one of the few decent seats, plus the desserts are pretty lackluster.
For information on World of Color, click HERE.
If you get sleepy in the afternoon and don’t have a hotel nearby, you can nap on the train or on the comfy sofas in the Grand Californian’s lobby. The hotel is located inside California Adventure, so if you have a park hopper, leave Disneyland, enter California Adventure, and then head to the right toward Condor Flats. Follow the path around and you’ll see the entrance to the Grand Californian. Alternatively, you can enter through Downtown Disney.