Back in 2017 we were craving some California vibes and decided that a Pacific Coast Highway road trip was in order - we made plans to make our way up to San Fran by way of LA. We planned out our days visiting coastal cities, wineries in Central Cali, and the beauty of the Bay Area (more on all that later). But we also knew that with our proximity to Disneyland with two young kids, who were part of four of the biggest Disney fans, we had to make a stop!
And we're so glad we did! Brows might be raised as to why we'd go all the way out there, when we have everything that Walt Disney World has to offer right in our backyard (and quite literally at our disposal). But one is not like the other; the experience between the original and the remix are completely different. And in many ways, we actually ended up liking Disneyland better!
We didn't cease to tell anyone that asked, or maybe questioned our trip, about what an amazing experience it was to see the park that Walt himself designed. And we got local Californians who couldn't agree more. But for someone who hasn't been, here are the reasons why if you're even a bit of a Disney fan, you should stop to see where all the magic started!
1. The resort feels exclusive. Yes, much like Walt Disney World, once you enter Disneyland California you feel like you're in a world all their own. But much different than Walt Disney World, if you're staying on property, you can leave your car and not need it again until you pack up to leave!
Walt Disney World has miles upon miles of roads that make this megastructure amazing to visit - there's another spot to see at every turn! Disneyland is situated within Anaheim city limits, but once you get on property, the real world gets left behind. For Orlando locals, or those familiar with the spot, the best comparison is to that of Universal Orlando Resort. All hotels and activities are within walking distance of each other and if you're staying on-site, you don't need to hit a major road way to get anywhere you need to go. You know it is situated in the middle of the real world, but from where you are, nothing else seems to exist. And quite honestly, it has a very similar layout to Universal Orlando that it made us feel a little at home.
For our trip, we opted to stay at one of the three Disney branded properties, Paradise Pier, which was about a 10 minute walk to Downtown Disney District. Upon arrival, we parked our car, checked in, and made our way towards all the action! Our walk took us past the classic Disneyland Hotel, which brings you glimpses of what this place used to be in all its original glory. Once you get through security, you're where all the magic happens! A movie theater welcomes you to the District, and is surrounded by plenty of other stops including The LEGO store, Splitsville and The VOID. There's a huge selection of restaurants, with all types of cuisines and plenty of outdoor seating to enjoy perfect Southern California nights. The flagship World of Disney store leads you directly to the Esplanade between the two parks.
If you're looking to stay in the middle of it all, we recommend Disney Grand Californian as it is situated above the retail locations of Downtown Disney. Bonus, also has its own exclusive entrance to Disney's California Adventure - so you could quite literally leave your hotel and be right in the park!
2. Small but fierce. Disneyland is smaller - much smaller. But it was a big part of why we liked it so much!
If you hadn't heard it before, the whole Disneyland park has been said to fit in Magic Kingdom's parking lot. It seems like a discouraging fact when you hear it, but haven’t seen it to believe it. But once you're there, that fun fact hardly seems true - the intimacy is a welcoming feature of the park!
We know the effort it takes to see the Walt Disney World parks, and as we were trying to cram two whole parks in only two days, we started doubting how much we could do without completely wearing the kids (or ourselves) out. Especially since this was the first leg of our 10-day road trip!
Our doubts carried no weight - the size of the parks actually made the trip! We loved the fact that with two young kids, compact parks meant manageable while still feeling completely immersive! I love to rave about how while we waited to ride Alice in Wonderland, we stood in an open air queue right next to the route for the Main Street Electrical Parade as it rolled by. Where at Walt Disney World can you do that?! We kept them distracted and entertained all while best utilizing our time there!
This park was definitely proof that less is sometimes more!
3. Size doesn't matter! Because even though it is smaller, there's actually more to do per park!
Yes, you read that right. There’s more to do at the Disneyland parks than those at Walt Disney World. But now if you're adding up everything all 4 parks have vs their 2, that's not going to equate. But when we were looking at the map of Disneyland, we counted at least a handful or more attractions than at Magic Kingdom. You know, the park that is said to fit in the other’s lot.
The same went for California Adventure - compared to any of the other parks here, it had more to do by square foot. Which in turn made it feel like our stay there was worth every penny since we were going to accomplish just as much in two days than we would in the same time here. .
But if this alone isn't reason for you to go visit, I don't know what is. That you can go visit another park and actually see a few things slightly different than we can, is actually really cool.
4. Come see the classic rides! We love that Walt Disney World gets an update and something fresh pops up to keep guests coming for more. But there's something special about seeing what Walt built and the nostalgia that comes with it.
Upon entering Disneyland, after walking down a 3/4 scale Main Street and passing through the gates of Sleeping Beauty's castle, you'll find King Arthur Carousel as the centerpiece of Fantasyland, much like at Magic Kingdom. But surrounding it, you'll find Snow White's Scary Adventures (remember the scary witch at the end - yes, they have her there too!) and Pinocchio's Daring Journey (we were a little jealous we never had this) on one side; Peter Pan's Flight and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride on the other. Mr Toad's, guys! How much do you miss that?! Right next to Dumbo the Flying Elephant, you could ride a car in Casey Jr. Circus Train, which couldn't have made my little guy's heart sing anymore with his then train obsession! My princess fell in love with the Storybook Land Boats and loved to shout about which princess lived every different themed land we sailed by. There was just something special about riding these very simple yet, timeless rides - it made you very much in awe the innovative mind of those that opened this over 60 years ago!
The Mad Tea Party is an open air attraction, which is hands down much better to experience with the lanterns lighting up the cool California night. And to top it off, "it's a small world" is by far the most beautiful facade you will see - glimmering in white and gold as you wait in sunshine to board the boat. The ride itself has an adorable touch of Disney characters hidden in each land each is respectively from, making the ride that much more adorable to enjoy as we looked for them with the kids!
Remember the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarines? They still have them here, except now they've been rethemed to Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. I couldn't tell you my excitement to step back down on that sub and bring my kids along - it felt like I was their age all over again! On top of that, the "race cars" of Autopia are absolutely worth the wait to ride - because you know you'll want to get a picture with one in all its cartoon cuteness.
Then head over to New Orleans Square for Pirates of the Caribbean, where you get quite a lengthy boat ride as you sail from the depths of the Louisiana bayou to the Gulf sea. You pass right by the famous Blue Bayou Restaurant and envy the diners who nabbed a spot. Early reservations, every bit of the 60 days before, is absolutely true - trust us, we learned the hard way!
Seeing all the originals and imagining that these came at a time when nothing like this existed is amazing. It makes your truly appreciate how genius Walt and his time were for bringing this and so much more to life!
5. New thrills! Want something a little more updated? They have LOADS of it too! Head to Disney California Adventure for not only more updated rides, but also new experiences compared to what Orlando has to offer!
Their Tower of Terror has been rethemed to Guardians of the Galaxy - Mission: BREAKOUT! which is quite honestly a total upgrade to make it a lot more entertaining. Cars Land takes you straight to Radiator Springs, where you can find Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters, and the main attraction, Radiator Springs Racers, which is absolutely amazing! Further into the park you'll find the Pixar Pier, which houses the iconic Ferris wheel that California Adventure is known for, as well as Incredicoaster (a pretty intense ride for those coaster lovers)! Our little ones also LOVED It's a Bug's Land, though it has since closed down. The area had a huge selection of rides for tots & allowed them to feel as small as a bug with their bigger than life surroundings.
In Disneyland you can find updated attractions of the past, like that of Mickey's Towntoon. It is set in an adorable little town, complete with streets, trolley cars, and each character's unique home - including Mickey's house, Minnie's House, Chip and Dale's Treehouse, Donald's Boat, and Goofy's Playhouse. The space is also shared by Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin and Gadget's Go Coaster - a perfect little wonderland for the littlest of kids, tucked in the back of the park!
6. Weather's great. You CAN NOT beat Southern California's weather. We woke up to slightly cool days, covered in haze. But as the sun broke through it warmed up and we had nothing but golden sun & bright blue skies. We fully took advantage of this gorgeous, predictable (which we don't have at home) weather and made the most of every minute in the parks.
Did we mention that at the end of June the temperature was in the 70s for the high? Yeah, it was that perfect!
The weather's so great, "it's a small world" made a point to call it out on the ride!
7. The added benefits made the parks even easier to see. We'll be the first to admit, we came into this in full tourist let's-try-to-get-as-much-done-as-possible mode. But there was no need to!
For starters, the park doesn't run at nearly the capacity our parks fo. We never at any point felt like we were caught in the masses or disappointed by wait times - and we came during their peak season. Yes it was busy, but never insane!
We took advantage of the perks of staying on-site and utilized Extra Magic Hours to beat the crowds. Staying at Paradise Pier, we booked a Club Level room (which we HIGHLY recommend) for all the added benefits!, We were given some appropriately themed Mickey sweets in our room at arrival which was great after a long day of travel. Club Level provides you with a lounge which includes snacks and appetizers, along with beverages and a daily beer and wine hour for the length of your stay! There was also a concierge available at all lounge hours to help plan your day!
So we'd get up, have a quick continental breakfast, load up on snacks (they had cereal, individual bags of chips, fruit, and soda available to take at your discretion), and then head to the park for opening at 8am. We'd ride line free attractions for the first couple hours of the park being open, and the extra hours allowed us to do all the major rides before wait times set in. Then we started pulling FastPasses.
The FastPass system there is not like our mobile one here - you're not initially limited on FastPass pulls, just timing of them. So, for example, if I grab a pass at 955am valid for use between 10am - 11am, I can walk over to another attraction at 10am and pull another FastPass - even if I didn't use the first one. That means if the next FastPass is time stamped with a soon forthcoming time, I can pull another and then use all three back to back. This was great as it gave us some set plans and then also allowed us to wait in some short lines, all before our passes expired. It also gave us an advantage to get on the more popular rides, since we don’t have a cap on passes we just had to wait an allotted time before pulling the next!
And now they have the purchase option of MaxPass, which allows you to have full access to passes on your phone once entering the park. So if you’re a planner and want the convenience of mobile selection, it’s definitely worth the minimal upgrade fee!
Using FastPasses, we found that by lunch time we had completed most of each park, and with that we'd go back to the hotel for a mid-day siesta. We got to enjoy the hotel's pool and water slides, take a quick nap, and then head back down to the Club Lounge for an evening bite and drinks, before heading back to close down the park. Both kids ran hard during the day, but doing this, both kids also lasted way past the stroke of midnight. We couldn't recommend staying on-site more for all the benefits it offers - for everyone!
8. Book a dining experience in advance. Our carefree approach also allowed us to take in some extra special character dining. On our first day we had booked a princess character dining, which at the time was offered at Pacific Wharf. We enjoyed a prie fixe meal and met with 5 princesses, including Ariel who met us at the entry. We used their PhotoPass benefits to get pictures of our lunch and were never at any point rushed to finish. We sat outside in that perfect California weather, overlooking Pixar Pier and Paradise Gardens Park, and watched their eyes light up every time a new princess (or a plate of food) came to them.
Each princess took her time when speaking to our kids and gave them each special attention and we couldn't be more grateful for them allowing to soak in that moment. For two that get to see this all the time at home, I thought it'd lose a little bit of it's wonder. But it didn't it all. We also made it a special point to bring a Princess Story Book that our daughter loved, to have each princess sign the chapter about them; now when we read it at home, it’s also full of fond memories of our time in California.
For our second day, we had attempted to make dinner reservations at Blue Bayou, because it came highly recommended and after seeing it and its menu in person, we knew we had to try. No such luck - this is why we recommend booking dining in advance ( reservations open up 60 days prior to travel at Disneyland)!
We instead ate at Cafe Orleans and every bit enjoyed the Cajun style food, the live music, people watching and those beignets! Makes me drool just looking at them!
9. This is Walt's kingdom. You can feel his timeless presence in the Disneyland park, like Walt still has his hand on it. We met employees who were there from the beginning and still spoke about him with a smile on their face. For the reputation that those in the great Los Angeles region get, the people we met here were genuine, warm and full of love.
Characters walked around without handlers in sight; and really interacted with those that came to visit. The park was kept up to very pristine standards. There was a general light hearted vibe in the air - no rush to fit this all in your family vacation, just be present. It was truly amazing to have a vacation that felt like one and immerse ourselves in every experience with our kids.
People would find out we were form Orlando and envy the fact that we get to go to the World. But we in turn envy that this park was theirs - such a simpler way to live and with a pureness you could feel from its creation.
10. Roadtrip! You're in the perfect part of the country to load up the car and watch the terrain change! How could you not want to come visit Disneyland and then let the compass guide you as part of a bigger trip? In our case, we headed north after our two & 1/2 perfectly magical days at Disneyland - and made another week’s worth of amazing memories.
It was definitely the way to set off an incredible trip and if you have the opportunity to go visit, we urge you to do so! It's worth every penny spent and second of your time. Then if you’re longing for more real world adventure, load up the car and see all the PCH has to offer. This has been one of our families best and most memorable trips to date - and we’d do it all over again!