When I was little I was fascinated with all that was Disneyland. I had a clandestine VHS copy of the TV special that was Walt Disney World's 15th Anniversary celebration. I must have watched it a million times because even now, deep within the recesses of my mind, I still know all the words (seriously check out this clip of Dolly Parton).
It only took me 25 more years to get there! I first visited in 2012, just my partner and I on our first holiday together. I can tell you that even if you're going just as adults Disneyland seriously is the most magical place on earth. In 2015 we visited again, this time with a then 11 and 8 year old in tow.
The best way to enjoy Disney is to give in to the machine. Buy the Minnie ears, wear the Mickey T-shirts, collect the limited edition
pins and go in search of hidden Mickeys. Yes it's busy, yes it's not cheap - but there is nothing else like it and you are building memories to last a lifetime.
We stayed for 8 nights at Disney's Grand Californian and took in almost everything Disney had to offer. Here's my tips when planning your stay (hold tight this is a long one).
Disney's Grand Californian Hotel and Resort
We stayed at Disney's Grand Californian Resort which adjoins Disney California Adventure Park and has it's own private entry. As guests of the Resort we could enter during 'Magic Hour,' an hour before it opened to the public allowing us to quickly grab our 'fast passes' and get in a few goes on the popular Cars ride before the lines started. I hear you can get your fast passes via an app now but we did it old school and ran around getting tickets.
We purchased a five day 'Park Hopper' pass into both parks (Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park - see below) which allowed us to come and go from each park throughout the day. You can get the 'magic hour' even if you aren't staying at Disney with a 3 or 5 day hopper. The beauty of staying at Disney is that we could pop back to the hotel for a nap, swim, refresh in the heat of the day and then head back in for the afternoon and evening without the kids (ahem... or me) moaning about sore feet.
In terms of facilities for kids - this is the place - movie nights, scavenger hunts, bunk beds, sitting services, laundry facilities - they have it all. If you want a cheap place to stay then the Grand Californian won't be for you. For us it was worth EVERY CENT in value. We had views of the fireworks every night from our room. The room was beautiful and the 'cast members' (staff) treated the kids like royalty. They addressed them as 'Sir' and 'Mam,' spoke directly with them, and around the pool they checked in with them to see if they wanted more beverages or snacks, made sure they had towels and generally just made them feel like special little people! See my Tripadvisor review of Disney's Grand Californian Resort here.
A lot of people planning their trip to Disney ask me whether it is worth getting passes to both parks. Yes. Disneyland is the original. It is where Walt orchestrated every last inch. It is the only park he was alive to see completed. Once entering the gates you walk under a concourse and come up into the main promenade that is 1950s Main Street USA. If you are somewhat an old soul like me - you will walk up Main Street towards that iconic castle, with the steam train at your rear and get goosebumps at the marvellous-ness of it all.
If you only have one day in the park my hot tips would be:
Wear comfy shoes! I can not stress this enough.
Get there early before the crowds - it is magical being there when it feels like you have the place to yourself.
Try not to be too set on one individual ride must see - quite often different rides are closed for maintenance - it's important that everyone stays safe and Disneyland hardly ever closes (only in severe storms) so they have to do maintenance some time right?
If you only have one day do Disneyland in the morning, pop over the California Adventure Park for the afternoon but come back to Disneyland for the fireworks and parade at night. The fireworks are unlike any you will have seen anywhere else. Shooting up over the Sleeping Beauty Castle timed beautifully with classic Disney songs in the background - it actually moved me to tears. If you have two evenings available see the World of Color at DCA on the second night which is also amazing!
On that - if you are in the parks in the evenings and your little ones are stroller age - get a stroller - it's very busy and makes the crowds less intimidating. You can rent a stroller from Park Services near the entry, courtesy of Huggies.
In terms of rides it depends on the age of your kids as to what they will love best - but my recommendations are Splash Mountain, the Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain and the King Arthur Carousel. The Carousel is stunning, made in 1922 and Walt purchased it because it reminded him of one he took his young daughters on. If you have kids try and get to the Jedi Training Academy show in Tomorrowland - I won't spoil it but the kids get to be part of the action.
Don't miss doing the train ride around the outside of the park - it's a good one to do when you need to sit down for a second. The commentary gives a great history of the Park and helps orientate you. It is a real working Steam Engine, of which there are very few around in such beautiful condition. If you do enjoy a little history check out 'Great Moments with Mr Lincoln' which was made for the New York World's Fair and moulded from Lincoln's actual 1860 'life mask' so extremely lifelike.
Disney's California Adventure Park
California Adventure Park (DCA) is directly opposite Disneyland (no roads) and was opened in 2001. The site was purchased by Walt in the 50s but was used as the parking lot for over 40 years. DCA celebrates more recent Disney triumphs including Pixar and Marvel. The rides here are a tad faster and more appealing to the bigger kids. Having said that there are still plenty of things for young and old.
For DCA you really want to maximise your use of the Fast Passes - these minimise your waiting around in line. Highlights were Radiator Springs and the Cars ride, the Hollywood Tower of Terror (which is now Guardians of the Galaxy) and Screaming California (not for me - but John and the kids loved it) which is also now closed.
DCA is undergoing some major refurbishment and improvements with a new 'Pixar Pier' replacing the old Paradise Pier and due to open in June this year and including an 'incredi-coaster' from the Incredibles.
Food in both parks were pretty good. We loved the wedges of watermelon and pineapple served from ice box stalls. There were plenty of apples and bananas for the kids too. You can dine cheerfully or seriously and we had no complaints about the quality in either. Not cheap, but where in the world do you go to a major tourist attraction expecting cheap food? I've seen a lot of complaints about the sugar and fried food abundance. To be honest I found Disney one of the best places in the US to be able to find healthy options (just hold the ranch and cheddar though please!). But you're on holiday - let the kids go crazy for a bit, it's Disneyland for heavens sake.
When they opened DCA in 2001 they also opened a new shopping and dining precinct linking the hotels, parking lots and the parks - Downtown Disney. It's outside of the parks but still has that wonderful 'happiest place on earth' vibe going on.
This is where we purchased a lot of our souvenirs - there's a Lego store, Ridemakers, Sephora, art stores, clothing stores and a range of restaurants and cafes. We often ventured down for a little shopping and breakfast before the parks opened in the morning. We also loved ESPN zone for some relaxing family food and games. We even took in a movie at the cinema one afternoon. I remember it very clearly - Hotel Transylvania 2 - we adults were so tired from all the fun and frivolity that we had a nap. Another highlight was our dinner at Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen - jambalaya, jerk chicken and great live music, what could be better.
Mickeys's Halloween Party
We visited in September and being Australians it was an added bonus that Disneyland park was fully decked out with Halloween AND 60th Birthday celebration decorations. This included a 'Nightmare before Christmas' takeover of the classic Haunted Mansion which was an absolute favourite for my stepson then 8.
We also purchased separate tickets to Mickey's Halloween Party. These are special evenings in Disneyland where the park transforms - the day guests leave and evening guest arrive in their Halloween costumes to go 'trick or treating' through the park. Seriously if you are an Aussie and want to give your kids the American Halloween experience it is a must. We got into the spirit, got into our costumes and had fun trying fun size chocolates of all the US brands (way way too much of it). There was a special night parade and live shows all around the park.
Our next visit...
We are saving for a return visit when Remy is old enough to enjoy the rides and for the 70th Anniversary in 2025 (although if he keeps growing at this rate he will meet the height requirements by age 4...). If by some chance we win the lottery we will be back at the first opportunity.
For our next visit I can't wait to see how the new Guardians of the Galaxy ride at DCA compares with the Hollywood Tower of Terror that was replaced and opened late last year. Although I've read many protests in the lead up to the unveiling of Guardians, since it's opening I've only seen rave reviews. We also missed out on the new Frozen Stage show and the Animation Academy which I'd love to see. Who knows - by 2025 the new Star Wars Land may be finished too!
I'm also keen to explore a little more of the Anaheim area. Now I'm a tad more familiar with the area I'm kicking myself that we missed the House of Blues at Anaheim GardenWalk - which is an outdoor dining, entertainment and shopping precinct. We'll also check out the Anaheim Packing District for some awesome food too.
Back to my early 90s childhood dreaming. I'd LOVE to see the Anaheim Ducks play at the Honda Center – there’s a great array of concerts that take place there too so I'll be a little more on the ball (or puck perhaps) next time.
DO it, you wont regret it.
I know that 8 nights seems indulgent - and it was - this was the trip we were having instead of a big wedding so we made it memorable and tried not to think about the cost once it was spent. If you can spare the extra time it's worth it.
We didn't spend all day every day at the parks - we ventured into Hollywood, went to Universal, even did a day trip to San Diego in those 8 days - but Disney was our base and for that reason I think we had a more relaxing stay than many other family's travelling with kids do. We didn't have to squeeze everything into a day or two when everyone was hot, tired and cranky. We were able to spend some time lazing by the pool, watching movies and shopping which meant that everyone was a little more relaxed and made our stay absolutely memorable.
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