It’s no secret that Simon is a huge fan of Disney. I was dubious about visiting as an adult, but he converted me with trips to Disney in Florida, Paris and Japan. Disney is an escape for us, a world where life has a soundtrack, everyone is happy, and fun is effortless. While we were in San Diego there’s no way Simon was going to miss the opportunity to visit a new (to us) Disney park in Los Angeles.
Disneyland in California is the original Disney park, built in 1955. In 2001 they added another park next door, Disney California Adventure. We only had one day to visit and most people advise focusing on just one park—usually the classic Disneyland—but we decided to squeeze them both in.
If you have two days your visit will be less rushed and you’ll have more time to savour the Disney magic and revisit your favourite rides. But if you only have one day, visiting both parks is possible with a Parkhopper ticket. To make the most of your time here are a few tips:
- Visit mid-week in off-season to avoid long queues. We visited on a Tuesday at the end of October when the parks were open from 10am to 8pm (a quiet day) and didn’t queue for more than 20 minutes all day. Check the Disneyland opening hours—days with shorter opening hours are when Disney predicts less crowds. The Undercover Tourist recommends the best and worst times of year to visit.
- Arrive at least an hour before the parks open to get parked (you may need to take a shuttle from the car park), buy your tickets, and be ready queuing at the gate. The morning is quietest and the best time for popular rides.
- Get each person in your group to pick a few must-do rides and focus on those first.
- Start in Disneyland and visit California Adventure in the afternoon. Our friends who stayed in Disneyland said the park felt crowded and full of exhausted, crying kids in the afternoon—we didn’t see any of that in California Adventure which has more adult-orientated rides.
- Use a FastPass for the busiest rides. These are free tickets that give you an allocated time to return and skip the main line. You are only allowed one pass at a time, but you can get a new one as soon as your time window starts. So, if your FastPass for one ride says 2-3pm, at 2pm pick up another FastPass before you go on the ride. FastPasses can run out in the afternoon, as they did for our visit to California Adventure.
- Consider the single rider line. When FastPasses ran out we were able to skip huge queues by using the single rider line. Although we couldn’t sit next to each other we always rode in the same car.
- Download the Disneyland app so you can check queue times and decide which ride to do next.
Disneyland and California Adventure One Day Itinerary
Disneyland is the original park, a magical fantasy world where you’ll find characters like Mickey Mouse. It’s similar to Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Florida with a few different rides.
Our first stop was Space Mountain. There’s no better way to start the day than on this high-speed roller coaster that twists and turns in the dark. It’s the most thrilling ride at Disneyland.
Our goal was to ride all four mountain rides (Space, Thunder, Splash, Matterhorn) and although Matterhorn isn’t the best of the roller coasters—it felt a little dated and jolty—the queue was short so it was worth jumping on as we walked over to the other side of the park.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
By the time we got off queues were longer so we picked up a FastPass for Indiana Jones.
We were visiting a few days before Halloween so Haunted Mansion, which gets a Halloween makeover with characters from The Nightmare Before Christmas, was unsurprisingly popular. This was probably our longest queue, but it was only 20 minutes and there’s lots to entertain you while you wait.
Tom Sawyer Island (12.30pm)
Pirates of the Caribbean
A long, gentle boat ride through the world of pirates. The song is catchy, the details incredible, and you’ll notice something new each time you ride.
Our Indiana Jones FastPass window had started so we picked up a new FastPass for Splash Mountain before riding.
Indiana Jones Adventure (2pm)
We used our first FastPass of the day for Indiana Jones, a fast ride through a cursed temple facing dangers like a giant boulder rolling straight towards us.
Enchanted Tiki Room
We had a while before our Splash Mountain FastPass time and were feeling a little tired so took a break in the nearby Tiki Room. This musical show featuring animatronic birds isn’t a must-see but it’s quirky and very Disney. Or just a good place for a rest.
We used a FastPass for our favourite Disney ride. The log flume ride starts out slow with a gentle trip through the bayou with Br’er Rabbit and many other animatronic animals with some catchy Disney songs. It ends with a big drop down a waterfall, and if you’re sitting near the front like I was, you’ll get soaked. Pure Disney fun.
Disney California Adventure 3.30pm-6.30pm
Although there was still plenty we could have done in Disneyland, we had ridden everything on our list, so it was time to head over to California Adventure. The entrances are just opposite each other so it’s easy to go from one to the other.
California Adventure is the newer park that celebrates the history and culture of the state with themed worlds like Cars Land, Paradise Pier, and Hollywood Land. The worlds are detailed and immersive with some excellent vintage architecture. The rides are more teenager and adult orientated, and you can even buy beer.
Grizzly River Run
For pure thrills, California Screamin’ is the best ride at either of the parks. It’s a classic high-speed roller coaster with plunges and twists and an upside down loop.
Queues were long and FastPasses were sold out, so we saved some time with the single rider line. Afterwards we treated ourselves to some delicious Ghirardelli ice cream.
Radiator Springs Racers
Located in Cars Land this is one of the most popular rides. The queue was 60 minutes and FastPasses had run out, so we joined the single rider line. This worked really well and we only waited two minutes and were in the same car (just not next to each other).
The ride is an outdoor car race through an impressive red-rock desert landscape with characters from the movie Cars.
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
A haunted elevator ride in the Hollywood Tower Hotel. The attention to detail in the abandoned hotel is superb, and the anticipation as you rise up in the elevator before a sudden plummet makes it one of Disney’s best rides.
Soarin’ Over California
You feel like you are flying over California on this hand gliding ride with stunning scenes of San Francisco, Yosemite, Napa Valley, Lake Tahoe and more. You can even smell the pine trees and orange groves. The perfect way to end our day, and our California trip.
Our visit to California Adventure was definitely rushed and we would have loved a full day to explore, but we had a fantastic afternoon there and are glad we went.
If you have the time and money it’s well worth spending two days at the parks. There are many rides to keep you busy and we love just wandering and soaking up the Disney magic and the excellent attention to detail. But if you only have one day this itinerary offers plenty of Disney fun.
Where to Stay at Disneyland
We visited from San Diego, but it’s best to stay close by if you can. If you stay in one of the onsite Disneyland hotels you’ll benefit from Extra Magic Hours on certain days and be able to enter the park one hour earlier than everyone else. The downside is they are much more expensive than off-site hotels.
There are plenty of more affordable hotels within a short walking distance of Disneyland (some are even closer than the onsite hotels) such as Anaheim Desert Inn & Suites, Best Western Plus Anaheim Inn, and Anaheim Hotel.
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Thanks to Disneyland who provided us with complimentary tickets.
Photo credit: The castle and Big Thunder Mountain photos are by Tom Krones.
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