Nothing matches the magic of a Disney experience and Disney’s oldest theme park is no exception. At 52-years-old, Disneyland is better than ever and the crowds present on an average day prove that point.
Though the Anaheim, California’s Disneyland complex is much smaller than mega-resort Walt Disney World in Orlando, it can be equally as enjoyable…or even more so for those who enjoy things done on a smaller scale. Families sometimes feel overwhelmed in sprawling Disney World, but the Disneyland complex seems more manageable for some.
That said, there’s still much to see and do in sunny Southern California’s Disney theme park and it will take at least 3 to 4 days to see it all and do it right. So, even though it’s compact, be sure to allow enough time to explore both sections – Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure.
Visiting Disneyland Park
The original Disney theme park, first opened in 1955, is still referred to as Disneyland. If you’ve been to Walt Disney World, this is akin to the park that’s commonly referred to as The Magic Kingdom.
Disneyland is still the centerpiece of the Anaheim complex and is the place where you’ll find the most familiar rides, like It’s a Small World, The Matterhorn, and The Haunted Mansion.
Disneyland is divided into eight themed areas, all waiting to be explored:
- Main Street USA – The entrance street to the park, Main Street is lined with souvenir shops, take-out eateries, novelty stores, and a few attractions, like the Walt Disney Story and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Guests can ride antique vehicles up and down the street.
- Adventureland – Just left of Main Street is this jungle-oriented land, where families can climb a tree house, visit the enchanted tiki birds of the South Pacific, and ride through the jungles of Africa with a witty guide at the helm.
- New Orleans Square – Continue counterclockwise and you’ll come to this small land that holds two of the parks most popular rides, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion. Enjoy the unique architecture of New Orleans’ French Quarter.
- Frontierland – Reminiscent of the Old West, this land features lots of boat rides and Disney’s classic Thunder Mountain Railroad.
- Critter Country – Tucked in the back corner and once known as Bear Country, this land is home to Disneyland’s only log flume-type attraction, Splash Mountain.
- Mickey’s Toontown – All ages will love this newest addition to the Disney parks. Here you can meet Mickey and ride some cool attractions geared towards the younger set (but fun for adults, too!)
- Fantasyland – This is quintessential Disneyland. As the name indicates, fantasy happens here with rides and shows that feature favorite Disney characters from his best animated features, like Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty.
- Tomorrowland – This is where you’ll find the high-flying rides (like Space Mountain) and lots of attractions touting the technology of tomorrow. Kids will love Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters.
Doing Disneyland with Kids
Thankfully, no one is more kid-friendly than the folks at Disney, but Disneyland can still be a bit overwhelming for children, given the size of the park and the crowds of people present on most days.
A few simple guidelines, however, will help you survive the oldest Disney themepark, even with kids in tow.
- Plot your itinerary. Are there certain must-dos for your family? If so, be sure to include them as top priority. If any of the daily shows or parades is on your list, check performance times before you arrive.
- Arrive early, if possible. If you’re staying at any of the Disneyland hotels (a great idea if you can afford it), you’ll be entitled to early admission. Once you’ve arrived, head to the most popular attractions first, even if they’re on the other side of the park. Avoiding long lines is paramount when dealing with children.
- Use Fast Pass. This wonderful tool is available at the most popular rides and gives you an assigned window of about 20 minutes during which you can return and board the ride promptly without waiting in line.
- Pack your own juice/water/snacks. Food in Disneyland is quite costly and lines can get long. Be sure to keep snacks and drinks on hand to avoid cranky kids.
- Take a break. Afternoons can be hot and crowded in Disneyland. Go back to your hotel for a rest, if possible, or head to Downtown Disney for a little shopping or a sit-down meal.
Disney’s California Adventure
This smaller Disney theme park, christened in 2001, met with mixed reactions when it first opened, but the folks at Disney were listening and California Adventure is now a hit with the masses. At 55-acres, families with children tend to really enjoy this park as it’s quite manageable, with wide walkways, a variety of kid-friendly food, and much shorter lines. But don’t expect whimsy and fantasy here. You won’t find it. This park is a nod to the great state of California, its history, and all it has to offer…with a few Disney twists.
Disney’s California Adventure is divided into four sections:
- Golden State – This land pays tribute to California’s past and present, including nods to the state’s wonderful wine country as well as its more wild side. The most popular ride in the park is located here – Soarin’ Over California, an amazing hang glider-type ride that makes excellent use of Disney’s amazing technology.
- Paradise Pier – Bop to the music of the Beach Boys as you explore this seaside amusement pier complete with all your favorite Boardwalk rides, including the phenomenal California Screamin’ roller coaster.
- Hollywood Pictures Backlot – Akin to Disney World’s MGM Studios, the backlot area of the park is a nod to California’s opulent movie industry. Kids will love the rides featuring characters from The Muppets and Monsters Inc. while the whole family will enjoy The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the Animation Studio.
- A Bug’s Land – Perfect for little ones, the bug-size rides in this section of the park are adorable! Most attractions are based on the characters from It’s a Bug’s Life.
Cruising Through California Adventure with Kids
As was previously mentioned, the wide open spaces in this park make it much more kid-friendly and despite the lack of fairytale characters, there’s plenty to keep children entertained. All the tips for the Disneyland park apply here, too, but below are a few additional pointers for making the most of your day at California Adventure:
As in Disneyland, head to the most popular rides first. That would be Soarin’ Over California, California Screamin’, and Tower of Terror. If the lines are already too long, grab a Fast Pass.
Tired of standing in lines? Give the kids some time to run around by heading to Grizzly Peak Recreation Area in Golden State. Here, the kids can explore 8-acre Brother Bear Adventure Trail where they can climb walls, crawl through logs and caves, and take a ride on a zip line. The Brother Bear interactive show is wonderful, too!
Need to cool off? Head for the Golden State Theater for the presentation of the film Golden Dreams. Older kids and adults will enjoy the movie but little ones tend to nod off (a good thing!). However, if you prefer to cool off the wet way, get in line for the Grizzly River Run (Fast Pass available, also) for a wet and wild ride through an abandoned mine.
Take a break. If your little ones are tiring of rides geared towards older kids, take them to A Bug’s Land, where they’ll adore the rides and you can sit on the benches and watch them smile.
Eat a healthy meal. The nice thing about California Adventure is the selection of food available, which includes items other than the usual amusement park fare. Head to the Mission Tortilla Factory for wrap sandwiches or the Boudin Sourdough Bread Company for healthy offerings including chowder served in a bread bowl.