Disney properties are sort of the ultimate family tourist vacation destination, or tourist trap depending on your perspective. I grew up in the southwest and visited Disneyland often as a child. Then there were many years when I didn’t go. However, when our youngest daughter entered kindergarten we started taking trips to Disneyland and it has become something of a tradition. We have been back roughly every 18 months since. We joke about the frequency of the trips. “Maybe you should go somewhere else”, my wife will gently suggest. I agree we could get another trip in somewhere else if we skipped this, but it’s so predicable, we just know what to do and what to expect. It is the easiest vacation trip possible.
It is fun to go with kids and see how they evolve from year to year when you visit the park. I used to think adults going there by themselves was a little creepy. We will see what my attitude becomes when the nest is empty.
Why it is a good trip
It is a great value! What I mean by that is for the price of admission, all of the entertainment is included. Now sure it is very commercial. The food is overpriced and bland and there is barely a vegetable to be seen. They have stores everywhere, many rides dump you into a gift shop. They work hard to eek money out of you at every turn, but if you stay focused you won’t spend much more than the ticket price.
It is also a good trip because there is something for everyone. The Disneyland trips we do now that our daughter is 13 are very different from when she was 5. There is always something different to see and unexpected entertainment is just around the corner.
Why is it a bad trip
I won’t kid you, the tickets are expensive. For a 2 day ticket you will pay out $200/person. If you want to hop between parks then it’s more like $244/person last I checked at Disneyland Tickets.
The other reason are the crowds. Disney does a good job smoothing out the spikes in crowds by using blackout dates for Annual Pass holders during naturally busier times of the year and by using variable price single day tickets. I assume there are times when the park is pretty quiet, like the week after Labor Day when all school are back in session. However, the reality for a family is that you are going to go on a weekend, and likely a holiday weekend. You will experience crowds and you need to learn to deal with it. It is possible to work around the crowds very effectively.
Ok, I convinced you to go. Great! Now you have to get there. The easiest thing to do is to fly into Santa Ana (unless you live nearby), also called John Wayne airport. This is the closest airport to the park and it is small with light travel volumes. Clearing security on the way home is generally not a long wait.
Don’t rent a car unless you intend to do other things while you are in town. The quickest way to get to your hotel and the park is to just catch a Lyft or that other rideshare operation. Yes there are shuttles and cabs also but Lyft is just convenient.
If you rent a car, depending where you stay you may have to pay for parking on top of the car rental. Just make a Disney trip about Disney. If you go to southern California for other vacations then do those things and skip Disney.
Where to Stay
You made it to Disney, now where do you stay. Basically, you have two options. You can stay on property or off property. The tradeoff is convenience and proximity to the parks vs. price.
If you stay off property you either want to stay at a place that has a shuttle that can take you back and forth, or you want to stay at one of the properties directly across from the main gate. Those are the places directly across Harbor Blvd. That should give you the shortest walk. If you want a nice off property hotel then the Hilton Anaheim at the Convention Center is highly recommended. However, it is a hike to the park from there. At the end of the day your feet will be tired.
Now, if you stay on property there are three options, but really only two are worthwhile. You are going to pay for staying on property but the convenience is worth it. If you are on property then you can go to your hotel in the middle of the afternoon which is the hottest time of day and the most crowded. Go take a rest and sit by the pool and let the kids play for a couple of hours.
Your two options are the Grand Californian or the Disneyland Hotel. You can also stay at the Paradise Pier, however that is a longer walk to the park than some of the off property hotels I directed you to earlier. It is cheaper but still much more than the off property locations.
The Grand Californian is the closest to the parks, it even has it’s own entrance into California Adventure for Disney guests staying in one of the on property hotels. The hotel is spectacular in terms of the lobby area and the architecture. They have a nice pool facility with a water slide for the kids. Whenever I look for trips this hotel runs between $100 and $150 more a night than the Disneyland Hotel.
That brings me to the Disneyland Hotel. It is maybe a 5-10 minute walk further than the Grand Californian and for that you shave a little money off your bill. It is a huge hotel and has several restaurants as well. The big draw for the kids is the pool facility. The water slides are great and the pool area is just very nicely thought out.
We have stayed at both hotels and don’t really have a favorite. They are different and you have to pick between price and convenience. If you plan to spend lots of time on the trip at the pool you should go to the Disneyland Hotel.
How to Manage your Day
We kind of have a system. If you stay on property, then you get an extra hour in one or the other park each morning. You will have to check the calendar to see what time the park opens for you. We get up and just go to Starbucks in Downtown Disney for coffee and a breakfast sandwich then head to the line to wait for the park to open. The extra hour in the morning is key. You can get a lot of rides done. If the Magic Morning is in Disneyland you choose between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. If the Magic Morning is in California Adventure then you choose between Radiator Springs and Paradise Pier. We will generally go to a very popular ride, then go to another popular ride. At some point you will need to start getting fast passes. As soon as the Fast Pass return time is about an hour after the current time it is worth it.
After the Magic Morning hour the park will start to fill up. Keep hitting rides and using your fast passes. Generally at lunch time or right after we will head back to the hotel and sit for a couple of hours by the pool. Then we head back to the park around the dinner hour. In the evening there are parades and fireworks. These pull a lot of people off of attractions so go do the popular rides now. If you have the stamina the park gets very empty late at night.
What to Eat
Let’s be honest, you aren’t going to Disneyland for the food. The food in the parks is expensive and not great., but there are a few treats to be had.
The Blue Bayou is generally considered the best restaurant in the Disneyland park. It is pricey but the setting, inside Pirates of the Caribbean, is a fun thing to experience at least once. The other place inside of Disney that is fun for the location is Harbour Galley. It is located right next to Splash Mountain and you can watch the logs come off the mountain while you eat.
Other than table service the popcorn is a great snack if you have to stand in a long line. We treat ourselves to ice cream from Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor once a trip. You also need to have at least one churro each trip.
There is so much to describe about Disneyland that it won’t fit into a single piece. You should go and discover it for yourself. Also, watch this place for upcoming articles about trips and more information about what you should do.