The undisputed granddaddy of theme parks has been leading the way since 1955, inviting visitors to spend the day in the ultimate land of make-believe, Disneyland Resort. This beloved Anaheim institution serves up vintage icons like the Matterhorn Bobsleds as well as new innovations, like laser lights and soaring fountains in the nightly show World of Color, or mystical mouse antics in Mickey and the Magical Map. The resort, which consists of the original Disneyland Park and the adjacent Disney California Adventure Park, has themed “lands” with related rides, shows, and attractions.
Keep your free map handy to make sure you’re heading where you want to go (with all the different “lands” and activities it’s easy to get a bit disoriented). Once you get in, reduce wait time in lines by using the resort’s Fast Pass system (use your ticket to book a dedicated time later in the day). And download the free Disneyland Wait Time app to know where to head next for shortest lines.
To make the most of your time here, stay at one of the resort’s three on-site hotels, which extend the Disney ambience through themed décor and character breakfasts—and which also offer guests Extra Magic Hours, a one-hour head start to the theme park rides on select mornings.
Walking along the vintage American streetscape of Main Street, U.S.A., with the towers of Sleeping Beauty Castle rising in the distance—well, you know you’re in for something amazing. Stroll along Main Street, U.S.A., the welcome mat to Disneyland Park, to see Walt Disney’s whimsical brilliance and use of fantasy rooted in reality.
Shop names and building designs allude to his own past, or that of other Disneyland “imagineers.” For example, Hotel Marceline is named after the small town in Missouri where Disney spent part of his youth. Period photos of Fort Collins, provided by Disney imagineer Harper Goff, who grew up in the Colorado town, helped inspire the design of some buildings.
Sleeping Beauty Castle has a more direct inspiration. It’s based on a 19th-century Bavarian castle in Neuschwanstein, Germany. (To check out the original, take Soarin’ Around the World, the virtual plane ride in neighboring California Adventure that lets you zoom over a variety of iconic landmarks around the globe.) Although the drawbridge to the Disneyland castle actually works, it has only been lowered twice: when the park opened in 1955 and for the 1983 rededication of Fantasyland, which is entered by passing through the castle archway.
From glimpses of the future at Tomorrowland to the rustic world of Frontierland, the scenery changes quickly at the Disneyland Resort theme parks. Take a swashbuckling cruise (and look for Johnny Depp as a devilish Captain Jack Sparrow) on the raucous Pirates of the Caribbean ride, then step outside to smell of fresh beignets at New Orleans Square. It’s a quick walk to Fantasyland, where little ones can catch a ride on an elephant on the classic Dumbo ride, and pint-size princesses wait with wild-eyed anticipation to meet Elsa, Ariel, Belle, and other classic Disney heroines. Disney fans of all ages will find plenty of timeless cultural references: The classic rides here include tips of the hat to Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, and even The Wind in the Willows (Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, one of the park’s original rides, was loosely based on the children’s classic).
Make sure your youngsters are light-saber ready for any adventures by signing them up for Jedi Training Academy. Travel into the deep and see Dory and the gang on the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage , or zap your opponents with lasers in Toy Story-inspired Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. For more galactic explorations, blast off on Space Mountain.
Rev up for retro fun in at Cars Land, the star attraction in Disney California Adventure Park. This colorful high-octane “land” recreates the world of Radiator Springs from the Cars animated movie series. The tongue-in-cheek nod to Route 66 icons include comfort foods at Flo’s V8 Café, the Cozy Cone Motel, and the colorful rocky outcroppings and Southwest landscapes of the Cadillac Range.
Of course, what would a trip to Cars Land be without a road trip? So buckle up for the ride of your life on the Radiator Springs Racers, where you’ll come grill-to-grill with Lightning McQueen, Doc Hudson, and other favorite characters from the movie. And at Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, take a hoedown-style spin on dancing tractors.
While Cars Land grabs much of the spotlight in Disney California Adventure Park, there are plenty of other amazing attractions in this part of the resort. A ride that ranks as one of the resort’s biggest crowd pleasers is Soarin’ Round the World in Grizzly Peak Airfield. Strap yourself into simulated hang gliders to swoop through the air and get bird’s-eye views of iconic locations around the globe, such as the Great Pyramids of Egypt, Sydney Harbour, and two places that inspired features in the Magic Kingdom: the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps and the “Sleeping Beauty” castle in Bavaria.
Next up (and preferably when it’s hot out), get the thrill of a whitewater rafting trip in the Sierra Nevada with a splash-and-douse ride down the Grizzly River Run. Board a giant coaster and take a spin on the enormous Mickey’s Fun Wheel Ferris wheel ride at Paradise Pier, built to resemble an oceanfront boardwalk. Ride a clanging streetcar along Buena Vista Street, a carefully recreated homage to a Los Angeles neighborhood circa 1923, when young Walt Disney first arrived from Missouri. Have fresh-made chocolates or hand-dipped caramel apples at Trolley Treats, or—if you’re a grown-up—a retro Manhattan in the stylish bar at Carthay Circle, also serving classy fare by Chef Andrew Sutton in a swanky setting that feels like a vintage Hollywood supper club.
After dark, watch World of Color, the enthralling light show staged in the misty fountains at the park’s Paradise Pier.
With fire, water, and lasers, the nightly extravaganza of World at Color, at Paradise Pier in Disney California Adventure, is a definite dazzler. Disney characters materialize on an immense “screen,” created by projecting film clips on the misty spray generated by 1,200 fountains shooting 200 feet/61 metres into the night sky. To commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the Disneyland Resort, an all-new, special edition of “World of Color” illuminates the night in a glittering, contemporary celebration of the colorful world of Walt Disney, whose pioneering vision brought to life Disneyland, Mickey Mouse and a treasury of films and characters. Note: If you sit close to the harbor you might get soaked; ask Disney personnel where to sit if you want to be out of the spray zone.
To really feel like you’re part of the production, splurge on Glow with the Show Ear Hats. These high-tech Mickey Mouse ears have computer chips that make the ears change color and flash in unison with the show and all the other ears throughout the show.
Everyone loves a parade, and Mickey Mouse seems pretty fond of them too. Take the Main Street Electrical Parade, which has returned after a 20-year absence for a six-month run, featuring classic characters like Pinocchio, Snow White, and all seven dwarves.
At Disney California Adventure Park, meanwhile, the Pixar Play Parade features favorites from Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and A Bug’s Life in a procession with acrobats and puppeteers. Other parades light up the calendar, especially during the holidays. Visitors often line up for prime viewing in advance; keep your park guide handy to make sure you’re at the right spot when parades begin.
If it’s time for a break from the inevitable walking around the resort, kick back with a live show. Favorites include Frozen: Live at the Hyperion, a surprisingly good Broadway-style production in California Adventure Park staged in the Hyperion Theater, in California Adventure Park. Outside on Buena Vista Street, see a hyper-athletic song-and-dance routine by the Red Car Trolley News Boys, or get your bee-bop on with the Five and Dime jazz ensemble.
For another post-sunset spectacle, keep an eye out for the fireworks that illuminate the sky above Sleeping Beauty Castle. Starring some of your favorite Disney characters and set to classic Disney tunes, it’s definitely a show you don’t want to miss. And with different shows throughout the year—from the patriotic Fourth of July show to the hauntingly fun Halloween Screams—you’re in for a spectacular treat year-round. (Fireworks are seasonal and subject to change without notice.)
Open-air cafes, street musicians, sparkling boutiques, and soaring temples to everything Disney—this tempting pedestrian zone in Anaheim aims to be as must-see as the resort's two theme parks. If you’re hungry when you get here, you won’t be for long: find creative and delicious dishes at born-in-California favorites like La Brea Bakery Café (the outdoor seating under leafy trees is particularly nice). Feel like you’re relaxing on an Italian piazza at Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria. Or bump it up a notch with contemporary Mediterranean cuisine at Catal, created by Los Angeles area chef-restaurateur Joachim Splichal. Save room for a stop at the branch of Sprinkles, the creative cupcake bakery credited with launching the cupcake craze.
There’s also plenty of live entertainment: New Orleans-inspired music is the main course at Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen. Load up on gifts at the World of Disney shop, or browse big-name stores such as Fossil or Build-a-Bear workshop. Frozen fans will love Anna & Elsa’s Boutique, where kids ages 3 to 15 can get makeovers (with hair, nails, and tiaras) to look like one of the movie’s heroines, or even a “snow-frosted” hairdo in the spirit of the movie’s happy-go-lucky snowman Olaf (just be sure to book your spot ahead of time).
Insider tip: You don’t have to have a ticket to Disneyland to visit Downtown Disney (admission is free). Plus parking is free for up to five hours with validation from participating locations.
Disneyland Resort is undeniably magical—and that’s part of its charm. But understanding how the magic is made can be entertaining too. You can get sneak peeks and learn some fun anecdotes on the resort’s cool tours.
Perfect for first timers or for veteran Disneyland-ers who want to bone up on cool trivia, the Welcome to Disneyland Tour provides a thorough introduction to both Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park—plus there are plenty of anecdotes to make you feel in the know.
In Disneyland Park, the Walk In Walt’s Disneyland Footsteps tour offers an intimate perspective and opportunity to experience attractions significant to Walt’s past, in addition to those that connect with Walt’s very personal vision. Personal VIP tours are also available, and the specialized Star Wars at Disneyland tour offers a Jedi’s-view perspective of the resort’s many attractions related to the saga. the specialized Cultivating the Magic tour sheds light on Disneyland’s extensive gardens.
Southern California is better known for beach weather in December than its white Christmases. But Disneyland Resort turns into a winter wonderland during the holiday season.
Classic attractions take on a whole different feeling, including Sleeping Beauty Castle, where snow caps its tower and countless lights sparkle like icicles. It’s A Small World features a spectacular light show and a holiday song medley, and parade characters don plenty of red and white. Even the parks’ culinary options get a holiday makeover, from the traditional tamales at the Rancho del Zocalo restaurant in Frontierland to the yule log cakes at the Plaza Inn on Main Street, U.S.A.
The resort gets tricked up for Halloween, too, as Main Street, U.S.A. is transformed into a Pumpkin Festival with scores of hand-carved Jack O’ Lanterns. Prepare to get spooked at the Haunted Mansion, draped in black for the ghostly-ghastly holiday. Frontierland has a cultural spin, displaying traditional skeletons to commemorate Mexico’s annual Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). After dark, let the little ones come in costume (you can too) to join special dance parties and photo ops with classic Disney villains, and of course enjoy treats, during Mickey’s Halloween Party (offered on select evenings in September and October).
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For a break from walking, board the iconic Disneyland Monorail. Futuristic when it debuted in 1959, the ride still feels surprisingly modern. Offering great views from an elevated rail, the Monorail covers a 2½-mile/4-km loop in 13 minutes. But it’s not the only way to get around Disneyland Resort.
For a very different train experience, the steam-powered Disneyland Railroad circles the park in 18 minutes, with stops at such destinations as Tomorrowland and Mickey’s Toontown. One of the five vintage narrow-gauge trains is named for Ward Kimball, a legendary studio animator and fellow train buff of Walt Disney.
In the Magic Kingdom, you can also ride down Main Street, U.S.A. between Sleeping Beauty Castle and Town Square on old-fashioned streetcars, jitneys, and fire engines, pulled by handsome draft horses. At Disney California Adventure Park, all-electric Red Car Trolleys, like the ones that used to operate in Southern California, travel to four stops along Buena Vista Street.
Stretch the fantasies even longer by staying at one of the resort’s onsite hotels. Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa aims to replicate the soaring wood-and-stone styling of The Majestic Yosemite Hotel in Yosemite Valley. The central great room, with cushy oversize Craftsman-style chairs, a soaring stone fireplace, and live piano music, is a fantastic place to relax after a long day in the park. (Non-guests are welcome to dine and enjoy the lounges, too.) The guests-only pool feels like an exclusive party, with poolside drinks and plenty of lounge chairs and fluffy towels, and enough room for kids and grownups to enjoy themselves. By appointment, the full-service spa is open to all (appointments required).
For a sleek, retro-modern getaway, book a stay at the nearby Disneyland Hotel, which also offers whimsically themed accommodations, like the Mickey Mouse Penthouse or the sumptuous Fairy Tale Suites. The Monorail Pool, with two towering watersides, is wildly popular; for a quieter retreat, relax in a plush chaise at the adjacent E-Ticket or D-Ticket pools.
Paradise Pier Hotel captures the spirit of an old-fashioned beach boardwalk, with rooms tricked up to look like you’re vacationing on the shore. Most popular spot? Check out the complex of rooftop pools and waterslides and we’ll let you guess.