This post marks our 500th here on Wandering in Disney. With that in mind, as well as a redesigned site, the time seemed right for one of the biggest posts we have ever done – an all-encompassing trip planning guide to Disneyland Resort. We will (eventually) be following this post with the same style of guide for both Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disney Resort. All of the guides will be updated each year and likely more often than that.
Our planning guide will include our favorite times to go to Disneyland, places to stay, park tickets, FastPass and attraction guides, itineraries, dining, and more. Most sections will include links to read further on a given topic. The goal of the post is to give you a quick summary of each subject and ways to learn more about it.
Near the end of the post I will discuss whether 2018 is a good year to visit Disneyland Resort. I realize that people vacation when they can and sometimes that portion of trip planning isn’t all that flexible. If you can’t be flexible on what year you go, don’t fret. Disneyland Resort is fun anytime, regardless of the year. Sure, some are better than others, as we will discuss below, but if you are already planning then this guide will try to help you have an even better time.
As always, if there is something we didn’t cover and you have a question about then please leave a comment. Let’s get started!
When to visit Disneyland?
When you choose to visit Disneyland will likely depend on what your priorities and schedule are. Let’s start with the summer months as that is generally the time of year that is easiest for people to visit. July is the busiest of those months, especially around the 4th of July. If you must go in the summer I would recommend early June or later in August. Neither are ideal times but both have their advantages. June is slightly less busy than July and a little cooler typically. August is very hot but as people start to go back to school the parks get less and less crowded. This year, some schools around the area are going back on August 15th so August could be a great time to go in terms of crowds. Melissa and I have gone around Labor Day before and that actually proves to be a good time as many people don’t want to go on a trip right after school starts.
If you aren’t stuck to the summer months then there are plenty of great options. January is historically the quietest month at the resort but often brings many attraction refurbishments. February and March are the same albeit with slightly higher crowds (especially around President’s Day and late March). Typically, California Adventure has a Food & Wine Festival in late March that I wouldn’t plan a specific trip for but it is a nice perk.
Late April and May are good times to go as the weather heats up and the crowds aren’t bad. The same goes with September and early October. Come September, Halloween decorations go up and Disneyland hosts a Halloween Party a few nights a week. The crowds start to ramp up as it gets closer to Halloween and some schools go on fall break. November and December transition to Christmas decorations and the crowds are high around the holidays. Still, the parks arguably look the best at that time with beautiful decorations.
Ultimately, I recommend going in early May, September or early December. Most of the attractions will be open at those points, the crowds are not extremely high, and Christmas decorations in December are an added bonus. If you are trying to plan your trip around a holiday then check out our post about the pros and cons of visiting the parks on each holiday.
We have a few thoughts on this in our recent What Does a Disneyland Vacation Cost post. With Disneyland residing in Southern California, there are a number of airports that you can fly into – namely Orange County (John Wayne) Airport, Long Beach Airport or LAX. A little further away from Disneyland is San Diego International or Burbank Airport.
If your trip’s purpose is just to go to Disneyland then flying into Orange County undoubtedly makes the most sense as it is the closest to the resort. It is often not the cheapest option though. For looking into flight options I recommend using Matrix ITA Software and putting Orange County, Long Beach and LAX in the search engine to find the cheapest option. If prices are roughly equal then Orange County is the way to go.
There are essentially 3 options in getting from the airport to Disneyland. If you fly into Orange County then public transportation is easy and cheap, sometimes free depending on where you are staying. Long Beach and LAX are a different story. Public transportation is still available but will take a while as those airports aren’t nearly as close. Renting a car can be fairly cheap, but hotels around Disneyland generally have hefty parking fees. There are also several shuttle companies that will get you to and from your airport with relative ease although it does cost money.
Ultimately, we recommend public transportation from Orange County Airport if you are flying in there and are only doing Disneyland. If you are doing other activities around southern California then renting a car is easiest from a convenience perspective and may be the most cost efficient route. Alamo does have a rental car office in Downtown Disney if that makes the trip easier. You won’t be needing that car when you are at Disneyland so a return or pick-up at that location halfway through your trip is an option. Public transportation to other Southern California destinations works but generally isn’t very efficient.
How Many Days?
With two parks at Disneyland Resort, a trip here can be shorter than Walt Disney World. Having said that, Disneyland and California Adventure are both strong parks and ones that you could spend multiple days in. Here’s our post about how many days each at each Disney Park we’d recommend. If you are traveling a way to get to Disneyland Resort or it’s your first time I would recommend at least 3 days in the parks. When Melissa and I go we try to spend 4 days in the parks and enjoy that option.
The hard part of a trip to California is determining how many days you want to spend outside of Disneyland. We’ll discuss other activities in the area in a different section but suffice to say that spending a week in California is a wonderful vacation and there won’t be a shortage of things to do. For a first timer, I’d recommend at least a 4-day weekend in Southern California but a week is ideal.
Where to Stay?
Disneyland has plenty of options in places to stay around the resort. There are three official Disneyland hotels – the Disneyland Hotel, Grand Californian, and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel. If you have the means, the Disneyland Hotel and Grand Californian are phenomenal hotels. We especially like the Grand Californian and its national parks lodge style. Ultimately, we don’t stay there often because of the price (generally above $300/night) and we don’t see much value in staying there since we spend all day in the parks. Paradise Pier Hotel is not a good value, and is not in a great location so we do not recommend it. The official hotels come with a few perks, namely an extra hour in the parks.
The next option in hotels is what Disney terms as ‘Good Neighbor Hotels’. These hotels are generally within a 15 minute walk of Disneyland, some as close as 5, and are much cheaper. It probably goes without saying but these hotels are not nearly as nice as the Disneyland Hotel or Grand Californian. Many of these places have improved over the years and I expect them to continue to do so as Disneyland becomes more and more popular. Good Neighbor Hotels are great for those who are looking to save some money and will spend most of the time in the parks. We usually opt for these and, while some are nicer than others, aren’t disappointed if we keep our expectations in check. I do recommend going for the hotels closer to the park over the brand name hotels if you aren’t going to spend much time at the hotel. A 5 minute walk compared to 15 seems like a minor detail until you have just spent 10 straight hours in Disneyland. Here are the reviews we have so far:
There are many options so find the one that works for you. The price range on Good Neighbor Hotels range anywhere from (>$100/night to $300/night for family suites).
Other options include staying in a hotel outside of Anaheim, which we do not recommend, or renting a house. While the hotels are the closest option, renting a house may be good for a big group and there are some within a few miles of Disneyland.
Disneyland tickets will likely be the most expensive portion of your trip. As mentioned above, we recommend at least 3 days in the park. 4 and 5 days is where guests ultimately see the most value, as the cost per day of the tickets go down. We also recommend the park hopper option if you are there for more than 2 days because it adds some flexibility to your vacation but if you are looking for an easy way to save money then drop that option.
You can buy tickets once at the resort, near the park main gate. Save yourself time and either buy tickets ahead of time online or do it at your hotel. Both the official hotels and Good Neighbor Hotels sell park tickets and will be a shorter line than buying at the Disneyland gates.
Buying from the official Disneyland site or at the park/hotel is the easiest (and safest) route but it isn’t the cheapest. Mousesavers always has great advice on discount tickets and they currently recommend aRes Travel. They currently offer a 3 Day Park Hopper for $306, 4 days for $329 and $346 for 5 days. They also offer ticket bundles for other attractions around Southern California if you are interested.
One of the questions we are asked most is if there is a way to save money on Disney park tickets. There is, as we’ve detailed above, but the savings is minimal compared to other areas where you can save. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t get the discounted tickets but rather that you shouldn’t expect big savings.
Attractions, Entertainment and FastPass Guides
Disneyland has a system to make lines more manageable for guests called FastPass. Guests can use their tickets to essentially make a reservation for a ride later in the day. We have posts detailing which attractions you should try to FastPass for each park.
Disneyland does offer MaxPass, which is basically a digital form of FastPass that will save you some time, for $10 a day. For now, we don’t recommend this service as I don’t think you gain enough for the cost. This all may change with the addition of Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge next year but for now I wouldn’t recommend it.
We have also have ranked all of the attractions at each park:
While doing every attraction in one trip is a difficult proposition, these two parks have very few bad rides that you should skip. Hopefully these rankings will help you prioritize which attractions to do.
Along with attractions, both parks have quality entertainment that is worth seeing. Here are the ratings for each park:
In the coming months we will be adding itineraries for both parks, for now prioritize your days based on the highest rated attractions and entertainment, along with which attractions to use a FastPass on. Along with that, make sure you give yourself time to relax and wander the park. Part of the charm of these parks is some of the beautiful lands inside of them. Make sure to spend ample time in Cars Land and Grizzly Peak in California Adventure. Basically any land in Disneyland is worth exploring and just walking around, especially New Orleans Square, Frontierland, Main Street, and Fantasyland.
We have finally made it to the most important part of the planning guide – food! Disneyland Resort has some fantastic counter-service locations that won’t break the budget. Along with that, there are some beautiful restaurants perfect for a romantic date night or special occasion. Here are a few posts to help on the subject:
- Ranking the Disneyland Resort Counter-Service Restaurants
- Ranking the Disneyland Resort Table-Service Restaurants
- Top 10 Foods Under $10 at Disneyland Resort
- Top 10 Disneyland Drinks
There are several restaurants right outside of the park gates on Harbor Blvd. that are cheap and will likely save you a little bit of money. While we recommend staying in the park almost all of the time if you have already gone in, there are options available outside the Disneyland property. I do recommend staying away from counter-service breakfast in the parks. This is very generic and bland breakfast, outside of a few pastries, that isn’t worth the money.
Outside of Disneyland
As we’ve mentioned Southern California (SoCal, as the cool kids call it?) is a beautiful place full of plenty of activities outside of Disneyland Resort. Before we get there, we haven’t mentioned Downtown Disney, Disneyland Resort’s shopping and restaurant district. While the area is slowly improving, we don’t advise spending much time there, if any. The World of Disney Store is impressive and there are a few decent restaurants in the area but not compared to other areas.
Outside of the resort, there is plenty to do. We absolutely recommend at least one day or evening at one of the pristine beach. Huntington and Laguna Beach are beautiful but there is no shortage of other beautiful beaches to visit.
Hollywood, Griffith Observatory, sporting events, shopping and many other activities throughout LA are well worth exploring. Along with that, there are some historic theme parks in Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal Studios. If for some reason you don’t have enough to explore, San Diego is a scenic drive away and one of the most beautiful cities in the country.
Naturally, there are other areas to consider when planning a Disneyland trip. Here is our rough estimate on how much a trip to Disneyland might cost. That cost can really fluctuate depending on how long your trip is and where you are flying from.
If you are looking for a rough timeline on when you should book your airfare, hotels, etc. then we have this post outlining the trip planning. Again, this isn’t a hard and fast template but if you are going for the first time then that plan can prove to be beneficial.
Should You Visit Disneyland in 2018?
As 2018 is more than half over this question may be less relevant than it was a few months ago. Still, I’m sure there are those that are thinking about a trip in the remainder of 2018. While it hasn’t been a huge year for the resort, Disneyland is in the midst of a Pixar celebration that includes a fireworks show. Pixar Pier has opened in California Adventure and Paint the Night parade has made its way across the esplanade to California Adventure.
Whether 2018 is a good time to visit for you will likely depend on how big of a Star Wars fan you are. Summer 2019 will see the opening of Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, one of the largest expansions in Disneyland history. This land will feature two new state-of-the-art attractions, a restaurant and more. I have little doubt the new land will be some of Disney’s finest work of the 21st Century.
If you are a Star Wars fan that doesn’t visit Disneyland often the answer is simple – wait until next year. While the park will be busier, the land will be worth seeing and make for an incredible experience. If you aren’t a Star Wars fan then, by all means, go this year. You will avoid the masses and the land’s construction will not affect your experience.
California Adventure isn’t slated for much change over the course of the next year outside of a few small, children’s rides opening and the possible closing of Bug’s Land. Neither of those should impact what year you should go to Disneyland.
As far as cost goes, 2018 would almost assuredly be the cheaper year to go because of Galaxy’s Edge opening in 2019. The crowds swarming Anaheim will drive up the hotel prices next year, making this year cheaper.
For Melissa and I, we have decided to wait until 2019 to visit. While we love Disneyland Resort and live closer to that resort than any other Disney Parks, we would rather make multiple trips to see the new expansion next year than take a trip this year. While I might feel differently for first-timers, I think the pull of Star Wars is too great for us to justify a visit in 2018.
Whether you decide to go to Disneyland Resort this year, next year or even further down the road, we could not recommend it enough. The experience is far different from Walt Disney World and the surrounding area is superior. Disneyland is charming and packed with incredible attractions.
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