This post is an all-encompassing trip planning guide to Disneyland Resort. We also have 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 that then will act as a jumping off point to read more about different topics.
Now that we’re well into 2021, Disneyland has reopened! The resort has been open since April 30th and looks to resume normal operations over the coming months, opening to out-of-state guests on June 15th. While there will be some differences from the usual Disneyland experience, it’s good to see the parks open again.
Near the end of the post I will discuss whether the rest of 2021 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!
What time of year 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. Some schools around the area start going back in the middle of the month 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 March as well as a Lunar New Year event in January. I wouldn’t plan a specific trip for either 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 not always 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. LAX does hold some benefits if you’re going to spend anytime in LA or north of that. Likewise, Long Beach Airport is a nice airport to fly into if you want to spend your first day at the beach.
There are essentially 3 options in getting from the airport to Disneyland. If you fly into Orange County then public transportation is fairly 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 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. Our preferred route as of late is to fly in to whichever airport and then we just rent a car for that day, returning to one of the numerous lots by Disneyland. Over the last year, we’ve routinely found rental cars for $20 going this route which is much cheaper than a shuttle service and far more convenient than public transportation.
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. 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, to a lesser degree, 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 ways 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 aren’t regularly going 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 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 hotel options 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. This is a quick rundown of all of the Disneyland area hotels we have stayed in. That post includes links to all of our hotel reviews, as well.
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 for your Disneyland stay, 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.
With the parks having reopened on April 30th, buying park tickets will be a little different for the foreseeable future. The process will include making a park reservation and likely buying tickets online. For more information, check out this post!
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 day tickets are where guests ultimately see the most value, as the cost per day of the tickets go down. Of course, if you aren’t interested in spending that much time in the park then you shouldn’t be hunting for a value since it’s still paying more. 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’s 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 route but it isn’t the cheapest. Mousesavers always has great advice on discount tickets. Undercover Tourist and Get Away Today both currently have good options and Ares Travel historically has had good deals.
One of the questions we are asked most is if there is a way to save money on Disney park tickets. There are ways to save, as we’ve detailed above, but the savings are 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 huge discount that all of a sudden makes the vacation a good deal. Disney trips are expensive and there’s not much way around that.
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 $15 a day. For now, we don’t recommend this service as I don’t think you gain enough for the cost unless it’s a busy day at the resort or you are traveling with a large group.
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:
Finally, here are some loose itineraries to follow along for a day in each park, or two in Disneyland!
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, Galaxy’s Edge 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. The breakfasts are very generic and bland, outside of a few pastries, that isn’t worth the money. With that out of the way, there are some great Disneyland Resort table-service restaurants with excellent breakfasts.
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 beaches. Huntington and Laguna Beach are beautiful and 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 2021?
It’s been a long time coming but guests finally can visit Disneyland this year. While the capacity restrictions will change the dynamic some, as well as the parks only opening to California residents until June 15th, we expect the resort to settle into a groove over the summer assuming the pandemic continues to be handled.
Outside of the craziness of the last year, 2021 is a decent year to travel. Frankly, getting outside and doing something entertainment wise is a novel idea and one that I recommend once it’s safe to do so. From a crowd standpoint, I would expect the crowds to be high at first thanks to pent-up demand that Disneyland before settling into a comfortable range in the late summer and early fall. We will monitor that.
This year will see one major opening at California Adventure. Avenger’s Campus was set to open in the summer of 2020 but was obviously not given a chance. Now it will open on June 4th with a new Spider-Man attraction to experience as well as a counter-service restaurant. Whether or not you should make a special trip for that opening likely depends on how big of a Marvel fan you are. I’m interested in that land but have fairly low expectations compared to recent projects. Avengers Campus will open in tiers and the biggest ride is still yet to come so I’m not overly hyped about it. The land will certainly be a nice bonus though to guests visiting in the summer.
Simply from a park operations standpoint, 2021 I would imagine that the park will be in pristine condition. There hasn’t been anything else to do there for over a calendar year. Ultimately, we absolutely adore Disneyland Resort, specifically Disneyland Park. From its robust slate of attractions to the unassuming charm of being the first true theme park, Disneyland is unlike any other castle park in the world and among the world’s best. We highly recommend going if and when you can.
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