Trip Recap: Disneyland and California Adventure Park
Disneyland: The Basics
First of all, DisneyLAND is in California. There were at least four people who thought we were heading to Florida when I told them our destination. Disneyland was the park that started it all back in 1955 with a dream by the man himself, Walt Disney.
As someone who has been to both parks, I can say that they have some key differences, and the vibe is much more low-key in California. We speculated this is because it’s more of a locals park than a true destination, and our first day (a Thursday) wasn’t crowded at all. In fact, most of the attractions didn’t start filling up until later in the afternoon and in to the evening.
There are two parks that make up Disneyland – Disneyland itself, and Disney’s California Adventure Park. The parks are across a walkway from each other, and are incredibly easy to get to. You could easily “park hop” between the two in a day, or even multiple times a day depending on what you wanted to see and do. I’ll share more about my overall impressions about the parks and their intended audience at the end!
Who: the four of us (my husband, Doug, our kids (ages 8 and 11) plus my in-laws – a multi-generational trip. All of us are Disney “experts” who have been to Disney World many times, but this was the first time to Disneyland in many years for most of us, and the first time for all of us at CA Adventure.
What: three days of parks, plus a day of travel on either side (we opted for two days at Disneyland and one day at CA Adventure)
When: we went in mid-January, from a Thursday-Saturday. The timing was primarily due to coordinating schedules, as well as to celebrate my husband’s birthday and my father-in-law’s retirement.
Where: For accommodations, we stayed at a local Marriott (Fairfield Inn) instead of one of the on-site resorts to save money. We had plenty of Marriott points to use, and even the cash rate at the Marriott wasn’t outrageous. The hotel was a short half-mile walk to the park entrance, which couldn’t have been more convenient, especially on the day it rained!
Why: We originally decided on Disneyland because I had two companion certificates that I had to use with my Alaska Airlines credit card, and my husband didn’t have enough vacation days to redeem them for a trip to Hawaii (in my opinion, the best use of Alaska companion certificates). My in-laws are big Disney fans, so we asked them if they’d want to come along so we could all celebrate some big milestones together!
What I’d Do Again
This trip was incredibly successful. It felt so much less stressful and strategy-oriented than a Disney World trip, and the convenience of being able to walk everywhere within about 10-15 minutes made it even better.
We didn’t choose to buy the Genie+, Lightning Lanes, or Magic Bands+, and we only noticed it one time (the hour-long wait in the morning for Radiator Springs Racers). By going during the week and at a slightly lower attendance time, we were able to do everything we wanted, and didn’t feel rushed or stressed.
We opted to make only one dining reservation on the last day – a lunch at Cafe Orleans. It ended up being a great idea, since it was rainy and allowed us a chance to sit and wait out the rain for a bit, but being able to mobile order most food made it easy to spend time exploring the park.
I would absolutely stay off property again – it was so much more cost-effective and still very convenient.
We made a list as a family in advance of everything we wanted to do (including food we wanted to try), so that we’d be able to make sure everyone had their voice heard. Then, during our trip, we designated people for specific roles: one person to manage all our mobile food orders, one person to navigate us through the park, and one person to poll the group on the next 1-3 activities. It helped to go in with a plan, but also make space for adapting if needed.
Salt and Straw ice cream at Downtown Disney – make time for it. Enough said.
What I’d Change
You have two options when booking Disney tickets – one park per day, or park hopper. We only had three days, and we wanted to keep our trip on budget, so we opted for one park per day. Now, knowing that the parks are quite easy to explore in a day, I might have done a park hopper for one day to be able to visit the attractions we missed on the first day.
I might have waited until a bit later in January. There were several things closed as they changed things over from holiday to their standard presentation, and they were also in the midst of getting ready for the Lunar New Year celebration (which brings along with it some special extras as well). We were in a weird in-between week where we missed out on a few things.
Ideally I think I would have done four days – two at each park. It would have allowed us to ride things multiple times, and see some of the lesser-known attractions, especially in CA Adventure.
Tips for People Going to Disney
- Check out crowd calendars to know times to avoid
- Go early to avoid the afternoon/evening local crowd
- Consider staying at one of the neighboring hotels to save money while still being close
- Use Disney Genie to make a tip board for yourself. This service is free and will give you an “at a glance” view of the things you most want to see or do, and provide current wait times and recommendations.
- Use mobile order! You can get food via the app almost everywhere, and you don’t have to stand in lines! I’m not sure why anyone wouldn’t take advantage of this
- Plan out what you really want to see and do before determining if you’ll buy the extras (Genie+ and Lightning Lanes). We determined that by having a plan and showing up early (and staying late), plus picking weekdays over weekends, we saved $450 alone!
- You really only need 3-4 days at most to experience everything the parks have to offer
- There are a lot more than just rides at the parks. There are tons of cool extras that you can explore (such as the animation studio, free shows, character meet & greets, and obstacle courses) if you need a break from standing in lines.
It was awesome to be able to have experienced both parks as a parent, because I have my take on who should visit which park. There are so many people out there who say one is better than the other, but honestly, it really depends on a few key factors:
- How long do you have?
- If you only have time for a shorter trip, you’d be able to see more of Disneyland than Disney World – but you also need to take travel time in to account (it takes a full day from the Midwest to get out to the west coast)
- If you’re looking for a longer vacation, then I believe Disney World would offer more to do
- How old are your kids?
- If you have kids ages six or under, then I think Disneyland is much more approachable. It’s a smaller version of Disney World, and everything is much more navigable with a stroller. Being close to the accommodations, you’d also be able to skip back for naps as needed, too! I think it’s a great “starter” park for people who want to experience Disney magic, but without feeling overwhelmed.
- If your kids are older, then Disney World might be a better fit. There are more thrilling attractions and more to offer older kids in terms of variety.
- How active are you prepared to be?
- Disney days are filled with walking! Having tracked our steps on both trips, we average 8-12 miles of walking per day.
- That said, if you’re looking for a bit less in terms of distance, then Disneyland makes sense, since everything is smaller and closer together.