Anaheim's sprawling Disneyland Resort complex is so chock full of memory-making fun, two days is not enough time to see it all. Fortunately, a visit to the expansive family playground is worth the time and money required. Indeed, there is plenty of magic to be found here, from Walt Disney's original classic kingdom to the thrills of the more modern Disney California Adventure and even the free-to-visit Downtown Disney entertainment center. And for foodies who eschew the Disney parks' fast food style, the Disneyland Resort contains an abundance of truly tempting wining and dining options.
The history of Disneyland is legend. In 1955, famed animation pioneer Walt Disney decided to create his family theme park in Anaheim, which was then a semi-rural farming community known for its lush orange groves. Almost instantly, the park became an essential destination for family fun, as people traveled from other states, countries and continents to enter the park's seemingly magical gates.
For decades, Disneyland and its adjacent Disneyland Hotel made up Anaheim's Disney experience. Today, the exciting enchantment has grown to become the 150-plus acre area known as The Disneyland Resort. While the original Disneyland theme park has not expanded much, the options for enjoyment have increased exponentially. This increase is due to Disney's California Adventure (aka DCA); the second, adjacent theme park whose re-tooling has infused a little extra Disney spirit within its gates. More amusement comes courtesy of Downtown Disney, an entertainment district whose bustling "city walk" vibe is open to the public with no admission fee.
The very best way to experience The Disneyland Resort is to stay at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa. Lodged in the heart of Downtown Disney's liveliness, this 948-room, Craftsman-inspired resort overlooks DCA and features such indulgent amenities as 50 two-bedroom Disney Vacation Club villas, poolside cabana, a special children's entertainment area and a sixth-floor terrace equipped with a breathtaking view of DCA's Paradise Pier area and the spectacular World of Color attraction. Even if you are staying elsewhere, make sure you pop into the cavernous lobby with its comfortable Mission-style furniture, heavy wood beams and Tiffany-style lamps. You can even sit in a rocking chair and put your feet up on the massive stone hearth by a flaming fire. And savvy guests will want to locate and utilize the secret entrance into DCA near the hotel's outdoor pool area.
Just a block or so away from the Grand Californian are the Disney complex's two other park hotels: The original, 988-room Disneyland Hotel and the 506-room Paradise Pier Hotel. Both properties are close to the parks' entrances, have playful pool areas, are comfortable and cater to families, fun-loving business travelers and hardcore Disney-philes. The Disneyland Hotel completed a sparkling renovation in 2012 that added modern flair to its exterior and rooms, but it still features plenty of mid-century modern architecture and style to give it a grand vintage vibe. The historic hotel's towers are loaded with old-school Disney memorabilia to view, and it also contains "Character Quarters:" specially-themed connecting rooms for kids with either Mickey or Disney princess décor.
The Hilton Anaheim, which is OC's largest hotel and sits just across from the park and next door to the Anaheim Convention Center, is a good, cost-effective choice for accommodations. Primarily a contention hotel, the venue has enough amenities to create a modern oasis of calm that nicely offsets Disneyland's noisy bustle. Some guests will enjoy the fifth-floor pool area where each room has a patio door to the relaxing deck, while others may find their inner Zen by visiting the enormous fitness spa and fitness center. The hotel's Mix Restaurant and lounge is a good place to meet a friend for a cocktail, take the family for a meal or plan the day's activities.
One of Anaheim's most eclectic spots is Hotel Ménage. Once a '70s-era motel, Hotel Menage is now a happening boutique hotel featuring modern furnishings, and the hip pool area is a rather choice place to catch Disneyland's legendary fireworks display.
Other less expensive accommodations that are within walking distance or a short shuttle ride to the parks, including The Anabella, Anaheim Majestic Garden Hotel, Embassy Suites Hotel Anaheim—North, Anaheim Fairfield Inn by Marriott and Candy Cane Inn.
It's best to plan an entire day at Disneyland and another full day at DCA. We recommend buying the two-day Park Hopper tickets, which allow you unlimited access to both parks for a discounted price.
Before you hit the streets for a long day at the Disneyland complex, you may want to check out the park's official website for up-to-the-minute information on special events, entertainment schedules, ride closures, parade times and other general information.
You may also want to consider utilizing the parks' FASTPASS service. If you arrive at your favorite ride and find the wait time is outrageously long — which it may be during peak tourist times — you insert your admission ticket into the ride's FASTPASS machine to obtain a ticket that gives you a time to return to the attraction. When you return at the appointed time, you get to wait in the special FASTPASS line, which is usually rather short. This innovative system gives you more time to explore each "land," plan spontaneous trips to performances and take the necessary bathroom, food and beverage breaks.
Spending an entire day at one of the Disney theme parks is like urban hiking. You need to plan ahead and make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes, bring water, apply sunscreen and wear loose clothing with lots of thin layers to peel off or pile on as the weather dictates. While Anaheim can be terribly hot during spring, summer and even fall, the winter months can get rather cold, especially as the sun goes down. We recommend that you store any heavy coats, gloves, hats and scarves in a pay-for-the-day locker, which are located just inside both parks.
1: Main Street, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, Frontierland
Consider starting the day either early or late, as the hours between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. are the busiest and the entrance is jam-packed. Some early risers get in line a half-hour or so before opening so they can eat breakfast with Minnie Mouse and her many character friends at Main Street's Plaza Inn. If you don't mind going a little deeper into the park, you can try the Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes at River Belle Terrace, which sits at the intersection of Frontierland and New Orleans Square.
If you get off to a late start, you may want to stop for a quick breakfast in Downtown Disney, either at Catal Restaurant & Uva Bar or La Brea Bakery & Café. Travelers with kids may want to treat the tykes to one of the Character Breakfasts that are offered in the resort's trio of hotels: Storyteller's Café in the Disney Grand Californian Hotel; PCH Grill at Paradise Pier Hotel; or Goofy's Kitchen at the Disneyland Hotel.
Be prepared for a gauntlet of sorts when you get to the main gate area. You have to pass through security, negotiate through crowds, wait patiently to purchase tickets and slog to the main entrance. When you go finally go through the turnstile, be sure to take a breath. You have finally arrived as a welcome guest in Walt Disney's dream come true!
Everyone strolls down Main Street as the key to getting into Disneyland's other "lands." Even though Main Street doesn't have any rides per se, don't rush past this re-creation of a typical city's downtown, two-horse thoroughfare circa 1910. There are plenty of old-timey themed sights here that encourage you to stop for a moment and breathe it all in, especially since the area's air contains a faint aroma of vanilla in a delightful bit of Disney chicanery. Some of Disneyland's best shopping is inside The Emporium where you can find warm clothing, souvenirs and all kinds of Disney paraphernalia.
Some families have a tradition of sitting down for an old-fashioned sundae at Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor, or buying some specialty sweets at The Candy Palace and Candy Kitchen. Others are tempted to grab a hot dog and soda at Refreshment Corner while listening to a Dixieland-style jazz band or a Tin Pan Alley pianist.
Main Street is also the best place to view any of Disney's spectacular stable of parades. Some savvy parade-goers start sitting on their slice of Main Street sidewalk up to two hours in advance of the action, and with good reason — only those directly on the curb can actually sit down. It is possible to save a few seats for friends and relatives, so you can plan to take on parade duty in shifts in order to enjoy some nearby attractions in Tomorrowland and Adventureland.
As you walk down Main Street, Disneyland's iconic white-and-blue Sleeping Beauty's Castle rises up to greet you in its royal splendor, complete with white swans on a moat and a singing wishing well off to its side. Once you cross the castle's drawbridge, you will find yourself in the section that arguably captures Disneyland's soul better than any: Fantasyland.
The castle's "walkthrough" now contains more modern special effects technology as it tells the tale of Sleeping Beauty in true Disney fashion. Just beyond the cool and dark castle walls is a huge, elaborate carousel complete with bejeweled white horses going round and round. Fantasyland is designed for the young and the young at heart and includes several story-based rides that have mildly scary touches to them, such as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan's Flight, Snow White's Scary Adventures and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
The sleepy, fun-for-little-ones It's a Small World is here, ready to put its sing-song theme in your head for the rest of your trip. So is the very adult Matterhorn Bobsled rollercoaster — we recommend the slightly wilder left-side track for avid thrill-seekers. Disney has also built a special stage in the back of Fantasyland to host the popular Disney Princess Fantasy Faire, an interactive photo opportunity session with some of Disney's most beloved royalty.
Perhaps the best place in the park for young children is Mickey's Toontown. Amongst the outrageously lopsided and colorful buildings located here are homes to Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Guests can stroll inside Mickey's living room, kitchen and bedroom, and finally get the chance to get a picture with Mickey in his cool screening room.
If you want to go straight to more grown-up fare, then turn right on Main Street towards Tomorrowland. The big rollercoaster thrill ride here is Space Mountain. This fully-enclosed coaster with a cosmic theme and pitch-black corridors is arguably Disneyland's most popular attraction.
Tomorrowland is also home to Finding Nemo: Submarine Voyage — a fun underwater adventure where guests can join Nemo and Marlin on a quest designed to capture the spirit of the popular film. The land is also the residence of the totally revamped Star Tours ride: a herky-jerky motion simulator attraction whose use of video and effects plunges its guests into the fantastical Star Wars universe.
Just to the left of Main Street are Adventureland, Frontierland and New Orleans Square. Adventureland is best known for the scary Indiana Jones Adventure and sit-down Enchanted Tiki Room, where animatronic birds talk and sing. Frontierland is home to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a thrilling rollercoaster with a precarious runaway mining train theme.
New Orleans Square is perhaps Disneyland's prettiest piece of real estate. Pirates of the Caribbean, which has been one of the park's most popular rides for several decades, reflects plenty of imagery from Disney's wildly successful eponymous films, including several appearances by Captain Jack Sparrow. The other major ride here is The Haunted Mansion, a mildly creepy dark ride loaded with cool technical effects, toe-tapping music and lighthearted moments. The ride receives a makeover between the months of October and December in order to incorporate themes from the popular stop-motion animated film "The Nightmare Before Christmas."
When thinking about eating at Disneyland, keep in mind that this place is expensive. The fast food choices can do the least damage to your budget, but the trade-off for this will be so-so burgers, hot dogs, pizza, chicken fingers and fries. Some of the buffet-like meals at such places as Plaza Inn and French Market Restaurant make for a more substantial meal and the price is somewhat reasonable. Café Orleans is also rather reasonable and has table service, a lovely patio and a menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and crepes. For those into fine dining, be sure to book a table in advance at Blue Bayou. Featuring a dining space that rests inside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, Blue Bayou is the only restaurant in the Disneyland park that accepts reservations. As you nosh on a Southern-themed menu in an unrivaled swampy ambience complete with artificial fireflies, you will be glad that you slipped away for some upscale grub, even if you are not allowed to round off your meal with an alcoholic beverage.
If you wish to temporarily leave Disneyland to enjoy a long meal, Downtown Disney provides you with a bevy of conveniently located gourmet eateries to choose from, including Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen, Catal Restaurant & Uva Bar and Naples Ristorante E Pizzeria. Is there a game on the schedule that you absolutely have to catch? You can throw back a brew and eat a steak at ESPN Zone while watching all the action on huge TV screens. If you are craving a not-quite-as-laid-back option, Steakhouse 55 at the Disneyland Hotel serves up modern takes on American steaks, chops, seafood and sides.
Getting away from the park and the crowds can be necessary for your nerves, especially during peak travel season. We recommend the ultimate relaxation of a fine dinner. Truly the best meal in the complex can be had at Napa Rose. Located inside Disney's Grand Californian Hotel, Napa Rose is headed by award-winning executive chef Andrew Sutton. The California wine country-inspired restaurant offers a selection of 80 wines by the glass from a wine cellar boasting more than 17,000 bottles from around the world.
If you can still manage to stand up after a walking all day and then drinking some of California's best wines, go back into Disneyland at night and witness the sight of their nightly fireworks display and the water and light spectacle Fantasmic!
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