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Guide to Visiting Disneyland: Navigating the Happiest Place on Earth

Filed Under: California, Family, Summer
Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland Resort

Squeaky-clean, charming and just plain fun: The Disneyland Resort complex is one of those classic Southern California destinations that never fails to lift spirits. With the completion of Cars Land, the centerpiece of Disney California Adventure Park’s estimated $1.1 billion expansion, mixed with the good old nostalgia of Walt’s original theme park, there has never been a better time to visit. Here’s a guide to navigating the happiest place on Earth, and all the logistics that go with it amid the summer heat and vacationing crowds. 

What to See & Do 

disneyland things to do
Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland Resort
As the second of 2 theme parks built at the Disneyland Resort complex, California Adventure’s popularity soared in 2012 with the opening of Cars Land, a Route 66-inspired nod to the Disney/Pixar movie and its sequel. Expect long lines for Radiator Springs Racers, a thrilling slot-car race through the desert, but this means lines are often shorter at equally cool rides like Soarin' Over California, Toy Story Mania! and Luigi's Flying Tires. Another place with plenty of elbow room is the Disney Animation Academy, which offers lessons on drawing and how Mickey and other Disney characters are brought to life. 

Over at Disneyland Park, crowd pleasers include the newly refurbished Matterhorn Bobsleds and Star Tours. Fast Passes for popular rides allow you to move to the front of the line at designated times and can be picked up at each ride’s entrance, but be forewarned: They tend to disappear faster than Alice in Wonderland’s Cheshire Cat! 

When everything seems off-the-charts busy, head to the Enchanted Tiki Room, Pirates of the Caribbean, It's a Small World or Jungle Cruise, where waits rarely exceed 15 minutes. Innoventions in Tomorrowland is another under-the-radar attraction that provides high-tech entertainment in air-conditioned bliss. 

Fireworks, parades and pyrotechnic extravaganzas are a highlight for many visitors, while others swear these are the best times to scout out the busiest rides. If you do hit the scheduled events (times vary by day), make advance reservations at adjacent restaurants to maximize your experience (the French Market for Fantasmic! or Carthay Circle Restaurant for the World of Color water show) or simply find a spot last-minute and accept the fact that you won’t have a front-row seat. 

Where to Eat & Drink 

disneyland where to eat
Disneyland Park
Upscale dining favorites include Blue Bayou (request a table by the Pirates of the Caribbean ride), Napa Rose (known for its 4-course seasonal tasting menu), and California Adventure’s Carthay Circle, which offers a superb wine list and dining plan with preferred seating for World of Color. Reservations are a must.  In Disneyland, casual diners swear by the corn dogs at the little red cart near the Plaza Inn and the Monte Cristo sandwiches at Cafe New Orleans. On a hot day, try the non-alcoholic mint julep and beignets at the Mint Julep Bar in New Orleans Square. 

Downtown Disney is home to Rainforest Cafe, ESPN Zone and plenty of easy snack options. It also has the most robust nightlife: House of Blues and Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen for live music, Uva wine bar for late-night socializing. 

Where to Stay 
disneyland where to stay
Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland Resort
To truly immerse yourself in the world of Disney, the on-premise resorts are the way to go. The Grand Californian is all refined American Craftsman-style architecture, with primo park views and a private entrance to California Adventure, while the 990-room Disneyland Hotel has an always-hopping vibe, a new Monorail-themed pool with 2 waterslides, and one of the best character breakfasts around (Goofy's Kitchen). 

Comfortable (and markedly less expensive) slumber options within walking or shuttle distance of the parks include the Candy Cane Inn, Ramada Maingate and Howard Johnson. Doubletree by Hilton has roomy suites, efficient service and a location slightly removed from the chaos. Stylish Mousketeers should check out Hotel Menage, which stands out for its minimalist décor and excellent poolside seats to Disneyland’s nightly fireworks show. 

Getting Around/Ticket Info 

If you are covering both parks in one day, start early and stay until the gates close -- or buy multiple-day park-hopper passes and stagger your visit to include midday hotel pool dips or naps (you will save time, though not money, by buying tickets online). Another time-saving tip: Enter Disneyland via the Monorail in Downtown Disney. It will drop you off in Tomorrowland and save you from wading through lines at the main gate. The Disneyland Railroad, which stops at Main Street, New Orleans Square, Toontown and Tomorrowland, is an efficient way to get from one end of the park to another. 

Don’t expect deals on Disney passes in heavy-traffic times like summer, though Costco stores and AAA regularly offer small discounts. There are also more subtle ways to save. Stay within walking distance of the park and you’ll eliminate the $16-a-day parking fee. Bringing your own snacks and water will also save scads of time and money, as will avoiding the rental of strollers or wheelchairs.

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