A First Timer’s Guide to Disneyland

Updated July 22, 2017

Today, I’m sharing the basics of Disneyland to get you started and/or to remind you of some essentials if you haven’t visited in a while.

There’s so very much to know. Let’s get started.

Planning

I devised a 6 Step Planning Process that simplifies what you need to do to plan a trip to Disneyland. Take each one at a time, show them the attention they deserve and if you have any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to ask. I’m an email away at Casey@DisneylandDaily.com.

I recommend using Get Away Today to help you book your trip, as it won’t cost you a penny over what you would book on your own using the Disneyland website. In many cases, it will cost you less. Get help from the experts, who can handle everything start to finish. If you prefer to book your trip on your own, you can still buy discounted tickets.

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An Overview

Disneyland Resort is comprised of 2 theme parks, 3 Disney hotels and Downtown Disney. Disneyland is a fraction of the size of Disney World. Check out the layout of the resort including details on parking, lockers and more.

Disneyland is the original park and it opened in 1955. In addition to Main Street, it includes 7 lands:

  • Adventureland
  • Critter Country
  • Fantasyland
  • Frontierland
  • Toontown
  • New Orleans Square
  • Tomorrowland

Review all Disneyland attractions prior to your visit.

Disney California Adventure or DCA opened in 2001 and enjoyed a grand “re-opening” in 2012 with a major transformation, which has brought the once troubled park to life.  In addition to Buena Vista Street, it includes 6 lands:

  • a bug’s land
  • Cars Land
  • Grizzly Peak
  • Hollywood Land
  • Pacific Wharf
  • Paradise Pier

Review all California Adventure attractions prior to your visit.

Transportation to the Disneyland Resort is fairly easy if you know what you’re looking for. There are 6 large airports that are all realistic options within 1.5 hours of Disneyland. You can get to the parks via car, shuttle, train, or car service. I highly recommend Lanksy Enterprises for transportation from the airport to your hotel.

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For WDW Fans

There’s a lot to know if you’re familiar with WDW, but not Disneyland. Let’s go over a few differences:

  • We don’t have a dining plan. We often walk up to counter service restaurants, order food and eat it. Don’t be scared of us. It works. Dining at the Disneyland Resort is fun.
  • We don’t use FastPass+. You can’t schedule FASTPASSES ahead of time. And…..stay with me…….we don’t have magic bands. Check out this post for how FASTPASSES and MaxPass work at Disneyland. 
  • If you’re looking for Value Resorts at Disneyland, consider staying off-site at a good neighbor hotel. We only have 3 Disney Hotels and 2 of them are 4 Star and all three are $300+ a night.
  • We have Extra Magic Hour and Magic Morning. Visit this link to learn details on each.
  • Everything is in walking distance. No one hour trek from park to hotel and park again. You can leave one park and be at the next in 2 minutes because the two park entrances face each other. Most hotels are in walking distance. Downtown Disney is just outside the esplanade between the two parks. You can easily leave the park, run back to your hotel and be back in the park in a short amount of time. IT’S GLORIOUS.
  • The weather here is lovely. We rarely see rain. Seriously. And, regardless of when you visit – even if it’s in the summer – you’ll likely need a sweater for early morning or late night. Know how to dress ahead of time. It’s quite different compared to WDW.
  • To thoroughly appreciate the history and nostalgia that Disneyland offers, consider taking my one hour scavenger hunt along Main Street to see lots of key Walt-related stops.
  • Our characters often roam the park and some do so without handlers. The character experience is so authentic and fun at Disneyland.
  • Check out this link to see what attractions Disneyland has that WDW does not.

Hotels

You have two options when choosing where to stay at Disneyland:

DLR Hotels – Disneyland hotels have many perks including always-good Disney service, Extra Magic Hours, on-site DLR Hotel dining, and package delivery from the parks to your hotel. One (The Grand Californian) is super close to the entrance of the parks and Paradise Pier and The Disneyland Hotel are a bit further.

Off-Site Hotels – Off-site options are typically much less expensive than DLR Hotels with many averaging around $120 a night. They’re very close to the entrance and several of these hotels have free parking and free breakfast.

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Attractions

Each park has a different feel to it. I’d simplify it into this:

Disneyland is old school and sweet with lots of history and fairytale-esque rides. Main Street feels like a walk back in time and the entire park has a nostalgic element to it. The best attractions at Disneyland are easy to find, but explore more than what is on my list.

Disney California Adventure feels newer and more character focused. Buena Vista is lovely and provides the nod to Americana that Main Street at Disneyland does. You’ll find “bigger” rides that teens will enjoy more at DCA, however, there is still plenty to do for little ones. Find the best attractions at DCA, too, but branch out for more.

Beware: Some attractions are very “dark” (figuratively and literally) and can scare young children. Research those before you visit.

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Dining

The food at Disneyland is one of my favorite parts of my visit. There’s so much to enjoy! I have compiled every bit of Disneyland Resort dining into one post. This covers both parks, Downtown Disney, character meals, dining in the DLR Hotels, park snacks, off-the-menu options, cocktails, DLR recipes, my recommendations, and a mock budget so you can estimate your costs. Check that out for all things dining.

Disneyland Dining has several yummy options including Jolly Holiday Bakery, Hungry Bear Restaurant, The Plaza Inn, Blue Bayou and more. The park includes several table service options and many counter service ones, too. Character dining can be found at breakfast at The Plaza Inn.

California Adventure Dining feels a little more adventurous to me food-wise with options like Asian fare, high end Carthay Circle and delicious smoothies. California Adventure also serves alcohol, while there’s not a drop to be found in Disneyland. Character dining can be found at Ariel’s Grotto and serves breakfast and lunch.

Character dining can also be found at each of the Disneyland Resort Hotels. In addition to the expected Disney service at each of these experiences, you can also:

  • Interact with characters up close for more time than at the parks.
  • Take fun photos with the characters.
  • Gather autographs.

I encourage you to enjoy one (or more) character dining experiences.

Want to go one step further and enjoy some ‘specialty dining’ with reserved seating viewing for the best shows at the parks? Check out this post for more details.

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Seasons

Halloween Time and Holidays at Disneyland are two big seasons that take over the parks from the beginning of September until the beginning of January. Take a look at what each includes in the following posts.

Halloween Time

Holidays at Disneyland

Additional Info

  • Check out companies and products I have used and recommend for your visit. Consider buying some essentials ahead of time to save money and cut down on stress.
  • Venturing outside of Disneyland? There is SO MUCH to do in Southern California. Take a look at all of your options in this post.
  • Absolutely become familiar with FASTPASSES and how they can make your visit less stressful by cutting down on wait time in line.
  • Know how to meet characters and how a character meal can add to your experience.
  • While many people have used and loved my touring plans, I’m completely redesigning them to reflect what I think is a better approach to the parks. As they develop, I test each within the parks and share that testing with you on my Facebook page. I recommend you read how to start at California Adventure and at Disneyland. Both of those posts share my new strategies that have proven to be super effective.
  • Know all about World of Color and what your options are for seeing this unique show. 
  • Know all about parades and fireworks, too. 
  • Consider buying the PhotoPass+ One Day package. I highly recommend it and consider it to be one of the best values in the parks.
  • Be prepared for crowds. You have many options when the parks become overwhelming.
  • Toddlers and princess fans require extra planning.
  • Bringing a baby to the parks? Are you expecting during your visit? Check out this post for lots to know including where the baby centers are, how to find a quiet place to nap, where to nurse, and more. Know where to rent a stroller off-site, too if you choose not to bring your own.
  • Plan on seeing Anna and Elsa or the Frozen show? The best planning will make that happen smoothly.
  • Add even more magic to your Frozen fan’s day by checking out Anna and Elsa’s Boutique in Downtown Disney.
  • Know that no trip will ever be perfect. Check out some mistakes I made and some disasters, too.
  • Keep up with important dates, what’s coming to the parks soon, current events and more on my Daily News page. I edit this page every day.

Relax and have fun. Disneyland is such a magical place! Let me know how I can help you plan.

Take a look at how Get Away Today can help with your vacation

28 COMMENTS

  1. Is there any special reason I should go to Disneyland on the Fourth of July? I have the SoCal City Pass to spend 3 days with the park hopper, one day at SeaWorld and one day at LegoLand. The only website that mentions anything that is out of the ordinary for the holiday is LegoLand. I know that there will be fireworks every night at Disneyland, so am I better off spending 7/3, 7/5, and 7/7 at Disney, 7/4 at LegoLand, and 7/6 at Sea World?

  2. Are there typically fireworks in June or July in Disneyland? Touring plans has fireworks listed in the Spring and Fall of 2017 but not in June or July, even for weekends. Thanks!

      • Thank you for your reply! It would seem weird for Disney to not have fireworks then.

        It seems that apart from rainy days, that DLR has been very busy every day in January, even on weekdays with crowd levels commonly at a 9 or 10 out of 10. Is this typical? I thought January was supposed to have low crowds. Are more people buying annual passes? Or do you think that people are using their annual passes more? Or have there been a few more rainy days than usual causing more people to go on the non rainy days creating huge crowds (hope that makes sense)? Or something else? I am trying to figure out if going to WDW would be a better fit for my family which seems to have times of the year when crowds are lower than other times.

        Thank you for your knowledge!

      • Realizing that I may be coming off as expecting you to know some insider info on visitor demographics – I didn’t mean to. Mostly I was hoping if you could confirm if January 2017 was a lot more crowded? And if you want to speculate why, that would be great but understand why you wouldn’t want to. Thanks again!

  3. Hi Casey! I absolutely love your website and have recommended your it to several first-time visitors (like myself) making plans for our 2017.

    My question: We’re going with grandma and my kids. Grandma doesn’t need a wheelchair, but I’m worried the walking will be too much for her. Do you have information on ECVs? Can they be rented at the last minute? Thanks!

  4. We’re planning to go to DL on nov 19th, is there a Stars Wars feature there as my niece fr UK is interested in Star Wars. Thanks…

  5. Hi Casey, thanks for sharing so much valuable info! I’m bringing my 2 year old daughter for the 2nd time during Labor Day weekend.

    The first time we visited, I didn’t get a chance to buy her personalized Mickey Mouse ears. Do you know where I can purchase them? Are they available in both parks?

  6. If I leave a park and want to go back later in the evening (to the same one), do I need to get a hand stamp before I leave that park?

  7. Hi, I have booked a condo where we would need to walk and cross S Walnut st. To get to Disney. Is this a smart idea? I’m not 100% set on the condo, but I felt like VRBO, was affordable with many perks (kitchen, parking, washer) Whats your condo advice? And are you familiar with crossing thE S Walnut st with young children. Thanks!

    • Hi, Kaylee.

      I have stayed at the Holiday Inn on Walnut and didn’t have any trouble with crossing the street. I was by myself and not thrilled with being solo in such a dark area at night, but if you’re with a group, you should be OK. I walked toward the Disneyland Hotel, crossed through it, and then into Downtown Disney to get to the parks. You should be OK.

  8. Hi Casey!
    My family and I are goin to diseney in a few days! It will be our first time going there! But I have a question. Can we go to disney land and the california adventure one? Or is it 2 different parks that are different? Thanks!

  9. Hi! Have loved using your posts to plan our trip trip we will be taking to DL with our girls this summer. I was wondering if you knew how well the parks offered gluten free options. My youngest has celiac disease so I’m trying to get an idea of food options for her!

    • They are quite accommodating. Ask for special menus at each restaurant – even counter services. You may also speak to the chef at any restaurants to explain your concerns. Enjoy!

  10. Hi! Thanks so much for the informative website. Our first trip to DL is planned for mid-May. I was looking through your daily ride/park plans and was wondering if they have been updated for the new closures for Star Wars? I’m not familiar with the park at all so I’m not sure what is currently closed for the new attraction. Thank you!! ~Jessica

  11. Hi Casey
    I’m just wondering if at DL you can buy gift cards there to use around the park. I’d rather buy one of those then struggle with cash everywhere I go. And if they do have gift cards can they be used everywhere in the park including food vendors. I’m from Canada and I can’t buy them at the stores here and rather not buy them online either.
    Thanks

  12. Ivisited Disneyland last Sunday and followed your advice and tried the Montecristo sandwich. I loved it.
    My bf was reluctant to visit Disney but he was happy that we followed one of he spreadsheets you shared in the website. My bes Disney trip ever. I Didn’t get to see the peter pan ride open though.
    Thanks šŸ™‚

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