A cultural icon since it opened in 1955, Disneyland is much more than just a theme park — it’s an endlessly immersive escape that’s practically an American rite of passage to visit. In the sixty-six years since Walt Disney’s original theme park opened its gates in 1955, the Disneyland Resort has continued to grow and reinvent itself — with new lands, attractions, dining and entertainment regularly unveiled and delivering new experiences even for guests who’ve been visiting forever. Whether you’re planning your first visit or just need a brush up on what’s new since Disneyland reopened last summer after its 17-month pandemic-induced closure, here’s a primer on the Happiest Place on Earth.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of Brooke Geiger McDonald
Get Your Bearings
The Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, CA, is home to two theme parks — Disneyland Park (Walt Disney’s 1955 original) and Disney California Adventure Park, situated just a stone’s throw across the esplanade that connects the two parks; the Downtown Disney District — the resort’s dining, shopping, and entertainment district; and three official Disneyland hotels — Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, the Disneyland Hotel, and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel. Everything on Disneyland property is within fairly comfortable walking distance though parking can require a bit of a hike. If you’re coming in by plane, Orange County’s John Wayne Airport is a quick and inexpensive ($25) rideshare trip away from the resort, making a weekend getaway a breeze — no need to rent a car!
What You'll Need
To visit Disneyland’s theme parks, you’ll need both a ticket and a theme park reservation. Choose from single- or multi-day tickets and either One Park Per Day (like it sounds) or Park Hopper (access to both parks) tickets. A new development since reopening after a 17-month pandemic closure, the theme park reservation system requires guests to book a reservation for the park — or starting park if park hopping — they intend to visit.
Disneyland’s Theme Parks
With top-tier, can’t-miss attractions in both theme parks, to truly experience Disneyland Resort, it’s a good idea to allow at least two days to visit Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park, though there’s plenty to keep you busy for longer.
If you’re short on time, Disneyland Park, the OG Disney theme park that started it all when it opened on July 17, 1955, is the one to prioritize. History buffs should take note of the Disneyland Fire Station — Walt Disney kept an apartment above the station and a lamp still shines in the window, honoring the park’s beloved founder — before heading for opening-day attractions like Jungle Cruise, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and Peter Pan’s Flight. Layer on some of the park’s most iconic thrill rides like Matterhorn Bobsleds, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Space Mountain, nostalgic classic boat rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and it’s a small world, and some of Main Street, U.S.A.’s charming entertainment like the Dapper Dans barbershop quartet and you’ve got the makings of a perfect Disneyland day.
Star Wars fans, this is the park you’re looking for too. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the new land that opened in 2019, transports guests to a galaxy far, far away. Set on the Outer Rim planet of Batuu, Galaxy’s Edge is home to Disney’s most ambitious and immersive attraction ever created, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance (note you’ll need to join a Virtual Queue for this one), and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, which puts guests in the cockpit and at the controls of the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.
While full-blown character meet-and-greets have yet to return in the traditional sense post-Covid, Disneyland is teeming with character appearances throughout the park so you’ll have ample opportunities for modified interactions and selfies with favorite characters.
When hunger strikes, Disneyland’s table-service dining locations are in high demand, so be sure to snag a reservation 60 days in advance. Foolproof picks include New Orleans Square’s Café Orleans and Blue Bayou (both serve Disneyland’s legendary Monte Cristo sandwich), and Main Street, U.S.A. landmark since 1955, Carnation Café, serving Walt Disney’s comfort food favorites like meatloaf and Walt’s Chili.
You won’t need a reservation to try some of the best food in the park. Two quick-service spots in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Ronto Roasters and Docking Bay 7, serve up exotic-looking — but approachable and hugely popular — fare like the Ronto Wrap (with a Ronto-Less, plant-based option for vegetarians) and the Batuuan Beef Pot Roast and Endorian Fried Chicken Tip-Yip.
For snacks, you can’t leave Disneyland without trying at least one of the classics — Dole Whip from Tropical Hideaway, Mickey-shaped beignets from Mint Julep Bar, or just grab a churro or some popcorn from one of the many stands throughout the park. Star Wars fans can cool off with a Blue Milk, a fruity, frozen interpretation of the famed Tatooine drink, from Milk Stand in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
A mostly dry park, Disneyland has introduced alcohol in only two locations — Oga’s Cantina, the Star Wars-themed watering hole in Galaxy’s Edge, and with lunch or dinner at Blue Bayou.
Disney California Adventure
Just across the esplanade from Disneyland Park, Disney California Adventure was built as a love letter to the Golden State, but recent updates and new lands introduced in the 20-year-old park continue to lean harder into Disney IP with the California theming providing looser inspiration.
Cars Land, opened in 2012 and themed to the Disney Pixar Cars franchise, is one of the most well-executed, immersive lands at any Disney park and is a must-visit to take in the Route 66 Americana vibe (don’t miss seeing it when the sun goes down and the neon lights go up) even if you’re not a fan of the films. The land’s marquee attraction, Radiator Springs Racers, part classic dark ride, part high-speed thrill ride, is by many accounts the best in the park.
Marvel fans will want to assemble at Avengers Campus, the park’s newest land that opened in June 2021. A steady stream of character appearances and stunt shows starring Spider-Man, Black Panther, Black Widow, Thor, Loki, Dr. Strange and more keep the land buzzing with energy and ever-shifting points of interest. The land houses two more of the park’s must-ride attractions — WEB Slingers: A Spider-Man adventure, a family-friendly, interactive ride where guests help Peter Parker rein in his prototype Spider-bots that are multiplying out of control; and Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout!, the Marvel-themed redo of The Twilight Zone Tower is a can’t-miss for thrill-seekers.
For dinner, snag a sunset reservation at Lamplight Lounge, a Pixar-themed open-air restaurant on Pixar Pier where you can dine with stunning views of the lagoon, the Pixar Pal-A-Round Ferris wheel, and the Incredicoaster as it whizzes by with the setting sun in the background. For the most elegant meal in the park, head to Carthay Circle and enjoy modern, global cuisine in a restaurant inspired by the iconic Hollywood theatre.
Satisfy superhero-sized appetites at Avengers Campus’ Pym Test Kitchen, which serves a playful menu of over- and under-sized dishes like the Impossible Spoonful — giant and miniature plant-based meatballs and pasta and the Quantum Pretzel, a whopping 453.8-gram Bavarian-style pretzel served with beer-cheese sauce.
Disneyland Resort is home to three official hotels that will each appeal to a different type of traveler — and budget. Topping the list is Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, the resort’s grand dame hotel that wows with its breathtaking lobby and rustic California craftsman-style architecture and theming. While a stay here comes with a hefty price tag, it’s well worth it for the unbeatable location — the resort has its own entrances to both Disney California Adventure Park and the Downtown Disney District — award-winning dining, and brand-new Tenaya Stone Spa.
Nostalgic travelers and Disney fanatics can’t do better than the Disneyland Hotel, which opened in 1955 and honors Disneyland’s past and present with its Frontier, Adventure and Fantasy Towers and corresponding themed rooms, each a nod to Disneyland Park’s iconic lands, and its Monorail-themed pool. Whether you’re a hotel guest or just passing by, be sure to grab a cocktail at Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar, a themed watering hole, teeming with Disney Easter eggs, where animated bartenders served top-notch tiki drinks.
Rounding out the list is beachy, California boardwalk-themed Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel, which definitely has fewer frills than the other two and is still fairly pricey. Guests who don’t feel strongly about staying “on property” may find better value at one of Disneyland’s many good neighbor hotels, many of which provide five-star amenities for a comparable price to Paradise Pier. Some of our favorites include the Hilton Anaheim, Anaheim Marriott, Westin Anaheim, and JW Marriot Anaheim.
Disneyland Resort’s vibrant shopping, dining and entertaining area, the Downtown Disney District is packed with restaurants, shops, and, depending on time of year, themed décor. Head here for a break from the parks, some retail therapy — World of Disney has the largest selection of Disney merchandise anywhere at Disneyland — and a plethora of dining options. Some of our top picks are Naples Ristorante e Bar for authentic wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas, Ballast Point for California brews and solid, upscale bar food, and Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen for New Orleans cuisine, jazz music and fun theming.
'Tis the Season
No place does holidays like the Disneyland Resort and pandemic restrictions haven’t kept Disneyland back from pulling out all the stops for Halloween and the holiday season this year. The halls are decked and the parks are dressed to the nines with stunning festive overlays to areas like Cars Land and attractions like Haunted Mansion Holiday and “it’s a small world” Holiday, spectacular parades and spirited cultural celebrations like the Viva Navidad Street Party, and seasonal food offerings from exquisitely decorated treats to inventive food and drinks during limited-time festivals like Disney Festival of the Holidays at Disney California Adventure. If you’re planning a visit during this holiday season, check out the limited-time offer to save on stays at Disneyland’s hotels.
Brooke Geiger McDonald is a theme park journalist and lifelong Disney fanatic covering Disney parks, resorts and Disney Cruise Line. When she’s not checking out the newest rides, restaurants, and entertainment or sailing away on a Disney cruise, you’ll find her breaking the latest theme park news on Twitter and Instagram.