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For veterans of Walt Disney World, Disneyland planning can be a bit of a challenge in that there are several unknowns. Yes, Disneyland and Walt Disney World are similar in a lot of respects, but there are enough differences that your familiarity with the east coast parks will only get you so far. The good news, however, is that Disneyland planning is actually far easier than planning an Orlando trip — the park is set up to be equally accessible to day guests and locals as people who’ve planned for months — so with just a little bit of planning, you’ll quickly find the same comfort level out west in no time. Read on for all the info you need to take your Disneyland planning from newbie to expert!

The Basics

First and foremost, some basic info to help you get oriented: there are two theme parks at Disneyland Resort, three Disney hotels (for now) and the Downtown Disney area. The theme parks are Disneyland Park, which is similar in layout and content to Magic Kingdom, and Disney’s California Adventure, which I think of as sort of a smorgasbord of attractions you’ll find spread across Disney World’s parks (like Soarin’, Toy Story Midway Mania, and Turtle Talk with Crush), plus several original attractions that only exist there. Unlike Disney World’s parks, these two parks are very close to each other, and park-hopping takes about 90 seconds, exclusive of lines at the turnstiles. Yes, really!

The three Disney hotels are:

  • Grand Californian: the nicest, closest, and most expensive Disneyland Resort. It is attached to Disney’s California Adventure and has its own dedicated entrance to the park.
  • Disneyland Hotel: the original, throwback Disneyland lodging experience, and home to Disneyland icons like Trader Sam’s. It is typically the middle tier from a pricing standpoint.
  • Paradise Pier: the most spartan, and least expensive Disney hotel at Disneyland. Least expensive does not mean inexpensive, however, as will be discussed in more detail below.

Guests of Disney hotels can enter one park an hour early each day, sort of like Extra Magic Hours at Disney World. Disneyland does not do extra hours in the evening at all. In addition to the Disney hotels, there are several non-Disney “good neighbor” hotels that are within walking distance of the parks. While these guests do not get early entry every day, they can purchase multiday tickets that allow them to enter only Disneyland Park one hour early on certain days once over the course of their trip (called “Magic Mornings,” more on that below).

The three Disney hotels surround Downtown Disney, a shopping and dining district that is similar to Disney Springs. Actually, it’s more correct to say that it is similar to the former Downtown Disney at Walt Disney World. It has restaurants and shopping, but the quality on both fronts is not on par with what currently exists at Disney Springs, nor is it as picturesque. The “downtown” vs. “springs” comparison carries over here, in fact: Disney Springs is very green, with lots of water, whereas Downtown Disney, while nice enough, is comparatively utilitarian.  

One advantage that Disneyland has over Walt Disney World is that all of these things — the parks, the hotels, Downtown Disney — are all part of a single complex. The only transportation you’ll need to get around the resort is attached to the ends of your legs, and even the monorail that will take you from Tomorrowland to the far end of Downtown Disney is viewed more as a ride than a way to get around. Everything is very close to everything else.    

Lodging

Disneyland is surrounded by hotels close enough to walk.
(Map: Google)

This is one of the biggest differences between the two resorts. At Disney World, staying onsite provides a significant advantage in proximity and convenience. There are a small handful of deluxe resorts that permit you to walk to the parks, and you typically pay a decent premium for that privilege. Moreover, the size of Walt Disney World provides a buffer from the outside world that many affectionately refer to as the “Disney bubble”, which allows you to remain awash in Disney magic 24/7 in a way that the off-site hotels do not provide.

At Disneyland, however, there are many, many places to stay that are walking distance to the parks, both Disney owned and otherwise. Indeed, the closest hotel to the center of the esplanade between the two parks isn’t even a Disney hotel (it’s the Best Western Park Place Inn). Furthermore, there really isn’t a “bubble” in Anaheim — you’re just too close to “regular” life to tune it out entirely. You nevertheless pay a hefty premium to stay at a Disney hotel at Disneyland, but you’re really paying for theming and Disney touches more than convenience.

In fairness, most of the non-Disney hotels near Disneyland provide basic, unspectacular accommodations, but if you’re the sort of Walt Disney World visitor that spends most of your time in the parks and only stays onsite for the convenience, there are scads of hotels along Harbor Boulevard to the east of the parks that will meet your needs for far less than even the cheapest Disney hotel, Paradise Pier. Some even have nice pool complexes and other amenities beyond simply providing a place to sleep. Moreover, while I think most would agree that all three Disney hotels at Disneyland are nicer than the places on Harbor, there is a yawning chasm in terms of price between the two.

By way of example, picking a random Friday night, April 27-28, 2018, the Disneyland Hotel and the Grand Californian were $511 and $705 a night, respectively. Even the lower-priced — but far from opulent — Paradise Pier was $364/night. Various hotels on Harbor and in the surrounding area, all within easy walking distance, ranged between $135 and $199 for the same night. This not an anomaly — there can be a significant difference in the pricing for Disney vs. non-Disney hotels, and for me, while I would prefer to stay at a Disney hotel, there is such a price gap, it is tough to justify the significant upcharge. That said, lots of people do it and the Grand Californian and Disneyland Hotels in particular are beloved by many, so I’m not advising against staying there. The main takeaway for you here should be that unlike Disney World, there is very little difference in terms of convenience to a Disney hotel — if you’re staying there, you’re staying there for other reasons.

Tickets & Passes

Tickets at Disneyland Resort are oddly complex, and there are significant differences between single and multi-day tickets — and multi-day tickets can be different depending upon where and how you purchase them. For single-day tickets, there are three tiers, depending upon the time of year and how busy Disney is expecting it to be: Value ($97 adult/$91 for 3-9), Regular ($110/$104), and Peak ($124/$118). Park hopping privileges also vary by tier, costing $60, $55, and $50, respectively (yes, they go down in price as the cost of the base ticket goes up). Children younger than 3 do not need a ticket.

Multiday tickets may also be purchased, and they are not subject to the same tiering. Two-day tickets run $199 for adults, $187 for 3-9.  Three-day tickets are $270/$258, four-day tickets are $290/$275, and five-day tickets are $305/$290. The park hopper option can be added to any multiday ticket for $45 regardless of how many days you’ve purchased. Multiday tickets expire 13 days after their first use. Note that you cannot buy a ticket for more than five days at a time at Disneyland and given the smaller size of the resort, this is pretty reasonable — you can get everything done you want to get done and repeat your favorites in that amount of time, and still have plenty of time to relax.

Multiday tickets of three or more days purchased in advance direct from Disney on disneyland.com come with one “Magic Morning” pass, which allows you to enter Disneyland Park (and Disneyland Park only–it does not apply to California Adventure) one hour early once during your trip. Some third party vendors also provide this benefit, but not all; make sure you check before you purchase.

Disney Vacation Club Members receive 10% off merchandise and food at most locations at the resort; just bring your card and show it when you’re paying. When in doubt, ask if there’s a discount available. Are you an Annual Passholder at Walt Disney World? Unfortunately, this isn’t going to help you from a discount standpoint or for admission while you’re at Disneyland, I’m afraid.

Steep discounts on Disneyland tickets are rare and should be viewed with suspicion. With that said, modest discounts (up to 7%) are pretty common, as are Disneyland tickets bundled with other local attractions, like the Southern California CityPASS. For more information about Disneyland tickets and available discounts, check out our Disneyland ticket page.

FastPass+ Versus MaxPass

FastPass at Disneyland is currently undergoing a bit of a transformation. Remember the FastPass kiosks that you used at Walt Disney World back before FastPass+ came online? Well, they still have and use those at Disneyland. The difference between this system and the old Walt Disney World system, however, is that the little paper tickets they spit out are now just reminder cards — you use your park ticket (or phone) to scan into the attraction the same way you would use a MagicBand or RFID-enabled park ticket at Walt Disney World.

Despite the old school leanings of the kiosks, however, Disneyland is clearly inching closer to the tech-heavy approach at Walt Disney World. Disneyland recently introduced MaxPass, which is a service baked into the Disneyland App that allows you to make FastPasses with your phone without needing to physically walk to a kiosk to scan your ticket. In most other respects, however, it is just a techy version of the classic FastPass — you need to have entered a park to reserve a FastPass, you can only reserve one at a time, and it follows all other FastPass rules applicable to traditional FastPasses. Guy did an excellent write up on the service that is required reading if you’re going to Disneyland these days.    

MaxPass costs $10/day per person, and really needs to be purchased for each person in the party to have any real value for FastPass purposes. With that said, included in the cost of MaxPass is unlimited PhotoPass and ride photos for that day — if all you care about are photos, only one person in your party needs it (although that person will need to be in charge of all photos for the day).

Transportation

For someone flying into Southern California to visit Disneyland, transportation is frankly not near as easy or inexpensive as it is in Orlando. First of all, there’s no Magical Express, so you’re going to need to figure out a way to get from the airport to the resort, and whether it’s a rental car, a rideshare service like Lyft or Uber, a cab, or a shuttle, you’re going to have to reach into your wallet to get there. Moreover, I spend a lot of time in the Los Angeles area and have a lot of friends there so I say this with love, but the traffic in LA is an unmitigated disaster and colossal pain in the tail. Depending upon which airport you select and when you arrive, you could have a pretty good drive to get to Disneyland.

All else being equal, by far the best airport to target to visit Disneyland is John Wayne Airport in Orange County (SNA).  It is the closest airport to Disneyland, it is far less crowded than Los Angeles International (LAX), and if you arrive at a time when traffic is merely discouraging, you can be at Disneyland within 20 minutes or so of getting into a vehicle. If you can find a non-stop flight to SNA at a time that makes sense, you should book it.

All is not equal, however, and the problem with SNA is that there aren’t near as many flights going in and out of it each day, and you can typically find better and cheaper flights into LAX. Personally, I often have to choose between a non-stop flight to LAX and a connecting flight to SNA (that often costs a bit more). I’d rather fly into SNA, but even considering the longer drive from LAX to Disneyland — which can occasionally be MUCH longer, depending upon traffic — I’m still spending far less time in transit just flying into LAX.

As an aside, Long Beach is another airport that is closer to Disneyland than LAX, but it has even fewer flights than SNA. It’s worth considering if the flight schedules happen to work out, but I’ve never found a situation where it was a better option than SNA or LAX. Transportation costs and options are comparable to SNA.  Burbank and Ontario, the other two airports in the area, are both further than LAX, have fewer direct flights, and unlikely to be better options than LAX.

Regarding transit, your options are:

  • A ride-share service like Uber or Lyft
  • Taxi cab
  • Bus service: Disneyland Resort Express has several scheduled stops at Anaheim resorts, including all three Disney hotels.
  • Shared van service: SuperShuttle will make several stops, but will take you directly to your hotel as opposed to dropping you off somewhere that may require you to walk a bit.  Note that this service requires you to make reservations in advance.

Here’s a quick breakdown of what you can expect to spend round-trip depending upon the airport you choose, for budgeting purposes.  All prices exclude tips.  Note that prices for the bus and van shuttle services are per person, so depending upon the size of your party, they may not actually be more cost effective than an option that will take you directly to your hotel.

Uber/Lyft Cab Bus Van
Los Angeles International  $90-116 $190-220 $48 $32
John Wayne (Orange County)  $36-50 $90 $35 $20

Car rentals are another option but are too variable to be predictable here, so just make sure you check them and compare the pricing. Parking at Disneyland hotels is an added cost to having your own vehicle and is $20/night for self-parking and $30 for valet, but off-site hotels vary: make sure you check the hotel in advance to work this cost into your budget. 

If you’re staying far enough from Disneyland that you need to drive and park at Disneyland, the daily cost to park is $20. There are two primary parking areas at Disneyland Resort — the Toy Story Lot to the southeast, Mickey & Friends Garage to the northwest, both of which offer ride service from the lot to the parks. The Pumbaa Lot to the east is sometimes used as well, and provides the shortest walk to the resort. Other lots, such as the Simba Lot behind Paradise Pier Hotel, are opened for overflow when there is a need, but are not in normal operation. While the structure is famed for confusing the living bejeezus out of guests, the Mickey & Friends Garage is the preferred parking spot for many locals, because park access and security lines tend to be better entering from the West.

Finally, if you take an Uber or Lyft to and from the resort, rideshare vehicles are expected to pick up and drop off on the west side of Harbor Boulevard directly south of the pathway into the resort.

Conclusion

OK, so that’s a lot of info! With all of the logistical stuff out of the way, check back next week for some tips on when to go, food and dining, must-dos, and other insight on the Disneyland experience to help you get the most out of your trip!

Any important nuts and bolts I may have missed? Questions you want to see covered in next week’s wrap up?  Let me know in the comments!

 

10 COMMENTS

  1. Just wanted to chime in to validate and agree with everything James has said above! For any east-coasters reading, this info is all spot-on. If there’s any item worth noting/adding, it’s that Anaheim’s Downtown Disney is *very* small, and is almost exclusively restaurants and Disney-operated stores (selling the same stuff as in the parks). While Disney Springs is a lovely place to spend a morning or afternoon just walking around and taking in the sights, Anaheim’s DtD is not a “destination” you’d want to dedicate vacation time to exploring.

    • Thank you! I didn’t want to be too harsh re Downtown Disney, but you’re right, it’s not a destination. Probably the best thing about it, in my opinion, is providing several additional dining options that are close enough to easily visit while you’re at the parks. Unlike Disney Springs or resort restaurants at WDW where you’ve got to carve out a lot of time for transit, you can be at a DTD restaurant within a few minutes of leaving a park at Disneyland.

  2. If you know Magic Kingdom with your eyes closed, be prepared to feel slightly out of sorts at Disneyland. I kept feeling like I *should* know where everything is, only to get myself completely turned about! Still, Disneyland is an incredible park, and I loved just how charming it was.

    • I heard a great description once that it is that it’s as if someone came into your house while you were sleeping and rearranged your furniture and repainted your walls. It’s all familiar, but not quite the way you remember it.

  3. I’m curious to know everyone’s preferred method of getting from LAX to Disneyland. I went 2 years ago and it was a nightmare to even get a rental car. Stuck in a stuffy garage for a solid hour before we got a vehicle. If that’s the norm, I’d like to look for other options. Any preference?

    • For me, I typically use Lyft/Uber. Only takes slightly longer than a cab at like half the cost. Not the cheapest option, but best combo of value for your money, I think — especially if you have more than one person.

  4. Thank you for the excellent information! We will be going to Disneyland in September next year and your post has cleared up much of my confusion – especially regarding Magic Mornings and MaxPass (awesome that it includes PhotoPass!)

    Also good information re: LAX vs. SNA. Unfortunately my preferred airline doesn’t fly into SNA (technically it does, but the flights have enormous layovers).

    I’m looking forward to your next post(s) on the topic!

  5. This is a helpful series! We are planning our first trip to DLR in late September to celebrate a birthday. Family of 5, hotel reservations at a Marriott property that is walkable. Given the parking situation and traffic, I’d prefer to cab/Lyft around the area.

    I’m also considering flying one way into Las Vegas and check out some national parks first and then fly out of a Los Angeles airport. Will need to see what I can do to make the logistics make sense.

    It will also depend on the wild fire situation at the time 🙁

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