We have taken our nine year old twin boys (Andrew and Josh) to Disney World every year since they were four years old. This year we decided to do something different – a 5 night trip to Disneyland followed by a 7 night Mexican Riviera cruise on Princess Cruise Line. In this report I will describe the Southern California portion of our trip. I will also describe our impressions of the different attractions we saw at Disneyland compared to similar attractions at Disney World. I’ll include some tips we discovered that may help you on a future Disneyland trip.
Monday February 17th
We took a 11:30 am United flight from Denver direct into LAX airport. The Denver airport was crowded this day because of weather problems closing airports on the east coast – we had a one hour wait just to get our luggage checked in! Fortunately we arrived at the airport 2 1/2 hours ahead of time so even with this delay we were able to catch our flight. Our flight was a smooth one and we arrived ontime at LAX. I had planned to buy Super Shuttle transfers at the airport to our Grand Californian hotel at Disneyland. After we collected our baggage I saw a “Airport Bus” ready to depart with no Super Shuttles in sight, so we decided to take the Airport Bus transportation.
The Airport Bus got us to the Disneyland area quicker than I expected (about 40 minutes), but then made the rounds to various Disneyland area hotels to drop off its passengers. By the time we got to the Grand Californian it was 75 minutes after we had left LAX. TIP: If you are taking a shuttle service from either LAX or Orange County, I recommend paying the extra dollars for Super Shuttle. You will get to your resort faster and have a much more comfortable ride. While the Airport Bus service was mediocre at best, we were very pleased with Super Shuttle transfers we were to take later in the trip.
We checked in to Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel – a beautiful resort that reminded us of the Wilderness Lodge at Disney World. The architecture between the two hotels is very similar. We like this hotel even better than the Wilderness Lodge because the rooms are larger and the lobby area is bigger. Our room was on the third floor, and we found a large staircase to the checkin area convenient to use rather than wait for an elevator. The GC has a huge fireplace in the lobby area that was very inviting to sit in front of. Another big plus for staying at the GC is its close proximity to Disney’s California Adventure theme park (DCA), Disneyland, and the Downtown Disney area. All are within easy walking distance.
Tonight we had dinner at the Rainforest Cafe in Downtown Disney. The food and atmosphere were excellent! This was the largest and best Rainforest I had eaten at (I have also eaten at Rainforests at Disney World, in Denver, and in Las Vegas). Though the restaurant is large (two stories) it has many small rooms. This night we were seated in a small area with only a few tables and a large aquarium. TIP: This is a place where you definitely want to make advance reservations. We had reservations at 5 pm and we were seated immediately. Even at 5 pm people who walked up had a 40 minute wait for a table.
After dinner we visited the ESPN Sportszone. Again this was the best ESPN Sportszone restaurant I have visited. It is much larger than the Disney World version with a second story completely devoted to sports games. We played different games for about an hour here (basketball challenges, hockey, football toss, race car simulators, etc). TIP: If you get Disney park hopper tickets note on the back of the ticket you can show your card at ESPN Zone for a free $10 game card. For my family of four we got $40 worth of game cards, which we didn’t even use up in an hour. We returned to the Grand Californian and sat in the lobby in front of the fireplace. In the evening the hotel has a pianist playing many classics – it was very relaxing sitting in a rocking chair in front of the fire listening to the music.
Tuesday February 18th
We awoke and had a yummy breakfast at Grand Californian’s White Water Snacks.
TIP: This is a good place for a quick and inexpensive breakfast before you go to the parks. We found the breakfast burrito to be particularly good.
Today we used one day of our three day park hopper tickets at the Disney parks. The parks did not open until 10 am today, and we found the entry to Disneyland quite crowded at the opening. The gates were opened at 9:30 am and Disney allowed us to congregate on Main Street before the park opened at 10 am. We headed straight for the Matterhorn only to find the ride was closed for mechanical reasons. So we visited the Haunted Mansion, instead. We found this attraction pretty similar to the Disney World version on the inside – the themeing and the building outside is very different.
We visited “It’s A Small World” and found the inside of the ride very similar to Disney World’s. The outside is quite different as the Disneyland ride has an elaborate facade that on closer inspection is actually an intricate clock. For lunch we ate at Rancho Del Zocalo. TIP: The portions are HUGE at this fast food place – the nachos or burrito can easily feed two.
After lunch we went on Splash Mountain. This was similar to the Disney World version except the riders are seated single file in the log. We really liked this arrangement because it allowed us to take the Splash Mountain “picture” before the big plunge just with people in our family (we had a log of our own). The picture we got here was the best one we have had on a Splash Mountain ride – we added it to our collection of Splash Mountain pictures we had taken at Disney World previously. Like at Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, Splash Mountain is one of the best rides in the park.
Disneyland was even more crowded now in the early afternoon so we headed over to the DCA theme park. The best ride at DCA in my opinion is the Soaring Over California ride, and I wanted to make sure my family experienced this attraction. We waited about a half hour in line, before being treated to a flight over a huge screen with many classic California scenes (Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite, Death Valley, etc).
TIP: Soaring is a good attraction to get a Fast Pass at – the wait is often over 1/2 hour. If you are alone you can also get in much quicker by asking to get in the single rider line.
TIP2: Ask for the first row. You get an unobstructed view of the different California scenes. It’s still a good ride if you are in the second or third rows, but the feet of the people in the row above you can be distracting. You may have to wait one additional cycle of the ride to get the first row (about 7 minutes).
In the late afternoon we took a chance on getting into the 5 pm showing of the new Aladdin show at the Hyperion Theatre. We were very fortunate to get in! The Aladdin show is a live show with many songs from the movie. The 40+ minute show was the best one I have ever seen in a theme park, with good acting, singing, and special effects. The highlight was when Aladdin and Jasmine soared over the audience on a magic carpet singing “A Whole New World”.
TIP: This show often is not open to walkups (we were lucky). If you get a Disneyland vacation package, make sure to use your priority seating voucher at this show. Otherwise Disney hands out passes to the show under the Hollywood sign at DCA when that park opens in the morning. This show is a must see!
For dinner tonight we tried a offsite restaurant that we had heard good things about – Mimi’s Cafe located at 1400 Harbor Blvd. Mimi’s was only a 10 to 15 minute walk from the Disneyland entrance. The food was great! Anne and I liked our shrimp dishes, and the child meals at $3.99 including meal, drink, and dessert) were a good value.
TIP: If you want good food at reasonable prices, take a stroll to Mimi’s. We liked it so much we ate here twice during the week.
During the winter DCA closes at 6 pm and Disneyland closes at 8 pm on weeknights. After dinner at 7 pm we found Disneyland quite crowded for the evening parade, so we took the train ride around the park before returning to our hotel for the evening. I would rate the train as better than the Disney World MK train. You are seated on benches facing forward and there is more scenery. In one part of the ride you view a dinosaur exhibit similar to Ellen’s Energy Adventure in Epcot (except no Ellen!).
Wednesday February 19th
This morning we ate breakfast at Dennys – about a 10 minute walk from our Grand Californian Hotel. This is one nice feature of Disneyland - the offsite restaurants are within easy walking distance. Disneyland was again crowded at the 10 am opening time. We first rode the Autopia cars. This attraction is a good one to do early as there are long lines later. We liked Autopia better than Disney World’s Indy Speedway – the course was more interesting and the ride had a new feel to it thanks to a recent renovation.
We then went on the Storybook Land Canal Boats. This must have been the type of ride Walt had in mind when he said he wanted attractions that parents could ride on with their kids. A slow relaxing boat ride past minature scenes from Disney stories.
We only visited two attractions and it was already lunch time. Today we wanted to spend most of our time in the DCA park so we took the monorail back to Downtown Disney for a quick lunch. TIP: Naples Pizza window in Downtown Disney is one of the best food buys at Disney. For lunch you can get a large slice of pizza (more than enough for a hungry appetite) and a drink for $5. We bought two slices and it was enough for our family of four.
We visited various DCA attractions in the afternoon. We got a FastPass for Soaring Over California, and when it was our turn to ride we asked for the front row (see my TIP from Tuesday). This caused us to wait about 7 minutes more and it was worth it – we like the front row best in this attraction.
We spent quite a bit of time in the Disney Animation section in the Hollywood Backlot section of the park. The Animation building was quite different than the Disney World attraction. There were two interactive attractions – one where you can add your voice to a Disney character and a second where you take a quiz and find out what Disney character you are most like. Our boys enjoyed both attractions. We all took the character quiz – based on my personality type I turned out to be Jiminy Crickett. A third attraction was the “One Man’s Dream” film of Walt Disney’s life (this is also at Disney World). The fourth attraction had an animator interaction with Mushu the dragon from Mulan to explain animation – quite different from the Disney World Robin Williams film. In this attraction there was stadium style seating (different from being seated on the floor at the same Disney World attraction).
Being short on time, we skipped the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire – Play It attraction (we had seen this several times at Disney World). We did see Muppets 3D which was exactly the same as the WDW version. Anne and Josh went on the Grizzly River Run river raft ride and gave it a big thumbs up! They were to ride this several times over our remaining time at DCA. Andrew is afraid of heights so he sat out this ride with Dad.
We headed over to the Bay Area section of the park and attended the 20 minute “Golden Dreams” movie giving a brief history of California. Mom and Dad enjoyed this film very much. The film was narrated by actress Whoppi Goldberg who appears several times in the film. There is also a realistic statue next to the screen that comes alive with Whoppi’s face and voice before and after the film. The boys were ready for more rides afterwards!
After a quick stop at the Mission Tortilla Factory (where you watch how tortillas are made and get a free sample), we briefly visited the Paradise Pier section of the park and rode on the Sun Wheel. The Sun Wheel has two types of cars. One type rotates in and out along the edge of the frame as the wheel goes around. We decided on the stationary type of car which gave us some incredible views of the park without upsetting our stomachs.
For dinner this night I had set up reservations at Avalon Cove for a Character Meal featuring Ariel and friends. We were surprised to find the restaurant closed for the night and only open on weekends. TIP: If you make a reservation for Avalon Cove make sure to press the reservation agent to make sure it is open that night. Our agent made our reservation about week before our visit and was not aware the restaurant was closed on our selected night.
Disappointed that our character meal was cancelled, we took the short walk over to Mimi’s Cafe on Harbor Blvd and had another excellent dinner there.
After dinner we only had 45 minutes before the park closing. Remembering the crowds for the parade from the night before, Dad and Josh walked to Downtown Disney and took the Monorail to the Futureworld area of Disneyland. This strategy worked well, and allowed us to ride the Matterhorn for the first time on our trip before the park closed. We walked out of the park at 8 pm and met Mom and Andrew back at the room. We slept well after another full and fun day at the Disneyland and DCA parks.
Thursday March 20th
We had four full days to stay in the Southern California area but only 3 day park hopper passes, so what to do with the extra day? We decided to visit Universal Studios Hollywood. We took the Airport Bus transportation which picked us up at our hotel at 8 am. The bus made several stops at different hotels in the Disneyland area, and then we had about a one hour ride to Universal Studios. We arrived 20 minutes late.
Universal was not as crowded as Disneyland so despite our late arrival we still were able to get on one of the first Studio Tour trams. The Studio Tour was excellent! It was an hour and 15 minutes in length – you are seating in a open air tram the whole time. This location has a long history of making movies. We saw many famous sets, including the town from Back To The Future, the hotel from Psycho, the large water tank where the Splashdown scenes from Apollo 13 were filmed, and others. What I particularly liked were the overhead monitors in the tram that played scenes of famous movies at different parts of the tour in the exact locations where these scenes were filmed. The narration from the driver was good, in addition to prerecorded narration from directors Ron Howard, Steven Spielburg, and others. I have been on Studio Tours at Disney and at Universal Studios Florida – I would rate this Universal Studios Hollywood tour as the best of its type I have ever been on. Our boys also rated it as their favorite attraction of the day. A definite must see attraction for movie lovers!
TIP: We found the Studio tour uncrowded even later in the day. Because you are seated during the whole tour this may be a good one to go on later, when the legs need a rest after walking around the theme park all day.
For the rest of our day here we visited various Universal Studios attractions – the ET Ride, the Special Effects Show, Terminator 3D, Backdraft, Animal Planet Live, Back To The Future Ride, and the Spiderman Rocks Show. Of these we liked the Special Effects Show (recently renovated), the ET Ride, and the Animal Planet Live show the best. We did not care for the Spiderman Rocks show – a very loud and “in your face” rock show with the Spiderman characters. We were expecting a show like “Tarzan Rocks” at Disney World which we had really enjoyed in the past, but the Spiderman show wasn’t near as good.
We found more than enough attractions to fill our day at Universal Studios. We were disappointed that the Jurasic Park ride, the best ride in the park as rated by many, was closed this day for maintenance. We also enjoyed the scenic location of the park, with good views of the studio backlot and the LA area. We were to take our Airport Bus transfers back to Disneyland at 6 pm, but the bus did not show up until 6:45 pm. Next time we will use the transfers Disney recommends (Coach USA) instead of Airport Bus. At 6 pm we saw several Coach USA buses that had arrived on time. We had a dinner reservation at PCH Grill for 8 pm, but because of our bus delay we arrived back in the Disneyland area at 8:15 pm. We found many of the offsite restaurants with long waits at this time of night, so we got a quick bite to eat at Dennys before returning to our Grand Californian hotel.
Friday March 21st
Today we had a full day at the Disneyland and DCA theme parks. This gave us a chance to visit some attractions we had missed on our first two days in the parks.
We all rode the Matterhorn – the second time for Dad and Josh, the first time for Mom and Andrew. We all enjoyed this ride very much – an oldtime classic Disney roller coaster. I thought the ride was similar to Big Thunder Mountain in the amount of thrills it provides – a tame roller coaster by modern standards but still fun and good for the kids. The height limit for this one is only 36″ so even smaller kids can ride it. TIP: If you have a choice of whether to go left or right when waiting for the ride, the right turn results in a slightly longer and milder ride. A left turn results in a more wild ride.
Andrew, Josh, and Mom went on the Disneyland version of Big Thunder Mountain. Josh rated it better than the Disney World version – he thought the scenery was better and the ride was more wilder. Dad and Josh went on Space Mountain. I thought this ride was even scarier than the Disney World version since it was darker. You had no idea which way the car was going to turn inside the mountain. I liked the Disney World Space Mountain better, while Josh preferred the Disneyland version.
We rode two classic rides not at Disney World – Pinocchio and Mr Toad’s Wild Ride – and we enjoyed these. I found Pinocchio to be one of the best rides of this type (Snow White, Peter Pan, etc).
For lunch we ate at the famous Blue Bayou restaurant, overlooking the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. This restaurant is a little pricey for lunch (with entrees in the $12-$18 range) but the food was good and the atmosphere was great! The restaurant is very dark, lit by candlelight, and you can see the boats going by from the Pirates ride if you have a table near the water. TIP: This is a good restaurant to make a reservation at before your trip at the 11:30 am opening time. We made a reservation here and we were seate first in a prime table right by the water. I saw many others make reservations earlier in the day. TIP2: We were surprised the kids meals here are for 8 year olds and under. We found this out after we left the restaurant and had ordered kids meals for our 9 year olds! The kids meals were certainly big enough to feed a 9 year old – our boys both enjoyed their meals very much.
After lunch we went on the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride. This ride is much longer and much better than the Disney World version with more pirate scenes.
We headed over to DCA in the afternoon and rode some of our favorites again (Soaring Over California, Grizzly Falls). We spent more time in the Paradise Pier section. We rode the Sun Wheel again. Dad and Josh went on Mulholland Madness (a small but fun roller coaster). Andrew and Mom enjoyed Jumping Jellyfish and the Zephyr ride. This whole area resembles an old time amusement park and reminded me of Lakeside park in Denver which I visited many times as a child.
Just before dinner (and darkness) we visited a new child’s area – a Bug’s Land. This area is good for kids under 6 years old – rides on a par with those in Mickeys Toon Town at Disneyland. For dinner we walked to Downtown Disney and ate at the ESPN Zone. I found the Caesar Salad to be quite good.
On Friday and Saturday nights in the winter the classic Disney Electrical Parade is held at DCA at the park closing. TIP: If you want a front row seat for this parade there are often good spots to be found towards the end of the parade route near the Paradise Pier area. We had a great spot in the front to see the many colorful lighted floats. This parade is a Disney classic and a must see!
After the parade we had enough time to walk over to Disneyland to see the nighttime fireworks there. The parade and fireworks ended a fun four days at Disneyland and at Universal Studios.
We really enjoyed our four days in the Southern California theme parks. We had been to Disney World so many times that it was nice to visit a different Disney park with new attractions (Aladdin Show, Matterhorn, Soaring Over California, and others) and with different versions of the rides we had done at Disney World so many times (Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain, Animation tour, etc). We still love Disney World and will visit there again in the future. Both Disneyland and Disney World have their own unique features and both are worth a visit. We saw alot in our 3 days at Disneyland and DCA, yet we could have easily spent another day or two here revisiting some of our favorites and catching some attractions we missed.