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Disneyland Planning Guide

I’ll be frank, Disneyland can be overwhelming. Where to stay, where to eat, and how to get there. Not to mention the perennial question, what do you actually DO at Disneyland? Where do you get tickets? When to go? Are there discount tickets? Are there hotels within walking distance? Must you spend a year saving money to get your family of four to Disneyland? Will it be worth it? Should you save your money and invest in a house-trained orangutan?

And really, what’s the difference between Disneyland and Disney World? Aren’t they the same?

There’s a lot to tackle here, so let’s take it one step at a time...Let’s start with the basics:

Disneyland versus Disney World, the breakdown.

Disneyland is in California, in the city of Anaheim, which for those of you who are not American or live in SoCal, it’s basically Los Angeles. (For the folks living in Anaheim, sorry but, it’s true for the rest of us). Disney World on the other hand might be what many of us think of when we think of the Disney amusement park. That one, Disney World, is the megalopolis in Florida where the Epcot Center is located, Space Mountain, and the Magic Kingdom.

Walt Disney is who exactly?

It’s easy to discount Disney as this mega corporation, but did you know that Walt Disney was actually a poor artist? His father was a farmer and carpenter, and his mother a teacher. His formative years were spent in Marceline, Missouri where he grew interested in crayons and watercolors, drawing and painting. He and a fellow artist named Ub Iwerks formed a small studio together in 1922. Thanks to a cheating producer, they had to file for bankruptcy in 1923! It was after this that he made his way to California and started another animation and production studio. This is the company that grew into the monolith that we know today as “Disney”.

Now that we’ve got some history and an understanding of the small roots from which Walt Disney was born, we can venture forward into the park itself.

Disneyland Theme Park

Disneyland has the distinction of being the original, authentic theme park that Walt Disney himself oversaw. Main Street, a famous attraction at Disneyland, is modeled on the hometown where Disney grew up.

Disneyland can be thought of as three distinct areas:

Disneyland Park

This is where the famous castle is, the steam-powered train ride that goes all around the park, Toon Town, Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, and the “It’s a Small World” attraction. (WARNING – you may have that song stuck in your head for months. Months.)

Disneyland Park is also home to the “Lands”, think of Fantasyland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland and the newer Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Downtown Disney

If you’ve been wondering if there are any hotels within walking distance of Disneyland, surprise, they’re all at Downtown Disney. Downtown Disney is an outdoor shopping center and a link between Disneyland Park and the Disney California Adventure. Downtown Disney is also where the three hotel properties that are located within Disneyland are situated.

Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, Disneyland Hotel and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel are the three hotels that are owned by Disneyland and they have park ticket and hotel packages available. We’ll get into more details about hotels in this section.

Disneyland California Adventure Park

Disneyland California Adventure Park is the “newer” part of the park, if you consider twenty years old new. It must be noted though that from 2007 – 2012, the park underwent a billion-dollar renovation and since then has hit record numbers of attendance. The park has themed adventures that appeal to Disney and Pixar knowledgeable audiences, such as: Cars Land from the movie Cars, Ariel’s Undersea Adventure from The Little Mermaid, Turtle Talk from Finding Nemo, Jessie’s Critter Carousel from Toy Story, Emotional Whirlwind from Inside Out, Incredicoaster from The Incredibles as well as the Avengers Campus from Batman and Robin. Okay, you got me, from Avengers of course!

Other non-movie adventures include Grizzly River Run, Soarin’ Around the World (an airborne hang-glding flight), Pixar Pier and Hollywood Land.

Where to Stay at Disneyland

If you’re not interested in heading to Disneyland by now, skip the rest of this article and go get the orangutan.

If you’re still here, then let’s figure out where you can sleep at Disneyland...and snag some ice cream. Who says you can’t have your ice cream and eat it too??

As mentioned, the three hotels that are on the Disneyland property itself include Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, Disneyland Hotel and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel. The advantage of staying at one of these locations is, well, location! Beyond location, guests at any one of these three hotels are also allowed early admission to either Disneyland Park or Disney California Adventure Park. You will also receive 10% off at many of the dining and merchandise options within the park.

Staying on Site

Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel is on the upper end of the price range. With craftsman style elegance and a day spa, this is the place to indulge. If you have cash to spend, this is where to spend it. From 1-bedroom suites to 3-bedroom suites, to standard two queen beds, this hotel is built for the grown-ups. When the grown-ups are happy, the children will follow. (Mostly). Which is not to say your children will be miserable, given that the hotel has no less than three pools and a princess-themed breakfast complete with actual Disney princesses!

Disney Hotel is the middle tier of pricing, with luxurious rooms and monorail-themed waterslides. All the amenities you expect from a luxury hotel, with queen rooms and king rooms. If your family is a bit more adventurous, I’d recommend the Adventureland Suite, or Pirate Suite, Big Thunder Suite or Mickey Mouse Suite. If you’re going Disney, then go all the way.

For the aquatically inclined, Disney’s Paradise Pier hotel has a seaside theme and a rooftop pool, not to mention the best prices if you wish to avoid a second mortgage. Granted, the rooms aren’t as luxurious as the Disney Hotel or the Grand Californian Hotel, but it’s not as bad as Super 8. We’ve got standards after all.

Off Site Hotels

There are reasons not to stay on-site...you want a better selection of hotels, package deals, or maybe you need a little space between you and The Disney. Whatever your reasons, there are some terrific hotels within walking distance of Disneyland. Please remember though, if you’re not staying onsite, and you don’t have the Genie+ app (link to section) then you may not have access to the most popular rides and they may indeed sell out.

Walk to Disneyland

You can walk right across the street and be at Disneyland. Easy peasy. You will still need to buy tickets and reserve the day you want to visit (see link here) but still, it’s a real option. All the following hotels are listed on Disney’s page as their “Good Neighbor Hotels”:

  • Candy Cane Inn – the name alone has me hook, line and sinker
  • Anaheim Camelot Inn & Suites – made to look like a German castle from the outside
  • Anaheim Majestic Garden Hotel – this hotel has a historic German Tudor facade
  • Best Western Plus - it’s not the Four Seasons, but you’ll be at Disneyland all day so...
  • Castle Inn & Suites – spectacularly designed to look like a medieval castle!

Shuttle to Disneyland

Yes, there are a plethora of hotels that would love to take your business and in return will deposit you upon Disney’s doorstep. Some will even do so free of charge. Are they decent? Is Mickey married to Minnie?

  • Howard Johnson’s Anaheim Hotel & Water Playground – Yes. Water. Playground
  • Hilton Anaheim – a decent hotel at a decent 15-minute walk to Disneyland
  • Sheraton Park Hotel at the Anaheim Resort – another castle-themed hotel. The difference here is it’s a block from Disneyland, has 13 acres of gardens, koi pond and spa tub
  • Anaheim Marriot – a high-rise hotel near the convention center
  • Alpine Inn

There are plenty more hotels with shuttle to Disneyland options, including hotels with multiple bedroom suites.

Disneyland Tickets

“Genie”, “ParkHopper”...nope, these are not new fictional Disney characters, they’re Disneyland ticket types. It’s not 1987 anymore people.

Let’s understand these terms:

One Park Per Day

This is pretty simple. You visit Disneyland Park OR Disneyland California Adventure. Only one of these per day, no hopping back and forth between them. Two adults + two kids, for 3 days = $1400

Park Hopper

If you’ve got fickle kids (and who doesn’t?) this might be the way to go. You pay one extra fee of $60 on top of the ticket price (not an additional $60/day mind you) and then you can hop between the first park and the second park. On some days you may have to choose which park to begin with, but based on the availability I can see, this isn’t a serious issue. Two adults + two kids, for 3 days = $1640

Disneyland requires that you have a ticket AND a reservation. That wording seems overly complicated, no? It’s just like going to the movies, folks...which movie, which day, which time. Disney is the same...which day do you want to go, and how many days do you want to go? Voila!

Let’s Get Complicated>

Disney Genie – this is an app that’s designed to make your life easier. Sound familiar? Disney Genie updates in real time the wait time for rides, what shows are starting soon and which rides to head to.

In order to use Disney Genie, you have to have: My Disney Experience – yes, another app. Think of My Disney Experience as the Parent, and Disney Genie is the child. Also included in My Disney Experience is the option to buy tickets, share Disney PhotoPass (yes, another feature of the app) and observe your Disney Resort hotel reservations, not to mention make restaurant reservations.

You’re with me so far? Good. Buckle your seatbelt. Don’t have a seatbelt? I’ll wait. You’re gonna need it, trust me.

Genie+ and Lightning Lanes

What’s the difference between Genie+ and Ligthning Lanes? Well, as someone who does not possess a PhD in anything, let me try to explain it in layman’s terms.


Of course it couldn’t just be “Genie”, there has to be a “Genie+” option. The difference? This is a paid add-on to your Genie and with it, you’ll be able to access the Lightning Lanes for a particular ride. This feature is valuable if you are coming at a busy time, if you want access to the most popular attractions, and/or if special photo ops are important to you. It should be said though, that not ALL rides have this option.

Lightning Lanes

If you don’t have Genie+, you can still skip ahead into the faster line for some rides. How? By purchasing a Lightning Lane pass for that ride and that ride alone. Think of it like a pay-per-ride reservation. You want to have your ride experience between 2 – 3pm? Then you purchase a single Lightning Lane for that ride and boom, be there then and get your ride. This is another way to skip ahead closer to the front of the line. If you don’t have Genie+, then you may be able to only make 2 – 3 lightning lane passes per day. When can you buy Lightning Lane?

  • On-site and off-site Disney Genie+ guests: 7AM
  • On-site Disney World hotel individual Lightning Lane guests: 7AM
  • Off-site individual Lightning Lane guests: Park Opening

Did you get that? If you stay on-site, you have first dibs on Lightning Lane passes. Additionally, it should be noted that for some of the most popular rides, they will sell out minutes after the 7am release time.

Disney Fastpass

Remember this option from your past? It’s now called Lightning Lane. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, ignorance really is bliss in this case.

Have a spare hour? Read through this article on Lightning Lane and Genie+.

Magic Key

Say you’re interested in having access to Disneyland and Disney World at different times throughout the year...then the Magic Key is for you! Magic Key has four different levels, depending on how often you want to go and which parks you’re most interested in.

Southern California Residents

If you are lucky enough to live in Southern California, then you are at an advantage here. You can purchase an “Imagine Key”. This is a Magic Key that is specific only to Southern Californian residents. Please note, there are blockout dates...

Discount Tickets?

Is there such a thing as discount tickets? Well, is there a talking mouse that attracts over 8.5 million people to a little town in Southern California each year? You be the judge.

  • Undercover tourist – we’ve seen some great deals and some not-so-great deals on this website. It’s always worth a look-see.
  • Costco Crazy – one more reason why it’s worth being a Costco member? Discounted Disneyland tickets in fact!! You’ll find package deals here for on-site hotels as well as for tickets, depending on availability and time of year of course.
  • You’re a T-Mobile customer? Then you can get a ‘T-rrific’ Deal on Disneyland tickets. The deal applies to the 5-day Park Hopper pass. Every little bit counts people!
  • Get Away Today – this discount site also has the occasional deal on Disneyland, including getting an Extra Day Free!

Is all of this news to you? Park Hopping and Lightning Lanes and Genies walking around gifting obscure things? You’re not alone. Disneyland made some major changes to its ticketing system, reservations and parking due to customer feedback over the last few years. The new changes even include lower prices in some cases!

When to Visit Disneyland

Is there really a bad time to go to Disneyland? Why yes Skipper, yes there is. Basically, the whole of July and August. I’m sorry, I know, that’s exactly when the kids are out of school and Grandma isn’t visiting and when you’re about to lose your mind but decide it’s best to check Disneyland off your bucket list while the kids mostly still enjoy spending time with you.

Okay, the upside to a summer trip is fireworks, the rides and park stay opener later because the whole Earth tilting-on-its-axis thingie. That being said, if you are prone to melting, this would be a bad time to visit.

January – March is of course a good option for hotel deals and cheaper tickets...but, this can also be the time when the park repairs rides, or replaces rides.

The obvious holidays, Memorial Day, Labor Day, July 4th, Thanksgiving, Christmas, all of these days are great times to go if you want to run the risk of being turned away at the gate.

We could go on and on about Disney. The reality is it will be an experience to remember for the rest of your lives. Full stop.