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California: Disneyland for Grownups

Shannon Essa (Shannon)

Who says Disneyland is only for kids? I go to Disneyland several times a year and I still get excited every time I get to the Disney Way exit on the freeway. If you haven't been to Disneyland in a few years, you'll be shocked at how it has changed. There is the new park next door, Disney's California Adventure, and Downtown Disney, an outdoor mall with dining and shopping. Disneyland has become a great destination for grownups, too.

Why do I love Disneyland so much? Well, besides being the Happiest Place on Earth, it's just a great place to totally escape from reality for a while. Take a few days and check it out. If you have kids, by all means bring them, and then make use of some of my adult tips while the kiddies are at the pool or, even better, hanging out with the babysitter.

When to Go

The weather is decent all year around in Southern California. Do yourself a favor and don't plan a trip to Disneyland during Summer vacation, Easter week, Christmas vacation or any other school holiday. The absolute best time to go is weekdays during the school year. If you must go on the weekend or during school holidays, plan to spend your days hanging out by the pool and your nights at the resort. Fighting crowds is no fun so avoid them whenever possible. If you go on weekdays in October or November, early December or January, you'll have the resort to yourself.

Getting There

Fly into Orange County airport and take a cab or shuttle, or if you are driving, take the Disney Way exit off the I-5. You can do without a car and be totally happy on Disneyland property for a few days.

Disneyland Tickets

A one day ticket is a whopping $63 and this only gets you in to one park (choose Disneyland; the California Adventure is not worth $63!).

"Park Hopper" tickets are available for longer visits, and these tickets allow you to see both parks as many times as you want as long as the ticket is valid. These prices are:

1 day Park Hopper - $83
2 day Park Hopper - $116
3 day Park Hopper - $149
4 day Park Hopper - $169
5 day Park Hopper - $179

Slow travel means...4 or 5 days.

There are also annual passes that will pay for themselves if you are going to visit the Disneyland Resort more than five days in a year. The deluxe pass is $239 (but has a few Saturday and holiday blackout dates.) The premium pass is $359 with no blackout dates. You get free parking and perks at Downtown Disney and at the Disneyland Hotels with them, too. They are worth looking into. Downtown Disney does not require a ticket.

Where to Stay

There are numerous hotels and motels all over Anaheim to hold the scads of visitors. Don't stay at a hotel that is not within walking distance - even if they have shuttles. The shuttles take forever and are sometimes crowded. There are plenty of options within walking distance.

I usually stay at the Anaheim Plaza Hotel & Suites. I love this place - it is basic, but clean and very inexpensive. The staff is really nice and they always let me check in early if they have a room. No attitude, no glamour, just a bed to fall on at the end of a busy day. They say they are the "Closest Hotel to Disneyland's Main Entrance" which is a big fat fib, but I still love them. They also have a huge pool.

I've also stayed at the Fairfield Inn on Harbor, another nice, basic hotel but a bit more expensive. Choose any hotel or motel between the blocks of 1400 and 1700 South Harbor and you will be in a great spot. All these places are off the street so it is nice and quiet. Don't book a motel on Katella - you'll be up all night listening to traffic.

If you want to splurge and stay at one of the Disneyland Resort Hotels, the Grand Californian is pretty fantastic - the lobby has a stone fireplace big enough to stand in, huge wooden beams, and rustic furniture. The rooms are pretty nice with lots of "lodgey" details, and some even look out into California Adventure. I have not seen rooms at the Disneyland Hotel or Paradise Pier - I prefer to stay on Harbor Blvd. for a fraction of the price. One major plus at the Disneyland hotels - if you have kids, they all have babysitting services so you can perhaps get away to the House of Blues for a show or a romantic dinner at Napa Rose.

Tips for Disneyland

  • Know your opening and closing times.
  • Have a nice long look at the resort map, and get your bearings.
  • Visit the Disneyland website before you go to find out about show times and closed rides (www.disneyland.com).
  • Use your FastPass. The FastPass has made Disneyland a better place by making it so you don't have to stand in lines all day. The most popular rides have kiosks near the entrance and you insert your park ticket into the kiosk. The kiosk then spits out a ticket with a time window on it. You arrive at your time, and breeze right past all the people waiting in line. You can only get one FastPass every couple of hours - your FastPass will tell you when you can get another. Please see my ride notes below on better FastPass usage.
  • Don't forget sunscreen.
  • Bring bottled water - all beverages are very expensive in the park!
  • If you go on a weekend or holiday, try to see the parks at night and if you must go during the day, save your sanity by completely avoiding Fantasyland and Toontown unless you like to get run over by pissed off grownups pushing tank sized strollers.
  • The best time to hit a lot of popular rides is between the first "Fantasmic" show and closing. If you want to see this show, which is very good, go to the second showing. Crowds start to gather a few hours before the first show, but the second has less crowding.
  • The Monorail is a good way to get back and forth from Disneyland to Downtown Disney. You are always only a Monorail ride away from a cocktail! It is sometimes faster to walk, however.
  • When you get to Disneyland ask someone who works there if there will be fireworks that night. If there are, you have to see them. You can see them from anywhere in Disneyland but then you must suffer through some really schmaltzy music and a cornball script. Caval Restaurant and Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen both have balconies from which you can see the fireworks but be sure to reserve early if you choose this option.

Drinking, and Sometimes Eating

At Disneyland, the food is pretty dismal and also really expensive. There is no alcohol served at Disneyland. I've never eaten one bite at California Adventure but they do have a wine bar! I always go to Downtown Disney for my food and drink. Here are my favorites:

The Uva Bar, Downtown Disney: This is always my first stop on any trip to Disneyland. The Uva Bar is outside and they have lots of wines by the glass and frothy frozen drinks. They have great food - good salads, sandwiches and appetizers. The adjoining restaurant, Catal, is pricey but has a nightly three-course menu a good price and from the balcony, you have a great view of the fireworks at Disneyland.

Naples Ristorante & Pizzeria, Downtown Disney: This is usually where I end up at 10:00 P.M. when I am starving. The pizzas are good, they can always get you in, and there is a nice outdoor seating area. They also have pastas and other dishes, but I only go for the pizza. This place is like a machine - there are tons of employees and you have a hard time keeping track of which one belongs to your table.

Tortilla Jo's, Downtown Disney: This is a pretty new restaurant, owned by the same money-making machine that owns the Uva Bar and Naples. They have 100 tequilas and made-to-order guacamole. The menu is your basic Mexican food menu but with some pretty high prices ($12.50 for a burrito?) I think, unless I am really craving tacos, that I will satisfy my Patron and Guacamole craving here at the bar but do my major eating elsewhere.

House of Blues, Downtown Disney: The food here is just OK but if you eat at the bar on one of the nights Rick Springfield is playing (and he plays quite often here) you will be treated to some pretty fantastic people watching. The bar is always packed right before show time and then dies. Check out their website for the House of Blues schedule - they have name acts playing there all the time.

The Wine Cellar, Disneyland Hotel: Underneath Hook's Point Steak House, right next to the Never Land Pool on the Disneyland Hotel grounds, is this very quiet and mellow wine bar. One thing you can be sure of is, there will never be kids in here. They used to have a really fantastic selection of wine by the glass - now the list is more your basic standard list. But I am in the wine business so maybe I am just being snooty. Even with the change in menu this is still a great place. I would recommend ordering a bottle off the more in-depth bottle list if you are so inclined. They have a nice spread of complimentary cheese and crackers.

The Golden Vine Winery, California Adventure Theme Park: This is the best part of California Adventure. You can have a glass of wine, go ride California Screamin, then go have another wine.

Napa Rose, Grand Californian Hotel: This is a very good, upscale restaurant serving California cuisine. They have a fantastic wine list and the dining room is gorgeous. If you want to drop some cash in a romantic atmosphere, eat at Napa Rose.

For sports freaks, there is the ESPN bar at Downtown Disney and at the Lost Bar at the Disneyland Hotel, with TV monitors showing whatever important sports are happening at that moment. There are a number of insta-eat options at Downtown Disney, like Wetzels Pretzels and Jamba Juice. There is an AMC theater there too.

If you need to get off Disney property, there are lots of bars, restaurants, and clubs on a short strip of Harbor (between Santa Fe and Berkeley Avenues) in Fullerton. This is a fifteen minute drive or about a $15 cab ride.

Riding the Rides - Disneyland

I am going to assume everyone loves fast rides. Here are my favorite rides and some planning tips for riding them:

The Top Four (Do Not Miss These)

Matterhorn Bobsleds: There is always a wait for this ride, and it is old and breaks down a lot. There is no FastPass, either. But once you make it on it is a great ride and has really cool views of Disneyland that go by quickly. There are two lines - one on the Tomorrowland side and one on the Fantasyland side, so pick the one that looks shorter. At the end of the line there should be a sign that tells you how long you will have to wait. Never wait more than 45 minutes. The best time to ride the Matterhorn is in the evening or even better, after 10 P.M.

Splash Mountain: Splash Mountain is a thrilling ride that gets you very wet and has some weird singing birds and stuff. If you go during the day, immediately go to Splash Mountain and get a FastPass. It's better to go during the day, because of the water factor. So make this one early and even visit the park during the day and ride Splash Mountain, THEN go to the pool until it is time to go back to Disneyland at 6:00 P.M.

Space Mountain: A roller coaster in a dark room with stars and planets and stuff - what more can you ask for? Use the FastPass on this one.

Raider's of the Lost Ark: This is a totally insane ride that throws you all over the place and is definitely the most creative of all the new fast rides. You get into a jeep and are "in" the movie, complete with arrows being shot at your head and a giant stone ball coming rapidly at you. Use your FastPass!

Other Rides

Disneyland Railroad: Great for getting around the park.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Ride this at night! There are no lines at night.

Haunted Mansion: DITTO

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad: This is a fun ride, but not cool enough to make it in the Top Four.

Snow White, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride: All of these have very long lines during the day, but go at night if the lines are short. They are fun but not worth an hour wait.

The Mad Tea Party: Crazy, spinning teacups that you control. The key is to get it going so fast that your head is sideways. There can be long lines, but it is worth it.

It's a Small World: All politicians should ride this ride. It is sweet, schmaltzy and touching. If you go later in the day there will be no lines.

Roger Rabbit's Toontown Spin: Worth venturing into Toontown for. It's hard to tell what is going on, but it is colorful and bizarre. Ride before 8 or so; Toontown closes earlier than the rest of the park. Use your FastPass!

Star Tours: A great ride, but one that is best the first time around, so don't do it twice (unless you have a few days.) Use the FastPass on this one, too.

Monorail: Getting to Downtown Disney for a Cocko Tail is more like it.

Autopia: Driving little cars at 5 miles an hour CAN be fun, I promise.

Entertainment in Disneyland

There is a stage near the Carnation Cafe (Main Street U.S.A.) that has swing music and dancing in the evenings.

"Fantasmic" is the best show, with walls of water, dancers, and animated Mickeys. Tomorrowland has live music too.

Riding the Rides - California Adventure

California Adventure, compared to Disneyland, is pretty lame. It's great if you have a Park Hopper ticket but not worth shelling out a full admission for. There are some fun, fast rides and a wine bar. It's a good amusement park, but is missing something very important: the genius of Walt Disney.

Soarin' Over California: A flight simulator over the sights of California, complete with smell-effects. You must use your FastPass, and early - it is the most popular ride.

Grizzly River Run: A fun river rafting ride that you will get SOAKED on. Do it during the day, and use the FastPass. On hot days, the FastPass time window can be hours after you got the pass.

California Screamin': My favorite ride at this park. It's a roller coaster, but with music piped in.

Sunwheel: A Ferris Wheel with compartments that move on tracks while you are going around. To get on quicker (the lines can be long) get in the line where the cars are stationary.

There are two types of cars - some move on a track and some don't move. There is no line for the cars that don't move.

Mulholland Madness: A mini-roller coaster, that is fun if the lines aren't too bad.

Tower of Terror: This is a brand new ride that just opened in May of 2004 so I haven't been on it yet, but it looks really scary and really fun.

Have fun and don't forget to look for the Hidden Mickeys!


www.disneyland.com: Visit the Disneyland website before you go to find out about show times and closed rides

www.anaheimplazahotel.com: Anaheim Plaza Hotel & Suites

www.hob.com/venues/clubvenues/anaheim/: House of Blues, Downtown Disney

California - Our Magical Day at Disneyland: A travel postcard of a perfect day at Disneyland, Pokey, 2006

Shannon Essa is a traveler through life who resides in San Diego. She co-wrote the guidebook Chow! Venice about eating and drinking in Venice, Italy. Shannon also owns and operates GrapeHops, Small Group Wine & Beer Tours to Europe and Beyond. Read Shannon's blog Poptarticus and see her SlowTrav Member Page.

© Shannon Essa, 2004

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