Hello, my name is Nicole, and I am a complete Disney nerd! Growing up on the East Coast, I went to Disney World a lot more often than Disneyland (I lived in Orlando for a portion of my childhood, as well). However, despite its distance from me, Disneyland always had a very special place in my heart. Now that I live within an hour of Disneyland (pending traffic), I try to go once a month to get my fill. People always ask – don’t you get bored going so much, or what do you keep doing when you go? I have two responses to that: 1. There are many Disney fans out there who go a lot more than once a month (and I am very jealous of them) 2. Disneyland is fabulous and it’s impossible for me to get bored there—there are just so many things to do! While most of the time we just visit for the day, once a year we like to make it into a weekend adventure. That’s what I would like to discuss today—my weekend guide to Disneyland.
Just a few items to get out of the way:
- This guide will focus on Disney activities for “grown-ups” since I have not visited Disneyland with kids
- When I say “Disneyland”, I mean the entire Disneyland Resort – both Parks (Disneyland and California Adventure), Downtown Disney, and the three resort hotels (Paradise Pier, Disneyland Hotel, and The Grand Californian)
- I have an Annual Pass. If you are just going for the day, you will need to purchase a Park Hopper so you can bounce around from one park to the other. Since the two parks are literally across from each other, park-hopping is much, much, much easier at Disneyland than Disney World. If you are going for the weekend, then get a Multi-Day Park Hopper. Do not get one park ticket for one day and the other park ticket for the other day because it really limits you, and Disneyland is about fun and flexibility! Park-hopping is essential to the “Leonetti Living” Disneyland experience!
Ok, now that we got that out of the way! We're going to Disneyland!!
Hop in your car and head to Disneyland! The earlier the better to beat traffic! You will want to park at whatever hotel you are staying at, which means it’s time to decide where to stay. I’ve stayed at a few non-Disney owned hotels in the area, but it’s best to stick with the main three for convenience and that Disney magic. Here are the options:
Paradise Pier: While Paradise Pier is the lowest cost option for Disneyland hotels, it is certainly not inexpensive. It’s the most basic of the options, but I enjoy it there. It’s a little farther walk from the parks, but still fairly close and they have a fun Character Dining experience at Donald Duck’s Seaside Breakfast.
Disneyland Hotel: This may be a bit controversial, but Disneyland Hotel is my favorite hotel of the three options. I just think it’s the most magical and I love it! It was the first one built, so I adore the history of it and I quite enjoy walking the grounds – especially walking over to Trader Sam’s for a tiki-inspired cocktail! I have to say, though, that my favorite part of this hotel is that the headboard on the beds light up and play music. That’s tough to beat!
Grand Californian: So, this is the most expensive of the hotel options and I must say it’s a lovely place! It’s the most convenient with an entrance to California Adventure located right in the hotel. They have a great pool area and many restaurants/bars to choose from. They also have a new full-service spa opening soon that I’m excited to try! I do love that many of their rooms have balconies because I’m always up for sipping champagne on a balcony!
Ok, you have arrived! Your vehicle is parked (or valet parked), you have checked into your hotel (or at least stored your luggage if your room wasn’t ready), and now it’s time to head to the Parks! If you do not have an Annual Pass, you should skip the ticketing line by purchasing your ticket in advance online. Assuming you have your ticket, you can go right to the entry gates. I always start at California Adventure. I’m not sure why, but I think it is because many people with families/small children start at Disneyland so I like to do the opposite of that. Either way, enter a park so you can get working on your Fast Passes.
Before your trip, you need to download the Disneyland App onto your phone. When you get your tickets, you can create a Fast Pass party for your group within the app. It may be easier for just one person to handle the app/fast passes. (Please note that you’ll need to buy the MaxPass for everyone – unless it’s included with their annual pass. Trust me, it’s worth it). Once you enter a park, you can start getting Fast Passes! Please note you have to be physically inside one of the park gates to do this, BUT if you are in Disneyland you can select a fast pass for California Adventure and vice versa. So, look – I’m not here to tell you which rides to ride. I think ride selection at Disneyland is a very personal matter, but if you are in a group make sure all preferences are accounted for. Also, try to strategize so you are not running back and forth from park to park to get to your Fast Passes. This may be the planner in me, but it doesn’t hurt to do a little research in advance as far as what rides you don’t want to miss so you can prioritize your Fast Passes. I typically start with getting Fast Passes for my favorites: Radiator Springs Racers, Indiana Jones, Toy Story Mania, Big Thunder Mountain and then go from there. Another thing to note is you can only do one Fast Pass at a time and then the app will tell you when you can book the next one. Whatever you do, don’t stress and have fun!!
So, you’ve ridden a few rides, now it’s time for a beverage. My favorite place to stop for a beverage is Sonoma Terrace at California Adventure. They have beer, wine, snacks, and most importantly of all – Mobile Ordering! There is always a long line here and it’s fantastic to order on your phone and just pick it up when it’s ready. You can access the Mobile Ordering through the Disneyland App. Sonoma Terrace has nice seating in the shade, and you can sit and relax and people-watch to your heart’s content. Then try to get back up and ride some more rides until it’s time for lunch.
Lunch Time! Ok, there are so many options for lunch around the hotels and in Downtown Disney, but for your first day I would recommend eating inside one of the parks so it doesn’t take you away from the rides for too long. Here are my suggestions:
Jolly Holiday Bakery & Café (Disneyland): This is a Mary Poppins-themed quick-service restaurant that has many sandwiches, salads, and baked goods to choose from. They have outdoor seating and sufficient views for the parade when you don’t want to deal with the actual parade crowd.
Pacific Wharf (California Adventure): The Wharf at California Adventure is kind of like a food court since they have a variety of quick-service options with a whole bunch of seating in the center. They have a few beverage carts for beer, margaritas, etc as well as different cuisines. My favorites are Lucky Fortune Cookery which has yummy Asian offerings and Cocina Cucamonga which has Mexican favorites.
Paradise Garden Grill (California Adventure): Ok, so this one is tricky because Paradise Garden Grill always has different food… seriously – every time you go it’s a surprise of what it’s going to be. But it’s typically pretty good and they have a little stage in the outdoor seating area with live entertainment which is always enjoyable! For food it typically depends on what’s going on – during the holidays they have Feliz Navidad so it’s Mexican-themed, during Lunar New Year they have Asian specialties. During what I like to call “Ordinary Time” they usually have a Mediterranean menu. Whichever cuisine it is they always have a beer option and sometimes sangria!!
Hungry Bear (Disneyland): I love Hungry Bear – it’s just simple burgers, fries, onion rings, but in such a fun setting in Critter Country. Again – mostly outdoor seating but it’s covered and along the water.
So – at this point I would make my way over to Galaxy’s Edge which is the Star Wars “land” at Disneyland. Galaxy’s Edge currently has (2) rides, multiple shops, and a quick-service dining option. You can ride the rides – I suggest doing the single-rider option for Smugglers Run – but the reason why you are here is to go to Oga’s Cantina. You should make reservations for Oga’s in advance – you can do this using the app. Also – a few reservations become available the morning-of on the app – at like 7am – so, plan ahead. Oga’s is a heavily themed bar that is famous for being the only place that serves alcohol inside Disneyland Park (other than Club 33 which is not available to all guests and is an entirely different story). I would recommend going to Oga’s with a larger group – otherwise they may put you with strangers at communal seating which doesn’t work for me until after I’ve had a few drinks. Also, please note that once inside Galaxy’s Edge you are supposed to be transported to the planet of Batuu and all of the Disney Cast Members are very much in character and will treat you like you are actually on this planet. It can be fun, but best to know what you are walking into and that some of these cast members can be very Method.
Ok – so you’ve spent some time at the Cantina – now it’s time to ride more rides or go back to your hotel to settle into your room (if you weren’t able to in the morning), or go to the pool, or do whatever you want until it’s time for dinner. Since you are staying overnight and it’s your magical Disneyland weekend, I would eat someplace nice on Saturday night. Make sure you make reservations in advance. Here are a few of my favorites:
Napa Rose (Grand Californian): The most upscale option at Disneyland – Napa Rose is a lovely restaurant. They typically have a multi-course tasting menu option or a regular à la carte option to select from. They also have a great wine list!
Steakhouse 55 (Disneyland Hotel): I love the atmosphere of this place! It has that dark, steakhouse feel that I love with old black and white photos of Walt Disney and other Disney related celebrities. They have delicious steak and a well-rounded wine list.
Carthay Circle (California Adventure): I feel like the Carthay Circle experience is very dependent on where you are seated. So, if possible – ask if they have a table in the center room where you have views of the kitchen and lovely decor. The food is good wherever you sit but you want to sit in style – don’t you? They change up the menu seasonally for the entrees, but to start I highly recommend the Signature Biscuits with White Cheddar, Bacon, and Jalapeno, as well as the Fire Cracker Duck Wings (HOLD THE CILANTRO) – you won’t regret it!
After dinner, I typically like to go back to Disneyland and ride all of the Fantasyland rides! It’s just so much fun later in the evening. Or you can watch the fireworks, or go to Trader Sams, or one of the other bars in Downtown Disney. You may even be exhausted and want to pass out. Whatever works for you!!
Wake up!!! Time for Breakfast! I’m not a big breakfast fan, but I do love a Character experience so you should try one of the following places:
Goofy’s Kitchen (Disneyland Hotel): It’s a breakfast buffet at Disney – I mean – the food is not going to wow you, but nothing will offend you and you can have as much as you like. When I want to get really crazy, I go through the kid’s portion of the buffet where they have Mac & Cheese Pizza or similar fun items like that. This is a Character meal and there are a wide variety of characters that will come by and visit your table! I really enjoy the characters coming to you instead of having to wait in lines to see them throughout the park. The interaction is always fun and it’s a great place to get photos with your favorites.
Mickey’s Tales of Adventure Breakfast Buffet (Grand Californian): Another Character dining experience – I enjoy the decor a little more at this breakfast compared to Goofy’s Kitchen. This is also a great place to see Mickey Mouse – which is the ultimate goal of a Disney visit. This is also a great option since it’s on your way to the entrance of California Adventure so you can have breakfast and then get right into the park.
Then time to go to the parks and ride all of the rides you may have missed the day before! Or repeat some of your favorites. Or just sit at Sonoma Terrace all day – seriously, that’s why Disney is so wonderful!
So, for lunch you may want something lighter since you had a breakfast buffet – so even if you had dinner at Carthay Circle the night before I would go to the Carthay Circle Lounge for snacks and cocktails. They have a totally separate lounge menu with fun appetizers and amazing cocktails. Their G&T’s are my favorite!
Then time for more rides – since you have the extra day make sure you hit up some less popular attractions that are still amazing – the Tiki Room, Monsters Inc, and don’t laugh – Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. I love them all!! Oh, I should take this opportunity to speak on some of the basic snacks of Disneyland…I’m not a huge snacker – so while I love a Dole Whip – it tends to spoil my appetite for my next meal and that’s not a risk I’m willing to take. But for the record – I do not enjoy the Turkey Legs…AT ALL.
Ok – so once you’ve had your fill of all of the rides then it’s time to make your way back home. Before you leave, I would enjoy dinner out in Downtown Disney. I like to do Downtown Disney at the end of the trip so if you have any shopping to do you don’t have to carry it anywhere during the day. My picks for dinner in Downtown Disney are:
Ballast Point Brewing Co: This place is fun! It’s a brewery with good beer and bar food – how can you go wrong? The flatbreads are pretty good, but I really love the Bavarian Pretzel with the Beer Cheese and Beer Mustard!
Naples Ristorante e Bar: Naples is a good time! I always get a salad, pizza, and some Italian wine and I am happy.
Then it’s time to go home! It’s always sad to leave Disneyland but remember that the magic is never too far away and you can always start planning your next trip!