Disneyland (CA)

WDW Veteran, Disneyland Newbie

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Subtitle: How a super-planner approaches her first-ever trip to the West Coast Disney Homeland

I’ve been to WDW more times than I can count (just kidding – I can count really high. It’s a figure of speech). I’ve even travelled to Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri, which is something very few Disney fans can claim. As a Missourian myself, I highly recommend the Marceline experience if you’re ever in the Midwest. But I’ve (gulp) never been to Disneyland. I feel like a Disney theme park poser. Now you all see me for who I really am! Honestly, I don’t even research or read about Disneyland that much. I’m very WDW-obsessed.

We spent a day exploring Marceline. The museum is getting ready to reopen after renovations, and the Dreaming Tree and Barn is a must-visit!

My husband and I have had grand plans to trek all the way to Tokyo Disney for our 10th anniversary. Unfortunately, now that the big day is less than 3 months away, it’s very apparent that that’s just not going to happen. I’ll cross my fingers for our 15th instead. So we’re editing our plans and still flying to a new-to-us Disney location. We’re just not crossing any oceans to do it. We’ll actually be doing a mini-road trip in California, visiting Disneyland and San Francisco, with a couple of days trekking along the coast in between.

Pixar Playtime
Who _wouldn’t_ want to visit the only Disney park with its own volcano?! (Photo courtesy of Disney)

I’ve previously written about how I applied my Disney trip planning savvy to non-Disney trips, and several people reached out saying how they found it to be helpful for them. So in this post I’ll walk you through how I’m approaching this new-to-me Disney vacation. I have lots of WDW knowledge and experience, but I’m a total Disneyland newbie. If any of you are in the same boat, follow along to find out how you can use that WDW fandom to plan your own Disneyland trip too.

A Newbie Decides When To Go

We’re starting off with a section that is … slightly misleading. I pretty much already knew when I wanted to go – ideally, I want my first day in Disneyland to be the actual date of our anniversary. But I at least needed to do a sanity check and make sure that date wasn’t already set aside for a “Locals All Descend on Disneyland” event.

Disneyland Crowd Calendar information for late April 2022

I looked at the Disneyland crowd calendar, and while I know thanks to Jennifer’s retrospective that these numbers won’t always be 100% accurate, they’re definitely a good gut check. 4s and 5s don’t bother me. We’re generally spoiled by only experiencing 1s and 2s since we do early September trips to WDW, but we can handle 4s and 5s with a plan.

The dates of our trip are also somewhat (or totally) boxed in by another constraint. Childcare! Because if the kids come, it’s not a vacation – it’s a trip. School calendars dictate that it would be easiest to get the younger members of our family cared for on a Wednesday-to-Wednesday schedule. That means we’ll start the vacation by flying into LA so that we can be in Disneyland on our actual anniversary, which is Thursday.

A Newbie Decides How Long to Visit

We typically don’t do less than 5 days at WDW. A full day for each park, and a down day built in to the middle to enjoy the resort and let our kids recover. But I know enough to know that 5 days at Disneyland is totally overkill. There are just two parks to explore, and they are steps from each other. On top of that, we also want to explore other parts of the state, and that means we’re not going to go crazy with Disney days.

I am a big Disney fan, but I’m also a big non-Disney travel fan. So there’s no way I’m avoiding the rest of California _just_ to see the Mouse.

I should’ve put a spoiler alert on the crowd calendar picture above, since I’ve already built my trip, and it highlighted my two parks days. Why just two? We’re not travelling with kids, so we can easily revert back to the good ol’ rope drop to park close days, and – gasp – not even break for nap time! And bonus, since it’s a vacation celebrating three different special occasions (milestone anniversary, first Disneyland trip, not having to pay for cross-Pacific flights), budgets are quite a bit higher than normal. That means that I don’t mind springing for Park Hoppers or Genie+ if it saves me time. Taking all of that into account, and knowing that we don’t have to experience every single thing, two days should be plenty of time to do what we want to do.

Thankfully, TouringPlans offers one-day suggested plans for both Disneyland and California Adventure. It’s a safe bet that I’ll be making my own personalized touring plans for our park days, but these give me a starting point for what is feasible in a day, and what those awesome Disneyland experts recommend doing with limited time.

A Newbie Decides Where To Stay

Resort costs for Disney-owned properties for 3 nights beginning April 27th

Now, while celebrating three special occasions means the budget is higher than normal, it’s apparently not “stay on property” high. I did my normal trick of checking for DVC rentals, but that came up with nothing. No confirmed reservations for my dates, and all rooms booked out when I check availability for point rental. And I don’t want to pay $376 a night to stay at Paradise Pier. Not exactly “hey, this is a nice milestone anniversary vacation” vibe.

So I did my research! I found this lovely room review and video tour from last summer. The JW Marriott sounds great! It’s definitely not somewhere that I’d bring my kids, but with a 12-ish minute walk to/from the parks, and the upscale feel, it’s going to be a great place to enjoy our evenings. I even booked the “upgraded” theme park view with king bed for $315 a night – $60 less each night than even Paradise Pier. I’ll take that trade any day. If I had gone with a standard, two-queen room, my savings would have been even higher, since that cost was $275-ish a night at the time I booked.

In addition to the walk to the parks being very doable, there’s a bonus to the location for our specific trip. Since, after our two days at Disney, we’re going to be driving up the coast to San Francisco, we need a rental car! But I don’t want to pick one up at LAX since that means driving ourselves to Disneyland and paying for parking for three nights when we won’t be using a car. Thankfully, my rental company of choice (Alamo) has a rental pickup location less than a 5 minute walk from the JW Marriott. So on Saturday morning we can leisurely walk over and pick up our ride.

A Newbie Decides Which Parks to Reserve

Park reservations are definitely sticking around for … a while. And that meant when I bought my two-day park hoppers, I also need to make park reservations. I’ll be able to hit both parks each day, but I will be stuck in my first park until 1:00 pm. That’s at least less restrictive than WDW’s park hopping limitations, but it still means that I need to make a choice for where to be each morning.

Thankfully, reservation availability currently leaves our choices wide open

I want to take full advantage of rope drop at each park, to hopefully avoid purchasing ILL for the “big” rides. That means I’ll need one morning reserved for each park. The crowd calendar isn’t much help here, since each park is one crowd level higher on Friday than it is on Thursday. I can’t really play the crowds game to make my decision. So I’ll do it based on gut and say that I want to go to Walt Disney’s wonderland for our first morning and be all excited about walking down the original Main Street instead of rushing into California Adventure. It’s an emotional decision, but I’m running with it. As in, I’ll probably be literally running to Rise of the Resistance instead of actually absorbing my environment. But when the crowds start picking up, then I’ll start really soaking it in. Ha!

That means my Thursday park reservation will be for Disneyland and I’ll rope drop Rise. My Friday park reservation will be for California Adventure and I’ll rope drop Web Slingers at California Adventure. The other Individual Lightning Lane attraction at that park, Radiator Springs Racers, offers a single rider line. And since we won’t have our kids with us, we’ll take that route to cut down the wait!

A Newbie Decides … What Else There Is To Plan

Obviously, choosing dates and where to stay does not a plan make. There are so many more details that I get to work through! In about a month, I’ll post again with some other details and how I decided upon them:

  • A Newbie Decides Where To Eat (this might be the most important decision for me)
  • A Newbie Decides What and When To Ride (aka, TouringPlan creation)
  • A Newbie Decides How To Pack

And probably more things that I’m forgetting now.

What Can You Learn From This Newbie?

  1. If you’re deciding when to visit, check out the crowd calendar to get an overall idea of what you might run into. Our Disneyland refurbishment page can also come in handy if you’re absolutely set on experiencing something specific.
  2. If you’re deciding where to stay, the lovely folks at the TouringPlans Travel Agency can help you find the perfect spot for you, and get you the best deal on it.
  3. If you’re deciding how long to visit, take a look at some of our Disneyland TouringPlans. Even if you don’t use them, you can look through to get an idea of how various trip lengths will impact the “pace” of your days.

Do you follow some of these same strategies when you’re planning your vacations? Or do you suggest them to WDW/Disneyland newcomers? Do you have any suggestions for me and other Disneyland newbies? Let me know in the comments!

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Becky Gandillon

Becky Gandillon was trained in biomedical engineering, but is now a full-time data and analytics nerd. She loves problem solving and travelling. She and her husband, Jeff, live in St. Louis with their two daughters and they have Disney family movie night every Saturday. You can follow her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/becky-gandillon/ or instagram @raisingminniemes

13 thoughts on “WDW Veteran, Disneyland Newbie

  • Hi again! In 2020, just before Covid closed the parks, I took a 20+ year old first timer to DL, he had never been to any Disney theme park ever. I think the “right way” for a first timer to experience DL is not to walk down Main Street, but instead immediately head to the DL RR at Main Street (hopefully it will be open for your trip). Board the train and ride it all the way until TomorrowLand (that is, don’t depart at the New Orleans or ToonTown stations). Exit at TL, then do the very short walk over to the Monorail entrance in TL. Then do a roundtrip on the Monorail (going to DTD, and then returning back to TL). That way you will get an “overview” of what the various lands in DL look like at the very beginning of your trip, the views from the train are different from the views from the Monorail. Pro-tip: you can ride at the very front or the very back of the monorail in order to get the very best views, ask the CM’s where you should stand if you want to wait for this experience. My guest’s first attraction would have been the Matterhorn (after we left the Monorail), but sadly it was closed that day. Speaking of the Matterhorn, the experience from “the left” is different from the experience on “the right”, if you like to do coasters you should do both (but be warned that many people feel that the new ride vehicles are the opposite of comfortable!) But Matterhorn is iconic, you really need to do it at least once. I am so excited for you, Becky. Disneyland is Walt’s dream version 1.0, in some ways it is flawed because of that but those flaws are like character marks on an antique piece of furniture: the flaws add to the personality of the piece. WDW is version 2.0, in some ways it is “better” but IMHO it doesn’t quite have the same “soul”. I have found that those who were raised on DL prefer it to WDW, and vice versa. They are different experiences. I think that DL packs a bigger punch in a shorter amount of time, DCA is kind of like a “best of” version of the other three parks in WDW. At the same time, I truly love Animal Kingdom and wish we had something like that over here. We do have the San Diego Zoo, which is wonderful but different. Best Wishes on your vacation, can’t wait to hear your thoughts afterwards!

    • Thank you so much, Leslie! While the hardcore rope dropper in me shudders to think of rope dropping the train … I think you’re probably right. It’s a good orientation and overview … and Walt loved trains!

  • I have been to Disneyland many times over my 58 years and just went to WDW for the first-time last December. Such different experiences. ADR? We have always just walked up and put our name in at Blue Bayou and waited, including two times during the same trip a couple years ago.

    We will be visiting again last week of August, and we are also staying at the JW Marriott can’t wait it looks great. We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel last time and the walk is still long considering you are “on property”. Probably only a couple minutes shorter than JW Marriott. You will be surprised at how compact Disneyland is compared to Magic Kingdom.

    I think two days will work perfectly because you will leave with some things undone and looking forward to your return trip.

    Fun Fact – When you walk around DCA you will be walking on the old parking lot. I still remember the long trams where everyone sat on benches facing out towards the road. First scary ride of the day as a kid!

    • Love to hear from such a long-time Disneyland regular! If you’re staying at the JW in August, I’ll definitely pass along any tips that I learn.
      And yeah – we’re sort of treating this as a scouting trip for bringing our girls back to Disneyland someday too. It’ll be our first trip, but not our only trip.

  • My first Disneyland trip was last summer and I went through all the same considerations. I feel like two days is really too short…we did four and I still barely got everything done that I wanted. I like a leisurely visit though, so mileage may vary.
    One thing Disney World preps you for the best is walking, though. Since the parks are so condensed you can bounce around in them so much easier! I actually feel the opposite to Leslie above. At the end of the day it was amazing to walk back to my hotel without lines for transportation. The distance was no greater than walking to a car in the parkinglot at Disney World.

    • That’s fair. I’m sure we could have filled more than 2 days. But we are intense park visitors anyway and like to make the most of our days. I will deliberately be slowing down occasionally, but with park hopping and Genie+, there will be a lot of moving quickly and seeing how much we can accomplish!

  • Always glad to see more DL posts!

    • Don’t worry Michael, now that I’m going, I’m highly motivated to crunch all of the DL numbers!

  • Becky, I’m the inverse of you, a DL veteran who has visited WDW occasionally. Also a big fan of yours!

    I usually do a 3 day visit, but 5 days is not overkill, it would allow a more leisurely pace. Our parks are smaller than yours, but there is more in them! There is something called “Southern California CityPASS” that used to be a good option to save $$$ on tickets, it used to include a 3-day parkhopper ticket, but skimming it now it looks like it’s not the same bundle of destinations that it used to be. Anyway, you might want to look into that …

    Re hotels – In WDW, when you exit a park you generally then queue for some kind of transportation service (bus, ferry, monorail) that takes you back to your hotel. This is nice because when I exit a park I AM TIRED, and sitting on a transport is lovely! In DL, many of the hotels are in “walking distance” to the hotel but for some reason I dread that walk at the end of the day. FYI, there is a transit service called ART – Anaheim Resort Transit, that is essentially a collective shuttle service from the parks to various hotels. Like everything, some people hate it but I’ve had good experiences. If you buy a pass, which is not very expensive, then when you exit DL/DCA, you have a very short walk to a queue for your ART bus (i.e.very similar to catching a bus at WDW). Using ART is nice for a few reasons: 1) avoid the walk back to the hotel at the end of the day, 2) avoid having to pay Disney daily parking fees, 3) you can book at a hotel that is farther from the parks, and is often cheaper because of that.

    Hope this information helps, and that you have a great time! BTW, you HAVE to have a Monte Cristo, they are cheaper at Cafe Orleans and since you are there you also HAVE to order Parmesan-Garlic Pommes Frites (although apparently you don’t because now they are a side that comes with the Monte Cristo?) There are many other iconic foods, but that one is at the top of the list. Be warned that the food at DL is good, but it is not the foodie paradise that is WDW.

    • Ah, Leslie – I’m so excited to hear from you! I will ABSOLUTELY be ordering some parmesan-garlic pommes frites. I didn’t know that was a thing in Disneyland. But cheese, garlic, and potatoes are three of my favorite foods.
      And that transportation tip is fire. Little-known Becky fact – I actually have a standing desk and under-desk treadmill in my home office, and I average a fast-paced 4 hours every day (~28k steps). So my legs and feet are always prepared for Disney! (But seriously – not a fitness freak. Just have a back that aches if I sit _or_ stand too long and it’s fine if I keep moving). So while I might personally be okay with the walking even at the end of the day, I know it’ll come in handy for others. Thanks for sharing!

  • I’m excited to read the future updates for this topic. As a Disneyland pro and a WDW amateur it’s fascinating to see how different the experiences are.

    • Great! Glad you’ll be following along. And as a Disneyland pro, you should definitely share your must-dos!


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