Disneyland (CA)

What I Wish I Knew Before My Visit to California Adventure

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Carthay Circle Restaurant
Carthay Circle Restaurant

I recently went to the Disneyland Resort for the very first time. As a frequent visitor to Walt Disney World since childhood, I was beyond excited to experience a Disney Park as a first time guest, particularly Disney’s California Adventure as it is a totally unique park and would be a great sampling of the Golden State for this California Newbie! But even before I even passed through the turnstiles, I did my homework on Disney’s California Adventure so that I could avoid some of the rookie mistakes and maximize my time in the park. Even so, there were definitely some things that I either didn’t expect or wish I would’ve known to help my day run more smoothly. So glean from my first hand experience fellow Disneyland Resort Rookies and discover what I wish I knew before my visit to California Adventure.

Have a Wardrobe Strategy for Grizzly River Run – If you’re looking to experience Grizzly River Run, the park’s incredible raft ride at Grizzly Peak, I would strongly suggest wearing clothes that dry quickly or picking up a poncho at Rushin’ River Outfitters. There are lockers available for free near the huge bear statue, but only if you pick up your stuff within 2 hours.

Disney’s California Adventure Park Could Be a One Day Park – Some may disagree with me on this, but hear me out! While I loved my day at Disney’s California Adventure, and can’t wait to go back, I felt like I was able to accomplish the best of the park in a single day with proper planning while I needed two days at the Disneyland Park. For example, during my visit in July and with the help of FASTPASSES, I was able to ride almost all of the park’s most popular attractions, do a little shopping and dining, and squeezed in a showing of World of Color in one day. If you only have a short time to check out the Disneyland Resort, I would suggest setting aside two for the Disneyland Park and one for California Adventure.

Radiator Springs Racers
Radiator Springs Racers!

Have a Strategy for When to Ride Radiator Springs Racers – If you’re staying at a Disneyland Resort Hotel and plan to take advantage of the Extra Magic Hours, head straight to Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land when you first enter California Adventure. The line will be so much shorter than at any other time that day. If you’re not a Disneyland Resort Hotel guest, arrive at park opening and get a FASTPASS for Radiator Springs Racers first thing! Although, you should know that FASTPASS machines for this attraction are not in Cars Land but on the way there. Keep your eyes open for the sign (or, more likely, the Cast Member pointing visitors toward the end of a long FASTPASS line)!

Goofy California Adventure
Goofy doing the Charleston! I think…

The Fab Five Sport Different Outfits – If character photos and interactions are a priority for you, you will want to note that Mickey and the gang sport different apparel at Disney’s California Adventure! Mickey sports a newsboy outfit, Minnie dazzles in a Flapper dress, Goofy wears a spiffy, albeit loud, 1920s getup! It was so fun meeting the gang in period apparel on Buena Vista Street and it’s a photo-op you won’t get at the Disneyland Park or at any park at Walt Disney World, so take advantage of it if you can!

Be Prepared to Camp Out Before World of Color – Seeing World of Color was an absolute priority for me when I visited Disney’s California Adventure and I sure wasn’t disappointed! Although, there were a few things I learned before I took in the show. For starters, the World of Color preferred viewing areas are roped off and reserved for World of Color FASTPASS holders. Disney recommends getting a FASTPASS for the show and so do I! The World of Color FASTPASSES are distributed on a first come first basis over at Grizzly River Run.

Tip: World of Color FASTPASSES do not limit you from obtaining a FASTPASS for an attraction.

Once you get a FASTPASS for Radiator Springs Racers, your next mission should be to secure yourself one for World of Color. Now your World of Color FASTPASS will state which section to report to before show time, and it’s best to arrive to your section an hour to forty-five minutes prior. Once I reached my section during my day at California Adventure, I found that everyone was sitting down the ground and are told to do so until a few minutes before the show begins. If you plan to arrive early for the show, I’d recommend having a jacket or blanket for you and the kids to sit on, especially if you’re wearing nice clothing. It’s also smart to grab a snack or drink beforehand to pass the time. Finally, if you’re near the front, be prepared to get a little wet from the spray, especially if its windy!

California Adventure Elias & Company
Elias & Company

California Adventure Features Disney History – If you’re a Disney Historian, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Disneyland Park has a monopoly on Disney history. Disney’s California Adventure celebrates not just the best of California, but Walt’s arrival to the Golden State and the imprint that he left there. This is especially evident on Buena Vista Street with the Carthay Circle Restaurant, which was modeled after the theater where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs first debuted. Then there is the Storytellers Statue, which is of a young Walt and vintage Mickey. It represents the two back at the start of the Disney Company. There’s also Oswald’s, a shop near the park entrance which pays tribute to Walt’s first character with Oswald merch. Several other shops contain Disney history too, like the Elias & Company store which is named after Walt’s father and Mortimer’s — named after Walt’s original name for Mickey Mouse.

Cars Land Dinoco Sticker
Dinoco Window Decal

Cars Land and Grizzly Peak has Unique Merchandise – I’m always on the hunt for unique merchandise at the Disney Parks, and the shops at Cars Land and Grizzly Peak have an excellent selection of items that you don’t normally see anywhere else on property. The shops at Cars Land were brimming with themed clothing, retro bags and purses, pens made to look like tools, Piston Cup trophies, postcards, and even Dinoco stickers for your own car! Trust me, you’re going to want to buy something to commemorate your ventures in Cars Land and there is no short supply of options here. I also found some unique items at Grizzly Peak, such as apparel showcasing Smokey the Bear and California, as well as beautiful post cards from the National Parks, and even vintage and rustic games and wildlife plush.

California Adventure Mickey Bread
Mickey-Shaped Bread!

Go to the Pacific Wharf to Eat – While California Adventure has the Carthay Circle Restaurant, the best place to go for a more casual and budget friendly lunch or dinner is the Pacific Wharf near Paradise Pier. This area has tons of variety with quick service spots such as the Cocina Cucamonga Mexican Grill, Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop, Lucky Fortune Cookery, and the Pacific Wharf Café and its Mickey-shaped bread loafs!

California Adventure Redwood Creek Challenge Trail
Redwood Creek Challenge Trail

Escape at the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail at Grizzly Peak – The Redwood Creek Challenge Trail is geared towards kids where they can complete challenges and practice their ranger skills to earn Wilderness Explorer Badges and then be rewarded in the Senior Wilderness Explorer Ceremony. But even if you don’t have kids, this area is a great place to escape the crowds and just wander as you’re not required to follow a set path and there’s so much to see. It’s also so different from the rest of the park and really seems to capture California’s great outdoors. I also appreciate the fact that it’s so shady and cool!

Fiddler, Fifer, & Practical (Starbucks) Has Seating – The Fiddler, Fifer, and Practical, which is the park’s Starbucks, is one of the only in-park Starbucks on either coasts to offer a wide array of indoor seating. I always start my day at a Disney Park with a Starbucks visit these days and I’ve noticed that the Disney World Starbucks in the parks offer little to no seating at all and the Market House in the Disneyland Park only has a few tables. But fortunately, that is not true of Disney California Adventure’s Fiddler, Fifer, and Practical. When I dropped in for a quick bite and a coffee during my visit, I found that there were still plenty of tables open, even though it was a relatively busy day.

Cars Land Souvenir Sipper
Best. Cup. Ever.

You Can Get a Souvenir Sipper Without the Sticky Mess – When I visited Cars Land, picking up one of those incredible oil can souvenir sippers was at the top of my to-do list. The only problem was that I wasn’t so keen on carrying around a sticky cup for the rest of the day once I finished my drink; and so, when I went up to a Cozy Cone to pay for mine, I asked if I could have it without the soft drink. Fortunately, the Cast Member was kind enough to put a drink in a separate cup so I could have both! I don’t know if this is a common practice or not, but be sure to ask when you visit in case you don’t want a sticky souvenir to tote through the park.

There are Awesome Photo Spots around Grizzly River Run – Don’t want to get soaked? No problem! Imagineers built many bridges and photo viewing areas around the river to capture the beauty of this attraction or your loved ones in mid-ride.

Check Out Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa – One of the perks of staying at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel is the immediate access into both the Downtown Disney District and Disney’s California Adventure Park. But even if you’re not a Grand Californian guest, you can still check it out! It’s lobby just needs to be seen, and it’s well known for it’s popular restaurants such as the famous Napa Rose and Storytellers Café. This is also where I prefer to go to get a taxi as the Cast Members will hail one for me and it’s a safe and secure area. If Disney’s California Adventure is crazy busy or you’re looking for more options for lunch or dinner or just need somewhere to reboot before heading to the park for the night, this is where I would recommend!

California Animation Building
I could spend hours in here!

California Adventure’s Animation Building is a Must – As a frequent visitor to Walt Disney World, I have always loved the animation building at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and I’m still grieving over its recent closure; but California Adventure’s version is seriously a hundred times better! I could spend a lot of time in the Courtyard Gallery, watching scenes and artwork from my favorite Disney films and singing along to the film’s classic songs. In addition to the courtyard, there’s also an Animation Academy, Turtle Talk with Crush, and the Sorcerer’s Workshop where you can create some animation magic of your own and take an interactive personality quiz. I consider it a must-do for any trip to Disney’s California Adventure, but I would also suggest it as an escape from the heat, tired feet, or for parents whose little ones need a break.

California Adventure Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
California Adventure’s Tower of Terror

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror Doesn’t Move Forward – I was super excited to ride California Adventure’s Tower of Terror. I knew that the experience would be very similar to the one at Disney World, which I’m a huge fan of, but I was hoping for some differences too. As it turns out, there were certainly differences, but not ones that I expected! The spooky lobby, library, and video were almost identical to what you encounter in Florida. The boiler room queue was different, but still a boiler room. The difference came in the ride experience itself. You see, at Disney World’s Hollywood Studios, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror takes guests up to see the family of ghostly apparitions before the elevator mysteriously leaves the shaft and moves forward through scenes before dropping guests. But when I rode the Tower of Terror at California Adventure, the elevator didn’t move forward but had more scenes on a screen in front of the elevator; and so, I wasn’t quite expecting the start of the drops and plunges because the elevator had never left the shaft! So if you’re familiar with Disney World’s version, be aware when you ride California Adventure’s.

All in all, I loved my first visit to the Disney’s California Adventure as a first time visitor and learned a lot along the way; if you too are a Disneyland Resort Rookie, I hope this list will help you avoid some of the confusion first-time California Adventure guests face. Hopefully you won’t be thinking of what you wish you knew, but rather that you’re glad you already know! Also, it would be great if all of you Disneyland Experts out there would share of your park wisdom in the comments for other newbies like myself. I don’t know about you, but I’m always wanting to know more about the happiest place on earth!

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Savannah Sanders

Savannah has been visiting Disney World since she was a year old and has gone back almost every year since. In the real world, she teaches high school history and government and enjoys writing about all things Disney. Savannah can be reached on Twitter @DisneyParkSavvy.

12 thoughts on “What I Wish I Knew Before My Visit to California Adventure

  • Great article! Another tip for the Grizzly River Run: if you have kids with you who are too small to ride, there is a place you can watch the rafts go down the last drop. Depending on which part of the railing you look out over, you can choose to stay dry, get completely soaked, or in between. My son got to go on the ride our first time, but the second time we tried they stopped him and said he was too short by a smidge, and we found this spot to watch for my husband and daughters. I think he had more fun getting splashed by each raft than he did on the actual ride!

  • Your tip about Grizzly River Run is spot on. While not everyone in the boat on my last visit got wet, I got, “well, I might as well have just jumped into the water” wet. It can totally happen.

  • My veteran WDW family simply adored California Adventure when we visited for the first time in June. In fact, we probably liked it more than Disneyland park *gasp*! That’s most likely due to the makeup of our family and the type of rides we enjoy, plus the fact that it would get so crowded over in Disneyland because the walkways and open spaces are so small and restrictive. My 3 kids loved Radiator Springs Racers, bug’s land and all of the paradise pier area. World of Color was awesome! My husband and thrill-seeking daughter did California Screamin’ about 6 times and Tower of Terror 4 times. It’s a WDW trip up next for us, but we can’t wait to go back west again and visit our beloved DCA!

  • Great points — glad you enjoyed your visit to DCA! I would also recommend that since Disneyland Park and DCA face each other across an esplanade that a park hopper ticket is a much more practical choice at Disneyland Resort than it can be at WDW. You don’t have to allocate your time per park in whole days — you can go back and forth pretty easily.

    Another tip: Even if you don’t plan to eat at the Carthay Circle restaurant, you can take a welcome break from the afternoon sun by enjoying a cool drink (non-alcoholic or cocktail) and a nosh at the Carthay Circle Lounge, which doesn’t require reservations but is still pretty swank.

    • Great suggestions! Thanks for sharing!

  • Last fall was my first trip to Disneyland and California Adventure being an east coaster as well. Can’t believe you didn’t mention California Screamin’. It was my son’s and my favorite. It ranks up there with Rock N Roller coaster at the top of Disney coasters for me. It may look like an old timey wooden coaster but it’s not and for me it is a ‘not to be missed’. I also really enjoyed getting to use the paper based fast pass system again. Much better than the FP+ that WDW has gone to. It was also very nice to do TSMM and Soarin without the crazy waits one has to put up with at WDW. I highly recommend enjoying a Ghiradelli sundae while watching World of Color. We loved California Adventure. It reminded us of an improved version of Hollywood Studios.

  • Great article! Thanks for sharing it. I did have a point of clarification, however: You can’t use Magic Mornings early entry with your multi-day ticket on California Adventure, only Disneyland Park. You can only enter California Adventure on its early entry days if you stay in a Disneyland Resort hotel.

    However, if you spend several days at Disneyland, it may be wise to use your Magic Morning at Disneyland one day, then go to California Adventure the next time Disneyland has early entry, because everyone is on ‘equal footing’ for racing to RSR. Thanks again!

    • Brian, thanks for your comment! The article has now been updated in order to provide correct and current info. Also, thanks for sharing your tip. I will have to take your advice on my next trip. Thanks again!

  • Regarding the RSR FastPass line: yes, it is very long, but it moves surprisingly fast. We were there Easter week during Crowd Levels of 9 and 10. When we got in the RSR FP line, it was all the way past Carthay Circle. Within 10 minutes, we were out of the line with FP’es in hand. Don’t let the length of the line discourage you from getting a FP for this fantastic ride.

    Another tip for RSR is that they have a single rider line. If you don’t have to sit next to whoever you are with, the single rider line can save you a lot of time. The entrance is on the left hand side of the regular and FP entrances.

    • I agree with your RSR thoughts – our strategy was to send my husband and boys right to the single rider line and I went to the FP line. Then I knew they would get to ride twice and we could all ride once together. It worked great – the FP line seemed long, but there were CM’s at every kiosk, and they grabbed my tickets and handed me FPs in about ten seconds. I waited no more than 5 minutes and our FPs were for noon. By the time I walked over to the ride, my boys were already on via single rider. This was June – crowd level 8 – and it was no issue at all.

  • The best way to get on Racers easily is the single rider line. You don’t have to worry about the mad rush for fast passes which go quickly. I’ve been able to walk on several times using single rider.

  • The Aladdin show is a must see for our family. Have seen it at least 6 times over the years and love it! It’s like a mini Broadway show…and gives you a break from the heat!

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