Anaheim is a sunny staple in Orange County, CA, with its proximity to the beach, warm weather and impressive shopping venues — Anaheim is a hidden gem located south of its big brother city Los Angeles. There’s one thing that Anaheim has that no other Californian city does — Disneyland! This is not just any Disneyland, but rather THE original Disneyland where the magic was born.
In July 1955, Anaheim hosted the opening day for Disneyland — nearly 30,000 people lined up to pay the $1.00 admission fee and enter the magical world — a grand entrance that would be broadcast live on national TV. The best part about this theme park is the history behind it and the knowledge that every intricate ride and colorful castle you see, was the first of its kind — before Disney expanded to include multiple resorts worldwide. This is the most magical guide to Anaheim that will help you explore the city and the Park(s) that made it legendary.
This is the original Disneyland, the magical spot that put Anaheim on the map for the rest of the country, and many other countries! The ‘Happiest Place on Earth‘ has so much to offer that you might feel overwhelmed upon arrival. The park is divided up into eight different ‘lands,’ each with its own unique theme. Read on for some of the favorite rides and attractions from each land that you should make sure you hit first, just in case you run out of time.
When you walk through the grand entrance of the Disneyland theme park, the first stretch of eye-popping color you will see is the quaint surroundings that make up Main Street. Lined with candy shops, souvenir spots, eateries, an old-time cinema and even a fire station — Main Street transports you to a typical American town at the turn of the 20th century (it even has a City Hall!). As you’ll notice with the rest of the Park, Main Street is dripping in details — from authentic antiques and architecture to the colorful, striped store canopies. You can take the trolley or ride in a horse-drawn carriage from Main Street to tour the rest of the Park.
As you head straight down Main Street, in front of you looms a storybook-worthy castle of Bavarian and French architecture — the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle. The Castle serves as the entrance into the magical world that will fill your imagination with whimsical scenes and evoke nostalgia for your childhood love of fairy tales and Disney stories. This is where you’ll find all the classic rides like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Mad Tea Party (spinning tea cups), It’s a Small World and Dumbo. Fantasyland is where you will see the most heart and emotion of the entire Park, as this was creator Walt Disney’s most vivid vision, where he wanted his stories to come to life.
- Must try: Peter Pan’s Flight ride — a great ride for kids and adults. A slow tour through the classic fairy tale, complete with a flight over Neverland surrounded by a starry night. Also try It’s a Small World, a colorful boat ride through singing dolls from all different countries — beautiful, relaxing and cultural.
Adventureland is to the left when you arrive at the end of Main Street. This land is an ecclectic mix of African safari, tropical jungle and a Middle Eastern bazaar. The exotic surroundings make you feel like you’re on an epic quest for historical artifacts or hidden treasures.
- Must try: The Indiana Jones ride — hop into a topless Jeep for a bouncy ride through caves where giant boulders roll towards your car and spiders (don’t worry they’re fake!) drop from the air.
If you head to the right when you reach the end of Main Street you’ll come across Tomorrowland. A ‘futuristic’ land filled with creative transport ideas, space-themed roller coasters and Star Wars paraphernalia. When Tomorrowland first opened, it was difficult for Disney to constantly anticipate the future, by the time new structures were added, the future had become reality. Now Tomorrowland is more of a nostalgic future — along the lines of a Jules Verne-inspired retro future.
Must try: Space Mountain — the most intense roller coaster at the Disneyland park in Anaheim, Space Mountain catapults you into a dark solar system with flashes of planets and stars and you race down an indoor-interstellar track. There are no giant drops or upside down loops, just quick turns and jolts that will make your belly do flips and your hair smack you in the face.
After you walk under the Sleeping Beauty Castle’s arches, head left out of Fantasyland and into the wild west that is Frontierland. Saloons, desert decor and the Mark Twain Steamboat are just a few of the indicators that you’ve made it to Frontierland.
- Must try: Big Thunder Mountain — an outdoor roller coaster in an old-fashioned train carriage. You’ll pass mechanical mountain goats and glide through mining caves of the old west.
This is a good area to hit right before or after Frontierland, since the two themes are closely tied together. The country style of Critter Country leans a bit more toward Northwest, rather than wild west. Country bears and honey jars are just some of the adorable decor in this land. Try the Critter Country Churros — there’s nothing better than warm cinnamon goodness after getting soaked on the log ride Splash Mountain.
- Must try: Splash Mountain — perfect for a hot day. Ride a log boat through the country with singing bears to guide you along. Be ready to get wet! The final drop in this ride is what will make your heart stop temporarily and you WILL get a splash.
NEW ORLEANS SQUARE
Located directly south of Critter Country with Adventureland on it’s southeast border is New Orleans Square. As the name suggests, this land is a bit different than the others, since it is not replicating a fantastical view of something, but rather it aims to be somewhat of a replica of the actual city of New Orleans. Walt Disney loved New Orleans and he wanted to stay true(r) to it’s actual charm. This land hosts two of the most popular rides in the park, The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. Enjoy the French Quarter-style balconies and definitely check out the souvenir shop for Pirates of the Caribbean merchandise.
- Must try: The Haunted Mansion — a slow ride through a haunted house with beautiful decor and visual affects that will make you see ghosts. Pirates of the Caribbean is also a good one if you don’t feel like being scared. This boat ride through beautiful treasure chests and deserted islands will create a special place in your heart for pirates.
MICKEY’S TOON TOWN
Located north, on the opposite side of the park entrance, is the newest land at Disneyland in Anaheim, Mickey’s Toon Town. This land is more of a funky jungle gym for kids. It’s exaggerated toonish buildings and colorful decor are a treat for the eyes, making it the perfect place to visit with young children. It’s great for kids that aren’t tall enough to ride a lot of the other lands’ rides. It is also very hands-on and it’s more likely that you’ll be able to meet a Disney Character like Minnie or Mickey.
- Must try: Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin — a fun ride in a ‘taxi’ that gets hijacked by weasels and makes riders part of the plot.
PAINT THE NIGHT PARADE
Old school Disneyland goers will remember the famous Main Street Electrical Parade. Since retiring the old floats covered in twinkling lights and extravagant music compilations, a new parade from Hong Kong’s Disney is now a regular at Disneyland Anaheim — Paint the Night Parade. Showcasing all the splendor of the original Electrical Parade, Paint the Night has more than a million LED lights and some 75 choreographed performers. The parade currently features acts like Peter Pan, the Little Mermaid and Frozen.
- Parade times: 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.
Ticket prices vary by season. A standard 1-day adult ticket is $119 and for children under 10 years $113 (free for children under 3 years).
Park Hours: 8:00 a.m. – 12:00 a.m.
Downtown Disney is a promenade consisting of shops, restaurants, music venues and live performances. Inaugurated in 2001, Downtown Disney is a nightlife hub located right next to the Disneyland theme park. The area is free to enter and the shops have something for everyone — from Build a Bear Workshop for kids to Sephora makeup.
If you missed your chance to grab a giant pair of Mickey ears or other such souvenirs, Downtown Disney offers multiple locations where you can pick up everything from Vinylmation (tiny animal figurines, rapidly becoming valuable collectables) to high fashion couture for Disney fans. Head to D Street for the figurines and knick knacks for and to Disney Vault 28 for contemporary, pop culture interpretations of Disney-inspired fashion from top designers like Dooney and Bourke.
Stop by the concert venue House of Blues on any given day to find local talents, Gospel Brunches and huge performances by renowned bands like Santigold, Eli Young Band and Zebrahead. Although the venue houses live performances of all kinds of music genres, it’s roots lie in Blues music from the South — a Tennessee native opened the first House of Blues in Massachusetts in 1992. It started out with a mission to teach the world about Blues music, and food from the Delta region. Since then, House of Blues venues have popped up all over the U.S. — but under each stage is a chest filled with mud from the Delta to make sure the Southern roots that inspired the venue’s creation never disappear.
Downtown Disney is free to enter.
Disney’s California Adventure is a theme park adjacent to the original Disneyland in Anaheim. Opened in 2001, California Adventure was meant to have a more Californian theme, which in recent years has been watered down with the addition of more Disney aspects. The park is great for adults and good for kids over the age of 7-8 years. There are a few things to do with young children but I would suggest not wasting time and heading straight to Disneyland if you’re traveling with young kids.
This is the only land at the Disney compound that is dedicated entirely to one film. Eateries named after characters from the film Cars line the main strip. The backdrop of stunningly recreated mountain ranges lining the infamous Route 66 immerses visitors entirely in the theme.
- Must try: Radiator Springs Racers — race cars cover a huge track of indoor and outdoor activities at various speeds.
BUENA VISTA STREET
When you first come through the entrance to California Adventure you will find yourself on a Hollywood street straight out of the 1920s. Lined with souvenir shops, Buena Vista Street is basically the way Walt Disney remembers his first sighting of Hollywood as a young man.
- Must try: The Red Trolley Car — starts at Buena Vista Street and will take you through the park to some of the biggest attractions like Terror Tower.
A BUG’S LAND
This is one of the better spots in California Adventure for small children as the whole land is basically a kid’s play park but from the viewpoint of an insect — grass rises up 20 feet in the air, accompanied by a gigantic anthill and garden hoses the size of tunnels. This is a great place to let the kiddos work off some energy before moving on to more adult-friendly parts of the park.
- Must try: It’s Tough To Be A Bug — a 3D film experience with special effects that might make some children squeamish if they don’t like bugs.
Grizzly Peak is a land that features a giant mountain shaped in the head of a Grizzly bear. This land really plays to the California theme with Grizzlies, a Redwood Forest Trail and the Soarin’ Over California ride (a simulated 3D experience where riders are suspended as the ‘glide’ over Californian terrain).
- Must try: Grizzly River Run — an outstanding river rafting ride through caverns and over falls that will have everyone laughing and drenched.
Set up as a studio back lot, Hollywood land is a tribute to California’s role in the cinema world. There are sound stages, eateries and shops for visitors to enjoy as they bask in glow of Hollywood’s good ole’ days.
- Must try: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror — a quirky and bizarre experience that brings visitors up the elevator of an abandoned Hollywood hotel only to have the cable snap as the elevator reaches the 13th story — adrenaline freefall!
More of an eating strip than a ‘land,’ Pacific Wharf is modeled after Cannery Row in Monterey. You can take a bakery tour or you can pop over to Ghirardelli Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop for some sweet treats.
- Must try: A classic banana hot fudge sundae with real Ghirardelli chocolate at the Fountain & Chocolate shop.
Paradise Pier is positioned on the edge of a small lake giving it a Coney Island feel, especially when paired with its 1920s theme, complete with a giant wooden (it’s actually composed of steel made to look like wood) coaster and ferris wheel on the waterfront.
- Must try: California Screamin’ — a fast, monster roller coaster that lasts nearly 2.5 minutes with ups and downs on a nearly 7000 foot track. The coaster starts out very fast (55 mph) and keeps your adrenaline pumping as you glimpse views over the park and then drop quickly.
Ticket prices vary by season. A standard 1-day adult ticket is $119 and for children under 10 years $113 (free for children under 3 years). Try the park hopper ticket ($169) if you want to see both Disneyland and California Adventure in one day.
Park Hours: 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.
There are a few great non-Disney places to visit while in Anaheim like infamous California-native burger joint In-N-Out (order your fries animal-style) or the eclectic Anaheim Packing District that boasts an array of international cuisines accompanied by live music. There are also a couple of eating staples within the Park(s) that you might want to stop at.
BLUE BAYOU | Disneyland
There are a lot of places to grab a bite within the Disneyland park, from churros to giant pickles, there’s always a snack nearby. But if you’re looking for a nice dinner with a full meal in a quaint setting, head to the Blue Bayou. Located in New Orleans Square at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, the Blue Bayou has patrons dining on a wooden porch overlooking the river of the ride. With glowing fireflies and rocking chairs on the Bayou, the Deep South is the perfect place to have a hearty meal like deep fried turkey. Be sure to make a reservation!
RAINFOREST CAFE | Downtown Disney
If you’ve never been inside a Rainforest Cafe before, you definitely need to make a pit stop at the Downtown Disney location. The whole place is decked out head-to-toe in pure jungle. Gigantic trees, a green-leaved canopy overhead, exotic birds chirping, running waterfalls — this place is legit when it comes to decor. Families love this choice for two reasons: First, it’s so loud with jungle noises nobody will flinch when the kiddos start throwing a stage five tantrum. Second, the kids will be so occupied with identifying every radical creature and rain forest flora that they won’t have much desire to throw aforementioned tantrum. Try the Amazon Fajitas, an over abundant plate of sizzling meat with a side of tortillas and all the toppings.
IN-N-OUT | 1168 State College Blvd.
Dining inside the Disney parks or even at Downtown Disney can be pricey, opt for a budget-friendly meal at Californian-born burger joint, In-N-Out. The burger meat is fresh and grilled to perfection, cheese is melted and topped off with fresh tomato and crisp lettuce — but the best part of this place is the sauce. A delicious pink sauce that I have yet to find perfectly recreated at any other burger restaurant.
ANAHEIM PACKING DISTRICT | 440 S Anaheim Blvd.
For a break from the Disney mania, and a little glimpse of Anaheim outside the Disney gates, head over to the Anaheim Packing District. The Packing House boasts more than 20 artisan eateries with everything from crepes to burgers to egg rolls — the food is fresh and the communal feel of the place will have you spending more time than expected here. The live music is the cherry on top at this foodie haven.
The obvious choice when you’re in Anaheim is to stay at the opulent Disneyland Hotel, allowing you to be close to all the action and to view the fireworks from your hotel room. The modern-style guestrooms offer a magical touch with light-up head boards and Disney accents. Opt for one of the signature themed suites if you want to take Disney magic to a whole new level. Stay in the Blue Sky Fairy Tale room so the whole family can feel like a Disney princess for the night (sleeps six people).
Not looking to stay in Disney mode 100 percent of the trip? Opt for the wallet-friendly 3-star Ayres Hotel. The Ayres Hotel is just minutes from the Angel Stadium and the Grove of Anaheim and just a couple of miles from the Disney compound. The elegant decor of the Ayres hotel has a classic charm with a sunny, Orange County ambiance. Each of the rooms are meticulously decorated with mahogany furnishings and velvet window coverings. The facade of the Hotel is complete with cascading ivy and charming gas lamps.