Disney California Adventure Park: A Mixed Bag

Park Introduction

Disney California Adventure Park (DCA) is located directly across from Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel where we stayed is next to DCA with its own exclusive access point for guests. DCA was intended to be inspired by California’s history and culture, to encourage guests from other states to visit and spend multiple days in the Disney parks, as they often did in the much larger Disney World in Florida. DCA was not a success when it opened, and it wasn’t until after a redesign and expansions completed in 2012 that it started bringing in large numbers of guests.

Attractions at DCA

The number and variety of attractions at DCA is slim compared to options at Disneyland. Although DCA is more Pixar, Marvel, and recent Disney Animation film themed, there is some scattering of attractions across both. There are different Toy Story rides in both parks, for example. We attended one show, “Turtle Talk with Crush”, a passable interactive TV talk show with Crush the turtle from the Finding Nemo/Dory films, and watched the end of the live Spider-man show. If you want to learn about some cool tech behind that performance, I found this video more interesting than the show itself.

We were not able to go on Radiator Springs Racers (one of the most popular rides) because they were strict about the 40” height restriction, and my son was just under. Thankfully we could still do 2 other Cars themed rides: Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree and Luigi’s Rollickin Roadsters. Both of these rides are rarely super crowded (and the latter breaks down often) but provide a fun and relatively tame whip ride for kids and adults. We also went on the Monster’s Inc., ride, and that was well-designed but a little scary for my son because it was a dark ride and the characters were new to him. Another ride that closes down frequently, due to wind, is the Golden Zephyr. We got lucky and went on this gentle spinner. Jessie’s Critter Carousel was fun and there’s something magic or nostalgic for me about merry-go-rounds. The one at Disneyland is better positioned for views all around whereas this one is tucked away in a corner. The DCA design is a little more silly and toddler friendly.

I’d recommend the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail in particular for children, because it’s a great place for them to be active and burn energy. It’s basically a large playground with a forest theme. It’s also very close to the Grand Californian hotel, so if you’re staying there, this is a good place to wind down before leaving the park.

Rides we didn’t go on that I would do next time:
Radiator Springs Racers, Grizzly River Run, Toy Story: Midway Mania, Incredicoaster (or Goofy’s Sky School depending on family heights and preferences), and Web Slingers.

Favourite Gift Shop: When exiting Hollywood Land’s Disney Animation Building, you’ll enter a unique gift shop called, “Off the Page.” It sells a lot of really beautiful Disney artwork, animation cels, collectible figures, and sculptures. Even if you don’t buy anything, it’s worth a visit.

Luigi’s Rollickin Roadsters

Food at DCA

Your 3 options are to eat food you bring into the park (it’s allowed), order from one of the many mid-range eateries/food stalls, or make a reservation months in advance at one of the higher end sit-down restaurants. We primarily chose the second option, frequently using the Disneyland app’s mobile order option to save time. When you place an order, it will also ask if you’re nearby, so you can delay when they prepare your food and select a time frame to pick up the food when it’s fresh. On the downside, most of these eateries have little to no healthy options. Many offer 1 plant based option, which is nice. Overall the food options are pretty good when compared with typical amusement park food. The kids meal options were generally always the same thing: chicken tenders, mac and cheese, or pizza with a side of apple sauce, yogurt, or a mandarin orange. We tried this once but found it better to simply share our food with our son. The Pacific Wharf is popular around mealtimes because of the variety of food and lots of tables and chairs. We ate twice at the Lucky Fortune Cookery, which was the only Asian food option, offering Japanese, Chinese, and Korean dishes that you might find in a California mall’s food court.

I enjoyed eating breakfast at Pym Test Kitchen at Avenger’s Campus. Inspired by the Ant-Man films, their food and interior design play a lot with scale: making small things big and vice-versa. Their outdoor seating is across from Avenger’s headquarters, where we waved to the Wasp and other Disney cast members dressed as Marvel characters, who were often unnoticed until they launched into a mini choreographed action sequence. The video below provides a glimpse inside Pym’s kitchen and some of the lunch/dinner food options.

Should I bring my toddler to Disneyland and DCA?

Difficult question and it depends. While admission to the Disney parks is expensive, kids age 2 and under get in for free. If your kids haven’t watched Disney movies and are unfamiliar with Disney characters, it can make things (parades and seeing characters in person in particular) less exciting. But if they love Mater and Lightning McQueen from Cars for example, then Cars Land is pretty special since it looks and feels like you’re in the movie. Because of height restrictions and early fears, many rides aren’t for toddlers. There is the argument that kids won’t remember this trip because they’re too young. But nowadays we record everything. Travelling with toddlers isn’t “a walk in the park”. Disneyland isn’t a quiet or peaceful place; it’s not a museum or a natural park. But it’s also a place where they can be loud, silly, and playful. At its best, Disneyland is an exciting and stimulating environment designed to tap into a child’s curiosity, imagination, and love of stories. Other amusement parks are typically more for teenagers and thrill-seekers. All of them try a little too hard to get you to spend more money. Arm yourself with knowledge and realistic expectations in advance, so you can have a rough plan and make the most of it. My plan was far from perfect and I made multiple miscalculations. But looking back on the pictures and videos, I can see my family’s smiles, hear our laughter, and remember the good moments.

What’s the worst part of DCA and Disneyland?

There is a lot about visiting a theme park that is impossible or difficult to control. High prices and crowds can easily put you in a bad mood, impacting your choices and behaviour. Because Disney is expensive, most people are very focused on getting the most bang for their buck. This results in scrambling to do as many rides as possible and attempting to push past feeling tired, anxious, hungry, thirsty, overwhelmed, etc. Your plans will inevitably change (e.g., ride closures). It’s easy to view other people as obstacles slowing your access to a ride, food, or washroom. There are nearly always crowds and waiting is an inescapable part of these popular parks. You could be having the time of your life, but there are going to also be people in the park who are miserable and can’t wait to leave. You can’t brighten everyone’s day, and your own feelings will go up and down. That said, we did meet a few very kind strangers on this trip too.

What would you do differently next time?

Slow down, only aim for our top 4-6 rides for 1 day, sit down to watch a live show and 1 of the parades, bring more activities to do while waiting in line. Potentially travel with another family so my son can play with a friend and us parents can talk and help each other. Take a break from the park in the afternoon and go somewhere else with less people, then come back later. If my wife is willing to go again when our son is older, ensure she can enjoy a fancy spa treatment of her choice. I lean towards Tokyo Disney or Disney World for next time, so we can have more new experiences.

Planning Tip 1

I highly recommend checking out the YouTube Channel: FreshBaked! before your trip. I watched a lot of Disneyland YouTube videos while planning, and David’s channel was the most helpful. He visits the parks every week to make videos covering park news, construction updates, wait-times, ride closures, tips for visitors and parents, and informed predictions for the following month. The video and audio quality of his videos is clear, the content is focused, and he and his family clearly love the parks, always finding ways to have fun. Even if you don’t have the time or budget to visit Disneyland, you can take a virtual trip there by watching his feel-good videos.

Planning Tip 2

I borrowed a 2022 Disneyland Guidebook from the library. The most useful tips from guidebooks are the maps, suggested itineraries, and attractions info. For parents, knowing the height requirements for each ride, how dark or scary it is, and the average wait times is valuable. Having last year’s edition of the book made little difference to me, and I don’t think it’s worth buying this type of book.

Planning Tip 3

Download the Disneyland app and use it, but not all the time. It’s great for food and drink mobile orders and essential to book some experiences/shows. But you don’t want to be glued to your phone while in the park. One perk is the ability to check wait times and ride closures. We had mixed experiences with this. Twenty to thirty minutes was the average wait time for most attractions. Whenever a popular ride dropped down to fifteen minutes or less, it seemed like we all rushed to the same ride, pumping the wait time back up to thirty minutes. I’d recommend only checking the app’s wait times right after you’ve entered the park, and before you make a long trek for a specific ride. Otherwise it’s probably best to stick to whatever YOU want to do most, rather than what’s quick.

This is part 3 of my blog series about our trip to Disneyland in June 2023. You might also enjoy reading: Our Stay at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and 10 Tips for Flying with a Toddler. Thank you for reading!

The Golden Zephyr

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