If you’re planning a trip to Disneyland, you probably want to know which attractions and rides are not to be missed, and which rides you can probably skip. Our list of the top Disneyland attractions includes plenty of recognizable names, along with a few sleeper-picks that we think a lot of people overlook, but are actually really enjoyable. While we don’t recommend skipping any attractions based upon the advice of others if you have the time to experience them all (why not form your own opinion–you might like something totally different than us!), if your time is limited, here are the must-see rides and attractions in Disneyland. Note that this list only covers Disneyland, the park. We’ll post a separate list of must-see attractions for Disney California Adventure.
Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage – A relatively new attraction at Disneyland, the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage takes guests aboard actual submarines to find Nemo. It’s a relatively long attraction with some awesome sets and detail. The wait times can be long, the queue is incredibly boring, and there’s no FastPass, but the payoff is well worth the boring wait.
Pirates of the Caribbean – Pirates of the Caribbean is a boat-ride back in time to the days when pirates ruled the Caribbean. The attractions features Audio Animatronics pirates engaging in swashbuckling mayhem. This is one of our favorite attractions at Disneyland, and is considerably longer than the Walt Disney World attraction by the same name. It contains a considerable amount of detail (we recommend experiencing it more than once to take in everything), a catchy song, and lines usually aren’t too long due to its high capacity.
Indiana Jones Adventure – Indiana Jones Adventure is a thrilling ride aboard a transport vehicle deep into the Temple of the Forbidden Eye on a daring journey in search of unimaginable rewards. Along the way you’ll incur the wrath of Mara, who will force you to encounter caverns of bubbling death, screaming undead mummies, erupting lava, evil wraiths, and giant snakes. Everything about this attraction is excellent. From the incredible queue to the humorous pre-show to the special effects-laden attraction itself, Indiana Jones Adventure still feels as cutting edge today as it did when it opened back in 1995. As Sallah would (and does) say, “it is unlike anything you have ever experienced, I assure you!” This attraction is incredibly popular and routinely has long waits, making it a great use of FastPass.
Space Mountain – Space Mountain is a dark rollercoaster through space. There’s some cool theming here, a blast-off tunnel, and on-board music to spice up the experience. Space Mountain is a FastPass attraction, and it’s highly recommended that you utilize it. This is another attraction that is dramatically different than it’s Walt Disney World counterpart.
Haunted Mansion – The Haunted Mansion is a slow-moving dark ride that is home to 999 happy haunts that are dying to meet you. No further explanation should be necessary; if you aren’t familiar with the premise of the Haunted Mansion, you’re probably living under a rock. I have no interest in rock-dwellers reading this website. For those familiar with the Walt Disney World version, a lot in the Disneyland version is the same or similar. There are some differences (no M.C. Escher staircase scene at Disneyland and the Disneyland queue contains some scenes that are ride-through at Walt Disney World), but it’s largely the same. Die-hard Haunted Mansion fans will likely disagree, but the vast majority of guests won’t notice many differences. If you visit around Halloween or Christmas, you’ll see “Haunted Mansion Holiday,” which features a Nightmare Before Christmas overlay. It’s awesome.
Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln – Another Disneyland classic. This attraction is a hybrid film and Audio Animatronics performance by the famous U.S. President. It incorporates some of the best elements of Hall of Presidents and the American Adventure at Walt Disney World, including my personal favorite, the song “Golden Dreams.” Many guests, mostly communists, find this attraction boring. We absolutely love it. It’s not a thrill-ride, to be sure, but it is an incredibly well-done glimpse into the history of this great nation. If you have time beforehand, check out the Steve Martin (and Donald Duck) video in the lobby created for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad – A guest favorite, Big Thunder Mountain a rollercoaster themed as a runaway mine train on a ride through the barren landscape of the Old West. Hang onto your hats and glasses, because Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is “the wildest ride in the wilderness!” Big Thunder Mountain is a FastPass attraction, and it might behoove you to use that if lines are over 40 minutes for it. There are differences between this Big Thunder and Walt Disney World’s, notably the town of Rainbow Ridge (a remnant from the classic Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland attraction).
Billy Hill & the Hillbillies – The entertainment value of Billy Hill (four brothers named Billy performing) is high. It’s a mix of music and jokes, with just a tad of ‘over-the-kids-heads’ edge. Located in the Golden Horseshoe, Billy Hill and the Hillbillies perform several sets a day that are each around 20 minutes long. Disneyland regulars treasure these performers as a real overlooked gem, as these musicians are one “attraction” that most tourists miss. Take the time to relax in the air conditioning, grab an ice cream sundae, and enjoy a performance on Billy Hill.
Storybook Land Canal Boats – The Storybook Land Canal Boats are a Disneyland classic. Cast Member-led boats of guests float past miniaturized versions of villages, castles, and homes of Disney characters. Our favorite scene is Pinocchio’s village, because the Imagineers have designed this scene so the Matterhorn appears as another mountain towering over the village in the background. This attraction may seem simple, and it is, but that’s part of the charm. Storybook Land Canal Boats isn’t especially popular, but long lines can form because it has very low hourly capacity. We recommend hitting it early in the morning or late at night.
Disneyland Railroad – The Disneyland Railroad is, quite simply, a normal railroad that circles Disneyland in a scenic manner. If you’re a Walt Disney World regular, you may have a “been there, done that” attitude towards the Disneyland Railroad. However, the Disneyland Railroad is dramatically different. Not only does it have a scene with real, live (okay, Audio Animatronics) dinosaurs called Primeval World, but it has the history of being Walt Disney’s railroad. If you’re really into this history, arrive early and head to City Hall to make a reservation for the Lilly Belle car, a special car rife with Disney history.
Matterhorn – The Matterhorn was Expedition Everest decades before Expedition Everest was even conceived. This rollercoaster through the yeti-guarded mountain is a thrilling attraction that most guests will enjoy. The Matterhorn is receiving an extensive overhaul in 2011 and will be receiving new ride vehicles, a fresh coat of paint, and is rumored to be receiving some new show scenes and effects. FastPass is not available at the Matterhorn, so plan on hitting it early to avoid long waits.
Splash Mountain – Splash Mountain is a log flume ride that features a story from Disney’s Song of the South film, and climaxes with a big drop into the briar patch. Walt Disney World fans might find themselves a little perplexed by Splash Mountain. Disneyland’s Splash Mountain is the original (by a couple years), and in some ways, it’s better. Disneyland recycled high quality Audio Animatronics from “America Sings” for Splash Mountain, and many of these Animatronics look better than those found in their Florida counterpart. However, the pacing is entirely too fast, guests get entirely too wet, and the story is very disjointed compared to the Walt Disney World version. Still, it’s a must-see, even for Walt Disney World fans, as it’s dramatically different than the Magic Kingdom version of the attraction.
Casey Jr. Circus Train – Another Fantasyland staple, the Casey Jr. Circus Train offers a scenic view of Fantasyland as guests ride aboard cars or in cages (now is your chance to finally put the kids in a cage!). It’s another attraction that is simple, but has a lot of appeal thanks to the great views it offers of Fantasyland, the fun music, and the whimsy of the train, itself. Even as adults, it’s a favorite attraction of ours (and we have no childhood nostalgia towards it) that is difficult to articulate. It has a real kinetic energy and is just good, clean fun.
Peter Pan’s Flight – If you don’t arrive right at park opening, you might want to consider skipping Peter Pan’s Flight. It’s considered a Fantayland classic, as it takes guests in “flying” ships above London and Neverland, but really, it’s not as impressive as it sounds. Especially given the hour-plus waits it regularly attracts. We enjoy Peter Pan’s Flight, but I wouldn’t wait more than 20-30 minutes in line for it, especially if your time is limited. If you arrive right at park opening, this is the attraction to hit first.
Fantasmic! – Fantasmic! is a musical battle between the forces of good and evil set in Mickey’s dreams (and on the Rivers of America) with stunning effects, including pyrotechnics, water, lasers, fire, and a huge dragon. If you’ve seen Fantasmic! at Walt Disney World, you haven’t actually seen Fantasmic! The Disneyland version is infinitely better, with an excellent Peter Pan battle scene (on the Sailing Ship Columbia) replacing the Pocahontas scene, among other things. Disneyland locals generally camp out hours in advance of Fantasmic!, so if possible, catch the late show.
Jungle Cruise – Jungle Cruise is a boat ride through the rivers of Adventureland that encounters hippos, lions, and piranhas, among other animals and natives, along the way. However, the real highlight here is the non-stop zingers of the skippers who pilot the boats. If you don’t appreciate dry, intentionally corny, or self-aware humor, you may not appreciate the Jungle Cruise. We’ve seen a number of guests exit the Jungle Cruise with confused looks on their faces. Jungle Cruise skippers often break the carefully-crafted illusion of Disneyland by pointing out the breed of snake (starting with “p”) is not a python, but instead, “plastic.” These jokes are nuanced-enough that most kids won’t get them, so don’t worry about that. We love the Jungle Cruise, as do most guests, but some are not fans. It’s also an attraction that is highly skipper-dependent. If you get a poor skipper, your ride might be sub-par.
Remember… Dreams Come True! – Remember… Dreams Come True is the name of the brilliant fireworks show at Disneyland through most of the year. It’s a veritable tribute to Disneyland’s best attractions, past and present, and is easily the best Magic Kingdom-style fireworks show ever created. If you’re visiting in the summer months you’ll instead see “Magical,” and if you’re visiting around Halloween or Christmas, you’ll see seasonal fireworks shows themed to those holidays instead.
Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room – Enchanted Tiki Room is a 15-minute musical serenade from Audio Animatronics birds and offers a celebration of island romance and wonder performed in a theater-in-the-round. You’ve probably heard these catchy songs before; the fun music of this attraction, and its history, makes it an attraction not to be missed.
Star Tours: The Adventures Continue – Completely re-imagined in 2011, Star Tours is a flight-motion simulator into the Star Wars world with digital 3-D video, Audio Animatronics characters, and in-vehicle effects. Star Tours features multiple storylines, with some 64 different experience combinations, making it an attraction you can experience again and again. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly popular, so this might prove difficult. If you’ve experienced the new attraction in Walt Disney World, we recommend skipping Star Tours at Disneyland if you’re short on time, as they’re largely the same. Otherwise, Star Tours is an absolute must-do. Use FastPass.
‘it’s a small world’ – ‘it’s a small world’ is the iconic attraction featuring the children of the world and that oh-so divisive song. Again, unless you live under a rock, you’re familiar with it. ‘it’s a small world’ at Disneyland differs substantially from the Walt Disney World version; it features Disney characters tastefully inserted into several show-scenes, an outdoor queue and facade, and other scene differences. If visiting at Christmas, ‘it’s a small world’ holiday is not to be missed.
Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters – Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters enlists your help in an interactive and competitive game-attraction to save the universe in this blast-em-up, ride-through adventure. It’s like a ride-through video game, and is a lot of fun. We often find ourselves riding re-riding late at night when there’s no line to see who can get the highest score. This attracton is far superior to the Walt Disney World version of the attraction.
Alice in Wonderland – A Fantasyland dark ride into the world of Alice in Wonderland. This is our favorite Fantasyland dark ride, and we’re not even fans of Alice in Wonderland. Best hit early in the morning on a fast-paced Fantasyland Touring Plan, as lines can get long for it later in the day due to its lower capacity.
Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin – Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin takes guests aboard a dark ride voyage into Toontown in interactive vehicles (guests can spin them). Lines are often long for Car Toon Spin, making it a good FastPass attraction. It’s the only attraction worth experiencing in the Toontown land of Disneyland. Presently, the FastPass machine for Car Toon Spin is not synced with the rest of the park’s FastPass machines, meaning that you can get another FastPass while you hold a Car Toon Spin FastPass. This loophole is subject to change.
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – Another Fantasyland dark ride favorite, this attraction goes into the irreverent world of Mr. Toad from the Wind and the Willows. Worth experiencing for the irreverence alone. On what other Disney attraction do you go to bar, crash into a truck, and go to hell?! Would never be built in today’s politically correct era.
Sleeping Beauty Castle Walk-Through - A simple, but fun walk-through of Sleeping Beauty Castle featuring interactive “window” scenes from the film. An often overlooked, but very cool attraction that takes little time to experience and should not be missed.
With over half the park listed, this list might have been easier to create as attractions to avoid (the only “must-avoid” attraction at Disneyland is Innoventions; nothing else is quite so atrocious, with the possible exception of the laughably dated Captain EO tribute, but a lot of Michael Jackson fans and old-school Disneyland fans enjoy that). If you have the time, experience everything. A few Fantasyland attractions are omitted from this list, all of which are worth experiencing if you have the time. If you arrive right at park opening and there are no Magic Mornings, you can easily bounce from Fantasyland attraction to Fantasyland attraction and quickly knock all of these out in about in hour or so.
If you’re planning a trip to Disneyland, we highly recommend you check out our comprehensive Disneyland trip planning page. It will assist you with everything from hotels (off-site or on?) to dining and beyond!
If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments. If you’ve been to Disneyland, let us know what you think of our list!