Disneyland 2016 Trip Planning Guide

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This post is a guide for planning your 2016 or 2017 vacation to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. Here we cover tips and tricks for dining, cheapest tickets to purchase, which hotels to pick, experiencing seasonal events like Christmas & Halloween, Cars Land, Star Wars, and more. Plus, making the most of your time in the parks, changes that are coming in Fall 2016 (and beyond!), and navigating Disneyland during the extensive park-wide refurbishments while Star Wars Land is built.

Despite the construction and even though the Diamond Celebration has now ended, it’s still a good time to visit. Halloween decorations are now up around Disneyland, and tomorrow (September 9, 2016), Halloween Time at Disneyland officially kicks off. Right after that, the Christmas season at Disneyland begins. Beyond that, 2017 has some new attractions opening with several special events, too (more on that below). There are other reasons to visit this year, and we’ll get to those, as well.

If you want an overview of the parks, hotels, and other info, we highly recommend that you order a free copy of the 2016 Disney Parks Vacation Planning DVD. That free DVD covers all of that with fun footage from Disneyland. It’s really helpful to give you a visual feel for the layout of Disneyland Resort. Plus, it’s just a nice, free keepsake to have. Even though we’re locals, we order it every year!

We first posted this guide a few years ago when Disney California Adventure had its big reboot, and have updated it multiple times per year since (last update: September 8, 2016). We have received messages from a lot of people who had great trips thanks to our recommendations, and this guide has been refined based upon numerous visits to Disneyland. We are Disneyland locals, so we get to the parks regularly to tweak and refine our tips to provide you the best info and strategies.

Despite there only being two parks at Disneyland Resort, there’s a lot to know. It may seem silly to point this out, but this planning guide applies to the Disneyland Resort in California. If you are visiting Florida, please consult our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide.

Disneyland Resort has been on a roll as of late, expanding upon the success of its big recent addition: Cars Land. Disneyland Resort’s “Diamond Anniversary” is now underway and will continue through September 5, 2016. This includes the new Disney Paint the Night parade, Disneyland Forever fireworks, World of Color: Celebrate, Hatbox Ghost in the Haunted Mansion, Re-Imagined Matterhorn, Re-Imagined Peter Pan’s Flight, and more.

You might be wondering whether Fall or Christmas 2016 is a good time to visit, given the construction for Star Wars Land. We’ll answer that question at the end of this post for those of you who are on the fence. If you’ve already decided now is the best time, we’ll start by providing all the resources you’ll need to plan your Disneyland Resort trip, including when to visit, where to stay, what to do, and much more!

Disneyland Trip Planning Resources

If you’ve already made up your mind that now is the time to go to Disneyland and are digging into planning, here are our posts that you need to read when preparing for your Disneyland vacation. Think of them as like the 10 steps to follow to plan your Disneyland trip. If you are trying to decide whether you should visit Disneyland in 2016, jump down to the section below titled “Should You Visit Disneyland in 2016?”

These posts will take you through the planning process to make your visit to Disneyland more enjoyable, helping you save time and money. Armed with knowledge (the most powerful weapon!), you will have a much better vacation. Yeah, it’s going to take a couple of hours to read this stuff so you know the basics for visiting, but that pales in comparison to the time you’ll needlessly waste in lines if you go blindly, without doing your homework.

Each link will open in a new tab, so feel free to click away and go down the rabbit hole of Disneyland trip planning.

1. Saving Money on Disneyland Tickets – Our recommendations on what type of Disneyland tickets you should buy, including how many days, whether you should get Park Hopper, and where you can buy Disneyland tickets to save some money!

2. Disneyland Restaurant Reviews – The stereotype that all Disney food is unhealthy food like burgers and hot dogs is entirely false. Disneyland has inexpensive unique dining options as well as expensive fine dining. Good dining can help define a trip! Read about which restaurants are best in our dining reviews.

3. What Time of Year to Visit to Avoid Crowds – The single most important part of planning a trip to Disneyland is determining when to visit to avoid crowds. Disneyland is busiest when school is out of session, so those are the biggest times to avoid. Learn what times to visit in this post!

4. Rankings & Reviews of the Best & Worst Hotels Near Disneyland – Depending upon where you stay, your hotel room could be the costliest aspect of your trip. This post ranks 25+ hotels near Disneyland at which we have stayed, along with room photos, pros & cons, and other useful information. In our Where to Stay at Disneyland: Off-Site v. On-Site post, we also cover why “on-site” hotels are not as important at Disneyland as they are at Walt Disney World, and how to score a close hotel for $50/night!

5. Ultimate Guide to Disneyland at Christmas – There are a lot of great times of year to visit Disneyland, but our favorite time of year is Christmas-time at Disneyland. The decorations are beautiful, the spirit is festive, and there are some fun attraction overlays and seasonal foods to enjoy. It’s also one of the busiest times of year and there’s a lot to see and do, so read this to prepare. If Christmas isn’t your thing, consider Halloween Time at Disneyland, and check out our Ultimate Guide to Disneyland at Halloween for assistance planning a trip during that specific time of year. 

6. Disneyland Ride Guide – Disneyland has a ton of attractions, and a lot of visitors only have a day or two to spend at Disneyland. The article reviews every attraction at Disneyland, giving each a numerical score out of 10, plus highlights key attractions that we consider the best ones, which should be prioritized if you have limited time at Disneyland. We also have a Disney California Adventure Ride Guide, which does the same thing for that park. Cars Land is the obvious top priority, and if you want to get the most mileage out of it, check out our Cars Land Tips & Tricks post, too.

7. What to Pack – Packing for Disneyland is comparable to packing for any vacation, but with a few twists. Here’s our list of “unordinary” items to pack that will help enhance your Disneyland trip!

8. Disneyland Discount Guide – There are a variety of ways you can save money on a trip to Disneyland. From vacation packages to Costco discounts to off-season percentage off discounts to even discounts for military personnel, this page covers every way you might be able to save money on a trip to Disneyland!

9. Disneyland Transportation – Should you fly or drive to Disneyland? Rent a car or rely on your feet for getting around Disneyland? Use Uber to get around Anaheim, Orange County, and Los Angeles? We answer these questions and provide advice for saving money on transportation to (and around) Disneyland Resort!

10. Disneyland 1-Day Recommended Itinerary – Only have one day to visit Disneyland? This is a step-by-step plan of attack for which attractions you should do, where you should eat, what to see, and more. Likewise, we also have a Disney California Adventure 1-Day Itinerary if you’re trying to do that park in a single day.

Although this one isn’t necessary for planning a trip to Disneyland, we highly recommend you read our 101 Great Disneyland Tips post. A lot of these are more obscure and great little things that will help you visit the parks like a local. This is more granular advice than what you’ll find in our other planning articles, but we’ve had a lot of positive feedback from readers who really got a lot more out of their trips because of those tips.

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Since we receive a lot of questions about Disney photography (all of the photos on this page and every other page on this site were taken by me), you might also want to check out our Disney Parks Ultimate Photography Guide for tips on taking better photos in the parks, and cameras and equipment recommendations!

That should about cover what you need to know if you’re thinking about visiting Disneyland Resort this coming year. We can’t encourage people enough to give Disneyland a try, especially Disney fans who are biased towards Walt Disney World as their “home” park. Disneyland is a totally different, much more relaxed experience. It’s intimate in both size and feel, and is oozing with history and incredible attractions.

If you want to determine whether you should visit Disneyland in 2016, keep reading…

Should You Visit Disneyland in 2016?

Even before you dig into those planning posts to which we’ve linked above, the threshold question for you might be whether 2016 is a good year to visit? If you’re planning a once in a lifetime vacation or are trying to decide among 2016, 2017, or 2018 (or beyond), you want to pick the optimal time to go.

Let’s start with the upside of the here and now. Disneyland Resort began to shine as a bona fide tourist destination more recently when the billion dollar plus make-over of Disney California Adventure was completed, with Cars Land as the highlight. You can read our full review of Disney California Adventure 2.0 here, but suffice to say, it is now an amazing theme park, and one of the best US Disney theme parks.

Following the Cars Land addition, Disneyland debuted Mickey and the Magical Map, an excellent stage show in Fantasyland. Other more recent additions have included World of Color – Winter Dreams and Viva Navidad for the Christmas season in Disney California Adventure. Late last year, the Star Wars Awakens event started with fun new additions like Hyperspace Mountain (but overall, we think the offerings are a bit uninspired and don’t live up to what Star Wars could be–or will be when Star Wars Land opens).

As for the immediate future, the Diamond Celebration entertainment ended on September 5, 2016. This means that World of Color: Celebrate, Paint the Night, and Disneyland Forever have ended their runs. If you’re shocked by that, you’re not alone. I was 99% sure both would continue to run, and was wrong. Despite off the charts popularity with guests, Disneyland is discontinuing both in a cost-savings measure.

During the holiday season, Paint the Night will return on weekends. Likewise, the small-scale Fantasy in the Sky fireworks show will run temporarily (on select nights) as an interim replacement for Disneyland Forever while a replacement (more on that in the 2017 section below) is developed. Don’t bother with Fantasy in the Sky–it’s short and unimpressive.

Halloween and Christmas seasons are both spectacular at Disneyland (as you can see in our posts listed above that discuss them), so if you are visiting yet in 2016 during either of these seasons, don’t worry. For locals, it’ll actually be nice for the holidays to be back to “normal” after the Diamond Celebration disrupted them last year.

Now, for those of you planning 2017 Disneyland trips…

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Then, there’s the downside. Almost everything that goes on or around the Rivers of America, including Fantasmic and the Disneyland Railroad, is closed until Summer 2017. Now, a lot of these attractions are “minor” things to the average first-timer (boats and that sort of thing), but Fantasmic is a big deal. Even if you wouldn’t do the smaller attractions, the Rivers of America adds substantial ambiance to the park and is a big loss for atmosphere.

This is occurring due to Star Wars Land construction, the construction of which is otherwise unobtrusive. Fortunately, there aren’t construction walls up all around the river, so aside from the closure of Big Thunder trail and a few walls by Hungry Bear Restaurant, this construction is mostly out of guest view.

Should You Visit Disneyland in 2017?

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With all of the above in mind, you might be wondering whether 2017 is a better option for visiting Disneyland. Well, for starters, Star Wars Land will still not be open in 2017. The project is moving fairly quickly to meet a rumored opening date, but that isn’t until December 2018–and that’s best case scenario. It’s a massive development, and will expand the size of the park tremendously. Above is a photo (click to view full-size) of the Star Wars Land plot taken from the Mickey & Friends Parking Structure. Aside from a few spots, this isn’t noticeable in the park. Check out our Star Wars Land Construction Update for more info on the progress.

Then there’s the question of entertainment. With Paint the Night and Disneyland Forever gone, what will run instead? Well, early in the year, you can expect an encore farewell run of Main Street Electrical Parade. January and February are typically really slow times at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, and Disney likely counts on locals’ nostalgia for the original Main Street Electrical Parade to give attendance numbers a shot in the arm.

With that said, we’d be shocked if Paint the Night is actually gone for good. Even though Disney has confirmed it will end its run in Disneyland on September 5, we fully expect it to return in early 2017. With Halloween and Christmas being big draws this year, Disneyland doesn’t need Paint the Night every evening to lure in guests. Additionally, after multiple nightly showings for 18 months without much downtime, it needs some maintenance. Once Main Street Electrical Parade provides a boost in Winter-Spring 2017 and interest in that starts to wane, we expect Disneyland to bring back Paint the Night “by popular guest demand.”

There are also rumors that Paint the Night could end up being shipped to Walt Disney World or Disneyland Paris, but we think those scenarios are unlikely. The most unlikely scenario of all is Paint the Night getting boxed up and being forever retired. Paint the Night is an elaborate parade that cost tens of millions of dollars to develop, and it is very atypical of Disney to invest such resources in temporary entertainment. It will go on hiatus, but it’s not gone forever. The only question, we think, is where it will end up. Disneyland? Disney California Adventure? Paris? Florida?

Aside from Main Street Electrical Parade, not much is going on at Disneyland in early 2017. As a result, we expect crowds to be low through mid-February 2017 (except at night, when locals will show up for the parade after work). Good news if you like low crowds, but bad news if you like entertainment. In general, we anticipate not much to be happening until the weekends of Food & Wine Festival at Disney California Adventure starts and Guardians of the Galaxy – MISSION: Breakout! opens in May 2017.
Beyond this, we also anticipate a new fireworks and Fantasmic show to debut. The new Fantasmic will debut around June or July 2017, and will feature projection mapping (including a sequence that turns the Sailing Ship Columbia into the Black Pearl!) plus newer films. A date on the fireworks is TBD, but we anticipate May 2017. This fireworks show is rumored to be Star Wars-heavy, with a longer Lion King segment and other of Disney’s most popular films.
Speaking of Star Wars, the Star Wars Awakens event will continue at Disneyland in 2017, highlighted by the incredibly popular Hyperspace Mountain. Expect this Star Wars Tomorrowland-takeover to receive a light refresh (perhaps with new meet & greet characters) when Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is released.

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In terms of other news for those planning summer vacations to Disneyland, FastPass+ is on the way, and will be arriving soon. For a while, this was moving forward at a really fast pace, until all progress seemed to stop. We suspect that the original goal was to get it live in the couple of quiet weeks before summer break, but for whatever reason, that did not happen. We don’t know why this was delayed (or perhaps it was cancelled?), but at this point, it very likely won’t be rolled out until the parks are slower in January 2017.

There will be a lot of tweaks for the Disneyland version of FastPass+. Rather than using the same advanced booking system as Walt Disney World, FastPass+ at Disneyland will be same-day bookings only (at least for now). All current FastPass attractions will be converted to FastPass+, as well as Pirates of the Caribbean, Matterhorn, and Haunted Mansion. You can also expect the system to be smartphone and/or ticket media based, as opposed to utilizing MagicBands.

Given that Disneyland’s guest demographics are very different than Walt Disney World, part of these are necessary changes for adapt FastPass+ to the park, and other changes result from learning what has and has not worked at Walt Disney World. We will have more on FastPass+ at Disneyland as information is released, but for now, treat all of the above as unofficial rumors.

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So…should you wait to visit Disneyland? That depends upon how long you’re willing to wait. Little is known about Star Wars Land as of right now because it’s details are a closely guarded secret, but sources suggest this land is going to blow people away. If you’re only ever visiting Disneyland once, it might make sense to wait until Star Wars Land is open–especially if there are big Star Wars fans in your party. A Christmas 2018 opening for Star Wars Land isn’t out of the question, but a safer bet would be 2019 if you’re planning a trip this far in advance.

That means potentially waiting 2+ years for a visit if you want to wait for Star Wars Land. That’s a long time. If you have kids who are the “perfect” age for Disneyland right now, you might not want to wait. Heck, they’ll be shaving/driving/twerking/graduating/retiring in the blink of an eye, so waiting might not be an option. Plus, that 2-year wait is until Star Wars Land first opens. It’s going to be crazy-busy at least the first year it opens, so you may want to hold off visiting right away.

In other words, unless you are willing to play the (really) long game and visit near the end of the decade, we’d recommend going ahead and visiting in 2016. All of the upsides mentioned above make it a good time, and even in the downsides, there’s upside. The construction for Star Wars Land is going to scare some people away in 2016 and 2017 as compared to Christmas 2018 when the parks will get slammed by guests who postponed trips waiting for Star Wars Land.

Should Walt Disney World Fans Visit?

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If you’re going to be a first-time visitor to Disneyland who randomly stumbled upon this article, you can skip the next section, as it’s not for you. This is aimed at Walt Disney World diehards who read this blog but still think, “Disneyland? That cute little place out west? I think I’ll stick to the big guns with Walt Disney World.” For those casual, once in a lifetime visitors, we have a Walt Disney World v. Disneyland Resort post that should be helpful for determining which coast might be better for you. I would strongly suggest reading that before deciding one way or the other, as there are pros and cons for both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

As for serious Disney fans, I know a lot of Walt Disney World fans never visit Disneyland Resort, basically, because it’s smaller than Walt Disney World, not as isolated from the real world, and because it costs more to visit Disneyland. Likewise, a lot of non-fans who are considering a Disney trip as a once-in-a-lifetime, rite of passage trip for their kids default to Walt Disney World. This is understandable, but there is a case to be made for Disneyland, too.

For many fervent Walt Disney World fans, considering a Disneyland trip is tantamount to treason–like “cheating” on Walt Disney World with another park (which really makes no sense given that the same company owns both, but whatever…). Believe me, I’ve been there. Once upon a time, I was one of those Walt Disney World fans. These fans retort “where’s your Westcot?!” when someone touts the number and quality of attractions in Disneyland. They point at the cheap hotels of Harbor Boulevard contaminating the “bubble” of Magic when someone points out the “blessing of size” of the smaller resort. You get the idea.

After truly falling in love with the original Disneyland and Disney California Adventure and feeling I really appreciate what makes the place special, I feel I can say with some authority that these Walt Disney World fans just “don’t get it.”

Yes, Disneyland does have two parks to Walt Disney World’s four. No, Disneyland doesn’t have any water parks. Yes, it only has three resort-hotels. Yeah, the real world does sort of encroach-upon Disneyland. These seem to be some pretty serious blows to Disneyland being a viable tourist destination. Despite all this, Disneyland is still amazing–a must visit place.

Why? First, the big reason: Disneyland is the original Magic Kingdom. It’s the only park Walt Disney personally walked, and its history and historic detail is amazing. Anyone who fancies themselves a Disney history buff but has no desire to visit Disneyland doesn’t really care that much about Disney history. The places literally oozes history. (Seriously, it’s this green stuff that rises out of the ground in New Orleans Square. Don’t tell Cal-OSHA!) Even if you don’t care about history, there’s a certain intimacy and charm to the place that no other Disney theme park in the world captures. It’s not that the park is stuck in 1950 (not even remotely so), but it does have a certain quaintness about it that makes it really feel inviting.

On the topic of attractions, don’t worry, because there’s a ton of them (I feel like Stacey in the “Must Do Disney” video). Disneyland (the park) has a staggering attraction line-up, with almost every version of attractions that are offered in both Walt Disney World and Disneyland being substantially better in Disneyland.

Pirates of the Caribbean is longer. It’s a small world has a beautiful outdoor facade and includes subtle and well done (that’s right!) Disney characters. Indiana Jones Adventure puts the Animal Kingdom attraction with the same bloodlines to shame. The Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage is far superior to the Epcot Finding Nemo attraction. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride still exists. Fantasyland has several cute dark rides that Walt Disney World doesn’t have (Alice in Wonderland, Storybook Land Canal Boats, Casey Jr., etc.). These are just some examples; the full list goes on and on.

In all honesty, comparing Disneyland and Walt Disney World isn’t that easy. It’s like comparing two of your children. Yeah, in the back of your mind, you secretly prefer one over the other (kidding, parents), but it’s a tough comparison because both have endearing qualities. Saying Walt Disney World is better than Disneyland due to the number of parks each has is about as arbitrary as saying your taller child is better than the shorter one. It reduces the comparison to simple terms that overlooks so much. It’s probably a comparison you shouldn’t even make since both resorts are so different. You simply need to experience both.

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I could go on for pages and pages about why I love Disneyland, and why everyone owes it to themselves to visit Disneyland, but hopefully this is a good-enough jumping off point. If you’ve never been to either Walt Disney World or Disneyland Resort, it’s a good place to start as we attempt to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of each in an unbiased manner.

If all of this is still overwhelming or you want personalized recommendations for Disneyland Resort, click here to get a vacation quote from a no fee Authorized Disney Vacation Planner.

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Your Thoughts…

Are you planning a Disneyland visit sometime in 2016 or 2017? Have you already visited Disneyland? Have any tips of your own to add? We really appreciate reader feedback, comments, and questions, so please share in the comments!

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