Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa is the flagship hotel at Disneyland Resort with a AAA four-diamond rating that is themed as a bygone-era National Park lodge with styling from the 20th Century American Arts & Crafts movement. Its lobby atrium draws inspiration from Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful Inn, while the exterior pays homage to Yosemite National Park’s Ahwahnee Hotel.
As its name implies, the architecture is, generally, inspired by Northern California. Walt Disney World regulars will notice a lot of similarities between Wilderness Lodge and Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel (they were designed by the same man!), but upon closer inspection, there are plenty of subtle differences that set them apart. In almost every regard, the Grand Californian is superior.
The Hotel is Disneyland Resort’s newest, built in 2001 along with the addition of Disney’s California Adventure. Disney Vacation Club was added to the Hotel in 2009. Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel features Disneyland Resort’s best restaurant in Napa Rose, plus another great table service restaurant in Storyteller’s Cafe, an excellent lounge in Hearthstone Lounge, and an underrated counter service restaurant in Whitewater Snacks. For being in the middle of Disneyland Resort, Grand Californian has a surprisingly large footprint, with 3 pools, including a main pool with a 100-foot water slide that wraps around the stump of a giant redwood tree. The entire pool area is styled to mirror the Reedwood Creek Challenge, which it is adjacent to in Disney California Adventure.
The greatest “feature” of Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel is, quite possibly, its entrance into Disney California Adventure. This entrance makes it the closest hotel to any Disney theme park in the United States. It’s also an incredibly short walk to Disneyland (either through Disney California Adventure or Downtown Disney). This is a huge benefit, especially when coupled with morning Extra Magic Hours, which are great for fast access to Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land!
Its lobby is also a pretty spectacular feature, with impressive details that make it worth exploring. At first blush, it appears very similar to Wilderness Lodge. However, once you really start exploring the hotel and looking at everything–the stained glass, the lamps, the fixtures, the clock, and the furniture, it’s clear that the Grand Californian is in a different league. I highly recommend a late night relaxing next to the fireplace when no one else is around.
Theming-wise, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel has me a bit torn. I love the Wilderness Lodge at Walt Disney World, and we think the design at Grand Californian certainly kicks it up a notch, but for the flagship resort to have the look of a rustic National Parks lodge doesn’t sit entirely well. The Grand Californian is Disneyland’s equivalent to the Grand Floridian, but it definitely doesn’t feel as opulent. Then again, we love Wilderness Lodge and am not such a huge fan of the Grand Floridian, which is stuffy in addition to being opulent. Despite my feelings on this point, the Grand Californian is an incredibly well-themed resort and one we enjoyed a great deal. In fact, after we stayed here a second time, I found myself a bit less torn…I love it. It’s a beautiful resort and who says that a flagship resort needs to be “opulent”?
Moreover, while it’s ostensibly rustic, once you look past the initial “National Parks” theming, it really is quite well-appointed. The lobby is gorgeous (even better than Wilderness Lodge) and there are a lot of little details you really have to look for to notice. Similarly, the restaurants have the perfect ambiance, and the rooms are reasonably luxurious. So perhaps it’s just my preconceptions at play here.
Speaking of the rooms, we found our room to be really beautiful and large. Unlike Wilderness Lodge, which carries the rustic theming into the guest rooms, the Grand Californian rooms feel more luxurious (although still not to the extent I’d expect for a flagship resort), which comes through in everything from the drapes and headboard to the bathrobes in every guest room closet. Most importantly, the beds are incredibly comfortable with great bedding and excellent pillows. Most of these rooms also feature excellent views to either Disney Californian Adventure (with a World of Color view!), Downtown Disney/Disneyland, or a courtyard or pool.
Service is spectacular at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, too. While service isn’t something I’d normally include in a review due to sample size, we dealt with hotel staff on several occasions, and each time they were incredibly professional (yet warm) and knowledgeable.
The other amenities are Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel put it over the top. It has a fitness center, convention space, multiple pools, a great location, free tours and children’s activities, and–most importantly–excellent restaurants. These all greatly enhance the guest experience on a laid back “resort style” vacation. Unfortunately, the most important amenity on that list is the excellent restaurants, and you don’t have to be a hotel guest to enjoy these restaurants. Unlike Walt Disney World hotel restaurants that can be difficult to access if you’re not staying in the particular hotel, all of these restaurants are–literally–a five minute walk from Disney California Adventure. Because of this, we have a hard time considering these amenities when comparing Disney’s Grand Californian to any other hotel at which we might stay.
Our stay was a bit busier than I would have liked given that we were staying in a luxurious hotel (usually I like to take as much time as possible to enjoy nice hotels), so the biggest benefit for us was the location. This location would be especially great for experiencing Grizzly River Run and then running up to the room for a change of clothes. In my case, it was nice to grab a quick 30 minute nap while everyone else in our group watched the Pixar Play Parade. This location was by no means essential, as even our normal pick, Desert Inn across Harbor Boulevard, is only about 7 minutes away from the turnstiles. As you may know, we have been big advocates of staying off-site at Disneyland Resort. While we still feel this way, Morning Extra Magic Hours at Disney California Adventure to experience Radiator Springs Racers do help tip the scale towards staying on-site.
The other big consideration is price. Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel is, far and away, the most expensive hotel at Disneyland Resort. Its rates start at $355 per night, and quickly escalate from there. By contrast, Disneyland Hotel starts at around $300/night and Paradise Pier Hotel starts at around $240/night (full disclosure: we were provided a complimentary/discounted room for our stay). Anaheim resort fees kick this number up even higher, and that’s during the slow season. During busier times of the year, basic rooms can exceed $500. Even with one of the modest 30% off discounts commonly available for Disneyland Resort hotels, the nightly rate at the cheapest time of the year would still be $250 before fees.
For me, this rate is very difficult to stomach, especially with Desert Inn across Harbor Boulevard for less than half the price (usually much less than half the price). Don’t get me wrong, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel is an excellent hotel with great theming, excellent restaurants, and plenty of luxury, but it just doesn’t quite justify the price for me. This is completely a personal decision. I could see using our Disney Vacation Club points to stay in the Villas or staying there if money were no concern, but at this point in our lives I’d rather allocate the difference in cost between a nice off-site hotel and Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel towards dining or entertainment.
Alternatively, if I were going to stay at another Disneyland Resort hotel, I’d probably choose Disneyland Hotel. Its atmosphere (I love the new look) is more appealing to me, its pool looks amazing, and its proximity to Trader Sam’s is great. Plus, it’s a bit cheaper than the Grand Californian. The rooms that I’ve seen there also look really nice, although we have yet to stay there. Again, though, this is a matter of personal preference. I know the Grand Californian has a legion of loyal fans, and while I enjoy it, to me it doesn’t stand head and shoulders above Wilderness Lodge. It’s nicer, sure, but it’s not flagship hotel nicer.
Overall, the Grand Californian is the perfect place to stay for those who want to be as close to the parks as possible and really enjoy the Arts & Crafts/National Parks’ theming. It offers a surprising amount of luxury under that rustic (rustic is probably a poor word choice–it’s more “outdoors-y” than rustic) facade. However, if you’re traveling on a budget, we feel that a stay at the Grand Californian is a poor use of your funds. Instead, stay elsewhere and put that money towards a couple nice meals at Napa Rose and Carthay Circle Restaurant.
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What do you think of Disneyland Resort’s flagship resort? Brilliant work of art in the spirit of The Ahwahnee or overpriced take on Wilderness Lodge? Share your thoughts in the comments!