1-Day California Adventure Itinerary Using Genie+ & Lightning Lanes
This 1-day itinerary for Disney California Adventure with Genie+ and Lightning Lanes offers our step-by-step plan for DCA using paid line-skipping. The goal is to illustrate the process of how Disneyland Resort’s MaxPass replacement works in practice and cover the best strategy for ride reservations.
For starters, this Disney California Adventure touring plan is best treated as a sample outline of your day at DCA, rather than a strict and stringent schedule. This is because nothing ever goes 100% to plan; there are unknowns that vary from day to day, and it’s best to have something malleable that you can adjust to your needs rather than something specific but impractical.
With that said, this should provide you a blueprint for your day that ends up being about 75% to 90% accurate. We’ve used Genie+ at Disneyland Resort several times already, and it’s surprisingly simple at DCA. The most difficult thing is understanding how Genie+ and Lightning Lanes work in the first place. To that end, if you need to learn the basics of using Genie+ in the California parks, see our Guide to Genie+ and Lightning Lanes at Disneyland & DCA. In our estimation, it’s easier to understand Genie+ at Disney California Adventure when seeing how it works in practice with a run-through of a day in the park…
Enter this 1-day DCA itinerary using Genie+ and Lightning Lanes. If you’re a type A planner, hopefully this will give you some peace of mind about how Genie+ and Lightning Lanes will work on your vacation. Even if you don’t understand all of the many quirks of Genie+ at Disney California Adventure, hopefully you can mimic the broad strokes of this to come up with your own plan for making ride reservations.
As a supplement to this, we’d recommend reading our Disney California Adventure Genie+ Lightning Lane Ride Ranks. That’ll be especially helpful if you already have your own standby touring plan in mind, and just want to supplement that with Genie+ throughout your day. When it comes to Lightning Lane ride reservations, this itinerary is a “choose your own adventure” (fitting for DCA) kind of deal, with multiple options at various points.
Honestly, we’re probably making this sound more intimidating than it is. In reality, if you have a full day at DCA and are purchasing Genie+, you can pretty much just plug Lightning Lanes into your normal plan. There are only 7 Genie+ attractions at DCA, and you can very easily book them all in a single day. If anything, the danger is in being overly aggressive in making ride reservations too early–when wait times are lower and you’d be better off doing standby.
But enough of the rambling preface–the bottom line is that you don’t need to overthink it. As you’ll see in this 1-Day Disney California Adventure Itinerary with Genie+ and Lightning Lanes, DCA has a reputation as the laid back second-gate at Disneyland Resort for a reason. Embrace the “California Cool.”
Rope Drop Arrival – If you can, we recommend arriving at Disneyland Resort’s security checkpoints about 45 minutes before official park opening time or earlier during peak seasons.
Disney California Adventure’s turnstiles typically open well before park opening, at which time guests are allowed onto Buena Vista Street. We recommend heading immediately for Carthay Circle Theater, which is home to the park’s best table service restaurant.
First Genie+ Selection – You can’t make Lightning Lane selections until entering the park. This makes booking ride reservations easier, but also presents a predicament: do you start booking return times right away upon entering for rope drop, or wait a little bit?
We advise waiting until the return windows are ~30 minutes after park opening. This gives you the ability to do attractions exclusively via standby lines for the first ~90 minutes that DCA is open. A good approach for starting the day is by knocking out Individual Lightning Lane rides plus other attractions you might want to do more than once. Even though there are fewer Genie+ attractions in DCA, there are almost no popular rides in Disney California Adventure that do not have Lightning Lanes.
Your first pick via Genie+ should be either Soarin’ or Toy Story Midway Mania. Ideally this will be with an 9 am to 10 am return window or later. Alternatively, you could make a ride reservation for Disneyland (meaning, the other park) immediately upon entry if you’re planning on Park Hopping there in the early afternoon. That’ll kick your return time out to 1 pm, and is a good first choice. (After the 120 minutes elapses, switch to booking DCA Lightning Lanes.) If you’re not Park Hopping, Genie+ strategy is super simple for DCA.
Race or Sling to Stop One – You’ll want to start by either rope dropping Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land or Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure in Avengers Campus. These are the two Individual Lightning Lane attractions at DCA, meaning there’s an a la carte charge for them. Both also have Single Rider lines.
This is a matter of personal preference, but I favor starting in the Marvel-themed Avengers Campus. Do Web Slingers first and then quickly bounce to Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout (you’ll likely want to do this ride more than once due to different song choices–and it just being a fun time) before the crowds catch up to you.
In our view, this is a better and easier 1-2 punch than Radiator Springs Racers coupled with anything near it. (Plus, Radiator Springs Racers is undefeated at night.)
Early Morning Attractions: Pixar Pier – If you don’t mind a bit of walking and are making good time, the best next stop is bounce to Pixar Pier where you can accomplish Toy Story Midway Mania, followed by other attractions along Pixar Pier in quick succession. (If your first Genie+ Lightning Lane was for TSMM and it’s time for that, do the ride twice. Just beware arm fatigue!)
Despite being a big thrill ride, wait times for Incredicoaster won’t be bad at this hour, and it’s another ride you might want to do more than once. Additionally, do the Pixar Pal-A-Round, plus potentially Silly Symphony Swings and Golden Zephyr if you so desire. (All three of those can be saved for later in the day if you want to stick with an aggressively a.m. strategy.)
Soarin’ from the Peak – Your next priority should be Grizzly River Run, assuming the standby line is still short–and it usually is since mornings start cool in California.
From there, head to nearby Soarin’ to redeem your first Genie+ Lightning Lane of the day. If that was not your first Lightning Lane ride reservation, the line will probably be prohibitive at this point. (If not, do it via standby–it’s another ride worth repeating.) Hopefully, at this point you’re eligible to book another. Make it Toy Story Midway Mania.
Paradise Found – Backtracking yet again, retrace your step and head towards the Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, your last attraction before lunch.
In this area, you have four different options, all of which are pretty good. Our top pick is Paradise Garden Grill plus the adjacent Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta, the two of which combined offer something for everyone. In that general vicinity, there are also awesome corn dogs at Corn Dog Castle. If none of that sounds good, Pacific Wharf Cafe is also somewhat nearby–serving up great bread bowls and bread pudding. You really can’t go wrong.
Alternatively, do a sit-down meal at Lamplight Lounge or Carthay Circle Restaurant. We also recommending enjoying a drink or two at both bars or weaving in a couple of stops on our Disneyland Drinking Debauchery Guide if that’s your scene.
Be sure to also book another Lightning Lane ride reservation via Genie when eligible. Objectively, Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: BREAKOUT! is the best pick, but the case could be made that you should wait on this one until there are evening return times, as the view at night is cool and unique–albeit brief. If you opt for something else, make it Grizzly River Run.
Carefree California Fun – If you’ve followed this plan for the most part, you’ve likely knocked out the vast majority of headliner attractions at DCA, many via standby lines. At this point, it’s fine to slow down and have a chill and carefree California afternoon. Partake in the aforementioned “Drinking Debauchery,” or just enjoy some of the park’s more relaxed attractions.
At this point, consider hiking through Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, chilling with the Country Bears in Grizzly Peak, learning to draw characters at Animation Academy, talking with turtles at Turtle Talk with Crush, or meeting other characters around DCA.
From the Genie+ side of the ledger, mix in ride reservations for Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue and Incredicoaster (I prefer doing this at night, but time may not allow for that), as well as Goofy’s Sky School if being jerked around is your idea of a good time. These are low to medium priority, so the order you book them doesn’t matter much.
Avengers Campus – Similarly, it’s a good time to visit Avengers Campus. While we prefer the land at night (it’s worth a stroll through it later), if you visit too late you’ll miss some of the character appearances and performances if you visit this not-so-marvelous Marvel land later.
Since the super heroes are the heart of the campus, you’ll definitely want to plan around their appearances. Check out the entertainment tab of the Disneyland app and enter the land in time for the last performances of each–that’s currently around 4:30 pm for some shows, but is subject to change.
Ka-Chow Down in Cars Land – For dinner, we’d recommend either Flo’s V8 Cafe in Cars Land or Pym’s Test Kitchen while you’re still in Avengers Campus. The latter has the better menu right now, but the former has a better vibe–the food has just become more hit or miss.
Regardless, you’ll want to make your way to Cars Land for sunset. Right at dusk each night, the Cars Land Sh-Boom lighting moment occurs. This is one of those special, wow moments that you don’t want to miss. You won’t find it labeled as an attraction on the park map or even listed on the Times Guide, but it very well might end up being a highlight of your day.
If you have some time to spare and want to slow down to enjoy the atmosphere, we would recommend sitting on the back porch of Flo’s V8 Cafe with a milkshake or cold beer. We have more on this and all of the best ways to enjoy this wonderful area in our Cars Land Tips & Tricks post.
While you’re in the neighborhood, also be sure to take a spin on Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters and Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, both of which are low-profile flat rides that are good, quirky fun (and absolutely worth your time). Following that, it’s a good time for Radiator Springs Racers. You don’t want to do the Cars Land E-Ticket if it’s too early–the goal is to hop in line less than 30 minutes before the park closes.
Evening Atmosphere – Once you’re done with Radiator Springs Racers, the park will likely be closed for the day. My favorite thing to do at this point is simply grab a spot on a bench and savor Cars Land as it empties of other guests. Also, if you haven’t ventured over there, be sure to check out the archway entrance/exit that leads to Pacific Wharf.
The ambiance at Disney California Adventure in the evening is spectacular. Whether you want to take an evening stroll behind Grizzly River Run on the “hidden” path or double-back to Pixar Pier, there are some great options. Like pretty much every Disney theme park, DCA is better at night.
That’s a wrap on this step-by-step day in Disney California Adventure using Genie+ to book Lightning Lane ride reservations and standby to do the Individual Lightning Lane headliners and everything else. Some of what you accomplish will vary by day and desire, but we think this is probably ~75% accurate, and at the very least, should illustrate how a day could look using Genie+ for those who never used paper FastPass or MaxPass.
The point here is to illustrate how Genie+ could prove advantageous for days you opt to purchase the add-on. Personally, I’d buy strategically rather than length-of-ticket, using Genie+ for one full day in Disneyland and one combined day in Disney California Adventure and Disneyland (if you’re not getting the Park Hopper, it’s still worth buying once in DCA). That’s just me, though, as someone who is relatively frugal but also recognizes that “vacation time is money.”
Finally, even with a lot of things you’d be able to accomplish during the middle of the day condensed for the sake of simplicity, this itinerary might look overwhelming. Like all things Disney, it’ll become simpler and more intuitive once put into practice.
Also, this should also illustrate that you don’t need Genie+ and Lightning Lanes–arriving at rope drop and staying until park closing should enable you to use our normal 1-Day Disney California Adventure Itinerary (No Genie+) and still accomplish pretty much everything. The real advantages with Lightning Lanes comes when arriving late, leaving early, or doing repeat rides. If you’re a ‘commando tourist’ who will show up early and stay late, you might be fine not shelling out the ~$20 per person extra.
Planning a Southern California vacation? For park admission deals, read Tips for Saving Money on Disneyland Tickets. Learn about on-site and off-site hotels in our Anaheim Hotel Reviews & Rankings. For where to eat, check out our Disneyland Restaurant Reviews. For unique ideas of things that’ll improve your trip, check out What to Pack for Disney. For comprehensive advice, consult our Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide. Finally, for guides beyond Disney, check out our Southern California Itineraries for day trips to Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, and tons of other places!
Was this 1-Day Disney California Adventure Itinerary w/ Genie+ helpful to illustrate how to leverage Lightning Lanes? If you’ve used Genie+ at DCA, were you able to accomplish everything in this touring plan? Do you favor Radiator Springs Racers or Web Slingers for rope drop? Have any questions we didn’t answer with the above? Still confused by how Genie+ or Lightning Lanes work? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Other thoughts or concerns? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
Thanks for the info! I’m planning on doing a day trip to Disneyland the week before Christmas and I’m trying to see if we can fit DCA/Disneyland in one day. Mainly want to ride the main attractions and I’m really interested in doing Soarin. Not sure if anyone has any tips for doing both parks in one day? I’m planning on doing DCA first then Disneyland but if anyone has any other tips it would be greatly appreciated! This will be our first time at any Disney park.
Any tips on what restaurants to avoid? Due to service, quality etc.
My tip, is some restaurants/snack carts only do mobile order. (Small Dole Whip stand at DL and the Crazy Cone ice cream at DCA.) And sometimes the soonest arrival window is an hour out from when you order. We only did mobile ordering for all of our counter service meals and snacks and it was awesome.
My favorite rope drop ride right now is Soarin because they’ve been loading it early due to the CA version. Last time I rope dropped it I heard the park opening announcement as I was exiting the ride and on my way to Pixar Pier so it was almost like a double rope drop. (This was a couple weeks ago, cannot guarantee they’re still doing it. Regardless, you get your own little cute rope since it’s the only ride you can line up at directly prior to park opening.)
If using G+ solely at DCA, I personally would prioritize Guardians first, since it has lately climbed higher, faster than the rest. I think this is due to Soarin working with both theaters again, and Toy Story still being a morning afterthought for most visitors (and alphabetically low on the list). I’d still wait your suggested 30 mins to pick it up though. And the advice to hit the Pier early is super solid (I might try to squeeze in Luigi and Mater if I’m making really good time).
Spidey and Racers both have Single Rider now and I can’t fathom riding them any other way. I may be biased because I don’t have any friends, but unless you want the video game bragging rights on Spidey or the on-ride Racers photo because you’re beautiful and know it, there’s no reason to ride those two rides, as the French say, ensemble.
And don’t forget Monsters Buddy Pass! That’s good for up to TWO people, if you’re lucky enough to “know a person.” They’re starting to offer it again when the line gets up to 20+ minutes, as the standby queue has been getting absolutely hammered by LL returns. It rivals Guardians standby nowadays.
Thanks, Tom! We have been heavily using your guides for our upcoming California trip (we are even doing Knotts one day). We have one day at DLR/DCA and are doing DLR first. We has planned on booking any ll for the first 90 min in DLR after rope drop but your comment above about booking cross parks immediately is making me wondering if we should book soarin immediately upon DLR rope drop and then start booking ll for DLR after the 120 min? I would really appreciate your thoughts?
Thanks so much! I fired the everyone to your site for your great info!!
“We has planned on booking any ll for the first 90 min in DLR after rope drop but your comment above about booking cross parks immediately is making me wondering if we should book soarin immediately upon DLR rope drop and then start booking ll for DLR after the 120 min?”
It’s a bit of a gamble and can depend upon crowds and your diligence with Genie+, but that’s what I would do.
Is there any advantage to using the Grand Californian entrance for rope drop?
It’s certainly easier if you’re staying at the Grand Californian, but there’s no actual advantage otherwise (it’s not like International Gateway at Epcot). You’ll still want to go to the Carthay rope drop area, regardless of entry point.
This sounds like such a perfect day. When I was in Epcot two months ago, I was surprised by how much “chill” the park had lost (heaven help us when Guardians opens.) Relieved to hear DCA’s still got its chill.
It doesn’t in some ways if you arrive later in the day and don’t use Genie+ (the midday standby lines for the Monsters, Inc. dark ride have been ridiculous lately, for example), but overall still pretty good!
Thanks Tom- this is fantastic and very helpful!
I think you have an error under Evening- where it mentions ” That’s a wrap… ” it mentions Fantasyland rides.
If I start with Road Racers first (my kids are most excited to do that)- when would be the best time of day to do Web Slingers?
What would you make your number 2 ride after Road Racers?
Thanks for your efforts!
Radiator Springs Racers and Web Slingers will be first and last in either ordering.
If you opt for RSR first, jump to Pixar Pier after that.