If you have 1 day to spend at Disney California Adventure, this is our touring plan so you can best enjoy the park, with strategy to avoid crowds and get a lot done, while also slowing down to enjoy the ambiance and theming. If we had one day to enjoy at Disney California Adventure these are the attractions we would do, the restaurants where we’d dine, and the metaphorical roses we would stop to smell. (Last updated August 9, 2018.)
This DCA itinerary continues our series of single-day itineraries designed to answer the frequently asked question, “what would you do if you only had one day in Disney California Adventure?” While this itinerary offers an efficient plan, we try to balance quantity with quality. DCA is the second gate–the ambiance park–at Disneyland Resort, and that’s how its best enjoyed.
Slowing down to stroll through the neon of Cars Land or Pixar Pier at night, or having some lobster nachos during a midday break. In other words, this is a rough blueprint of our favorite things to do in an “ideal day” at Disney California. Note that this assumes moderate crowds (check out our When to Visit Disneyland post for more on crowd levels). On a really busy day, you might not be able to finish this entire touring plan…
If you’re only after our ride ratings and reviews of each attractions, read our comprehensive Best Disney California Adventure Attractions & Ride Guide post. If you need comprehensive help for planning every aspect of your visit to Disneyland Resort, from where to purchase discount tickets to transportation from the airport and more, read our Disneyland Resort Trip Planning Guide.
If budget is no issue, we recommend staying at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel for your visit. If it’s outside your budget, look at our Disneyland Area Hotel Reviews and pick a hotel that’s a 10-15 minute walk to the parks. Once you wake up from wherever it is that you are sleeping, here’s what to do…
Rope Drop Racers – If you are staying in one of the Disneyland Resort hotels, you have the advantage of being able to do Extra Magic Hours for Radiator Springs Racers. If so, get to the turnstiles 15 minutes before park opening.
If you’re staying off-site, and at all possible, visit Disney California Adventure on a non-Extra Magic Hours morning. Go straight to Radiator Springs Racers when you get in the park–grabbing a FastPass for it on your way in–and then do one ride on that.
Now that Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! is open, some readers may question this advice. However, the bulk of crowds now head to Mission: Breakout first, making its line spike (both for FastPass distribution and standby) at rope drop. Within a few hours, the waits of these two attractions even out. As such, do Radiator Springs Racers first.
After Radiator Springs Racers, immediately do Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters. You should have time for all of this if you move quickly. We have more strategy for Radiator Springs Racers in our Cars Land Tips & Tricks post.
Help the Trash Panda – Depending upon crowd levels, you might next want to cut through ‘a bug’s land’ to do the new Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! We’d recommend doing it now via standby if the wait time is under 45 minutes. If the wait time is over 45 minutes, grab breakfast (see the next step) and shortly after you’re done eating, you should be eligible for another FastPass. Make Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! your second FastPass.
Mission: BREAKOUT is quite popular right now since it’s still relatively new, and as a result, some readers might be inclined to do it first. We’d recommend sticking to this plan and doing Radiator Springs Racers first. Wait times are lower for Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT, especially on weekdays.
Since FastPasses are lasting longer for Mission: Breakout than they are Radiator Springs Racers, you should prioritize the latter. Once locals and Annual Passholders get their “fix” of the new attraction, it should settle into more reasonable wait times.
Breakfast: Flo’s V8 Cafe – Stopping for breakfast after two rides?! You can tell this plan isn’t predicated upon efficiency. If you are more concerned about efficiency, move this down after the “Early Morning Attractions” slot. If you’re concerned about deliciousness, stop here for breakfast at Flo’s V8 Cafe (read our full review).
Once you try the delicious Brioche French Toast, you’ll know you made the right decision. For maximum decadence, pair it with a chocolate milkshake. Why not? You’re on vacation.
Early Morning Attractions: Pixar Pier – Once you’re past Cars Land and Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT, you don’t need a ton of strategy for Disney California Adventure. Just a strong FastPass game.
The best route from there is backtracking into Pixar Pier where you can knock out Toy Story Midway Mania (which now offers FastPass!) via standby since you’re probably not yet eligible for another FastPass. If the wait time for either attraction is above 40 minutes, skip it–we’ll come back later.
Once you are eligible for a FastPass, you might want to get it for Incredicoaster, the “newest” attraction at Disney California Adventure (those are air quotes because it’s California Screamin’ but with a new name and a few new props). In its first couple of months, Incredicoaster has seen a surge of popularity. That should continue on during the popular holiday seasons, but we’d expect this to die down a bit by early 2019.
Alternatively, if you’re willing to live on the wild side, you could wait for an Incredicoaster FastPass, getting it closer to midday so your return time is at night. We far prefer Incredicoaster at or after sunset, when there’s a nice chill in the air and the lighting on the coaster is more enjoyable.
Your next FastPass priority should be for Soarin’ Around the World followed by Grizzly River Run. That’s especially true if you’re visiting in summer, when hot weather makes demand grow for Grizzly River Run.
While you’re in the Grizzly Peak area, get a FastPass for the last showing of World of Color (you can request this if one of the earlier showings is being offered) when you get your Grizzly River Run FastPass. From a pure efficiency standpoint, FastPass is the key at DCA.
Late Morning Attractions: Dark Rides – Late morning makes for a good time to fill in with some dark rides! Unfortunately, Disney California Adventure only has two dark rides.
Hit The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure and Monsters, Inc. Ride & Go Seek next, possibly stopping into Animation Academy while in the neighborhood.
Lunch: Dining in Paradise – Here, there are three options, all of which are pretty good. Our top pick is Paradise Garden Grill (read our full review), where you can get skewers and other ostensibly healthy fare; then there’s the flatbreads and pasta at Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta (read our full review); finally, there are awesome corn dogs at Corn Dog Castle (read our full review). You really can’t go wrong.
Early Afternoon Shows – After lunch, we recommend taking a respite from the crowds and sun by spending an hour watching Frozen Live at the Hyperion. This show replaced the beloved Aladdin: The Musical and is quite good in its own right. If that’s too long of a time commitment, check out the nearby Animation building, where you can learn to draw characters or partake in Turtle Talk with Crush.
Early Afternoon Snack: Lobster Nachos – I’m salivating at the very thought of the Lamplight Lounge’s Lobster Nachos. As far as ‘snacks’ go, this is a pretty large one, so hopefully you have someone with whom you can share.
We also recommending enjoying a drink or two at Lamplight Lounge (formerly Cove Bar) or weaving in a couple of stops on our Disneyland Drinking Debauchery Guide if that’s your scene, because the next couple of stops will be…uh…”enhanced” if you’ve had a drink or two.
Afternoon Buzz Attractions – After Lobster Nachos at Lamplight Lounge, we recommend the following to wash down your afternoon buzz: Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train, Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, Silly Symphony Swings, and Grizzly River Run, each of which we think is more enjoyable after a beer or two.
Trust us, it’s science. Note that we’d recommend these regardless, so don’t disregard this if you didn’t have a drink at the bar. Hopefully, your FastPass for Grizzly River Run is ready by this time, too.
Late Afternoon Snack: Ice Cream – Okay, so with Ghirardelli and Carabelle’s both selling unique ice cream options in Disney California Adventure, you might question my choice of stopping at Adorable Snowman Frosted Treats on Pixar Pier for a tasty treat.
I love soft serve and this is conveniently located for a pre-sunset stroll around the Pier. A leisurely walk around the Pier with some ice cream as the sun fades…does it get any better than that?!
Dusk: Back to Cars Land – Yes, actually it does get better than that. Just after the official sunset time 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.
We would recommend sitting on the back porch of Flo’s with a milkshake or Racer 6 IPA, but we’ve already suggested a lot of eating and drinking for the day, so maybe use your Radiator Springs Racers FastPass or do it again via Single Rider, instead. It’s a totally different attraction at night.
Dinner: Carthay Circle Restaurant – Unless you wander around aimlessly or visit during a busy time of the year, you should have time for a table service restaurant during your day at Disney California Adventure. You’re in luck, because there are few theme park restaurants anywhere that rival Carthay Circle Restaurant (read our full review).
It’s elegant and refined, and serves great food. We think the appetizers are the highlight of the menu (given how much you have been eating, maybe just getting appetizers wouldn’t be such a bad idea?) Some can’t-miss menu items include the Carthay Signature Fried Biscuits and Fire Cracker Duck Wings.
Evening Atmosphere – 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 take a ride on the Red Car Trolley, you really can’t go wrong.
Actually, we recommend both of those things, plus finishing up the last of your FastPass attractions (hopefully on Incredicoaster if you followed our advice!) and another ride or two on the various Pixar Pier attractions–whichever ones you liked best, really.
Nighttime Spectacular: World of Color – There are usually two showings of World of Color, the second of which ends after the park closes. Whenever there are two showings, the second one is substantially less crowded than the first showing, basically guaranteeing that you can watch from (or near) the front row.
In our World of Color Viewing Guide, we discuss why this ‘front of house’ spot is so important, but if you really don’t want to get wet, consider watching the first World of Color instead. By watching the first World of Color, you can get in line for Radiator Springs Racers right before park closing, which you cannot do if you watch the second World of Color. It’s a difficult trade-off, but we normally go for the ‘front of house’ World of Color view. It really does make the show!
Note: World of Color is unlikely to be shown again before November 2018 due to structural damage of the show’s technical elements (the underwater platform). A return date is TBD, but don’t count on anything if you’re visiting in Summer or Fall 2018.
Park Closing Tranquility – Depending upon the showing of World of Color you see, you may be politely directed towards the exit after it. If not, wander over to Cars Land for some late night photos and to enjoy the great background music on your way out. Same goes for Buena Vista Street, which is also quite pleasant at night.
Nightcap: Hearthstone Lounge – End it in Disney California Adventure style, at the lounge in the Grand Californian. (Note: if you didn’t or won’t visit Trader Sam’s at the end of your day in Disneyland, go there instead.) The Grand Californian is a fitting place to end a day in Disney California Adventure, and Hearthstone Lounge has a great atmosphere.
Disney California Adventure is a park that has really grown into its own since the opening of Cars Land and debut of Buena Vista Street, and with other entertainment and attractions being added since, there’s really a lot to do. While all of that’s important, we hope you remember to slow down and enjoy the ambiance, too. If you’re able to do even 75% of the things on this itinerary, you are pretty much assured of having an amazing day at Disney California Adventure. That’s our guarantee! (Please note that this guarantee has no cash value and is not offered to residents of any state except Wyoming. Also note that any day you are in the parks should be amazing, so if you don’t have a great time, it’s probably your own fault! ;))
If you’re preparing for a Disneyland trip, check out our other planning posts, including how to save money on Disneyland tickets, our Disney packing tips, tips for booking a hotel (off-site or on-site), where to dine, and a number of other things, check out our comprehensive Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide!
What would you include in your ideal day at Disney California Adventure? If you haven’t visited Disneyland Resort yet, what do you plan on doing? Share your questions and thoughts in the comments!