Our 1-Day Disney California Adventure itinerary offers an efficient touring plan & strategy for minimizing time waiting in lines, maximizing rides, and avoiding crowds at Disneyland Resort’s second theme park. This covers attractions, restaurants, shows, including the new Marvel land, Avengers Campus. (Updated November 1, 2022.)
This DCA itinerary has been overhauled multiple times following the park’s reopening. Fortunately, things are almost entirely back to normal…or rather, new normal, at DCA. Major changes have occurred–in particular, FastPass is now paid (see our Guide to Genie+ and Lightning Lanes at Disneyland & DCA) and some entertainment is still dark as of Late 2022.
There’s also a park reservation system in place, overhauled Annual Pass program called Magic Keys, Park Hopping is limited to afternoons, and virtual queues have been eliminated (except for World of Color, where one has been added). Consequently, this has caused changes in guest behavior, with certain attractions now having longer—and shorter—wait times than before. We’ve visit Disney California Adventure regularly, monitoring wait times and fine-tuning our strategy accordingly. This updated 1-day DCA itinerary for Christmas 2022 as a result of our research and experiences in the park.
It continues our series of single-day park plans 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 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. Staying at one of these hotels puts you in a good position to utilize Early Entry, which will allow you to enter Disney California Adventure 30 minutes before official park opening time.
With that out of the way, let’s pick up this 1-Day DCA Plan Without Genie+ and Lightning Lanes…
Start by Slingin’ or Racin’ – You’ll want to either rope drop Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land or Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure in Avengers Campus. These are two of the most popular attractions at DCA, but both also have Single Rider lines. Radiator Springs Racers also sells Individual Lightning Lane line-skipping access.
This is a matter of personal preference and not maximum time-savings, 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.
Whichever you don’t do first, you’ll do last. This itinerary proceeds as if Avengers Campus done first, and Cars Land last. Flip the end of the night if you made the opposite decision. This itinerary is a “Choose Your Own (Disney California) Adventure” kinda deal.
Early Morning Attractions: Pixar Pier – The best next stop is backtracking into Pixar Pier where you can knock out Toy Story Midway Mania, followed by other attractions along Pixar Pier in quick succession.
Despite being a big thrill ride, wait times for Incredicoaster won’t be bad midday. (Probably because it’s not as good as California Screamin’). However, waits for the swinging Pixar Pal-A-Round does get longer, as do the other amusement park rides on that side of the pier.
Peak of the Morning: Your next priorities should be for Soarin’ Around the World and/or Grizzly River Run. That’s especially true if you’re visiting in summer, when hot weather makes demand grow for Grizzly River Run.
Skip either if the posted wait time is above 30 minutes. Lines will be shorter by late afternoon.
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.
Alternatively, do a sit-down meal at Lamplight Lounge. I’m salivating at the very thought of those glorious Lobster Nachos. We also recommending enjoying a drink or two at Lamplight Lounge 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: Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, Silly Symphony Swings, and Golden Zephyr, 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.
Avengers Campus – By this point, lines should be totally gone to enter 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.
Since those are the heart of the land, you’ll definitely want to plan around them. (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.)
Lemon Dole Whip Break: If there’s one rule of vacation, it’s that it’s always a good time for ice cream.
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.
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.
This is also a good time to do Radiator Springs Racers if you didn’t start there, or if you don’t want to save it until the very end of the evening. We’d recommend doing Radiator Springs Racers via the Single Rider line to save a significant amount of time, but obviously, this will not be a good option for families who want to experience the attraction together…or don’t want a bunch of individual on-ride photos with strangers.
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 do one last ride on Radiator Springs Racers, you really can’t go wrong.
Actually, we recommend both of those things. Jumping in line for Radiator Springs Racers 1 minute before park closing is a great idea, and the ride experience is different than during the morning thanks to the nighttime scenery.
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 currently uses a virtual queue for access to the main viewing area. While joining the virtual queue is not required to watch the nighttime spectacular, it is strongly recommended. Standby for the main viewing area is not always available, so you’ll either be watching from farther back or an off-angle without the VQ.
Park Closing Tranquility – If you opted to end the evening with Radiator Springs Racers, you should have Cars Land largely to yourself. If you chose the second World of Color showing, you’ll be in that area of the park.
Regardless, take some time 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! ;))
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? Do you agree or disagree with our strategy? Any questions? 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!