Our 2021 Disneyland and Disney California Adventure vacation planning guide covers Star Wars Rise of Resistance, when to visit to avoid crowds, best restaurants, hotels in Anaheim, saving money on tickets, ride strategy, and tips & tricks. (Updated November 1, 2020.)
While the Downtown Disney district is now open, Disneyland Resort’s theme parks and resort hotels are currently closed. The California parks & resorts have had roller coaster reopening saga, with their planned summer return postponed indefinitely. This whole saga is covered, along with a predicted return date in When Will Disneyland Reopen?
The short answer to that question is “probably 2021,” which is why we’ve shifted focus to beyond this Christmas season with an eye on next spring and summer. However, the Disney v. California dispute is far from over, and things change on a weekly basis. If you want notification as soon as an official reopening date & details are announced, sign up for our free Disney email newsletter.
One important thing to keep in mind is that whenever Disneyland Resort does reopen, things will be very different as compared to pre-closure. We already know this based upon what was announced for the first (failed) reopening attempt, as well as mass layoffs that have occurred through Fall 2020.
For example, attendance will be capped at 25% when the parks reopen, face masks will be required, queues will be physically distanced, dining options will be limited, and some things won’t return immediately–or at all. The biggest cuts will occur to entertainment like Fantasmic, World of Color, Magic Happens Parade, Mickey’s Mix Magic Fireworks, Frozen – Live at the Hyperion, and character meet & greets–all of which will be cancelled. Some of those things will be back later in 2021, others probably will not.
Beyond that, other operational changes are likely to occur. FastPass and MaxPass will probably be suspended, Disney Park Pass reservations will almost certainly be required, and other measures implemented. All of this will render some of the advice in this guide inaccurate (at least for the first few months the parks are open) and make other info like our crowd calendars less accurate. Just things to keep in mind before you start obsessively planning your dream 2021 Disneyland vacation–as you can probably imagine, a lot is up in the air!
Prior to the closure and reopening, a lot had changed at Disneyland in the last two years. The biggest change is the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and its two attractions, Millennium Falcon Smugglers Run and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. The latter is Star Wars Land’s blockbuster ride, a modern masterpiece of Imagineering that is already immensely popular.
Prior to Disneyland’s closure, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance used a virtual queue that required rope dropping the park and doing the ‘boarding pass dash.’ Even with attendance significantly limited, a similar same-day virtual queue is likely once Disneyland reopens. Nevertheless, a lot is going to change–we’ll keep you posted as we learn more.
Before we get to the nuts and bolts of Disneyland vacation planning, let’s offer some quick background. Disneyland is “Walt Disney’s original magic kingdom.” It’s the castle park that debuted in 1955 and paved the way for other such theme parks around the globe. However, it’s the only park that Walt Disney himself set foot in and had an active role in the development of. Beyond its historical legacy that makes it a California institution, Disneyland is incredibly attraction-dense, with enough rides to fill two full days or more (if you’re so inclined).
Directly across from Disneyland is Disney California Adventure (DCA), the second gate of Disneyland Resort. DCA is ostensibly inspired by the Golden State, but is more just a catch-all park with some attractions having a vague California connection and others being driven by Marvel, Pixar, and other Disney franchises.
In addition to the Disneyland and Disney California Adventure theme parks, Disneyland Resort is home to Downtown Disney and three official hotels. Downtown Disney is a shopping, dining and entertainment district just outside the two parks. The aforementioned resorts are Paradise Pier Hotel, Disneyland Hotel, and Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel–which is directly connected to DCA. The entirety of Disneyland Resort is walkable, with no transportation aside from your feet needed to get anywhere within the property.
What’s New & Next at Disneyland in 2021
If you’re curious about the specifics, consult our What’s New & Next for Disneyland. This gives you an idea of when you might want to visit if you’re still choosing dates, trying to find the best time in terms of special events, new rides, and more.
Now that Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is open, the next big addition is Avengers Campus, which is the Marvel Land coming to Disney California Adventure. Initially, this will offer one ride, one restaurant, meet & greets, and shopping. It’ll also feature a Stuntronics Spider-Man, which looks pretty cool.
Avengers Campus was originally scheduled to debut by now, but was postponed due to the closure. Our assumption is that it’ll now debut in Summer 2021. Everything else has been delayed by a full year, including Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, which is coming to Disneyland’s Toontown. More is on the horizon in 2021 and beyond, but those are the main things to know. Now, let’s get down to business: what you need to plan a Disneyland vacation…
When to Visit Disneyland
The single most important part of planning a trip to Disneyland is determining when to visit to avoid crowds. Our totally free Disneyland Crowd Calendars offer day by day guides as to when the parks will be least busy and busiest.
Our crowd calendars are influenced by a variety of factors, including marketing, discounts, park hours, new attraction openings, special events, Anaheim Convention Center events, and even weather (good or bad). We strive to keep our Disneyland crowd calendars updated to reflect changes in attendance trends.
If you’re looking for something simpler, we also have a Best & Worst Months to Visit Disneyland list, which ranks every month of the year. Even more to the point, this covers our 3 favorite weeks of the year to take a Disneyland trip.
Our crowd calendars and month by month ranking resources have been updated to take into account Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and Galaxy’s Edge as a whole. Crowd patterns have already changed, and we will continue to monitor and update accordingly in the future. Just be warned that crowd calendars will be far less reliable in 2021 due to ongoing economic uncertainty, travel trepidation, capacity limits, and everything else.
Before solidifying your travel dates, you’ll also want to check out our Disneyland Refurbishment Calendar to make sure any must-do attractions won’t be closed for renovations during your visit. Keep in mind that the future status of many projects–including refurbishments–is up in the air. It’s unclear what has been finished during Disneyland’s extended closure, and what work will happen once the parks reopen in 2021.
Beyond crowds, the biggest factor in choosing when to visit should be seasonal events. There are a lot of great times of year to visit Disneyland, but our favorite by a wide margin is the holiday season at Disneyland. Read our Ultimate Guide to Disneyland at Christmas to learn more about what makes this time of year so special–and see photos of the parks in all of their Christmas glory!
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. We’re already looking forward to the return of Oogie Boogie Bash – A Disney Halloween Party, which will hopefully be back for September and October 2021.
Our Money-Saving Guide to Disneyland Tickets is a huge resource with 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.
There are some great offers right now–we recommend bundling park tickets and your hotel stay to save even more, especially with the 3rd and 4th night free specials at hotels near Disneyland. These package deals can save you a lot of money.
For the vast majority of guests visiting Disneyland, we recommend the Park Hopper ticket option. This allows you to bounce back and forth between the two parks throughout the day, which is easy to do given that their about a football field apart.
The practical upsides of this are collecting more FastPasses and also starting at the park that opens first and ending your night at the park open later (Disneyland is often open 2 hours later than Disney California Adventure). You can also eat in the park with the dining options you prefer, grab a beer in DCA (there’s no alcohol in Disneyland outside of Oga’s Cantina in Star Wars Land), and enjoy the nighttime spectaculars in both parks.
In addition to Park Hopper tickets, we recommend the paid MaxPass option instead of just paper FastPass. We have become huge fans of MaxPass. It saves a ton of time as opposed to criss-crossing the parks to collect paper FastPasses, and you can do more attractions per day with MaxPass since it’s easier to obtain more of them per day as compared to FastPass.
Consult our Guide to MaxPass & FastPass at Disneyland for everything you need to know about this new-ish service. That includes the attractions we recommend prioritizing via MaxPass, and strategy for maximizing your attractions per day. MaxPass is one of the few add-ons that we highly recommend–it’s well worth the cost. (You can purchase discount tickets that include MaxPass.)
Where to Stay
There are a ton of options in terms of where to stay near Disneyland: Good Neighbor Hotels, official Disney resorts, nearby hotels within driving distance, sprawling resorts in nearby beach towns, and more.
For most vacation planners, the decision comes down to choosing among Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa (our favorite!), Disneyland Hotel, and Paradise Pier Hotel, or one of the cheaper hotels on Harbor Boulevard. We cover the pros and cons of each choice in our Where to Stay at Disneyland: Off-Site v. On-Site Hotels post.
If you’re looking for something more thorough, we’ve stayed at every on-site Disneyland hotel and most of the Good Neighbor Disneyland hotels and other off-site hotels within walking distance of the Disneyland Esplanade.
All of these are covered in our Rankings & Reviews of the Best & Worst Hotels Near Disneyland. This post ranks ~50 hotels near Disneyland at which we have stayed, along with room photos, pros & cons, and other useful information. That also details how to score a good deal on a hotel that’s close to Disneyland.
Disneyland Strategy & Itineraries
There are 89 attractions between Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. On a normal day, the average guest will only experience 10-11 of those. It would thus take you at least 8 days to experience everything in the two theme parks, assuming you didn’t want to re-ride anything. Obviously, not many people are devoting over a week to their Disneyland vacation.
As such, we’ve developed a few step-by-step Disneyland touring plans, each of which will enable you to efficiently experience the parks, while also enjoying their leisurely offerings and atmosphere. More to the point, you’ll be able to do 20+ rides per day–and skip the ones not worth your time.
Here are our best and recommended itineraries:
- Disneyland 1-Day 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. This covers all of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, including Rise of the Resistance.
- Disneyland 2-Day Itinerary – Same idea, but spread over two days. We recommend most guests allocate two full days to Disneyland.
- Disney California Adventure 1-Day Itinerary – Unlike Disneyland, DCA is easier to fully experience in a single day. This touring plan includes strategy for beating the crowds at Radiator Springs Racers, Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout, World of Color, and more!
We are currently working on additional multi-day itineraries for trips of 4+ days at Disneyland Resort. For now, if you plan on spending more time at DCA, consult our Disney California Adventure Ride Reviews & Guide. 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.
Our Disneyland Ride Reviews & Guide does the same thing for the castle park, in case you want to spend 3+ days there. (Which you totally could, especially now that Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is open!)
Dining at Disneyland
Food is half the fun at Disneyland. Both parks have great restaurants, iconic snacks, decadent desserts, and great drinks. We typically go all-out when visiting the parks, doing breakfast at one of the hotels (or sometimes in the park), followed by a mid-morning snack, counter service lunch, and table service dinner.
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 & worst, and see food photos in our Disneyland Restaurant Reviews.
Beyond full meals, we have a few resources that can help you plan memorable meals at Disneyland. If you have kids, we highly recommend consulting our Disneyland Character Dining Guide, which covers the best character buffets in the hotels and parks.
Looking for the best quick meals? Our Top 10 Disneyland Counter Service Restaurants list ranks the best meals in the castle park, while our Top 10 Disney California Adventure Counter Service Restaurants list offers the same for DCA.
Want to have fun with your food at Disneyland? Our Top 10 Delicious Desserts at Disneyland covers delicious treats, including some hidden gems, plus brand new items from Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and recently-added restaurants in Downtown Disney!
If you’re into drinking, we also have posts about a few of our favorite lounges: Trader Sam’s, Lamplight Lounge, GCH Craftsman Bar, and Carthay Circle Restaurant. The last one is particularly noteworthy because–in addition to the lounge downstairs–the restaurant upstairs is the best in-park restaurant in either park.
Other Disneyland Planning Resources
Now that we’ve covered the essentials to ensure you have a great trip to Disneyland, we have a bunch of other resources that will guide you through the planning process to make your visit to Disneyland more enjoyable, helping you save time and money. Armed with all of this knowledge, you will have a much better vacation.
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!
If you’re looking for a quick way to save on an entire vacation package, many of our favorite hotels near Disneyland can be booked via Get Away Today at a discount. If you bundle tickets into your hotel stay, you’ll get an even better deal. You can check package prices here.
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!
Guide to Downtown Disney – We sort of gloss over it here, but Downtown Disney is a massive area within Disneyland Resort’s security perimeter. You can easily leave either park and get to one of these restaurants for a meal…or some of the best ice cream you’ll ever have…in under 10 minutes.
Our 101 Best Disneyland Tips – This is not nearly as structured as our other advice, but these tips offer great advice and sometimes obscure 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.
Tips for Buying Discount Disney Gift Cards – Want to save at least 5% on every single thing you buy at Disneyland? These hacks are for you. Some are relatively simple and straightforward (like using the Target RedCard) while others require a bit more effort.
Renting DVC Points to Save Money on Accommodations – This is written from a WDW perspective, but there are also Disney Vacation Club villas at the Grand Californian. Booking there can be a challenge (it’s incredibly popular), but you can save a ton of money if your timing is right and you get lucky.
Best Credit Cards for Disney Travel – Leveraging credit card rewards can be a great way of getting free airfare or hotel rooms, and there are several options near Disneyland that you can book for free thanks to signup bonuses.
Disneyland Transportation – Should you fly or drive to Disneyland? Rent a car or use Uber? This Disneyland transportation guide answers these questions for you, based on our first-hand experiences visiting Anaheim as tourists and living nearby as locals.
Southern California BEYOND Disneyland
Unlike Walt Disney World, Disneyland Resort is not a week-long vacation destination unto itself. It’s great for long weekend trips and extended vacations that incorporate a multitude of sights. Let’s start with guides to the other theme parks we recommend near Disneyland Resort:
Universal Studios Hollywood Trip Planning Guide – In just a few years, USH has transformed and improved dramatically. The opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was the ‘big’ thing, but many other additions have made this a great park.
The Studio Tour is our favorite attraction, which is a 45-minute plus tram tour through the working backlot of Universal’s studio. If you are only interested in this Studio Tour, you might broaden your potential options beyond just USH, and also consider the Warner Brothers Studio Tour and Sony Pictures Studio Tour as alternatives.
Guide to Knott’s Berry Farm – An Orange County institution that proudly proclaims itself as “America’s 1st Theme Park.” Really, Knott’s is a tale of two theme parks. It has modern roller coasters and other fare for thrill-seekers. Thematically, this leaves a lot to be desired.
Then there are the quainter areas, reminiscent of Frontierland at Disneyland. We love these areas–and the park’s annual Boysenberry Festival. All things considered, we love both Knott’s Berry Farm and Universal Studios Hollywood, and together with Disneyland Resort, these four gates make for a great theme park vacation in Southern California!
If you want to venture beyond theme parks, you’re in luck. Southern California is one of the best places in the world to visit! Thanks to Los Angeles, San Diego, and the beach cities in between, there’s a ton to do in the area.
If you’re planning a Southern California vacation beyond Disneyland, you’re in luck, as we give away a free eBook, 101 Things to Do in Southern California over on our non-Disney blog, TravelCaffeine. There, we also have a wealth of resources dedicated to visiting the state, including a series of blog posts on California points of interest and our Ultimate Guide to Los Angeles.
Between this blog and that one, you should be totally covered with what you need to know if you’re thinking about visiting Disneyland Resort and Southern California sometime in 2021 or beyond. 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.
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.
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.
Are you planning a Disneyland Resort visit sometime whenever the parks reopen in 2021? Have you already visited Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and done Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance? Are you excited for the debut of Avengers Campus in 2021? What about the other relatively new additions, such as Incredicoaster or Guardians of the Galaxy – MISSION: Breakout? Have you previously visited Disneyland? Have any tips of your own to add? Any questions you still have that this guide did not answer? We really appreciate reader feedback and your thoughts, so please share in the comments below! 🙂