This post features our tips and guide to Disneyland’s Downtown Disney shopping and entertainment district, including where to eat, what to do, and more. One thing to consider is how much time to set aside for Downtown Disney if you’re vacationing at Disneyland Resort, and this guide should give you a rough idea of that.
Note that this post covers Downtown Disney at Disneyland (in Anaheim, California), not Walt Disney World’s version of the same, which is now called Disney Springs. In terms of a quick overview, Downtown Disney abuts Disneyland and California Adventure on one side (it’s a 5 minute walk from the parks), passes by Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, and ends on the other side at Disneyland Hotel.
Downtown Disney admission is free, and parking is also free for up to 2 hours, or up to 4 hours with validation from select locations (basically, the AMC Theater). Hours are typically 7 a.m. until midnight, with most stores opening after 7 a.m., and closing before midnight.
There are a mix of retail stores and restaurants at Downtown Disney, much like what you’d find at any outdoor mall in Southern California. The unique anchor tenants at Downtown Disney are World of Disney and ESPN Zone. Popular restaurants include Earl of Sandwich, Catal, Rainforest Cafe, Naples & Napolini, Splitsville, Sprinkles Cupcakes, and Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen.
During the day, Downtown Disney is less crowded than Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. At night and on weekends, in particular, it can get quite busy with a mix of tourists, locals, and people walking from their hotel or the Mickey & Friends Parking Structure to the parks.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s delve into some of our Downtown Disney recommendations…
Disneyland’s Downtown Disney has a number of dining options, ranging from snack stands to counter service spots to fine dining table service restaurants.
Here are our recommendations for each tier…
Counter Service – The best options here are Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen Express and Napolini. Both of these are quicker versions of table service restaurants. Everyone loves Earl of Sandwich, and while we like it, we think it’s a bit overrated. The portion size is pretty small for the price.
Table Service (Less Expensive) – When it comes to table service, our top pick is Naples, which is the west coast cousin of Via Napoli. Sarah claims it doesn’t taste quite as good as Via Napoli in World Showcase, but I think it’s nearly identical. In any case, we both agree that it’s excellent pizza. A group sharing a 1/2 meter pizza can make this a fairly reasonable value, too. We’d avoid Rainforest Cafe and ESPN Zone, but other restaurants are decent options.
Table Service (Fine Dining) – The fine dining restaurant in Downtown Disney is Catal. We really like this, as we mention in our recent review. However, if you want other outside-the-park fine dining options, consider Steakhouse 55 and Napa Rose.
Downtown Disney also now has two Starbucks, giving credence to the ole joke about one on every street-corner. In this case, there’s one near the entrance to the Grand Californian, and one near the entrance to Disneyland Hotel. This is definitely convenient for guests of those hotels, and we’d highly recommend they go to Starbucks over drinking the coffee served at the hotels.
When it comes to dining, that’s about all we recommend. If you are considering Downtown Disney because you don’t have a park ticket, you could just as easily consider eating at one of the Disney hotels. In that regard, both the Grand Californian and Disneyland Hotel have dining options that we prefer to most of what’s offered in Downtown Disney.
Downtown Disney features a mix of Disney and third party retail. Nowadays, that mix skews much more towards Disney, as many of the third party stores have closed in the last few years. Aside from the LEGO store, the ones that remain don’t interest me in the slightest. The only other quasi-unique ones are Build-A-Bear and RideMakerz, but I have no interest in manual labor while on vacation. Perhaps your kids will.
If you can’t get your fill of Disney shopping in the parks, there are a few stores in Downtown Disney that might scratch your itch. Here’s a current list:
Anna & Elsa’s Boutique – I think this is actually a third party store, but it’s Frozen-ish stuff.
World of Disney – If your goal is to get lost amongst Disney souvenirs, this sprawling store has you covered. Pretty much any Disneyland souvenir sold in the parks is available here.
D-Street – This is sort of like ‘geek chic’ in terms of collectibles. Some cool stuff here makes it worth checking out.
Disney Vault 28 – I guess this is Disney’s take on boutique shopping, where aspiring hipsters and ??? buy clothes. I don’t really know…
DVC Preview Center – If you can’t find one of the 137 kiosks in the park, this is a good place to get a DVC pitch. (I kid…it’s actually pretty cool, and they can take you to an Aulani model room.)
Disney’s Pin Traders – The name says it all…
Marceline’s Confectionery – Candy shop named after Walt’s hometown.
Studio Disney 365 – Makeovers and clothes for tweens.
WonderGround Gallery – Trendy, contemporary Disney art showcasing specific artists. Pretty cool to browse.
That’s about it in terms of Downtown Disney shopping. Really, most of the above is redundant to what’s in the parks. You can look at that two ways: save all of your shopping for a non-park day so you can maximize your attraction time, or if you do your shopping in the parks, you don’t need to bother with Downtown Disney.
If you are in need of travel accessories, I would recommend skipping Downtown Disney and instead heading out of the parks the other direction, towards Harbor Boulevard. From there, walk towards Katella Ave. On the corner of Harbor and Katella, you’ll find large, new Walgreen’s and CVS stores that border on being mini-Targets (there is also an actual Target if you keep walking, but it’s like a mile farther and isn’t that nice). We highly recommend both the CVS and Walgreen’s.
How Much Time?
Our take on Downtown Disney is that it’s a place to go after both parks have closed if you’re not ready to go to bed, or a place to have dinner or drinks outside of Disneyland and Disney California Adventure…and that’s about it.
In both of those cases, there are arguably better options in the hotels, all of which are going to keep roughly the same hours as Downtown Disney. Disneyland’s Downtown Disney is not on par with Disney Springs. Walt Disney World regulars who normally set aside a half-day for that will be sorely disappointed if they do the same at Downtown Disney.
In fact, Downtown Disney is not even on par with other nearby outdoor malls in Southern California. We live near Irvine Spectrum and as locals would choose that over Downtown Disney any day of the week. Angelenos likewise have significantly better options with The Grove and The Americana, among many other places.
That begs the question: who is Downtown Disney serving if the hotels have better tourist options and locals have better mall options? To be frank, we aren’t really sure. The good news is that Downtown Disney at Disneyland is currently in the midst of a multi-year re-imagining that has already added a couple of smaller additions, and will dramatically alter the area of nearer Disneyland Hotel.
This is because a new 700-room luxury hotel is replacing this area of Downtown Disney. The hotel will have ground-floor (and more) retail that will be integrated into Downtown Disney, and between that and new concepts being added to Downtown Disney (like Salt & Straw Ice Cream), the shopping and dining district should be much improved by the time Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens!
In the meantime, we like Downtown Disney as a nice change of pace for places to eat after a day at Disneyland, but I cannot fathom shopping there. Still, it’s very rare for us to do that (maybe 1 meal out of 20). When we were tourists, we almost never spent any time at Downtown Disney, because it was easier to pick up merchandise from the Emporium at the end of the night, and we preferred out-of-park meals at Trader Sam’s, Napa Rose, Steakhouse 55, Tangaroa Terrace, or Whitewater Snacks.
So…there you have it. We aren’t really fans of Downtown Disney at Disneyland, and can only tepidly (at best) recommend spending much time here. Unless you have a specific purpose here, it’s probably best served as a place to pass through en route to other destinations.
Do you agree or disagree with our take on Disneyland’s Downtown Disney? Any shopping or dining recommendations? Questions about where to eat or anything else? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!