Entertainment is the heart of the Disneyland and Disney California Adventure experience. Fantasmic, World of Color, Main Street Electrical Parade, fireworks, free-roaming characters, atmospheric musicians, and much more are a huge part of what make those theme parks special. This guide will cover what you need to know about shows, spectaculars, and everything else.
I’ll start by sharing a story of a recent afternoon at Disneyland. We started by heading through Sleeping Beauty Castle, where we saw Mary Poppins and Bert stepping in time alongside the Fantasyland Pearly Band. As their performance wrapped up, Maleficent wandered offering a sardonic saying and drawing a crowd behind her as she headed to Fantasy Faire.
We then made our way back to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, where we were immediately stopped by Storm Troopers and briefly interrogated. After that, we separately saw Vi Moradi and Chewbacca–the former playing a game with guests and the latter leading a mission of kids. Then Boba Fett passed through, posing sharp questions before recruiting us.
After completing our excursion to Batuu, we reentered Fantasyland and immediately saw Mulan holding court and another princess passing through–I don’t recall who. (There were also a couple characters on Main Street when we first arrived, but I wasn’t taking notes for purposes of this post; it was just an ordinary afternoon at Disneyland.)
From there, we made the trek over to Tomorrowland. This is typically Disneyland’s worst area for entertainment (or anything), but Captain Buzz Lightyear was meeting there for a limited time. This character is admittedly a bit odd, reminding me a bit of the Hiro from Big Hero Six meet & greet. This Buzz is obsessed with churros, presumably proving that he is, in fact, human and not a toy.
After a few grand circle tours of the park via the Disneyland Railroad and some other early evening fun, we did dinner in New Orleans Square, then raced up to the Rivers of America to secure spots for the Disneyland Forever Fireworks. The view from there is only so-so, but there are mist screens and music.
More importantly, this gave us a prime view for the second showing of Fantasmic. This nighttime spectacular is back and as good as ever–the quintessential Disneyland evening entertainment, if you ask me. We quickly bounced back to Main Street when that was over, snagging a front row spot for the Main Street Electrical Parade shortly after that started.
In a single afternoon and evening, we saw more entertainment at Disneyland than over the course of several days at Walt Disney World. This is less true of characters, even though they are mostly relegated to meet & greets in the Florida parks, but absolutely the case when it comes to atmospheric acts.
It’s even more so the case with nighttime spectaculars. As noted above, Disneyland is currently showing Fantasmic, Main Street Electrical Parade, and the Disneyland Forever Fireworks. That’s more major nighttime spectaculars in a single park than are currently shown in all 4 parks at Walt Disney World. (Hopefully Fantasmic will return soon at DHS and even the scales.) That’s not counting World of Color, which is shown nightly across the Esplanade at Disney California Adventure.
This should underscore just how much entertainment at Disneyland is deep-rooted, ever-present, and all-encompassing. The ubiquitousness of characters and musicians makes the park feel inhabited, and even if you’re not actively watching the evening’s entertainment, the nighttime spectaculars make Disneyland come alive.
All of this hopefully also makes clear that there’s more spontaneity to the entertainment at Disneyland. Showtimes and character appearance times are listed in the Disneyland app, but that’s just some of what you can expect to encounter while strolling the park.
Speaking of the Disneyland app, the best way to plan character experiences is by opening that and clicking the map icon on the bottom of the app. As the name suggests, that’ll pull up the park map. From there, change the top pull-down menu to characters.
The Mickey icons on the map will show you character locations, but we’d recommend switching to the list view by clicking “Show List” on the top right. That’ll give you the screen pictured here. From this, you can tap each character name to see their (approximate) appearance times. Alternatively, you can type “character” or “meet” into the search feature and get an array of results.
All of this simply scratches the surface. As a general matter, character greetings are far less regimented at Disneyland than at Walt Disney World. There are dedicated meet & greet locations with orderly lines and set schedules, but also many more that are neither of those things.
In fact, spontaneous appearances of free-roaming characters are a staple of the Disneyland experience. Literally all of our best moments with characters at Disneyland have unfolded in organically, as characters like Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, or the Evil Queen wander the park.
Obviously, you can’t really plan for that–nor should you try. That’s really the beauty of it. You won’t have character hunters congregating in certain areas, lingering in wait for “rare” appearances that happen according to a set schedule. Nevertheless, we do have some general tips about improving your odds of seeing characters.
Fantasyland is the best area for seeing free-roaming characters. You’ll spend a decent amount of time in the courtyard directly behind Sleeping Beauty Castle simply by virtue of the wait times commanded by Peter Pan’s Flight and Snow White’s Enchanted Wish. It’s a near-certainty that you’ll spot characters in this area at random–with no concerted efforts–between the hours of 11 am and 4 pm most days.
Fantasyland being the busiest area of Disneyland, you will not be alone. While face characters are good about “orchestrating” the crowd and posing for photos, a bit of polite assertiveness can also help.
Be mindful of when you arrived, allowing those before you to get their photos while doing light jockeying for position to ensure you don’t miss out. If you simply linger behind the crowd, the characters will often assume you’re just there to watch.
If you want a less competitive experience, the better bet might be wandering around the stretch of sidewalk between Sleeping Beauty Castle and Alice in Wonderland in the mid-morning to early afternoon hours. Characters often wander past here, totally unbothered by guests.
Another great spot is the opposite side of Sleeping Beauty Castle in Fantasy Faire. Crowds here vary considerably, but we’ve found it possible to catch characters with few other guests around once Storytelling at Royal Theatre (also a worthwhile option on the entertainment front) performances have concluded for the day.
With that said, we wouldn’t recommend planning for any of this. Don’t pencil “linger around the side of Sleeping Beauty Castle” into your itinerary, and don’t try to force it. You have little control over who, when, or where you see. Simply be mindful of where characters appear most frequently, and maybe modify your routes when criss-crossing the park to put you into a good position.
Character encounters at Disneyland are so much more satisfying when they’re actually spontaneous. This is not Walt Disney World. Let the park unfold before you in an organic fashion. Don’t overthink or over schedule your day.
Atmospheric acts are all over Disneyland. From our perspective, this is a lot like free-roaming characters–there’s no need to plan for any of these, and doing so is more difficult, anyway. Rather, embrace an approach of “planned spontaneity.”
Give your itinerary plenty of breathing room at Disneyland so you can simply enjoy being there without feeling pressured to race off to the next stop. If you really need to schedule everything down to the minute, pencil in some leisurely strolling around the parks, particularly Main Street and New Orleans Square at Disneyland, and Buena Vista Street and Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure.
Speaking of which, that Marvel land at DCA has a lot of characters and entertainment and it’s the one exception to the above rule. While you’ll need to wander to encounter the random characters, you’ll also want to have an idea of when the Amazing Spider-Man, Dr. Strange: Mysteries of the Mystic Arts, Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Dance Off, and Warriors of Wakanda: Disciples of the Dora Milaje all occur.
In particular, you don’t want to miss Disciples of the Dora Milaje and Amazing Spider-Man (which also known as the Ceremonial Flinging of the Spider-Dummy in some circles). Dr. Strange: Mysteries of the Mystic Arts is good, but it’s a colossal pain to see due to limited viewing angles in the Ancient Sanctum. (If at all possible, do one of the performances post-sunset.)
Right now, the only dedicated daytime stage show in the parks is Tale of the Lion King in Disneyland’s Fantasyland Theatre near it’s a small world. This replaces Mickey and the Magical Map, and was previously an interim production at DCA. Tale of the Lion King is now significantly more enjoyable, thanks to all-new choreography, set pieces and costume designs, along with original musical arrangements.
Oh, and it’s now in a shaded theater with seating rather than in a standing-only venue in the blazing sun. That alone is an orders of magnitude improvement–the show is now a nice break rather than an unpleasant viewing experience.
Tale of the Lion King has a cast of around 20 performers, including incredibly talented singers, dancers, and drummers. It’s a reinterpretation of the Lion King, with a story-theatre approach using dialogue, song, dance and live percussion to tell the story of Simba’s journey.
It features unique arrangements of “Circle of Life,” “Hakuna Matata” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” Tale of the Lion King uses colorful costume designs, scenery, dancing, and Swahili to present a culturally-rooted twist on the story. We love Tale of the Lion King. It’s incredibly well done–a high energy change of pace from montage shows that keeps the whole family engaged.
We’re not going to dive too deeply into the nighttime spectaculars, as we have comprehensive strategy guides for those. If you’d like viewing recommendations (or where to avoid), photography tips, and more, refer to the following posts:
The big, universally-applicable advice to nighttime entertainment at Disneyland is to see the later performance whenever possible. This applies to Main Street Electrical Parade, Fantasmic, and even World of Color. The second showing is always less busy.
There are some days when locals camp out hours in advance for the first Fantasmic or Main Street Electrical Parade. That simply is not possible for the later performance, since the two aren’t separated by hours.
Even if they were, there’s simply less demand for the second showings. Guests with FOMO flock to the first, as do families with small children and locals who have work or school the next day and don’t want to be out too late. The end result is typically far larger crowds for the first performance.
Main Street Electrical Parade, in particular, is notorious for this. There are times when the first parade has people lined up on several rows deep on the curb, with prime spots being long gone even an hour before showtime. By contrast, we’ve walked up to a front row spot for the second parade right before it stepped off. We’ve had similar experiences with World of Color, particularly on chilly evenings.
It’s not quite as easy with Fantasmic, as the smaller viewing area coupled with high demand and reserved seating for dining packages makes waltzing up at the last minute more difficult. However, you can grab a spot along the Rivers of America for Disneyland Forever and then stay for Fantasmic, waiting only a half-hour or so.
That’s far superior to the hours endured by many of those who stake out prime spots for the first Fantasmic.
Of course, seeing only second shows is easier said than done. For one thing, your days at Disneyland are likely numbered, so you have to watch the first performance of something. If that’s the case, one option is a dinner package for Fantasmic. Another is the virtual queue for World of Color, followed by Park Hopping to Disneyland for MSEP and Fantasmic.
The other practical challenge is that crowds are lower later at night, so you’re sacrificing short wait times for an easier entertainment viewing experience. We think that’s mostly worth it, especially if you arrive at rope drop or use Genie+ and Lightning Lanes to beat the crowds. You may think otherwise, though.
Ultimately, that’s all of the advice we have for seeing stage shows, atmospheric acts, characters, nighttime spectaculars, and other entertainment at Disneyland. There’s probably more ground we could cover, but this is already over 2,000 words and more in-depth strategy undermines the salient point of largely letting the entertainment unfold around you in a spontaneous and organic fashion.
Obviously, that doesn’t apply to stage shows or nighttime spectaculars (where having a plan is the savvy move), but it’s absolutely the case with characters and atmospheric acts. Seriously, don’t overthink or overplan. Know what you want to see and have an idea of where and when it happens, but don’t try to force it. In general, Disneyland is a much better experience when you go in with a rough plan of attack that is highly flexible, and simply let things happen from there. This applies to attractions, but especially entertainment!
Have any favorite entertainment at Disneyland? Thoughts on the free-roaming character experience in the California parks? Strategy or any other recommendations that we missed here? Do you agree or disagree with our advice? 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!