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San Diegans head to the Magic Kingdom for day trips all the time — and so can you! Here are a few tricks to navigate a successful day at the two Disney parks in Orange County.
Since opening in 1955, Disneyland has been near the top of most vacation wish lists. With the fabled attraction less than 100 miles away, you can experience the best of a San Diego vacation and still touch the magic that is Disneyland.
Located in the Southern California community of Anaheim, Disneyland sits 95 miles north of downtown San Diego. Drive time will vary depending on the time and day you travel, but a conservative estimate is about 1 hour and 45 minutes from downtown. Families often opt to stay in San Diego's North County, which shaves 30-plus minutes off the drive. Your return trip should be about 20-30 minutes faster because there will be much lighter traffic if you leave later at night.
Weekends mean larger park crowds but less freeway traffic. Weekdays are when locals visit Disneyland, as fewer people fill the park, so you’ll spend less time standing in lines and more time making memories.
Many rental car companies will pick you up at your hotel, but one of the tricky things to consider is that they generally bill a day rate for each 24-hour period and most of the locations are open normal business hours. So, you'll probably want to pick up your car the night before and drop off the next morning (paying for 2 days rental). If you're near downtown, then you can choose one of the airport locations and get by with a one-day rental, as those locations generally open early and close late. Parking at Disneyland is $30 per car (prices subject to change); parking outside of Disneyland in Anaheim is nearly impossible so you're locked into paying for parking.
It's no mystery that Walt Disney loved trains, and another great option when traveling to Disneyland is Amtrak California. Trains run frequently from Downtown San Diego, with additional station locations at Old Town, Solana Beach and Oceanside. Cost is around $33 per adult and $16 for children under 13 (under 3 free). The ride to the Anaheim station by train is approximately two hours. From there, you can take Uber or a cab to the park (have them drop you off at Downtown Disney) or catch the Anaheim Resort Transportation bus, which is low-cost and will drop you at the Disneyland park entrance.
After arriving at the park, grab a bite at La Brea Bakery Café and Express in Downtown Disney. Located just outside the park entrance, it opens at 8 AM most days and is a good place to recharge with fresh baked pastries and cappuccino on the patio before hitting the parks. On days when Disneyland opens early (weekends and summers typically), just inside the park on Main Street, you'll find the Jolly Holiday Bakery Café, which also offers very good fresh baked goods and gourmet coffees. The California Adventure Park has equally good breakfast bites just inside the gates. Check the Disney calendar for park hours on the day you plan to visit.
Once you're fueled up, it's time to explore the Magic Kingdom. For kids under 10, Disneyland is pure magic. They love to live out their favorite movies and TV shows and meet the characters. Frozen, Star Wars, Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters, Toontown and Finding Nemo's Submarine Voyage are a few favorites in Disneyland. California Adventure is home to the magnificent Cars Land and Soarin' Around the World for a multisensory flight around the globe.
The two parks' Genie+ service (which has taken the place of the old FastPass) costs extra but can mean shorter waits for rides.
Tweens and teens at Disneyland love the Star Wars rides, Indiana Jones Adventure and Space Mountain for high-adrenaline fun. (Note that the perennially popular Splash Mountain is closing for long-term refurbishment and retheming.) California Adventure is home to the only looping roller coaster in either park, the Incredicoaster, plus Guardians of the Galaxy–Mission: BREAKOUT!, maybe the two best thrill rides at the parks.
For the less adrenaline-inclined, it's just a great time to step inside the Disney bubble and indulge your inner child. Old favorites include Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion and It's a Small World. And you don’t want to miss the the Enchanted Tiki Room on your way out. Riding the venerable Matterhorn during the fireworks shows is also a fantastic experience.
Dress casual and take a sweater or jacket for cooler nights. Lockers are available so you don't have to carry items with you all day. Also be sure to wear comfortable shoes, as an average day of park-hopping can easily clock in at 8-10 miles, or over 20,000 steps!
Another tip is to access the Disneyland Railroad that runs throughout the main park, with stops at Main Street, Mickey's Toontown, New Orleans Square and Tomorrowland; it can be a life-saver for little legs. It's also easy to hop on and off, with generally short wait times.
Disney has a free app that's very useful for everything for ordering food ahead of time (highly recommended!) to making Genie+ ride selections to booking special experiences. Crowds at the park vary by day and season but Disney does a good job of moving people around and through lines.
All of that fun will leave you ready for some quality R&R, so plan for a post-Disney day of relaxing by your hotel's sparkling pool or on one of San Diego's world-class beaches.
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