Weekend Getaway: What to Do in Disneyland

disneyland castle

Kids or no kids, there’s something, well, magical, about the Magic Kingdom. From the old-fashioned charms of the Happiest Place on Earth to the newfangled thrills of the updated California Adventure Park, the Disneyland Resort offers up diversion, delight, and then some.

And the pleasure is all the richer when you don’t have to contend with lines, hassles, and high temps. Enter, “off-season.” While Disneyland technically does not have such a thing—and admission prices hold steady throughout the year—here’s a little secret: The park is considerably less crowded from late January into mid-March, especially during the week and when rain is in the forecast, (which makes for a surprisingly fun adventure of its own).

Short (or no lines) means you can ride the Matterhorn on a loop (as I did on a recent visit) and take advantage of all that extra time to explore attractions you might otherwise skip. Here, what to do in Disneyland beyond the major attractions.
Disneyland Beyond the Classics

From Thunder Mountain Railroad to the Peter Pan Flight, we all have our favorite rides at Disneyland. But new attractions, like the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, also beg attention, and then there are the shows…  Fortunately, in off-season you can fit it all in. And then some. Here, some of the “extras” you should try in between Space Mountain and the tea cups.

1. A Pirate’s Lunch for Me. Lunch at the Blue Bayou in the Pirate’s of the Caribbean ride is truly a treat. What could be better than a prime seat for watching boats float into the underwater world of Jack Sparrow? Well, one thing: the decadent deep-fried Monte Cristo sandwich with blueberry jam. Note: You’ll likely need a reservation (even in off-season). Either beat feet to the ride when you first enter the park or reserve ahead by calling (714) 781-DINE.

disneyland railroad

2. Down on the Bayou. There’s very little rest time at Disneyland, but you can “rest” in the middle of the action. Head to New Orleans Square and grab a table at Café Orleans, where you can dig into a Mickey-shaped Beignet and listen to the timeless Louisiana sounds of The Royal Street Bachelors or The Jambalaya Jazz Band.

3. A Rootin’ Tootin’ Time.
 It’s highly probable that you’ve passed Fontierland’s Golden Horseshoe Saloon many a time and just haven’t thought to enter. Well, we reckon you should change that. This (all-ages) saloon serves up a rollickin’ taste of the Wild West, replete with bluegrass and comedy show Billy Hill and the Hillbillies.

4. Sit a Spell. Oft-overlooked but worth seeking out, the Disneyland Railroad is a great way to travel between lands and see a unique side of the park, including two slightly bizarre yet extremely fascinating dioramas of the Grand Canyon and the Primeval World. Equally overlooked is the Monorail, a (yes, we’re saying it!) “green” transportation system that whisks around (and above) the Resort—from Tomorrowland to the Downtown Disney District and adjacent hotels—with fabulous views, to boot.

5. Gettin’ Tiki With It. You don’t have to sail the seven seas to go exotic. Just visit the Enchanted Tiki Room.  Hosted by animatronic tropical birds, the South Seas celebration features drumming, chanting, and, of course, singing of the classic (and catchy) Tiki Room song. And don’t forget to visit the Juice Bar for a Pineapple Dole Whip, especially if the sun is out.

5. Island Hop. Hop a raft to the Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island to explore secret hideouts, dig for treasure, or take in the views from Tom and Huck’s Tree House.

California Adventure Park 

Formerly the Pluto to Disneyland’s Mickey, the California Adventure Park stepped things up a notch with a 2012 face lift. Now, a revamped entry harking back to classic Hollywood announces the park’s eminence—or at least claims equal footing with classic Disney. And, just like the fabulous state to which it is dedicated, here you can look forward to a little bit of everything…

1. Cars. Yes, you read that right—we’re praising cars. Well, Cars Land. Just opened in summer 2012, this new land modeled after the popular movie Cars is already one of the park’s most popular attractions. You’ll marvel at the Cadillac Range Mountains and Ornament Valley, and speed racers will love the land’s primo attraction, the Radiator Springs Racers ride.

2. State pride. Thrilling without being scary, Soarin’ Over California is a fabulous and awe-inspiring ride that puts you in the middle of California’s beauty. Surrounded by Omnimax film, you’ll “hang glide” over Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Malibu, and more. It will leave you breathless.

3. Fear Factor. True adrenaline junkies will rejoice at The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a two-minute free fall that will have your stomach dropping like a ton of bricks. The pre-ride video, an ode to the classic television show, is also a treat.

california adventure park

4. Wheel. Of. Mickey. Over at Paradise Pier, which looks decidedly similar to (you guessed it) the famous terminus of Route 66 a short ways away in Santa Monica, all eyes are on Mickey’s Fun Wheel, a good old-fashioned ride with terrific views and two ways to enjoy them. Choose the a traditional gondola on the outer edges, or brave the inner ones that slip and slide—either way it’s a wild ride.

5. Night Life. Disneyland’s night shows are renowned, but nighttime in the California Adventure Park holds its own. From the spectacular lights of Hollywood Land to the neon brights of Cars Land, it feels like all the world is aglow. Throw in live music shows, fireworks, and the World of Color fountain extravaganza, and you’ve got yourself a whole lot of happiest place on earth.

Where to eat

1. Inside. The parks offer all manner of eats, from pizza and burgers to restaurants as unique as the lands they occupy. Try Bengal Barbecue at Disneyland, or enjoy SoCal favorites at Carthay Circle Restaurant in California Adventure. And while alcohol is not served in Disneyland, California Adventure offers all array of suds (Bayside Brews), margs (Rita’s Baja Blenders), and, of course—this is California after all—vino (Golden Vine Winery).

la brea bakery2. Just Outside. Situated adjacent to the parks and hotels, Downtown Disney, features a smorgasbord of offerings, from the casual Rainforest Cafe to Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen, which serves up New Orleans favorites with a sizzling side of jazz. The fresh salads and sandwiches at La Brea Bakery Café are a welcome break from the funnel cakes and hot dogs you’ll scarf inside the parks. The branch of the famous LA bakery also has plenty of homemade bread on hand, and the bags of delicious granola make a perfect snack.

3. Outside. A great find for those leaving the park and perhaps sick of Americana overkill, Lee’s Sandwiches (12905 Harbor Boulevard) offers delicious banh mi sandwiches, with interesting flavor combinations. The the grilled pork and sardine option, for example, is packed with pickled veggies. The eclectic menu also features spring rolls, avocado smoothies, soy bean and carrot drinks, and unusual Vietnamese desserts in flavors like Taro, Tapioca, and Half Moon Green Bean.

Where to stay

Disneyland Resort. The Disneyland Resort hotels offer much more than proximity. Guests of the hotels can up the magic factor with early admission to the parks, character wake-up calls and dining experiences, plus themed pools and other attractions (including evening childcare at Pinocchio’s Workshop!) that make the hotels themselves feel like mini-theme parks.

grand californian hotel and spaFor little lush life, try the cushy Grand Californian Hotel & Spa (from $400 a night), with its private pool cabanas, fine dining options, and live piano music. The nostalgic set will swoon for the classic Disneyland Hotel (from $350), where a recent update brought back the glory days of resort living, with stylish “Disney-fied” rooms, snazzy new pools, and memorabilia scattered throughout. On the “casual” end, the Paradise Pier Hotel (from $250) is all about good old-fashioned fun in the sun, with a beach-boardwalk theme, surf-style eateries, a rooftop pool, and fireworks.

Outside the Resort. Staying off the resort means less of the perks, but it also tends to mean quite a bit less money, and there are plenty of options to be had for those looking to save on the stay and splurge on the spree.

The Alpine Inn (715 West Katella Avenue) is one of two non-Disneyland properties physically sharing property with Disneyland, meaning you can still walk right into the park without shelling out for the schmancy digs (rooms from $69.99). Another foo option is the Anaheim Islander (c), which offers a heated pool and comfortable rooms within easy walking distance from the parks (from $75).

Directions: Take the Amtrak Surfliner (transfer in San Luis Obispo) to Anaheim, and then catch the Anaheim Resort Transit Route 15 bus, which will take you directly to the Disneyland Resort. You can also fly into either Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and or Orange County/John Wayne Airport (SNA). The Disneyland Resort Express shuttle picks up at both airports and transports guests to the parks.

Photos: Disneyland Resort, rbrough, la brea bakery, grand californian hotel & spa

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Angela Matano lives in Santa Monica with her son, husband and two dogs. She is thrilled to be the first editor of the revamped OffMetro California. Angela has written about travel, books, food and beauty for the L.A. Times, LA Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine and more. She has lived in Santa Cruz, New York and San Francisco. Her first trip to Italy as a teenager was inspired by a viewing of A Room with a View, with it's glorious Florence locations. Multiple trips with a child have inspired a new confidence in flying by the seat of one's pants.