I hope we never lose sight of one thing – that it all started with a mouse.” – Walt Disney
My family prefers to visit Disneyland during the off season. Not only do you get a whopping 20% off the Grand Californian January – March but also cooler, sometimes rainy weather that keeps the park way less crowded than normal. This trip was not like that. Turns out Super Bowl Sunday is quite a crowded day in the park and we happened to be there during 80 and 90 degree temperatures. Luckily we have enough Disney savvy to make the most of our four days in the happiest place on earth.
A hopper pass is so worth it. The hopper allows you to bounce back and forth between Disneyland and California Adventure, which is within easy walking distance. I’ve never been to Disney World in Florida but I hear you have to shuttle between the parks. That’s not the case at Disneyland. Both parks are doable in a two day time period (though you’ll want at least a third to revisit your favorite attractions!) so I highly recommend the hopper pass.
California Adventure is fairly new still and has made huge improvements in the last few years. If you weren’t a fan when the park opened in 2001, give it another chance. It’s worth it just to fly on California Soarin’ and to experience one of the smoothest roller coasters ever: California Screamin’. If you have kids, A Bug’s Land was a huge hit with my niece.
Staying on site is a must. I would way rather stay at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel for two nights than stay a whole week off site. There are two other on-site hotels – Paradise Pier and the Disneyland Hotel – that are good options but they’re at the far end of Downtown Disney so they’re not quite as convenient as the Grand Californian, which is literally inside Disney’s California Adventure and has entrances to both CA and Downtown Disney. We prefer the Downtown Disney view to the California Adventure view.
Another huge perk of staying on site is the Extra Magic Hour. Every day guests of the Disney hotels are let into the park one hour before general admission and what you can accomplish during that time is so worth it. Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land often has a 65+ minute wait but if you queue up early at the Grand Californian, you’ll be one of the first to ride it with only a 15-20 minute wait, depending on how many hotel guests are in front you. Absolutely head to this mild coaster first thing.
If for no other reason, stay at the Grand Californian because it is a stunningly gorgeous hotel. Here’s my brother proudly sporting his Disney lanyard in the grand lobby. On that note: be sure and get a Disney lanyard if you don’t already have one! When you book a Disneyland 60 Vacation, you get a book of coupons in the mail. One of these coupons is redeemable at various locations around the resort to get a free Diamond Anniversary lanyard and keepsake pin for all members of your party. You can buy pins all over the park and even trade with others.
Disneyland has fantastic shows, rides, shopping, and food. You might not think “fine dining” when booking a Disney vacation but if you’re a foodie like I am, you’ll be in heaven if you know where to eat. Here are a few of the spots we visited during our four-day vacation.
Ghirardelli Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop
We arrived around 3 pm on Super Bowl Sunday and we wanted a pick-me-up so we went straight to Pacific Wharf for some Californian ice cream. Dad got a cappuccino, my sister-in-law got a milkshake, and the rest of us chose various ice cream treats. I went with pure chocolate with freshly whipped cream and the best dark chocolate sauce. Whoa.
We strolled around California Adventure, taking in the beauty of the live orange trees, on our way to A Bug’s Land. We wanted to let my four year-old niece ride a few rides before dinner since it was her first ever trip to Disneyland and she had been so patient throughout the whole day of travel. Her first ride was Flik’s Flyers but her favorite was definitely Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train.
Wine Country Trattoria
We caught some of California Adventure’s afternoon parade at Wine Country Trattoria. We made our reservation on the early side since we had flown in from the east and what a treat that was! Because of the front row seat you get to the parade, I highly recommend an early dinner reservation at this charming restaurant.
Sadly, it turns out that only the Wine Country Trattoria Lounge sells his wine by the glass so I settled for non-Lasseter Riesling. If you’re interested in trying Lasseter Family Winery by the glass, go to the lounge next door and order a glass with a cheese board, which I thoroughly enjoyed on a previous Disneyland trip. I never did get to try Lasseter wine but I am seriously considering shipping a few bottles from California.
We split up after dinner: my brother and sister-in-law went back to the room to put my niece to sleep while my mom and dad and I strolled along Buena Vista Street, taking in the most delightful jazz band along the way. Thanks to the handy Disneyland app, my dad noticed when California Soarin’ was back up and running after a brief shut down and we were able to hop right on it.
There we met my friend Sarah, who lives in LA, and jumped on Indiana Jones, The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Big Thunder Mountain. It was far less crowded than during the day. We waited for about 15 minutes for each. We finally called it quits at 11 pm, which was 1 am Dallas time. What a relief it is to walk only as far as Grand Californian after a long day of travel and adventuring!
We made the most of our California Adventure Extra Magic Hour and jumped on Radiator Springs Racers, California Screamin’, and a few rides with my niece before heading over to Disneyland for lunch at Carnation Cafe.
Fun fact: head chef Oscar is one of the original Disneyland cast members and cooked breakfast for Walt Disney himself many times. I wish I had gotten a photo with Oscar. Maybe next time!
You can get a surprisingly healthy lunch at Carnation Cafe to fuel up for the day. My parents and I ordered salads and were delighted with the quality. My grilled chicken salad had fresh spinach, pickled onions, marinated mushrooms, hard boiled eggs, and toasted baguette. It might seem silly to make lunch reservations at a theme park but the line was out the door. We saved so much time by making reservations ahead of time. Try to do the same!
In case you were wondering, Super Bowl champions really do go to Disneyland after their victory. We walked out of the Carnation Cafe to find Peyton Manning right in front of us on a float! My dad and brother were over the moon excited.
The Famous Dole Whip at Tiki Juice Bar
This float was an absolute godsend. It was roughly 88 degrees outside and we were a bit wilted after hitting rides all afternoon. My parents and I spontaneously decided to try the Dole Whip Float in Adventureland. The float combines both options: the soft-serve ice cream and pineapple juice. It was unbelievably refreshing on that hot Monday and I highly recommend it if you love tropical flavors. We worried it would be too sweet to be thirst-quenching but it wasn’t. It really perked us up! We were able to squeeze in a few more rides and stroll around the beautiful park a bit before dinner at Blue Bayou.
Blue Bayou is an absolute must. Nestled inside Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square, this Creole-style restaurant has an atmosphere that’s rivaled by no other. Request a table by the water so you can wave to the passing boats before they descend into the watery depths below. This was the Bayou view from our table:
And for diners not facing the water, the view is of hanging lanterns and a New Orleans facade:
Blue Bayou is famous for its Monte Cristo Sandwich but honestly, it’s overpriced for lunch and you can order the same, less expensive sandwich at nearby Cafe Orleans. Dinner though is about the same price as most of the other fine dining options around Disneyland. Be sure and make your Blue Bayou reservation two months out. Katie at Disney Dining told me that the popular spot books up so fast that regular Disney-goers call exactly eight weeks in advance the minute Disney Dining opens to make their reservations.
Okay, let’s talk about the food. I started with a cup of awesome gumbo before my epic lamb main course. Shout out to my Disney-loving friend Sarah for recommending the lamb shank. Though I love gyros and lamb meatballs, lamb shank is not something I would typically order but I was feeling bold. The garlic mashed potatoes were so creamy and paired perfectly with the lamb, Feta cheese, and decadent sauce. I was in Bayou heaven!
We haven’t taken time yet to discuss the decadent Mickey Mousse. My mom and brother were the only two of our party of six who did not have birthday pins. The other four of us have birthdays within two weeks of each other in the winter and were delighted with the amount of free birthday confectionaries bestowed upon us. Because of that though, I don’t have many dessert recommendations for you since I was stuffed full of free Mickey Mousse and cupcakes everywhere I went. Guess I’ll have to go back for Disneyland dessert research!
We crashed after a few after-dinner rides. (During the winter months, the park closes at 9 PM on weekdays.) We could have hung around Downtown Disney for a while but we wanted to be fresh for our Disneyland Extra Magic Hour on Tuesday.
We rushed straight to Peter Pan on Tuesday morning. (Okay, if I’m honest, most of us rushed to Peter Pan. Mom and I admittedly stopped for bagels on Main Street.) Sadly, it was closed! They reopened the ride within the hour but by then the park was open and packed. (It was unseasonably crowded for February. We still don’t know why!) We never did get the chance to ride Peter Pan. We instead took my niece on It’s A Small World, the Storybook Land Canals, and Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.
Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe
We split up for lunch and Dad and I took Mom on some of the more thrilling rides since she had spent most of the vacation in A Bug’s Land and Toon Town with my niece. We stopped at the Jolly Holiday Bakery Cafe for lunch.
The turkey ciabatta sandwich, while nothing to write home about, was a good choice to get us through the heat of the afternoon. The chips were nice and crispy and the salted caramel Mickey macaroon was delicious. Doesn’t everything taste better when shaped like Mickey Mouse? Still, I would much rather go to Cafe Orleans for lunch. (If you go, order the parmesan fries!)
There’s really nothing not to love about Catal in Downtown Disney. We could see the restaurant from our balcony at the Grand Californian and couldn’t wait to try the Mediterranean restaurant. We chose the centrally located spot for our last night because we weren’t sure in which park we’d be that afternoon. Turns out, we would be in our room. It was 90 degrees on Tuesday and we were wilted. We rested for a couple of hours in the room before dinner.
We had an absolutely lovely table on the balcony overlooking Downtown Disney. By then the sun was going down and, unlike Texas, California actually cools off at night. We were quite comfortable on the balcony as the sun was setting.
We started with calamari and bacon-wrapped dates, which my mom had been craving for weeks. The calamari was meaty with a light breading, just the way I like it. The sourdough bread at Catal is also delicious and served with olive oil for dipping. There’s really nothing like California sourdough!
Most of us had crunchy Caesar salads to start but Mom made the executive decision to order the beet and watermelon salad with citrus vinaigrette and California goat cheese. I highly recommend you follow suit. (Not that I would steal bites off of her plate.)
Dad and I ordered paella for dinner. We were feeling adventurous and I’ve been going through a mussel phase. I ordered the seafood paella but I’m not a fan of chorizo – too spicy for me – so I asked if they could swap out veggies. This turned out to be a combination of seafood and veggie paella. The rice was so addictive. I think I ate nearly every bite of this giant skillet. (One great thing about a hopper pass is walking about 20,000 steps a day. You can eat whatever you want and still come home more trim than when you left!) It was an exquisite meal worth getting on a plane for.
Paint the Night Parade
If you decide to visit Disneyland for its Diamond Anniversary, make an effort to see the Paint the Night Parade. It’s incredible. Disney expertly weaves technology, brilliant lights, catchy music, and classic and modern favorites in this special Disneyland 60 Parade. The best part for true Disney fans is that the parade ends with Mickey Mouse. It would make Walt proud, for he always said he hoped no one would forget that all the magic started with a mouse.
I wish I could tell you about the Disneyland Forever fireworks but sadly, it was too windy and they were cancelled every night of our visit. May you have better luck than we did!
We decided to have brunch at Storytellers Cafe on our last morning. We didn’t have tickets to the park the last morning so we enjoyed a leisurely brunch and shopping in Downtown Disney before flying back to Texas. Storytellers Cafe has woodland characters (such as Chip and Dale) walking around and posing for photos.
Storytellers Cafe also boasts a dainty breakfast, as you can see here. I do not shy away from a good buffet! I recommend the lox if you’re into fish for breakfast (I am), and the Mickey Mouse waffle. The hash browns didn’t excite me much nor did a few of the pastries but the eggs benedict (not pictured) were fantastic. I was too full to try it, but there’s also an omelet bar.
From my family to yours, we hope you enjoy your Disneyland vacation! Do let us know which restaurants and rides are your favorite in the comments section. We love discussing Disney!
Believe in magic,
A few family photos: