By David Platt, your Mouse Master specialist to Disney Destinations and beyond
My dear daughter and I just returned from our second Adventures by Disney trip. After conquering San Francisco last year, we scratched off one of our bucket list items: the Disneyland® Resort and Southern California itinerary. Buckle up, folks; this is going to be a long one.
First, I should probably start by explaining what Adventures by Disney is. It’s a category of Disney travel that a lot of people aren’t aware of: guided adventures to destinations all around the globe with that legendary Disney level of customer service. Each adventure is planned impeccably, beginning to end. Pretty much everything except your airfare to get there is included in the price, and you travel in small groups of 20-40 people. While most adventures don’t have much to do with Disney itself, the Southern California adventure is an exception as it’s almost entirely Disney-focused.
Now on to our adventure: we started off in Hollywood for two days, before moving down to Disneyland® Resort for some behind the scenes fun. Note that adventure itineraries change from time to time, so your mileage may vary.
Day 1: Arrival
We arrived at Burbank airport to a driver waiting with a fancy sign at baggage claim. This is one thing I love about Adventures by Disney (hereafter referred to as AbD): you’re taken care of from the moment you get off the plane. She whisked us off to the Loew’s Hollywood Hotel right in the heart of the action. After check-in and a greeting from our Adventure Guides, we had a few hours on our own before a group welcome dinner that night. Being totally amped to be in Hollywood for the first time, we headed out to explore the Hollywood Walk of Fame on our own.
We jumped into a guided tour of the Dolby Theater (home of the Oscars) right next to our hotel, and lucked into a dress rehearsal for America’s Got Talent which was currently filming. After a quick freshen-up in our room (where we found out we have a fantastic view of the Hollywood sign!), it was time for our first group activity: meeting all our fellow adventurers at our welcome dinner in a private room at the hotel. After dinner, several families were headed off to the El Capitan theater across the street for a viewing of the Lion King, we opted for an early night in bed since we knew there wouldn’t be much sleep for the next few nights.
Day 2: Hollywood
First activity of the day: a short walking tour down Hollywood Blvd. We learned a bit of history about the Dolby Theater and the surrounding shopping complex. Fun fact: did you know the entryway for the Oscars is actually a shopping mall? They do an exceptional job of hiding that fact on TV. We ended up at the legendary TCL Chinese Theater with a private tour for our group. Simply amazing inside; I’m so glad we got to see this.
The Jim Henson Company: Next up, a private visit to the Jim Henson Company. That’s right: home of the muppets. A muppeteer gave us a VIP tour, followed by an opportunity to operate a muppet all on our own with some helpful pointers. This visit was certainly a highlight of the day: I had no idea the history of this place. It was originally Charlie Chaplin’s movie studio, so most of his legendary films were shot right where we were standing.
Lunch at Tam O’Shanter: Off to lunch at Tam O’Shanter, one of the oldest restaurants in Los Angeles and where Walt Disney ate lunch almost every day because it’s so close to Walt Disney Studios. We had the opportunity to sit at Walt’s table, right where the Imagineers dreamed up Disneyland and countless other Disney projects.
Hollywood Surprise: Next came the first surprise of the trip: a stop at Griffith Park to ride the carousel where Walt Disney first envisioned Disneyland. He sat on a park bench watching his two daughters ride, dreaming of a place where families could share such experiences together.
After returning to the hotel, the rest of the late afternoon and evening were on our own, so my daughter declared we were visiting the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum she’d spied across the street.
Day 3: Finishing up Hollywood and going to Disneyland
This was the day that most of the hardcore Disney fans in the group (which, let’s face it— was most of us) were looking forward to the most: we get to visit Walt Disney Studios and Disney Imagineering.
Walt Disney Studios: First up: the Studios! While there are very occasionally tours available to various groups, right now the *only* way to visit Walt Disney Studios is with this AbD tour. There was so much great stuff here— the Sherman Brothers soundstage where they record music for various productions, innumerable pieces of original animation artwork lining the walls, and the Walt Disney Archives which is effectively a museum for the Disney Parks and various Disney productions over the years. Remember the red-headed wench that they took out of Pirates of the Caribbean last year? Yeah, she’s here. I could have spent HOURS in the archives. We finished up with lunch at the Studio commissary before:
Disney Imagineering: This is where they create all those wonderful things that happen inside the parks. Simply put, this is where they bring the parks to life. AbD is the ONLY way for the general public to see the inside of this building. There was an extremely strict no-camera policy; only our Adventure Guides could take pictures inside. They showed us a massive 3D 4K VR room where they do computer-generated mock-ups of rides to test them out before actually building them. We got to ‘ride’ Radiator Springs Racers and Pirates of the Caribbean (Shanghai version), as well as do a flyover of the Magic Kingdom. Amazingly cool. We moved on to a room featuring some early models of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and the new Frozen land coming to Tokyo DisneySea. They very carefully controlled what we could see through this area; there were massive black curtains draped everywhere.
Our final stop at Imagineering was perhaps the best: the sculpture workshop. It’s a massive room filled with sculptures of virtually anything you could think of in the parks. In our short time there, I spotted figures from Hall of Presidents, Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, Haunted Mansion, the Great Movie Ride, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Perhaps the coolest thing? The original marble statues from Snow White Grotto at Disneyland. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the history of Disneyland, but I had no idea the statues out there now weren’t the originals. We got to pose with them and take pictures.
We’re going to Disneyland: Up next: off to Disneyland® Resort! We settled into our deluxe motor coach for the two-hour drive down to Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa. We didn’t even have to check in when we arrived— they gave us our room keys when we got off the bus, and about 15 minutes after we were in our room, our luggage showed up (we didn’t have to worry about our luggage all day, which was awesome; we left it in our room at the Loews Hollywood Hotel that morning and they got it for us).
After a quick freshen-up in the hotel, we met our group in the lobby, got our park tickets, and headed into Disneyland® Park. We had dinner at French Market. Honestly, I was kind of disappointed by this part. French Market is fine, but it’s a fairly standard quick service restaurant. I was hoping for something nicer and a little bit more special for our first meal there. After dinner, they informed us we had a couple of hours on our own to explore. But surprise: we were meeting back up at 9 PM for a VIP viewing of Fantasmic! If we wanted, we could meet the group at 8:00 to ride Haunted Mansion. If not, we had a FastPass loaded onto our ticket good for whatever we wanted.
But my daughter had other plans as soon as she heard “free time:” Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. She’d waited long enough. I couldn’t make her wait any longer. We rushed over to the entry near Splash Mountain because I knew that was the ‘best’ entrance, that gives you a gradual entry into the land. It slowly transitions from Disneyland to Batuu along that long walkway, and my daughter was positively vibrating with excitement the whole walk.
Galaxy’s Edge did not disappoint. There will be more on it later in the trip, but we managed to squeeze in two rides on Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run before meeting back up with the group. Quite an impressive feat, considering there’s no FastPass access for this attraction yet! While I’m not going to say it’s an AMAZING ride, it’s certainly a whole lot of fun. It’s Star Tours on steroids.
We met back up with the group for Fantasmic, which as always did not disappoint. We were in a roped off section designed to probably hold a couple hundred people, and there were only 25 of us. We each got to spread out and get a spot right up front with no one in the way. Simply magical.
After this amazingly long day, it was off to bed— but not before they informed us we were meeting at 6:45 AM in the lobby of the hotel. That’s positively inhumane, but they assured us it would be worth it.
Day 4: Disneyland
They intentionally keep the details of today vague, because the Adventure Guides have a lot of leeway in what they can make happen depending on what’s going on in the parks. But first: why that insanely early meeting time?
Beating the crowds: Well, the simple answer? We got to enter the park at 7 AM, an hour before park opening. They let us take tons of pictures of whatever we want: a completely empty Main Street USA, pictures of Sleeping Beauty Castle with no strangers in the pic, etc. The only restriction: no pictures if a vehicle is driving up and down the street, as can happen occasionally when the park is closed. They want to maintain the magic a bit.
Breakfast at Plaza Inn: After we got our fill of pictures, it was off to breakfast with Minnie & friends at the Plaza Inn. We were the only ones in there for most of our breakfast, so we got off-the-charts character interaction. At one point, the Fairy Godmother was helping my daughter find silverware and napkins. If you’ve ever done this character breakfast, you know how awesome it can be— and having the entire place to ourselves made it even better.
Hitting the rides, with a special surprise: By this time, the park was open so our Adventure Guides got us quickly on a couple of rides with no waiting— Matterhorn Bobsleds and Peter Pan’s Flight. As these are often two of the longest lines in the park, this was a welcome surprise.
We then headed over to Adventureland, where they took us backstage at Indiana Jones Adventure. A cast member who works in ride maintenance showed us how the vehicles work and even let us play around with the controls a bit. Of course, we immediately got to ride as a group with no waiting as well.
Walt’s Apartment: Yeah, that’s right. They surprised us with a visit to Walt Disney’s actual apartment above the firehouse on Main Street USA. I’ve been in there before as part of a guided tour, and it hasn’t lost any of its magic— and I’m so happy my daughter finally got to experience it for the first time. It’s an extremely tiny slice of Disney history packed into two little rooms, filled with pictures of Walt’s family and actual items he and Lillian used to entertain guests. This was without a doubt a highlight of the trip.
On our own: After a quick visit to ToonTown to take pictures with Mickey (with, let’s say it again: no waiting!), we were turned loose to explore the parks on our own. Lunch and dinner were on our own, with instructions to meet at 8:45 in front of the Plaza Inn for a special viewing of the Main Street Electrical Parade and the Disneyland Forever fireworks. They gave us each a $25 gift card to defray the cost of our meals, and let us know we each had five “use any time on any ride” FastPasses loaded onto our tickets. Score! The afternoon was filled with typical Disney stuff and more Galaxy’s Edge, which I won’t bore you with.
Parade and fireworks: We met to enter our little reserved section right in front of the castle for the parade and fireworks. This was the one ‘VIP viewing’ perk on the whole trip that I was disappointed with. While it was awesome being that close, it was an extremely small section with a couple of benches at the back, and a small section of curb for curb seating. It felt very cramped for all of us. We were sent off with instructions to meet at 7:30 AM the next morning (ugh! Are we EVER going to sleep on this trip??)
Day 5: California Adventure
Breakfast at Storyteller’s Cafe: We didn’t even have to leave the hotel for this one— Storyteller’s is right at the Grand Californian! I was thrilled we got to do this one, as I hadn’t had a chance to experience it since they switched to the “Mickey’s Tales of Adventure” breakfast year or so ago. While we weren’t the only ones there, we had a private section for our group and the characters spect a lot of time with us. My secret thrill: my eleven-year-old daughter, who long ago deemed herself too old to meet characters was totally getting into the characters again. We got some great pictures.
Hitting the park: First up, we rode Toy Story Midway Mania as a group (did we wait in line? No way!). We then headed over to Cars Land for….
Backstage at Radiator Springs Racers: Just like with Indiana Jones, we headed backstage to talk to a ride maintenance engineer who explained the inner workings of Racers to us. We got to see some ride vehicles up close and personal. He gave us the lowdown on why they had so much trouble keeping it up and running the first few months (I won’t bore you with details, but it has something to do with radio frequencies used in the ride and wireless hotspots that some foreign guests carry). On a group ride right after, it was fun picking out the spot directly off the track where we had just been standing backstage.
Soarin from a different perspective: As if it wasn’t enough that Soarin Over California is back for a limited time, next come one of the backstage highlights of the trip for me: we got to watch Soarin’ from BEHIND THE SCREEN! After a regular ride, we descended a short staircase and watched the next group ride through the see-through screen. It was a little surreal. We then got a walkthrough of how the attraction works, along with a demonstration of the various scents you smell during it.
Carthay Circle Restaurant tour: While this was by no means a highlight, we got a private tour of Carthay Circle talking about the historical significance of the original Carthay Circle theater and some of the different dining rooms. They also let us in on a little secret: our farewell dinner that night would be in the luxurious Hollywood dining room. While we were all thrilled, I saw a quiet settle over the group as we realized our adventure was nearing its close.
After that, once again we were on our own for the rest of the day. We were all expecting the same five FastPasses as yesterday….but they gave us a challenge. ELEVEN FastPasses to use that expire by the end of the day. I don’t think anyone used them all. We were set free with instructions to meet up at 6:30 PM in the lobby of the hotel.
A farewell celebration: at 6:30, we were escorted to a meeting room at the hotel for a retrospective of our adventure. We all shared our own personal highlights. Luckily I was one of the first to talk, so I got to talk about Imagineering first. That was a popular answer. My daughter’s? Galaxy’s Edge. We spent at least a little time there every day, and there was still more to come as we were staying an extra day on our own. Our Adventure Guides also put together a fabulous slideshow with highlights of our entire adventure, along with a link to download the hundreds of pictures they’d taken.
We had our farewell dinner at Carthay Circle— I think it’s always a fabulous meal at that restaurant. We had a bit of time before we met for a VIP viewing of World of Color, so we snuck in a visit to ride Monsters Inc and Ariel’s Undersea Adventure. The World of Color viewing couldn’t have been better. Just like with the Fantasmic showing, we had a large section all to ourselves, and it was dead center.
Day 6: Saying farewell, and a day on our own
We had an informal breakfast as a group at Steakhousee 55 at the Disneyland Hotel. Because people were leaving at different times, we could show up any time from 7:00-8:30 AM. We made sure to make it nice and early, because we wanted a good chance to say goodbye to everyone in our group before spending that final day on our own. You get really close with some of these people after spending five solid days together, so goodbyes are always a little melancholy.
On our own: We had one prime goal today: LOTS of time at Galaxy’s Edge! We had afternoon reservations in place for drinks at Oga’s Cantina, building lightsabers at Savi’s Workshop, and building droids at Droid Depot. Our Adventure Guides were generous enough to load up our tickets with more FastPasses, so we had a great morning burning through a few of those. Crowds were SO light, though, that we din’t need them too much.
I promised more on Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, so here it is. Go. Now. If you’re even the tiniest bit a Star Wars fan, it’s not to be missed. It’s a completely immersive land where you truly feel like you’ve stepped into a Galaxy Far Far Away. The undisputed highlight for both of us was building lightsabers at Savi’s Workshop. While the price is a tough pill to swallow ($200/lightsaber), you’re paying for so much more than just the lightsaber. It’s an entire experience, and I’m not lying when I say I saw grown men getting a little misty when the lightsabers activated and lit up at the end of the ceremony (okay, one of those grown men was me).
Oga’s Cantina was also a highlight. I’ll admit the drinks are a little strange, particularly the Fuzzy TaunTaun which makes your mouth numb. But visiting an ‘authentic’ Star Wars cantina is a lot of people’s childhood dream come to life.
The next day after a much-needed restful night’s sleep, our Adventures by Disney driver whisked us off to Orange County airport to return to reality.
Wrapping it up
If you’re a Disney fan, the Disneyland® Resort and Southern California Adventures by Disney trip should be on your radar. While it was long and sometimes incredibly exhausting due to the long days, it was worth every second. Visiting Galaxy’s Edge was the icing on the cake; this would have been one of my favorite Disneyland trips ever, even without it. With both things thrown in the mix? It’s right up there in the top three trips ever. Don’t make me pick a favorite.
Disclosure: While I received a travel professional discount for my Adventure by Disney vacation, the discount did not influence my review.
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I'm David Platt, your Mouse Master Disney Destination specialist. I'm delighted to bring you the latest news on Disney Destinations.