What's New at Disneyland and California Adventure Themeparks
Carsland has great theming for movie fans.
Carsland souvenir sellers at Disneyland.
Characters greet all visitors catching the trolley at Carthay Circle in California Adventure.
Nemo's submarine takes families on another undersea adventure.
Jedi Training Academy learns history at the Star Wars Launch Bay museum.
Cool off during a meet n'greet with Queen Elsa and Princess Anna of "Frozen."

Disneyland Resort in Anaheim has long been my pick for that very first theme park vacation with little ones, because of its manageable size and laid back California vibe. You don’t need a car or a shuttle to navigate between attractions, or the restaurants of Downtown Disney. There are frequent snack stands and shops where kids can cool off. Several rides and stage shows cater to all ages with their gentle coasters, familiar stories and popular music — making them a great way for parents to rest their feet.

With T-shirts that proclaim “I am a Princess who can take care of herself” and meet n’ greets with Queen Elsa or Princess Anna, there’s a lot of opportunity to express yourself at ever-evolving Disneyland. From adorable Cars Land to the park’s 60th Anniversary special events, going on through summer 2016, it has become an even more wonder-full family vacation destination than in my youth. With two parks to explore and three hotels, plus everything going on in bustling Anaheim, it’s an ideal family getaway. And while families who stay at the Disney on-site hotels will benefit most, Anaheim has a number of family-welcoming hotels in every price range that provide almost seamless park access.

Disneyland’s Evolution as a Family Playground

Walt Disney himself initiated the construction of Disneyland in 1955 on 160 acres of land. His 18 major attractions like coasters and midway rides were an immediate success. Walt, however, was always dreaming, testing new attractions and adding shows. Today, the 510-acre resort includes the original Disneyland, plus the California Adventure theme park inspired by California’s cultural and scenic attractions, that opened in 2001 next to Disneyland.

As the parks enter their 61st year, new announcements confirm that management has never stopped believing what Walt Disney himself famously said, “Disneyland will never be completed… as long as there is imagination left in the world.”

How Disneyland & California Adventure are Different

The original of the two separate theme parks (with separate admission) is Disneyland Park, home to well-known Disney “neighborhoods” such as Main Street U.S.A., Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland, Mickey’s Toontown and Tomorrowland. It used to be that this was the park for nostalgia-lovers, and California Adventure was the park to nurture new Disney fans, but those distinctions keep on blurring.

Always looking toward the future, Disneyland’s Tomorrowland has undergone recent changes to accommodate the “Star Wars” franchise, which came with the $4.08 billion purchase of LucasFilm in 2012. Disneyland’s 60 attractions include toddler-friendly meet n’ greets and gentle teacup rides plus the Three Little Pigs house seen on the Storybook Land Canal Cruise.

The Downtown Disney commercial strip separates it from the long-standing Disneyland Hotel, the fun Paradise Pier Hotel, and the Disney California Adventure theme park.

Disney California Adventure is themed after attractions within the state, with eight themed lands such as Paradise Pier (modeled on Santa Monica’s Pacific Ocean Park amusement park with the popular California Screamin’ coaster), Hollywood (where movie themed attractions and shows are featured) and the Wine Country (there are planted vines and wine bars throughout the park).

Its original approach favored schoolage children but with the addition of the charming Cars Land, preschoolers (and their grandparents) are flocking in. Families with little ones should try rides like Soarin’ Over California, recently revamped to include natural and manmade wonders in 360-degree movie ride above the heights of California; Red Car Trolley down the ca. 1920’s Buena Vista Street and Monsters Inc Mike & Sulley to the Rescue among the 35 attractions, plus several stage shows that are great for all ages.

Parenting Tip: Are you coming with tiny travelers from a galaxy far, far away? If so, skip the $40 upcharge for Park Hopper tickets and just get a 3-Day Ticket, which brings the daily price down a lot and can be used to enter one park or the other over a 13-day period.

Disneyland’s Recent Changes & Upgrades

Over the years, Disneyland has refreshed favorite themes and rides, such as the classic it’s a small world, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain. Pirates of the Caribbean adopted an animatronic Jack Sparrow among the gnarly little pirates of old; the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride again features live mountain climbers scaling its “snowy” slopes. New characters and interactive experiences have been added; young guests can be transformed into princesses and princes in the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, a preteen beauty salon, for a hefty fee.

Long time favorites are not forgotten: The Disneyland Railroad still steams through Toontown. The Golden Horseshoe still serves chili in the midst of Frontierland. Little thrill seekers can still board Adventureland’s Jungle Cruise, while bigger siblings take a ride on the Indiana Jones Adventure, following Indy on his journey through the iconic Temple of the Forbidden Eye.

Parenting Tip: We love the out-of-the-sun and behind-the-scenes exhibits such as the Sleeping Beauty Castle interior, a walkthrough story-telling opportunity that follows Princess Aurora and Maleficent’s story in 3D displays of the original artwork. Cast members can arrange a special virtual version for guests with mobility issues, too.

Star Wars Adds Space Dust to Disneyland

Star Wars – Season of the Force is the latest zone to overtake Tomorrowland. Star Tours – The Adventures Continue, originally a 3D mashup ride connecting the two movie trilogies, now welcomes guests aboard a Starspeeder 1000 with C3PO and scenes from the latest “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Space Mountain has shapeshifted into Hyperspace Mountain, a rocking motion control ride with new music and effects; use Rider Switch to try it.

Register the kids as soon as you arrive in the parks for Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple so they can don mud-colored training robes and get lessons on-stage on how to hone their Jedi skills. And if you’ve been hiding in a cave since the 70’s, spend a few hours at Star Wars Launch Bay, a museum / monument to the galaxies and adventures that have come before. Pause to consider whether the lines are longer for an autograph and selfie with Kylo Ren, who represents the Dark Side, or a Stormtrooper from the Light Side. Most kids will probably want to wait for both. (Note: An entire Star Wars-themed land is coming to the Disneyland Resort within the next few years.)

Parenting Tip: The revamped fast food concessions at Tomorrowland also highlight the Dark Side / Light Side dichotomy. Have someone in your group order the “Jedi Order Chicken Sandwich” served on a toasted white bun that comes from the light side of the menu; and a “First Order Specialty Burger” on a pumpernickel roll (watch out for chorizo and cherry peppers!) that represents The Dark Side, and use it as a teachable moment to explore what the colors white and black have come to mean.

California Adventure’s Cars Land

We think the 12-acre Cars Land (opened in 2012) is the best thing that’s happened to this park for those traveling with young children. Whether you’re a fan of the film or haven’t seen it, all ages can appreciate how imagineers have physically immersed guests on a fanciful stretch of Route 66 bounded by a 125-foot-tall rock wall resembling a southwest mesa. Radiator Springs Racers is a mild-mannered coaster that twists, turns and races against other cars through the open skies of Ornament Valley and, inside, the mechanic stations and body shops of film fame. “Cars” fans will have more themed fun at the brand new Luigi’s Rollickin Roadsters, a group dance on small cars, as you can see from the video.

Even more gentle is the whirling teacup style ride called Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, with its baby tractor and upbeat music.

Parenting Tip: Take advantage of Rider Switch and FASTPASS tickets to get the most of Cars Land, the park’s busiest area.

California Adventure’s Expansion & Upgrades

Disney has plenty of imagination left to improve California Adventure. If you happen to have a “Frozen” fan with you, we have to admit that the Anna and Elsa’s Royal Welcome meet n’ greet, carefully crowd-controlled inside a pleasant, air-conditioned space, is very welcoming. Of course, “Frozen: The Musical” coming to the Hyperion Theatre in mid 2016 (on a tryout run for Broadway, no doubt), will be adorable. Other favorite attractions include Toy Story Mania!, a moving video game in 3D and Silly Symphony Swings, a real classic. Don’t miss The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, which has outdone the popular Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage at Disneyland. It wows its tiniest guests by taking them “underwater” for a first-hand glimpse into Ariel’s colorful world under the sea. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror towers over what used to be part of a bug’s land and overlooks Cars Land.

The unmistakable Mickey’s Fun Wheel is more fun than your average Ferris Wheel because its cars are constantly swinging. It achieved true stardom as the focal point for the extraordinary World of Color, a fantastic waterplay show, where wild fountains and special lighting create a screen of water on which favorite Disney characters are projected. The half-hour nightly show — updated for every season — combines nearly 1,200 versatile water jets, dazzling colors, Disney music and an all-new kaleidoscope of audio and visual effects — quite stunning.

Parenting Tip: Grab your FASTPASS tickets together so you have access to the same color reserved viewing areas for this very crowded show.>

Disneyland Resort Trip Planning Details

Plan ahead with Disneyland Online Guides to determine which rides are your family’s “must-dos,” then stick to that plan as long as you can. With so many new attractions within walking or monorail distance, it may pay to stay at one of the on-site Disneyland Resort hotels: Disneyland Hotel, Paradise Pier or the Grand Californian. Each of the hotels has a restaurant featuring a character breakfast, a large pool area, and family amenities including a self-serve laundry and mini-fridges in the room. The hotels have many exclusive entertainment options such as evening storytellers and shop discounts, with supervised childcare at the Grand Californian for all three. Best yet, hotel guests are allowed to enter one of the parks early each day so it’s easier to get on the most popular rides. Check out FTF reviews of the on-site Disneyland Resort Hotels to learn more about what each one offers.

Parenting Tip: To save your budget for Star Wars souvenirs, the Southern California CityPASS ticket booklet can save you 28% off individual entry to LEGOLAND, SeaWorld San Diego and a Disneyland Resort 3-Day Park Hopper ticket, if your clan has the energy to do all this within its nine-day expiration period. You’re the best judge of that.

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