SoCal: Worth the Trip

Here’s what’s new and exciting at Disneyland Resort and LEGOLAND California—and how to take that dream trip for less. 

Most New York families have gone or considering going to Disney World and the other major theme parks in Orlando. But far fewer have the Southern California outposts of those family faves on their radar, citing the higher cost of airfare as a main reason. But there’s a way to offset that…and then some. 

Here’s the lowdown.

Southern California CityPASS ($329 for 10+; $286 for 3-9; younger than 2 is free) gives you a 3-day Disneyland Resort Park Hopper Ticket, including one early-access Magic Morning, 1 day at SeaWorld San Diego, and 1 day at LEGOLAND California in Carlsbad. You can buy the card at the first park you visit. After that, you just go straight to the entry gates. If you’re going to go to all four (as most families vacationing here do), you save $120 on each adult and $140 on each child. Do the math; that’s not small change. 

RELATED: Find another insider tip on saving money on vacation.

Disneyland Park

All your family’s favorites are here, and the lay out of the park is similar to Orlando.

Two standouts to note: If you’re looking for a fun family lunch, head over to Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue in Frontierland. Admittedly, Disneyland is not the capitol of cheap food. That said, this $26 lunch feels like a deal. It’s (picnic) table service of all-you-can-eat chicken and ribs, cornbread, ranch baked beans, and coleslaw, drinks included. I don’t know what they put on it, but the chicken is so good. The kids can run around as you all enjoy a country-western show in the shade. Make a reservation; it’s popular.

The Paint the Night Electrical Parade is also worth mentioning. I’ve seen the Orlando version, but this production, amped up with neon and video, floored me.  The Disneyland Forever Fireworks Spectacular, immediately after the parade, also does one better. For starters, Tinkerbell flies around the castle’s turrets, and the Matterhorn turns into a volcano.


Disney California Adventure

Here’s where you’ll find marquee tween and teen draws such as California Screamin’, Silly Symphony Swings, and Radiator Springs Racers. But little adventurers who love A Bug’s Life will swarm “a bug’s land,” where you really feel like you’re the size of an insect. (Heimlich’s Chew Chew train is about the cutest ride I’ve ever seen.) Another section that immerses you in a favorite movie is “Car’s Land.” Don’t miss Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, where your personal tractor spins and whirls. Paradise Pier brings an old-time boardwalk experience into the present (Disney) day. King Triton’s Carousel and Mickey’s Fun Wheel are must-rides for wee ones. Finish off the day with World of Color Celebrate! It’s a show over Paradise Bay that’s…really hard to describe. Colors, fountains, music, Neil Patrick Harris, Mickey, lights, animation and a rush of sweet emotion. That’s about the best I can do. Don’t go home without seeing it.


Where to Stay

Three Disney properties are right at Downtown Disney and the parks, as in walking distance (or a short monorail ride away): the Disneyland Hotel, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel. Each has its own distinct vibe—and different free activities. Examples include Outdoor Movie Night, Classic Attraction Trivia Challenge, Learn to Draw Mickey class, and scavenger-hunt-style quests.

All three pools at the Disneyland Hotel are set in a lush, tropical landscape; the monorail pool is the one with the water slides all the kids are talking about.

Another perk of the Disneyland Hotel is the E-Ticket Club. Access to this 11th floor, kid-friendly hideaway is included in the rate of rooms on certain floors, and can also be purchased separately if you’re staying on other floors. It’s well worth looking into. Open daily 6:30am to 10pm, this comfy, spacious lounge has can’t-be-beat views of the fireworks and complimentary food and beverages all day long. Eat breakfast before you head to the parks, grab a light lunch before your mid-day pool break, enjoy pre-dinner wine, beer, and appetizers, and cap the night off with sweet treats.


Good to know

Find every detail you could want at

The Disney app gives you wait times at attractions and show schedules. Download it at

Disneyland Park and Disney’s California Adventure, unlike Disney World, still use the original FASTPASS paper ticket system.

Leave selfie sticks at home. They’re not allowed in either park.

Picnic areas can be found to the west of the main entrances of both parks; you can leave and re-enter with a hand stamp.


LEGOLAND California Resort

legoland california horse ride


First, fun facts:

The plural of Lego is still Lego.

Master builders for the park audition, so to speak, by building a sphere, since a ball is the most difficult thing to create with the iconic bricks.

Now that those are out of the way….this is the first theme park I’ve been in that feels like, well, a park. It’s shady, breezy, pretty, and by a feat of landscape planning, the flow of the crowds feels like a trickle anywhere you are, never a wave.

A visit will be as much of a pleasure for you as your little LEGO fan. The seven cities of Miniland, which includes New York in such detail I was pretty sure I could spot my office window, are amazing. The new Star Wars area, with its big draw, the death star display, is timed to thrill old fans and new ones, whose intro to the legacy will be The Force Awakens, opening in December. Two water parks and the Sea Life Aquarium round out the fun at LEGOLAND California Resort.

Healthy food options rule the day, led by Fun Town Market Restaurant, a serve-yourself eatery starring an all California-grown salad bar. Later on, when you’re ready for a snack, head to the Granny’s Apple Fries stand, a cult favorite.

RELATED: Find more advice on a healthier vacation.

Where to stay

Legoland Hotel California Lobby

The lobby of the LEGOLAND Hotel. You’re never too big for LEGO! 

The adjacent LEGOLAND Hotel is the obvious choice. It’s literally made for kids, with themed to the hilt rooms, in which kids hunt for take-home treasures armed with clues. The toilets are equipped with potty seats; the window only opens a few inches for safety. The sinks, as well as those in the public restrooms, are kid-height, as are some of the buffets in the restaurants.

Skyline Café serves a nice selection of wine and beer for grown-ups to sip while the kids play with…what else?…nearby. Woot!

A hearty buffet breakfast is included for all guests, but here’s a tip: go right when it opens at 7:30, or at the same time the park opens, and you won’t find any line at all.