Anaheim: Beyond Disneyland, the Birthplace of Mickey

Anaheim is the town that Mickey Mouse built. But the popular family vacation destination has more to offer than ever before.


Anaheim, Calif., is the city Mickey Mouse built. Yes, there were orange groves and a small suburban community in place before Walt Disney sprinkled Anaheim real estate with pixie dust back in 1955 (when the landmark park opened its doors). But it was Disneyland that made Anaheim the family-travel mecca that it is today.

Although the area was mostly residential and agricultural when Disney moved in, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, a flurry of cheap motels and sleazy tourist traps clustered just outside the park’s perimeter—prompting Walt Disney to lament the fact that he didn’t buy up more property in Anaheim, so that he could control his park’s surroundings. But thanks to concerted efforts by the city and a host of private investors, by the ‘90s, these less-than-attractive neighbors had been driven out. Guests to the city today will find a wide variety of accommodations and eateries that contribute to the family-friendly ambiance “Uncle Walt” envisioned for Anaheim.

There is more to Anaheim than the childlike nirvana of this ultimate theme park, but Disneyland remains at the epicenter of the fun. Touting itself as the “happiest place on earth,” Disneyland offers something to enchant every visitor, from tikes in strollers to thrill-seeking teenagers to nostalgic grandparents. Of the more than 15 million visitors who come to Anaheim each year, it is estimated than 13 million of them spend at least one day in Disneyland.


More than 500 million visitors have passed through Disneyland’s turnstiles, and judging by the increasingly long lines to enter, the park shows no signs of lagging popularity. The theme park is an escapist’s dream, because the streets are perpetually (stunningly) clean; the “cast members” (as employees are called) are ever cheerful; and the visual appeal of the imaginative gardens and storybook architecture is compelling even if you don’t step foot on a ride.

The 85-acre park is divided into various themed “lands” that offer rides and attractions that build on a central theme, beginning with Main Street, a re-creation of an idyllic Midwestern town built at three-quarter scale, to make the Victorian facades more pedestrian friendly. Pass through Main Street to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, modeled on real castles in southern Germany, which serves as the iconic centerpiece of the park. As soon as they see the castle, my daughter and husband start to sprint, so eager are they to pass over the drawbridge and immerse themselves in the excitement. (I’m always eager, too, of course, but I know how important it is to conserve energy in a place where we’ll be on our feet for the good part of 12 hours!)

Each of the eight lands radiate out from this central castle. The elaborately designed areas include the rough-and-tumble Adventureland; the glittery, frothy Fantasyland (a toddler favorite); the Old West Frontierland; the cartoon-inspired Mickey’s Toontown (the most likely place to spot Mickey and his gal pal, Minnie); and the futuristic Tomorrowland. [Read Disney Game Plan, By Age for tips on navigating Disneyland like a pro.]

Live entertainment is available throughout the park, all day long. In addition to daily parades and fireworks extravaganzas on the weekends and throughout the summer, look for the fiddling ensemble known as Billy and the Hillbillies (they often headline at the Golden Horseshoe); a barbershop quartet that enlivens the street corners of Main Street; and high school and college bands from around the country, who compete for the chance to be guest performers.

Holidays are truly special at Disneyland. Christmas is celebrated at the park starting the week after Thanksgiving (and running through the first week in January) with tens of thousands of twinkling lights and holiday decorations; there are also special holiday fireworks shows and Christmas parades, which culminate in a “snow” shower that satisfies the winter-deprived Southern California population. Day passes: $56 for children 9 and younger; $66 for adults and children 10 and older.

California Adventure

To offer new entertainment possibilities and to ameliorate some of the crowding at the original park, in 2001 Disney opened California Adventure, a Golden State-themed amusement park adjacent to Disneyland. Like Disneyland, the new park is subdivided into themed areas that feature elaborately designed rides and attractions.

Guests will find a beach-themed region that offers old-fashioned boardwalk rides and games; a Hollywood main street that offers a peek into the movie industry; a wine-country region with a hillside full of real grapevines and one of the nicest restaurants on either of the Disney properties—The Vineyard Room (call 714-781-3463 for priority seating), which offers upscale cuisine in a grown-up atmosphere; and a gold-country region that is anchored by Grizzly Mountain, an iconic landscape feature that is part of the wet-and-wild whitewater raft ride known as “Grizzly River Run.”

Although California Adventure hasn’t met Disney’s expectations for attendance—the park is currently undergoing renovations to expand its offerings—it is well worth a visit, either in conjunction with Disneyland or on its own. In fact, California Adventure has two of my family’s favorite attractions. “Soarin’ Over California”—suitable for toddlers, grandparents and everyone in between—offers a full sensory experience that combines a mild motion ride (onboard a ski-lift-type vehicle) with a giant-screen film of the most beautiful sights throughout California; the attraction even pipes in scents, so that visitors lose themselves completely in the experience. (Catch a whiff of orange blossoms as you sail over a citrus grove, or hints of pine as you fly above ski slopes.) Also onsite is Disney’s most daring rollercoaster yet: “California Screamin’,” which blasts off from zero to 60 m.p.h. in 5 seconds. This ultra-fast ride featuring an upside-down loop tracing the contours of a giant version of Mickey’s face thrills older children and teenagers, as well as their parents.

There’s plenty for young children and meeker riders in the California Adventure park as well, including a Bug’s Life-themed zone with gentle attractions designed for the 8 and younger set; playful musical entertainment (look for “The Magic of Brother Bear” show); and the inspiring film Golden Dreams, which chronicles the history of California and its most famous citizens. You can also watch tortillas being made at the “Mission Tortilla Factory”; interact with a cartoon character from Finding Nemo in “Turtle Talk with Crush” (this attraction fascinates me, because the animated character actually responds to individuals in the audience); and even learn to draw Mickey and friends in the “Animation Academy,” where you’ll be taught the tricks of the trade by a Disney artist.

California Adventure opens later and closes earlier than Disneyland, and so often my family and I buy Park Hopper passes and move from one park to the next. By lunchtime, when Disneyland is generally filled close to capacity, California Adventure still has breathing room. This park is a good alternative for meals, too, both because it is less crowded than Disneyland—meaning shorter lines to buy food and empty tables on which to eat it—and because there are a number of healthy and delicious dining options. For lunch I like to relax outside with a chicken and apple salad served in a hollowed-out loaf of sourdough bread from the Pacific Wharf Café; patio tables overlook Paradise Bay, which evokes the San Francisco wharf of years past. For a take-with-you snack, Schmoozies whips up vegetarian wraps and fresh fruit smoothies.

Day passes: $56 for children 9 and younger; $66 for adults and children 10 and older. Combine with a trip to Disneyland with a Park Hopper Pass, starting at $81 per day for children under 10.

Downtown Disney

Downtown Disney is conveniently located midway between the two theme parks, and adjacent to the Disneyland Hotel and the Grand Californian Hotel and Spa, and offers eclectic shopping, dining and entertainment. The strictly pedestrian thoroughfare is beautifully landscaped for day visitors and decked out with thousands of glittering lights once the sun sets. [Read Family Vacation Hotels and Resorts for more hotel options in Anaheim.]

You’ll find an enormous World of Disney store, which sells merchandise for every Disney character imaginable—from soaps shaped like Pluto, to pajamas emblazoned with Bambi, to fine collectible porcelain pieces and framed original movie stills from recent hits like Finding Nemo and classics like Snow White. Other shopping treats include the Build-a-Bear Workshop, Basin (a fine bath products outlet), Club Libby Lu (where youngsters can blend their own glittery cosmetics), Sephora (where teenagers and their moms can purchase already formulated glittery cosmetics) and Disney Pin Traders (which offers a bewildering number of character pins to wear and swap).

When my daughter was a toddler, we left the parks before meals and headed to Downtown Disney to grab a bite before returning to the hotel for a nap. Our favorite dining options include Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen, which serves an authentic jambalaya; the Mediterranean Catal Restaurant (and its outdoor Uva Bar, which offers a trio of tiny crème brûlées that are my 12-year-old’s favorite dessert option); and Napolini, which serves a nice selection of pizzas (you can pick one to bring back to your hotel, if the outdoor seating area gets too crowded).

Entertainment options include the famous House of Blues, which features live blues and jazz acts and serves up a lip-smacking plate of ribs as well; the ESPN Sports Zone, replete with more big-screen TVs in one spot than I’ve seen in my life; and the AMC Theater complex, which always offers at least one family selection. Downtown Disney does not require a ticket to gain admission, and so it is popular with locals who want to enjoy the Disney ambiance without the sticker shock. As a consequence, weekend evenings can be crowded, especially with teenagers and young adults. [Read 5 Free Anaheim Attractions for inexpensive options in the area.]

Discovery Science Center

Looking to squeeze a little education into your family vacation to Anaheim? You’ll find it a few miles south, in nearby Santa Ana (2500 N. Main St.; tel. 714-542-2823), at the hands-on Discovery Science Center. You can’t miss the place when driving to Disneyland from the south, because the 100-foot-tall tilting cube that houses the Center sits right off the I-5 freeway. 

Inside you’ll find exhibits that allow children (especially those up to 12 years old) to discover science for themselves by hunting for dinosaur remains in the “Fossils Dig”; riding out a simulated tremor in the “Quake Zone”; or exploring the nature of force and weight by laying on a real bed of nails (my daughter promises this doesn’t hurt!)—among dozens of other intriguing activities.

Also featured is the new “4-D Movie Theater,” which offers a 3-D movie experience along with added sensory effects like fog and wind. Expect to find kid-friendly feature films on dinosaurs and space. (Note that the movie requires an additional ticket, which starts at $3.)

Admission to the Center is $12.95 for adults and $9.95 for youths aged 3-17.

This article was originally published in January 2008 as part of the TravelMuse alpha release. It has been recently updated. 

Destinations: Orange County, Anaheim

Themes: Amusement Parks, Family Travel

Activities: Museums, Parks and Playgrounds

User Comments

Do not overload!! Besides comfortable, broken in shoes and sunscreen and water, I see folks taking way too much 'stuff' into the park with them...I travel with a hip pack...that's it!! If you do want to take 'stuff' get there early and fetch a locker...there are lockers inside and outside the parks...check online for locations...the LESS you carry or put on a stroller the more you don't have to worry can also use the locker for purchases, plus they have locations in the park to hold your purchases until you leave...these are free! Above Happy! there are so few days to have this experience don't let a few jerks mess it up for you!! have fun! I'll see you there!! sunnyd Premium Annual Passholder and Disney VoluntEAR!

Be Prepared! One thing my family learned was the importance of comfortable shoes at Disneyland. And if you wear sandles don't forget sunscreen on your feet! Sunburned feet are the worst!

© 2019     Terms of use and Privacy policy