A Day at Disney California Adventure | First-Timer Tips & Our Top Picks

Hey! It’s good to be back. ICYMI, we were away on vacation in California all of last week. We had THE best time, like one of the best vacations that we’ve ever taken (and the first new vacation in two years 😉 ). I’ll be reliving and reminiscing about this one for a while, so obviously I’m going to share a few posts about it here. Part one of our trip started in Anaheim at Disneyland – did you really think we would pass that up?! – so that’s where I’ll start! First up is our day at Disney California Adventure along with first-timer tips and our top picks in the park!

Disney California Adventure Park Pier - MaxPass photo
First things first – where we stayed! We opted for the Best Western Plus Park Place Inn. Everything I read while booking this trip said that hotel location was key for Disneyland. Well, you can’t beat location with this hotel! It’s literally a 4-minute walk to the front gate! Quite the change from Disney World where we rely on bus for practically everything. Besides that, the hotel was clean and included breakfast every morning that we were there. We also opted to use the pool deck and hot tub one of the days; while this area leaves a lot to be desired, it serves it’s purpose and again, it was clean. All that matters.

We started the day bright and early. Luckily for us, we gained two hours with the time change so getting up early was a piece of cake – we were wide awake by 5 A.M.! Anyway, being at the park for rope drop was the best decision and leads me to our first first-timer tip:

Get there early!

Crowds are low, wait times are minimal, and the temperature is just right. Plus, FastPasses – both hard copy and mobile, more on that in a sec – have the potential to run out by noontime, so it’s good to jump on it. We saw everything that we wanted to see and rode all our top-priority rides within those first couple hours. It was glorious, let me tell you. And, for our second tip:

Buy the MaxPass!

No MagicBands? No mobile FastPass reservations unless you pay extra? WHAT?!

If you’re used to Disney World like we are, then all the articles to help you prep for this system can get pretty confusing. Well, I’m here to put your mind at ease – it’s not as complicated as the Internet makes it seem. MaxPass is an extra $15 per-day, per-person, and you have to wait to purchase until you’re inside the park. But, it is worth it! This is how you’re able to make mobile FastPass reservations opposed to running all over the park(s) to the hard copy kiosks. Unlike Disney World, you only can make one FastPass reservation at a time, but it then tells you what time you can schedule your next one – usually 30 minutes to an hour later. There’s a lot of posts out there about how to strategically schedule all your FastPasses, but we just reserved what was most important to us and went with the flow with the rest! Getting to the park early allows a good mix of FastPass and walk-on.

Also note that the MaxPass fee includes ride photos and any photos you have taken by professionals throughout the park(s). I wrote a whole post about why MemoryMaker is worth the investment, and that still applies here.

Okay, okay – enough of that for a while. Onto the good stuff – the actual park! The best way to describe California Adventure is that it’s the lovechild of Epcot and Hollywood Studios. And, the most Hollywood-esque part in all the park is of course …

Cars Land!

Welcome to Cars Land sign at Disney California Adventure MaxPass photo
In all honesty, Cars has never been one of my favorite Pixar movies, but I’m 100% now obsessed with this part of Disney! You guys – THERE’S EVEN A REAL-LIFE LIGHTNING MCQUEEN. He talks, he drives, he poses for pictures. Seriously, leave it to Disney. I was dying laughing in awe of the whole thing.

Lightning McQueen at Cars Land at Disney California Adventure
There’s so much to see and take in in this portion of the park. The colors, signs, details – all of it basically is an Instagram dream (if you’re into that). Otherwise, there’s just a lot of great spots for fun, unique photos.

signs wall in Cars Land at Disney California AdventureDisney California Adventure Cars Land - Flo's Cafe Signentrance to Flo's Cafe at Disney California Adventure Cars Land
Radiator Springs is the hot ride these days. I’m glad that we snagged a FastPass for this because it’s essentially a character-themed version of Epcot’s Test Track. It was cute and fun, but NOT worth a 120-minute standby wait. No, sir.

Moving on from Cars Land for a bit, it’s time for another first-timer tip:

Use Mobile Order!

Ryan and I can’t believe how many people don’t utilize this service. And, it’s not just at the restaurants – a lot of the snack kiosks have this feature available, too. You can view the menu and order everything straight from the app on your phone, and then you simply let them know at the counter that you’re there so your food can be prepared. No lines, no hassle! Ryan usually will go pick up the food while I find us a place to sit. See, teamwork at its best.

Now, for our very favorite thing EVER at Disney …

The Animation Academy

I had read a few things about this online before our trip, but nothing does this justice until you experience it in person. I’m kind of considering starting a petition to bring this to Disney World in Florida.

First off, the inside of this building is simply amazing. The huge screens play scenes from all the beloved Disney movies, along with the sketches that brought everything to life. It’s beautiful, magical, and one of the best places to cool off in the A/C.

The actual animation class is just the best. There’s a sign outside the room that provides information about what character drawing class is available at what time if you’re looking to do someone specific. Otherwise, the element of surprise is just as fun!

Inside the Animation Academy at Disney California Adventure Park
Ryan and I opted to do this twice – yes, we loved it that much – and we got to try our hand at Tigger and Goofy. For barely being able to draw a stick figure, I think we did pretty well!

Disney California Adventure Animation Academy - TiggerDisney California Adventure Animation Academy - Goofy
And bonus – you get a free Disney souvenir out of your drawing. If Disney wants to give you something for free, YOU TAKE IT.

Holy moly. I know this is turning into a novel, but stay with me! We’re almost there.

Like I mentioned earlier, it was about this time that we decided to take a midday break to go relax by the pool for a bit. Our hotel pool was nothing fancy, but it got the job done for spending some time in the sun with a book.

We also ate dinner at La Brea Bakery in Downtown Disney, and it was delicious! I opted for the Penne Pomodoro with Italian Sausage, and Ryan got the Oven-Roasted Chicken. We both scarfed down our meals faster than what probably is appropriate, but it’s always refreshing to have a decent meal away from park food.

With full, satisfied stomachs, I give you our last first-timer tip:

Experience the park at night!

The park is like a whole new world (pun definitely intended) at night! Especially Cars Land. Try to get there around sunset, and you’ll get to experience the Doo Wop song and the lights flickering on one-by-one just like in the movie!

Disney California Adventure Cars Land Main Street at NightLuigi's Tires in Disney California Adventure Cars Land at Night
And, don’t forget to head over to the pier to see the iconic Mickey Mouse Ferris wheel in all it’s nighttime glory.

Disney California Adventure Pixar Pier at NightDisney California Adventure Pier at Night
On that note, we’re done! If you made it to the end of this post, you deserve some sort of Disney medal. I’ll get working on that. BUT, in the meantime thanks for letting me start to share about our California vacation! I hope our experience and Disney California Adventure first-timer tips help you with any upcoming travel plans of your own.

Up next – Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom! Check back next week!

Leave a Comment


  1. 5.8.19
    Rachel said:

    Disney World used to have the animation studio! I have a vivid memory of it from our big Disney trip when I was in high school. I wonder why they took it away? I love your love for Disney!!

    • 7.21.19
      KP said:

      Yes! Back in before 2012 and 2013(maybe a bit longer) they had the Animation Academy in WDW(In Hollywood studios where Star wars Meet and greet is is where they did it for a long while). We missed that when they took it away!

      • 7.22.19
        Karly said:

        So disappointing that they took it away!

    • 7.22.19
      Karly said:

      I wish they never got rid of it! It was the most the most fun we had during our two days at the parks. And, thanks! I know adults at Disney is silly to some, but we do enjoy it.

  2. 4.24.19
    Cara said:

    So glad you all had such a great time! Love all the photos and the animation academy looks awesome! Also thanks for the heads up on the MaxPass.

    • 4.26.19
      Karly said:

      It was such a fun day, we’re so glad that we were able to go. Love the Animation Academy!

  3. 4.20.19
    Kristy said:

    I can’t wait to get my medal in the mail! Lol I loved all your pics and especially the ones from the animation academy, that is so cool!!!

    • 4.23.19
      Karly said:

      It was seriously so neat! We kept our drawings- maybe I’ll frame them, lol.

  4. 4.17.19
    Biana said:

    First of all your outfit for Disney was perfect! Love all these tips and your hotel location could not have been more perfect! xo, Biana –BlovedBoston

    • 4.18.19
      Karly said:

      Thank you! It was quite a change to wear a jacket and/or jeans at some point during the day – usually in Florida it’s so hot!

  5. 4.17.19
    Debbie said:

    I’m so glad you two had so much fun on your trip! You have really become an expert on all things Disney!

    • 4.18.19
      Karly said:

      We sure love all things Disney!