Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a longtime thrillseeker, arrange the perfect trip with this handy list of 12 top rides and shows.
The genius of Disneyland (AAA.com/disney), beyond the ability to get middle-aged men to walk around in Mickey Mouse–ear hats without a trace of self-consciousness, is to create an immersive experience that’s as enchanting on your first visit as it is on your 50th. Classic rides are updated in ways that make them fresh and relevant. New rides remind us that people come here to get lost in the fantasy. Here’s a quick primer on never-get-old classics and underrated gems for visitors 4 to 84.
Classic: Peter Pan’s Flight
While Fantasyland is knee-deep in fairy-tale rides—Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio, Snow White, Mr. Toad, Storybook Land—nothing rivals Peter Pan’s Flight for pure Disney magic. One of 17 extant attractions that opened with the park in 1955, it still draws huge crowds. You’ll understand why the moment your galleon ship flies up, up, up into the starry sky and over the rooftops of London to Never Land.
Underrated Gem: It’s a Small World
Old Disney hands may think about skipping this ride because it’s both skewed to the younger crowd and virtually impossible to get that song out of your head afterwards. Don’t. All the computer graphics in the world can’t match more than 300 animatronic, costumed dolls from around the world serenading you in various languages as you float down a river. Go at night, when the fantasy cuckoo-clock castle is lit up with thousands of lights.
Classic: Enchanted Tiki Room
Disneyland’s original animatronic sing-along experience hasn’t lost an ounce of its charm over the years, and it’s a great show for all ages. Little ones in particular will get a kick out of these amazingly lifelike talking, dancing, singing macaws, flowers, drummers, and totem poles. At the start of each show, one child gets to summon the lead macaw, Jose, who gets the room rocking with the toe-tapping “Tiki Tiki Tiki Room.” You’ll be singing it all the way home.
Underrated Gem: Mickey’s Toontown playground
Mickey’s Toontown is a cartoon village for preschoolers creatively designed in the overinflated style of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In the stampede to get to the most popular attractions here—Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin and Gadget’s Go Coaster—people seem to overlook the brilliant interactive gag playground. Talking mailboxes, a house you blow up with a giant detonator, a jail cell with bendable bars, manholes that snap at you when you step on them, and an electric company and glass factory whose doors hold fun surprises keep your toddlers laughing themselves silly.
Classic: Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough
With its full-scale turrets, medieval chambers, and working drawbridge, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle looks and feels like the movie come to life. The walk-through tour re-creates the Sleeping Beauty tale using beautiful dioramas modeled on Eyvind Earle’s original 1959 production designs and enhanced by animation effects that include virtual fairy godmothers flitting in and out and menacing guards that react when you touch doors.
Underrated Gem: Disney Princess Fantasy Faire
The Faire is ground zero for the dress-up set, who take a royal walk through storybook alcoves to meet Disney princesses—including Cinderella, Belle, Jasmine, Snow White, and Aurora—and enjoy crafts, face painting, a stage show, and a dance. Kids can even have their hair done up to look like a real princess’s.
Classic: Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters
A hit since it opened in 2005, Buzz Lightyear amounts to “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” with laser guns. Riders hop aboard a rollicking space cruiser and try to hit targets to save toys from evil Zurg’s battery-stealing robots. Glow-in-the-dark sets, self-operated lasers and steering mechanisms, and a scoreboard that tallies your hits are just a few of the bells and whistles that will appeal to the video game generation.
Underrated Gem: Jungle Cruise
Lacking in modern special effects and completely cornball, the Jungle Cruise is also thoroughly entertaining, due in no small part to the riverboat skippers, who dish out zingers nonstop while you float downstream. The cruise takes you past giant elephants, crocodiles, hippos, headhunters, and schools of man-eating piranhas (“Women, you’re safe!”) before depositing you back on shore with a case of the giggles.
Classic: Space Mountain
Even with the addition of Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and the whiplash-inducing Indiana Jones ride, there’s nothing that can touch Space Mountain for sheer out-of-this-world thrills. The combination of a pitch-black dome (which makes it impossible to anticipate turns) and hyperspeed travels through outer space (as a galaxy of stars and asteroids whizzes past you) is an unbeatable adrenaline rush.
Underrated Gem: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
This is the best rollercoaster in the park—fast enough to get your heart pumping but not so scary that Mom needs a Dramamine to ride. The runaway train twists and turns through dark caverns, past waterfalls, and under a mine shaft, slowing down just enough to make you think the worst is over, then sending you down for another plunge when you least expect it.
The Whole Gang
(Instant) Classic: Fantasmic!
If you’re planning a multigenerational trip, Fantasmic! (which debuted in 1992) is the ultimate all-ages crowd-pleaser. Combining music, lasers, lights, sequences from Fantasia projected onto water, fireworks, princes and princesses dancing on floating stages, and a live-action battle between Peter Pan and Captain Hook on a pirate ship that sails down a river, this nighttime show is worth staying up for.
Underrated Gem: Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage
Replacing the long-defunct Submarine Voyage in 2007, Finding Nemo is way more fun than you might expect—with terrific underwater sets and animation that will have grown-ups wondering how they do that and kids reliving their favorite parts of the movie. Riders submerge in a wave of bubbles to the ocean floor, then gaze through portholes as the sub travels past an underwater volcano, ancient ruins, giant clams, talking sea turtles, menacing eels, and of course Nemo and Dory, who have to escape an anglerfish and a lava flow before reaching the safety of the coral reef.
Photography courtesy Disneyland/Garth Vaughan
This article was first published in March 2011 and updated in May 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.