In the midst of planning for my solo California trip, I decided to book a hotel to break-up my drive from Disneyland in Anaheim to San Francisco. I’m so happy I stumbled upon the Madonna Inn in my search. It ended up being a major highlight of my trip.
I’ve been a Disney fanatic for as long as I can remember. I wore out VHS tapes of The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and Cinderella throughout the 1990’s and my mouse love was cemented during my first trip to the Walt Disney World Resort in 1999. I’ve been back to Florida several times and even visited Disneyland Paris this past spring.
So when I started planning my solo trip to California, I just knew I had to visit the original Anaheim park. My two previous stops at the Disneyland Resort had only lasted a couple hours each, so this time I purchased a three-day hopper ticket and booked a room at a nearby motel.
Unsurprisingly, I had the loveliest time. Maybe it was because it was my first time going to one of the Disney parks alone, or perhaps my broken heart simply needed the magic more than ever… For whatever reason, that little park in Anaheim charmed the heck out of me. While Disney World will always be my first park, my recent experience at Disneyland was so wonderful that it just might be my favorite one now. Here’s why it’s my new happy place out of the Disney resorts I’ve been to:
It Has the Classics
Since Disneyland is the first Disney park and the only one Walt lived to see, celebrating the history seems to be more of a priority there than at any of the other parks. Old staples that Walt himself worked on have longer lifespans than they do at other parks (though they have received some updates and seasonal overlays over the years.) In general, attraction changes seem more likely to happen at the newer California Adventure (Tower of Terror turning into Guardians of the Galaxy, Pixar Pier’s arrival for example.)
Many of the opening day and early attractions are still running, and it was neat to experience a few of them in near original condition as a Disney geek. They might not be the most technologically advanced (the animatronics in the Enchanted Tiki Room are practically antiques), but the magic is still there and the nostalgia is palpable. It was particularly exciting to go on some of my dark-ride favorites that are no longer at Disney World, like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Snow White’s Scary Adventures. Who doesn’t love the classics?
It’s A Manageable Size
Disney World’s size is great in terms of being able to house multiple, large parks but it can also feel pretty intimidating if you’re spending less than five days there because there is just so much to do. It can be a hassle to park hop, and I always leave feeling like I didn’t make enough of a dent on my to-do list.
Disneyland Resort, on the other hand, can be fully experienced in two days (even a one day visit is adequate) and it is very easy to go between the parks. The main gates for both are directly across from each other, and Downtown Disney is only a short walk or monorail ride away as well. Only the parking lot requires bus transportation, but I avoided that by walking to the parks from my motel. It was very convenient to get around.
I was able to experience more rides and entertainment over three days than I typically do in Disney World over six days, and I attribute that to the smaller size. I bounced back and forth between the parks each day with ease (I even booked fast passes for rides in a park I wasn’t in, but more on Max Pass later.) Walt may have regretted not obtaining more land for his first park, but bigger isn’t always better. Disneyland is accomplishable, and the quaintness adds to the charm.
The Food is Superb
Disney World may have many more options and variety in their dining (Epcot alone is culinary experience), but the food at Disneyland is special in its own right. The corn dogs from the Little Red Wagon are perfection, the Dole Whips are in an league of their own, and eating in New Orleans Square should be a requirement. That Beignet Monte Cristo at Cafe Orleans (pictured) rocked my world. The sweets at Pooh Corner, a bakery tucked away in Critter Country, actually tasted homemade. The restaurants and snack options at California Adventure are pretty creative too.
The dining team has had over sixty years to perfect some of these dining staples, and it shows in most baked goods and savory snacks. I’m thinking about hot churros as I type this.
Easy Riding with Fast Passes & Max Pass
Disney World may have digitized fast pass first, but I’m a firm believer that Disneyland currently has the best Fast Pass system stateside. Disney World guests can reserve fast passes up to 60 day in advance as part of FastPass+. This is great for planners and anyone staying at a resort hotel but really bad for Florida residents and other on-the-fly visitors.
Some of the more popular Florida rides, like Toy Story Mania, are nearly impossible to reserve day-of because most passes are already taken 60 days in advance. Toy Story Mania in Disneyland is a lot easier to get on, and that’s because the California parks only allow day-of fast pass booking. I believe this is generally fairer to all park guests, particularly considering that many visitors are annual pass holders and California residents. They shouldn’t be blocked out from attractions.
Guests can upgrade their fast pass experience, however, by purchasing Max Pass on the Disneyland app. Max Pass introduced digital fast passes to the California park at an additional cost of $10 a day per guest or $75 per year for pass holders in 2017.
The cost is a bit obnoxious (and it could be prohibitive to larger families on a multi-day stay), but I found it to be really worthwhile, especially considering that WDW’s FastPass+ privileges depend on whether you’re staying on or off site. As soon as I entered a park, I was able to book three fast passes on the app, and all rides that offered fast passes were fair game (no tiered rides like FastPass+ has.) Throughout the day, I would receive an alert whenever I could book a new one, and it was more often than I expected. Max Pass also includes additional perks like unlimited access to Photo Pass.
I was actually surprised at how many fast passes I managed to use throughout the day. I rode e-ticket attractions like Hyperspace Mountain, Radiator Spring Racers, and Splash Mountain with fast passes multiple times, which would never happen at Disney World since they limit the amount of top tier rides you can book. Less waiting, more magic!
The Weather is Ideal
Anaheim’s weather makes visiting Disneyland pleasant. It’s often sunny and warm, and precipitation is rare. It can be a bit cold in the mornings and evenings, but I was fine with just a sweater and didn’t need any additional layering.
Compared to Orlando’s humidity and seasonal hurricanes and the chance of snow in Paris, the weather at Disneyland is a happy medium. Just don’t forget to put on sunscreen (even if it’s overcast!)
Most of the Visitors are Annual Pass Holders
As I mentioned above, the California parks tend to have more annual pass holders visiting than out of state tourists (though this can depend on the time of year.) While overall guest behavior wasn’t noticeably different between the resorts, it was a treat to meet and chat with Los Angeles area locals at Disneyland.
Ranging from young families who visited on a monthly basis to senior citizens who lined up for rope drop every morning, I was among various pass holders while waiting for the gates to open and for Fantasmic! to start. I quickly sensed that Disneyland has a homey, comfortable vibe that makes it truly unique. This makes moving to the west coast and becoming an annual pass holder myself all the more tempting!
I’m so glad I included a multi-day stay at the Disneyland Resort on my California trip. If you haven’t been to Disneyland yet, I highly encourage you to check it out! It may just become your new happy place too.
I learned a lot on my eight day journey. Read on for some tips that could help your first solo travel experience go smoothly.
More Independence, More Responsibility
One of the best parts of solo travel is that it can really make you feel independent. I alone made my California adventure happen, and that was super fulfilling.
It is important though to remember that there is a downside to assuming full responsibility while traveling. There is no one to switch off with, no one to rely on but yourself, and this factor must be considered in the planning stages.
An example from my recent trip: A lot of time was spent driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back again. In total, I spent about 15 hours driving, with most of it happening right in the middle of my trip. I did not consider the toll that hours of driving in a short period of time would take on my body. My back and hips were not happy to sit for so long. It would have been more doable had I been sharing driving responsibilities or if I had spaced out the time better (more planned stops, less rush to reach destinations, etc.)
The increased responsibilities should not dissuade you from trying solo travel, just be sure to think about the various ways that being alone can impact your plans.
Take Care of Your Feet
My favorite way to explore a new place is by simply walking around, and I bet other solo travelers love to do this as well. Walking through a new city among locals makes me feel present and active (as opposed to sticking to a tour bus.) I take long urban hikes through Manhattan often, and tend to reach 10,000 steps a day easily. So I should’ve been all good to walk all over California, right?
Wrong. My feet took a beating on this trip. Bad blisters developed on the balls of both of my feet right on my first full day in San Francisco and significantly impacted my mood and energy.
The horrible sight of my mad feet came as a surprise to me at first: I had done significantly more walking in Paris than in California and didn’t get any blisters over there. Why weren’t my feet cooperating now with less distance per day?
I simply did not think about my feet enough when packing. In Paris, I had two main pairs of shoes, boots and sneakers, that I switched between. On this trip, I only had my sneakers and a pair of flip flops for the beach, which was a big mistake. I should’ve packed one more pair of real shoes to alternate my sneakers with. I also packed thicker socks for Paris while my California socks were thinner based on temperatures. Thick, athletic socks can help your feet handle the activity better. I certainly learned my lesson!
Obviously foot health isn’t only important to solo travelers, but being alone made my blisters particularly frustrating. It was terrible to be in so much pain and not have someone to who could make a run to the closest pharmacy for me.
If you’ll be spending a lot of time on your feet, prioritize your shoe and sock choices on your packing list, and consider investing in aids like gel insoles or moleskin to prevent foot issues ahead of time.
Make Your Safety a Priority
This relates to the first tip, but deserves some additional attention. Solo traveling is a vulnerable act, particularly for women, people of color, and queer people. All travel comes with risks, of course, but those risks can feel magnified without having someone to watch your back.
Do what you can to feel safe by preparing yourself for worst-case situations that are specific to your destination. I definitely felt safer traveling in California than in Paris, simply because I was still in my home country and am a native English speaker, but I still kept safety in mind throughout my west coast trip.
A few Cali-specific examples: I tried to keep my rental car parked in safe spots and made sure to not leave anything visible from the car windows. I had several friends in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, and I made sure that my lodging sites had a front desk attendee at all times in case of an emergency. I did my research on the laws related to recreational cannabis before visiting a dispensary.
Don’t forget general travel safety tips, including carrying multiple copies of ID in different locations, wearing clothing that blends in with the general population, and showing your itinerary to someone you trust, to name a few.
If you’re traveling to a place where you don’t have any contacts, I highly encourage you to connect to someone local online ahead of time. Having some sort of emergency contact can help you feel safer, and you could end up making a new friend who you can meet up with during your travels. Women can check out this Facebook group – it’s been a tremendous resource for me and most members are very friendly.
Interact With Others
It can be very easy to isolate yourself while solo traveling, but I highly encourage you to connect with people around you while on the road alone. Whether they are locals or travelers as well, simply talking to other people now and then can add some memorable moments to your travels.
Let the locals tell you their favorite eateries and what tourist traps to skip. They can be a more authentic resource than the review you found through Google, and you’ll learn about your destination on a different level.
Obviously keep stranger danger in mind and protect yourself. Consider chatting with your bartender, cab driver, or hotel clerk if reaching out to a random person makes you nervous. I chatted with plenty of cast members and fellow park-goers at Disneyland, and doing so made my visit even more special.
Go With the Flow
Despite having made some ambitious plans for my trip I had to alter many of them for a variety of reasons. I didn’t get to walk through Golden Gate Park, ride a trolley, or climb any of the staircases like I had planned due to my foot situation. The stops in-between San Francisco and Los Angeles were also greatly altered simply because I did not want to tack on any additional driving hours when I was already feeling weary. I originally had wanted to experience more of the coast, but the closures on Highway 1 and the extra time ended up deterring me. I stuck with quick snack and bathroom stops on my drive back to LA instead of hitting up towns like Santa Barbara, Cambria, and Ventura.
It didn’t feel great to change and cancel my plans as a type-a person, but following my intuition was the correct thing to do while solo traveling. Pushing myself to complete all of my plans would have exhausted me and taken the fun out of it. I wouldn’t have fully enjoyed the steps in San Francisco with the pain in my feet and my body was definitely happy to spend more time at the Santa Monica beach than on the highway.
Let your plans change. Who knows, you might end up doing something else that is equally as memorable. I left Disneyland park early because I was tired and ended up watching the fireworks from my motel. In San Francisco, I let myself spend some extra time reading Ginsberg’s poetry in the City Lights Bookstore as a break from walking and I thoroughly enjoyed that. I would even suggest leaving some blocks of time open in your schedule to allow for some on-the-go improvisation. You could stumble upon something wonderful or gain a local perspective.
Did you miss out on something that was very important to you? Use it as a reason to visit that place again in the future. There’s always next time! Highway 1 won’t have closures forever, and one day I’ll drive the whole route.
Stay tuned for more posts about my California trip soon!
I’m beyond excited to embark on my first California solo trip on Wednesday, May 30th! Visiting California as an adult has been a deep desire of mine for the last few years (I visited Los Angeles and San Diego when I was a kid), and it’s finally happening!
On this specific trip, I’ll be hitting up the Los Angeles area, San Francisco, and a few spots in between (generally near the coast) in a rental car. This trip will last for eight days with my return on the evening of June 7th.
I’ve only booked a few things and intend to keep it that way. Besides knowing what area I’ll generally be in on most days and having hotel/motel/hostel accommodations, I’m going to wing most of my plans and see where my feet take me. My spirit is the most engaged whenever I’m exploring a new place and following my intuition. This adventure, therefore, is a pure act of self-love.
Check out my dreamy to-do list for this trip specifically. I know I will not be able to do everything on this list in eight days, but hey, there’s always next time! It’s chronological, so I’ll be starting in Anaheim first, looping up to San Fran, and ending back in LA. Anything in bold has been completed! Also keep in mind that I’m purposefully skipping many of the touristy LA attractions, I did them when I was younger aim to avoid them this time around. I’ll be sure to update this post upon my return!
My Los Angeles ↔︎ San Francisco + In Between To-Do List
Anaheim: Disneyland Park & California Adventure
Be at a park for rope drop/park opening – Done at Disneyland and California Adventure
Enjoy a dole whip at the Enchanted Tiki Room – Done, YUM!
Go on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
Take a moment to look at Walt’s apartment
Ride the mountains: Splash, Space, Big Thunder, and the Matterhorn – Did Space once, and all the others twice
Eat the Monte Cristo at Cafe Orleans
Touch the Apple near Snow White’s Scary Adventure
Get a queso cone in Cars Land
Explore Sleeping Beauty’s Castle
Befriend a cast member
Ride the monorail
Stay at a park until closing
Visit Downtown Disney late at night
San Luis Obispo:
Stay overnight at the Madonna Inn
Sit by the pool at the Madonna Inn
Visit Pismo Beach
Hike along the hills at sunrise and/or sunset
Check out Bubblegum Alley
Stop by Mission Plaza
Say hi to the seals at Fisherman’s Wharf
Listen to the Wave Organ
Look at the Painted Ladies
Eat in Chinatown
Take a ride on the trolley
Climb the mosaic staircase in Golden Gate Heights
Visit the City Lights Bookstore
Hang out at Haight and Ashbury
Watch the sun rise at Marshall’s beach
Take a whiff at the Conservatory of Flowers
Check out the Mission
Go to the Walt Disney Family Museum
See the Golden Gate Bridge
Walk Land’s End Trail
Learn more about Harvey Milk in the Castro area
Drink an Irish coffee from the Buena Vista
Check out nearby cities like Berkley and Oakland
Stop by Redwoods Regional Park
Los Angeles Area:
Visit Marina del Rey
Stop by Venice Beach and explore the canals
Go to Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Santa Monica
Ride the ferris wheel on the Santa Monica pier
Eat ice cream from Salt and Straw
Climb the rocks at El Matador Beach
Check out Little Toyko
Hang out in the LA Arts District
Visit LACMA, the Broad Museum, and the Getty Center
Watch the sun rise at Zuma Beach
Walk on Melrose Avenue
In Between Options:
Drive along parts of Highway 1
Go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Walk around Davis
Stop by Solvang for a Danish experience
Visit Moonstone Beach Park in Cambria
Check out the County Courthouse in Santa Barbara
Watch whales in the Pacific
Walk through Ventura Harbor Village
Venture into wine country
Take a trip to the Channel Islands
Is anything missing from my list? Leave your suggestions in the comments!