Road Trip to Southern California & Disneyland from Utah
Once a year, I get to make a trip to an out-of-state national park and write up a crazy detailed trip itinerary for the website.
However, this year we decided to treat our little ones to their first road trip to Disneyland!
Why am I sharing it here? Going to Disneyland is an easy road trip for Utah families and most will go at least once, if not every year. You don’t need to be based in Utah for the itinerary to work for you though.
Being the outdoorsy family that we are, this itinerary is unique because I also show you the best Southern California beaches to hit while you are there.
So! Want some tips to road trip to Disneyland from Utah with your littles? Want to know the best tidepools, hikes and beaches to visit while in Southern California? Then read on my friend.
Here is where I let you know that this is a loooong post, because I include lots of details when making my trip report itineraries. I do this because I refer to these posts myself whenever I plan on repeating a trip and I refer family and friends to them that ask advice. I will update this post with pictures soon!
We are the kind of people that come home from vacations and need a day to recover because we pack our trips full of adventures. I cannot stand hanging out at a resort and reading all day by the pool.
That being said, the kids tend to slow us down a bit and I’ve learned to balance the right amount of adventure with realistic limitations for the kids.
I hope this trip report will help your family get the most out of So Cal so you can make plenty of happy memories!
Part One: The Drive & Fun Stops Between Utah and California
I am gonna skip the whole “what to pack” and jump into where to stop on your drive between Utah and Southern California. (Feel free to skip this part if you plan on flying.)
We broke up our drive halfway between Utah County (where we are) and Carlsbad (where we were staying for the week).
Our kids are excellent road trippers, but I think about five hours of driving is not only their happy max but also the driver’s happy max.
With that in mind, we chose to reserve an Airbnb in Las Vegas for the drive out and back. I love using Airbnb (although I was a little weary of it at first) because we can get slightly better deals than we would at a hotel.
Breaking up the drive will also give you time to actually enjoy yourselves and make some fun stops along the way.
One of my favorite stops between Utah County and Las Vegas is St. George’s Crack!
A seriously cool mini adventure for the kids with the added bonus of on site bathrooms, drinking fountains (to fill up your water bottles) and a scenic garden to stretch the legs.
LOVED this stop. Don’t skip it.
I haven’t gotten around to doing a write-up on it here on Wanderookie, but here is a link to The Salt Project’s post.
After having lunch in St. George we continued our drive. Should the kids need another break, mark Beaver on your route.
Beaver has a couple of places you can stop for food (Wendy’s, Burger King, Denny’s etc.), fuel for the car or just stop for an ice cream treat at the infamous Cache Valley Creamery.
We stayed at John’s Airbnb guest home in Las Vegas. It was very clean, had a full kitchen, located in a good neighborhood and had space for the kids to run around after being stuck in the car for so long. (It even has a private pool, but we were traveling out of pool season.)
For the second leg of our journey, we made a quick stop at the nearby Taco Bell for breakfast before jumping on the highway again (fyi there is also a Target nearby where we stayed in Vegas).
Between Las Vegas and Southern California, the drive is pretty dull. Baker was our stop for food and fuel. There is actually a Taco Bell (with a seating area and decent bathroom) attached to the gas station in Baker.
Also in Baker you will find a bizarre “Alien Fresh Jerky” place. The building is made to look like a space rover with Aliens in the cockpit. We didn’t actually go in or sample the jerky, but I have heard it is good.
Also between Vegas and So Cal is the commercial Calico Ghost Town and a “Disneyland of Gas Stations” and more. We were just set on getting to our resort the second day so we didn’t explore as much, however you can read about some other interesting stops here.
Quick Tip: I was a bit worried about keeping the kids happy and comfortable on our long drive. It ended up being a lot easier than I thought. I did love having some movies loaded on our ipad for them and having coloring supplies in the car. I packed some toys, but feel like they were more of a nuisance and would skip packing toys in the future. I liked another bloggers suggestion to get a few “surprise” items to give them during different parts of the trip. This could be a new coloring book, game for their gameboy or movie.
Part Two: Where to Stay in Southern California
Like I said, we are big fans of Airbnb. However, in Southern California we took advantage of a family member’s extra RCI week in Carlsbad (near San Diego). Honestly though, I am not a big fan of resorts and if I was to do it all again, I would stay at a hotel or Airbnb instead.
I would actually stay in Anaheim for the Disneyland days next time and stay at a beach house near San Diego for the beach days.
I think the Best Western is one of the closest hotels to Disneyland, but below are a few more “budget friendly” Airbnb options too.
Obviously, I did not stay at those locations, but I wish I had! There are fancier Airbnb options you could find as well and you can find them using a quick location search on the website.
You can use my above link to get $40 Airbnb credit for your first trip fyi.
I did a TON of research into the different outdoor recreation options near San Diego and Anaheim.
Some adventures looked SWEET on Instagram, but actually were not too kid friendly or accessible. Those included the Ho Chi Min trail, the abandoned Laguna pools and the Pirate Tower.
We did find a hike that lead to a beach with gold flecks in the sand that also swirled in the water. A beach with some sweet rock features and tide pools. A beach with some rad surf lessons on site, sand dollars and dolphins. And finally, a cove with sea lions, turquoise waters and sea caves kayak tours.
Sounds fun right?
It was! And I scoff at any family that goes to Southern Cali just for theme parks.
Read more about each of our favorite Southern California Beaches with directions below:
Torrey Pines Reserve: This reserve caught my eye because it has multiple hiking trails and is located next to the ocean. Catch the street parking outside the reserve parking lot and you don’t even have to pay the day-use fee! We hiked up the Torrey Pines road which connects to the trail system at the top. The various trails will take you to different scenic lookout points that jut out on cliffs next to the ocean. We took a trail that lead all the way down to the beach (catching a few of the lookouts along the way) and then followed the beach all the way back to our car, making it a loop. My favorite part was actually the beach itself. It was the only beach I visited with some sparkling black sand interspersed and GOLD FLECKS throughout. I am not sure what the gold flecks were, but they also swirled in the clear water. They were beautiful and I told Riley is was a pixie dust beach. The kids had fun splashing in the waves and looking for shells which made it an all day adventure. Next time, I might just stick to the beach and skip the trail. I think renting a surf board somewhere nearby and letting the kids play on this pixie dust beach would be perfect.
La Jolla Cove & Mission Beach: We combined these two adjacent locations in one day. We started at La Jolla Cove to see the turquoise water and playful sea lions. You could actually walk along a scenic ocean view boardwalk between La Jolla Cove and the Children’s Wall beach area. I read about a place called Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave in this area as well, but I tend to skip overpriced tours (tourist traps) ever since the underground tour in Seattle… You can always check it out though. I think it would be cooler to book a cheap $30 sea cave kayaking adventure. We didn’t do this because the kids were too little (I think your youngest has to be five), but it is on my list for next time.
After exploring the cove area, we headed to Mission beach (with a quick stop at Little Caesars for a cheap lunch). Mission beach is your standard beach with good sand for castles and whole sand dollars and other shells to collect. Dolphins also frequent this beach in the summer. We specifically went to Mission beach for a surf lesson from Surfari Surf School. I treated Zach to a lesson for being our trip driver.
Zach had always wanted to add surfing to his list of “board sports” and these lessons were the best reviewed with the best rates in the area. He lucked out big time, because we went in November when it was slow and he ended up with a private lesson! He also got to swim with the dolphins that stopped by (out of season).
I watched the kids on the beach while Zach had his one hour lesson. Then once his instruction was over, he got to keep the board for another hour of practice. Riley had fun hopping on the board to “surf” while dad helped her.
I would definitely recommend snagging a surf lesson from Surfari surf school if you are in the San Diego area. They even teach kids as young as five I believe. (This is not an ad, I just really loved them.)
Corona Del Mar Beach: This was the last beach we visited in So Cal and it is located closer to Anaheim area (in case you are staying over there). I chose Corona Del Mar beach because of its cool tide pools and rock features. (I also discovered it had nice bathrooms, showers and volleyball nets.) To visit the tide pools, you will have to plan your visit for low tide so check the tide charts.
There are also some sailboats coming in and out of the port in this area if you just want to chill on the beach and watch them go by. I noticed the Newport pier farther down the beach too (you would need to drive to it).
Quick Tip: If you want a local tip, park along the street at “Inspiration Point” and walk down to the beach from there to avoid the day-use fee in the main parking lot. It is a steep paved descent, but I managed with the stroller. After we were finished at the beach, our driver (Zach) took our gear back to the car and I walked the kids down to the showers and bathrooms to change. Zach then picked us up at the entrance to the paid parking area (next to the bathrooms) – pretty nifty.
I also read a little bit about Little Corona Del Mar being pretty, but our Aunt that lives in Cali said the beach sand was made up of a lot of broken shells…making it painful to walk on.
There were even more beautiful beaches and cliffs we didn’t have time to explore, but I love the ones we did get to and would do them all again.
If you have a favorite family-friendly beach or tide pool I should check out next time, then please let me know in the comments!
Ok! Now it is time for the Disneyland breakdown of the trip. These tips are from a young family on a budget perspective. There is a lot to cover, so get comfortable.
What to Ride with Littles?
Let me make this easy for you and just give you my ideal two-day Disneyland itinerary. Note that we bought our tickets using Get Away Today for the best deals (unless you have a friend that works at Disney).
We went with a two-day park hopper ticket (though next time…it might make sense to just do one park a day to save a little more). We went to Disneyland solo, had a rest day and then went again the second time with the extended family.
You will not get to every ride in the park in two days, but I don’t think every ride is worth riding. I thought two days were plenty with little kids in tow and I was grateful for the rest day in-between.
On both days, we got to the park at 8 AM because (1) I read that you get more rides in during the first two hours at Disney than the rest of the day combined, (2) we wanted to avoid the California traffic jam so we left at 6 AM.
We parked at the Toy Story parking lot (which our local friends recommended as the least crowded parking lot) and took the shuttle into the park.
Here were our favorite rides at Disneyland:
( no * means there was NO height requirement so the babe could ride)
(** means there was a 40 inch height requirement which our 4 year old squeaked by with thick shoes)
(***means there was a 42 inch height requirement)
RS ( means Rider Switch was available for that ride – I will explain rider switch more below)
FP (means I would fastpass this ride or maxpass it if you have the phone app – I will discuss this more below too)
Star Tours**RS (at least three different versions, so repeat if possible)
Space Mountain**RS (Adults liked Space Mountain and Riley was tall enough at 40 inches but she hated it)
Peter Pan’s Flight – FP
Mad Tea Party Teacups
Dumbo (I would have my kids choose between this and the Astro Orbiter in Tomorrowland)
King Arthur’s Carousel (there is another carousel under construction in California Adventure on the pier that might be more fun than this, especially at night)
It’s A Small World – FP (fastpass this if you want a sit down break…but only if it is Christmas-themed)
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad**RS FP
Steamboat Ride (If you don’t have time for a relaxing ride then try the secret eating nook with a good view of the lit-up boat at night. It is up a staircase near the entrance to Big Thunder Mountain with a sign that says “Hard Goods Only.”)
Pirates of the Caribbean
Jungle Cruise – FP
Indiana Jones – RS FP (Our kids could not ride this because they weren’t 46 inches so we FP and used RS. If you don’t have a FP for it then use the single rider line)
We skipped Toon Town since we saw Mickey in the parades and skipped water rides since it wasn’t hot and we didn’t want the kids uncomfortable. We did the Buzz LightYear ride and thought it was so-so, but if you have a buzz fan than go for it. Get a FP for it, though.
Rides not mentioned on my favorites list I would skip. I didn’t like the Haunted Mansion with the Nightmare Before Christmas theme. A lot of people love it, though, so that is up to your preferences.
This list will easily take up a whole day on an average traffic day at Disneyland.
Below is my list for California Adventure Favorites (same key as above):
Goofy’s Sky Coaster** (42 inches but Riley got on somehow and loooved it)
Tower of Terror – Guardians of the Galaxy* – RS FP (your little one may not like the drops so you can use the single rider line if they want to skip it)
(Walking the pier at night is super pretty, but skip the zephyr and ferris wheel.)
Cars Land Racers – RS FP
Soaring Over the World* (Riley loved this, but I wasn’t a big fan)
Incredicoaster – RS FP (48 inch height requirement, but use RS (jump in the single rider line) and have the littles ride the carousel next to it while you wait)
(Next time I might try the Toy Story Midway Mania instead of the Buzz Lightyear ride since they are similar.)
Shows are all at California Adventure:
Frozen at the Hyperion was an hour long break that was good and entertaining!
Paint the Night Parade was cool, but you need to find a spot early.
What is the difference between a Fastpass a Maxpass?
So they are basically the same thing, but with maxpass you pay $10 a person and you can do it all on your phone rather than sending a runner with your paper tickets to the physical booth for a fastpass. We tried out both ways and didn’t see a big value in paying for the Maxpass even with the free professional photos.
Quick Tip: I would definitely download the Disneyland app. This app will allow you to check the ride times on all the rides so you can snag a popular one when it is unusually short.
I kinda felt like the maxpass was tricky because we would maxpass stuff in different lands, but find that we needed to hurry over for our Fastpass time slot before being done with the rides in our current area. That is why I would just go to each land and fastpass the most popular ride when you are there.
What is Rider Switch and how does it work?
Rider Switch is Disney’s solution to making the park more fun for young families. I think it works best when combined with a Fastpass for the same ride so your younger kids aren’t waiting too long for you to sneak in a thrill ride.
Basically, you will go up the the employee or “cast member” at the ride entrance and ask for a rider a Rider Switch pass. They will scan up to three tickets with an immediate Fastpass clearance (to be used right when the first half of your group returns from riding the ride).
Riley basically got to ride all the 40 inch rides twice, which was also nice because both parents got to experience her reactions.
Keep in mind: not all the rides at Disneyland have a Rider Switch option – only rides that can be Fastpassed can use rider switch. And FYI – not all rides can be Fastpassed fyi (that is why I mention exactly when to Fastpass and/or use rider switch above).
Part Five: Best Places to Eat at Disneyland
I try to strike a healthy balance between sticking to a budget and having a little fun eating out.
Disneyland food is expensive. A sit-down, waiter-service restaurant will run you $30-60 a plate. I was lied to and told you could split a plate at the Blue Bayou (inside Pirates of the Caribbean) and it would feed you both. Not so.
I would avoid the sit-down restaurants, because the other options are just as fun anyway. The other options will average about $13 a person (half for a kids meal).
I researched the best-reviewed, budget-friendly places to eat in Disneyland and came up with the below list.
Alien Pizza Planet: Cute atmosphere located in Tomorrowland next to Space Mountain. A group could go ride Space Mountain with RS, while half the party starts on lunch or dinner. Order the whole pizza if you have a big group to feed. We fed five adults and 2 kids on one pizza plus a popular Count Down Chicken Fusilli pasta that we shared as a side (ask for an extra cup of sauce). I heard that the pizza was bad, but I think it was good. I obviously wouldn’t pay $40 for it normally, but it is a better deal than a by-the-slice purchase and the best deal in Disneyland for a group as large as ours. I would just get the pasta if you have a small group (two pastas would have filled a couple and two young kids). FYI, they will wrap any leftover pizza slices in foil for you if you ask. Water cups are free. Location: Tomorrowland.
Dole Whip from the Tiki Room Hut: This makes a refreshing treat to share at $6. These treats are famous, so I feel like you have to try it once. Location: Adventureland.
Stage Door Cafe: Supposedly a quicker line for the famous Disneyland hand-dipped corndogs (around $9 each with chips). We didn’t eat here (since I thought a burger and fries was a better deal for just a dollar or two more), but it is another budget friendly option. They also sell kid-friendly chicken tenders or a chicken wrap for a hungrier parent. Location: Frontierland.
Corndog Castle: Same hand-dipped corndogs as the Stage Door Cafe above. Location: Paradise Pier.
Flo’s V8 Cafe: If you happen to be in Cars Land at night when it is all lit up and you have a big Cars fan…check out Flo’s for dinner. They have your basic burgers with steak fries for around $13 ($8 for kid meals) plus a deluxe fried chicken meal for $16 or club sandwich options somewhere in-between. We had the burgers (we bought three regulars with fries and had the kids splits one). Nothing amazing. The location is fun, but I preferred Pizza Planet’s food. Still a good budget-friendly option at Disneyland (similar to the Hungry Bear Diner in Frontierland at Disney). Location: Cars Land.
Smokejumpers: Slightly fancier burgers, chicken sandwiches, BBQ and chicken tenders. We traded fancier burgers so the kids could eat at Flo’s, but this place has good reviews and similar prices as well. Location: Grizzly Peak Airfield.
Overall, our plan at Disneyland was to eat breakfast before arriving. Pack a simple lunch (you could grab Subway sandwiches to split or make your own.) and then eat dinner at the park.
I packed snacks like goldfish, kettle corn and apple sauce packets for the kids along with water bottles. I wish I had packed a bag of cotton candy too since my daughter kept seeing it everywhere and asking for some (I kept distracting her lol).
Quick Tip: Disneyland strives to be family-friendly (despite what you might think from their ticket prices). In the park, you will find “Child Care Stations” where you can grab extra diapers, wipes, etc. You can also get a little privacy for nursing if you want or warm up some water for formula babes. We didn’t use the stations, but I wrote down their locations on my phone. These stations are also where they take all lost children found in the park until their parents come to get them. In Disneyland you will find the Child Care Station at the end of Main Street (it is marked by a pacifier on the map). In California Adventure, you will find one next to the Ghirardelli chocolate shop.
Lastly, be sure to grab a free souvenir from Disneyland’s City Hall! I got a free “My First Time at Disneyland” pins for the kids to wear plus a map of the park (I took notes on the map of what the kids loved vs. hated).
And that’s Disneyland for us! Next time, I think I would splurge for a place within walking distance (or at least in Anaheim). This is mainly because my kids passed out at 9 PM (which is fine for a weekday), but Disneyland at night is my favorite and the park stays open till midnight on the weekends. I would have preferred to have the kids nap in the afternoon and come back fully charged for a super late night at Disneyland when everything is lit up.
We are probably more of the every 5-7 years at Disneyland sort of people…but it was definitely a fun trip to take while Riley was still the “believing” age.
I like talking money, because almost no one else does. Here is a simple breakdown of our costs for this entire vacation. (This is just to give you an idea, your car may have different gas mileage than ours, etc.)
Fuel: $197 (in a 2015 Sonata)
Food: $292 (includes eating-out and groceries for the week)
Toll Roads: $16 (you pay online now)
Disney Parking: $40 ($20 a day)
Resort Fees (parking plus lame activities): $132
Disney Tickets: $750 (for two-day park-hopper tickets for two adults and one child plus a free baby)
AirBNB: (Free credits, but two nights would have cost about $210)
RCI Resort: ~$250? (reserved this a year ago so I can’t remember exactly)
Total: $1638 (more if we didn’t have the Airbnb credit)
If that price tag looks overwhelming to you, then consider a weekend road trip to Yellowstone National Park instead. I have a trip report on how to have a perfect stay in one of the most beautiful National Parks in the WORLD here. Happy Travels!
If you have questions on anything I didn’t mention then feel free to ask below! Have fun!