The Downtown Disneyland District is where the magic of Disneyland spills past the gates of the park and forms an oasis of slick entertainment and classy shopping that can’t really be found anywhere else… not even in Disneyland itself.
Located in the heart of Downtown Anaheim, and directly connected to Disneyland and California Adventure, the Downtown Disney District is a shopping and entertainment zone with Mickey Mouse’s signature touch.
It’s been an Anaheim destination since its inception in 2001, when Disneyland Park expanded to include sister theme park California Adventure. Situated right outside Disneyland’s hallowed gates, the Downtown Disney District softens the transition between the real world and Mickey Mouse’s realm by easing visitors into the spirit whether they arrive by tram from the theme park or directly from the Downtown Disney parking lot.
A trip to Downtown Disney is perfect for when you need a little Disney in your life, but you don’t have time – or the spare cash – to visit the park proper. Downtown Disney is still very thoroughly part of the park experience, with Maleficent’s dragon on top of the LEGO store, and Disney-themed housewares available at the Disney Home Store… but you don’t need a ticket to get in.
For almost two decades, Downtown Disney has been a beautiful area that’s well-worth visiting. Its wide pedestrian promenade is expertly lit up in the evening by strings of decorative fairy lights and well-placed light installations, so you can take in the fanciful landscaping and distinctly styled buildings no matter what time of day you get there. And of course, like all Disney properties, the Downtown Disney District does its best to provide a safe, well-lit, clean and accessible environment for all its patrons to enjoy.
Downtown Disney Details
The Downtown Disney area is a pedestrian wonderland of unique eateries, well-regarded retail giants like Sephora (where do you think Minnie and Daisy get their mascara?), Build A Bear, LEGO, and one of the biggest Disney stores in the world.
It’s designed for a comfortable walking experience and high-class retail experience, with wide boulevards, beautifully maintained grounds, fun little kiosks, and plenty of Disney theming to make your visit memorable. Honestly, you can probably spend an hour or two just wandering the district and looking at the LEGO sculptures and Disney themed foods. It’s just a fun place to spend time, and a great way to liven up your Facebook feed or Instagram page with quality selfies.
Pro-Tip: Speaking of quality pictures, true Disneyphiles know to check out the art galleries for authentic, hand-drawn, high-quality Disney collectible art drawn by phenomenal local sketch artists. Our must-see art stop is Wonderground Gallery, where you can find the artists creating art you’ll love right in front of your eyes.
The Wonderground artists are also available at scheduled signing events (hint: signed art makes a great gift for the Disney fanatic in your life.)
Extra-special tip: All of the artists in Wonderground are fantastic but our personal fave sketch wizard is the mega-talented Alex Iniguez.
What can I find in Downtown Disney?
Downtown Disney is built to entertain patrons young and old. Try bowling at Splitsville Luxury Lanes where the whole family can get in on the fun, or go high-tech and immerse yourself in a virtual galaxy far, far away in the virtual reality extravaganza Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire by ILMxLAB and The Void. (Hint: either bring three friends with you for a ready-made team or make new friends by partnering with other people in the attraction).
If you like music, you’ll also find live bands performing on the Disney Live! Stage and the House of Blues across from Wonderground Gallery.
There’s a Lot to Do Here!
The Downtown Disney District is a place that has more fun, frolic and shopping than you can probably fit in one trip (and if you can do it all in one trip, you’re probably going to need some recovery time later). It would be easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of things to do, see, and eat here.
Don’t worry… there’s (almost) an app for that.
The Disneyland park is tech-savvy, and Downtown Disney follows along with that trend. Get up-to-the-minute information on everything happening in the Downtown Disney District, including entertainment, news, and special offers by following @DisneylandToday on Facebook and Twitter.
If you’re heading into either Disneyland or California Adventure parks, you’ll definitely want the Disneyland app to manage food orders, wait times, and FASTPass information.
Now I’m Hungry…
Downtown Disney Dining
If you’ve already worked up an appetite with your walking, you’ll have plenty of restaurants to choose from. There’s everything from fast-casual eateries to formal sit-down table service restaurants, and everything in between. Go for the pizza and Continental ambiance of Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria, the custom gourmet cupcakes at Sprinkles, or incredible and unusual artisanal ice cream at Salt N Straw.
There are also plenty of quick munchies for you to grab, like Jamba Juice’s fresh smoothies, a pretzel shop, hot dogs, and more candy shops than a parent will probably be comfortable with.
Downtown Disney shines, though, with its full-service restaurants. Not only do they serve a wide variety of food, from Carnation Café’s buttermilk fried chicken (the best fried chicken in Downtown Disney) to Tortilla Jo’s Tex-Mex offerings (we hear they have the best margaritas in the resort, and great street corn). Please note that reservations are usually a good idea, as the Downtown Disney Promenade does get busy.
Dining in Downtown Disney isn’t just a matter of filling your stomach with excellent food. It’s also a matter of strategy. Savvy diners know that some of the restaurants offer views of the evening’s fireworks and get a little extra bang for their dinner bucks.
Pro-Tip: Catal, Tortilla Jo’s, and Wine Country Trattoria all offer decent or partial views of either the fireworks or the parade if you can score a patio seat. And don’t forget that dining at any one of them will give you a five-hour parking validation!
Sounds Like Fun! How Do I Get There?
Downtown Disney Directions
It’s super easy to get to Downtown Disney if you’re driving in from anywhere in Orange County… just take the 5 Freeway and follow the signs. It’s even easier to visit Downtown Disney if you happen to be a guest of the Disneyland Resort. Just stroll on over and wander the shops and grab a leisurely lunch while enjoying some of the finest people-watching in Southern California.
Parking in Downtown Disney
Like Disneyland park itself, Downtown Disney parking is paid… but there’s an easy workaround.
Parking validations are available if: you make a $20 minimum purchase (validations available at any Downtown Disney location, including quick-service restaurants, merchandise locations, and kiosks). This method will get you three hours of parking and is great for when you want to make a short run to shop or have lunch.
You can also get a five-hour validation from any table-service restaurant in the Downtown Disney District.
Pro-Tip: Parking will start costing you if you go past these validation periods (don’t worry, there’s a fifteen-minute grace period if you’re running a little behind.) Parking charges accrue in 30-minute increments, with a minimum $7 charge past your grace period. Additional parking will run you $14 per hour. Make sure you plan your visit accordingly.
The Downtown Disney District is a guaranteed good time whether you go once for your lunch hour an hours-long shopping and dinner date. It’s good food and good fun in a great location. For all the Disney you can handle without an annual pass, Downtown Disney is your go-to destination in Orange County.
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Kelly Smith is a freelance writer living in Southern California with one dog, two cats, two guinea pigs… and the rest of her family. She writes about Orange County, faith, family, special needs and tea, and world-builds science fiction universes on the side. Find her at www.bluerosecopywriting.com.