Are you thinking about planning a Southern California theme park vacation? This post has you covered on how to plan the best Southern California itinerary for your theme park vacation.
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We recently returned home from a 9 day Southern California theme park vacation and it was so much fun. We visited Universal Studios Hollywood and the Disneyland resort with a few rest and travel days in between.
We have planned different family vacation itineraries in the past, like our Southwest road trip itinerary, Disney World 7 Day itinerary, and a Las Vegas with kids itinerary. For this trip we wanted to focus on the Southern California theme parks.
There are multiple theme parks in Southern California but for this trip we decided to spend a weekend in Hollywood to visit Universal Studios Hollywood. Then spend the rest of our vacation days at the Disneyland resort.
Tickets & Discounts: I always recommend shopping for the best travel deals when planning a trip! This takes time but can help you SAVE! Our favorite places to check: Theme park tickets and hotels check out Undercover Tourist and Get Away Today. Theme park and attractions check out CityPass. Hotels and other travel needs check out TripAdvisor and Bookings.com. Always compare prices because they often have specials and deals during the year.
Southern California Itinerary for a Theme Park Vacation
With so many activities in Southern California to choose from you need to start with a brainstorm session as a family. Research all possible places you want to visit and write them down. Then go through the list and determine your time and budget for the trip.
This will allow you to create a trip that works best for your family.
We had visited Legoland California and spent 3 days in Carlsbad, California a few years ago so we decided to keep our trip to Hollywood and Anaheim. Depending on your family priorities you may split your time differently.
Once you have your theme parks and activities picked out I highly suggest heading over to our partner Undercover Tourist to check out the best offers and deals currently available for theme park tickets.
Not only does Undercover Tourist offer theme park discounts you can also find car rentals, hotels, and other area attractions. The discounts are worth checking out as part of your Southern California itinerary planning process.
Where to Stay When Visiting Universal Studios Hollywood
When looking for a hotel to stay at during our stay in Hollywood my biggest priority was location. I knew we wouldn’t be walking to the park like we do when we stay at Universal Orlando so I wanted a hotel that was close to the park.
We found the perfect location with our partner Loews Hollywood Hotel. The hotel is under 3 miles away and a very easy drive. We didn’t spend a lot of time sitting in traffic and the drive time took about 10 minutes (or less).
Loews Hollywood offered spacious room for our family with connecting rooms, as well as an on-site heated pool and grab and go bistro for breakfast. It is also within walking distance of the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as shopping and dining options.
Where to Stay When Visiting Disneyland in California
We stayed at the Courtyard Anaheim Theme Park Entrance and loved the space and proximity to the Disneyland parks. The most important thing when we travel as a family of five is enough sleeping space for all of us.
The Courtyard has rooms with two queen beds and a bunk bed. This offered ample room for the five of us. Plus there are two showers and a sitting area. We stayed for 6 nights and the rooms were more than enough space for my family.
Another thing we loved about the hotel was the short walk to the parks. It took us about 7 minutes to walk to the parks. This allowed us to easily return back to take a mid-day break if needed.
There is also an on-site waterpark, restaurant, and gift shop available to guests. If you are planning to use the water park guests can make reservations 30 days in advance.
At first I thought this would be a hassle but it made our visits to the water park really nice. There was no over crowding and if you want to visit during a time that you didn’t reserve you can check in after to see if there is space. Check out details here. I reserved our arrival day and rest day before we left for vacation and it worked out great for us.
Itinerary for Southern California Theme Park Vacation(Overview)
- Day 1: Arrival to Hollywood
- Day 2: Universal Studios Hollywood
- Day 3: Travel Day to Anaheim
- Day 4: Disney’s California Adventure (Part 1)
- Day 5: Disneyland (Part 2)
- Day 6: Rest Day
- Day 7: Disney’s California Adventure (Part 2)
- Day 8: Disneyland (Part 2)
- Day 9: Travel Home
Day 1 Southern California Itinerary: Travel to Hollywood, CA
- Breakfast: Chicago Airport
- Lunch: In & Out Burger (Near LAX airport)
- Dinner: Greco’s New York Pizzeria (Within Walking Distance to Loews Hollywood Hotel)
We had a very early flight on our travel day which meant we had to leave our house at 3:15am. It was well worth it to arrive at LAX around lunch time.
We picked up our rental car and lucky for us right next store was an In & Out Burger. In & Out Burger is pretty famous in LA so we knew we had to stop for lunch.
This was our second time trying In & Out Burger and I have to say it is not really my favorite. I know this may be an unpopular opinion but none of us really loved it. The location next to the airport is pretty busy and its cool to see the planes landing while you eat your lunch.
After lunch we drove into LA to visit The Last Bookstore. This place is not really for younger kids, unless they love book stores, but it is a really unique two story bookstore that is fun to walk around. We really enjoy reading and discovering new books so this was a cool spot to start our trip.
After the bookstore we were going to check-in to our hotel but realized our next destination closed within an hour so we made our way to the Funko store. Honestly an hour is not enough to walk around and explore this store.
There are so many photo ops and fun areas to explore. You can also create your own personalized Funko, which we were really looking forward to, only to discover we missed the sign-up times by a few minutes. (We made up for it on Day 3!)
After the Funko store we headed to our hotel, Loews Hollywood, for dinner in the room and some pool time before we crashed for the night.
We were pretty exhausted but managed to stay up until 9:00pm California time. After the three hour difference and waking up extremely early on the east coast we were proud of ourselves for not falling into bed at 5:00pm.
It helped to spend as much time exploring and out of the hotel on the first day to not be tempted to sleep. We were able to adjust to the time change very quickly by doing this.
Day 2 Southern California Itinerary: Universal Studios Hollywood
- Breakfast: Hotel Grab & Go Bodega
- Lunch: Minions Café at Universal Studios Hollywood
- Dinner: Pinks at Universal CityWalk
We woke up early to rope drop Universal Studios Hollywood. This was our first visit to Universal Studios Hollywood and we were excited to check out some of the attractions they don’t have at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure in Orlando.
I go into full details on our Universal Studios Hollywood itinerary (coming soon!) but we focused on riding the attractions and seeing the shows that they don’t have at the Universal Orlando parks. This meant skipping a few attractions.
We started our day with grab and go breakfast from our hotel and then drove over to Universal Studios Hollywood. The drive was about 15 minutes and we were one of the first families in the parking garage.
Some of the can’t miss things at Universal are The Secret Life of Pets ride, The Studio Tour, Water World show, and Jurassic World. We also really enjoyed our lunch at Minions Café.
The crowds were very busy and we planned to ride the most popular attractions first. It worked out pretty well and we were done with the park around dinner time. Then we headed over to Pink’s at CityWalk for dinner.
After dinner we drove back to the Loews Hollywood Hotel and decided to walk over to Hollywood Blvd to check out the Walk of Fame and Chinese Theatre.
My honest opinion is seeing it once is enough for me. The Hollywood Walk of Fame is extremely busy and touristy. It is fun to see the stars but you don’t really have time to stop for pictures because many people are around walking.
If you have a specific star you want to see or would like to take pictures I suggest visiting in the morning when crowds are less busy. We spent around 30 minutes looking around and then walked back to our hotel for some pool time as well as packing to check-out the next day.
Day 3 Southern California Itinerary: Travel to Anaheim, CA
- Breakfast: Bodega at Loews Hollywood Hotel
- Lunch: Shake Shack
- Dinner: Dominos Delivery to Hotel
Today was a travel day to Anaheim so we slept in took it slow getting out the door. We did want to head back to the Funko Hollywood store to try again at making our personalized Funko hoping for better luck.
The store opened at 10:00am and we arrived at 9:45am to a line down the street. I thought there was a special event going on but this was pretty typical of a weekend morning.
As soon as we were allowed into the store I signed the five of us up to personalize our Funko. They text you when it is your turn so do this as soon as you arrive and then explore the store. It took about 30 minutes for our turn.
After you make the Funko you have to wait another 30+ minutes for it to be ready. During this time we went next door to the Shake Shack for lunch. The Shake Shack has burgers and the staff was incredible. It was a great lunch spot for our family.
When lunch was done we went back to pick up our Funko, packed up the car and made the drive to Anaheim. On paper the drive is about 35 miles but it really depends on traffic. It took us about 50 minutes to drive to our hotel.
Before we checked into our hotel we picked up groceries for our room at the Food 4 Less. There is also a Target nearby if you need things.
We like to pick up fruit, breakfast items, and basic snacks for the room when we stay extended days at a hotel. We also didn’t want to spend a lot of time driving once we arrived in Anaheim.
We checked-in to the Courtyard Marriott Anaheim Theme Park Entrance and got settled into our home away from home for the week.
Before we left for our trip I reserved the water park for our evening so once we were settled in we headed down to the pool. I wasn’t sure if the water park would be entertaining for bigger kids but my kids ended up loving it.
Day 4 Southern California Itinerary: Disney’s California Adventure (Part 1)
- Breakfast: In-Room
- Lunch: Pym’s Test Kitchen
- Dinner: Lucky Fortune
We headed to Disney’s California Adventure for our first day at the parks. I purchased our tickets through our partner Undercover Tourist and I also made reservations for the park before I arrived.
You must purchase tickets and make reservations before you arrive. Days will sell out and if you don’t have a reservation you can’t enter the park.
We spent the entire day at California Adventure from rope drop to the night show without a break. It was a busy day and you can read the full details in this post about California Adventure One Day Itinerary. (Coming soon!)
A few things we really loved was the Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout ride. We did it 4x! We took advantage of single rider line, Genie+, and we sat in the “wet zone” for World of Color with the most perfect view of the show.
Day 5 Southern California Itinerary: Disneyland (Part 1)
- Breakfast: In the room
- Lunch: Alien Pizza Planet
- Dinner: Rancho del Zocalo
We left the room at 6:50am to get in line for the 8:00am opening. Guests were let through security at 7:15am and then let into the park around 7:30. Once in the park you could walk down Main Street and line up at the hub you were planning on starting at until 8:00am when the park officially opened.
I will go into full details on how to plan your one day at Disneyland itinerary in a later post. (Coming soon!) Expect very busy crowds if you visit in July. The park was packed and there is so much to do, it can feel overwheleming.
We decided to start with the classic Fantasyland dark rides because they don’t have them at the Disney World parks. The park hours were from 8:00am-12:00am so we also planned to go back to the hotel in the afternoon for a few hours to rest and get away from the heat.
We had planned a lot for this day but it ended up starting very stressful because we tried to do everything. This was one of those days where having a plan was great but I had to be flexible and let it go to really enjoy it.
We did get a lot done and even got to see the Main Street Electrical Parade at the end of the night, but we didn’t stay until midnight and it was kind of a stressful day figuring everything out.
I was very happy we planned 2 days so we could get a do-over at Disneyland.
Day 6 Southern California Itinerary: Rest Day
- Breakfast: In Room
- Lunch: Mimi’s Cafe
- Dinner: McDonalds and Panera
I almost didn’t plan a rest day during this vacation to save money but I am so happy I did. We were pretty exhausted by the time we got to our rest day and we needed a day to sleep in and have no plans.
After a slow morning we ate breakfast in the room and then walked over to Downtown Disney to shop. Downtown Disney is very different than Disney Springs at Disney World. It is smaller and has less options for dining.
We stayed for about an hour. The World of Disney store is a great place to do some souvenir shopping and we also bought some treats at Marceline’s Confectionary to take back to the room.
On the way back we stopped for lunch at Mimi’s Cafe. This is in the parking lot of the Courtyard Marriott Anaheim Theme Park entrance and offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner options. It is a bit pricey but it was nice to have a sit down meal that wasn’t rushed. You can also get to-go orders to enjoy back at your room.
We had a 2:30-5:00 water park time reserved that worked out perfectly for our day. I can’t say enough good things about the water park at the Courtyard. It really was a great spot for families with kids of all ages. The reservations were nice too because we didn’t have to worry about finding a chair or it being too busy.
After that we came back to our room and stayed in for the night. We got McDonalds and Panera. They are located right next door and we watched TV. It was a well needed rest before our next two days at the parks.
Day 7 Southern California Itinerary: Disney’s California Adventure (Part 2)
- Breakfast: In Room
- Lunch: Boardwalk, Paradise Pier, Corn Dog Castle
- Dinner: Pym’s Test Kitchen
We were really excited for day 2 at California Adventure because we loved our first day so much. We left the hotel around 6:50am and made our way to rope drop.
The countdown to the park opening started at 8:00am and we were on our way to Web Slingers for rope drop. As we started walking we were told Web Slingers was not open, so we pivoted to Radiator Springs, and lost a lot of our early arrival advantage.
Radiator Springs was down. Toy Story Mania was down. Incredicoaster was down. This was a really frustrating way to start the day especially when you are following an itinerary. These attractions were up and down the first few hours of the morning and we had to figure out how to make our day work and use Genie+ to our advantage.
I go into all the details on our One day at California Adventure Itinerary (Coming soon!) but we decided to do as many attractions as we could with short lines in the first hour without doing a lot of back and forth walking.
We did end up riding all the attractions we wanted to throughout the day and even made it on Web Slingers without purchasing an Individual Lightning Lane. We used single rider at around 8:30pm and got on within 15-20 minutes. The regular line had a 70 minute wait time.
We didn’t plan on seeing the show again so we used that time to ride the attractions. Also because of the ride closures we were able to secure a “anytime” lightning lane. Because we had Genie+ and a ride closed we were automatically given a pass to use on any attraction at any time.
This is a perk to the rides going down because it does give you some flexibility to your day. It doesn’t always work but we ended up with one each day at the park because of down time.
We also went back to the room for a few hours during the busiest and hottest part of the afternoon to nap and rest. I highly suggest doing this if you are planning on spending the entire day at the parks. It is the battery recharge we really needed.
Day 8 Southern California Itinerary: Disneyland (Part 2)
- Breakfast: In Room
- Lunch: French Market
- Dinner: Hungry Bear
I was a little apprehensive about our Disneyland day 2 because the first day was kind of stressful but we had a much more successful day. We went into our day planning to do everything once instead of multiple times and we focused on rides that are not at Disney World.
We took a mid-day break and got to enjoy the evening at the park. The night shows make the logistics of walking around this park a bit tricky but overall it was a much better day.
Splash Mountain and Indiana Jones was probably our favorite. We got to experience Jungle Cruise at night, which is a totally different experience than during the day, and we also walked around Galaxy’s Edge during the fireworks.
We did skip Rise of the Resistance both days because we have done it during our days at Hollywood Studios and it takes a lot of time out of our day. It is an amazing attraction and if you haven’t done it I suggest planning it into your day.
Day 9 Southern California Itinerary: Travel Home
It was our final day and I was very glad I booked a 12:00 departure and not an early one. We could sleep in and finish packing without rushing out the door. We also flew out of John Wayne airport which I highly recommend instead of LAX if you are visiting Disneyland.
It was less than a 20 minute drive, little traffic, and easy to navigate once we arrived. Our flight home was delayed a bit which was to be expected during summer travel. One last tip before I wrap this up.
Apply for TSA Precheck. It will save you so much time and annoyance at the airport. All adults need to have it. You can’t share it as a family. It cost $85.00 and is good for 5 years.
Children 12 and under don’t need their own. Children 13-17 also don’t if they are on your reservation but they can be randomly pulled to the regular security line. Because of this my daughter has her own and my other kids will as they age into needing it. It is easier to have it taken care of and not have to worry about long lines.
That wraps up our 9 day California theme park itinerary. We packed so much into this trip and created awesome memories. It was nice to have time to relax and time to really explore the parks.
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