9 Day Southern California Trip Itinerary for Theme Park Fans

We are big theme park fans and we couldn’t wait to plan a Southern California theme park trip. This trip centered around time at Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland, it was so much fun, and today I am sharing our detailed Southern California vacation itinerary.

When we started planning our second visit to Disneyland in Anaheim I knew I wanted to figure out a way to visit Universal Studios Hollywood too.

They are close but with LA traffic it is not something we wanted to do for a day trip. With that we decided to spend 2 nights in LA and 6 nights in Anaheim.

This trip really focused on spending time at the theme parks. On our first trip to Disneyland we explored a little differently. You can read about that in this post: 9 Day Southwest Road Trip Itinerary with Kids

Overview of Southern California Theme Park Itinerary

Whether you are theme park enthusiasts, visiting for your first time, or a seasoned pro, this trip to Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood is a great guide to help you start planning.

For this itinerary we had 9-days including travel days. If you have more or less time to work with, add a side trip to Las Vegas or Carlsbad, California in your itinerary or spend less days at the theme parks.

  • Day 1: Arrival to Hollywood via LAX
  • 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 via Santa Ana Airport
main street electrical parade at Disneyland
Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland was a highlight of the trip.

Want to get all the details on everything we did? Read on for the breakdown of our Southern California family vacation itinerary.

Tips for Planning a Southern California Vacation

We have planned different family vacation itineraries in the past that included multiple stops.

There are so many places and attractions in Southern California you may want to include in your trip. It is a good idea to start brainstorming a list of ideas and then narrow it down from there.

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 is the best way to create a trip that works best for your family.

There are multiple amusement 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.

Where We Stayed for Our Southern California Vacation

We broke our trip up into the Universal Studios Hollywood/LA portion and the Disneyland/Anaheim portion. Having a car made this much easier to see a few sites and the theme parks.

Where to Stay Near Universal Studios Hollywood

We found the perfect location at the 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.

Read Our Review: Courtyard Anaheim Theme Park Entrance Review

How Far is Disneyland from Universal Studios Hollywood

Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood are 35 miles from each other but with freeway traffic you can expect to spend 45 minutes to 2 hours travel time.

That is why most people do not like to do a day trip. The traffic can take up a lot of your theme park day. Disneyland is south of Universal Studios Hollywood. Universal is located near Los Angeles.

How Do You Get From Disneyland to Universal Studios Hollywood

The best way to get from Disneyland to Universal Studios Hollywood is to rent a car. We used a car rental for our trip and it gave us more flexibility for our trip. Los Angeles traffic can be chaotic so be prepared for longer drive times.

If you do not want to rent a car you need to consider how you will get to/from the airport, to/from the hotel to theme parks, and any other places you may want to visit.

There isn’t a public shuttle or easy public transportation options, but if it is in your budget you can reserve a private driver.

We also decided it would be best to fly into LAX and fly home out of John Wayne airport. LAX is close to Universal Studios Hollywood and John Wayne/Orange County is close to Disneyland.

Ticket Cost to Go to Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood

Theme park tickets are not cheap. Prices for both theme parks start over $100 a day per/person and are higher during peak season like spring break.

You can get deals if you are booking more than one park day. I suggest starting at the park website for ticket pricing.

After that I would compare the prices to an authorized ticket seller. We use Undercover Tourist for Disneyland tickets and Universal Studios Hollywood tickets and have saved money.

You may also want to consider adding Universal Express Pass to your ticket. This allows you to skip the lines on the best rides. It is an expensive add-on to your ticket but you might find it worth it.

For the five of us a one day visit to a theme park is pricey. Expect to spend $500+ for tickets for families.

Southern California Theme Park Itinerary

Now that we got the logistics out of the way lets dig into the best part: the details of our trip!

Day 1: 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 there is an In & Out Burger outside the airport. 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 is a popular bookstore in Los Angeles. It is a 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.

This store is so much fun!! It fits with our love of all things pop culture!! An hour was not enough time! 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 plan a full day with 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: 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 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 Super Nintendo World (Mario Kart), The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Forbidden Journey), The Secret Life of Pets ride, The Studio Tour, Water World show, and Jurassic World. We also really enjoyed our lunch at Minions Café.

These rides are divided into the lower lot and upper lot. Super Nintendo World is located in the lower lot and will be the busiest area.

The crowds were very busy with long wait times at popular attractions. We planned to ride the most popular attractions first. This worked out pretty well and we had the best time!

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: 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 and took our time 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. The hotel is located across the street from the Disneyland Park.

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: Disney’s California Adventure (Part 1)

  • Breakfast: In-Room
  • Lunch: Pym’s Test Kitchen
  • Dinner: Lucky Fortune

We headed to Disney 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.

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.

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: 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 go into full details on how to plan in this post: one day at Disneyland itinerary. Expect very busy crowds if you visit in July. The park was packed and there is so much to do, it can feel overwhelming.

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: 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 Walt 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.

Don’t feel bad about being a bit lazy during a theme park vacation. It is well worth a day off to get you through the other days.

Day 7: 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.

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: 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 Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge during the fireworks. It was the best day and much better than our first day!

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: 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/Santa Ana 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 post 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. It is well worth it during busy travel times.

As I wrap this up I am thinking about ways to get back because we had such an incredible time. The Southern California theme parks are so much fun and I can’t wait to visit again soon.

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