If you’re an animal lover, you’ll be in good company at Disneyland. It all started with a mouse, after all.
In this blog I’ll cover the can’t-miss attractions for those of you who can’t get enough of anthropomorphized critters, fish, and more. This isn’t a post covering the conservation-focused efforts of the Disney Company. Rather, this post takes a light-hearted approach for animal lovers of all ages to ooh and aah at live, animatronic, or otherwise animated animal characters in the park.
We’ll start with Main Street and take a trip around the park. In the words of Peter Pan, here we gooooo….
1. Take a ride down Main Street U.S.A. in a horse-drawn carriage
Main Street U.S.A. represents an idyllic turn-of-the-century American town, complete with the transportation options of that time. From park opening until early afternoon, you can take a ride in one of these horse-drawn carriages from Sleeping Beauty Castle to plaza in front of the train station. One-way trips only.
From here, we’ll head to our right into Tomorrowland…
2. Dive under the sea with Nemo and friends
Ever wonder what it’d be like to ride in a submarine with fish who talked to each other? Of course you have; we all do!
At Disneyland, you can find out on the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage.
Fun Fact: In the original iteration of the ride that operated from 1959 to the mid-1990s, there were live mermaids that sunbathed and swam around the lagoon.
Now let’s walk past the Matterhorn into Fantasyland…
3. Encounter animals around the world on a boat cruise
It’s A Small World isn’t just full of 300 smiling dolls singing the same song over and over (did I mention that some people find the ride creepy?), it’s also full of animals from their respective countries!
Some of my favorites are the drowsily-blinking hippo by Simba and Pumbaa and the alligator enjoying the rain.
Fun Fact: In 2008, the ride was refurbished so the boats and water system could support the growing waist bands of Americans. While they worked on the ride system, the imagineers also added in nearly 30 characters from the animated films, including Cinderella, Lilo and Stitch, Ariel, and the Toy Story gang. See how many you can spot!
Now let’s head to Toon Town!
4. Drop in on Mickey and pals in their homes
It doesn’t get more anthropomorphic than Mickey’s Toon Town. Here you can visit the homes of your favorite Disney characters and see how wacky things can be in a cartoon world! This is a primo spot for photos and meet and greets with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto, Donald, Daisy, and Chip and Dale.
Fun Fact: The Disneyland fireworks are launched from right behind Toon Town, which is why this land closes early. If you catch a ride on the train and happen to pass by during the show, your ears will be in for quite an experience!
Back into Fantasyland…
5. Fly the skies of Fantasyland with Dumbo
The Dumbo ride in Fantasyland ranks right up there with Peter Pan’s Flight when it comes to childhood favorites. The elephants can fit a parent and child, two children, or one adult. You use a joystick to control how high or low you fly.
Just like the teacup and the Mr. Toad car on the other side of Fantasyland, this ride also features a stationary ride vehicle behind the queue so you can enjoy a photo op.
Fun Fact: Before Fantasyland was redone in 1984 with a medieval fantasy theme, it had a circus theme. Given that Dumbo was born a circus elephant, this ride always fit in.
On to Adventureland…
6. Encounter animals around the world on a boat cruise
Wait a minute – didn’t we already do this in #3?
Yes, but this version doesn’t have dolls or air conditioning. Ride the Jungle Cruise to view the famous backside of water and hear such classic Disneyland jokes as:
“This is the longest river in Africa. And if you don’t believe me, you’re in denial!” (say it out loud if you didn’t get it)
“Aww, look at those nice lions watching over that sleeping zebra.”
Fun Fact: This ride was inspired by The African Queen movie and Walt’s True Life Adventure films.
Let’s make our way into Critter Country…
7. Sing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah with a blue bird on your shoulder
This is your typical log ride, but with a Disney twist. Enjoy two smaller drops (one of which is in the dark) before you reach the big one. Sing along with Brer Rabbit and various woodland creatures as he tries to outwit the villainous Brer Fox and hapless Brer Bear.
Fun Fact: This ride was launched during the era of Michael Eisner, who was all about synergy. The mountain was named “Splash” to help market the film of the same name featuring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah.
After all these rides, I’m working up an appetite, aren’t you? Let’s grab lunch right here in Critter Country.
8. Eat lunch alongside Disney’s gang of feral cats
Yes, these infamous cats are real. I’ve had plenty a hamburger with a tortie or tabby sitting near my feet. You’re most likely to see them at the Hungry Bear Restaurant next to the Winnie the Pooh ride, although they’ve been spotted in other places throughout the resort.
These cats are so beloved by locals, there’s even an Instagram account dedicated to capturing their whereabouts:
Fun Fact: Walt and team first discovered these cats on a walkthrough of Sleeping Beauty Castle prior to park opening. They were infested with fleas and as far from the Disney look as possible. However, there was also a rodent problem at the park (yes, Walt saw the irony), and who better to help eradicate rodents than hungry cats? The cats have stayed in the park ever since, doing their duty to ensure that Mickey Mouse remains the only mouse the public sees.
Let’s take a trip back around the park to head home…
9. Learn about North America’s native wildlife
Ride the Disneyland Railroad to imagine what life is like in the Grand Canyon, today and in the time of the dinosaurs. Between the Tomorrowland and Main Street stations, you’ll pass through a long tunnel featuring a peaceful Grand Canyon diorama with mountain lions and bighorn sheep, followed by a much more dramatic Primeval World diorama where a T-rex and stegosaurus face off against each other.
Fun Fact: The Primeval World diorama premiered at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York as part of Ford’s Magic Skyway. Other rides that got their start at the fair include It’s A Small World, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and the Carousel of Progress.
10. *Seasonal* Watch baby ducklings grow up
If you happen to be visiting the park in the spring, you may be lucky enough to find yourself walking beside a proud mama duck and her new brood of ducklings. Here are some photos I took in May 2016. Even Goofy was delighted!
Fun Fact: Speaking of waterfowl, swans used to swim around the moat of Sleeping Beauty Castle. It’s fitting, really, considering the castle is modeled after Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle, which translates to “new swan castle.” Once Disneyland started shooting fireworks off the castle itself in the mid-2000s, the swans were removed for their own safety.
Which is your favorite animal-themed attraction? Have you ever seen real wildlife (ducklings, cats, otherwise) at the park? Please share in the comments!
Main Street U.S.A. is the first themed land you enter within the park. This land contains the most pedestrian “attractions” of the whole park, along the lines of horse-drawn carriages and classic cars. This area of the park has an extreme focus on theming (to the detriment of rides, some might say) so that’s most of what you’ll get out of it.
It represents a turn-of-the-century typical American town, and is modeled in particular after an idealized version of Walt Disney’s home town of Marceline, Missouri.
Before we enter Main Street U.S.A., it’s important to give some background to the layout of Disneyland in general.
Walt Disney was an animator for the majority of his life. His experience in the film industry didn’t just give us the cinematic Disney renditions of classic fairy tales; it also colored how Walt designed his theme park. The entire park evokes the movie-watching experience.
After your ticket is scanned, you enter a “preview” area of sorts, akin to the lobby at a movie theater. On your right is a stroller rental and to your left is a small shop with souvenirs, but ahead of you is a beautiful flowerbed beneath the elevated train station for Main Street U.S.A. Fun fact: this photo-famous flowerbed is replanted nine times a year.
To the right and left of the flowerbed, beneath the elevated train tracks, are two tunnels. Both tunnels contain posters featuring the Disneyland rides you’ll soon get to ride, just the way your local movie theater displays posters of upcoming movies.
Finally, you enter Main Street U.S.A. This land, like all the other lands, represents a major scene from the film that is Disneyland. At the end of Main Street U.S.A. is the hub, from which all the other lands make the spokes. You’re not supposed to view attractions from other lands in any land, as it wouldn’t jive with the particular “scene” of the movie you’re currently in.
The lands are furthered differentiated by other elements. Each land has a different themed trash can, and cast members are not supposed to wear their land-specific costume in other lands. The ground is also different in each land, and it should be noted that the “lobby” area has red stone, evocative of the red carpet film stars walk on before a movie premiere.
Okay, back to Main Street…
Main Street Windows
With Main Street being the first true “scene” you walk through, it should only make sense that this is where you view the opening credits, right? Remember that in Walt’s time, the credits for a film were shown during the beginning of a movie, versus the end like they typically are today.
This is where the Main Street windows come in. Look up to the second floor of the buildings and you will see names. These names all represent people who helped Walt design his dream park, including the Imagineers (Disney’s clever name for the engineers who develop the rides). So that they fit in seamlessly to the Main Street theme, the names are presented as professional offices, perhaps a local dentist or photographer. Often times, the professions match the person’s true profession, as in the case of Herb Ryman. As the art director for Dumbo and other films, and the guy who drew the first illustrations of what would become Disneyland, it only makes sense that he be memorialized as an instructor at the fictional Plaza School of Art window above the Photo Supply shop.
Names are still added to the Main Street windows today as part of the Disney Legends ceremony, such as former head of Imagineering Tony Baxter.
In honor of Disneyland’s 60th anniversary celebration, six of the windows surrounding the Emporium shop were transformed from basic dioramas from the popular animated films into “enchanted” windows that include set changes, music, and logic-defying special effects (or, at least, they seem that way to the untrained eye).
These are definitely worth a viewing, especially if you are a fan of Aladdin, Peter Pan, The Princess and the Frog, Toy Story, Cinderella, or Frozen. Words can’t describe these, so I’ll let YouTube take it from here:
Main Street Theming
One reason Disney is such a standout in the theme park industry is because they spare no expense when it comes to theming. Before Disney, there were just amusement parks, and there are many of these still today. An amusement park is a random, or at best loosely connected, assortment of rides and attractions for amusement. A theme park, on the other hand, is a fully immersive, thematic experience where all of your senses are engaged and you enter mini-worlds where attractions tie in to the constructed atmosphere. Consider the difference between Six Flags and Disneyland, and you’ll see what I mean.
In my opinion, Main Street is the best representative of the theming in Disneyland (in DCA, it’s Carsland). It’s irresistibly charming, and it doesn’t even have any impressive rides to help win you over. It wins you over because it’s themed so well. Main Street is my favorite land in Disneyland, and this is why.
Main Street truly feels like a fantasy version of a turn-of-the-century American town. You have your bank, your City Hall, your fire station, your local shops and eateries.
Why did Walt choose to design his introductory land to his theme park this way? Walt loved America and the American dream. He was a man of many passions, and one of those passions was America. In Disneyland, almost half of the lands are dedicated to American ideals – Main Street U.S.A., Frontierland, and New Orleans Square. Even the original Tomorrowland was heavily inspired by the U.S. space program.
Main Street U.S.A. Attractions Guide
What are the best attractions on Main Street? Below I highlight some of the standouts, as well as suggested itineraries for your first trip to Disneyland.
Main Street Fire Station
One of the municipal buildings on Main Street is the Fire Station. This is a fun spot for kids as they can talk to a “real” fireman and take photos on a fire truck.
Before you enter, look up in the window on the second floor. You’ll see a lantern burning. Any time of day or night, it’s on. This lantern stays lit in memory of Walt Disney, keeping his presence alive in the park. It’s all very similar to John F. Kennedy’s eternal flame.
Walt’s burning homage is in the Fire Station for a reason – when they were building Disneyland, Walt had them build an apartment for him above the Fire Station so he could monitor the construction. He stayed many nights there once the park opened, too. There are countless stories from Cast Members who recall seeing him before the park opened strolling up and down Main Street or cruising around in one of the vehicles with a smile on his face and a cigarette in his mouth.
That wasn’t the only planned apartment in Disneyland…
In the 1960s, when they were building New Orleans Square, Walt and his brother Roy included a plan for an apartment for the two families above Pirates of the Caribbean to abut Club 33. This is why the railing above the ride has their initials engraved in the middle. Walt died before they finished, so their shared apartment never realized. However, this area was used as a Disney Gallery for many years (showing a backstage peek at Imagineering projects past, present and future) and today operates as the Dream Suite.
Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln
One of the first attractions you encounter on your right as you enter the park is the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction. This is a longish show, so if you have kids that get antsy, I wouldn’t recommend it. It is worth it if you love American or Disney history, though.
The genesis of this ride, along with other classics like It’s A Small World, came with the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. Around this time, Walt was testing the viability of the east coast as a location for his second theme park. Naysayers worried that east coasters wouldn’t “get” Disneyland. As usual, Walt wouldn’t be deterred.
He and his Imagineers designed four attractions to debut at the World’s Fair, and secured mega sponsors for each one. Fittingly, the State of Illinois sponsored the Abraham Lincoln attraction. The attraction consists of a short film providing background to the Abraham Lincoln story and the Civil War. At the end, the curtain lifts, and you see a lifesize Abraham Lincoln sitting in a chair. To your astonishment, he then stands up on both feet and talks and gesticulates like a person would.
In today’s world of virtual reality and caregiving robots, an animatronic president might not seem all that fascinating. But when you realize that Walt Disney invented animatronics, and that this was one of the first ones the team ever made, it’s groundbreaking. We’re not talking about an animated bird that moves its beaks and blinks its eyes (which you can view plenty of at The Enchanted Tiki Room). This is a full-on human being. In the mid-1960s, this would have blown your mind. When you take it into context, it still has the power to take your breath away today.
Pro Tip: if this individual performance by Abraham Lincoln impresses you, I highly recommend visiting the Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World. It’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln times 43. Yes, every single U.S. President is represented in animatronic form as they have a town hall with each other. It’s quite a show.
Main Street Cinema
This spot on Main Street is often overlooked. From the front, it looks more like a fake vintage cinema storefront. The main clue that you can actually enter is if you see someone else entering or leaving. On a hot day, this cool dark room is a welcome respite. On most days, it’s a great secret spot to get a break from the crowds.
Walk behind the ticket taker (you’ll see her Cast Member name tag claims she’s from Marceline, MO, just like Walt Disney), and enter on either side. Inside you’ll find a dark circular room with six black-and-white Disney cartoons playing on loops on the walls. You can watch as many as you like and stay for as long as you want.
Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy are always playing, while the other four films get rotated in and out. Steamboat Willie was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon ever released. If you ever see 1928 on Disney clothing or merchandise, it’s referring to the year in which this film was released. A clip of Mickey turning the steering wheel and whistling is now included before the Disney animated feature films, in addition to the castle. Plane Crazy, which is my personal favorite, was actually completed prior to Steamboat Willie, but it was the third film released.
Both films are classic examples of early Disney animation. They’ve got the slapstick gags and goofs you’d expect in any vintage cartoon, coupled with the budding romance of Mickey and Minnie. You also get to hear the original voice of Mickey Mouse – Walt Disney himself!
At the time of writing, the Disneyland Railroad is closed to allow for the construction of the highly anticipated Star Wars Land. Since we don’t know how the railroad route will be changed once it reopens, I’ll keep this short and update it later. In its previous iteration, the Railroad stops in four lands, starting at Main Street and circling the park through New Orleans Square/Frontierland, Mickey’s Toon Town/Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland stations. Walt Disney was such a huge fan of trains, he built a railroad in his very own backyard, with an accompanying barn to monitor it from. You can visit Walt’s Barn today – it’s open to the public and located in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, CA.
Main Street U.S.A. Shopping, Dining, and Entertainment
Enough about the attractions! No other land does shopping and dining better than Main Street U.S.A.
Shopping on Main Street U.S.A.
Spend the last hour of the park shopping for souvenirs here. Main Street is open for one hour past park closing specifically for this reason.
For the largest selection of general Disney merchandise in the park, head to the Emporium. It takes up half of the west side of Main Street and is the only shop on that side. (While you’re there, look above and see if you can spot the window honoring Walt’s dad, Elias Disney!)
The shops on the east side of the street all have some selection of general Disney merchandise, but you’ll also find more unique fare on this side. You have the magic shop, which has fun and quirky magic gifts. Then there’s the music shop, where you can buy the soundtracks from your favorite Disney movies and your favorite rides from the parks. My personal favorite is the art gallery, where they sell books geared toward the Disney and animation fan. There is also a glass shop selling beautiful crystal constructions representing your favorite Disney characters.
Disney Character Meet and Greets
If you want a photo (or photos) with Disney characters, the flowerbed area and the flag pole area on either side of the train station are sure bets, anytime from park opening until the afternoon once the parades start. This land almost always has one of the Sensational Six (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Pluto, or Goofy). I’ve also seen Genie, Captain Hook and Smee, Peter Pan, Alice and the Mad Hatter, the Evil Stepmother, Ariel, Aladdin and Jasmine, and Cruella De Ville out here, to name a few. A secondary location where I’ve seen characters are listening to the piano at the Coca Cola shop at the end of Main Street on the west side.
For help finding specific characters, you can always ask at City Hall. Here’s an excellent guide for finding characters in both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure.
The Castle Photo
If it’s your first trip to Disneyland, you’ve got to take the obligatory photo in front of the castle. You can get a souvenir one done with Photo Pass from one of the photographers (you can’t miss them). If you want to get your own photo, it is possible to get one without other people in it. You just need to be a little clever with your angle, get there early in the morning where there are less people around, and have a LOT of patience. These blogs have some great tips for taking your own photos at Disneyland:
On par with the shopping, Main Street U.S.A. has some of the best food in the park.
This is where you’ll find the Starbucks in Disneyland, on the east side of the street. People are of mixed opinion on how they feel about Starbucks “invading” Disneyland, but I’m addicted to Starbucks, so I love it. If you’re the kind of person who gets excited every fall when the Red Cups arrive, you should stop in to get a special Disneyland cup. Otherwise, this is just a regular ol’ Starbucks.
There are a few notorious Disneyland foods – these include the churro, the cinnamon bun, the turkey leg, and the Dole whip. You can get the churro anywhere, but the cinnamon bun is only available at the Main Street Bakery. The other two foods are available in Frontierland and Adventureland, respectively. This cinnamon bun is famously good, and I think it’s a reasonably nutritious way to start off your day if you’re there in the morning 🙂
There are two sit-down dining options in Main Street. One is attached to the bakery and has nice outdoor patio seating. The other is the Plaza Restaurant, which serves American home-style foods like fried chicken and mashed potatoes, buffet-style.
Now let’s talk about my three favorite places – the ice cream parlor, the candy shop, and the Coca Cola cafe. The ice cream parlor is inspired by the Gibson Girl, and serves the kind of ice cream one dreams about. Yes, this is one of those parlors where you can get an ice cream float, or you can get your ice cream in one of those delicious dipped-in-chocolate-and-sprinkles waffle cone bowls. Bravo, Disney.
Next door is the arcade, which connects to the candy shop. Here you can enjoy a variety of carmel apples, and you can actually see them baking these and the other goodies, which include chocolate-dipped marshmallows, strawberries, and rice krispie treats. I love walking by just to check out the latest carmel apple designs. They’re sure to give you a smile. There’s always a Mickey and Minnie, something seasonal, and usually a random one inspired by a trendy character. Check out these Halloween-themed ones featuring Maleficent and a jack-o-lantern:
Finally, the piece de resistance! In my opinion, no Disneyland trip is complete without a Mickey Mouse cream cheese-filled pretzel. They are so delicious, I even wrote a haiku:
Cream cheese filled pretzel
with a Mickey Mouse smile…
Sweet Treat of Main Street!
You can buy these at the Coca Cola cafe. Sit for a spell and enjoy the live pianist if you have a chance!
Disneyland Trip Planning: Suggested Itineraries for Main Street U.S.A.
Honestly, for most people, I would advise you walk straight through Main Street to get to the rest of the park. This may surprise people given that I revealed above that this is my favorite land. However, for most people who are traveling to Disney for a day or two – you need to get to the rest of the park to enjoy the most rides and get the best return for your money.
There are a few exceptions to this rule. Review the chart below to choose a Main Street itinerary for your visit.
Americana Fan/Walt Disney History Buff
Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln
Main Street Cinema
Do it all. Ride the train (once it’s open again), and stroll up and down each side of the street, exploring the window displays and enjoying the shops and attractions. Chat with the Cast Members to ask them if they can share any neat trivia – they’re almost always game.
Family with Kids
Character Meet & Greet
If you don’t want to get sucked in to the arcade (and the attached ice cream shop, both of which are money pits), enter through the righthand tunnel and stay on that side of the street until you reach the hub, where you can snag your castle photo. When you leave, you’ll want to stay on your left.
I also don’t recommend watching any parades from Main Street for this reason – as a kid, it’s too easy to get distracted and want to go play arcade games or get souvenir pennies. You’ll have access to ice cream, balloons, and other snacks and souvenirs from carts located all along the parade route, so you may be better off watching elsewhere.
Character Meet & Greet
Grab a cinnamon bun for breakfast and enjoy your stroll down Main Street as you find the perfect spot for your castle photo or run into a character for a photo op. If you need a break at some point during the day, you can take the Disneyland Railroad for a trip around the park (there are stops in New Orleans Square, Toon Town, and Tomorrowland).
Main Street U.S.A. Hidden Mickeys & Fun Facts
1. During the summer, the scent of vanilla is pumped through the vents onto the streets. In the wintertime, you can smell peppermint.
2. Just like the turn-of-the-century horses on King Arthur’s Carrousel in Fantasyland, Main Street has its own authentic historical artifacts. The cannons are real French cannons from the 1800s, and the gas lamps are over 200 years old, sourced from various American cities.
3. Disney may be as wholesome as apple pie, which is why you might be surprised to learn that there used to be a lingerie shop on Main Street! You can tell which shop it was because it’s the only one with a porch. This was designed to place the storefront and the “racy” merchandise back from the family-friendliness of the street.
4. Speaking of surprising shops, there used to be a tobacco shop, too. All that remains today is the cigar store Indian, who has a twin in Frontierland.
5. There are a ton of Hidden Mickeys on Main Street. You can find a list of them here, but my favorite one is the Fruit Cart Mickey.
About halfway down Main Street, on the side with the lockers and the Starbucks, there is a fruit cart. Look underneath to reveal…
These are my favorite types of Hidden Mickeys – ones that are truly hidden and so clearly pointless that you know the Imagineers put them in there just for fun and for the fans!
So, there you have it! Everything you need to know about Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A.
Thank you for reading! Let me know in the comments if I missed one of your favorite attractions, Hidden Mickeys, or fun facts. I can’t wait to hear from you!