Watching Disney movies is a great way to build excitement for an upcoming trip to Disneyland. Though the amount of Disney references in the park was extremely limited when it first opened (Mainly featured in only Fantasyland), more and more have been added as Disney movies have continued to evolve into perfect additions to the world of Disneyland. Since almost everything in Disneyland is now based on existing Disney films and shorts, I’ve created a list of essential movies- some obvious, and some not- that you need to see before you visit to Disneyland.
1.Sleeping Beauty (For: Sleeping Beauty’s Castle)
Sleeping Beauty is a classic Disney film, and it took a long time to make! The 77-foot-tall visual magnet at the heart of Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom opened alongside the park in 1955 (Four years before the film Sleeping Beauty was actually released). While the castle serves as the perfect photo opportunity, guests can also take a self-guided tour of the castle’s interior to see the story of Princess Aurora and the evil Maleficent unfold. While the castle’s interior was originally added in 1957 to advertise for the upcoming movie, the castle closed its doors in October of 2001, then reopened in November of 2008 with enhanced technology. While the smallest of Disney’s castles, it still remains a crowd favorite and is a must-do every time I visit.
2. Indiana Jones (For: Indiana Jones Adventure)
I didn’t watch Indiana Jones growing up, and I wish I had before I visited Disneyland for the first time. While knowing who the main character is might be enough to enjoy the experience, the attraction borrows premises from the first three films, and alludes to the feeling and style of the series. The ride’s queue features interactive elements created by the Imagineers to envelop the guests into the story of Indiana Jones. In fact, keep an eye out for the Mercedes vehicle, as it was an official prop from Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as some other props located in the office that can be seen just to the right of the queue after the movie room shortly before you board.
The series actually has a direct connection to Disneyland, too! According to a field guide written by Imagineers, director Steven Spielberg sent his sound designers to the park to record samples of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad to be used in the second film’s mine-chase scene! The Indiana Jones series is a great introduction to the world you’ll be stepping into.
3. Star Wars (For: Star Tours, Star Wars Launch Bay, Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge)
Even though the Star Tours attraction has existed since the late 80’s, Disney didn’t acquire the franchise until 2012. An official land dedicated to Star Wars is slated to open in 2019, but there is already a large presence of Star Wars throughout the park. A fan favorite motion simulator attraction, Star Tours, transports guests to distant galaxy using motion-simulator technology to create the feeling of flight. The Star Wars Launch Bay hosts displays dedicated to the films, and even characters from the series to take photos with!
And now with the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, you'll want to make sure you watch these iconic movies! The Star Wars themed land features more heavily on the newer trilogy (A Force Awakens, The Last Jedi) but there are references to all the Star Wars movies placed in the land so you should plan on a full Star Wars movie marathon before your trip.
4. Cars (For: Cars Land)
Disney Legend Marty Sklar who led Walt Disney Imagineering for years shared an experience in his book, “One Little Spark!”. While sitting with his wife on a park bench opening day of Cars Land in Disney California Adventure, the neon signs began to light up (A sight not to be missed!). He saw a seven-year-old walk past as he heard the child exclaim, “Look, Mom! This is where they shot the movie!”
That story is the best way I can describe Cars Land. Taking friends for their first time down the streets of Radiator Springs is one of my favorite things. The land is rich with references to the film. Grab some food at Flo’s or one of the Cozy Cones. Enjoy the flagship attraction Radiator Springs Racers. Or take in the ambience led by music and neon. While watching the film, you might be thinking, “I wonder what’s inside that building there.” Well, when you enter Cars Land, you’ll be able to find out.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy (For: Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout)
Though the initial reaction of Disney replacing Tower of Terror with Mission: Breakout was overwhelmingly negative, the responses from those who have ridden the ride have been very positive. Guardians of the Galaxy writer and director, James Gunn, worked very closely with the Imagineers to create the experience of Mission: Breakout. The original actors reprise their roles for the attraction, and the film’s composer even wrote the music for The Collector’s Fortress lobby, office, and for the attraction’s exit. All of these elements give Mission: Breakout the unique opportunity of acting as a direct extension of the films.
The soundtrack accompanying the actual ride is comprised of six hits ranging from the late 60’s to the early 80’s, much like the mixtape in the movie. The attraction’s queue features multiple elements that will make more sense if you have seen the first film beforehand. Watching Guardians of the Galaxy introduces you to each member of the team, and helps you understand their personality. And when you see that Rocket audio animatronic, you’ll think you’ve stepped right into the movie.
6. Fantasia (For: Fantasmic!)
If you aren’t planning on skipping out on Fantasmic! for shorter attraction wait times, then I definitely recommend seeing the source material, Fantasia. Though many different Disney properties are used in the nighttime spectacular, the visually stunning battle between good and evil follows the story of Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a character straight from a segment of Fantasia. The Sorcerer’s Hat is also a popular Mickey Ear option.
Fantasia is currently available for Streaming via Netflix.
7. Toy Story (For: Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, Toy Story Midway Mania, Pixar Play Parade)
The Toy Story series has a very prominent presence in the Disney parks. The appearance of Toy Story started well before Disney even acquired Pixar. You can enjoy two different arcade style attractions on your visit: the first being Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters in Disneyland, and the second- and my favorite- being Toy Story Midway Mania in Disney California Adventure. Midway Mania’s queue features an impressive Mr. Potato Head as a barker that is very entertaining to watch. After proving your worth on the attraction, stick around Pixar Pier to meet your favorite Toy Story characters.
Like some of the other films on this list, you don’t necessarily need to have seen the film to understand the attraction, but refreshing yourself on the series allows you to step deeper into the world the Imagineers have worked so hard to create for you.
8. Frozen (Frozen: Live at the Hyperion)
It's hard to imagine anyone NOT seeing Frozen at this moment but if you haven't, we recommend adding it to your list. Not only does California Adventure have Frozen: Live at the Hyperion, there's also Anna and Elsa's Boutique in Downtown Disney, character meet and greets in Hollywood Land, and Arendelle can be found in the Storybook Land Canal Boats attraction.
9. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (For: Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride)
Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is one of the few remaining attractions in Fantasyland that were in operation on opening day of Disneyland. Though the attraction was closed in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, the version in Disneyland is still going strong to this day. The story is derived from the segment The Wind in the Willows from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The film was recently removed from Netflix, but copies can be found and purchased pretty widely. Though all the attractions in Fantasyland are based on older Disney films, I included this one as it seems to be lesser known.
10. American Experience: Walt Disney (For: Partners Statue)
After suffering through many butchered retellings of Walt Disney’s life, PBS released a nearly four-hour documentary titled American Experience – Walt Disney. The program follows Walt from his early life, up until the very end of it. While many see Walt Disney as the man who had it all, this shows a very real look into how hard he had to work for his Magic Kingdom, and how even Walt had failures. The Partners Statue is a common sight during a visit, sitting in the center of the central hub directly in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.
Having seen this documentary before my recent five-day stay in Disneyland, and understanding just how much that mouse meant to him, my picture in front of the Partners Statue came away as my favorite memory of the trip.
11. Peter Pan (For: Peter Pan’s Flight)
If you’ve ever dreamt of flying, then you’ll be in for a treat sweeter than Pineapple Dole Whip when you take a ride on Peter Pan’s Flight. The charming Fantasyland attraction features a suspended ride vehicle, giving guests a full view beneath them as they fly over the city of London and the island of Neverland. Tinkerbell, along with some of her other fairy friends, can be found in Pixie Hollow for photos. Captain Hook can be seen roaming around the park, and you might even spot the troublesome Peter Pan himself!
12. Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion (For: The attractions of the same name)
I’ve included these two movies last, as I don’t think they need to be seen before visiting the park. While most attractions in the Disney parks were based on existing films, both of these movies were inspired by the attractions originally built in Disneyland. While I’m a huge fan of the Pirates films, I’d recommend viewing them AFTER your trip, then you can spot the inspirations from the rides!
While growing up, I constantly wished to explore the worlds I saw on the screen. Walt Disney’s concept of what we now know as a theme park has given us those very chances. Since the list of Disney movies the parks are based on is quite extensive, it can be difficult to watch them all before your trip. There are many movies that didn’t make the cut here that I hope you are able to see before your vacation, too! Imagineers strive to use these films as reference to create unique and thrilling opportunities for guests to step into the imagination of the very man the parks are named after, and what a wonderful place to be.
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Now that you're well versed with the films you need to see before leaving for Anaheim, take a look at our other guides and articles that will be sure to enhance your Disneyland vacation. You will find information on discounts and ways to experience more!
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Thank you for joining us to learn more about the films of Disney and their place in Disneyland, be sure to see the official Disneyland website for park hours.