If you can afford it, a Disneyland vacation is most pleasant if you stay at one of the three Disney hotels, particularly the Disneyland Hotel or the Grand Californian. The main reason for this is that during your entire Disney vacation, you will not have to see the cheap, ugly and run-down motels, bars and restaurants surrounding Disneyland. If you stay at a non-Disney hotel, you have to either drive through, walk through, or take a bus through the surrounding neighborhood every time you go to or leave the parks. Walt Disney purchased acres of surrounding land in Florida to avoid having similar issues for visitors staying at Disney World. The financial savings of staying at a non-Disney hotel should be weighed against the loss of being immersed in the magic of Disney, just as you are trying to escape reality, if only for a few days during your Disney vacation.
The other reasons for staying at a Disney resort include the exceptional Disney service, the proximity and ease of getting quickly to and from the parks (especially if you like to sleep in and get some rest while on vacation), not having to take the buses or shuttle back to your parking lot and then drive to your hotel after a long, tiring day, and an extra hour in the parks each morning (note, however, that this is a benefit that is also available to non-Disney hotel guests who purchase 3-day or more park tickets). Beware, however, that not all three Disneyland hotels are worth the extra price.
Disneyland Hotel is the Best Overall Option and the Best Option During the Holidays
For family vacations, especially during the holiday season, between Halloween and New Year's holidays, we recommend the Disneyland Hotel. Recently spending the afternoon and evening at the Disneyland Hotel, including dinner at Goofy's Kitchen, was apparently "the best day ever" for our 4-year old. We recommend it for the following reasons:
1. Recently renovated, spacious rooms, with larger, nicer bathrooms;
2. Bed frames light up with Disney castle fireworks at the press of a button (and you may be able to see the real park fireworks, depending on which room you get);
3. Kids are greeted by Goofy in the hotel lobby, which keeps them quiet and entertained while you are checking in (and during slower days and check-in times, Goofy can spend quite a bit more time with the kids than theme park characters do);
4. The best character dining at Disneyland is here - Goofy's Kitchen (it has some of the most popular characters, including Goofy, Pluto, Chip n' Dale and Minnie Mouse, and some of these characters are available for photos in front of the restaurant), and the characters interact with the restaurant guests as a whole, dancing through the restaurant;
5. You can receive a pre-scheduled morning wake-up call from Mickey Mouse;
6. Fully closed bathrooms, with sink and tub area located behind the bathroom door, and fully tiled, unlike the other Disneyland resorts;
7. Santa Clause and Mrs. Clause are in the hotel, available for holiday photos;
8. The inside and the front entrance of the hotel are beautifully decorated for Christmas;
9. Hotel offers multiple Thanksgiving dinner options not found elsewhere in the parks; and
10. You only have a short walk to the two theme parks, and an even shorter walk to the monorail station in Downtown Disney, which takes you directly into the Tomorrowland section of the Disneyland Park.
Grand Californian is the Best Option for a Combination of Business and Vacation Travel and for Summer Trips
The Grand Californian is a quiet, mountain lodge resort - there are fewer overtired kids running around and yelling. This is the hotel we would recommend if you are in Southern California for business as well as pleasure, because the business facilities are very good.
Because it is the closest hotel to the parks, it is also the most convenient if you want to go back to your room (or the hotel pool) in the middle of the day, especially during hot summer days, when it can get too hot at the parks. Additionally, there is a direct entrance from the hotel into the California Adventure park, which is located just past the Storytellers Cafe (a character buffet restaurant). As you enter California Adventure from the Grand Californian, you will be right at the Grizzly River Run ride at which you can cool off, and next to the shaded Redwood Creek Challenge Trail. By using this entrance, you may be able to beat the crowds in the morning and get the coveted Fastpass for the Radiator Springs Racers ride. While the guests of the other two Disney hotels can also use this park entrance, it is not nearly as convenient.
Although the hotel rooms are nice, the sink area of the bathroom is carpeted and it is open to the rest of the room (with no door separating it from the sleeping area), which wakes up those still trying to sleep (if you are sneaking out to a business meeting), or it wakes up the baby or toddler you are trying to keep asleep while the rest of the family gets ready for the day. This bathroom set-up also makes the tub/toilet area too small. If a bathroom is important to you, like it is to us, stay at the Disneyland Hotel instead.
It is also easy to book character dining at Grand Californian's character dining restaurant, Storytellers Cafe, because it is not as popular as in-park character dining restaurants or Goofy's Kitchen, which is located at the Disneyland Hotel. On the downside, Chip n' Dale may be the only characters kids would recognize or get excited about (the rest are various bear characters). This is a good option, however, if you cannot get a table at other character dining restaurants. Even when we did not have a reservation, or even when Disney Dining was telling us on the phone that Storytellers was booked, we showed up at the restaurant on our way to the back entrance to the California Adventure park, and were able to get a table with only a short wait of 5 minutes.
The main disadvantage of the Grand Californian, if you need to leave the hotel/parks area for business or other reasons, is that self-parking lot is across a busy street. We paid extra for valet services to avoid that hassle. If you are there for a business trip, these types of costs may be deductible (contact your accountant or tax attorney).
For the Price, Paradise Pier is Not a Better Option than a Non-Disney Hotel
During our many Disneyland holidays, we have stayed at Disneyland resorts and non-Disneyland hotels. Whenever we can afford to, we stay at a Disneyland resort, with one exception: we do not find Paradise Pier to be particularly worth the extra price you pay to stay at a Disneyland resort, for the following reasons:
1. It is not sufficiently cheaper than the other two Disney hotels, and it is not nearly as nice, so pay a little more and stay at the Disneyland Hotel or the Grand Californian; and
2. It is quite a walk to the parks, across and down a busy street, and it is not much closer than some non-Disney hotels which are significantly cheaper (and so you lose the benefit of being immersed in the Disney magic and having an ease of access to the Disneyland parks). Longer walks to and from hotels are not recommended, because you should save your feet for all the walking you will have to do at the theme parks.
We would either spend just a little more and stay at the Disneyland Hotel or the Grand Californian, or stay at one of the non-Disney hotels instead.
If you can splurge and want to do so, we would recommend staying at the Disneyland Hotel for its location, customer service and the added Disney touches, especially during the holidays.