Must-See Disney Movies to Watch Before Vacation

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What are the Disney movies to watch before vacation? Watching Disney movies as a family can build excitement for a trip as well as introduce characters and themes that will be seen at Disneyland. These are the must-see Disney movies to watch ahead of your trip, including where you’ll spot those movie characters in the park.

When I originally published this article, we were all subject to DVD purchases and waiting for films to be released from the “Disney Vault”. Thank heavens for the introduction of Disney+ to save the day! Our kids are now being introduced to new and old favorites, all the better to prep them for their first Disneyland vacation.

Getting your family familiar with characters before your first Disneyland trip is easy - just watch these must-see Disney movies! Find out what movies are recommended watching as well as what rides, shows and attractions feature the characters in the Disney films.

Mom Rewritten uses affiliate links which means I may earn a small commission if you purchase through the links in these posts. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. For more information, see the Privacy Policy and Disclosures tab. This post was originally published Jan. 14th, 2016 and has been updated and republished.

Disney Movies to Watch Before Vacation

Planning your first trip to Disneyland? Depending on your child and how much “Disney-saturation” they’ve have, they might be unfamiliar with some of the Disney movies and characters. If you’re planning a first Disney trip, it’s a good idea to familiarize kids of characters by watching some of the Disney features. 

Minnie, Stitch, Donald and Daisy pose with mom and girl at Donald Duck's Seaside Breakfast

It’s fun for kids to recognize characters and themes before their visit. No sense in waiting in line to meet the princesses if your child has no idea who Anna and Elsa are, right? While I love having the movies available on Disney+, I’ve also continued to purchase movies through the Disney Movie Club (especially when I get free movies with just $1 shipping!).

This is my break down of the Disney movies to see before your trip. This list is based solely on what movies and characters are heavily featured in the parks. On this Disney movie list are must-see or highly recommended. I’ve included other suggestions that you should watch if you have the time. Keep reading for the free printable checklist of Disney movies to watch before vacation!

A First Disneyland Trip Story

Years ago a friend of mine was taking her 4-year old niece to Disneyland for the first time. Knowing I’m a Disneyland regular, she asked me what movies she should show her niece before the trip so she’d be familiar with more of the characters that are featured on the rides and in the shows/parades.

I have a decent collection of the classics that I was able to lend her and they watched one movie a week leading up to their vacation. She’d been able to watch Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Dumbo, Snow White and Alice In Wonderland.

A few days after the trip, my friend asked me if I had Mary Poppins. Her niece had met the character outside Jolly Holiday Bakery but the child had no idea who she was! Her niece was smitten because Mary Poppins took her by the hand and told her, “Spit Spot” as they walked together down Main Street U.S.A!

Rides at Disneyland Based on Movies

So many of the rides at Disneyland are based on the movies that preceded them. This is especially true in Fantasyland. While kids will still enjoy the ride just as a ride, you could also give them some back story before your trip. Naturally if a ride is just plain good entertainment, you don’t necessarily need to watch the movie first. But it sure is fun to point out the details on the ride and have kids know the character names. By watching movies ahead of time, your children know a bit of the story background so they’ll know what the ride is about.

Disneyland carrousel

Fantasyland

Sleeping Beauty – This animated feature has two very special features in Fantasyland, one being an icon of Disneyland…Sleeping Beauty Castle. There is a walk-through attraction that takes you through the Castle with elaborate dioramas. Another can’t miss is King Arthur Carrousel, which features hand painted scenes from the movie on the inner part of the ride. Of course you’ll also find Princess Aurora featured in many areas as well, including greeting families inside Princess Fantasy Faire or on a float in Fantasmic! Sleeping Beauty is a *MUST SEE*

New Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland

DumboDumbo the Flying Elephant is just simply joyful and always a kid favorite. Check out Timothy the Mouse standing on top of the ride as well! Casey Jr. Circus Train is the accompanying ride to the Dumbo movie.

*CURRENTLY UNDER REFURBISHMENT* Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs– This classic “dark ride”, Snow White’s Scary Adventures is named as such because of the heavy presence of the Evil Queen throughout. You can even spy her looking down on you from a window above the ride entrance. Touch the golden apple out front and see what happens! You can meet Snow White in the Fantasy Faire Royal Hall.

Even the Evil Queen makes an appearance for photos at times, so I’d recommend this is a movie to watch. Guests can also see the statues of Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs located to the right of the Castle, near the Wishing Well. Snow White is *HIGHLY RECOMMENDED*

Snow White's grotto at Disneyland
Snow White’s grotto at Disneyland

More Fantasyland Movies

Pinocchio – Pinocchio has a ride (Pinocchio’s Daring Journey) in Fantasyland and characters appear in the new Magic Happens Parade. You can also find Figaro the cat on a perch in the Fantasy Faire area as well.

 

Alice In Wonderland – If kids aren’t familiar with Alice’s story and the Caterpillar, White Rabbit, Cheshire Cat and Queen of Hearts, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland might not make much sense (not that it makes much sense anyway, right?!) The Mad Tea Party spinning teacups are also Alice-themed! You’ll also find Alice and the Mad Hatter in person. They often greet guests at the entrance to the Park. They also host a musical chairs game outside of Refreshment Corner. Alice In Wonderland is *HIGHLY RECOMMENDED* as one of the Disney movies to watch before vacation.

Alice in Wonderland Disneyland sign

The Adventures Of Ichabod And Mr. Toad – I’ll admit that I’d been on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride dozens of times but had never once read the book Wind in the Willows or had seen the animated feature. After watching it last year, I have a better understanding of what this ride is all about. Now I know why Mr. Toad is going crazy!

Getting your family familiar with characters before your first Disneyland trip is easy - just watch these must-see Disney movies! Find out what movies are recommended watching as well as what rides, shows and attractions feature the characters in the Disney films.

Beauty and the Beast – The Beast and his beauty Belle (dressed in her French countryside outfit) are often seen strolling through Fantasyland. Kids can also grab treats (including the “Gray Stuff”) at the inspired quick service restaurant location, Red Rose Taverne. Over at Disney California Adventure, venture into the Beast’s Library inside the Disney Animation Building where guests can see the magical rose.

Fantasyland Movie Must-See

Peter Pan – Soar above it on all Peter Pan’s Flight, based on the book and movie. Kids will see all the familiar characters, including Peter, Wendy, Captain Hook and Tinker Bell while “flying” above the action. Want more Tink? You can also meet with her and other fairy friends in Pixie Hollow. Tinker Bell and Peter Pan also appear as walking characters in the Magic Happens Parade. Captain Hook and Peter Pan frequently walk through Fantasyland for meetings with guests. Peter Pan is a *MUST SEE*

Featuring several Disney movies, the Storybook Land Canal Boats is a peaceful boat tour. You’ll spot the city of Agrabah from Aladdin, the castle (and pumpkin carriage) from Cinderella and even the village of Arendelle from Frozen.

Pregnant at Disneyland? This guide gives the tips on what to ride & what to skip at the California theme park.
Storybook Boats in Fantasyland


Tomorrowland

Toy Story and sequels – Though you don’t have to have seen the movies to enjoy Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, I still put these on the must-see list. You’ll also spot the green Aliens at the themed Alien Pizza Planet restaurant! Toy Story characters are heavily featured in Pixar Pier at Disney California Adventure (more on that later in the post). The Toy Story series are *MUST SEE*


Finding Nemo and Finding Dory – Even if you haven’t seen the movies, you’ll still highly enjoy the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. An abbreviated version of the story is told from your view through the porthole in a very cool way.

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge

Star Wars – With the introduction of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland, kids will be fully immersed in this futuristic world via the rides and attractions, including Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, Rise of the Resistance, and Oga’s Cantina. Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge spires above the Millennium Falcon

This franchise is also still all the rage throughout Tomorrowland. If your kids aren’t old enough to watch the action-packed space adventure movies, at least acquaint them with the general characters. They might still be shaking in their shoes when they meet the very intimidating Darth Vader in the Star Wars Launch Bay!

No need to have seen the movies to enjoy Star Wars: The Adventure Continues or Hyperspace Mountain (Star Wars themed overlay of Space Mountain). However characters from the newest franchise of movies are heavily featured in Rise of the Resistance. The Star Wars series is *HIGHLY RECOMMENDED* (depending upon age and maturity of kids).

Little girl scared of Chewbacca at Disneyland

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Toontown

Who Framed Roger Rabbit All of Toontown is based on this movie! Eye-popping sights and colors accompanied by a dizzying ride, Roger Rabbit’s Car-toon Spin is fun regardless of if you’ve seen the movie or not. But elements and characters will make more sense if you have. Watch out for the “dip”! This one is PG-rated and more for older kids.

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Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers – Not based on a movie but a TV show, Gadget’s Go-Coaster is a great first coaster for little ones (it’s only a minute long). The show is finding a new audience now that it is featured on Disney+! No need to have seen the show but fun to point out the “gadgets” and unique found items that compose this ride.

Adventureland

Indiana Jones – Given the 46″ height requirement, Indiana Jones Adventure is for an older set of kids, just like the movie series (which is definitely too graphic for little ones). This is a fantastic ride, but no need to have seen the movie series to appreciate the ride.


Critter Country

Winnie the Pooh – Perfect for the very young, The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh stands alone as a sweet and colorful romp. You can also meet Pooh and friends just outside the ride afterwards.

Winnie the Pooh Disneyland ride

Song of the South Splash Mountain was based on this movie, which very few have ever seen (Disney says it will never release it again). Naturally, you don’t have to have seen the movie to enjoy this ride (because only a handful of people have even seen it!)

Other Entertainment

If your little one is in love with princesses, you may need to brush up on a few Disney films before a visit to Fantasy Faire. In particular, you may want to watch Cinderella (who also appears in the Magic Happens parade) and view Beauty and the Beast before twirling next to Belle and her lovely golden gown.

Cinderella float in the Disneyland Magic Happens parade

I love a parade! And it’s a great way to see lots of different characters. In the Magic Happens Parade, Tiana from the Princess & The Frog waves from atop her float. You can also meet her sometimes in New Orleans Square. Tiana appears in Mickey and the Magical Map and can be found at the Disney Princess Adventures Breakfast.

Headed to Disneyland but concerned that certain rides, shows or attractions might be too scary for your kids? If you have a kid who doesn't like fast rides, drops, spinning and frightening elements this is a must read guide with tons of helpful tips. #Disneyland
Mickey and the Magical Map live show

You’ll also spot Arthur and Merlin from The Sword in the Stone, gaining a new audience on Disney+. Moana and Maui have their own parade floats. Moana is often spotted greeting guests at the base of Tarzan’s Treehouse. The entire parade is led off with Mickey as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Fantasia (who is also heavily featured in the nighttime show, Fantasmic!).

First Trip to Disneyland? Delightful Movies You Must See First

I appreciate that the show Mickey and the Magical Map features movies that aren’t as prominent in the Park, like The Jungle BookPocahontas, Rapunzel from Tangled and Mulan. You don’t have to have seen the movies to understand and enjoy the show.


Disney California Adventure Park

Walk across the promenade to Disneyland Resort’s other Park! There are lots of great Disney movie inspirations here too, including Disney/Pixar films.

Cars Land

Another Land that was entirely inspired by a movie, this time it’s Cars. While you don’t have to know the movie plot to enjoy the scenery, it’s impressive to see how the tiniest details were captured in this area. From Radiator Springs Racers, Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters, Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, Flo’s V-Cafe, Cozy Cone Motel and more, there’s a ton of movie references here.

Cozy Cone churro stand inside Disney California Adventure park Cars Land

Plus you can meet with characters from the films including Lightning McQueen, Mater and Red the firetruck. It’s a good idea to watch the movies to familiarize yourself with the characters since they are heavily featured in the ride and attractions. Cars is a *MUST SEE*

Guests riding Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure park

Pixar Pier

Many popular Disney/Pixar characters are featured on the Ferris wheel cars on the Pixar Pal-A-Round including Miguel from Coco, Nemo & Dory and Mr. Incredible. Keep reading to see if the movies are must-see.

Toy Story Circling back to the Toy Story franchise, here’s another reason to watch the Disney/Pixar quartet of movies. The 3-D attraction, Toy Story Midway Mania features the characters from the first three flicks. Next door is Jessie’s Critter Carousel, a merry-go-round featuring our favorite cowgirl and her pals.

Character meet n’ greets with Woody, Jesse, Bo Peep and Buzz happen in front of the attraction. A few dining options also feature Toy Story characters – Grab a churro at the Buzz Lightyear’s inspired Disneyland quick service location, Senor Buzz. Or grab chicken meals from the short-inspired Poultry Palace. The Toy Story series are *MUST SEE*

Preschooler with Toy Story Woody at Disney California Adventure

Inside Out – With the closure of “a bug’s land”, the Flik’s Flyers attraction has moved and been re-skinned into an Inside Out themed ride. The spinning Emotional Whirlwind is appropriate for all ages. Outside the attraction, kids can get a picture with a statue of Disgust. Character meet n’ greets with Joy and Sadness happen in this area as well. Get a themed hot dog from Anger’s walk-up quick service, Angry Dogs. Stop inside Bing Bong’s Sweet Stuff for all things Disney/Pixar and a chance to see Bing Bong crying candy! Inside Out is *HIGHLY RECOMMENDED*

Most Pixar Pier Must-See Disney Movies to Watch Before Vacation

Incredibles – A highlight of Pixar Pier, is the winding and daring looping roller coaster! This ride is based on events that happen in the second movie and make more sense if you’ve seen it. The Incredible movie series is a bit more intense so it’s intended for older kids. Of course if they’re riding Incredicoaster with a 48″ height requirement, they are probably old enough to watch the movies.

Incredicoaster with Pixar Pier signage

No age requirement to enjoy Jack-Jack Cookie Num Nums from the cart located at the end of the attraction! Families can also meet and greet with Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, and occasionally Frozone and Edna Mode in this area as well.  If your child is older, the Incredibles series are *HIGHLY RECOMMENDED*

Sleeping child with Incredibles at Oogie Boogie Bash Halloween party
My Sleeping Beauty with the Incredibles

Hollywood Land

Monsters, Inc. Sully, Mike and Boo take you on a tour of Monstropolis in the dark ride, Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sully to the Rescue! If you haven’t seen the movie, the ride and characters will be confusing (especially Roz, the slug who greets you at the close of the ride!). The Adorable Snowman Frosted Treats is a quick service location, serving frozen delights.

First Trip to Disneyland? Delightful Movies You Must See First
Photo Credit: Jeff Holz

Finding Nemo Kids who haven’t seen the movie will still enjoy Turtle Talk with Crush, an interactive question and answer show where kids can talk directly to the turtles from the movie. Finding Nemo is also seen in the submarine ride at Disneyland.

Frozen

It’s all about Frozen and Frozen 2 so these movies are a must see, especially if you have a princess in your group. Meet and greet with the sisters at Anna & Elsa’s Royal Welcome, then warm up your singing voice at Frozen – Live at the Hyperion. For this alone, it’s worth it to watch the film and at least familiarize yourself with the award-winning soundtrack. You don’t want to be hitting the wrong notes when every else sings, “Let it Go”. Back at Disneyland, you’ll spy the sisters, Sven and Olaf in the Magic Happens Parade. Frozen is a *MUST SEE*

Sven the reindeer on the Frozen 2 float in Disneyland Magic Happens parade

Paradise Gardens

The Little Mermaid  Ariel’s rein over this park has been downsized over the past few years with the closing of Ariel’s Grotto Restaurant and King Triton’s Carousel. Swim around the Pier to Little Mermaid – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, an enjoyable dark ride inspired by her life “under the sea”. You can also meet Ariel in her “human state”, at Disneyland’s Fantasy Faire. Ariel is a featured princess at the fancy Disney Princess Adventure’s Breakfast, held at Napa Rose restaurant in Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel. The Little Mermaid is *HIGHLY RECOMMENDED*

While only there during Halloween Time at Disneyland, Miguel from Coco and other characters from the movie are featured. Miguel and his grandparents also appear in the Magic Happens Parade.

Coco float in the Disneyland Magic Happens parade

Other Attractions in the Parks Based on Shows or Movies

Not needed to watch the shows that these attractions are based on, but fun if you have the time!

  • Goofy’s Sky School – watch classic Goofy “How To” cartoon series, especially the 1940 short, “Goofy’s Glider”.
  • Silly Symphony Swings – watch the hilarious 1935 cartoon “The Band Concert”.
  • Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer’s Island – watch Tom and Huck.
  • Tarzan’s Tree House – view vignettes from the movie Tarzan.

Headed to Disneyland but concerned that certain rides, shows or attractions might be too scary for your kids? If you have a kid who doesn't like fast rides, drops, spinning and frightening elements this is a must read guide with tons of helpful tips. #Disneyland

In World of Color, dozens of Disney films are featured including Lion King, WALL-E, and Aladdin. Scenes from Fantasia 2000 are heavy in World of Color as well. Snippets are short and there is no reason to watch all the films to enjoy this water and light show. 

Holiday Features

One of the major seasonal attractions is the make-over of Haunted Mansion into Haunted Mansion Holiday, featuring the characters from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. The entire attraction is taken over inside and out by Jack, Sally and the gang. Over at California Adventure Park, the seasonal Halloween event, Oogie Boogie Bash, highlights the movie’s villain. Yes, the movie is a bit on the creepy side but most kids love the quirky theme. Consider watching it first before you let younger kids view but I’d say that The Nightmare Before Christmas is a *MUST SEE*.

Oogie Boogie at front gates of Disney California Adventure

Also only seen during the holiday season is Donald Duck as part of The Three Caballeros. The !Viva Navidad! street party features the characters as part of the Festival of Holidays during Christmas at Disneyland Resort. The new animated series on Disney+, The Legend of the Three Caballeros is reviving interest in this trio!

(Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland Resort)

Avengers Campus

Expected to open summer 2020, the new Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure park will make Marvel dreams come true. The new Land will tie into the existing Guardians of the Galaxy- MISSION: Breakout! attraction. But will you need to see the movies before your first visit? Dozens of characters are slated to appear, some in meet n’ greets and others in full attractions. It might make sense to know some of the basic plot lines in order to understand the text of the characters.

 (Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort)

In particular Spider-Man (who is featured in his own ride, WEB SLINGERS: A Spiderman Adventure) and Ant-Man & the Wasp (who will serve up large and tiny foods at Pym Test Kitchen). Other characters like those from Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and Guardians of the Galaxy will be greeting guests in person.

(Disneyland Resort)

Most Marvel movies are PG-13, so naturally these films are for older kids. Younger aged children might enjoy the Marvel Avenger’s Assemble cartoons. Or the preschool-friendly Marvel Super Hero Adventures, both on Disney+. At least some of the Marvel series of films (or the cartoons) are a *MUST SEE*.

Movie Characters to See in the Parks

While it’s not crucial to see any of the movies related to these characters, these might be Disney movies to watch before vacation. Knowing characters can help kids show interest in the meet n’ greet for a photo op! Be sure and refer to the Disneyland app on your smart phone during your visit to find exact locations and times for these character experiences.

  • Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmations
  • Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes captains dress like Davy Crockett
  • Bert and Mary Poppins from Mary Poppins (spot the penguins from the movie in the windows at Jolly Holiday Cafe)
  • Jasmine and Aladdin from Aladdin
  • Mushu and Mulan, most often seen during Lunar New Year celebrations
  • Stitch from Lilo & Stitch, seen at Donald Duck’s Seaside Breakfast at the Paradise Pier Hotel
  • R2-D2, Chewbacca and Rey from the Star Wars franchise
  • Merida from Brave
  • Zootopia, Nick Wilde and Judy Hopps
  • Rapunzel and Flynn Rider from Tangled, after the Royal Theatre Storytelling show
  • Evil Queen from Snow White
Planning a vacation for Halloween at Disneyland with kids? This is the ULTIMATE fall guide with all the most helpful tips on what to see, fall treats, favorite characters dressed up for autumn, limited-time seasonal ride overlays and special events just for Halloween Time!
Meeting Evil Queen at Disneyland

Some Rides Came Before the Movies!

Yes, some of Walt Disney’s unique creations have been so popular over the years that movies have been made based on the Disneyland attractions. There is the popular series of Pirates of the Caribbean movies, of course. The Haunted Mansion, Tower of Terror and Tomorrowland are also movies that spin off of Disneyland attractions. Opening in 2020, will be Disney’s Jungle Cruise based on the popular ride!

Jungle Cruise at Disneyland

Movie Watching is Part of Trip Planning

  • Figure out with Disney movies to watch before vacation and schedule them out, perhaps once a week for an at-home family movie night. Write them on the calendar to create excitement!
  • Pinterest is a great place to go if you’d like to make the event even more special, perhaps with themed snacks, decorations or crafts.
  • If you don’t have the movies in your own collection, consider purchasing a few of the classics that you know you’ll want to watch again and again. Ask friends if you can borrow the movies that they have in their collections. Or request the films from the library, which is something we do quite frequently. Or purchase Disney+ to stream the movies anytime you wish!
  • Print the following free printable checklist to mark off the movies as you watch. Complete the list and you’ll be ready for your first Disneyland vacation!

FREE PRINTABLE – Disney Movies to Watch Before Vacation

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