Disney in SoCal: El Capitan Theatre

So you’ve finally decided to make the trip out West to visit Walt’s Park: Disneyland.  You are staying at one of the Disneyland Resort Hotels for a few nights and getting a 3-day Park Hopper to experience everything that is so wonderful about Disneyland Park and California Adventure.  You may spend some time at Downtown Disney, but then you’d like to see what else Southern California has to offer.  This series – Disney in SoCal – will feature Disney “gateway” experiences in the L.A. area; they offer a Disney influence on traditional Southern California tourist destinations.

Our Experience: Look for these boxes to highlight the experiences of my family of four when we visited Southern California in July 2012.

Disney in SoCal Part 1
El Capitan Theatre and Disney’s Soda Fountain and Studio Store

The El Capitan is located right in the middle of the most famous block of Hollywood Boulevard.
The El Capitan is located right in the middle of the most famous block of Hollywood Boulevard.

El Capitan Theatre, located right in the heart of Hollywood Boulevard, is a true movie palace.  Developed by Sid Grauman, who also built the Chinese Theater, the El Cap is as remarkable for its architecture as it is for its entertainment offerings.  If you’ve ever been on the Great Movie Ride in Hollywood Studios, you will immediately recognize the atmosphere that will greet you when you enter this movie paradise for Disney fans.  Disney has owned this single screen theater for over twenty years, and it exhibits Disney movies exclusively.  This is great for Disney fans visiting L.A., because even if there is not a Disney movie currently in theaters, the El Capitan is sure to be showing something Disney!  Many times, the theater shows movies that have just been released on Blu-ray, including straight-to-Blu-ray films.  Tickets can be expensive; they range from $16 general admission tickets to $26 VIP tickets, which include reserved seats, soda, and popcorn. Keep in mind, this usually includes the 3D version of whatever film you are seeing.

Our Experience: We attended a Monday morning at 10:00 AM showing of Brave about a month after it was released.  We opted for the General Admission tickets.  This was a great choice; there were three other families in attendance, so we were able to sit anywhere we wanted.  If you notice that there are very few people at the ticket booth, save yourself a few bucks and go with the GA tickets.

If you have never been to a movie palace, you are in for a treat.  Seeing a movie here is more like seeing a Broadway show than it is seeing a movie at your local multiplex. From the lobby, to the balcony, to the theater’s stage, to the real organ being played by an organist: this is not your average movie-going experience.  I would suggest getting to the theater at least a half-hour early.  You can not only accomplish your normal pre-movie routine (bathroom, popcorn, etc.), but you can also spend time looking around.  The upstairs lobby includes a beautiful display of the history of the theater; you would be remiss to not spend some time taking it in.

Our Experience: The kids loved spending some time exploring the theater before the movie started.  We researched the lobbies, the balcony and the orchestra area before settling in. My wife also mentioned to me that she thought it was a little chilly in the balcony; well, the theater manager overheard her and brought us all over to the Soda Fountain (located next door, with a direct entrance from the theater lobby) and offered us all free hot chocolates to take into the theater with us.  Gotta love the Disney difference!

Nick enjoyed having popcorn for breakfast while taking in Brave in 3D.
Nick enjoyed having popcorn for breakfast while taking in Brave in 3D.

Every movie showing is preceded by a few very unique offerings.  First, the organist will play familiar songs, both Disney and others, before showtime.  At showtime, there is, for lack of a better term, a Curtain Show.  The curtain does not simply rise; it comes to life with lights and music in a way that will be no surprise to Disney fans.  This is followed by previews and any short film that may be preceding the current film.  Finally – and this is something really cool – there is a stage show before the feature begins.  Depending on the film you are seeing, you will be entertained by a show that is reminiscent of Disney Live on Stage shows or shows you have seen in the Parks.  Characters, singers and dancers may all come out to perform an approximately 15-minute show that complements the film. Finally, the show begins and you are treated to a beautiful presentation of the film with all of the modern movie theater elements (picture, sound, etc.) that you are accustomed to.

Our Experience:  Apparently, if you go to a 10:00 AM Monday morning show, you will be the greatest dad ever; your children are basically a private audience to Mickey, Minnie, Buzz Lightyear and, possibly, a tribe of princesses.  Furthermore, as a parent, do we really need to drop $50+ on each ticket to Disney Live on Stage or Disney on Ice when we can get a similar (albeit shorter) version of that plus a movie for a fraction of the price?

At our 50th Wedding Anniversary, when someone asks me what the secret to a happy marriage is, remind me to show them this picture.
At our 50th Wedding Anniversary, when someone asks me what the secret to a happy marriage is, remind me to show them this picture.

Like any good Disney attraction, after the film you will exit the theater into a gift shop. Disney’s Soda Fountain and Studio Store is located next door to El Capitan Theatre and offers an old-fashioned ice cream parlor experience, along with merchandise and snack offerings that are usually only found at Disney Parks.  It’s a great place to grab a meal or just a sundae, whether you are seeing a movie at El Capitan or not. It’s also a great place to pick up any merchandise that you may have forgotten to buy at Disneyland.  If you are visiting L.A. but not visiting Disneyland (shame on you…), it is the perfect place to get a quick taste of the Disney Parks experience.

Our Experience: So, we had gone to Disneyland at the beginning of our trip, and forgot to get a Mickey Bar while we were there (Dole Whips at DLP, Cozy Cone treats at DCA…). We went back to Disneyland later in our trip, but just to walk around Downtown Disney. We couldn’t find a Mickey Bar anywhere! We had given up hope.  Then, on our last day in L.A. we went to El Capitan.  What a happy surprise to find that the Soda Fountain sells Mickey Bars.  It completed our trip!

After you leave the Soda Fountain, you are standing in the middle of Hollywood, California.  Directly across the street, you will find the Chinese Theatre (the direct influence on The Great Movie Ride), with its opulent facade and famous handprints in cement.  Next to that is Hollywood and Highland and the Dolby Theater (home of the Academy Awards).  This is a beautiful outdoor shopping center that offers great views of the Hollywood sign in the distance.  Next door to El Capitan is the theater where Jimmy Kimmel tapes his late night talk show.  Meanwhile, right at your feet you will notice the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where the names of celebrities are enshrined forever.

Our Experience: We immediately found the star for The Muppets, which is located right outside of the El Capitan.  In an interesting coincidence, El Capitan’s facade served as the facade of the decaying Muppet Theater in the 2011 movie The Muppets.

I can’t recommend The El Capitan Theatre enough.  See a movie, have some lunch and enjoy your Disney Day in Hollywood!


  1. I love the El Capitan! Living in Los Angeles and being a big Disney fan, I almost feel like seeing a Disney movie is less of an experience if I don’t see it at the El Cap. I’ve become spoiled, but it really is such a treat and over the top experience.

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