Disneyland Revisited: The Magic’s Still There
The cafeteria-style buffet featured peanut butter and jelly pizza and “worms in dirt” – gummy worms in crushed Oreo cookies and caramel sauce. The dining room was raucous. A random assortment of cartoon and storybook characters circulated among the tables.
And yet, our dinner at Goofy’s Kitchen was surprisingly magical, an evening I’ll not soon forget.
Welcome to Disneyland. You can enter the park feeling as cynical and sour as Eeyore on a bad day, but even the most jaded visitor is bound to fall under Walt’s spell. I did, while watching my preschool-age daughter bask in the porcelain glow of Snow White as they chatted in earnest over chicken nuggets. I found my daughter’s heartfelt amazement to be irresistibly contagious as she gazed at the twinkling lights of Neverland, or soared over the park in a flying elephant.
Yet it’s not all pixie dust and wishing upon stars. Disneyland is expensive. The lines are often long. The healthy food options fall short. But, chances are, you’ll nevertheless come home humming “It’s a Small World” and cherishing photos snapped with Mickey.
If it’s been a while since you visited, Disneyland is not the park you remember from childhood. There are no tickets for individual rides, and a one-day pass for kids 3 to 9 years old is $74. Favorite rides have been warped into movie promotions: the 20,000 Leagues under the Sea submarine adventure of your youth has been consumed by Nemo, the Haunted Mansion has been infiltrated by the unlovable cast of The Nightmare Before Christmas.
And Disneyland isn’t just the Magic Kingdom anymore. There’s an adjoining sister park called Disney California Adventure, which opened in 2001. Now there are two parks to navigate, and more money to spend to gain entrance to both, though on the potential plus side, weary parents can refresh with a beer at California Adventure while Disneyland remains alcohol-free.
But even with the higher costs and unrelenting commercialization, Disney delivers. The grounds are spotlessly clean and ubiquitous “cast members” will help you find restrooms or other services. The rides, despite being decades old in some cases, are still mostly fresh and exciting. Whatever dark and mysterious forces are at work behind the scenes, the parks run as smoothly as a monorail.
There’s a range of entertainment for all ages and interests at both parks. California Adventure has more for older, thrill seekers, including a monster rollercoaster that zips riders upside down and a Twilight Zone themed ride that sends an elevator plummeting 170 feet. But the newer park also has a slow-moving, proto-rollercoaster ride within its A Bug’s Land section, a perfect gateway ride to scarier attractions.
And the Disney folks know how to give the public what it wants, including attractions that guarantee an audience with your kid’s most beloved characters. We made repeat trips to Pixie Hollow for one-on-one face time with Tinkerbell and the gang, and a visit to Toontown ensured a mouse hug from Minnie.
After three mostly magical days, I was left wondering when I’d be able to justify a return trip.
Do your homework: Disney offers lots of package deals. When reserving our hotel and park-pass package, the phone representative made it really difficult to figure out the itemized costs, so request that information specifically and check the individual prices for items before calling. We saved money by declining their travel insurance – but you must request to skip it, as they don’t ask you.
Hotels: We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel, the medium-nice offering of the three Disney lodgings. This was one of the best decisions we made. We were traveling with grandparents with limited mobility and a 3-year-old who still naps. We made repeat trips to and from the park each day, and skipped the car rental.
Park passes: You can get individual passes for either park, or joint “park hopper” passes that get you into Disneyland and California Adventure. Doing both parks in a single day seemed like a lot to me, but they cut you a deal for visiting both.
Magic Morning: Does going to Disneyland at 7 a.m. sound crazy to you? It did to me, too, until I realized how amazing it is to get into the park before the hordes arrive. Certain combinations of park passes and staying at the resort will grant you “Magic Mornings,” which means that on certain days, you can get into the parks before they open to the general public. Hit the most popular rides without waiting in line, and then check out the B-list attractions once the park is mobbed.
Disney through the Side Door: Skip the main gates into the parks. If you bought passes before arriving, you can enter Disneyland via the monorail, which drops you into the center of the park and the heart of the rides, bypassing the long walk through Main Street. Likewise, California Adventure can be entered through Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel.
Refueling: We brought limited snacks with us – crackers, applesauce, granola bars – and mostly ate at the park or the Disney shopping area that abuts it. Fruit is sold within the parks, but I decided my kid wouldn’t be permanently damaged if she ate mediocre food for three days. The park food was overpriced, but generally not outrageous.
If your kids love the costumed characters, make a reservation at one of the restaurants offering “character dining.” These meals are way too expensive, but getting lots of time with the characters without standing in line proved a worthwhile indulgence.