A Skeptic’s Guide to Disneyland

Keys to the happiest place on Earth
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Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer for Disneyland

Disneyland must be magical. What else could account for the two diametrically opposed responses to Walt Disney’s ultimate creation?

There are the ecstatically gleeful Disney devotees (aka “Disniacs”) who are clearly drinking the Kool-Aid in Super Big Gulp quantities. Though they range in age, you’ll recognize them by their Mickey ears, princess gowns, sparkly-bunned up-dos and T-shirts sporting their favorite characters. Or, the Disniac apex — matching group shirts with a phrase like, “Nana turned 65 and we took her to Disneyland!” accompanied by smiling iron-on transfers of every family member on the back.

The other group is equally obvious. Notice the full-body shudder at even the mention of the possibility of the minute chance that a trip to Disneyland is on the horizon. These are always adults. Their gripes are always the same, with variation only in which is most irritating: 1. The crowds. 2. The lines. 3. The walking. 4. The whining. 5. The cost. And if they are a real grump, 6. The annoyingly cheerful super fans (see previous paragraph).

You may have me pegged as the latter, a completely natural conclusion considering how much I hate dragging my children through crowded places, abhor buying overpriced tchotchkes no one will play with next month, generally scoff at ear-clad joiners and simply loathe whining of any kind. Additionally, my girls (6 and 12) are somewhat beyond the princess phase, and we all know “Disney” and “princess” go together like “Woodinville” and “wine.”

But Disneyland worked its magic on my cold, ogre heart. Nearly all of the gripes can be mitigated or reduced to tolerable levels with organization (and fairy dust). It turns out that Disneyland is not just an expensive state fair, but also the cleanest and most well-planned amusement park around. Every detail has been thoughtfully considered to facilitate a fully engaging experience. And the Disney parks have so much more to offer than just princesses — as my 9-year old son was relieved to discover.

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Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer for Disneyland

Though it is just my humble opinion, hauling babies and toddlers to Disneyland is an act of masochism. Large amounts of time, money and effort amount to virtually no memories for the very young child. Save yourself the pain, and wait!

That said, there are many such crazy folks (thesaurus.com lists both “goofy” and “Mickey Mouse” as synonyms related to “crazy” — just sayin’) who take very young children to Disneyland and have a blast. Most rides have a section out front for “Stroller Parking” and/or “Padawan Transport Parking” in the case of the Jedi Training area. The Baby Care Center on Main Street, U.S.A., offers comfortable chairs for nursing, high chairs, changing tables, a kitchen with a microwave and sink, and an on-site shop in case you forgot the formula, wipes or pacifier.

However, Team Arnan wanted to have fun, so we waited until our kids hit the sweet spot age range — old enough to ride almost everything, no diapers, no naps (no matter how much I wanted one), but not so “mature” that they despise kid stuff. Likewise, even though two of our three children are girls, meeting princesses was not a high priority, leaving more time for thrill rides!

When you go
A family wedding in Orange County was the impetus for our trip, so we already were locked into the trip in early November — a fantastic time of year to visit, by the way. If gripes No. 1 and 2 are concerns, try to go in the cooler off season, but look out for unexpected busy days like Veteran’s Day (I think every school-aged child in L.A. stopped by that day).

Where to Stay
There is a plethora of “good neighbor” hotels in addition to the actual Disney Resort hotels. We rented a condo via VRBO “just” across the street from the park since we were staying for a week and wanted to cook some of our meals in-house. The three Disney hotels boast conveniently closer locations (see gripe No. 3) and other perks like meeting characters, but eating every meal at a restaurant is a drag and cranks up the budget (see gripe No. 5).

How to Get There
Disneyland is about an 18-hour drive from Seattle. We were leaning toward this option to save money on airline tickets and in order to have a car without renting. But, once we factored in gas money, several roadside diners, a hotel room en route and the guaranteed car repairs that plague our family road trips, those airline tickets started to make sense. Do not fly into LAX unless you really hate yourself. John Wayne Airport (Orange County-SNA) is much closer to Disneyland and a far mellower airport. Disney hotel buses regularly arrive to transport guests — it was about $40 for our family. Car rentals are available at the airport, though it costs less to rent a car from the Alamo at Downtown Disney behind the AMC 12 Theater.

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Photo by Scott Brinegar for Disneyland

How Many Days
With our timeframe and lodging secured, we next tackled our length of stay. We knew we wanted to check out both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, so we needed at least two-day passes. But, since this might be our only Disney vacation, we thought we would need more than just one day at Disneyland. Three-day passes looked like the answer, but as it turns out, four-day passes are only an additional $25 per person and, I reasoned, maybe we could take it a bit easier if we had an extra day cushion (Ha! What a fool!).

Research to Maximize the Fun Potential
Our house is of “mixed Disney enthusiasm” — you already know which category I naturally fall into, but my husband is a true believer. And, bless him, his research paved the way for a great time. We watched YouTube Disney surprise videos, scoured park maps, ordered books (like Tear-Free In Disneyland, Edgerton), and began to compile our activity priority list including rides, shows, fireworks and character experiences. We read up on ride height minimums and how the FASTPASS works — insert park ticket into FASTPASS kiosk at desired ride (not available at all rides, so check), kiosk prints a return time window (e.g. 12:05-1:05), return during that window, try not to gloat wickedly as you pass the poor souls standing in the long “standby” line.

How to get into the Park
Though everyone should experience the main entrance at least once, I recommend skipping the front-gate lines in favor of the monorail if you already have park tickets. It leaves from Downtown Disney’s west end near the Rainforest Café. The attendants at the station scan your tickets and take your photo (in the case of multiday passes). Monorail trains leave every few minutes and take guests directly to Tomorrowland at the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage ride.

Gearing Up
We dedicated the first day to Disneyland. The park opened at 8am that day (opening/closing times vary, FYI, so check ahead). We arrived promptly at 7:30am, sensibly dressed and shod in comfortable lace-up sneakers (with me rolling my eyes at the parents allowing their little girls to clomp to the gate in sparkly princess dress-up heels, ensuring a good
dose of gripe No. 4).

Let the Disneyland Thrills Begin
Upon disembarking from the monorail, we zoomed past the stroller monkeys straight toward Space Mountain, winding through the maze of roped pathway giddy with excitement (and relief that it was still empty), buckled into our spaceship and were launched into the swiftly moving darkness. Chalk up the look of abject terror on my face recorded on the “image capture” to maternal instincts on red alert — I was certain my slip of a 6-year old would fly out of the ride at every turn. Alas, the magical safety restraint proved adequate.

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Photo by Scott Brinegar for Disneyland

From there, we tooled around Tomorrowland and Fantasyland, riding everything from the classic Matterhorn Bobsleds to the spinning teacups at the Mad Tea Party, a thrilling and expertly updated Star Tours adventure to the Finding Nemo Submarine (that my kids liked, but I thought was a bit of a letdown — they didn’t even use the same actors to do the character voices). You can’t really claim you’ve done Disneyland without the ultimate rite of passage, so we endured “It’s A Small World” like champs.

Rumbling tummies sent us scrambling for a snack at the Tomorrowland Terrace near the monorail station. While I ordered food, the kids took the sacred Jedi Oath at the Jedi Training Academy next door, deftly banishing the Dark Side while I sucked down a large Coke (and I don’t even drink soda). With Darth Vader and Darth Maul defeated, hunger satiated and feet rested, it was onward and upward for Team Arnan.

By nightfall, we were starting to drag. The idea of walking home for a rest and a swim was abandoned earlier. We were sticking around until the fireworks show at 9:35pm (times vary daily). Unfortunately, that meant we were without the jackets that were to be snatched from home during the afternoon. And that meant ponying up a big wad of cash for Disney sweaters, none of which comes without a certain mouse or other such I’m-guzzling-the-Disney-Kool-Aid emblem. Obviously, my husband thought I looked adorable.

Stake out your firework-viewing claim early, making sure it is in an approved area and that there are no trees in the way. Send the kids off with Daddy to ride something nearby and plop your tired butt down for a few zone-out moments, preferably with a bag of popcorn and a beverage. Sorry, no “adult” beverages in this park.

Subsequent Disneyland days were spent exploring the other half of the park. Adventureland highlights include a bumpy Jeep ride with Indiana Jones and singing along with the scalawags in the Pirates of the Caribbean. Since we visited in November, the Haunted Mansion near New Orleans Square was decked out in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” style. Meeting Jack Skellington was the character experience zenith for my tween. We went on Splash Mountain several times in a row thanks to a short line and a fondness for a healthy soak. In Frontierland, we took the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad challenge — riding with our hands in the air. It was so fun, we did it twice. This section is also home to Tom Sawyer’s Island — a great free-play area perfect for antsy kids.

Significant rumor has it that Mickey’s Toontown — home of Mickey himself — is getting the ax this year in favor of a huge Star Wars project to feature at least three new rides. But don’t worry: Bronze Walt still will be holding bronze Mickey’s hand in the iconic sculpture welcoming guests to the park.

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Photo “Radiator Springs” ©2014 Brian Chow, used under a creative commons attribution license.

California Adventure Time
If your last memories of Disneyland involve a sky tram and “frozen” merely meant a pineapple Dole whip, then you have a lot of catching up to do. There is a whole new park next door offering a good solid day of fun.

Ask any previous visitor — get your Radiator Springs Racers (Cars Land) FASTPASS immediately after checking in. My husband walked directly to the FASTPASS line and already the time slots had filled until 2pm. The other FASTPASS you might consider snagging right away is for World Of Color — an evening light show projected on spraying water at Paradise Pier. Anyone can attend the show, but pass holders gain entrance to the viewing area an hour before anyone else, and a prime spot is a cool thing to have for this amazing show.

The downside to possessing two FASTPASSES for events later in the day is that you can have only two FASTPASSES per ticket at any one time.

Soarin’ Over California is a total delight. Do not miss it! The free-flight simulator feels like hang-gliding over vast swaths of the state, projected onto an 80-foot dome screen.

New in 2015, Frozen takes center stage in Hollywood Land, featuring several attractions, including a chance to meet the famed sisters, a nightly family dance show and a musical variety show. Too bad Team Arnan missed that, right?

Parents far and wide agree: One of the best features of California Adventure Park is the sale of beer and wine on the premises. There is even a tiny vineyard along the central avenue. Cheers to your sanity!

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