What happens when a crazy Epcot and WDW fanatic takes the family to the park on the left coast? Is it a nightmare? Is it a revelation? Does The Park that Walt Built hold enough advantage over the Florida parks that we'll be making the trip West instead of South?
First, a bit of the basics to give some context. While I've been to WDW more than quite a few Midwesterners, my trips to Disneyland likely can be counted on one hand. It was simply a much farther trip for my family growing up. Growing up, trips to Disney were mainly roadtrips. my folks had sleep cycles that were so far apart from each other, they could effectively rotate and drive 24 hours a day. As an adult, I've tended to be too cheap to fly my family of 4 to WDW. Why fly at thousands of dollars when I could drive for a few hundred?
This means that for both my childhood and adulthood, trips to Disneyland were few and far between. Plane tickets needed to be at record low prices for us to consider a trip to "The Land". The standard elevated Disney prices seemed out of reach when plane tickets were added into the total.
I'd not been to Disneyland in over a decade, when my wife and I, just starting to discuss the possibility that maybe my "No Kids EVAR" stance was misguided, met my folks out for a short few days in the parks. This is before California Adventure had its billion dollar update, when it was a park focused on California, no Carsland, on Bugsland, nada.
Before that was a trip for New Years 2001, a trip that I mostly remember for the fact that I forced the family to go to DCA because that was the only place that served alcohol, and would make the millions of kids with noisemakers tolerable. A pleasant NYE was spent listening to a pretty good Beatles cover band and showing my awestruck parents exactly what I learned in college, how to drink mass quantities of beer and still seem reasonably normal.
Needless to say, a lot has changed at Disneyland since I last set foot there, even more since I last set sober foot.
This trip came about in the same way that I imagine 90% of Rolo's candy sales happen, complete impulse purchase at the spur of the moment.
The family and I were dropping someone off at the airport in late August, and I started to think about how long it'd been since my kids were last on an airplane. I'd been long enough that I'm pretty sure my nearly 6 year old was a lap-child, so quite some time. Daydreaming about vacation while the family was seeing off our friend, I popped open the American Airlines app on my phone and just started looking at flights.
I decided to look at LA, because if I'm flying somewhere, it should be somewhere that I wouldn't normally drive. Also, the idea of taking the kids to Disneyland has been bubbling around for quite some time. You see, they are huge Nightmare Before Christmas fans, have been since they were both teeny. They are also huge fans of the Haunted Mansion. Last year in preschool, my youngest went as The Bride from the HM for Halloween. The idea of those two things combined has driven them crazy with excitement for years.
Now, typically when I do this wishful thinking, the price comes back high enough to sticker-shock me away from looking again for a few months. This time however, the flights were cheaper than I'd seen in a loooooong time. Cheaper then flying to Orlando, cheaper than most Southwest flights, cheaper than I actually believed could be true. Flying a family of 4 across the country for under $800 after taxes/fees? I couldn't believe it! I couldn't believe it enough that an hour or so later, I'd purchased said tickets while the kids were getting ready for bed, then went along with my night like nothing happened.
The following day, I did a little price shopping on hotels and went with a Priceline Express Deal that guaranteed me a 3.5 star hotel in the Disneyland area for $120/night, I looked around and priced some Disneyland ticket options, weighed the pros/cons of rental car vs. Uber, and by day 3, I'd basically had a majority of the trip set up and promptly nearly forgot about it for a month or so.
The day before we left, my wife got worried: "Where are our bracelets?!?" I explained to her that Disneyland does not do Fastpass plus, it's the old school paper Fastpass system. Her response was the same as mine. "Ugh!"
Instead of writing something like a trip report, going day by day, hour by hour, step by step, I think I'll just kind of give my general impressions, manifesto standard stream of consciousness style.
First fairly obviously, holy cow has California Adventure changed. Aside from the Paradise Pier area, I barely recognized the rest of the park.
Now, I never had anything against the earlier versions of the park. I understood what was being done. For people like me who might go out and visit Disneyland from a non-California location, seeing other aspects of a large, varied, and beautiful state like California is a great way to get us interested in visiting other areas of the state. I liked that aspect of the park. It was very World-Showcase-esque to me, and that is (used to be?) a good thing.
My favorite portion of the park to just spend time in was the Grizzly Peak area. It was such a great escape from the rest of the park and really, the surrounding area. It really snuck up on you as you walked from any section of the park into Grizzly Peak. You'd see the area ahead, but almost without noticing it you were suddenly surrounded with trees, water, and nature. I typically felt my walk slow down a bit as I gave myself over to the theme of the area.
This of course leads me to thought two, and one that some have been eager to hear my thoughts on. Soarin' over the World.
I still have a nitpick, specifically because in my opinion, Soarin' over California worked perfectly in Disney California Adventure Park, because it was a travelogue for CALIFORNIA, which the entire park was devoted to. This is the one place that attraction fit thematically perfectly and didn't need anything more than a cleaned up copy of the original.
That being said, what can I say, I liked it. I liked the different locations, the idea of showing some of the natural (and man-made) beauty of the world. There was some truly stunning scenery, I think my jaw dropped as we flew over the mountains.
My heart swelled for my wife, who suffers from huge rep sweats because the only things her family's home country of Paraguay ever gets in media is, well, next to nothing. The guy in the original version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (RIP Gene Wilder!) who faked his golden ticket before little Charlie Bucket found the real one? He was said to be from Paraguay (a fact not in the book, made up for the film). So, knowing that the Foz do Iguaçu, which is on the border between Paraguay and Brazil, was a part of this film that millions upon millions would see, it made me happy.
I still don't like it where it is in Epcot, but at least it removed one of my large complaints about it in that park, that the "over California" just was so shoehorned in that it ruined any chance of my enjoyment of the film. Disney, you go ahead and move the entrance and queue for Soarin' out of The Land and into World Showcase, you have yourself a home-run of an attraction. Oh, while you're doing that, can you maybe film some more sections and Star Tours style randomize them for me, KTHXBYE.
The rest of California Adventure was fun, once you adjusted yourself to the fact that there was really no more coherent theme for the park (looks to be a trend in Disney Theme Park Design these days, no?). My kids had a great time in the Bugs Land area the first night we arrived, even the older kid who's just starting to show signs of being too cool for school on some of the "little kid" rides. I found the area a fun little distraction, a place we spent a good 2 hours riding rides, eating churros, and enjoying the pleasant evening.
Enough has been written about Carsland that I don't think I need to spend a lot of time discussing it. It's great. Move along.
Let's move along to the granddaddy of them all, Disneyland.
Wow, what a park. Seriously. It's so different, yet familiar, from our beloved WDW. There is just a little something extra there, be it Walt's touch, or the fact that we associate it with Walt, but it works.
At one point, a nice evening when the family was walking down Main Street on our way to park hop over to DCA, I had stopped to take a picture of one of the little nooks in the park and my daughter said:
Daddy, I think that Disneyland is more magical than Disney World. I think it's because Walt built it, he helped make it special.
One thing I noticed is that there seemed to be more super fans in Disneyland. The old idea that Disneyland is a park more for locals while WDW is a park for "once in a lifetime" folks seemed to hold up. People were really into the park, even on non-Halloween party days you saw as many people dressing up, Disney Bounding, or wearing family matching Disney T-shirts. It charmed me to no end to see groups of youngish adults strolling around enjoying themselves in a park in which there is no alcohol to be found. Standing in line for Fantasyland dark rides with the anticipation on their faces the same as my children. Sometimes, especially this close to such a contentious election, seeing happy people doing happy things is just what the doctor ordered.
And speaking of the Halloween Party, we didn't go. I was worried about spending hundreds of dollars on tickets to it on the night we landed, in case our flight was delayed. I wasn't sure what other days we'd be at specific parks (or not doing parks), so I held off on getting the tickets to this, and by the time I just decided to splurge, it was too late and they were sold out.
Still, the care that people put into their group costumes was amazing. I didn't really take pictures of any of them, I find it kinda creepy to just take random pictures of folks as they walk by, so I didn't. The amount of time that a large portion of the party goers put into their costumes, as someone who's gained more and more appreciation for Cosplay over the years, was inspiring. Well done Disneyland party-goers. Next time we'll join you, and I only hope I can live up to the bar you set.
Side note to my rambling. As the father of two daughters, the number of girls (big and small) dressed up as Rey from The Force Awakens warmed my heart. It's no longer "Star Wars is for Boys, Princesses for Girls", dammit, we've got an ass-kicking woman Jedi that the girls can look up to. As my wife said to me, "representation matters".
Speaking of, Kudos to the Photopass photographer who got some killer pictures of my daughter, meeting her hero (and crush, oh god, not yet with crushes, please), Spider-man. I was too busy trying to embarrass the hell out of her (that's what dads are for right) to notice the photographer getting these, but I'm so happy to have them.
One thing that seemed massively different, and I've not run the numbers to prove if this is true or not, but the food seemed extra expensive, even for Disney Theme Park standards. Lunch at the Galactic Grill, consisting of 2 premium cheeseburgers, 2 regular cheeseburgers, 3 sodas, a chocolate milk, and 2 rice crispy treats totaled out to $77. I usually complain that 5 Guys or Shake Shack is expensive for fast-food burgers, but daaayum, that's twice what a 5 guys meal for my family would run. I didn't feel that prices had gotten that high in WDW, but again, it's been a couple years now since I have been down and I might be completely wrong. Still, we're rounding on $100 for a fast food lunch.
We deferred the cost of this a little by just hitting the Walgreens for Pop Tarts and various junk foods for breakfast, getting a Dominos pizza delivered one night, and just snacking a little on others. That's one of the benefits to having Disneyland being in the middle of Anaheim, that there are a million other food options you could theoretically use to reduce food costs. We didn't leave the park to get food, with little ones, once we left, we were never making it back, so we did eat in the parks some, but we could head out a little early, maybe just grab a snack to tide us over, and eat back in the hotel for 1 or 2 meals.
What about the thing that sparked this whole trip, Haunted Mansion Holiday? I was not disappointed. They really do that overlay right. Everything, from the decorations outside to the storyline and execution inside, was fantastic. We rode it multiple times and could have ridden it many more if not for the lines that built up over the day. I'd make the trip back out to California just for that attraction again. If you didn't know the Haunted Mansion by heart before, I don't know if you'd know that this was a seasonal overlay. It's well done enough that I think it stands as it's own well-done attraction. The same can't really be said about Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy, but what can you do.
I'll probably write an entire column on this, in fact, I think I'll do that soon, but original Fastpass sucks big floppy donkey *****. Give me the MagicBand, the ability to schedule and rearrange my plans throughout the day without having to RUN to get a FP to a popular attraction and meet my family elsewhere. Screw paper fastpasses. More another time.
A lot of the charm that Disneyland has to offer has to do with the fact that some of the classic attractions are still in operation at Disneyland. Fantasyland is a more well-rounded area, much more detailed facades and just more magical than anything that is not New Fantasyland in WDW.
Storybook Canals, Casey Jr, Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio's Daring Journey, Snow White's Scary Adventure, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. These things make Fantasyland feel like a more fully developed land. The parks were crazy busy while we were there, but we still took the time to take multiple rides on just about all of the Fantasyland attractions. Nostalgia played a heavy roll in my enjoyment of things like Toad and Snow White, but my kids loved them too. Mr. Toad is close to topping the list of my youngest's favorite attraction on the trip. I think that this speaks to an attraction that really works well, and why it's such a nostalgic love-fest for those that used to ride it in WDW and miss it today.
Another quick side-bar before I bring it on home for the night. We took a day off of Disney Parks to do something other than Disney. We took the kids on a day to the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the La Brea Tar Pits. Let me highly suggest this as a day for anyone who is thinking about making a trip to Disneyland. We rented a car for the weekend, drove up to the LACMA and spent a good portion of the day touring it. They had an exhibit from Guillermo del Toro's private collection that was worth the price of admission alone. I could have spent the entire day looking in that exhibit. The kids were fine for a while, but after about an hour, they started to get creeped out. I have no idea why.
We had a very nice time looking at the different buildings and halls. The kids played in the "rubber rain" piece for as long as we would let them. We saw Picasso, Miro, Warhol, Lichtenstein. We looked at some amazing Japanese art. We took the trip up to the top to get a great view of the Hollywood Hills (and obligatory Hollywood sign). There was so much more we could have done, but sitting literally right next door to the LACMA is the La Brea Tar Pits. If Bugs Bunny dug himself all the way to Scotland trying to get to see the Tar Pits, we had to see them when we were right there.
The La Brea Tar Pits was a great way to extend the afternoon, and a great change in pace from the art museum. Never again will you hear children excitedly exclaim "Look! TAR!!!". We walked around the tiny museum and grounds for a few hours, talking with the kids about what happened here and why it is important. Truly a fun little educational experience.
Ending the day we took the Pacific Coast Highway back from the LACMA for a while before cutting back to Anaheim to hit an In and Out Burger for dinner. All told, one hell of a way to spend a day, and one I'd highly recommend.
On to a final thought. It's not a big thing. It's not ground breaking, or profound. It never the less gave me as much joy in my little Disney Nerd heart as anything else on the trip.
If you've not seen me mention it before, my favorite attraction at any of the Disney Parks is The Enchanted Tiki Room (thanks for destroying Epcot Disney, but at least you saved this attraction from the terrible update). When I was asked to write for a different website, my first thought was to dive deeply into this attraction to try and explain maybe just a tiny bit of what makes me love it so. You can find that over here, if you haven't already read it.
Visiting the original Enchanted Tiki Room was something like visiting my own personal nirvana. It was a very crowded day at Disneyland, and the line outside of the attraction to get Dole Whip stretched back to Aladdin's Oasis. Inside the Tiki Room courtyard however the line was much shorter. It made me worried, why didn't people want to come into this area, get their dole whip quicker, and see the show? Did people here treat this treasure with as much boredom as visitors to WDW seem to do?
After eating our Dole Whip floats (complete with little umbrella, wonderful touch) and waiting for the next show, I was heartened by the size of the crowd that lined up to enter. Far larger than any crowd I've been with in WDW, the busy day couldn't account for all of this. Sitting with a great view of the Magic Fountain, still in tact, I watched the room fill to near capacity. I think that the host said he had let 180 people into that showing.
Instead of walking out and half-heartedly running through the lines tapping on Jose's perch, he encouraged the entire crowd to yell, in unison, "Wake up Jose". I prepared to join into the tepid call and response that I'd expect of people mumbling along in the office as they pretend to sing Happy Birthday to someone they barely know, just to get to the cake at the end.
What came out of everyone's mouths though was a full throated, hearty, in spirit "WAKE UP JOSE!" to start the show rolling. I looked around shocked. Was this crowd actually participating in the Enchanted Tiki Room?
As the show got going, I stared around in awe. People were laughing, swaying, singing along. Again, not mumbling, but singing. As the Birdmobile descended and Lets all Sing like the Birdies Sing started, a couple of teenagers caught my eye in different parts of the room. No, not like that sickos. They seemed like the kinds who I'd imagine were dragged along to their family vacation against their will. They had fashionable clothes, looked like the kind of person I'd put money on rolling their eyes and staring at their phones before the 2nd note of the song.
What happened next with them, and with the entire crowd, gave me so much joy. The entire crowd started singing along, swaying back and forth to the music. The teenagers joined in, smiling from ear to ear, rocking back and forth staring upwards at the mechanical birds. The entire crowd was like this. Nobody was "bored", got up and walked out of the theater mid-show. They clapped, they sang, they laughed. No hint of irony. No hint of being too cool to like something this "dull". Pure, real enjoyment of an attraction that was one of Walt Disney's crowning achievements.
Here was a group of people, who outside of this small theater would likely go right back to checking Facebook, texting their friends, and being only semi-invested in their day at the park. But for this short time, it was a group of people who loved something that I did, and seemingly loved it as much as I did. This simple show, 53 years old, in the days of 3D screen attractions that blow fire at you as they shake you like a Polaroid picture. It transported them all the same way that it did for me. The same way that it did for my parents. The same way it did for those original crowds in 1963 who stared up in awe of what was something totally new and mind-blowing.
I don't know if this is a regular occurrence at Disneyland. Maybe I just hit the right crowd at the right time who was ready to fall back into the spirit of the attraction. Maybe other crowds spend their time playing Pokemon instead of singing. All I know is that for the run-time of that show, I was in a special place, a place that Walt Disney himself helped develop and introduce to the world, and others were there with me, momentarily swept away into the joy that I really only associate with a very few Disney attractions.
Thank you Disneyland crowd. You gave me another very special moment to add to the list of special moments I've had at Disney Parks over the years. As you sang along "like the birdies sing", all I could do to close my eyes, let the smile beam over my face, and yes, hold back a tear or two. This is why we visit Disney Parks over and over. Moments like these. This is the kind of thing that cannot be manufactured. A real moment of pure joy, in the heart of Anaheim, a few hundred yards away from an IHOP.