ANAHEIM, Calif. – As we walked across the broad, brick-paved plaza, a burst of music swelled, the strings rising to cinematic heights amid a pounding of kettle drums. A man in a crisp white shirt waved and beamed. Perfectly manicured flowers swayed in the breeze.
It felt, for a moment, that we had accomplished something greater than simply walking out the gates at Disneyland in Southern California.
But that is the trick of Disneyland, I learned after a recent trip to the “Happiest Place on Earth” with my family – to make even the mundane seem worthy of a personal parade.
The perpetual earnestness can seem cloying for travelers like me who usually prefer to see little or no concrete on vacations. But with children of optimal age – 10 and 6 – and faint but fond Disneyland memories from my childhood, I set aside pretension and joined the masses, including at Disney’s recently reopened California Adventure theme park.
Disney completed an ambitious 5-year, $1 billion expansion in June at California Adventure, next to Disneyland in Anaheim. However, California Adventure’s big new attraction, the 12-acre Cars Land that’s based on Pixar’s animated blockbuster movie “Cars,” was so jammed that we never rode its main attraction, a thrill ride called Radiator Springs Racers.
But as it turned out, we didn’t need new toys. The standards of Disneyland – from Space Mountain to Cinderella – hold up more than 50 years after the park first opened. And it turned out to be a great time to hit Disneyland itself: The crowds were over in California Adventure.
Before the trip, I’d viewed the Mouse kingdom with a jaded eye. But I found it is possible to experience Disneyland without cynicism – it was a blast.
The travel pipeline to Disneyland is broad, and loaded with options.
Staying at Disney-run hotels complete with wandering Disney characters is more expensive but offers convenience and the full immersion. Near the parks, many of the dozen of hotels within walking distance are cheaper, and some offer free third- or fourth-night packages or complimentary kids’ meals.
After shopping Costco’s vacation packages and other online sites, we booked a 4-night, airfare-and-hotel package with Alaska Airlines, staying at the Anaheim Marriott mostly because it had a big outdoor pool.
My wife and I sprung the trip on our two children as an end-of-school surprise, just hours before takeoff for our flight. I tried to freeze the moment we told them with a photograph, but Noah, 10, was a blur leaping off the couch.
Disneyland experts recommended multiday tickets, allowing for separate days at Disneyland and California Adventure. Theme-park tickets are slightly cheaper with packages, or bought online from approved third-party vendors (but beware of ticket scams on Craigslist). A 3-day pass for our family of four purchased through arestravel.com cost – gulp – nearly $1,000.
Soon we found ourselves at the Disneyland gate at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Not a fan of theme parks, there I was, in short socks, carrying a backpack full of fruit leather, two cameras and three kinds of sunscreen, next to two very bouncy children.
Some multiday tickets come with a “Magic Morning” 1-hour-early admission pass, which we used to get a jump on Disneyland’s famously long lines on weekends.
Speed walking through a nearly-empty Disneyland, we consumed the park’s thrill premiere rides – Space Mountain, Star Tours, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder and Indiana Jones Adventure – in gulps. It was a buffet of adrenaline.
Disneyland is a luxury for most visitors, given its steep admission prices, and appears to know it. No detail seemed too small. The sidewalk buskers were skilled ensembles. The actresses playing princess are as elegant and beautiful as princesses on screen, and an actor conducting a Star Wars Jedi training for kids executed a one-handed cartwheel, light saber in hand, just like a Skywalker. We even saw a worker polishing the inside of a trash-can lid.
Disneyland rides are also stories, connecting children to characters and narrative.
As a child, I was terrified of the Pirates of the Caribbean, a dimly lit, floating ride into the marauders’ den. But my son Noah shrugged it off. He’d just seen “The Avengers” movie. How scary, really, are animated dummies?
Midway through our ride blitz, my 6-year-old daughter, Anna, stopped at the park’s huge lagoon and pointed to the water. “We just passed real baby ducks!” she said indignantly.
She’d had enough adrenaline. She wanted to slow-walk the narrative stories, to meet princesses.
As we waited to see Belle, from “Beauty and Beast,” at the princess hangout, called Fantasy Faire, Anna described the secrets to being a princess: Beauty, of course. A trusty companion. And a good song.
Next door to Disneyland, the California Adventure theme park, which opened in 2001, is the edgier little brother, and well worth a whole day.
Its Soarin’ Over California ride, which simulates the feeling of flying over the state’s iconic landscapes, is like diving into an IMAX screen. The California Screamin’ roller coaster goes from zero to 55 mph in four seconds. At dusk, the Mad T Party band jams out covers as guests drink cocktails.
That park’s new addition, Cars Land, opened to acclaim after five years of construction. It lovingly replicates the dusty Route 66 ambience of the “Cars” movies, right down to the rust on Sarge’s Surplus Quonset hut.
When we arrived the day after Cars Land opened earlier this summer, a seven-hour wait time turned the Radiator Springs Racers ride into a parking lot of people. Beyond the lines, the ride’s spectacular replica of the Southwest’s Monument Valley and a 100-foot waterfall loomed. A full-sized version of the protagonist in “Cars” – a talking racing car called Lightening McQueen – snaked through the crowded roads, honking and yakking.
The park’s ride-reservation system, called FastPass, is a backdoor for the ride and other popular attractions. I secured FastPass reservations after an hour in line, but when our set time arrived, Radiator Springs Racers had broken down. We tried twice more but left, unwilling to squander an afternoon sweating in line.
“Modifications are often made to new attractions,” said Disneyland spokesman John McClintock, with apologies for the breakdown. He couldn’t provide attendance figures, but Cars Land boosted California Adventure attendance over Disneyland. “It’s enormously popular.”
Wandering through the park, visitors encounter surreal scenes. Life-size Phineas and Ferb characters suddenly appeared, doing a robot dance to a techno-beat while surrounding a mysterious posse of buxom women in orange berets.
It seemed a fever dream to me, and yet another advertising hook into my son for these Disney Channel cartoon characters. Disneyland and California Adventure take cross-promotion to Olympian heights, I grumbled to myself.
But then I saw my son Noah, who loves Phineas and Ferb like cousins, mimicking the robot, California sunshine glinting off his hair.
The Disney parks were a safe, fastidious yet thrilling walled garden for my kids, well worth shelving my cynicism.