Disneyland for the Fainthearted

Sleeping Beauty's Castle

We have clearly failed as American parents. Our first family trip to Disneyland must honestly be registered as a flop. Maybe it’s because we have supremely sensitive children, who just really don’t go in for the whole “sharks-in-the-water” vibe. Maybe it’s because my Fictional Husband (FH) hates crowds, hot dogs, popcorn, roller coasters and noise. But most likely it’s my fault, my own deeply divided nature. I wore the princess dresses my father brought back from his trips abroad, took ballet, and avidly watched the Disney shorts of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan that he screened on his old reel-to-reel in the downstairs den. But I also played football and basketball with my brothers, and didn’t fail to notice that Disney princesses—with the notable exception of Cinderella—are almost always pictured without feet. So I guess it’s no surprise that my under-inoculated family didn’t jump eagerly into the “Happiest Place on Earth” and emerge with the requisite contented smiles plastered on their faces.

It’s hard to be at Disneyland when everyone else looks like they’re having more fun than you. Every once in a while I was rewarded with the extremely satisfying spectacle of somebody else’s child having a temper tantrum, but for the most part all those other children, and their parents, stood happily in line for terrifying rides, happily in line for oversalted popcorn, happily in line for the chance to meet formidably furry and oversized chipmunks, happily in line for the most tedious turnstile experience ever invented by humankind. By contrast my children’s only interest in lines was to climb the metal barriers sturdily herding us to the next Disney experience, hook and rehook, jiggle or otherwise rearrange the chains, or repeatedly escape underneath these insufficiently impressive barriers to run off.

Let me give you some background. My daughter, the Birthday Girl, was two-years-and-364-days old, just young enough to get away with a trip to Disneyland before the company starts charging us $100+ for the privilege. My son, Agent 006, was unimpressed by my argument that if he wanted to rearrange the chains in line he should grow up to take a job with Disneyland. By the end of our three days at the parks, he assured me that he would never take a job at Disneyland. Probably because he had satisfied his chain-jiggling needs sufficiently by then.

So far, this is what the Disneyland Resort experience looks like to me: a long car trip or expensive airfare and shuttle costs (depending on where you start), combined with food, lodging, and outrageous park entrance fees. That’s it. Because by the time you front-load a vacation with all that expense, the stakes are very high, and I just don’t do happy under that kind of pressure. We bought three-day park hopper tickets so we could take in both Disneyland and California Adventure at a leisurely pace, and went down with the best intentions to have a good time. Not all of it was terrible—the children unanimously picked pool time at our off-resort hotel as their hands-down favorite part of the vacation. And to be fair, I couldn’t help comparing our experience unfavorably to the visit my son and I made last August to Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, in Orlando—a theme park that gets it all right, down to the dirty details (blog post coming soon). Please understand that my purpose in posting this review is not to ignite an online war in the attack and defense of Disney. I just need it to be recorded somewhere in the universe that the Disneyland Resort is not for everyone. Read on for a partial review of restaurants, shows, attractions, apps, travel tips and all things Disney, from my extremely biased perspective.

THINGS WE LOVED:

  • Lodging: Marriott’s Frontgate Residence Inn
  • Anaheim GardenWalk
  • The Food
  • California Adventure
  • Car’s Land
  • Characters
  • Buttons
  • The Child Switch Pass
  • The Fast Pass
  • The Grand Californian Lobby Adventure
  • Magic Guide App

In Disneyland—

  • Restaurants: Blue Bayou (New Orleans Square)
  • Attractions: Autopia, Astro Orbiter, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters (Tomorrowland); Tarzan’s Tree House (Adventureland); Storybook Land Canal (Fantasyland)
  • Shows: Jedi Training Academy (Tomorrowland)

In California Adventure—

  • Restaurants: Princess Lunch at Ariel’s Grotto (Paradise Pier); Cathay Circle Restaurant (Buena Vista Street); Wine Country Trattoria (Golden State)
  • Attractions: Tuck and Roll’s Drive ‘Em Buggies (A Bug’s Land); Luigi’s Flying Tires, Radiator Springs Racers (Cars Land); Games of the Boardwalk, King Triton’s Carousel (Paradise Pier); Redwood Creek Challenge Trail (Golden State)

THINGS WE HATED:

  • The Lines
  • The Crowds
  • The Noise
  • The Attitude
  • “Magic” Morning
  • The ‘No-Climb’ Policy

Where we failed dismally in Disneyland—

  • Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage (Tomorrowland)
  • Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride
  • Sleeping Beauty’s Castle (Fantasyland)

Where we failed catastrophically in California Adventure—

  • Ariel’s Undersea Adventure
  • World of Color

THE DIRTY DETAILS

Lodging: Frontgate Marriott Residence Inn

This was a brilliant place to stay. Having the extra space of a two-bedroom suite meant the kids could watch cartoons in the morning while the FH and I recovered from his recent business trip to Dubai. On the first day, I walked a hot half hour to a Vons (watch out for the hotel map, designed to give you the entirely false impression that everything is just a skip and jump away) and picked up some apples, cheese, grapes, milk, Cheerios and a few other essentials to keep on hand in the kitchen, so we didn’t have to go out every time the kids felt a bit snacky. The full-size appliances were great for saving money on food–we could store our restaurant leftovers in the fridge and heat them in the microwave, and comfortably avoid the dining-out-with-kids experience for every single meal of our vacation. It was pleasantly civilized to eat off of ceramic and drink wine out of real glasses when we were in the room, and a real treat to stack rinsed dishes in the sink for room service every day. The hotel has a little store that sells crackers, cheese, wine, beer and water. Next time we’ll also investigate the free grocery shopping service advertised in the hotel brochure. For ambitious families, there are even barbecues with fire pits.

This Residence Inn does a great job with the free full, hot buffet breakfast. The space is well-planned and the cereal bins well-stocked, even for ravenous, competitive pre-Disneyland crowds. My trick was to jog down while everyone was still sleeping and carry back a stack of laden plates, which made for relaxed en-suite pajama breakfasts for the whole family (excepting me, of course, but I’m an early bird and treasure my morning time alone). I could have saved myself the effort of lugging the heavy carton of milk back from Vons (although I did catch the bus for the return trip), and trotted milk back from the generous buffet. Next time I will add a carton of tea and some dark chocolate to the  shopping list for a late-night mama treat. 2-3 times a week the Inn also has a “social hour” in the afternoon, which just means free chips and salsa, but hey, we’ll take it!

The real gem of this property was the heated outdoor pool, with hot tub and kiddie pool. We could usually convince the kids to leave the pool area once a day in favor of making a stab at the Happiest Place on Earth. One afternoon Agent 006 and I borrowed a basketball from the front desk and had a great time shooting hoops on the sport court next door to the pool. The free parking on site is a money-saving boon to families that have driven down, and free internet just necessary if you don’t want to be a stingy, tight-wadded sort of joint.

The walk to Disneyland Resort front entrance is fifteen minutes tops, and that includes pooped out almost-three-year olds. Even better, the Anaheim GardenWalk is just minutes away around the corner.

Anaheim GardenWalk

A great combination of food, shopping and entertainment, NOT owned by Disney. The food and service at McCormick & Schmick’s Grille took us back there three times, but we took a break one night for Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion, which was also delicious. At Roy’s they would even have brought out desserts  with the kids’ names iced on, but my paranoid FH refused to offer up his children’s identities to the admittedly suspicious-looking server. We didn’t avail ourselves of the bowling alley or cinema on this trip, but stored them away for future diversions from Resort trauma. The best feature of the GardenWalk (and maybe the whole trip) was the gentleman selling light-up flying doohickies at dusk in the plaza. $10 for three and that’s a neighborhood steal for entertainment. My kids obsessed about these combination slingshot-helicopters, and wanted to return to the plaza night after night to send them up twirling and twinkling.

© amomnextdoor, 2013

© amomnextdoor, 2013

The Food

One thing the Disneyland Empire seems to be getting right these days is food. We had great options and wonderful dining experiences. At the time of our trip, I was completing a nutritional cleanse that forbade dairy, meat, processed sugar and wheat. NOT an easy set of dining parameters for a theme park. Because of these restrictions, I used to Magic Guide app to review menus prior to the visit, and marked as favorites only those venues where I would be able to find something to eat. I also made dining reservations a couple of weeks before the trip for all our lunches and dinners. This turned out to be one of the best moves of the entire vacation. With kids hungry at predictable times, it made it easy to just walk in, sit down, and feed the beasts. The few reservations I attempted to change at the last minute (again with an easy phone call straight from the Magic Guide app) made it clear that in the case of provisioning our party, advance planning was worthwhile.

ja:ブルーバイユー・レストラン en:Blue Bayou Restaurant

Blue Bayou Restaurant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Blue Bayou (New Orleans Square, Disneyland) was a welcome relief from the midday heat. Stepping into the artificial bayou twilight, complete with frog song and candles, was truly magical for the kids. Agent 006 and I walked along the railing and determined that Pirates of the Caribbean was yet another Disney ride that no one in our family would be enjoying on this trip. But the kids’ meals–starting with appetizers of fruit, carrot and celery sticks!–of perfectly cooked salmon and strip loin were just the ticket to a peaceful afternoon. The $6 souvenir cups which included a glowing clip-on light-up Tinkerbell or pirate served as under-the-covers bedtime entertainment for weeks post-Disneyland. (Anything that keeps the Birthday Girl in bed at bedtime is a worthwhile investment in plastic.) My own meal of balsamic-marinated portobello mushrooms, stuffed with roasted corn/bell pepper couscous and sauteed spinach was filling and perfectly balanced.

Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom

Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By far our most memorable meal was the Princess Lunch, served at Ariel’s Grotto in Paradise Pier, California Adventure (advance reservations absolutely necessary for a seating anywhere near a meal time). Guests descend a spiral staircase at timed intervals, for a photo opportunity with Princess Ariel at the bottom. Throughout all the days at the parks, our Birthday Girl remained steadfastly interested in chatting face to face with any characters she met, to the complete frustration of the toadies floppily attempting to photograph these encounters. Made it remarkably easy to turn down the $45 offers of “Priceless Memories” of our daughter’s backside. But age three does seem like the perfect time to meet the world of Disney in costume–a quick developmental squeeze between terrified and jaded.

© amomnextdoor, 2013

© amomnextdoor, 2013

The first thing my FH noted was that beer and wine were offered on the menu, and he instantly relaxed into a tall draft. The server’s timing was flawless, ushering us through our fix-prix menu without hurry or delay. The antipasti tower was truly a work of edible art, whose creative presentation of salami, mozzarella and manchego cheeses, tomatoes, olives, gherkins, red pepper bracelets, and chilled veggies with pesto and ranch dips instantly appealed to our (admittedly gourmand) children. I passed on the sourdough flower and “Jewels of the Sea Fruit gelatin,” instead munching on the delicious and fresh raspberries, strawberries and melon. And that was enough for the kids; perfect timing, since the Court Herald, complete with puffy pantaloons and tights, strode into the room with his bugle to announce the Princesses. The Birthday Girl, intent on her meal, looked up at him and said, “I wish he would go away.”

But she was instantly entranced by the gracious entry of the Princess Snow White. The Procession of Princesses was quite orderly, a new one announced every five minutes, as they made their way delicately from table to table for conversation and photo opportunities. In this moment, our children’s delight–the Birthday Girl’s disbelieving eagerness and Agent 006’s cool, bashful glow–made everything Disney worthwhile, even the dubious and insidious princess propaganda relentlessly forwarded by the company even into the new millenium.

At this point I was dealing with the running side commentary of the FH (“Who would DO that job?” and “That’s disappointing” upon the entrance of the heavily swathed Princess Jasmine) and the Birthday Girl’s desire to run straight to these fascinating creatures of billowed skirts and fluttered fingers. Fortunately, we were waiting in the best engineered line in all of Disney: our main courses arrived. The food designers at Ariel’s Grotto deeply understand how any food becomes instantly engaging to children if it’s served 1) on a stick, and 2) with a dipping sauce. So Meatball Lollipops were a BIG hit, even after a few rolled predictably off the table. Our fish of the day was deliciously cooked, and easier to eat than the cioppino would have been, as princesses filed past our tables and cameras clicked.

© amomnextdoor, 2013

© amomnextdoor, 2013

The Princess Training Program at Disney must be something else–makes me regret that I’m too old and overweight to infiltrate the ranks, for pure investigative interest. These young women really seemed to love their jobs, and inhabited the role of princess on a cellular level. When my daughter experimentally stuck out her tongue, Snow White gave a startled leap backward and a high, tremolo “Oh!”, then turned away in a perfectly dismissive sweep of skirts. This had the calculated effect of completely suppressing the Birthday Girl’s interest in being naughty, activating instead her own cellular desire to please and impress the next princess to come along. A bit disturbing, actually.

© amomnextdoor, 2013

© amomnextdoor, 2013

I’ve heard others complain that it’s actually quite difficult to see the Princesses out and about in the parks (although the opening of the Fantasy Faire may change that), and now we can see why–they’re all being held captive by the herald at Ariel’s Grotto. But the experience of sitting at table with hungry children, being served a delicious meal as a stream of inaccessible characters wandered past us (no lines! no lines!) was intoxicating. Dessert topped off the experience perfectly–a decorative tray of lava cake, chocolate-chip cookies, mini-cupcakes, and the crown Princess of desserts, a white chocolate conch shell spilling fresh berries. I didn’t taste anything (which my FH informed me was all highly mediocre), but my children were in sugar heaven. We let them eat as much as they wanted, and boxed up the rest to smear over their faces as needed later in the day.

And really best of all, we had whispered the Birthday Girl’s impending status of Three to the server, who brought her a song, special cupcake and an Ariel’s Grotto button. She couldn’t have felt more feted, and since her birthday was still a few days away, we paid nothing for her meal; children under three dine free at Ariel’s Grotto (so long as you make sure to inform the restaurant). Afterward we strolled along the restaurant’s outdoor seating (at which guests have to wait longer for the princesses to filter over to their tables), where the Birthday Girl proceeded to drop the Ariel button into the water of Paradise Pier and pee all over the patio. All in all, a successful celebration and a wonderful pause from the general experience of lines, heat, and terror offered elsewhere in the park.

For a truly fine dining experience, I recommend Cathay Circle Restaurant on Buena Vista Street in California Adventure. This is the kind of place where servers follow you around with a napkin. I half expected someone to be waiting in the restroom to hand me toilet paper, but so far I’ve only ever had to pay for that privilege in New York City and India. We took our kids because they were hungry too, but this is the kind of place to dine when you’ve brought grandma along on the trip. She can feed the kids pizza in the hotel room while you enjoy halibut ceviche, heirloom tomato salad, udon noodle bowl, and Sierra golden trout unmolested by spilled water glasses and spoon warfare.

Wine Country Trattoria (Golden State, California Adventure) was a wonderful dining experience. Although my options there were limited to salad, the kids were delighted with their pasta. Best of all was the very sophisticated wine selection, quite appropriate to a California-themed park. Here is where my son, for the FIRST time in his life, actually completed one of those children’s menu activity placemats. It was really good timing–our third day of park hopping and my tolerance for “happiness” was running a bit thin. He colored, the Birthday Girl called China on her dad’s iPhone, and I drank my wine. It all worked out well, including the lasagna.

IMG_5445

© amomnextdoor, 2013

The Sonoma Terrace is one of the best-kept secrets of California Adventure. It offers three different boxed picnic lunches (the Mediterranean Vegetarian, the All American, and the Taste of Asia), plus two options for kids (PB & J or Chicken Leg). All meals come with soda or water, or for a little extra money, beer or wine. Here’s the scoop: if you order these online or through the reservations line (714-781-DINE), the meals can be picked up at any time throughout the day, and come with a ticket to the World of Color performance, saving you a wait in line to pick up the tickets elsewhere. Plus, the terrace has outdoor bar seating that faces the parade route for the Pixar Play Parade, and according to the people who work there, this doesn’t start filling up until 20 minutes before the show. So order your picnic, arrive a bit before the parade starts to grab a seat in the high ground, and enjoy your meal and entertainment. Very tidy package of fun!

Attractions—Disneyland

  • Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters (Tomorrowland)

    Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blaster(Tokyo Disneyland)

    Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blaster(Tokyo Disneyland) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I hadn’t been managing two kids while my FH slept off his trip to a desert halfway across the world, Agent 006 and I would have ridden this one over and over. Essentially, it’s like being inside a video game, where riders have control of blaster that “shoot” at enemy targets, with scores adding up on the dashboard. Lots of fun and not too scary!

  • Tarzan’s Tree House (Adventureland)
© amomnextdoor, 2013

© amomnextdoor, 2013

Another really fun attraction: a treehouse climb with stations that tell the story of the movie Tarzan. Watch out for the jaguar’s scream, which certainly took Agent 006 by surprise, but not so much that he wouldn’t climb up again.

  • Jedi Training Academy (Tomorrowland)

For any parent who grew up on the Star Wars movies, this was an amazing show. Seeing Darth Vader rise up from the ground in his full height and respiratory glory gave me chills. Agent 006, suitably inaugurated to the saga, was riveted. The jokes were funny even the second time around, when we went back early to stake out a front row seat, as 006 hoped to be picked for training (easily accomplished as they choose many volunteers).

  • Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage (Tomorrowland)

Disaster. Really cool retrofit of the submarine voyage, with screen tricks to bring in the movie Finding Nemo, which incidentally terrifies both my children. I should have known. By the end of the ride, Agent 006 was down on the floor between my knees, burying his face, sobbing and begging to get out; the “sardine can” experience certainly escalated his terror. The Birthday Girl was sobbing in her father’s lap, clutching my hand desperately over her eyes. Oh well.

  • Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (Fantasyland)

Repeat above experience, except add a moment of absolute darkness in the middle of the ride. Who’s idea was that? Does happy=scared now?

  • Sleeping Beauty’s Castle (Fantasyland)

We almost made it through this one. Then at the very end, when you can actually see light from the outside across the floor, the shadow of Maleficent looms repeatedly from around the corner. We were stuck. How to get my boy past the evil fairy? We ended up timing our dash and escaped with our lives. But my boy’s faith in me was irrevocably broken. No more attractions that day.

AttractionsCalifornia Adventure

Next time, we’ll just head straight here. For young kids, this is the place to be. Pixar has a knack for telling stories that touch the child’s heart in each of us, without the over-reliance on the premature orphanage or problematic parenting that permeate almost every Disney movie. Even the Birthday Girl got caught up in the magical realization of Cars Land; Mater beat out all the princesses for bringing a smile to her face. Park employees seemed happier here too, going out of their way to make our experience special (more below), with the notable exception of the no-climbing rule.

  • Tuck and Roll’s Drive ‘Em Buggies (A Bug’s Land)

Fancy name for a bumper car ride, always a hit, no scary tunnels , no ominous corners, just good old fashioned fun. This was the morning my FH just couldn’t face the floor, and kept his feet firmly in bed until noon. Since the buggies only fit two people, and my daughter was too small and my son too scared to ride alone, the Child Switch Pass came in handy. We simply asked for one at the front of the line, and my son went into a corralled area near the ride operators while the Birthday Girl and I rode. Then my children switched places so that 006 could have a go.

I confess my neck was craned toward the waiting area the entire time. Even though it was entirely fenced in, neither of my children had demonstrated the proper regard for chains or barriers at that point, and I didn’t trust the apathetic adolescent ride operators to give a sh*t. But it worked. The child switch pass is also great when one member of the party is too small for a ride: one adult can wait with the little one, and then catch the ride without waiting again in line as soon as the other adult returns to take over childcare. The switch passes are good for a specific ride for the entire day, so if you can come back to the ride later for the no-wait experience if the kids get hungry/tired/cranky/uncooperative before you get your turn.

  • Luigi’s Flying Tires (Cars Land)

A giant tire floats on a cushion of air. The Birthday Girl loved this ride, and as we were the last group of the day, was invited to stay on for a second go, eliminating the “ride’s over” tantrum. The cool air was an ingenious way to refresh riders from the heat, as well.

  • Radiator Springs Racers (Cars Land)

Agent 006 did this with his dad, so I can’t vouch for it, but apparently one of the best features of this attraction is its line. Set up to immerse riders in the experience of the Cars movie, the boys were kept entertained while waiting up to an hour for their ride. Definitely worth getting a fast pass if you’re just in it for the ride, otherwise, go at the end of the day, grab some popcorn at the Cozy Cone, and enjoy the experience of being in line together. The ride is fast and 006 refused to go on it again with me, so I’ll just have to wait for the inside scoop until the next trip.

The Fast Pass is a good idea for this and other rides with waits of over an hour. As you enter the park, you’ll see a line for the Radiator Springs fast pass. The return time is listed at the line entrance, so you know when you’re waiting for the pass approximately when you’ll have to be at the attraction. Used to be that you could go anytime after your listed time, but Disney is cracking down on that and insisting that fast passes be used in the designated hour window printed on the ticket. You can only hold one fast pass at a time, too. For the Radiator Springs ride, there was a city blocks long line at 10 a.m. to get onto the ride at 4 p.m., so we weren’t able to get any other fast passes until we’d used those. What a genius idea: wait in line, so you don’t have to wait in line. Hmmm. Did I get that right? But in reality, we didn’t use fast passes at all, because getting to scheduled meal reservations was the maximum amount of structure our family could handle.

  • Games of the Boardwalk (Paradise Pier)

This was a lot of fun for the FH. You have to buy a prepaid card to play the games, but that’s actually kind of handy. Here’s how to win a prize. Go to a competitive booth, like “squirt the target,” and line your family of four up on the stools (if you’re lacking four you’ll have to collaborate with another family). That way, the winner will for sure be a member of your family, and if you play twice, that’s two new furry creatures to clutter up your bedroom. Use the package valet service to have your acquisitions sent to the front of the park for later pickup, so you don’t have to carry them around.

  • King Triton’s Carousel (Paradise Pier)

King Triton's Carousel of the Sea

One of the most beautiful carousels I’ve ever seen. I loved the fantastical sea creatures and the short, manageable line. The Birthday Girl would have repeated this ride all afternoon if the FH and I hadn’t been squabbling in response to the low-grade Spousal Friction music being pumped subsonically throughout the resort. Instead, we hightailed it back to the hotel for naps and swimming. Aaaaah.

  • Redwood Creek Challenge Trail (Golden State)

An excellent adventure of mixed merit, but to fully appreciate it you have to hear about the No Climb policy first. My kids loved the Grizzly Peak section of California Adventure: the redwoods, the leaf litter, the pine cones…they yearned toward these bits of the natural world like plants in the desert covet water. But sturdy fences of metal poles separated all such treasures from the paved paths our feet were intended to tread. And the bare minute one of my children set a foot on a pole, a staff member was there to say in a saccharine voice, “Keep your feet on the ground, please. We wouldn’t want you to get hurt!” No, they wouldn’t. Might cost them some revenue. But please! This is a park for children! Where do they get to be children? Explorers, climbers, creators?

So we were really ready for the Challenge Trail when it finally opened around naptime. We’d been waiting all morning and checked twice through some delays. It’s designed more like an attraction than a play area, so it has a deliberate circuit with stations, no doubt intended to increase crowd capacity. But that means that as a parent, you can’t just set yourself at the entrance and let your kids go play. You have to keep them together and stay with them if you want to be sure that they haven’t run off entirely. Poor supervisorial visibility. Strike one. Then there’s the whole cementy, constructed feel of the place. In spite of its name, the materials felt very inorganic, more like a stage set than a play area. Pine cones, please! Strike two.

And of course Disney meant it when they said “challenge.” Because it’s not enough to construct a play area where children’s own imaginations and social structures can provide the entertainment. We have come here to be entertained, so Disney must tell us how to do it. Climb the very high rope structure that 006 (fear of heights) wouldn’t go near. Ride the tire swing zip line that looked like fun, but not to 006 (Birthday Girl, chomping at the bit, is ineligible due to stature). Go into the scary spirit cave where unpredictable noises and lights will terrify your young, again. Strike three. Okay, time to describe one of Disney’s wins.

Cars Land

Cars Land (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Car’s Land

Amazing realization of artistic vision. Of course it helps that Cars is one Disney movie that manages to tell a story that doesn’t hinge on fear. The way to do Cars Land is at sunset, just after the Pixar Parade. Every evening, the resort stages a “lighting ceremony” of the main drag, just like in the movie. You can check at the information booth near the entrance of California Adventure for approximate times.

Characters

This is where the lines really got me down. The Birthday Girl loved the costumed characters, but really didn’t understand why she had to wait in a line to meet them. All the spontaneity of her desire and amazement had completely evaporated by the time she’d been escorted uncomprehending to the tail of a line. I dealt with this by asking her periodically while waiting in line, Is this still what you want to do, or would you like to do something else now? She never lasted five minutes. It made me nostalgic for the imagined but never experienced days when characters walked through the park and children could just run up for a hug. Now the characters have “handlers” and schedules, just like any other celebrity.

ButtonsDSC_0019

The buttons were a delightful surprise. After meeting Mater, the Birthday Girl asked where we could go to see the “Lion King.” “Honey, I don’t think the Lion King is here in Cars Land.” This upset her greatly. “No, the LION KING!” she said, voice escalating slightly. A few more increasingly emotional back-and-forths, and I realized what she meant. “Oh, you want to see Lightning McQueen!” Okay. Turn to the phalanx of red-clad, white gloved employees standing by to keep children from climbing anything,  who politely informed us that Lightning McQueen had gone back to his garage for the day. “But here, have a button,” one offered. And so we realized that buttons could be had for the asking, not just for Birthday Girls at expensive princess engagements. Buttons were a THING. The Birthday Girl got another one spontaneously at Luigi’s Flying Tires, since she insisted on holding the gate open for every last exiting rider. An attendant noticed her exquisite manners, praised her a-la-Disney (yes, we are all about cultural compliance in this company), and rewarded her with a button. But nowhere, anywhere, had I read or heard about buttons, so it was kind of a treat to feel like insiders for once in this strange, strange land.

The Grand Californian Lobby Adventure

Just for a cool, quiet break from it all, head to the lobby of this gorgeous hotel. You’ll have to endure Turnstile Tedium to get in and out, but it’s worth it to sit on smooth leather ottomans in a building with a ceiling so high, sound whispers away. But back to the turnstiles, because you will have to go back, again and again…Disney must have the single most tedious and inefficient method for getting people into its parks ever invented. First you have to get your bags checked, but so cursorily that anyone could be bringing anything they wanted into the parks, which means you’re just waiting in line to give some supervisor somewhere the satisfaction of illusory safety. Then you wait in line to have your ticket laser-scanned. But that’s not enough. If you have a multiple day pass, you must submit to having your photo taken on some employee’s iPhone. So the laser-scan is not enough, you also have to say your name out loud, display your hand stamp, AND have your ticket scanned by the iPhone so they can check their photo against your face before letting you back into the park, via the long awaited turnstile.

I don’t remember how Universal Studios Islands of Adventure managed their turnstiles, except for one brief, exhilarated moment of awe: Wow, they’ve really gotten sophisticated with this! And I don’t even remember what amazing, invisible, instantaneous technology they used to process park entrants, because I didn’t have to stand in line with two impatient kids watching every single person in front of us endure the same tedious process, over and over again.

The Lines, the Crowds, the Noise, the Attitude

Okay, I’ve complained nearly enough for one post. Obviously the time to go to the Disneyland Resort is off-season, before noon or after 4 p.m. Because even in March the crowds and the lines got crazy middafternoon. So, it’s a theme park. It’s gonna be crowded. I can live with that. I will say that California Adventure was much better engineered for crowds than Disneyland, which makes sense since it’s so much newer (nicer, cleaner and more interesting). But the noise! The minute you set foot in the shuttle drop-off area by the front entrance to both parks, you will be bombarded with intrusively loud music, and this will plague you persistently throughout your entire visit, to every furthest reach of the resort. There is no escape from happy here: You VILL listen to our music. It bordered on torture. Universal Studios Islands of Adventure expertly used piped music to set the mood, to subtly differentiate one area of the park from another. Disney, for all its long history with music, gets this one wrong in the simplest way possible–they just need to turn down the volume. The constant noise creates an unnecessary level of stress and weariness. Combined with the attitude of employees who clearly couldn’t care less about anything but making a buck, the noise seriously impinged the magic of our visit.

“Magic” Morning

Don’t fall for this. Nothing magic about it at all. On Park Hopper tickets, one of the sells is that at least one morning will be your “Magic Morning.” That is to say, you’ll be admitted to the park an hour before the general public. Ought to make you feel pretty special, right? Short lines, no crowds…except this is what’s really happening. California Adventure is closed for Magic Morning, so that leaves Disneyland. And not all of Disneyland–at most two sections will be open, with the rest roped off for the squirrels. In the sections that are open, half the rides will still be undergoing testing and be closed. So the overall effect is the same level of crowdedness and the same length of lines as anytime else. AND, there will be an additional identity check within the park to make sure you’re a Magic Morning ticket holder and eligible for this privilege, just in case the turnstile tedium wasn’t enough for you.

Magic Guide App

Worth every penny at only 3.99. You want this blue one for Disney World, and the pink app for Disneyland. This has got it all: wait times, maps, hours and events, and dining options, plus lots of bonus info, all in a straightforward, attractive, easy-to-navigate format. Each of these features is offered as a separate app for free, but I highly recommend paying for the all-in-one app, because then you can roam from feature to feature (wait times to map, for instance), without switching apps. I especially loved the information in the dining section; it includes full menus for each restaurant, and you can call to make reservations straight from the app. Definitely download this before you go, as your signal may not support a full download once you’re in the park, and then you’ll be stuck with those floppy, disintegrating paper map thingies.

Things We Missed in Disneyland

Okay, I actually think we would have had a good time on these attractions (with the possible exception of It’s a Small World–my children no longer trust Disney buildings that swallow them). But since I never figured out how to manage the crowds, the heat and the timing of a day at Disney, we didn’t get to them.

  • Attractions: Carrousel, Casey Jr. Circus Train, It’s A Small World, Pixie Hollow (Fantasyland); Mickey’s Toontown; Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes, Mark Twain Riverboat, Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer’s Island, Sailing Ship Columbia (Frontierland); Jungle Cruise (Adventureland)
  • Shows: Mickey’s Soundsational Parade

Things We Missed in California Adventure

  • Attractions: Flik’s Flyers, Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train, Princess Dot Puddle Park (A Bug’s Land); Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree (Cars Land)
A Bug's Land

A Bug’s Land (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the time we got to Bug’s Land, my daughter wouldn’t go on any ride that had a corner. If she couldn’t see the whole thing, the attraction was fatally suspect. So even the very mild Chew Chew Train got a resounding pass from my three-year old. If we had gone to Bug’s Land before Disneyland, we might have had a different experience. Although I have to say that the Birthday Girl’s mild insect phobia was a slight impediment to relaxation. Piped chirping and whizzing sounds periodically freaked her out if we stood too close to the shrubbery.

  • Shows: Disney’s Aladdin, Pixar’s Play Parade–the timing and interest never coincided for these two shows, but I suspect they would have been hits if we had managed to catch them.

You’ve read all the way to the bottom of Disney… and here’s the wisest thing I have to say about it. If you’re planning a trip to Disney, stop. If you still must go, don’t plan it. Just go. Aside from making a few timely restaurant reservations, don’t try to figure out ahead of time what will be fun and what you “must” do. Chances are if you think it will be fun, your children will be sobbing and begging to get off. I’ve heard about two-year olds who loved the Tower of Terror. Every child is different, and trying to figure out what’s right for your child by listening to other parents (including me) will never work. If you think that you simply MUST visit a certain attraction or meet a certain character for your Disney experience to be complete, let it go–that will surely be the attraction that’s closed or the line that’s impossibly long. Just go, BE there, see what you see and do what you do.

And I will say this: for us, Disneyland was not the kind of place where you just show up and start having fun. It takes a certain amount of savvy to navigate the Happiest Place on Earth, savvy you’ll definitely develop over the course of your visit. But in my opinion, fun shouldn’t have to be a learned event. We’ll try again, but until then the world may have its Disney. We’ll ride our bikes to the park, instead.

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5 thoughts on “Disneyland for the Fainthearted

  1. Hi there. I’m a 9 year Annual Passholder for the Disneyland Resort and I have seen many changes in those 9 years. Mostly bad 😦

    The crowds are horrible now. I remember back in 2005, there was an “off” season (mostly in February and October). Not any more. It’s crowded 365 days a year. The customer service, is worse. I have MANY stories of things I’ve seen and what CM’s allow, including but not limited to allowing line jumpers and doing nothing about it.

    Radiator Spring Racers has a Single Rider line that is usually only about 10-15 minutes long. So you could have rode RSR’s real quick on your own since your boy didn’t want to ride again.
    And the reason that you have to show your ticket, ID, say your name, etc. at the turnstiles to enter the parks is because Disney has had a problem with ticket scalpers. What people would do is by multiple day passes, use it for one day, then “sell” or even rent it to others to use. This is against Disney policy as tickets are not supposed to be re-sold. So this whole procedure at the front gate is really not Disney’s fault. They are trying to cut back on the re-selling of tickets.

    I do not think a 2 year old can ride Tower of Terror though. I believe its 48 inches. I know that my son has been tall enough to ride for a while, yet won’t. It’s a pretty intense ride.

    I miss Ariel’s Grotto. I used to go there when my boy was younger and didn’t mind going to a Princess dinner. The food and presentation was really great, as you say.

    I do not know how people who don’t have passes get to enjoy all of the parks. I usually go on Friday evenings and sometimes, I sit in the Redcreek Challenge Trail while my kid runs around for hours, then maybe eat something then go home. But sometimes, we get lucky and can ride up to 4 major rides in one evening then go home. It’s hit or miss.

    • Thanks so much for commenting. I was hoping to hear from an established Disney fan. Sounds like you live close enough to be really expert. In all, we had good times. It just felt like it took a lot of work on my part to make that happen. It didn’t help that my husband was jet-lagged and I was PMSing…poor Mickey didn’t really stand a chance against those odds!

      • I live about 40 minutes away from Disneyland Resort. I do not know how families do it ALL day there. I can do at the most 4 or 5 hours before needing ibuprofen for my feet and a drink.

  2. You nailed it! Anyhow there is still some time of the year that the line will be slightly shorter. Like Claudia Bette said it used to be February and October but not anymore. From my experience, December about a week after Thanksgiving and a week before Christmas, January after 15th of January to about first week of February, October is a nice month to go too. These are the time that the lines are not as long and not so hot climate so people and kids smell better. Fast pass always help too.

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