In the winter of 1979, when I was 8, my family set off from Boston for a vacation at Disney World. On our first day, when the monorail picked us up at our hotel, the ride felt so weightless that I was certain we were flying. After discovering Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a roller coaster just scary enough to make me feel brave, I screamed my way through it 13 times over the next four days, memorizing each twist and dip. Somewhere in my childhood home resides a family photograph of the five of us laughing and clinging to one another after a turn on Space Mountain. Even though minutes after the shutter clicked, my mother fainted from the shock of the jerking ride, and years later my family would fracture in all kinds of unforeseen ways, in that moment, in the moist Florida heat, we were happy.
While I only went on that one memorable Disney vacation, my husband, who grew up in California’s San Fernando Valley, took annual trips to Disneyland. He remembers the thrill of being dismissed early from school so his family could beat the weekend traffic down to Anaheim. He maintains that working up the courage to ride the Matterhorn was his first serious accomplishment—and spurred a lifelong love of adventure sports.
So a couple of years ago, when we headed to Disneyland with our 4-year-old son, Carlos, 14-month-old daughter, Clara, and my mother-in-law, we wondered what memories would follow our kids home. We knew they were too young to fully appreciate the park or even go on many of the rides, but we still wanted to give them a taste of what we both remembered as childhood bliss. Love it or not, Disney has always provided something that other amusement parks don’t—a sense of being sealed off from reality, embedded in a vast fantasy world where cartoon characters mingle with mortals and castles cast shadows on Main Street. But we wondered if it was still possible for us grown-ups—the ones shelling out the money, sprinting back to the hotel for a pacifier, and maneuvering the stroller through the throngs—to experience that magic.
On our first morning in the park, it took a while for the kids to get used to the overwhelming setting—the din of crowds and piped-in music, the scenery that changed from old West (a.k.a. Frontierland) to space age (a.k.a. Tomorrowland) in just a few steps. Not surprisingly, Carlos gravitated toward the low-tech attractions like Tarzan’s Treehouse, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, and the King Arthur Carrousel. In the late afternoon, our flagging son slumped against his dad for the final ride of the day: a journey on the old-fashioned railroad that rolls around the park and through fading dioramas of the Grand Canyon and the Primeval World. When I met them afterward, Carlos ran into my arms and proclaimed that he’d gone to the Grand Canyon. I’m pretty sure he actually believed that he had.
The next day, I was eager to check out the rides I used to love. I led my son to Pirates of the Caribbean. About 30 seconds after we pushed off, we entered pure darkness, and our boat dropped suddenly down a steep hill. Carlos began wailing. I began beating myself up for bringing him on the ride. But as he calmed down, I remembered what I had adored about it as a kid, because I felt it again—the tingling anticipation that happens when you know you’re about to get thoroughly spooked. Later, Carlos declared the ride “cool—except the part when the pirates were pointing guns at our boat.” Fair enough.
As we wandered around the park, it was hard for me not to mourn the Disney of my youth, when the submarine ride didn’t star Nemo and Johnny Depp’s pretty face didn’t pop up among the other pirates’ grizzled mugs. While I was heartbroken to discover that It’s a Small World was closed during our visit, I was even more upset to hear rumors that the attraction is being restyled to include characters from Disney movies. What was wrong with the old Dutch girls in clogs?
Of course, it’s easy to be cynical about Disneyland. Yes, it’s expensive, stressful, and teeming with wannabe princesses. And, yes, the Buzz Lightyear ride deposits you in a gift shop stocked with Pixar merchandise. Yet even though Anaheim isn’t exactly a Tuscan village, our vacation still felt magical. Experiencing it as an adult was refreshing in a way I hadn’t expected—I’ve rarely been anywhere that feels so democratic, with people of every age, race, and background thrown in the same lines together, with the sole purpose of having a blast. And I loved witnessing Carlos’s blossoming sense of daring and adventure, watching him and his father laughing hysterically as they zoomed through the air on the Astro Orbitor. Here, even more so than in real life, my son was free to find out what amazed him and what scared him. For a few days, he got to do nothing but revel in wonder.
On our last night, my husband and I found ourselves in a similar position. With the kids passed out and my mother-in-law asleep in the adjoining room, we snuck out to the park, just the two of us and tens of thousands of Orange County teenagers. We started at my husband’s beloved Matterhorn. We held hands as the line snaked along, realizing that in our 10-year relationship, we had never been on a roller coaster together. As our car lurched forward and began its ascent up the first hill, I clutched his hand and screamed. I screamed out of fear. I screamed because it feels great to scream when you’ve been with children nonstop for days. But most of all, I screamed because I was deliriously, unabashedly happy.
First off, come to terms with the fact that the park is always crowded. According to the Birnbaum Guides (the must-have Disney guidebook), the park is most packed during Christmas, Easter, and summer vacations; Saturdays year-round; and Mondays and Fridays in summer, so avoid those days if you can. Once inside the park, the crowds are thinner on attractions like the Disneyland Railroad, the charmingly retro Enchanted Tiki Room, and the Haunted Mansion. As for where to stay and eat, there are plenty of options—and some are even pretty swanky. It’s also a good idea to book the restaurants ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
Disneyland Hotel: This 1955 hotel promises its guests “classic Disney charm”—which is accurate, if your definition of charm is generous. Of course, my son couldn’t have cared less about the outdated decor and went crazy for the waterslides at the hotel’s 5,000-square-foot pool complete with a pirate ship.
Grand Californian Hotel & Spa: I wish we had splurged on this newer, more luxurious option. Exquisitely designed to resemble the grand national-park lodges built at the turn of the 20th century and appointed in the arts-and-crafts style, it has a cavernous lobby with a fireplace and a piano, three pools, and two whirlpools. And did I mention the spa?
Blue Bayou: On a terrace overlooking the bayou of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, this shadowy lunchtime retreat is lit almost entirely by “fireflies” and “stars” that twinkle above live-oak trees. While the New Orleans-inspired food was so-so, the mellow atmosphere provided a much-needed break from the crowds and the oppressive heat.
Goofy’s Kitchen: If you’re the kind of mother who goes into conniptions should high-fructose corn syrup cross your child’s lips, do not go to Goofy’s Kitchen, one of the park’s several “character restaurants.” If, on the other hand, you can suppress your nutritional edicts for an hour or so, you will see your child enter a state of nirvana, as I did when my son discovered the buffet of cakes, frozen yogurt, Mickey-shaped waffles, crème brulée French toast, hot dogs, and peanut-butter-and-jelly pizza (that’s not a typo). As my son dug into a bowl of “worms in dirt” (crushed chocolate cookies with gummy worms), Alice in Wonderland stopped by our table, introducing herself in a squeaky voice that alarmed my son and delighted my daughter.
Grand Californian’s Napa Rose: Bless its soul, this oasis of calm and civility takes the needs of both adults and children seriously. The list of wines was extensive; my son, meanwhile, could choose from the impressive kids’ menu, which included a petite filet of prime beef, an oak-roasted quesadilla, and a free-range chicken breast. Our kind waiter cooed at my daughter and seemed to think it was charming when my son mixed ketchup into his vanilla ice cream to see if it would turn pink (it did). Was the meal expensive? Yes. Was it worth it to feel catered to and slightly buzzed before heading back to our room for a bath and bedtime? Absolutely.
Check out the menus of all the park restaurants on AllEars, where eateries are broken down by counter service, full service, and quick snacks, and you’ll avoid tantrums from picky eaters (and $10 hotdogs).
The Happiest Potties on Earth: True story, restroom reviews that include a general rating and photographs, plus detailed info including type of changing table, flush method, even color scheme.
Disneyland Interactive Map: Perhaps the coolest thing on YouTube, this video allows you to click on a section of the park and then click on the individual ride to see a video of it. It’s perfect for deciding whether something is too scary (or too boring) for your kids.
Ride Max: Plug in your arrival time and a list of rides you want to take at Disneyland, and this site will create the most efficient order in which to take them. It considers (and lists) the ride time, the estimated wait time, and the walking time to the next attraction.
Disneyland Vacation Tips: Here you’ll find an exhaustive list of park tips from a California mom of two who has visited the park a dozen times. Learn everything from how to sneak your way to the front of the line to avoiding meltdowns to the best parking lots.
Southern California City Pass: If your trip will consist of more than just Disney, this booklet will get you a three-day Disneyland Resort Park Hopper Bonus Ticket, one day at Universal Studios Hollywood, one day at SeaWorld, and one day at the San Diego Zoo or the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park for 30 percent off the regular prices.
Disney eTickets: Buy and print your park-hopper tickets before you go, so there’s one less line, and savings of up to $50 per person.
Photos: Yolanda Edwards and Matthew Hranek