Older attractions still appeal, while fresh thrills keep fans returning
When my adventurous eight-year-old resorted to a sympathetic pep talk to convince me to ride Disneyland's Space Mountain with him, the role-reversal was too embarrassing to refuse.
On that magical, starlit, pleasantly disorienting plunge, with my son holding my hand, I had my Disneyland moment: the thrill of a great ride shared with an ecstatic child.
At its worst, Disneyland with kids, like any amusement park, can be hot, crowded and tantrum-inducing. At its best, on a quiet, January weekday when there are virtually no lineups for any ride, including Space Mountain, and the weather is California-cool, it's a great place to experience that famed Disney magic.
Having been many years earlier without children, back in the days before FastPasses, Finding Nemo and California Adventure (the sister park next-door), Disneyland was a different experience with kids. But in many ways, it was more fun to see the Magic Kingdom through the eyes of its target audience.
This time around, I missed the Indiana Jones ride because my younger son refused to get on. When we talked him into trying the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, assuring him it wasn't really scary, he was terrified and spent most of the time alternately covering his eyes and whimpering.
But without kids, I likely wouldn't have tried Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters, at least not seven or eight times. I wouldn't have seen my young pirate-phobe transform bravely into a Jedi Knight battling Darth Maul. And I might very well not have ridden Space Mountain, my new favourite Disneyland ride, though it's been around for more than 20 years. On my first visit, when I was wowed by Indiana Jones Adventure, Space Mountain must have been down for repairs, or I was too chicken to ride it - I can't recall which.
With one thrill-seeking child and one thrill-averse, we split up for some of the time to satisfy each child's individual tastes. But because the park is more about the Disney "experience" than death-defying rides, there were enough special-effects-laden attractions to appeal to us all.
California Adventure, the smaller, newer Disney theme park next door to Disneyland, has the token big roller coaster (California Screamin'), a terrifying drop ride (Tower of Terror) and a few of the aforementioned, not-to-be missed experience rides such as Soarin' Over California (a hang-glider simulator) and Toy Story Mania (a new, 3-D, midway-game ride/experience) to make it worth a visit too.
It's that Disney experience and the impressive effects on many rides, such as the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, that keep people coming back. For the hardcore adrenalin junkie, there's always Six Flags.
The best guide to the park we found, particularly for the rides, was The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland by Bob Sehlinger. Skip over the beginning bits that offer militaristically precise park itineraries and a few ridiculous suggestions, such buying a wardrobe of matching T-shirts and shorts for the whole family so no one gets lost. Instead, go right to the detailed ride descriptions, which are a huge help in deciding what your kids might like. Many of the rides are configured so they can't really be seen from the queuing areas, making it hard to judge on the fly whether they're dark/scary/bumpy/loud or otherwise freakout-inducing for your child.
If you rent a car or drive, the parking setup at Disneyland is worthy of being called the Happiest Place on Earth. With the three-day, park-hopper passes we bought in advance, it was free. Smiling, endlessly efficient Disney staff showed us where to park, where to board the shuttle and then drove us to the park gate. Efficient shuttle buses also run from almost every hotel to the park.
If you want to avoid the crowds, aim to go mid-week and avoid school breaks. It really does make a huge difference when the lineup for each ride is measured in minutes instead of hours. Be sure to avoid U.S. holidays, too - we arrived right after the reported madness of the Martin Luther King Day long weekend - and find out when the huge conventions are going on in Anaheim, so you can miss their attendant crowds.
For hotels, we found a great deal on priceline.com, which lets you bid on hotel room rates in various cities. You can specify the general location (in Anaheim, near the park) and the star rating of the hotel, then put in an offer. The only catch is that if a hotel meets your criteria, you must take it and pay for the room in advance. Still, we got a nice, three-star hotel room for $50 US a night.
The oft-heard recommendations to bring your own food to the park should be heeded, even if it's just a backpack with water bottles and snacks to tide everyone over between rides. Food in the park is expensive, mediocre, and on busy days, can take a long time to get.
Still, the most remarkable thing about Disneyland is how, well, remarkable most of it remains. It is unfailingly spotless and well-maintained, the older attractions have managed to keep their appeal while enough new and impressive rides have been added to keep it feeling fresh.
RIDES TO REMEMBER
Here were some of our family's favourites:
- Space Mountain
- Indiana Jones Adventure
- Splash Mountain
- Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
- Peter Pan's Flight (for younger kids)
- Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters (for everyone)
- Jedi Training Academy (a show in which kids chosen from the audience are invited to participate in Jedi training - for your family's Star Wars fans)
And at California Adventure:
- California Screamin' and Tower of Terror (for the adrenalin junkies)
- Soarin' Over California and Toy Story Mania (for everyone)