My family has a big thing for Disneyland. My mom spent her formative childhood years growing up in Southern California. Many of her favorite memories come from day trips to the park.
The cool thing about Disneyland (and what Disney purists tend to mention every chance they get) is that it’s been around since 1955, with many of its original rides still intact and operational. It’s an impressive feat, and really special for that generation that can return and share those experiences with their grandkids.
My wife and I also got engaged on our last trip to Disneyland in 2010. I proposed right in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.
This trip was my four year old daughter’s first visit to Disneyland. It was also her first plane ride and first time leaving our home state of Texas. And all of this merely a week after I had an exhausting weekend trip with PAX South!
We arrived mid-day Sunday at the Grand Californian Hotel. It’s the closest to the parks – you can actually walk directly from the hotel to Disney’s California Adventure. Since we had the little one we headed over to A Bug’s Land, a fun little kid-friendly zone designed specifically for preschoolers.
California Adventure used to be a tough sell compared to its bigger cousin Disneyland, but in the decade-plus since it’s opening they’ve added a bunch of great Pixar themed zones and rides and made it much more kid-friendly.
We had an early dinner at Trattoria and had the fortune of catching the mid-day parade, which was full of Pixar floats and characters, much to my daughter’s delight.
We walked around a bit more than turned in and put the little one to bed. A three hour plane ride can take a lot out of you. My mom offered to watch her for the evening so us “kids” (my wife, my sister, and me) could enjoy the park’s night life.
Despite having gone to Disneyland a number of times growing up (I believe we figured out this was my fifth trip) I’d never spent much time in the park after dark. It’s pretty awesome! Sunday the park was open until midnight and the crowds cleared out.
My sister met a local, season-pass holding friend in Disneyland and we managed to practically walk on to four different rides in the span of about two hours – Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Indiana Jones, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. We tried to squeeze in the Matterhorn but it was temporarily closed, and we were exhausted.
I was very thankful for this opportunity as my daughter wouldn’t have ridden any of those rides, and that ended up being my one chance to ride most of them.
On Monday we wanted to get going early for the Magic Hour. Staying in one of the Disneyland hotels means you can get in the park an hour early before it’s open to the public. The day switch off between early admission to Disneyland and California Adventure. Monday’s was California Adventure and we were determined to jump on the newest and most popular ride, Radiator Springs.
Well any parent of a young kid knows how they can slow you down. By the time 8am rolled around we were still standing in the security line. Meanwhile my dad and sister and made it onto the ride – only to have it break down! They would sit there while we made it all the way into the park and the queue line, but eventually they unloaded it. They did it special raincheck fast passes that let them (and my wife and I) back onto the ride at any time.
So we ran over to California Screamin’ and jumped in. Early morning is still a great time but these few days would end up extremely crowded with temperatures in the upper 80s – ugh! We did not leave Texas desiring warmer weather!
Screamin’ is a lot of fun, my wife particularly enjoyed it and wanted to jump on it again, though the line was already significantly longer when we got off. We met back up with my mom and daughter who had spent more time in A Bug’s Land.
We all went to Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, a delightful little slow ride that takes you through the whole movie with singing and animitronics. I think it’s only a few years old but it’s an example of an excellent younger kid ride that California Adventure desperately needed. My daughter and mom and would end up riding it a second time while the rest of us skirted back to Car’s Land to take advantage of that fast pass, and waltz right up to Radiator Springs.
Radiator Springs is a Cars-themed ride. The first half takes you through a bit of the town and residents of the film, while the second is a thrilling race outside. It’s a neat combination and a fun ride, but I certainly would never wait more than 40 minutes for any ride, and it was consistently a 60+ minute wait. Yay for fast passes and morning break downs!
Afterward we met up again and headed over to Hollywoodland to meet Elsa and Anna. The Animation Academy has one of the neatest queue lines I’ve ever seen, with multiple giant screens showcasing classic musical numbers along with sketches, storyboards, and computer templates. Very cool!
My daughter’s a bit shy. She completely clams up when the big costumed characters are around (she likes seeing them, just not being near them). I was a bit dismayed that she acted the same away around a pair of princesses (well, Elsa’s a Queen technically). She later claimed she enjoyed meeting them, and to their credit they were extremely nice.
We finally headed over to Disneyland for lunch. Half the family had yet to see the main park at this point! My sister had gotten us reservations at Carnation Cafe right on Main Street.
Right when we got out we caught a special parade for Superbowl Champion Peyton Manning, who was waving along with his kids on a special float. You know that old joke when asked “You just won the Superbowl what are you gonna do now?” Apparently they really do go to Disneyland!
At this point it was hot as balls and queue lines were long everywhere. Who would’ve thunk it would be so hot and crowded on a Monday in February?
We made it over to Toontown to explore Mickey’s house. My daughter wanted to meet him and was super shy again, but she loved seeing him. We tried doing Gadget’s Go-Coaster but the ride spins around the queue line, and after a few go-arounds she gave us a big NOPE.
We’d split up again with my wife and I back on parental duty while the others went to the other side of the park. We retreated to Tomorrowland and got fast passes for Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters, then did some shopping.
I really enjoy collecting the pins and displaying them on a worn lanyard. I had about half a dozen from my last trip in 2010 and ended up more than doubling that amount this trip!
We met back up with the family and enjoyed riding Alice in Wonderland, one of the better classic slow rides. It was one of my daughter’s favorites, and we’d end up riding it again the next day.
Dinner was at the Blue Bayou, the restaurant inside Pirates of the Caribbean that we always have to eat at. It’s really good food too, lots of gumbo, jambalaya and seafood plates. It’s also quite dark and my daughter ended up falling asleep!
We took advantage of her sleeping in the stroller and took turns jumping on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, then Astro Blasters. The Paint the Night Parade was going on and she slept right through it, but I was determined to watch the whole thing in full on our last night tomorrow.
Tuesday was Magic Hour for Disneyland, and the ride to jump on is the 60 year old Peter Pan. This time we got up and going early and were actually among the first inside the park.
We all huffed it through the castle only to find Peter Pan temporarily closed. Rats! We jumped on the vastly inferior (and overly creepy) Snow White’s Scary Adventures, followed by Alice in Wonderland. We then checked Peter Pan and it was open – with the line out the castle! Peter Pan is notoriously popular with a minimum wait time of 30-40 minutes. We’d already lost our fast window.
We did the classic It’s a Small World ride, a perennial children’s favorite. It’s also a good one to do early as that line has zero shade! Thankfully we jumped on quickly and my daughter was entranced with all the singing dolls.
Tuesday was also the hottest day, and the sun was rapidly doing its job. We opted to wait in line for Storybook Canal, a brutally tiny queue line that just bakes in the sun. Disney has done a poor job updating the old queues with so much as an umbrella, and we were sweltering.
It’s a cute ride through some miniatures but my daughter mostly just wanted to travel through the whale from Pinocchio.
This is a great example of updating an older, classic ride by fitting in a modern film and using some fancy animations to show the characters. The submarine is immersive and fun and my daughter got a real kick out of it.
We split up for lunch and did some shopping. I enjoyed the Star Wars shop in Tomorrowland. Star Wars is pretty damn popular again and the shop was bustling. I even built my own lightsaber at this awesome little station they had set up.
With the heat still oppressive and my daughter getting cranky we decided to retreat back to the hotel for a mid-day rest. We had grabbed fast passes for the now-popular-again Star Tours, but it was temporarily closed when we tried to go and we’d end up not going at all. That and Peter Pan were my big regrets this trip, and both due to bad timing on broken rides.
We briefly entertained going down to the hotel pool but we were ultimately too tired from getting such an early start each day. Instead we moved our dinner reservation up and had a nice, if incredibly long dinner at Catal in Downtown Disney.
Downtown Disney is the fun section of shops and restaurants that runs the length between the old Disneyland Resort and the two parks. We’d spend a few hours on our fourth day exploring the neat shops – mainly the Lego store and the gigantic World of Disney gift shop.
Newly refreshed we wanted to spend some more time in the park in the evening. Sadly dinner took forever (almost two hours) and by the time we got back it was almost time for the parade. The park was still annoyingly packed and finding a decent spot proved tricky.
The Paint the Night parade was probably the highlight of the whole trip for me. Remember, I hadn’t spent much time in the park in the evening and I don’t remember ever seeing the night parade.
It was absolutely incredible. My daughter was ecstatic the whole time. Giant moving floats for Beauty and the Beast, Monsters Inc, Cars, Frozen, Toy Story, The Little Mermaid and more combined animated displays with lights, moving parts, and characters in a fantastic display, all set to memorable classic songs. Just fantastic.
We had a bit of time on our last day, our travel day home. We spent a few hours exploring Downtown Disney and doing some shopping. The Lego store wasn’t all that big but the displays were impressive and appropriately Disney-themed.
Despite the strange crowds and freak heat wave we had a great time. It was a blast taking my daughter on her first big vacation trip and I know my folks had an amazing time getting to share this experience with their kids and grandkid.
Disneyland is a unique park that you can go back to decades later and be both delighted with the updates and nostalgic with the classics. My goal is for my daughter to form these same nostalgic memories with the Happiest Place on Earth.