There is nothing like a trip to Disneyland to make you think you are a Disney expert. I’m no exception. But my recent trip to The Magic Kingdom with my friend Susi and my Goddaughter, Amelia May, was such an unqualified success, I feel some justification for writing this post. I make no claims to knowing all the ins and outs of doing Disney, but I orchestrated a perfect first Disney experience for a five-year old. And that’s something. There were a lot of things that could have derailed this trip — we went in the off-season when many attractions aren’t open; the temperature soared to a near record-breaking 101 on each of our days there; and I hadn’t been to Disneyland in more than 30 years, so I had no clue about the new attractions. None of that mattered, or, at the least, we found workarounds. It helped to have two very enthusiastic and flexible ladies along for the ride. So, fair warning, your mileage may vary. But for what it’s worth, here’s what I recommend.
1. Do your homework! I bought two books that promised to crack the Disney Code. I can’t remember the name of the first one, but the one that proved invaluable was The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland 2014 (it seems to get updated every year). It’s called “unofficial” because the authors are in no way affiliated with Disney, nor do they get any promotional consideration. They buy their own tickets and scope out Disney undercover. They also heavily season their guides with the comments and tips of real live parents. What I found particularly important were the parts that covered the scare factor of various rides and the Day Plans that got you to key rides ahead of the crowds. In addition, I called the Disney Travel Agency so many times they started recognizing my voice. They were unfailingly polite in answering all my questions about where to track down Princesses and Fairies and where best to see the parade and light shows. Also consult the Official Disneyland Website. It’s got all the latest on which rides are open, which parks have early openings, parades, shows and fireworks.
2. Go Big! There are no cheap or discounted Disney discounts, as far as I could find, so you might as well go for broke. I bought my tickets through the Disney Travel Agency (reach them through the Disney website) and was pleased with the breaks I got for Triple A, AARP and the package they steered me toward. I also felt a certain amount of safety in having bought through Disney. I’d hate to show up at Mickey’s place and find I had counterfeit tickets. Plus they sent my tickets to me in a variety of special Disney packages stuffed with goodies and coupons and various treats that kind of got the magic going early. One great little bennie was an official Disneyland luggage tag for each person in our party. They were thick, sturdy, embossed and had great images of Mickey, Donald and Minnie. They’ll be keepsakes for a long time.
3. Stay in a Disneyland Hotel. If you read The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland, you’ll find reader after reader echoing our experience: we thought staying at a Disneyland hotel would be a special treat. In retrospect, it was a necessity. There are three Disneyland hotels that are all just outside the gates of Disneyland: Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa, Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel, and The Disneyland Hotel. Staying at one of them means you get to get in the parks an hour ahead of general opening. It also means you can walk to the monorail or even into the parks. That makes it possible to do parks in the morning, go home for a swim and a nap, then go back to the parks for a few more rides and the parades. With a five-year old, this was key. We chose the The Disneyland Hotel and it was fabulous. The staff had that same super-friendly Disney attitude, we had a view of the park from our room and Goofy and other characters showed up to roam the lobby. Plus, the pools and the waterslides counted as one of Amelia’s favorite “rides”.
4. Consider Club Level. This is a big splurge and needs to be booked early as Club Level is only available on the top three floors of one of the towers. But we worked the hell out of it and found it well worth it. The Club Level offers you access to a lounge that is akin to a good Business Class Airline Lounge. There are snacks, fruit, water, juices and wine and beer available 24/7. They offer a pretty good breakfast — mostly Continental but including hard-boiled eggs and cereal. In the evening there is a wine and cheese reception and various appetizers (Amelia recommends the macaroni and cheese balls). After the dinner hour, there are a variety of desserts laid out. Because Amelia eats like a bird, we ate most of our meals out of the lounge. We certainly stayed hydrated there. As we were off-season and mid-week, there were no fireworks shows. But when there are, you can watch them from the large picture windows in the Club with a piped in soundtrack. The Club was also permanently staffed with helpful Disney “Cast Members” who answered any question we had about the day’s events. Again, we found the Club indispensable, and we were there about 5 times a day. Just being able to roll out of bed, throw on clothes and get breakfast with a two-floor ride in the elevator with no lines and none of the hassle of negotiating a restaurant was one of the things that got us out to the park fast enough to enjoy early opening “Magic Hour”. Again, that 24/7 access to wine and beer may also be helpful to parents.
5. Make a plan and stay flexible. Having no idea what Amelia’s stamina and tolerance for Disney excitement would be, we decided what were “must sees”. Then we resolved to not sweat it if we didn’t see anything else. As you learned in my previous posts, Princesses and Fairies were a priority. So we resolved to hit Ariel’s Grotto for a Princess Lunch, Pixie Hollow to meet Fairies, we wanted to see the parades, and we hoped to hit some of the classic Disney rides we remembered as children: the Mad Hatter teacups, The Enchanted Tiki Room, and Tom Sawyer’s Island. Basically, we structured our trip to be 80% Fantasyland with a foray to the section of California Adventure that is home to Ariel the Little Mermaid-themed rides and experiences. We did most of that and much more, although we never could lure Amelia into The Enchanted Tiki Room. We also ran into some unexpected snags: Amelia flat out refused to go in Sleeping Beauty’s Castle as she suddenly developed a fear that the Wicked Queen would jump out at her. But she was fearless on the Astro-Orbitor and she made us ride Ariel’s Undersea Adventure three times despite the inclusion of Ursula the Sea Hag. One thing we didn’t plan for, but quickly learned to embrace, is that a “ride” can be defined differently by a pre-schooler. Some of Amelia’s favorite non-traditional rides were the water slides at the pool, the Lego Store and the fountains at Downtown Disney and the Disneyland Railroad.
6. See the parades. See them every night. The current attraction is Mickey’s Soundtastic Parade and it is, well, soundtastic. The quality of the music, performances and floats are spectacular. Each float is themed to a certain Disney movie and is preceded and followed by themed dancing groups. It was so good, we went back to see it all over again the next night and would have seen it on the third day if we hadn’t had to catch a plane. The great thing about the parade is that there are so many great vantage points to view it (The Unofficial Disney Guide gives you some good tips.) Even if you are way in the back, the floats are so tall, you’ll still get a spectacle.
7. Classic Disney is still the way to go. Perhaps our experience would have been different with 8 and 10 year old boys in tow. But if you are with a pre-schooler, good old-fashioned classic Disney still has the power to enchant. It was heartening to see that even in an era of iPads, YouTube, and special effects and computer-generated animation, Storybookland — where you ride a canal barge through several beautifully crafted scenes from classic Disney stories — still held Amelia and every kid on that boat enchanted.
I could go on, but I’m verklempt at how wonderful Disneyland still was even decades after I first saw it at age 10. I suggest planning and organizing, but maybe that isn’t really necessary. Maybe there could never be a bad Disneyland experience. I’m convinced that regardless of how technology changes and no matter how jaded we get, the Magic Kingdom will not fail to enchant.