A Reluctant Mouseketeer does her First Disney Vacation

I was being forced to take a Disney vacation. A dream come true for others? Yes, but it was an unwanted shock to me.

As a child of the ’50s I was devoted to every incarnation of the Walt Disney anthology television series. Each Sunday night I had a regular appointment with the TV, sitting rapt in front our old Philco during "Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” even though our set was limited to black and white. Still, when it came to actually taking a Disney vacation, I couldn’t be less interested.

At an early age I had been traumatized by a local roller coaster ride — which I had begged to be taken on — and, consequentially, theme park attractions lost their luster. Tinkerbell, yes; rides that looked like complicated knitting patterns, no way.

What to do, then, when faced with the mission of taking a Disney vacation in order to research Anaheim's Disney parks? Reach out for moral support and call the most fearless person I know: my 19-yearold niece, Amy. When visting me in the Seattle area a few summers back, she rode a flight simulator at The Museum of Flight from which strapping young men emerged palegreen and trembling. Amy came out giggling and wanting to go again. Unquestionably, she is the proper guru to shepherd me through theme park enlightenment. I knew she'd be up for a Disney vacation!

California Here We Come

By happy coincidence, Amy’s winter break from college studies in Michigan aligns with the late-February week I’ve chosen for our Disney vacation. Frequent-flyer miles are transformed into a Detroit-San Diego airline ticket for Amy, I fly out from Seattle, and we meet to camp out luxuriously at WorldMark San Diego - Mission Valley for one night.

The next day we hit the road to Anaheim, an uncomplicated two hour drive along Interstate 5 North. Dolphin's Cove is booked solid during this midwinter vacation week, so we stay at the conveniently located Days Inn & Suites Anaheim at Disneyland Park, part of the Wyndham family of hotels. We have only two full days to spend our Disney vacation exploring both Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure Park (DCA to Disneyphiles), and will be following the touring plans listed in "The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland". Our pre-purchased park tickets aren’t valid until tomorrow, but we’re eager to take a look at our field of engagement.

Plus it’s a sunny 75 degrees outside — a tonic to my Seattle winter rain, and the frigid Michigan temperatures Amy left behind. We unpack quickly and take the easy 15-minute stroll along Harbor Boulevard to the parks. As Amy and I near the entrance gates, the air fills with familiar snippets of soundtracks from various Disney films and we become giddy with excitement. While I still feel a little uneasy, I'm beginning to feel glad that I had decided to take this Disney vacation after all.

We twirl around the esplanade centered between the two parks to catch glimpses of Disney icons: Sleeping Beauty’s castle and the faux-snow-capped peaks of the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride at Disneyland; the enormous rock-hewn Grizzly Peak bear head and the Tower of Terror at DCA. The little kid in me can hardly wait until tomorrow.

What we can explore today is the Downtown Disney District, a 300,000-square-foot dining, shopping and entertainment complex adjacent to the parks. There’s no admission fee to enter this sparkling domain, so Amy and I wander the carefully landscaped streets and take stock of the offerings. Many of the stores and restaurants are chains, providing comfortable familiarity for Disney vacationers: Build-a-Bear workshops, Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Club Libby Lu glamour dress-up for tweens, Jamba Juice smoothies. Raucous laughter tumbles out of the ESPN Zone; driving music pumps through the House of Blues. Everything is bright, pristine and designed to entice. "It’s like a really clean, really pretty outdoor mall,” Amy offers.

"It’s like Las Vegas for children,” I counter, wondering what to expect on Day Two of our Disney vacation.

Tigers at the Gates

In the morning we attempt to keep ahead of the masses by dutifully arriving at Disneyland a full 40 minutes before opening. As recommended by our guide book, we park ourselves in front of Gate 13, and get a little nervous since it’s being used for "Morning Madness” early entry ticket holders only (people purchasing through the Walt Disney Travel Company).

From "The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland", we know that strategy is an important part of a successful Disney vacation. So we decide to divide and conquer: Amy remains at Gate 13 in case it’s opened to all attendees; I wait far back in a regular line. Victory is ours when Amy’s queue is switched over for regular park attendees and she’s at the forefront. A terse woman leading a tour is unhappy with our strategy and tries to bully us to the back of her group, but we hold our ground. You do not mess with Detroit girls.

Still Thriving After All These Years

Disneyland Quick Tips

- Watch the fireworks by Small World instead of in front of the castle. Better yet, watch it from the roof of WorldMark Anaheim.

- Lines are shorter during parades and firework shows.

- The cinema on Main Street is a good place to cool off if it's hot outside.

- Get fastpasses!

Disneyland still radiates much of the gentle charm and nostalgia Walt Disney intended when he created the park on a 107-acre parcel of land encircled with orange groves back in 1955. Vacationers who have enjoyed Disney vacations on both coasts report Disneyland may not be as flashy as its Orlando counterpart, Walt Disney World, but feels more intimate and welcoming.

Eight different themed "lands” dominate the park (with attractions appropriately reflecting their motifs): Main Street, U.S.A., the boulevard running from the entrance gate to the park’s central hub (Disneyland Railroad); Adventureland, infused with a wild safari atmosphere (Indiana Jones Adventure); Frontierland, focused on the Old West (Big Thunder Mountain Railroad); Fantasyland, sweet storybook enchantment for the younger set (Dumbo the Flying Elephant); Tomorrowland, an admittedly retro take on what the future might bring (Space Mountain); Critter Country, pioneer simplicity and down-home hokiness (Splash Mountain); New Orleans Square, Caribbean colonial exoticism (Pirates of the Caribbean); and Mickey’s Toontown, a cartoon community where the primary Disney characters hold court (Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin).

Two principles that unify the entire park: cleanliness and service. Disneyland is startlingly free of debris. Steadfast "cast members” (as park staffers are called) are constantly collecting, bagging and sweeping any trash that dares settle on these enchanted streets. And in spite of dealing with crushing crowds and Southern California heat day in and day out, cast members remain remarkably chipper and eminently helpful. If Uncle Walt’s original vision included ongoing tidiness and good cheer, he can rest easy.

We’re All Keen for a Yellow Submarine

Once the park is officially open we sprint toward Tomorrowland. As far as we're concerned, our Disney vacation has officially BEGUN!

The Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, based on the hit Disney/Pixar animated feature film, tops our Disney vacation must-do list since it’s wildly popular and has a small hourly carrying capacity and therefore stays mobbed all day. We slowly snake forward in the already-substantial line, but once we’re settled into the lemon-hued underwater craft the wait is forgotten. As we sit shoulder-to-shoulder on the sub’s viewing bench and peer through the circular side windows, we putter through a lagoon and then plunge into a watery fantasia of animatronics, projections and special effects. We’re regaled with the captivating antics of Nemo, Dory, and their finned friends; we fly through a dazzling curtain of jellyfish and narrowly escape a fiery undersea volcanic eruption; and take a unexpected journey into the mouth of a whale — and out again. The ride is utterly enchanting and the perfect way to begin our adventure. I begin to grasp what the true essence of Disney magic is: thorough immersion into fully realized, magnificently designed and meticulously engineered alternate universes.

Sweet Laser Revenge

We remain in the realm of Pixar films with our next attraction, Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. Inspired by the spaceman character from "Toy Story,” this interactive indoor track ride equips each person with a laser cannon with which to fire at the evil Emperor Zurg and his underlings. It’s sensory overload and it’s a riot. You slam through the darkness firing your cannon, whirling your car around with a joystick, trying to line up with the laser targets on neon-bright characters popping out of every corner, all to a cacophony of electronic pings, zaps and explosions. Amy and I giggle and spin our way through combat and competition. Each car’s scorekeeping display is independent, so we’re vying with each other for points as we fight Zurg’s army. I’m taken back to a decade-old memory of a laser-tag game with Amy and her siblings where — to the children’s delight and triumph — I was "dead” the entire time and ended up with minus 400 points. As the ride ends I examine our scores and I’m astonished: I’ve scored 40,900 points to Amy’s 8,800. "Look at you, Auntie, you’re fierce!” Amy beams. At this moment, I feel just that.

Space Mountain – the Final Frontier

We’ve cruised through underwater volcanoes and battled evil overlords in the dark, but have yet to encounter my true amusement park nemesis, the reason I was hesitant to take a Disney vacation: a real roller coaster. The moment of truth arrives at Space Mountain, a lightning fast hurtle through a simulated solar system. "You can do this,” Amy reassures me as we board our car. I plant my feet and grip the safety bar. We start screaming immediately as we're swiftly plunged into cool blackness, dipping dramatically and rising suddenly, careening madly through an astonishingly beautiful universe of shimmering stars, swirling galaxies and shooting comets. It’s virtually impossible to see the track ahead of us, so the three-minute adventure is literally a trip into the unknown. Just as my emotions finish shifting from terror to exhilaration, it’s over. I look at Amy’s questioning but hopeful face. "That was COOL!” I exclaim triumphantly. I’ve crossed my Rubicon.

Small Worlds, Huge Thrills and Brilliant Billy Hill

We continue to bop happily from attraction to attraction, alternating between escapes into tender childhood whimsy and bold forays into tantalizing fantasy worlds. We return dreamily to Never Land on the charming gondolas of Peter Pan’s Flight; lurch along crazily (and soggily) among Brer Rabbit and his buddies on the log flume of Splash Mountain; delight to the spectral ghosts that play hide and seek throughout The Haunted Mansion; have a "hunny” of a journey with the world’s sweetest bear in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh; spend a glorious and randy 14 minutes with the automatronic incarnations of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean; and somehow survive a trip in a rickety, runaway coal car threatened by snakes, spiders, lava pits, rats, shredded ropebridges and a gargantuan rolling boulder in the Indiana Jones Adventure.

We slow down only for lunch, stopping at the Golden Horseshoe to enjoy some tasty chicken salads and a bluegrass quartet bearing the regrettable name of Billy Hill and the Hillbillies. Ordinarily, nothing would have drawn us here, but my guidebook poured such lavish compliments on this stage show it warranted investigation. The guide is right: these guys have chops. Four gentlemen, all claiming to be named Bill, blow the roof off the joint with guitar, upright bass, mandolin and fiddle, as they tear through their repertoire of country rock ("Crock”), country disco ("Crisco”) and country rap ("No comment”). They hoot, we holler and all leave thoroughly entertained.

Illumination on Several Levels

Amy and I end our first Disney vacation day by lining up with thousands of other attendees to witness the frosting on the fantasy cupcake: the Parade of Dreams. This lavish entertainment was created for Disneyland as part of the recent 50th-anniversary celebration, and by all reports is the most spectacular parade in Disney history. Eight enormous floats saluting Alice in Wonderland, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio, Aladdin, the Disney Princesses and Mickey and Minnie Mouse make their way majestically through the park, ringed by dancers and entertainers who stop periodically to perform mini revues. The softly glowing lights, dazzling costumes and sheer size of the floats cast a perfect concluding spell.

Gazing on this extraordinary display, I’m blown away by the brilliant craftsmanship lavished on the tiniest detail — both here, and in everything I’ve observed all day. It is this dedication that is the beating heart of Disney’s durable genius. Entire worlds have been faithfully and lovingly recreated for six decades in this place. No wonder generation after generation continues to be held in its sway.

They Could Have Called It Frankenpark

Disney’s California Adventure, while also extremely popular, does not quite have the cachet of Disneyland and tends to be more manageable to maneuver. Created in 2001, DCA was a late response to Disneyland fans enviously rallying for an additional Anaheim park when the Epcot went up in Orlando — in 1982. Like anything that has the misfortune of being designed by committee, DCA feels cobbled together, and the various worlds don’t seem to complement each other as well as they do in Disneyland.

But, because it's less crowded, our Disney vacation at last takes on a slower, more relaxed, vacationier pace.

The park’s 55 acres encompass the Hollywood Pictures Backlot, a salute to the old-glamour Hollywood film soundstages; Golden State, a celebration of California’s diverse contributions such as artisans and craftsmen (Bay Area), aviation (Condor Flats), wine production (Golden Vine Winery) and outdoor adventure (Grizzly Peak); A Bug’s Land, the little-kid domain; and Paradise Pier, a recreation of early-20th century seaside amusement parks. Though not exactly a cohesive universe, DCA still offers some rollicking good fun.

Flying High; Getting Wet

Amy and I begin our Disney Vacation Day Number Three by flying, emotionally if not quite literally. Soarin’ Over California simulates a hang-glider adventure over the Golden State with the help of suspended seating and IMAX theatre technology. The images of California are stunning, and the sensation of being airborne -— you’ll swear you’re constantly moving forward — is enhanced with blowing wind, sounds of the ocean, and even the scent of oranges floating up from a grove. Our spirits stay high well after our feet touch back down.

The euphoria continues with the Grizzly River Run, an unguided white-water ride down a man-made river in circular rubber rafts. Since the rafts float free, travel up a 50-foot climb and plummet down a couple of drops (one a 22-footer), getting wet is inevitable. Four other people in our raft wear rain ponchos; Amy and I decide to let the drops fall where they may and have the total experience.

We shriek through the nearly six-minute voyage of mayhem and moisture, and our heart rates are as elevated as our pants are soaked when the raft bounces back to the boarding dock. Now that’s a fun way to start a day! Over at Paradise Pier the California Screamin’ roller coaster dominates the skyline, with a giant head of Mickey Mouse made of coaster track clearly indicating exactly where you’ll be upside-down on this ride. As we’ve been walking around familiarizing ourselves with DCA, the ride is constantly in view, and I can hear it mocking me: Yeah, you traveled through space yesterday and survived — but are you ready to be feet over teacup in Mickey’s head? We get in line, and I read up on the ride in "The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland". At 6,800 feet, it’s actually the second longest roller coaster in the United States. It starts off with a 0-to-55 mph launch up a hill. And it "makes Space Mountain look like Dumbo.” Yikes!

Too late now — we strap in and move slowly to the starting track. And then basically get shot out of a cannon. I try to keep my eyes open, but I think actual G-forces are slamming my lids down. We vault up hills, drop down precipices and take turns so sharply it seems inconceivable we won’t fly off the track — all in brilliant sunshine, with blurry vistas of cerulean skies above and sparkling water below flying by. By the time I realize we’ve made the loop in Mickey’s head, we whiz through a couple of camelbacks and we’re done. Amy is howling with delight; I would if my heart would just get out of my throat.

Bugging Out and Not-So-Big Meanies

After defying common sense and gravity it’s time for lighthearted fun, so we head to A Bug’s Land to view the 3-D movie, "It’s Tough to Be a Bug.” The wackiness starts in the theater lobby, where faux show posters advertise productions such as "Web Side Story,” "The Grass Menagerie” and "Barefoot in the Bark.” The film’s premise — the difficulties of being a little bug in a big world — is delivered with the help of characters from the film "a bug’s life,” and is hilariously underscored with special effects that actually reach out and touch you.

Another film-based attraction, Monsters, Inc: Mike and Sulley to the Rescue, is also a total charmer. I’ve never seen the film but it doesn’t seem to matter; I have a completely enjoyable time riding through Monstropolis and monitoring the attempts of nice guys Mike and Sulley to return the wayward Baby Boo to her bedroom. Once again, the Disney attention to every element is astounding and impossible to fully take in on just one viewing. For me, it’s another clarification of why people take Disney vacations over and over again: sometimes it’s for the thrill; sometimes it’s to play a kind of "Where’s Waldo” and find something new in the incredible intricacies of the spectacular surroundings.

Lasting Magic

A Teenager’s View

You’re never too cool for a Disney vacation! Read Amy's take on her first Disney vacation.

With the crowd situation less intense at DCA than at Disneyland, Amy and I are able to have a leisurely day and act on any impulse that tickles our fancy. Kiddie rides such as the Orange Stinger (big swings with a bee motif), Golden Zephyr (mini-zeppelins spinning around a tower) and Mulholland Madness (a small "wild mouse” coaster masquerading as a ride along Los Angeles freeways) prove to be goofy fun and adorable. A trip on the Maliboomer vertical launch and free-fall ride proves to be a leap of faith, as one of the three towers malfunctions and we watch a set of riders stuck high in the sky being slowly lowered down to terra firma. (We ride on one of the other two working towers anyway, with no unpleasant incidents.) Amy and I eventually grab sandwiches and chips at one of the Paradise Pier eateries, and sit outside in the blissfully warm sunshine. I realize that I want our Disney vacation to last forever. Or at least a few more days.

As we sip lemonade and digest, we review the guidebook to see if there are any other essential experiences we need to have before we say goodbye to our Disney vacation. We agree we’ve pretty much "done” both parks, but also feel the need to put some sort of button on this journey. "So how should we end this?” Amy asks.

I give her a big grin: "Let’s go on California Screamin’ one more time.”

She throws her arms around me. "I am so proud of you!” she sings, hugging tight. I return her squeeze. This, for me, is the most magical moment of all.

Note: This article was adapted from an article about a Disney vacation from our owners-only magazine.

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