A little bit of background first. I’m a Disney geek (in addition to everything else I am a geek about), and I had just returned from an eight-month internship at Walt Disney World in Florida, where I had the pleasure of having four of the world’s top theme parks literally on my doorstep. So I was suffering from a bit of post-Disney depression, and just like good alcoholics say, the only solution to addiction is to keep being addicted. (Life Pro Tip: no, this isn’t actual advice. If you are suffering from alcoholism, please stop reading my blog immediately and go seek help.)
I went alone, because I have no friends. (This is not a joke – I could count on one hand the number of friends I have that still live in California.) That’s all well and good, though, for reasons I’ll explain later. And besides, it wasn’t my first solo-trip rodeo; when I used to have an Annual Passport, many years ago, I would often go to the parks by myself, grab a mint julep or a churro, and people-watch. None of that today – my time was limited. I dropped a cool $155 on a 1-day Park Hopper, and by golly, I was going to get every cent out of it.
My day started early, although I was glad that the parks only opened at 10:00 AM that day, which allowed me a little bit of leeway as far as traffic went. It turned out I didn’t have to worry about rush hour, and I ended up waiting in front of the gates at 9:00-ish. One hour to go.
In line, I struck up conversation with two girls behind me, who were discussing the College Program. Since I was wearing my DCP alumni shirt, it was a natural segue into conversation from there. I doled out advice (no, the DCP probably isn’t going to be the start of an illustrious Disney career) and sought some of my own (World of Color or Paint The Night?). Time passed quickly, and I found myself inside the gates in no time. It was 9:30.
I snapped a few pics of the 60th Anniversary display they had set up in front of Main Street Station, then I passed under the tunnels. Here you leave the today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.
Here’s the thing about Disneyland: it’s very… small. And cramped. And everything is shrunk down from their Florida counterparts, if you’re coming from there. But I actually like this better; it feels more like an actual Town Square and an actual Main Street to me. Also, unlike the Florida version – which has long since turned into a glorified strip mall – Disneyland still has a working theater that shows classic Mickey cartoons on loop. They still have a Fire Station, and Mr. Lincoln still dazzles with his Audio-Animatronic charm.
As per usual operating procedure, Main Street opened 30 minutes earlier than the rest of the park, allowing guests to roam around and shop and drink their compulsory morning Starbucks. I ignored all of that and went straight to Tomorrowland, where I found myself right behind the ropes. A few minutes later, the rope dropped, and the park was officially open.
I hightailed it – along with most of the rest of the crowd – to Space Mountain. This was the biggest thing I missed about Disney World: a Space Mountain that is actually good. (Sorry, Florida.)
For Halloween, Space Mountain gets a revamp to Space Mountain: Ghost Galaxy, a special makeover that adds a bitchin’ new soundtrack, scary projections and darker… darkness. While I do prefer the original version, Ghost Galaxy is still a treat to ride – and unique to Disneyland, as well.
The ride itself was smooth and thrilling as always, and the opening lift hill never fails to awe, as well as the initial turn high over the rest of the track below. I would’ve gone for a re-ride, but I had an entire day’s worth of attractions to ride, so I left Tomorrowland for Fantasyland, passing by the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage on my right.
The Matterhorn was next on my list. And wow, it sucked more than I remember. It received a fresh coat of paint, new trains, and updated Yeti animatronics, but what’s the point of all of that if the ride literally bruises you?
One ride was more than enough, even though it has two unique tracks. (The Tomorrowland side is better.) I then entered Fantasyland proper. There’s no Seven Dwarfs Mine Train here, but instead, Disneyland’s Fantasyland has a veritable stable of classic attractions that have been maintained in top-notch condition since 1955. There’s Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Peter Pan’s Flight, Alice in Wonderland, Storybook Land Canal Boats, Casey Jr., and the crown jewel of them all, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
In Florida, Toad Hall is long gone, replaced by Pooh and his gang. However, in California, Mr. Toad’s abode still stands in regal splendor, waiting for you to board one of his two-seater jitneys and go for the ride of your life. There was no line – and it was one of the rides on my list for today – so I hopped on for a ride through a cartoonified London, careening my way through libraries and streets and courts of law, finally ending up in Hell. (This ride literally takes you to Hell!)
Next, I swung by Peter Pan’s Flight. This attraction is one of my favorites; it’s got charm dripping out the wazoo, and the nighttime London scene is just magical. Unfortunately, it also tends to build up severe lines from the very beginning of the day; that was the case today, and I wasn’t willing to wait 50 minutes in the sun for a minute-long ride. Maybe next time.
My plan was to grab a Fastpass for Haunted Mansion Holiday, then wait it out until the reserved time with other attractions around that area. However, I passed by Big Thunder Mountain Railroad on my way there, and the five-minute wait time was too enticing to pass up. I’ve never been the biggest fan of “the wildest ride in the wilderness”; the roller coaster itself is decent, if it wasn’t punctuated by three chain lifts just as the train is starting to gain steam (pun very much intended). It’s definitely worth five minutes, though, and through sheer luck, I ended up in the front row. Ten minutes well spent.
I followed the Rivers of America around its southern bend, admiring the Sailing Ship Columbia in the process – a wonderfully detailed scale replica of the colonial sailing ships that used to ply the waters before the age of steam. Disneyland’s river has a lot more activity than the Disney World counterpart, which only offers the Mark Twain and the Tom Sawyer Island rafts. Not only does the Sailing Ship Columbia join the Mark Twain in its voyages around the river, California also offers canoe rides where you can paddle your own oar. (Dryness not guaranteed.)
Haunted Mansion Holiday turned out to be temporarily closed, but the cast members assured us it will be back up and running momentarily. Since I was already in the area, I decided to take a spin on Splash Mountain, even if it was slightly early in the day.
Splash Mountain sits in its own cul-de-sac called Critter Country. I took advantage of my single status to use the single-rider line, going in through the exit for a much shorter wait (this is why going to Disneyland by yourself has its benefits). I enjoy Splash Mountain very much – it’s one of the standouts of the log flume genre – but it wasn’t worth a re-ride today; I had barely gotten wet the first time around, and I didn’t feel like pushing my luck. And, besides, Haunted Mansion Holiday was probably back up and running by now.
Indeed, when I made my way back to New Orleans Square, the attraction had already built up a significant line. I decided to grab a Fastpass for about an hour later, and headed to Pirates of the Caribbean.
The queue line for Pirates snakes its way under a pedestrian bridge and folds into itself numerous times in a fenced-off garden area before making its way up to ground level, finally entering the show building. While the line may look long at first glance, Pirates is a people-eater, thanks to the combination of high-capacity design and the lack of Fastpass. In my case, although the line stretched beyond the initial bridge, my wait time was no longer than 10 minutes.
Pirates of the Caribbean is another case where the California version far outshines its Florida counterpart. (If you’re interested in learning more, I did a whole write-up here.) The ride is twice as long and features several additional scenes and an additional drop at Disneyland. It’s one of my favorite attractions anywhere – one of the perfect examples of the pinnacle of Disney-quality craftsmanship and storytelling.
Perfection should be followed up by perfection, and luckily for me, the Mint Julep Bar was right next door. The mint julep is yet another Disneyland-exclusive food item; it’s a sugary beverage that’s a little minty and lemony at the same time, and served with a mint sprig and a couple of cherries. Unlike the Kentucky original, though, it’s non-alcoholic, but that didn’t stop me from picking one up and drinking the whole thing in a couple of seconds. And, of course, you’ve got to chew on the mint stem. It’s just not the same without it!
I spent a few minutes wandering around New Orleans Square, drinking in the scenery and taking the obligatory snapshot of the Club 33 door handle (Club 33 is an ultra-exclusive club located on the second floor of the New Orleans Square buildings. The wait list is apparently decades long). New Orleans Square is one of the most heavily-themed and immersive lands I’ve ever seen in an Disney park; only my experience at Animal Kingdom is superior. (Read more here.)
Then it was time for Haunted Mansion Holiday. I was excited, since I had never ridden this particular iteration before, but my modest expectations were blown away from the minute I stepped into the stretching room. The grotesque paintings that elongate as you travel downwards are replaced by cartoonish versions of themselves, and Jack Skellington makes an appearance above you. The show continues in the loading hall, where a huge display of ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ characters add some kinetic beauty to the scene. The Ghost Host’s narration has been completely changed, and while I won’t spoil the whole attraction, every inch of every show scene has been tailored to fit the new Christmas narrative – with a Jack Skellington twist. I could definitely see why this holiday overlay was so popular as it is. Brilliant.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye (wow, that’s a mouthful!) was next. It shares the exact same track layout as Dinosaur at Animal Kingdom, but I’ve always been vocal in saying that Indy far outshines its paleontological cousin. The story is tighter and more action-packed, the effects are better (read: no plastic dino heads), and the queue line is out of this world. Also, come on, it’s Indiana Jones!
Afterwards, I took a right, stopping quickly for a delicious skewer from Bengal Barbeque before continuing toward the Hub. By this point, I was getting a little peckish – I had been on my feet all morning, and I had barely eaten breakfast. Thankfully, I spied the Dole Whip stand a little ways down the crowded Adventureland thoroughfare. The Dole Whip is a Disneyland tradition; the line to taste this sweet concoction of pineapple sherbet often stretches all the way down to the Jungle Cruise. Fortunately for me, however, it was still early enough in the morning and the crowds hadn’t fully descended on this little shack yet. I was in and out with my little pineapple cup in less than 10 minutes.
Some people detest the taste of pineapple, and those people I will never understand. I also feel sorry for them, since they will never understand the joy of a sweet, tangy, citrus-y Dole Whip!
As I was snacking on my cup of pineapple-y deliciousness, I discovered the Corn Dog Truck in the far end of the Hub. The hand-dipped corn dogs are yet another bullet point on the long “Must-Have Food Items at Disneyland” list. They’re big, they’re juicy, and they’re perfectly cooked – fluffy on the outside, meaty on the inside with that characteristic hot dog bite. They’re decently cheap, too, which makes it a good choice for an affordable snack or a meal.
As you might know, Disneyland is scheduled to open up its very own Star Wars Land sometime in the next couple of years. While this is undoubtedly good news, in the short term, it meant the imminent closure of nearly a quarter of the park – including the Rivers of America, Tom Sawyer Island and, one of my personal favorites, the Disneyland Railroad. There was a particular reason I wanted to take a spin on the grand circle tour – the amazing, not-at-Disney-World diorama between the Tomorrowland and Main Street stations – so I hoofed it to Fantasyland, still munching on my oversized corn dog, and boarded the train for what would amount to a half-circle tour of the Magic Kingdom.
The diorama, which extends from just after Tomorrowland Station to just before Main Street, is comprised of two fantastic, sweeping set pieces – Primeval World and The Grand Canyon. Both set pieces are painstakingly detailed, featuring painted walls, Audio-Animatronics and dozens of models. The train cars themselves feature piped-in audio.
By this point, it was getting to be afternoon, and I didn’t want to spend all of my day in one park – I did put down good money for a park hopper, after all! Fortuitously, the train brought me right to the entrance, so I hopped off, walked under the tunnel, and found myself in the Esplanade once more, facing Disney California Adventure.
California Adventure (or DCA for short) is… an interesting park. It has a pretty convoluted history, something that could only be borne out of boardroom meetings and the early 1990’s. See, DCA was actually supposed to be a version of Epcot from Disney World – but due to several mitigating factors, the early plans were pared down into a shell of what it used to be. The result, in 2001, was a theme park that was built on the cheap; very few unique rides, barely themed areas, and nearly half of its area taken up by a hotel (a really, really nice hotel, to be sure… but still).
Attendance suffered accordingly, and after stumbling along for a few years, Disney announced a total makeover of its weakest-performing park, introducing several new attractions, re-theming projects and generally bringing it up to the Disney standard. The whole shebang even included a “re-dedication” ceremony!
In any case, as it stands today, Disney California Adventure is a beautiful theme park. You can tell straight-away from the minute you set foot in the entrance, stepping into Buena Vista Street – a wonderful re-creation of Los Angeles in the early 20th century, when Walt Disney first stepped off the train with nothing but a carpet bag and his imagination.
The street is crammed with references and historical callbacks, from the Elias and Co. Department store (a throwback to Walt Disney’s middle name), to Oswald’s Gas (Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Anyone?) to the Red Car Trolley, which runs the length of Buena Vista Street, circles past the Carthay Circle Theatre – the centerpiece of DCA – and into Hollywoodland.
Which, coincidentally, was my first destination, since I had to pick up a Fastpass for the Tower of Terror later on (it has no single rider line). This took all of five minutes, after which I cut through a bug’s land, and through Golden State and Pacific Wharf to experience what is arguably the star attraction of California Adventure: Cars Land.
Cars Land was the biggest piece in the huge DCA makeover I just wrote about a few paragraphs ago. It’s based around the world of the movie “Cars”, and the town of Radiator Springs is painstakingly brought to life, including the massive rock formations surrounding it. It’s a sight you’ve got to see to believe; it’s absolutely one of the best theming jobs Disney has ever done, bar none.
The biggest draw here is Radiator Springs Racers, a racing car ride based on Test Track V3.0 technology (V2.0 was Journey to the Center of the Earth at Tokyo DisneySea). The queue (often prohibitively long, but hey, single rider perks!) winds its way under a trestle bridge and into Old Radiator Springs, where Stanley first discovered the little oasis in the middle of the desert. The line winds through old buildings and remnants of the pre-highway era, before finally ascending a ramp into the loading area.
The drive starts off nice and easy, with rolling views of Cadillac Ridge. The road slopes upwards, and before you know it, you’re inside the show building, drafted into a race versus another Radiator Springs newbie. After getting tricked out by either Luigi or Ramone, it’s time to race! The circuit is a little longer than Test Track’s, and it’s much more exciting thanks to the presence of competition.
Radiator Springs Racers is a world-class experience from beginning to end, and I encourage everyone reading this to get themselves out there and try it at least once! (Chances are, you’ll get right back in line again.)
Another world-class ride was waiting for me in the form of Soarin’ Over California. (No, it’s not called just Soarin’. Psh.) This is the original, cloned to Epcot in 2005 without the California part. It’s nestled into one corner of the park, the centerpiece of its own area. The massive hangar, in which the attraction is housed, dwarfs pretty much everything else in its presence – that’s because the ride uses two positively enormous IMAX screens to give riders the sensation they’re actual flying across various Californian sights.
The video was updated recently to HD, polishing up some of the grainier spots. The music is still superb; I’ve never been on this attraction without a rousing cheer of applause at the finale.
I re-traced my steps, going past Grizzly River Run (the best river rapids ride in the world, and blows away Kali River Rapids at Animal Kingdom by a healthy margin) and heading back into Pacific Wharf, since it was time to actually sit down and eat something – and the best quick-service meal at the Disneyland Resort is, in my humble opinion, the clam chowder bread bowl at DCA.
The bread is freshly baked right next door at the Boudin Bakery, which also offers walkthrough tours. The chowder is decent and piping hot, and it’s big enough to serve two. But the bread, man… the bread! It’s perfectly sour, like a good sourdough should be, and it’s chewy and perfectly moist from the chowder seeping in and the crust is crackly and… dear God, I want one.
After lunch, I headed to Paradise Pier, where the star attraction – California Screamin’ was briefly closed for whatever reason. I waited it out, though, and after fifteen or so minutes, we heard the long-awaited “all aboard” and finally boarded the train, pulling down our shoulder restraints snugly around us.
I love California Screamin’. It’s my third-favorite roller coaster at the time of this writing, for a multitude of reasons. The initial launch, which propels you to 55 miles an hour, is only the start of a frenetic four-minute-long ride through loops, hills and helices, all accompanied by a killer soundtrack that blasts in your ears from beginning to end.
It’s a cathartic experience, and I had the pleasure of riding it a grand total of five times that day, thanks to the glorious single-rider line. Christ, I love single-rider lines!
Five times in a row on California Screamin’ does a lot of things to your body. Thankfully, though, I have a strong stomach – which meant I was hungry again. (To be fair, I’m always hungry. But this time, I was hungrier than usual.) Right next door was the Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta, which served – you guessed it – pizza and pasta, and Boardwalk Garden Grill, which featured Greek kebabs and salad. Both were relatively new offerings, having been part of the grand DCA re-do of the late 2000’s.
I opted for the chicken skewer, which was a pretty large portion and came with cucumber salad, rice and pita bread. It was served on real china with silverware, too, which was an added bonus. This entire section is very charming, with an authentic bandstand and carousel lights at night.
After dinner, I continued my stroll down the opposite side of Paradise Pier, taking a quick spin on the Golden Zephyr, a classic re-creation of a 1920’s flying rockets ride. It doesn’t operate in high winds, but thankfully for my visit, the sky was quiet. From the air, I could see that The Little Mermaid had a nonexistent line, so that was my next destination. (I skipped past Toy Story Midway Mania; I had experienced its clone at Disney World many times, and besides, I’m not a huge fan of the shoot-em-up genre of rides.)
The Little Mermaid is an exact clone of the same system at Disney World, although this one did open first by a margin of a couple months. The exterior is very different, however; while the Florida attraction’s facade is notable due to its fantastic rockwork, water features and immersive line, California’s version is ensconced within a grand, arched structure that looks like something out of a Golden Age carriage park. Both versions are jaw-droppingly beautiful.
The ride itself uses technology similar to The Haunted Mansion, but it’s not a very compelling experience; your clamshells take you through an abbreviated version of The Little Mermaid’s storyline, and the word I’m looking for here is ‘book report’. If you saw the movie, you’re pretty much set; there’s not much re-ride value or any good reason to give this another spin. But, on the bright side, it rarely has a line, and it’s definitely worth the five minutes or so of walking. (Especially at Walt Disney World, where the queue line is absolutely fantastic and worth walking through even if you don’t care for the ride.)
There was about an hour left until my Tower of Terror Fastpass, so I spent it by riding Soarin’ Over California and Radiator Springs Racers one more time each. As an aside, Carsland absolutely shines – literally – when the sun goes down; the Imagineers stayed extremely faithful to the source material, and that means lots and lots of neon as far as the eye can see. It’s one of the best examples of show lighting anywhere, and a visit to California Adventure is incomplete without it.
My last ride of the day would be on the Tower of Terror. I’ve gotten plenty of rides on the Walt Disney World version earlier this year, but it’s important to point out that the two Towers are very different rides, built ten years apart. The Florida version is the original and the prototype, and Imagineers tinkered with the formula to increase efficiency and decrease downtime. What this means is that California’s Tower is much more technologically advanced than Florida’s, and it also breaks down less often and has a higher guest capacity throughput.
From a show point of view, however, Florida’s version is superior. California’s Tower has two loading levels compared to Florida’s one, and while this means higher capacity, it also means some compromises. For example, the trippy moment when your elevator actually moves forward into the ‘Eye Room’ is absent, and the entire ride takes place inside a single shaft.
Moreover, when the doors to your elevator first open from the waiting room, guests don’t go directly inside the vehicle – they’re forced to traverse a plain corridor before they can enter the elevator. This corridor serves as the exit path for guests returning from their fourth-dimensional journey, which makes the loading/unloading process a lot easier – but kills any immersion that has been built up throughout the entire queue line and pre-show.
Those things aside, though, Tower of Terror is a masterpiece of an attraction and still one of my favorites anywhere, and I was glad to take it for a spin (or a drop, as the case may be).
By this point, it was dark, and that means one thing when it comes to Disneyland: lights, lights everywhere!
The resort is best enjoyed, I think, after sundown; all of the blemishes and the outside world you can see in the day go away, replaced by a brilliant panacea of glittering lights and illuminations.
I crossed back across the Esplanade into Disneyland Park, leaving behind California Adventure. I had debated if I should stay to watch World of Color, the fabulous waterfront spectacular that makes full use of the Paradise Pier setting and the lagoon, but I was far too tempted by the new 60th Anniversary parade that had just debuted: Paint The Night!
Although I was back in the Hub – in front of the Castle – a full 30 minutes before showtime, I only had barely enough time to find a good spot, right next to the Matterhorn. The lights dimmed and the music started to flow, and holy hell, I can’t even begin to put into words the amount of nostalgia that flowed through me when I heard the strains of the Main Street Electrical Parade.
The choice of music is quite fitting, actually; Paint The Night is in many ways the spiritual successor to the Main Street Electrical Parade, featuring thousands and thousands of glowing lights, performers that look like they were dipped in a bucket full of Christmas decorations and a modern, upbeat feel to the whole procession. The end result is a wonderfully uplifting production that features Tinkerbell suspended from a freaking boom crane (!) and a beautiful Frozen display that really makes the most of the lighting technology.
The day wasn’t over yet, though: there was still one final capstone before I could call it a night, and that came in the form of Disneyland Forever – the special fireworks spectacular that the wondrous madcaps at Imagineering created for the park’s 60th Anniversary.
For the first time, the action isn’t only in the sky – it’s on the walls. Main Street U.S.A. is turned into a blank canvas with dozens of projection effects that match the fireworks, and the result – if you’re standing in the right spot, at least – is perfect immersion into the scene that has to be seen to be fully appreciated.
After the final rays of the fireworks dissipated into the warm California night, I turned around, walked through the tunnels one last time, and went home.
So that was my day – a very long one, but one of the best I’ve ever had. There’s an ethereal quality to Disney; it’s not just your average theme park, with pavement and employees and buildings and constructions of steel. It’s an experience; a carefully cultivated, highly rehearsed, theatrical production, and the effort pays off in spades. People say that you can fall in love with a place – I don’t doubt that to be true.
Thanks, Disneyland. I’ll be back soon.