Five minutes before closing time, we rushed past Sleeping Beauty’s Castle with been-there, done-that indifference.
Dodging all the families headed for the exit with sagging mouse ears and similarly deflated kids, we rushed up to the Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster, running on more energy than we had coming through the gates 11 hours earlier.
“We made it!” beamed my 6-year-old daughter, whose idea it was to try to cram in one more “thundering” ride before closing time.
Yes, we finally made it. After several years of hemming and hawing and pretending our daughters would rather see picturesque beaches and museums and ungentrified parts of cool American cities, my wife and I heeded the call to take them to the Happiest Place on Earth. If we were going to let Walt Disney’s merchandising empire suck us in, though, we insisted on doing it our way: fast, easy, relatively cheap, bada-bing, bada-boom.
We didn’t want to plan a whole week or entire vacation around a Disney trip. We didn’t want to spend the kind of money that would otherwise get us across an ocean for another vacation. And above all else, we didn’t want to spend a majority of our time there waiting in lines.
All of those qualifiers led us to the original Disneyland Park in Anaheim, Calif., in the middle of a week in the middle of January.
Based on the many Disney-related advice blogs — and common sense — we knew this would be a low-traffic time at the park. Other good down times include late April to late May and most of autumn, especially weekdays. What else are your local school district’s random, non-holiday vacation days good for?
We also liked the idea of hitting the original, classic, more dated but less bloated Disneyland park vs. the Disney World mega-complex in Orlando. The nostalgic value attracted us, but so did the compactness.
I truly admire the dedication and stamina of parents who can take their children to three or four sprawling Disney parks over four or five days. But I also think you and yours are freaks of nature.
Never again at Neverland
Me and my low-endurance crew, including Lila, 10, and Louisa, 6, did Disneyland in one day — one action-packed, restless but never stressful or overly demanding day.
We found cheap direct flights into Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, just 13 miles from the park. We could’ve flown even more cheaply into LAX, 35 miles away.
After a quick side trip to an In-N-Out Burger upon landing — a California classic fast-food joint — we headed to the nearest-to-the-park non-Disney-owned hotel we could find: the Tropicana Inn, an utterly nondescript, Best Western-quality place that ran about $150 per night and had everything we needed. Yep, just beds and a bathroom; there’d be plenty of pool and lounging time later in the trip elsewhere in California.
Come morning, I picked up some pastries, loaded up a backpack with just a few essentials — woe to those who brave a Disney park with infants or toddlers — and walked with the family all of 10 minutes to get in line at the park entrance a half-hour before the 10 a.m. opening time (on busier days it’s 9 a.m.).
Thanks to the advice of a Disneyland tips blog, the only other long line we waited in all day was at the very first ride we hit upon entry. It was a bad start.
The sage blogger suggested getting in line for Peter Pan’s Flight because it’s near the front gates and stays popular all day. That’s great advice if you’re the only human at Disneyland that day who knows how to Google search “Disneyland tips,” but turns out I wasn’t the lone genius. We waited over 35 minutes, then saw a much shorter line for the ride by the time we got off.
Lesson learned. For the rest of the day, we took more of a go-with-the-flow approach. If a line at one ride looked too long, we would circle back to it later. We never waited more than 20 minutes from there on out.
Thankfully, we had big help from Disneyland itself in avoiding the crowds. The staff mercifully posts wait times outside nearly all of the popular rides. They’re usually spot-on, too.
Even better, the park offers its FastPass program at no extra cost. This program is the best thing to hit Disney parks since hand sanitizer, and — at least on a less-crowded day like the one we strategically picked — it worked like a kiss from Prince Charming.
Here’s how FastPasses operate: Electronic kiosks are located outside each of the most popular rides, where you insert one ticket for each person in your party; the kiosk spits out another ticket with a printed time hourlong window on it; when you come back, you can breeze through the line like Bianca Jagger at Studio 54.
You can only have one FastPass active at one time per person, but we were able to use them seven or eight times throughout the day. Disney also sells the MaxPass for $10 extra to time your passes off an app, which would certainly pay off on busier days.
We wanted to use our first FastPass for Space Mountain, but the classic ride was closed for maintenance — and remained so two other times throughout the day when we tried to get in. Instead, we used our first pass to get warp-speed access to the popular new Star Tours: The Journey Continues 3-D motion simulator ride. What a blast that was, too.
Since Disney bought up the “Star Wars” franchise in 2012, all of its parks have been in hyperdrive mode adding attractions from George Lucas’ galaxy. Some of the add-ons at Disneyland were as thrilling as a sand cruiser ride (like the Journey Continues) while others felt as pointless as Jar-Jar Binks (the Star Wars Launch Bay was basically just one big photo op).
Disney is just getting started, too: Construction is now underway on a full-blown, 14-acre Star Wars Land at Disneyland, due to open in 2019. You just know the Force will be strong with that one — so much so, you may want to hit the park in Anaheim before it opens if you don’t want to fight the troops sure to storm the place.
Even for our “Star Wars”-loving family, though, the appeal of Disneyland still lay more on the classic side.
Going from a 3-D ride at light speed in outer space to plodding along through Alice’s Wonderland in a ride built when Disneyland opened in 1955 might sound like a letdown, but the nostalgic charm had us smiling like the Cheshire Cat.
Two of the old boat rides, the Jungle Cruise and especially the Pirates of the Caribbean, were each high on our list by day’s end, although there must be a way to make those pirates seem a little less, um, grope-y. Best of all, the park’s big Mickey Mouse-led riverfront nighttime production, “Fantasmic” — with lasers, dancers, costumed princesses and all sorts of other fun stuff you might find in a gay disco — dazzled us and made for a good break at just the right time, after a quick dinner.
The only thing that let us down in the original Fantasyland part of the park was the fact that “It’s a Small World” was shut down all month for maintenance. I turned into Clark Griswold for a minute over the news, but our daughters didn’t really care; it’s not as if a slow boat ride through singing robotic children was a big sell to them.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to miss Space Mountain. The iconic ride finally opened back up late in the afternoon. We didn’t know whether to feel more or less safe on it after a day of repair work, but all rational thought was of course lost to the adrenaline rush once our space capsule blasted off.
Our 6-year-old nervously wrung her hands all through the galactic walkways getting into Space Mountain, but she declared in astonishment afterward, “My mind was blown!” She liked it so much that she agreed to go on it again near the end of the day, but then she weepily got cold feet just before takeoff.
My wife and I guessed that perhaps the long, full day had finally started to wear on the girls, and we planned on winding it down. We hadn’t even made it out of Tomorrowland, though, when Louisa insisted we hurry over to Big Thunder Mountain for a finale, her favorite ride of the day — and not exactly a timid one, either.
That was one of many surprises that day. Perhaps most surprising of all: My wife and I would love to go back or try another Disney park soon, including maybe Disneyland’s neighboring California Adventure. I don’t think we’d change anything else about our game plan, though.