Day One in Disneyland: Part One

The 2nd and 3rd Disney posts are taking me forever to write. That has nothing to do with finding the right words to describe the experience and everything to do with whittling down the 1,973 pictures to what I want to use for my posts. That isn’t an exaggeration. My photo software conveniently counts them for me, in (I feel) a somewhat judgmental and deriding way. Sooner or later it’s going to completely lock up, give me the black screen of death, and I will feel some guilt about my photo hording habit.

This post will recount our experience in Disneyland, from the rides to the food. We spent the third day in California Adventure and that will be a separate post.

All of my research, up until the day we left, told me that Disneyland was going to consume 2 solid days. And even then, because some rides don’t have the FastPass option, we weren’t going to get to it all. And we didn’t. We completely skipped Mickey’s Toontown (an executive decision I made based on the face that Blue is right on the cusp of aging out of their target audience) and Pirates of the Caribbean (something I deeply regret and will remedy when we return at Christmas). There were also several rides that were in and out of commission, based on the Disneyland app, and Matterhorn Bobsleds is being renovated so it was down the entire time we were in the park (not that we were going to ride it anyway…speed + scary = 3 in the bed and the littlest one said Roll over, roll over).

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Birthday buttons on, ready for Day 1! It was overcast but this is southern CA and we knew we would stay as dry as the Sahara. No ponchos needed!

The Monorail

Is there anything more iconic in Disney than the Monorail? Coupled with the teacups and It’s a Small World, there is just no Disney without that holy trinity. By the time we arrived Friday morning (after the “magic hour” – the hour before the park opens officially to the public and only available to guests staying in one of the resort hotels), Downtown Disney was already hopping. We decided to hop on the Monorail to see where it went.

It dropped us at Tomorrowland, which is themed around space and the future. It also happens to be one of the five original “lands” of Disneyland, but the Imagineers of Disney have striven to keep the land relevant with a ride centered around Buzz Lightyear, as well as the new Star Tours. But more on that in a bit.

Autopia

Our first stop was Autopia, a slow, driving ride through the “countryside”. Autotpia is the only existing attraction in Tomorrowland that dates back to Opening Day in 1955. But you would never know that this ride is 63 years old! Sponsored (I assume) by Honda, it features Honda’s Humanoid Robot and Bird, guiding you along the “path”. The old-timey cars at Hersheypark was Blue’s favorite ride last year so we knew this would win him over right from the start. The only rules were: no bumping the car in front of you and keep your seat belt on. Both translate nicely to real life and this was the least stressful drive I’ve taken since we arrived in SoCal.

 

Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage

The next ride was the one attraction that every Disney blogger on Pinterest said was a waste of time. But Blue wanted to go and this was 93% about him, so I acquiesced. Most bloggers said something along the lines of, “It’s a cramped, smelly space where everyone gets a tiny portal to peer into a fabricated underwater world.” Well, it’s Disney…everything is fabricated, but usually to a satisfying degree of detail. I was willing to try it once. The submarine has 4 or 5 narrow steps you must descend/ascend and once inside, it is a bit cramped. If you are severely claustrophobic, this may not the ride for you. Mom is claustrophobic, but in that “don’t-close-me-in-this-cell-at-Alcatraz” kind of way and she was just fine. As we embarked on a “research expedition” to an “active” volcano site, we encountered several characters from Finding Nemo, who were on their own underwater adventure. The entire cruise lasted about 5 minutes and is a welcome break from the thrill rides and lines, which explains why, even though this ride is criticized by Disney bloggers, the wait time can still creep up to 30 minutes or more.

 

Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters

One of the handful of rides we went on more than once, this slow-moving attraction with its shooting gallery element was a huge hit. Once we figured out what our intended target was (the Zurg insignia: a square with a “Z” inside), it was game on! After we battled the Evil Emperor Zurg and emerged victorious (of course), the next words out of Blue’s mouth was, “Can we do that again?” Fortunately, it has a FastPass option.

 

After our intergalactic battle, it was time to refuel. Eating at Pizza Planet has been on my bucket list since before I knew there was a Pizza Planet to eat at. Throughout the first Toy Story, I was fixated on how much I wanted to eat at Pizza Planet. As it turned out, it was right next door to Buzz’s ride. Unfortunately, they were experiencing (what I would consider) a major flood.

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That lady in the black wasn’t super pumped about me taking this picture. She looked up right as I took it and said, “Do you need some help?” Well, no…but I document everything, so #sorrynotsorry. Here’s the thing, though…this was a significant water event. They had jackhammered part of the sidewalk up and there were sandbags everywhere. However, when we returned the next day, it was as if nothing had ever happened. There has to be a place in federal government for that kind of expedited problem solving.

Because Pizza Planet was temporarily incapacitated, our only real food option was Galactic Grill, just a few steps away. I had categorized Galactic Grill under “foods that we should only eat in an emergency because there is really nothing special about them.” It was 12:15 PM and our last meal was at 6:15 AM. This was a true hangry emergency. I took that list of Disneyland foods we must eat and chucked it in the trash with the burger and fries wrappers. It felt like I was disposing all of the impending disappointment from preconceived notions. I should do that more often.

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We were also just in time to watch the 12:40 performance of the Jedi Training Academy. With 6 training opportunities per day, it’s pretty easy to catch one as you’re passing by and/or get your tiny Jedi registered for one (as long as you do it earlier in the day). This worked out perfectly because Blue likes to know what to expect before diving into something. I have no idea where he gets that…

After lunch, having done just about everything we wanted to do in Tomorrowland on our first day, we began making our way down the street to Fantasyland, another one of the five original “lands”. The official entrance to Fantasyland is through Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, unless you come in the back way like we did. It is home to many of the classic Disney stories that we grew up with, from floating over London in Peter Pan to trying to evade the evil witch in Snow White’s Scary Adventures. And these rides almost always have escalating wait times as the day goes on. We were able to step right on (or wait for 15 minutes or less) for several rides on Friday and then used the FastPass on Saturday for the rest.

It’s a Small World

This attraction was both bigger and more annoying than I remember from my youth. First of all, it would be awesome if the song had at least 6 more verses. Secondly, I understand what they were doing by incorporating some of the Pixar characters into the scenes, but I wanted this ride to be 100% vintage Disney. When Jesse and Woody showed up in the “heartland of America” display, it sucked just a tiny bit of the joy out of it…for me. Blue, on the other hand, was delighted. I see what you’re doing there, Disney. Always pander to the one who is the youngest. But I loved seeing so many nations, cultures, and skin colors represented, all side-by-side and joined in cherubic chorus. It’s a ride full of hope, even if that is also fabricated. Also, could the outside of this experience be any more beautiful? I am looking forward to seeing it decorated for Christmas next month!

And the inside…

Also, the site of the most awkward family selfie we took during the entire trip…

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Storybook Land Canal Boats

Another slow ride through the bedtime stories of our childhoods, the Storybook Land Canal Boats sail right into the mouth of Monstro, the whale, and past the miniature recreations of such classic tales as The Three Little Pigs, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, and The Little Mermaid. The designers have also included the village of Arendelle from Frozen. To add to the festive Halloween feel, several tiny pumpkins were hidden throughout the ride, ready to be discovered by observant visitors. To get us started, our captain/guide pointed out the first one. If you are the first kid on the boat (I’m assuming around 4′ or taller), you can ride on the bow. I’m a little surprised this isn’t some sort of safety violation, but Blue was thrilled and wasted no time climbing up.

 

Mad Tea Party

I did mention in my last post that none of us were interested in spinning for 90 seconds, but I had to make an exception. How do you come to Disneyland and not do the tea cups? I just couldn’t justify skipping it. Even when Blue was fiercely opposed. I vowed not to use the center wheel to make the cup spin any faster than it was already and by the time he had launched his argument, we were at the front of the line. Mom has a video of this and it’s irrefutable proof that once on, Blue had a blast. I’m keeping it forever and replaying it every time he fights me about trying something new.

 

Random Odds and Ends

As I wrap up this post at around 2000 words (because no one is going to sit and read a post that takes 15 minutes to get through…not even the most ardent Disney guest), here are a few photos from the things and people we stumbled across as we made our way from ride to ride. This is the stuff that you can’t plan for and part of what makes this place so stinkin’ magical. You just never know what (or who) will be around the corner.

 

Please check back for part 2 of Disneyland. And possibly part 3. Hopefully not. But…maybe. It might be a small world, but Disneyland is a huge park.

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Mastering the Magic of the Mouse

I meant to write this last night, but then I was wooed into watching Elon Musk launch things into the sky over our house. As SpaceX sent a satellite into orbit and successfully landed the booster back on earth, the 3 of us sat on the balcony mesmerized. And then I took 14,000 pictures on my cell phone and attempted to capture it all on my Canon, without the help of a tripod because it’s still packed in a box somewhere, probably labeled “kitchen towels” by the movers. And then Neal and I got sucked into RBG: The Movie and I fell asleep on the couch about 10 minutes from the end. So, here we are.

The last time I went to Disney World, I was 10 and although I’m sure it was magical, I remember very little of it. I can faintly recall riding the teacups and some mini-coasters. And, of course, all of my memories from that trip play out over a continuous loop of It’s a Small World. I don’t remember Mickey-shaped food or meeting any of the characters. And because it was the age of 35mm film, there just aren’t that many pictures. Most were blurry and got tossed years ago, I assume. And I had never been to Disneyland. When Mom suggested we go for a long weekend and stay in the Disneyland Hotel to celebrate our birthdays, I was hesitant. It was so. much. money. The pressure to plan each moment perfectly weighed heavily on my mind. So, I sat down with a legal pad and pen and went to work.

My first call was to Carrie Garcia, a Travel Consultant for The Magic for Less Travel. I had gotten her name from a friend who frequently works with her to book their hotels for Disney vacations. We spoke for about an hour on the phone about where we wanted to stay, what we wanted to do and what our budget looked like. Since I was in the very beginning stages of planning, my questions were based solely on what I had read so far by Disney bloggers. What is a FastPass? Can we easily get from Disneyland to California Adventure? What are the character dining experiences like? Where else can we eat? How far or close are the hotels to the park? She patiently answered each question and I furiously scribbled notes in the margin of a Lands’ End catalog I found next to the bed. We ended the call with her promise to send quotes for the 3 hotels in the park and the information regarding the character dinings by the end of the day.

I was aware that Disney has been supporting military personnel and their families for years, with discounted park tickets and Shades of Green (the DoD-owned resort on the Disney World property). But I didn’t know to what extent those discounts spread to the Disneyland park hotels. We ultimately decided to go with Disneyland Hotel, with the Paradise Pier Hotel being a little less than what we wanted for these milestone birthdays and the Grand Californian being way more than we would ever spend unless one of us hit the Powerball. A 2 night/3 day stay with a standard view (as opposed to a pool view) was $800 for 3 adults, 1 child. It could have totally been worse. So, thank you, Disney for your unwavering support of military families.

With the hotel booked and the deposit paid, my attention turned to the dining packages that needed to be reserved well in advance. At Disney World you can secure a reservation months beforehand but at Disneyland, the bookings begin 90 days out. And Carrie was on top of it. She emailed me the day before our window opened to remind me of our options. We chose Goofy’s Kitchen (because it was a brunch that would bring us back to our hotel mid-day on our only full day at the park, forcing us to rest and take a dip in the pool before heading back out) and dinner the first night at Cafe Orleans (as opposed to the ever-popular Blue Bayou with its $30/entree prices). Carrie booked both of these meals and then linked the tickets to my Disney account, which I set up on the app on my phone. This was immensely helpful as it meant I didn’t have to keep up with paper tickets all day. I was already keeping up with an autograph book, 2 park maps and every little trinket Blue was picking up along the way. That bag was getting heavy.

Carrie also asked if we were celebrating any special occasions during the trip. Well…as a matter of fact… We decided to lump all 3 of our birthdays into the trip: Mom turning 70, me turning 40 and Blue turning 6. “You will get birthday buttons,” Carrie mentioned. “You should definitely wear them. Sometimes you’ll get free stuff or extra attention from the characters!”

Now the hard part: planning out each day in a way that didn’t absolutely exhaust us but took advantage of as many rides and experiences as possible…without having any idea of the lay of the land for either park. I needed to speak with an expert. Lucky me, I knew two. So, I set up a conference call with my childhood friends, Dan and Lori. They are on the east coast, but declared they would stay up until the wee hours of the morning if it meant they got to talk Disney.

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Some of the stellar advice they gave me included:

  • Which rides have the FastPass option and which ones don’t (like Peter Pan and Pirates of the Caribbean), as well as which rides you need a FastPass for (like Toy Story Mania). This is something you could ultimately figure out from the app, but certainly handy to know in advance.
  • Where is the best place to sit for Soarin’ in California Adventure (and that the staff or “cast” will accommodate you when they are able).
  • What a “magic hour” is and what to do during it.
  • Some of the rides that are less popular but provide a much-needed break from the line-waiting and crowds, like Tom Sawyer’s Island and the Mark Twain riverboat.
  • How and when to sign up for Jedi Training.
  • How to get inside Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
  • What they wish they had done on their last trip to Disneyland.

I coupled those suggestions with a list of food recommendations I had found from a Disneyland Annual Passholder blogger and then I sat down to figure out what it all meant. I think we want to eat at Hungry Bear, but probably not Bengal BBQ. Definitely pick up something sweet from the Jolly Holiday Bakery, but hard pass on The Golden Horseshoe. None of this meant anything to me, but I wrote it all down anyway. Now to figure out the rides.

There are people in this world who will get on a ride at Disney and video the entire thing, from start to finish. Then they post it on Youtube for everyone to see. I watched those cell phone videos, for every ride in both parks. Although I cut some of them short. No one in our group wanted to spin around in circles (especially the 40+ crowd) so that instantly eliminated about 20% of the rides. The Matterhorn Bobsled was out based purely on how horrifying the Abominable Snowman was when he sprang out of dark corners and loomed larger than life. And anything that had the word, “coaster”, specifically the Incredicoaster, was out. So, that left almost 2 dozen rides where guests are immersed in the reality of the story, from soaring over London in Peter Pan, to deep-sea diving with The Little Mermaid, to sling-shotting through an action-packed (and bumpy, thanks to hydraulics-enabled cars) adventure with Indiana Jones. I made a note of the ones that wouldn’t permanently terrify Blue and then set it all to the side…for almost a month.

As the trip inched closer, I decided to look through my notes again. How would this all come together to create a complete itinerary? As much as I leafed through the pages and poured over blog posts written by Disney aficionados, it was still just bits and pieces of information floating freely in my head. This had never happened to me before. I had planned dozens of trips for our family and even some for other people, why couldn’t I hammer this down into a solid schedule? You are probably asking yourself right about now why I didn’t contact our Disney Travel Consultant? One simple reason: pride. She would have, without a doubt, helped me sort and schedule all we wanted to do. But I had never needed assistance before, I wasn’t about to start now. Also, I stumbled upon a blog post titled “Five Ways I Almost Ruined Our Disneyland Vacation”. The last bullet point? I Over-planned the Trip. And with that, any chance that I may have called Carrie, panicked and begging for advice, disappeared. I was prepared and the rest would just have to take care of itself. What would be, would be.

I was up at 6:15 AM on our first day at Disney. I still hadn’t packed bags for me or Blue. The cat needed medicine and her litter box cleaned out. Neal packed the cooler and Mom tried to keep Blue moving in a forward direction. With a 45-minute drive to Anaheim during Friday morning traffic, we weren’t going to make it to magic hour. It wasn’t how I wanted to start the vacation, but as we barreled down the I-5, I had to remind myself that we would make the best choices based on what I had learned in the past 3 months, how much time we had in the day and what our energy levels were. I had come to accept the fact that we weren’t going to get around to doing it all. We would even miss some of the “highlights” that other bloggers raved about. But what we did do would be perfect because we would be doing it together.

If you are interested in speaking with or booking a Disney vacation with Carrie Garcia, you can email her at carrie@themagicforless.com. She is a wealth of knowledge about all things Disney and I would strongly encourage you to allow her to help you more than I did. Also, I got no compensation for writing this post or sharing the love. It’s just what I do.