This past weekend, I had the good fortune of being able to go with my friends to the Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Parks in Anaheim , California.
Growing up in Cali, I had gone a number of times to Disneyland with my family and friends. And as an adult I have been to Disneyworld, Disneyland Tokyo and Euro Disney. So yeah, a bit of an Disney afficionado. I had heard great things from other Disney fans over the years about all the new rides and the new(er) park in the granddaddy of all Disney parks, so expectations on my part were quite high.
Those expectations were totally exceeded by the trip. Here's some of the best things I discovered this weekend in the "Park that Walt Built."
12. The "Princess" Thing
Through some savvy marketing, there are literally thousands of little girls dressed up in various princess outfits running around the park. It's kind of amazing seeing all those tiny Snow Whites, Ariels, Belles, and Cindarellas everywhere. Not too many Mulans or Pocahontas's [sp?] or whoever that African-american princess is. This has to be a major cash cow for Disney, selling all of those dresses and tiaras and wands. Every parade featured several Disney princesses, and princess photo-ops were jam packed full of kids and parents.
Sadly, I did not see even one boy princess.
11. The Corn Dogs at Corn Dog Castle
There's lots of pricey junk food you can spend all of your money on in the parks: $5 churros, $10 turkey legs, $10 collectible popcorn buckets, etc. The quality is just "meh" since why should they bother to make it great?
The one exception I found was the corn dogs. Head to "Corn Dog Castle" concession stand on the boardwalk in California Adventure and you will find a queue of people waiting to get the one thing they sell there.
After waiting on line for ten minutes or so, I happily spent $8 on a hot link corn dog with some apple slices. It was a sizable sausage, with delicious corn breading that was perfectly fried. Draw a couple of lines of mustard on that baby and I'm a happy customer.
10. Finding Nemo Submarine : an Impressive Reboot
I was never a big fan of the old submarine ride in Tomorrowland. It just seemed dull and uneventful. You dive a few feet underwater and look at some plastic fish and coral. Yawn!
But the "Finding Nemo" reboot of the submarine ride is another story. The imagineers have seamlessly added awesome video and practical effects to the ride, taking you into the world of "Finding Nemo." Seeing the characters Marlin and Dory bouncing off of plastic jellyfish, or flee a bubbling underwater volcano was really impressive and fun.
9. Tower of Terror : Dead Simple… and Amazing
I am not a fan of rides that involve being dropped from great heights. That said, "Tower of Terror" is an incredibly fun and somewhat terrifying version of this classic ride. The entire thing is told like a Twilight Zone episode that you walk into. And each time you ride is a different experience, due to a random variation on the drop sequences.
Just visiting the lobby on the wait to board the ride is worth it for all of the hidden Twilight Zone references.
8. Fantasmic Show
There are a bunch of shows you can watch in Disneyland — parades during the day and night, bands and performers, fireworks, water shows, etc. They are all pretty impressive, with great dancing, Disney characters, floats, and more. But "Fantasmic" at Disneyland has everything you could possibly want in a Disney show: dancing, fighting, boats, princesses, fireworks, giant monsters, water effects, video projections, and a bunch more that I've forgotten. It's worth it to stake out a good spot early!
There was no electric light parade when I was there, which I kind of miss.
7. The Swellegant Carthay Circle
In the heart of California Adventure is a classic Hollywood restaurant called the Carthay Circle. A loving recreation of the theater where "Snow White" first premiered there in 1937, the Carthay Circle features a well-stocked bar downstairs and an elegant restaurant upstairs that affords you a perfect view of the main street of the park.
The service we got was impeccable, and the food — while very spendy — was quite delicious. We had the famous fried biscuits, which were delicious, roasted quail, porterhouse steak, and other delicacies. Definitely a highlight of our trip.
6. 54 Versions of "Star Tours"
Star Tours has long been one of my favorite rides. The newer version boasts 54 possible combinations of tours, depending on what day you go and which of the four "starships" you enter. The combination of 3D theater in a moving vehicle never fails to wow me.
5. Space Mountain: Still Amazing
Space Mountain has aged well, I'm happy to report. It was just as fun to ride as when I was a kid. There's something pure and perfect about zipping around in a car in nearly complete darkness, with just a few stars to light your way.
4. Midway Mania and Buzz Lightyear: Pew! Pew! Pew!
When I was a kid riding Pirates of the Caribbean, and all of those animatronic characters were firing pistols and cannons all around me, I dreamed of having my own pistol to fire back. I must not have been the only one dreaming of this, because now there is not one but TWO rides at Disneyland where you get to shoot as part of the ride.
Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters puts you in a two-seater car with two light guns and a joystick that rotates the car 360 degrees. The story is that the evil Zurg and his robot minions have stolen all the earth's batteries. You have to fight the robots to get them back. The combination of light guns and the ability to rotate the car around is a lot of fun, and not that easy to master.
But the superior shooting ride is Toy Story Midway Mania. Again you are in a two-seater car, but this time you have mounted cannons that shoot different projectiles at different targets, like the best midway amusement park ride ever. There's a ring toss, a plate smashing game, a darts and bullseye game, and a lot more. The versimillitude of the virtual projectiles and targets and your real mounted gun is perfectly done.
Perfect for little kids, there are enough challenges and Easter Eggs in the game to keep it interesting again and again for adults.
3. The Mousewait App
Another Disneyland fan Lacey told me to download the Mousewait app for my iPhone. It was the best advice ever. The Mousewait app gives you lots of real-time data about the Parks, from the overall crowd index to wait times for every single ride and restaurant. My group would finish a ride, fire up the app, and head to whatever ride had the best wait time that we wanted to ride.
I got a little obsessive about watching the wait times go up and down throughout the day and night for my favorite rides. Even when I returned home, I still loaded up the app to see how long the lines were at Radiator Springs and Space Mountain.
There are a ton of other features in the app that I didn't even explore, including a self-contained social network / community. Download it for your smartphone before your Disney visit. You'll thank me.
2. Radiator Springs Racers
I rode a lot of incredible rides at Disneyland. Radiator Springs Racers was the one that as soon as I was done, I was ready to ride again.
In Radiator Springs Racers, you ride around a perfect simulation of the world of "Cars" in a sweet hot-rod, starting in the town, winding through the canyons, and ending with a thrilling race against another car. They have combined digital technology and robotics to make those car characters come to life. It's hilarious, surprising, and thrilling — everything you would want an amusement park ride to be.
1. Jazz Is Everywhere!
Maybe it's because I dance lindy hop, but everywhere I went in the Disney parks I encountered jazz music. You go down Main Street and there's a dapper quartet playing ragtime jazz. New Orleans party music thumps throughout Adventureland. A zoot suit wearing band on a car plays jump blues on the main drag of California Adventure. Old timey charleston music plinks along the boardwalk. I couldn't get enough of it!
It's a good reminder that jazz more than any other genre is America's music.
So those were the highlights of my trip. Was it all corn dogs and thrill rides? Of course not. The crowds were at times oppressive on one of the busiest weekends of the entire year. The lines for the best rides could be more than an hour long wait. The food, toys, and souvenirs were incredibly overpriced.
Here are a few of the most underwhelming experiences I had there:
- Pirates of the Caribbean: Pretty stale compared to rides where YOU get to do the shooting, not the robots. You get maybe two quick glimpses of the Johnny Depp robot spazzing out. Not worth it.
- Microsoft's "House of Tomorrow": It's just like your house today, but with lots and lots of screens showing Microsoft products.
- Captain EO : Has not aged well. Best enjoyed ironically.
- Monorail : It's like BART, but even slower and superfluous.
- Matterhorn: It's a very very long line to ride a very lackluster water ride.
That said, this Disneyland weekend vacation was totally worth it and I would do it again in an instant.