Travelogue: California Adventure & Disneyland

Aron teased me a bit about my wish to return to Disneyland again this year for Skyler’s birthday: it’s the Southern Californian in me, perhaps, that sort of expects it to be a piece of the kids’ childhood when in fact it’s a rare privilege.

In fact, I feel incredibly lucky that we got to go again this year. It’s such fun to see the kids’ reactions to things at different ages—to see their eyes light up with the thrills and surprises, the theme park magic. And bittersweet, too, as we come to see that Hudson is already “too old” for some rides and attractions. As with Riley in the movie Inside Out, some his fantasy island is getting a bit more shaky. It only made me gladder that we took the opportunity to go again this year, to soak it up!

And this time, for the first time with the kids, we went for multiple days and visited California Adventure, staying at the Disneyland Hotel.

The schools in Davis were closed on the Monday before President’s Day Weekend, so we all hopped in the car on Friday night and drove about as far as Valencia—an hour or so north of Anaheim—before pulling into a motel for the night. On Saturday, we wanted to maximize our time at the resort.

We were grateful to Aron’s parents for gifting us some nights at the Disneyland Hotel for this visit. I’ve mentioned before that they’re Disney Vacation Club members, having joined on a trip to the Aulani. It’s so nice to stay at one of the hotels at the resort, and walk in and out of the parks so easily. You also get extra perks, like early entry, on certain days. It would be especially nice for taking breaks in the middle of the day—though we never did that.

That said, it is a splurge, and we’ve also stayed at a non-Disney hotel across the street from the parks and had a great time, too! There are plenty of really convenient options.

We checked in just before lunch, so we started in Downtown Disney at the Rainforest Cafe, followed by a more worthy stop at Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen for fresh Cafe du Monde Beignets. There’s an amazing Lego store there with incredible displays and some little play tables that also make for a nice stop.

It was a little chilly by Southern California standards—though appropriate for February—but we still made good use of the pools.

One of my favorite things about the swimming set-up at a Disney property is how safe it feels. They had life vests on hand (great, since I’d forgotten Skyler’s puddle jumper), and a dozen lifeguards and staff walking the decks. Everything is geared toward families, of course, so there were plenty of shallow spots along with some exciting slides. They also keep a stash of swim diapers available.

We had our first Dole Whips of the trip (you can get rum added to the adult versions), and played until the kids’ lips turned blue.

We decided to forego the heartier buffets and character-themed restaurants on-site in favor of Trader Sam’s Tiki Bar—a poolside Jungle Cruise-themed lounge at the hotel. It was perfect. We ordered a selection of small plates (or pu pu platters, as the kids were excited to call them), and tried some of their cocktails and non-alcoholic concoctions.

Children are allowed until 8:00pm but it’s 21 and over only after that—and it was swarmed on Saturday night when I came back to the takeaway counter for a slice of coconut cake.

That night, while the children slept, Aron and I poured a drink, turned on the Olympics, and plotted the next day’s plan of attack. We got a map of California Adventure from the front desk and reviewed which rides were fast pass and ranked our priorities.

We planned to pay the extra $10/ticket to get the Max Pass, which lets you make FastPass reservations on your mobile device using the Disneyland app. It also gives you unlimited Disney PhotoPass downloads from that day—which could be really valuable if you want some group shots.
I feel like there are other websites which will do a far better job of explaining all of the tips and tricks for FastPass and MaxPass than I could, but we were happy we did it.

I’d crowd-sourced some advice on here earlier, and a few people mentioned Magic Kingdom Mamas as a source for tips. It was a great resource, especially for anyone with very small kids.

Otherwise, the number one piece of advice everyone gave us? Head straight to Radiator Springs—it’s the most popular ride in the park.

So we did! It was a bit of a gamble to make that Skyler’s first ride of the day. She did okay with the speed, but didn’t like the scary tractor AT ALL. We weren’t sure she’d agree to go again, but—such a trooper!—agreed to sitting in the second row with dad and, to feel safe, tease the tractor that it couldn’t catch her.

The first two times there was no line because the park hadn’t officially opened yet—it was one of those early Magic Hours for hotel guests. But when we got off that time we saw crowds literally running for the entrance. At that point, our FastPass was working, so Hudson and Aron went on a third time while Skyler and I walked back toward the main entrance to rent a stroller for the day (something else I’d forgotten to pack).

We ran into Mickey and Minnie on our way, and though I’d left the camera with Aron, we still got this cute picture from one of the park’s photographers with the Max Pass. If you get a photo card when you take a picture, you can scan it for the app later. From then on, I made sure we stopped a few times for photos of all four of us.

We happened to be there during the Lunar New Year celebration so we caught the parade and had some of the specialty dishes being offered to highlight the cuisines of China, Vietnam, and Korea, for lunch.

Some of our favorite rides were over on this side of the park, near Paradise Pier—everyone loved the Silly Symphony Swings, which had two-person swings so that smaller kids could ride, too; and Toy Story Mania—where you do target practice—was definitely a highlight. Unfortunately, much of Paradise Pier was closed as it transforms into Pixar Pier—Hudson was especially sad that the roller coaster would not be an option.

We also loved Soarin’ Over the World (if only slightly less than Soarin’ Over California), the Turtle Talk with Crush at the Animator’s Studio, and It’s Tough to be a Bug.

Aron and I were surprised, however, that our favorite part of the day may have been watching Frozen, the live musical, at the Hyperion theatre. It was incredible!  We basically amortized our ticket cost by agreeing that it was a Broadway-worthy production.

We also waited to meet Elsa and Anna and they were so wonderful to the kids. Skyler was so happy—especially when Elsa pointed out that they both had braids. I couldn’t have wished for her to say anything better! Skyler really loved meeting characters throughout both parks, and we were always happy when we made the time to do so.

While Skyler and I got in line for the show, Hudson and Aron raced over to use a FastPass on Guardians of the Galaxy—which features a series of “big thrill” drop sequences with a free-fall sensation inside a big fortress. Hudson came off raving! So we got one more FastPass for him and me to go on it that evening. It’s a stomach drop, but it was a lot of fun. I could hardly stop laughing at Hudson’s exclamations of delight! What a brave kid he is.

Skyler joined Aron and Hudson on the very wet Grizzly River Run. She came off cold and crying (at once so sad and so cute), but was smiling as soon as she got her sweater back!

Of course one of the best parts of any visit to Disneyland is the attention to detail. CarsLand, in particular, is like walking onto a movie set. Everything is so charming.

A reader tipped me off: If you are in CarsLand right at sunset, they play “Life Can Be a Dream,” like in the movie, and turn on all the lights.

We showed up for sunset, met Mater and Lightning McQueen, and Skyler joined a dance party in the middle of the street.

Some other pro-tips from crowd-sourcing? (Thanks, guys!)

Ghirardhelli gives out free chocolate squares when you walk in!

You can ask for a buddy pass at the entrance of Monsters Inc. and it lets you and one other person go through the exit, so you can still sit one child with one parent.

The Redwood Camp is a great place to run off the wiggles. You can ask a guide for a map or just run around like crazy. (Unfortunately this was closed when we were there.)

You can (and should) get a fast pass for World of Color. You have to get them in person by the Little Mermaid ride, and they are handed out for the early show until they run out, then the late show.

And look out for the Red Car Trolley News Boys on Buena Vista Street—which you can see Skyler enjoying above.

It was a long day for the kids, but somehow we lasted for World of Color, where scenes from Disney films stream across an immense water “screen,” alongside music and pyrotechnics. Skyler was in and out of the stroller—ready for sleep—and Hudson found it a long-while to stand, but it was an exciting end to the day.

By the way, lesson learned: we had to return the stroller at the end of each day, so we carried Skyler (and sometimes Hudson) all the way from the rental point outside Disneyland back to the hotel. It’s close, but it’s still a long walk when you’ve got a limp, sleeping 40-pound kid in your arms. No one told us, but on the second day we learned that you can drop the stroller at the security check point between Downtown Disney and the Disneyland Hotel, which would have saved our backs a bit.

Back in our rooms, we reminisced about the highlights, and planned for day two—Disneyland!—before falling fast asleep.

In an ideal scenario, you’d probably take a day to rest in between the two parks, but that requires an extra vacation day. We actually felt a little grateful for the later park-opening time that Monday, and the lack of Magic Hour, so we wouldn’t feel guilt about the extra sleep.

Still, there’s enough excitement about the day to feel awake! We re-packed our backpack with snacks for the day and grabbed breakfast on the way in (the juggle!). Then we took our time looking in the windows on Main Street.

Note that Main Street’s tracks are being refurbished right now, so the bulk of the street is boarded up. None of the trolleys are running and no parades are being held while this is happening. We had friends who were considering coming for the first time this fall, and I’d suggested they wait until this construction is done. It wasn’t a problem for us, but it does diminish that moment of walking in and strolling toward the castle. They’re also working on some of Fantastyland—so Dumbo, Casey Jr., and the Storybook Canal boats were closed, too. We’ve noted that if you come in the off-season, you get better crowds, but you also seem to get fewer attractions.

Hudson’s reaction to the optical illusions outside the Magic Shop on Main Street was priceless! I really love these more old-timey non-ride attractions throughout in the park—like the cut-paper silhouette artist that will do your family’s portraits, or the antique Mutoscopes and Cail-o-Scopes playing some of the world’s first motion pictures in the Penny Arcade.

The kids’ conversations on the submarine ride (now Finding Nemo Voyage) seemed to capture their ages so perfectly: Skye’s eyes wide, she’d be pressing her chin up to the window, pointing out every “fishy.” She asked Hudson, “Hudsee, are those real?” And he bluntly replied “none of this is real.” Then, two minutes later, he was leaping out of his seat to show us the giant purple crabs that were fighting. “Big ones! Purple ones!”

To our surprise, if you ask Skyler which rider was her favorite, she’ll tell you it was “the Goat one”—by which she means Big Thunder Railroad. She wasn’t sure about it at first, but we made finding all of the animals on the rocks part of the fun and before the end of the day we’d gone on it three times. It doesn’t hurt that you can snuggle close to the person sitting beside you on this one.

Hudson loved anything fast, but also seemed to especially enjoy this one since it was something he’d gotten to help her be brave for.

For his part, he got to be brave on two big rides for the first time: Space Mountain and Indiana Jones!

The Jungle Book cruise is always fun. Hudson got more of the jokes this time around.

There are also beignets in Mansion Square—though not quite as good as those from Cafe Du Monde, they’re fresh and shaped like Mickey. We also discovered that there are pats of butter at the cutlery dispensary there, and if you add some to your beignet, you basically have a cupcake. You’re welcome.

We visited the Haunted Mansion—all four of us squeezed into one of those little shells—and Pirates of the Caribbean, and caught the brief show over lunch at the Golden Horseshoe, then rode the ferry to Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer’s Island.

Despite all the walking to be done around the park, this is such a great spot for letting them run off some steam. They get such a kick from being in charge and figuring out how to get around in the tunnels and throughout the island.

We stayed late that evening—making it to most of the attractions that ranked high on our list—but we hadn’t grabbed a FastPass for Fantasmic early enough in the day to get the early showing, so we decided to leave before that. We took the monorail home just in time to run through a brief rainstorm back to the hotel.

We’d spend one more half-day at the park getting in our final wishes…

Hudson’s big request was to drive a car on Autopia. They don’t open it early for the magic hour, however, so we first went on Star Tours again, followed by It’s a Small World—and boy did he think he was too old for that one. (Sigh…)

But Skyler loved it, of course, and told others all about the boat ride she went on with “all the dolls.” And then, as with the submarine experience, it was only moments later that Hudson—who lost a tooth in line for Autopia!—was taking his driving so seriously because it was a “real car.”

Other highlights? They still got a thrill over seeing the birds sing and the flowers bloom in the Tiki tiki tiki tiki tiki room. Hudson kept his hands up for all of The Matterhorn. We had just watched Swiss Family Robinson, so we didn’t tell them it’s now called the Tarzan tree and just pretended it was from the movie they’d seen. Also, we let Hudson and Skyler sit in the front row, with Aron and I behind them for a few rides (Winnie the Pooh, Snow White…) and they thought that was the coolest.

We let each of them choose a souvenir from the trip. Skyler got the bubble wand early in the day—a gift to enjoy while Hudson got to go on Indiana Jones—and was so thrilled to be spreading the joy of the bubbles to all who wished to share. I had to keep a close watch on her as she would dart to strangers at every chance and ask “would like me to give you bubbles?” At one point I caught her holding it over a younger boy’s head and making a pile of bubbles atop him. These are a popular item, and so I’ll give you an important heads up: The Mickey Mouse ones are quiet and just make bubbles; the Little Mermaid ones make music. (Guess which one we got.)

Hudson spotted a Gaston Bow and Arrow set which, I have to say, is pretty cool. You can get the same set with a picture of Merida, the princess from Brave, on the packaging as well.

That Tuesday half-day was so pleasant: there was hardly anyone at the park and you could really see the benefit of a mid-week visit, if you can swing it. But every day was great—even the more crowded ones. We were just more grateful for the FastPass on the weekend, and it helped to do some pre-planning the night before with a park map in hand.

I wrote more tips for visiting Disneyland when Hudson was under two, including “Pay your admission and then do your best to forget about how much it costs. … All studies show that money spent on experiences (as opposed to an object) bring the most happiness.” It’s really expensive (I always conveniently forget just how much it is), so no matter whether you get to go when the crowds are low or high, or whether or not your kids can go on all the rides, or some favorites are closed, I find it’s best to try and relax and enjoy the experience if it fits in your family’s budget.

For my part, it continues to be the place where some of my favorite memories are made.

What are your top Disneyland tips and experiences? 

P.S. This was the scene about an hour after we left Disneyland, in an In N Out off Highway 5. It was a very full, but wonderful three days together.

More Disneyland Posts, and DisneyWorld. 


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