Travelogue: Disneyland and California Adventure

Growing up in Southern California, just 12 miles away from Disneyland, I’m lucky to say that going to the park was something that figures pretty strongly in my childhood memories. I think it’s one of the reasons Aron and I find ourselves happily planning returns so often. Plus, it’s a really fun family trip!

This year, as with the last, we drove south on Friday night—checking in for an overnight in Valencia—and arrived Saturday morning. In its pre-Star-Wars-Land months, Disney is selling three-day-passes for roughly the same price as a two-day visit, so we made that decision a bit last-minute to maximize the time. The plan would be to check in and go to straight to Disneyland on the first day, spend the second at California Adventure, and finish the third back at Disneyland. I remain steadfast in my belief that you can visit the parks in a single day and have just as much fun, but there was some relief in taking the time-pressure off.

As usual, this was a well-documented trip, so what follows is pretty photo-heavy, but I’ll do my best to include some tips I gleaned along the way…

Aron’s parents are Disney Vacation Club members, having joined on a trip to the Aulani, so we were really grateful that they shared their points with us so that we could stay at the Grand Californian Resort. It’s a beautiful craftsman-style lodge with a large reception hall of massive fireplaces, arching beams, and sweet little rocking chairs facing a TV playing vintage cartoons.

If you stay at any of the hotels at the resort, you get some extra perks, like early entry on certain days, and a short walk in and out of the parks—this one has a direct entry into California Adventure.

In the past, we’ve also stayed at the Disneyland Hotel, as well as across the street at a Fairfield Marriott. The Marriott was comfortable and an easy walk (past some options for breakfast on-the-go) for a lot less than what a stay at a Disney-branded hotel costs. We noticed that the Courtyard Anaheim just next door had an incredible rooftop water park and playground, if you’re looking at that area and want somewhere to be on an off-park day.

As you can see above, the castle is in the midst of a refurbishment (through this spring), but while it isn’t quite as nice a vision looking down Main Street, the kids never once mentioned any disappointment over it. I’m sure it would be different for a first-time visitor, so plan accordingly. Instead, there were lots of extra Valentine’s Day decorations up this year.

Last time we came, the entire Main Street was boarded off, so we were just happy to have it back. We’ve noted that if you come in the post-holidays season, you might get better crowds, but it also tends to be the time of year that Disneyland schedules its maintenance.

Main Street remains one of my favorite parts of the park, with all of its attention to detail. The kids are still talking about the person they heard taking a shower (“or maybe a bath, mommy”) in one of the upstairs apartments near the lockers. If there’s time, we usually try to visit the Penny Arcade and check out the vignettes in the shop windows. Hudson likes to look in at the Magic Shop while Skyler was taken with the intricate braids on the horses who pull the streetcars. I love hearing the brass bands play, and the sounds of the steam train pulling into its station—as it has been doing since 1955. Main Street is also where you find the silhouette shop—one of my favorite Disney souvenirs—and many of the character meet-ups.

This year we also stopped at the City Hall to pick up free celebration buttons. The man who decorated them for Skyler (Happy 5th Birthday!) and Hudson (7-and-a-half), told a story about Walt Disney’s leveraging everything to build the park, including using the best materials for the Main Street facades: “Someone asked him, ‘but aren’t you worried people will damage it?'” I don’t recall the exact reply, but it went something like ‘if you make nice things and you expect the best of people, they usually give you the best of themselves.’

We’d paid the extra money to add Max Passes to our tickets, and had our first times set. (The Max Pass lets you make FastPass reservations on your mobile device using the Disneyland app, rather than appearing in person. It also gives you unlimited Disney PhotoPass downloads from that day.) Then we used the Disney App on our phones to check wait times around Fantasyland. You can (and should) check the app, which constantly updates with wait times, along with noting character appearances and the day’s Entertainment schedule. However, if you just have younger kids, who aren’t interested in the rides with fast-pass options, the Max Pass might not be worth it for you. (In fact, I had some reservations about the fast-passes when I first used them when Hudson was two.)

Unfortunately, the ever popular Peter Pan ride never dipped below a 45-minute-long line, but we got lucky with a pretty fast Dumbo wait. Waits for Dumbo and other single-load rides (like the rockets, teacups, Goofy’s Go-coaster…) can take a surprisingly long time, but those flying elephants are always such a hit. Hudson wanted to ride by himself for the first time this year. The ride operator wished Skyler a happy birthday and asked her what color she’d like—”pink” and “five because I’m five.” She had no idea, but somehow it turned out that the 5th elephant was indeed a pink one! Dreams do come true.

Some of the best rides for the 5-and-under set are in Fantasyland—Storybookland, Casey Jr., It’s a Small World, Teacups, etc.—but some are pretty dark and scary. Even though I’m prepared for it, I’m also always a little horrified by just how creepy Pinocchio and Snow White are, for example. The only time Skyler cried a little was in Snow White, which seems to have just one happy scene before descending into a dark, nightmarish tale of deception and murder.

Our general fast-pass strategy involves knowing which rides are our priorities (some start having entry times late in the evening by fairly early in the day), and then trying to choose the ones with the next soonest entry time even if it means extra walking around. The reason for this: as soon as your fast pass return time comes up (12:30, if your window is 12:30-1:30) you can get your next pass. So, in general, it’s better to have those times come up sooner so that you can get “in line” for the next ride sooner.

Again, this is really most important for those for whom going on lots of rides is a priority. Skyler, in a phone call with her aunt later, recounted that at Disneyland she “met lots of princesses” and “saw a really good parade.” Whereas Hudson is all about the thrill rides.

She tended to stay off (we used the rider switch option) most of the big ones—like Matterhorn, Indiana Jones, Space Mountain, etc.—but she did really enjoy Big Thunder Railroad and Star Tours.

For lunch, we chose the Jolly Holiday Bakery Café on Main Street, for the Grilled Cheese and cup of tomato-basil soup combo, and the sweet Mattherhorn Macaroons.

Here’s a list of some of the other special food options that came most highly recommended. I tend to suggest, when in doubt, one of the hand-dipped corn dogs from the Little Red Wagon or Stage Door Cafe, or a trip over to New Orleans Square.

Of course Dole Whips are a favorite, too. We did double-dessert, stopping for some on the way into the Tiki Tiki Room. I always spot some parents closing their eyes and getting a little break in here.

Note that there’s a new restaurant tucked behind it and the Bao (dumplings) with the spicy sauce are pretty tasty! One of the talking birds is over there, too—which was a fun surprise for the kids.

The parade that Skyler loved was the “Soundsational Parade,” which featured lots of princesses and greatest hits. Hudson and I went on Space Mountain and then joined her and Aron along the route just outside Tomorrowland, before we all went on Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters. That one—like a video game on a ride—is a huge hit with everyone.

Around sunset, we hopped on the railroad—we only did two of the legs, getting off at Toontown, so we missed the dioramas of the Grand Canyon and the Land of the Dinosaurs. But it’s a great way to see the park: “Steam along the banks of the Rivers of America and behold rugged landscapes inspired by four of America’s majestic rivers: the Mississippi, the Columbia, the Missouri and the Rio Grande. Each are carefully recreated, complete with indigenous rock formations, wildlife and picturesque waterfalls.”

Right now, in the evenings, there’s a light show (sometimes with fireworks) called Mickey’s Mix Magic, but we decided to save it for Monday—and save our strength for the next few days.

After all, our next day began extra early, with an “extra magic hour” at California Adventure.

The number one piece of advice everyone gave us before our first time with the kids last year? Head straight to Radiator Springs—it’s the most popular ride in the park—so we did just that again.

It’s still a bit of an intense ride for Skyler, but she braved it like a champ! We went on twice and then, on the third time, they let us stay on without exiting. It was a bit rainy, and the grey skies seemed to really keep the crowds down. But we did see a wave of people running for the entrance once the park fully opened.

In general, we appreciated the drizzly weather because it did seem to thin things out, but it meant that a few rides in Cars Land never opened.

(We returned later in spite of this, both for a snack of Chili Con Queso and Bacon Mac-n-Cheese at Cone #3, and for a dry lunch inside at Flo’s V8.)

Since the trip, Hudson calls the IncrediCoaster on the newly re-branded Pixar Pier “the ride of my life!” It was his first time on a upside-down coaster and he absolutely loved it!

Some of our other favorite rides at the park: Symphony Swings (so fun, with Flight of the Valkyries playing while you sail through the air), and Soarin’ (where a flight around the world is simulated, right down to the smell of grass).

Skyler would add Ariel’s Grotto, Hudson would add Guardians of the Galaxy, and we all love Toy Story Mania (though Aron beats me every time.)

One of the other best attractions is the live musical Frozen at the Hyperion Theatre. It has incredible production value and makes for a nice break—you can sit down with snacks (and even beer or wine). Skyler remembered that, last time, we stopped to talk to Elsa and Anna after the show, and requested we do the same. We walked over to the Animator’s Studio, and I waited in line while the kids went downstairs to make their own cartoons. Once again, Anna and Elsa were so nice to the kids and I loved eavesdropping on their fantastic little conversation. We skipped the Turtle Talk with Crush this time (timing), but that’s another wonderful attraction in the studio.

We tried a few special desserts: Clarabelle’s Hand-Scooped Ice Cream, you can get hand-dipped ice cream bars (the pop rocks topping is really cool) and specialty floats. Aron tried the boozy “Mich-Helado: ice-cold amber lager with spiced tomato and lime sorbet, house-made tamarindo sauce, and chili-lime [Tajín] seasoning.”

But we all agreed at the end of the trip that the best treat we had at either park were the fresh-baked, share-ably sized chocolate-chip cookies called Jack-Jack Cookie Num Nums that are sold just beyond the IncrediCoaster line.

For dinner, we had reservations at the Lamplight Lounge—lobster nachos, tuna poke, etcetera—at the edge of the pier before ending our night at Soarin’, just beside the hotel entrance.

By the way, last year, a reader tipped me off that 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.

Some other tips from readers: 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; and look out for the Red Car Trolley News Boys on Buena Vista Street. (Anything new to add?)

We probably could have better planned for healthy breakfasts in the morning. I’d suggest packing yogurts and the like for the room. We did bring the standard fare of bananas and peanut butter, but couldn’t think of anything better for ourselves than fresh Cafe Du Monde beignets from the New-Orleans-inspired restaurant in Downtown Disney. (But seriously, is there anything better?)

When we arrived, there was no line for the Princess meet-and-greet, so we made our way there for Skyler to say hello to Snow White and Ariel before it got crowded without even telling them who would be inside. It was a bit of a shock! Which reminds me that we also watched the retelling of Beauty and the Beast in the little theatre over there on our first day.

Having fit a lot in on Saturday, we had made a list of what we’d missed and then gave ourselves permission to amble a bit. So it was that just after a dizzying ride on the teacups, as we were ambling, Skyler found herself helping Peter Pan to surprise Captain Hook! She was delighted, but I also loved watching how much joy Hudson would take in moments like these. Last year, I’d noticed that he seemed a little over the characters, but he was so into it!

Matterhorn muscles!

Skyler took a ride on the carousel while Hudson and I rode through the alps.

I drove in the lead car and would turn around to try to catch pictures of Hudson driving on his own for the first time on Autopia! It was hilarious–sometimes it would look like no one was in there, he’d have to slump so low to keep the gas pedal down. Skyler drove with Aron and kept her tongue pressed against her lip in intense concentration.

We went on It’s a Small World, and watched the live show “Mickey’s Magic Map”—which was terrific. Skyler ran up to the front and just squeezed in with another family, which made me do a little face palm, but which was also pretty sweet—she was just too excited. Aron got one of those giant Turkey legs and we tried the huge Bavarian pretzels (meh), and after Skyler bit into one she noticed that her tooth had “gotten wiggly.” Sure enough, her first loose tooth!

After the show, we headed over to Pooh’s Corner for dessert. We’d been told about some good chocolate chip cookies and a treat called “Tigger Tails.” The cookies weren’t very good, but the tail—marshmallows coated in caramel, then orange-flavored chocolate, and chocolate ribbons, was clever and tasty.

Also that afternoon: Indiana Jones, Tarzan’s Treehouse, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and the Jungle Book Cruise. Indiana Jones broke down right as Hudson and Aron were getting to the front, so they got stuck in there for a while and Skyler and I ended up on the Jungle Book Cruise by ourselves. I wished they could have seen her duck for the hippos, jump at the Piranhas, and talk to the birds in line—so we went again after dark, when the river-tour is conducted with flashlights (really fun and a very short line!).

We usually let the kids each pick out one souvenir. Skyler chose the most frilly mouse ears she had spotted on Saturday (she calls them wedding Minnie ears as she’s very interested in getting married lately) and requested them first thing Monday morning. Hudson surprised us by choosing a pillow from outside the Haunted Mansion. He named it Bone-us.

We probably could’ve lasted all day, just using a locker again, but it seemed a shame not to take advantage of staying on property at least once. We took an hour pause to rest and put on layers before our dinner reservations at the Blue Bayou.

Lo and behold, just as I was checking us in a the host’s desk, Skyler started trying to get my attention to show me that her tooth had come all the way out! Somehow (she says it was bumping into Hudson) it went from loose to lost in one day! I can’t believe both kids have lost teeth there, now!

The restaurant gave us an envelope and we saved it for the tooth fairy back home.

They also gave her another birthday celebration! This year has been well celebrated! I was showing Aron this photo and he reminded me “with the cake she didn’t like.” Ha! Yes… Skyler thinks she likes desserts, but she really doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth.

By the way, the food at the Blue Bayou was delicious, if pricey—my first time there. My one regret: I’d waited to try a Monte Cristo sandwich for our dinner (not getting one in New Orleans Square on Saturday), but learned they only serve them there for lunch. Lesson learned.

Our evening included a tummy-ache (Hudson), but it ended on a high note with a light show and Fireworks on Main Street! The Mickey’s Mix show was like a giant dance party and everyone loved it. I’d say the street started filling up about 30 minutes prior to the start.

Finally, for our last morning before the long drive back home, Aron booked a character breakfast at The Grand Californian. It was full of familiar faces—Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Chip and Dale—and we were so glad we did it.

As I mentioned, I knew Skyler would love this stuff, but it surprised me just how much Hudson did, too.

The breakfast itself was good—mostly what you’d expect at a resort buffet, but with a few special surprises like cereal-flavored milk. The kids enjoyed Mickey Waffles and fruit, while Aron and I agreed that the Chilaquiles were the best item on the line.

We packed up and, a little hesitant about skipping the heated hotel pool but, knowing that we had a long trip ahead, hit the road. Skyler picked out a couple of postcards to send to grandparents, and Hudson used his own money to buy himself a Disney Rubix Cube from the gift shop.

Everyone left with smiles and stories to share—those childhood memories keep getting made. I love being on the other side, watching my own children’s eyes light up at all the spectacle. I always leave with the reminder that so much of that playfulness and delight which they love, the focused day of family-time (culminating in a dance party!) could really happen anywhere, and that’s probably the best part of all.

Have I missed any suggestions for visitors to Disneyland? Please add yours!

P.S.I first wrote  tips for visiting Disneyland when Hudson was under two. Here are some more posts about visiting Disneyland and Disneyworld.


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