Up until I actually got there, very few of my thoughts about going to Disneyland had anything to do with the actual Happiest Place on Earth. My primary focus up until the day Llisa and I left for California was the race (the day we left my focus shifted to not missing any flights or losing any luggage. Not that the latter was ever in my control but whatever). People would ask me, knowing how much I love Disney, if I was excited to be going to Disneyland – to the original park – and I would enthusiastically answer, “Yes!” Really though, the only thing going through my mind when anyone asked me that questions was, “Oh my God! I’m about to run my first half marathon through Disneyland!” which would in-turn bring about pre-race anxiety.
Being there, of course, changed everything.
The shifting in my mindset was gradual. I spent my first handful of hours at the resort feeling like I was dreaming. The whole experience felt different. After all, when my friend Amanda and I went to Disney World back at the end of 2011 (my first time at any Disney park) we spent well over a year planning for it. Virtually every little detail was considered and thought-out long before we left. This time the most I had to do was register for the race and book my flight (which I did through AirMiles which made it more challenging than you might think. Still worth it in the end though. Thanks for your help with this part, Dad!) Llisa’s mom, Susan took care of the hotel and grabbing our Park Hopper passes (generally more expensive but always worth it in my opinion – getting to move freely between the parks at your leisure helps take some of the stress out of your schedule because you have more flexibility should plans – or moods – change). Despite having made the decision to go almost a year ago, this trip still almost felt spontaneous by comparison!
I was also only there for the weekend as opposed to two full weeks so, y’know, that might have had something to do with it too!
The Disneyland Resort is made up of three distinct sections and, unlike Disney World, which is spread out across some impressive acreage, these sections are connected and within quick walking distance from one another. There are the two theme parks: Disneyland and California Adventure, which are directly across a central plaza from one another. Off of the plaza is Downtown Disney, a shopping district filled with both official Disney and non-affiliated retailers, restaurants and retailers. Finally, there are the hotels: The Grand Californian, Paradise Pier Hotel and, our home for the weekend, The Disneyland Hotel.
Oh, our hotel. Llisa’s mom warned us that we were in for a pleasant surprise when we saw our room. The hotel itself was lovely – airy and bright with whimsical and classic Disney touches everywhere you turned. As for the room itself (a standard with two king-sized beds) we were first floored but how roomy it was. The real showstopper though was the massive “carved wood” headboard. It took up the entire top half of the bed wall and prominently featured the castle in the centre. When you flicked a bedside switch, tiny embedded lights traced fireworks and stars that twinkled to the tune of “When you wish upon a star”. I might have gotten a bit emotional about this.
After a quick stop in the room and trip to the Health and Fitness Expo, we made a beeline for the parks. Disneyland Resort has a slightly different, multi-tiered approach at park access than I remember Disney World having. Aside from just checking your pass, the cast members also take your photo using a special iPhone app when you first come in that they go on to check every time you try to enter a park (they also require I.D. when you make purchases on your room key. This sometimes felt like an annoying extra step but, in the name of security, was ultimately appreciated).
Maybe it was the fatigue of all the traveling and time changes, maybe it was the sense of having stumbled into the weekend feeling relative unprepared, but as we wandered through Downtown Disney, onto the monorail and eventually into Disneyland itself I couldn’t help but feel disorientated and (if I can be absolutely honest) slightly underwhelmed. As the lights faded on that first day, we rounded a corner and Llisa’s mom proclaimed, “And there’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.”
I was taken aback. Where did that come from? I wondered to myself. I stood there for a few moments, just kind of staring at it in a foggy daze trying to reconcile my feelings. When I could finally bring myself to say something, it was a dazzlingly profound observation:
Of course it was small. Of course all of it was small. It was the original. But that wasn’t something my overwhelmed psyche would be able to appreciate until the next morning.
After a good night’s sleep we rose early to hit the parks before the rush. We chose to return to Disneyland and the first thing we noticed was that many of the classic characters were making their way out into the town square for a morning meet n’ greet. We got photos with Pluto and Minnie (so, SO cute!) and then, just as we were ready to keep moving, we saw Pinocchio coming out into the square. All I wanted to do was say hi, I swear. Then, without warning, he grabbed my hand and started skipping and the only thing I could think to do was go along with it. The parents around us gave me some epic stink-eye for inadvertently stealing the experience from the children (it wasn’t my fault! THE PUPPET MADE ME SKIP!) but the kids didn’t seem to care. They just formed a running, jumping, squealing parade behind us.
Good times were had by all.
The thing about Disneyland is that, with the exception of pretty much just New Orleans Square (for the record: beautiful), it’s pretty much the same idea as Disney World with respect to layout. You still have your Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland, etc. Mainstreet U.S.A is set up the same way and there are lot of the same attractions (although in some cases they have different names). But everything looks different. The Hunted Mansion, for example: same ride but totally different structure. It gives the park unique distinctions when it would otherwise be possible to write it off as being the same as WDW’s Magic Kingdom.
But what we can’t forget though is that Disneyland is the original park. This is the one that Walt was alive to see built. He even lived there, in an apartment above the Firehouse. In fact, one of my only goals in attending the park was finding his lamp. I’m not going to lie to you: when I found it, I may have wept a little.
What started out feeling small and compact soon came to feel classic and homey. It only took one ride – Space Mountain, y’all – to get that old Disney rush back. I remember coming over one of the coaster’s first hills and thinking, I effing LOVE Disney! as I grinned like an idiot in the dark.
I also, for the record, love that my version of adulthood involves exercising my independence by going to Disney parks. Just sayin’.
After thoroughly enjoying what we could of Disneyland in the morning, we dedicated our afternoon to exploring California Adventure. Having done zero research before hand, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I quickly realized that it was essentially Disneyland’s answer to WDW’s Hollywood Studios, and I was perfectly okay with that.
The park features a lot of Hollywood Studio favourites (even the entrance looks the same). Rides like the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the old Hollywood/movie set vibe were the same. There were even some familiar attractions found in EPCOT there like Soarin’ and Turtle Talk with Crush. It was a pretty good mix of both worlds.
But there was a lot that California Adventure had going for it that WDW doesn’t. One of the newest points of interest is, without a doubt, Cars Land. I was blown away by their near-perfect reproduction of Radiator Springs! I also adored Paradise Pier. Overall, if you’re a fan of newer Disney and Pixar, you can’t miss this park.
My only regret about this trip was that I didn’t stay longer. Even just one extra day would have made a huge difference. There were a number of attractions that I didn’t have time for and we were generally too tired by the end of the day to take in any of the nighttime shows (although we did catch some of the Disneyland fireworks over the top of Downtown Disney and part of California Adventure’s World of Color was on during the race). It had been our plan to squeeze in as much as we could after the race on Sunday but we only managed to ride Screamin’ and Soarin’ before fatigue and sore legs led us to the pool and then bed.
Some other Disneyland observations:
- A few people told us that a lot of Disneyland’s visitor traffic is from California. I don’t know how true it is but if it is, it makes sense. I found people to be more laid back and, dare I say it, maybe even a bit friendlier than in Florida (cast members aside of course, they’re all sunshine and rainbows).
- Despite being smaller, I came to really appreciate how close everything was. No need for buses or cars as long as you’re staying on site. This is something you really come to appreciate at the end of a long day.
- Most of the queue paths for attractions are outdoors. On the plus side, the weather was perfect the whole time I was there so I imagine that has something to do with it. All the same – SUNSCREEN.
- I prefer Disneyland’s FastPass return set-up better than WDW. At WDW, all riders enter at the same place but follow different lines. At Disneyland you pretty much just jump to the front of the line.
- I imagine this is the same at WDW but we found that the Disneyland restaurants were fabulous when it came to dealing with a food allergy in the group (gluten). We were able to pick up a list from the City Hall in Disneyland that covered what the options were in both parks and the hotels. The chefs were great about coming out to talk with us and made sure to prepare and bring the order out separately to avoid cross-contamination.
- Duffy doesn’t seem to be nearly as a big a deal in Disneyland as opposed to WDW (you can only find him and his merch at Paradise Pier).
- Maybe it was just the season but there seemed to be a lot of attractions that were out of order. There were also a number of them that kept breaking down (and as such, Splash Mountain has evaded me for a second time!)
All-in-all, a fabulous experience. I don’t know how feasible it will be to get back there, but I’d revel in the opportunity to do it again. I guess time will tell!
What about you? Have you ever been to Disneyland? Tell me about it!