A theme park gift under $10? Theme Park Insider: 2016 Year in Review
We're starting the trip at the what you just named the country's best theme park, Disneyland, just down the road from Theme Park Insider world headquarters, in Anaheim. Disneyland, along with the other Disney theme parks, has been offering free admission to people on their birthday's this year, so our visit today was to celebrate official TPI kid Natalie's 12th birthday.
To make it a party, Natalie brought along four classmates to join her family today. Now, before you take up your torches and pitchforks to overthrow me as your Theme Park Bargain Hunter for springing for such an elaborate event, please note that Natalie got those four tickets free from Disney, as one of the rewards for winning first place in a Los Angeles County creative writing contest in May. (Yeah, I know my own ethics rules say no free tickets from theme parks, but I'm ruling that Natalie earned these on her own, and I didn't use 'em to get in - just her friends did.)
Since my Disneyland annual pass was blocked out today, I had to buy a $40 blockout day ticket to get into the park (much cheaper than the $69 one-day, one-park ticket). But the Disney ticket folks also applied the price of that blockout ticket to upgrading my annual pass from SoCal Select to the SoCal pass, giving me 35 additional valid days to visit the park, in addition to getting me in today. Also, my AP discounts were in effect inside the park, even though I was on a blockout ticket. (A couple details there I thought some of you might like to know.)
Indiana Jones was down when we entered the park, around 8:30 this morning, so we headed first to the Haunted Mansion. I love the west side of Disneyland and consider it - from Splash Mountain to the Tiki Room - the single best stretch of theme park attractions in the United States. And I love what Disneyland's done to the area since its 50th anniversary, four years ago. The Haunted Mansion, along with Pirates of the Caribbean, enjoys some delightful, fresh effects that have been added over the past few years, including the new bride in the attic.
We then walked on to Splash Mountain, where I snapped this shot of the ride's musical finale.
My kids were interested in comparing Splash with its inspiration, the Log Flume at Knott's Berry Farm, which they'd ridden earlier this year. They were surprised at how similar the rides themselves were, yet how totally different the attractions were, due to Splash Mountain's incorporation of so many characters and so much music.
We backtracked after Splash, riding Pirates and checking in on Indy (still closed), before settling on a ride on Big Thunder Mountain.
I amused the kids with a story about how I could eat a bowl of cereal on the ride's morning test runs when I worked on the Florida version, mostly to coax Brian into accepting that the coaster itself wasn't too rough or scary. He hadn't ridden in years, and forgotten what it was like. Doing the "goat trick" after the B lift, he yelled at me, "I remember now - this ride is great!"
Natalie and the girls had decided that they wanted to try the canoes (another of my former Florida haunts), but they didn't open today until 11am. So, to pass the time, and to run a bit of energy off, we decided to visit my beloved Tom Sawyer's Island.
Yeah, I know they've slapped the "Pirates Lair" overlay on the island. But it's still Tom and Huck's place, to me. The duo would well approve of the pirate detritus that's been spread over their playground, and I'm happy to see the place get some maintenance and visitor attention.
We rode back over to the mainland in time to catch the first canoe of the day, and everyone worked up an appetite paddling around the Rivers of America. (Though it really does feel a shorter trip than Florida's.) River Belle Terrace didn't start serving lunch for another 15 minutes, though, so we hopped into the rapidly growing line for the just-opened Indiana Jones ride.
Sorry fans, but I just don't get the passion that so many folks seem to have for this ride. You just drive around a room in a lurching jeep, following Indiana Jones who's doing... something... down in the Temple of the Forbidden Eye. Frankly, this was my least favorite ride of the day. I just can't follow the story with the same clarity that Universal Orlando's Spider-Man provides in a very similar type of ride.
Next, we stopped in the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki room for a needed, restful break after all the walking we'd been doing this morning.
To me, the Enchanted Tiki Room is the single most under-appreciated attraction at Disneyland. Freed from the leaden Offenbach number that dragged down the show years ago, the Tiki room offers a tight, lively and charming musical refreshment for park visitors. It's not perfect (the final number is simplistic early-'60s cliche and the four main birds' accents could use some 21st century subtlety), but the bulk of this show demonstrates why Disneyland's so beloved by so many people - it provides delightful music in an accessible narrative that manages to relax and engage at the same time. Throw in a cool, dark room with padded seats and you've got yourself a slam-dunk attraction for the middle of the day.
After lunch, we hit the east side of the park for the rest of the afternoon. The kids rode Buzz Lightyear while I walked one of Natalie's classmates to meet her parents in the pick-up area on Harbor Blvd. because she needed to duck out early for a prior commitment. By the time I got back, the girls were in line for the Matterhorn, while Brian and his mom were queued up for Finding Nemo.
Sorry, Disney, but the Matterhorn's gotten unacceptably rough over the years. A bobsled slide down a mountain ought to be slick and ice-smooth, not like running a mountain bike down a rutted trail during the May mud season. It's past time for a rebuild.
While Brian and mom finished on Nemo, the girls voted for a trip on Small World (which I reviewed and video'd for TPI last February).
They played the "Where's Waldo" game of picking out the new Disney characters, then we met with Brian and mom for a quick lap around Toontown. As the parade sucked the crowds out of Fantasyland, we moved in for a ride on the teacups...
... and we wrapped up our day with a trip through Sleeping Beauty's Castle and a ride for the birthday girl on the carousel.
The only miss? Two downtimes frustrated our two attempts to ride Space Mountain, which we never did get on, even though I grabbed everyone FastPasses earlier in the day. Still, by the time we sat down for dinner at Pizza Port, everyone was exhausted and ready to call it a very enjoyable day.
Stay tuned to Theme Park Insider next weekend, when we visit Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana!Tweet
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