A theme park gift under $10? Theme Park Insider: 2016 Year in Review
I started planning this trip almost five years ago, prompted by Disney’s announcement to spend $1.2 billion to turn Disneyland’s much maligned expansion park, Disney California Adventure, into one measuring up to the standards normally associated with the Disney brand. Don’t get me wrong. I desired to return to Disneyland for many years, but WDW is closer (in distance), cheaper (more discounts), and more accommodating to tourists (more on property resort options) than DLR. Plus, I was quite happy visiting WDW, as it is a truly magical place. But the desire to show the park that stated it all to my wife and kids never went away completely.
Speaking of my wife and kids, I guess I better introduce the cast of this report. First, there’s me, James, the Clark Griswoldian Father. I was 45 years old at the time of this trip and have been a theme park fan since I first rode the Calico Mine Train at Knott’s Berry Farm years and years ago (I was too short to ride Corkscrew, blast it!). My wife of 22 years is Robin. She embraces my theme park addiction because I do, but in all honesty says she prefers natural mountains to the ones constructed by Disney Imagineers…yeah, whatever. My wonderful children, who have never known a vacation that did not involve theme parks, are: Jacob (15), Jeremy (13), and Emma (10). As a family, we are seasoned veterans of theme park vacations, having been on many trips over the years. We love to drive to our destinations, experience all the non-upcharge attractions the parks have to offer, and don’t mind sharing lots of different types of food since it means that: a) we get to try more stuff, and b) we always have enough money in the budget for dessert. Above all, we share a disdain for common, midway style amusement parks. For example, Cedar Fair’s Worlds of Fun, a stationary carnival just 20 minutes from my house, is largely ignored, while Silver Dollar City, a true theme park four hours away in Branson, MO, is our adopted home park. And above all, my entire family earnestly believes that the only magic that exists in this morally, socially, and fiscally bankrupt world is Disney Magic.
My original plans for this adventure incorporated several parks in the SoCal area: Disneyland, California Adventure, Knott’s Berry Farm, Magic Mountain, and Universal Studios Hollywood. USH was the first park I crossed off my list. Eighty-five dollars plus per ticket to ride Transformers and the Backlot Tour, although both appear to be great attractions, is just too rich and too limited for my blood. Knott’s went next when I realized the operating hours for the park plummeted down to 10:00 to 6:00 on weekdays in September. Same ticket price as usual and a lot fewer hours made Knott’s hardly worth the expense. Despite a similar short-hours problem at Magic Mountain, I kept that park in my plans as long as possible because I am a huge coaster fan, and Magic Mountain is the current Coaster Capital of the World (sorry Cedar Point, the King is dead, long live the King). However, when X2 went down with a busted lift chain, and the folks at MM had no clue as to when it would be up and running again, the Coaster Crapital went out the window as well.
So what to do with all that extra time now that my list of parks was down to two? Well, since I was born and raised in SoCal, I of course set aside time to visit family (my aunt and cousins live in the Bakersfield area). Plus, I couldn’t deprive my kids of a chance to see the Pacific Ocean (San Simeon, Cambria Pines, Morrow Bay, Avila, and Pismo). And how could I possibly drag my wife on another theme park trip without letting her see a few natural wonders on the way (more mountains than a Yeti can climb and more sequoias than Paul Bunyan can conquer)? Thus the second week of my vacation was thoroughly booked outside of the parks among mountains, the ocean, and requisite trips to Dewar’s Ice Cream, and a See’s Candy location, of course. What about the first week? Do I really need a full week at Disneyland Resort?
My initial touring plans indicated that three days should be sufficient (two days at DL one at DCA), but after all the glowing reviews for DCA’s brilliant Cars Land expansion, I knew we would need at least four days. I began to cement the budget for both my money and my time, and I started drawing up realistic park touring plans (thank you touringplans.com). As I ironed out the details, it became quickly apparent that I would indeed need almost a full week at the Resort (keep in mind, my last trip to WDW was a ten day trip, and I was still left lamenting the fact that a few planned experiences were left on the cutting room floor). So, I used my accumulated Disney Visa Reward points to buy five day single park passes for my whole family (~$1300 in rewards) and set out researching the various hotels and motels within walking distance of the resort. Finding nothing that my wife and I could both agree on, we decided to look at the more expensive, on property Disney hotels. We settled on Paradise Pier (the least expensive of the three). Lastly, I added a sixth day in the parks by including Mickey’s Halloween Party (a separate ticketed event) on September 27th, our last night at the resort. With planning complete, I finalized the budget to save the money needed for our six nights at the Paradise Pier Hotel. Sometime later in March of 2013, I contacted Mousefan Travel and worked with Stephanie Hudson (who booked my 2010 WDW vacation as well) to lock in my hotel. Once complete, the only thing left to do was wait until September to begin the adventure.
After I got home from work, we started the long drive to Anaheim (total time: 24 hours) on Sept 18, 2013. We only went two hours that night, stopping over at my folks’ house just outside of Topeka, KS. There we ate, watched a movie, and slept. My mom was tagging along on this adventure, but she would stay with her sister (the aunt I wrote about earlier) during our week at the parks. She says she’s not a big fan of theme parks despite the fact that we visited them quite a bit in my youth. I sure wish she and my father would at least come with me to Epcot sometime, because I know they would LOVE it. But I digress….
Our first stop was in Denver at Tocabe, an American Indian Eatery. I bring this place up simply because our food, Bison Ribs with seasonal berry barbecue sauce and Indian Tacos, was amazing. Feel free to stop at Tocabe when you are in Denver, and try all their toppings and sauces because their food is just delicious.
After Tocabe, we continued on for a couple hours to Eagle, Colorado, where we stayed at a fairly nice Comfort Inn. The following day we made it to Hurricane, Utah, and another Comfort Inn. We had to settle for Arby’s that night since our first choice, Main Street Café, was closed by the time we arrived, and Sonny Boy BBQ, while touted as the best in Hurricane, was not going to be good enough to justify the 45 minute wait to get a server to come to our table (we walked out after waiting fifteen minutes, so we at least gave it a try).
On day three we passed through Las Vegas where we ate at Smashburger (excellent, fast food burgers, better than both Five Guys and In-N-Out, IMHO), then proceeded on into Bakersfield where we sequestered my mom at her sister’s house and crashed for the night. Overall, the drive on I-70 after Denver and before you hit CA-58 W into Bakersfield is really quite amazing. The mountains and canyons are a sight to behold, and seeing Las Vegas (and New York, New York) rise up out of the desert is pretty cool. I very much enjoyed the trip out to California, as did the rest of my family. Plus we were able to listen to an excellent reading of the first two Artemis Fowl books (by Eoin Colfer) during the trip, which were both very good stories. Looking forward to the Disney movie forthcoming….
The following day (Sunday, September 22, 2013), my family of five loaded up the Sienna and headed down I-5 to Anaheim. We cruised through the Grapevine, blitzed past the SBNO X2 and Sux Flags, got caught in loads of traffic on the worst stretch of highway I have EVER had the displeasure to travel (I-5 passing through Los Angeles), shot like a cannonball past not one, but two completely unused Knott’s Berry Farm exits, and arrived at Disneyland Resort around 2:00 PM. We followed the clearly labeled signs and directions to the Paradise Pier Hotel’s parking garage, found a convenient parking spot, jumped out of the van, and proceeded into the hotel, visions of Pirates and Princesses dancing in our heads.
There was a short line at the check in counter, but no sooner was I in that line when a cheerful cast member came over and directed me to the concierge desk which was open at the time. I love efficiency and good service, and it was these two qualities at which the cast members of the Paradise Pier excelled. Throughout the week I received remarkable service whenever I needed anything at the hotel. In fact, the cast members at the Paradise Pier were the best and friendliest cast members I encountered the entire week.
We checked in, received maps and directions to the parks and Downtown Disney, and then were told that since our room was not quite ready (check in is officially after 3:00 PM, so we were a bit early), we could store our gear at the front desk and head on into the parks if we so desired. We decided to explore for a bit instead, walking around the resort, checking out the pool area (expansive and insanely clean, but pretty much devoid of theme), the exercise room (spacious), the laundry (a bit small but functional), and the hotel’s restaurants (we never did end up eating in the hotel, so I do not know if the food is good or bad, but the eating areas looked fine). We also trekked over to the Grand Californian (directly across the street) and familiarized ourselves with the path to Downtown Disney and DCA, both within 5 – 7 minutes of the Paradise Pier Hotel. I then received a page and a phone call that our room was ready, so we headed back to Paradise Pier and got our room keys (6th floor) before heading back to DTD, past the security checkpoint, and finally into the park that started it all: Disneyland.
I was hit with a flurry of emotions when I entered the park: joy, relief, excitement, pride – they all raced through me as I slowly led my family into Walt’s first magic kingdom. I had spent so long dreaming of and planning for this trip that I was momentarily overwhelmed by the fact that I was really here. Disney fans know what I am talking about when I write that the feeling of being home coalesced over me in a very powerful and emotional wave, bringing me to a sudden halt. I just stood there, taking it all in, savoring the moment and committing it to memory the same way a father locks in the birth of his children – shock and awe, baby, shock and awe.
Our first attraction was to be the 4:00 parade, so waking from my momentary stupor I led the troop into Disneyland, up some stairs to a viewing area in the Main Street Train Station. From this excellent vantage point we took in the sights and sounds of Disneyland. We witnessed the hustle and bustle of people coming and going, we saw folks everywhere laughing, celebrating, taking pictures, making memories, and waiting anxiously to meet Minnie Mouse who was greeting guests in front of Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. The grandeur of it all was still a bit overwhelming to me, but the sound of the train whistle brought me back from my reverie just in time to notice the distant sound of the parade coming down Main Street as if its sole purpose was to welcome the Rao family to the Happiest Place on Earth.
I am sure the parade was really nothing spectacular, nothing earth shaking, I am sure it was really no better than any other outstanding Disney parade, but in that moment, it was quite simply the best parade of all time. We were so fired up to see all the Disney characters and Princesses that as each float passed by our waving and catcalls went on unabated. And what a joy it was when Ariel noticed my frantically waving daughter and took time to acknowledge her, or when Mickey and Donald seemingly waved at us and us alone. I am sure others have experienced a similar euphoria when they have returned to the Disney Magic after a long absence, and it is to those fans I say: there is nothing quite like the feeling of, as I said before, being home. The parade was magnificent.
Parade ending, we breezed onto the train (after a Chris Paul [LA Clippers basketball player] sighting) and rode it up one stop to the New Orleans Square depot. From there we headed to Café Orleans, the one table service reservation I had made for the entire trip. It was about 5:00 PM. We were seated promptly and had a great table near the railing on the Pirates of the Caribbean side of the restaurant. From our vantage point we had a great view of Tom Sawyer’s Island and all the people making their way through this classic park.
We requested two orders of Pommes Frites (French fries laced with edible crack), extra dipping sauce, a Monte Cristo, a Three Cheese Monte Cristo, and a Mardi Gras Chicken Sandwich (for my wife who is not big on heavily fried foods). The Pommes Frites were light, airy, and full of flavor, as amazing as everyone said they would be, and they were gone in minutes, which was fine since the main course arrived in record time (the wait staff was exceptional). The kids and I shared the two Cristos and enjoyed them, although the consensus opinion was that the Three Cheese version was not in the same league as the standard turkey, ham, and Swiss version. My wife’s sandwich was expertly prepared, full of flavor, and tasty, so if you are looking for something a bit less heavy and not fried, you can’t go wrong with Mardi Gras Chicken Sandwich. For dessert we ordered Mickey Beignets (of course) and a special Halloween demitasse pumpkin cup, which was filled with pumpkin and chocolate mousse. Both desserts were delicious, although the Beignets were pretty messy, so have plenty of napkins on hand when you partake.
Leaving Café Orleans we meandered over to the most important stop on my itinerary: the one, the only, the first, and the best, Pirates of the Caribbean. The line was short, ten minutes, so we quickly boarded the attraction and set about on our adventure. I have often touted the virtues of this particular version of Pirates to any and all who would listen, clinging to my circa 1981 memories and my belief that it is the best attraction in the world. Was it really as great as I remembered? Would the kids agree? Was it just the nostalgia of memories from long, long ago? The moment of truth was at hand, but as our cruise through the Blue Bayou began, I knew instantly that neither I nor my family would be disappointed. This wonderful, timeless attraction could never and would never be anything less than amazing.
Tomorrow: Part TwoTweet
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