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My family's first visit to Disneyland: Part One

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Published: November 2, 2013 at 6:32 PM

Many events of great significance occurred in the year of 1981:
  • Iran released 52 American hostages, held for 444 days
  • A whack job named John Hinckley, Jr. failed in an assassination attempt on President Reagan
  • The wreck of the Titanic was found Nintendo released the first incarnation of a Donkey Kong video game and Mario becomes a household name!
  • The first American test tube baby was born
  • MTV was launched (and actually showcased music videos)
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark was released, marking the end of George Lucas’ creative career
But the most significant event of 1981 was when an 11 12-year-old boy named James Rao, in preparation for a cross country move from California to Virginia, made his last visit to Walt Disney’s original theme park – Disneyland. Thirty-two years later, in September of 2013, that now 45-year-old man would triumphantly return to the park that started it all. This report details that triumphant return.

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.

The Coaster Capital of the World - Six Flags

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.

Let Your Mickey Be Your Guide

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.

Delicious Indian Taco at Tocabe

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….

Las Vegas - New York New York

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.

Disneyland: The Park That Started It All

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.

Tangled Float in the Disneyland Parade

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.

Pommes Frites at Cafe Orleans

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 Two

Readers' Opinions

From Amanda Jenkins on November 2, 2013 at 6:51 PM
James, I have been anxiously awaiting your trip report, and once again you do an amazing job of it! Looking forward to the next installment.
From 71.21.29.218 on November 2, 2013 at 7:09 PM
Loved your review. I'm a Disneyland local, but have visited the FL parks twice in the past year. It's interesting to compare. Some things are better here and some are better there. One question, though: who gave the routing from Las Vegas to Anaheim? You could have taken the 15 from Las Vegas directly to the 91 and missed a lot of traffic.
From Don Neal on November 2, 2013 at 8:27 PM
Good show James ol' boy! I look forward to part two with great expectation!
From James Trexen on November 2, 2013 at 8:57 PM
Very great to hear from you James, especially with *my* DLR trip coming up soon. Hope to hear more great things.

Oh, and if you're ever in the Chicago area, be sure to find a Meatheads complete with cajun fries along the way. As much as I love Smashburger, nothing compares.

From James Rao on November 2, 2013 at 10:01 PM
Thanks for reading so far... I appreciate your attention and very kind words. I hope you like the rest of the report/review. I definitely had a good time writing it and reliving some really great memories.

And for the anon poster, I had to go into Bakersfield before heading to Anaheim (to drop my mom off at her sister's house). From Bakersfield, the most direct route seemed to be I-5, but if there was any easier way... I guess that is just water under the bridge. Besides, if I had gone another way, I would not have been able to experience the worst stretch of interstate ever! ;)

From 64.40.156.161 on November 2, 2013 at 10:34 PM
Awesome post. I can't wait for part two. The only thing better than going to Disney is reading about someone else's trip.
From Tracy Bates on November 3, 2013 at 1:36 AM
Sounds like fun. My wife and I went to Disneyland in 2011 for the first time as part of an 8 parks in 10 days theme park marathon and it was amazing. (We've been pass holders to WDW for years.) The best part was figuring out what's different from the east coast. I just wish cars land had been open then. Oh well... Time to start planning the next trip.
From Annette Forrest on November 3, 2013 at 3:31 AM
Ooooh! I loved this trip report and all the details. I can't wait for Part Two!!! What a terrific read from a great storyteller!!!
From Tad Daily on November 3, 2013 at 5:23 AM
Wow! What a great article! Your writing style is very impressive ..it sucked me in and held onto me through every word...I wanted to skip ahead to see what was going to happen next...even though every trip I take to Disneyland feels the same way as you describe...as if I have come home again. :) Wow...I can't wait for part two and I hope it continues through every stage of your trip...I'm actually curious to hear you describe the REST of California... :)
From James Rao on November 3, 2013 at 6:32 AM
Ahhh, shucks, you all are way too kind. Thank you!

@Tad, as for the non-Disneyland portion of the trip, suffice it to say we did see the Sequoias (General Sherman is a sight to behold), the beach (sandcastles are a specialty of mine!), and more mountains than a Yeti could climb. But none of those adventures will be covered in this report... to which many of you will breathe a big sigh of relief! ;)

I will say that there is more to California than Disneyland, roller coasters, and bad interstates. If you can get away from the well traveled areas, it is really quite a beautiful place. And it is a lot different than it was back when I lived in a humble, little cottage in Simi Valley....

One piece of trip advice for anyone planning to pass through the Bakersfield area: make stop at Dewar's Ice Cream and Candies. Their sundaes are amazing, and their peanut butter taffy is what makes life worth living!

From Rob Pastor on November 3, 2013 at 6:34 AM
Excellent report. You tell a story well James. Looking forward to the next installments.
From 107.219.189.242 on November 3, 2013 at 8:06 AM
As someone who grew up in Southern California around the same period, but has been going to Disneyland regularly through my childhood and into my adult life, I probably would have had a similar experience if I visited the park for the first time since 1981. I find myself nostalgic for attractions I don't remember so well (Mine Train through Nature's Wonderland, the old Matterhorn with the single-car bobsleds, Captain Hook's pirate ship restaurant), but as others have commented elsewhere, a lot of people's fondness for Disneyland is purposely based on nostalgia.

I would definitely be interested in reading about your trip to Sequoia National Park (I took my family this spring after my not having been there since the mid 1980s) and other scenic wonders, but sadly it don't fit into the scope of this website. Maybe it's time for someone to create a National Park Insider website...

From 76.174.34.87 on November 3, 2013 at 10:30 AM
You do realize that Knotts hours are so short during the weekdays because no one is there? Had you gone, everything would have been a walk on. You claim to be a seasoned theme park person, yet you couldn't realize this?


Seems to me you just had Disneyland and only Disneyland in your plans.

From Lori Jones on November 3, 2013 at 11:45 AM
I am loving this report! So well written and in depth, I feel like I'm there! Cannot wait for part 2 :)
From James Rao on November 3, 2013 at 10:33 PM
Hello Anon Poster 76.174.34.87, to be honest, I did know I could get Knott's done it eight hours. In fact there was a discussion thread I posted where SoCal TPI expert AJ Hummel told me the following about Knott's: "I routinely visit Knott's after class when I get out of school early and usually only stay for about three hours. In that time, I often do close to a dozen rides and have never seen a wait longer than 15 minutes." So I ask you: is it really worth it to pay full price to go to a park that you can "get done" in three hours? Stack another day at a Disney park against a park that takes three hours to complete, and it is hardly worth the time and expense.

Another reason I did not want to go to Knott's is that I knew the current state of the Calico Mine Ride would absolutely ruin the fond memories I have of it from the mid 70's. Maybe if Cedar Fair addresses the poor condition of this attraction with a Timber Mountain Log Ride style refurb, I will feel more compelled to visit.

And finally, there was the short hours problem I mentioned (ever so briefly) in my trip report. Let me explain further: despite knowing the park could be completed in three hours, and despite knowing it would not be crowded, I still felt that if I was going to spend $400 to take my family for a day at Knott's (tickets + parking + food), I would at least want the park to be open late enough to ride a couple coasters at night. And while dusk is firmly settling in at 6:00, it certainly is not late enough to provide those coveted night rides. Furthermore, in an iron ride park, those night time hours are very important since that is when the park really comes alive. I actually did consider going on the weekend for the later hours, but then I figured the crowds would grow as well and I would have to add another $250 for the FastLane option to keep things relaxing. In the long run, it was actually an easier, cheaper, and more relaxing option to add one more day to my Disney trip rather than spend a day at Knott's.

But, having written all that, I won't deny it, you're right: I was just looking for an excuse to add another day to my Disney tour... and as you can see, Knott's closing at 6:00 PM was just one of several reasons I used to make that decision easier.

From 75.20.231.56 on November 4, 2013 at 10:11 AM
I can't figure out why you used a days admission to DL at 4pm. More than half the day was wasted. Knotts tickets discounted go for 31 - 40 dollars on their web site. So for $200 your family could have visted an empty Knott's.

The tour tram at USH is the most popular attraction and the only attraction of it's type in the world. Water World is a great show that won't be there the next time you go to LA. And while The Mummy isn't as good as the one in Florida it is unique and a good ride. USH does have discounted admission and is still less expensive than a day at DL.

If well planed a trip to DL can cover everything in 2 days maybe 3 max. You went during the slowest time so 2 should have done it.

From James Rao on November 4, 2013 at 4:26 PM
It was just the way it worked out, Mate. We arrived as early as we were able to arrive and stayed late. It was a shorter day, but also the only day to see Fantasmic, so it was what it was.

You keep talking about the expense of Disney admission... you do know that a five day Disney ticket comes out to ~$50 per person per day, right? That price is essentially half the cost of a single day ticket. Not a bad deal, at all. And I also noted that I used Disney Visa Rewards to buy my tickets, so basically, I got into the Disney parks for free. No other SoCal theme park can match that deal.

As to your assertion that one can "cover everything" at Disneyland in a max of three days, I completely disagree. However it depends on what you consider to be "covering everything". And when you consider there's another great park just across the esplanade that takes another "2-3 days max to cover everything" you suddenly understand why I booked a six day trip!

And one other note, while the parks were not crowded by Disney standards, they certainly were not "slow". When a park pulls an average of ~44k guests a day as Disneyland does it is never really "slow". So the term "slow" as it is generally understood does not have application in this case. "Slow" for Disney is still an amazing attendance day for 90% of the other parks across the nation, including USH which averages ~16k a day and especially Knott's which pulls less than 10k a day on average.

As for USH, do you really think it makes sense to spend upwards of $500 (tickets+gas+food) for a tram tour and WaterWorld? Really? There is a reason Universal is spending $1B to expand their Hollywood operation - there is precious little for visitors to do especially if they have already visited their far superior Orlando Resort. Look, I wanted to go to USH, but just could not justify the expense vs experience ratio.

And if Knott's is so empty, it must be because it is not a great park. So your suggestion to skip a day of Disney to go to a lesser park makes little logical sense. However, I do think Knott's is a great park, maybe one of the best iron ride parks in the nation. And it is improving all the time, getting back to its theme park roots. But it is not in the same league with what Disney is offering. In short, I would rather enjoy a half day of Disney Magic then experience a half dozen good attractions at a lesser park especially when the park closes so early you can't accomplish any night rides on their coasters.

Look, I did the math, I really did, and it was cheaper, by far, to spend six days at Disney, then to compress my Disney days and hop all over SoCal to ride a Tram Tour, a Log Ride, and to look at a SBNO X2.

And at the end of the day, we had a wonderful trip, and I have no regrets. If I lived in SoCal I would visit all the parks. If I was single or had unlimited funds and time, I would vacation at all the parks. But with a budget, a wonderful family, and just one week of theme park time, I had to choose wisely and carefully. So, I choose the best of the best. Can you really expect me to do anything else?

From Jo M on November 6, 2013 at 6:32 AM
The wreck of the Titanic was found in 1985.
From James Rao on November 6, 2013 at 5:10 PM
Sorry, should have double checked my website reference. Will provide one of my many other "facts" so Mr. Niles can fix it!

Thanks!

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