My family's first visit to Disneyland: Part Three
Published: November 4, 2013 at 6:57 PM
Before I move on from Disneyland to my Disney California Adventure report, I thought I should comment briefly on our stay at the Paradise Pier Hotel.
All three Disney hotels (Grand Californian, Disneyland Hotel, and Paradise Pier Hotel) are within easy walking distance (or monorail distance in the case of Disneyland) of the parks and Downtown Disney. They are expensive, but if you never want to leave the magic they are worth it, IMHO. We were at the Paradise Pier for six nights and loved every minute of the stay - wonderful hotel. It doesn't have much of a theme, mind you, but it is top notch in every other respect (except shower water pressure – which is a little bit low).
Over the course of my six days, I jogged around the whole resort area every morning and did not see any non-Disney local hotels/motels within walking distance that I would have preferred over Paradise Pier. And while some of them were much cheaper and as close to the action, I did not see any that were substantially closer. Not enough to sway my opinion, anyway. Besides, for us this trip was likely a once in a lifetime adventure - so I wanted to make sure the place we spent all our downtime was more than just a cheap place to sleep and shower. It had to be part of the experience, and in that respect the Paradise Pier Hotel was a huge success.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013, was our very first visit to Disney California Adventure Park. As was our strategy the whole week, we eschewed the early entry park for onsite hotel guests, slept in an extra hour, and did the opposite, visiting the non-early entry park each day of our adventure. Still, being theme park insiders, we knew we needed to line up an hour before park opening (10 AM) if we wanted to be among the first to enter the park.
We left the Paradise Pier Hotel promptly at 8:50 AM, and were in pole position at the DCA entry plaza by 9:00 AM sharp. On-site guests can use the Grand Californian's alternative entrance to DCA if so desired, but its placement, between Soarin' and Grizzly River Run, was not the best option for my touring plan. Disneyland, which had early entry that morning, was already packed, with lines stretching to the middle of the esplanade. After one look at those lines, I was feeling pretty good about my avoid-early-entry strategy, and settled in for the 45 minute wait to get into DCA. Of course, being surrounded by Disney fans, we quickly made new friends and passed the time breezily discussing the theme parks, movies, music, and cartoons we all love so dearly.
We entered the park about 20 minutes before official opening and headed en masse to the Carthay Circle central hub. From here we diverged from the crowd and instead of waiting with the droves of people heading to Cars Land or the Radiator Springs Racers Fastpass booth, we turned right and got situated for Soarin' Over California. Everything I had read and studied about Cars Land emphatically stated this new area of the park was best toured in the evening. So my plan was to hit Soarin', grab World of Color Fastpasses, and then head back to the Paradise Pier area of the park until about 11:00. At that point I would make a beeline for the RSR Fastpass booth in the hopes that we could lock down a return time during the last hour of park operation. It was a risky play, but I wanted my family to experience Cars Land at its absolute best that first day.
While we waited for the main part of the park to open, I took note of my surroundings. DCA, despite being a smaller park, has a lot in common with the WDW parks with its wide open walkways and a decidedly modern feel. I was a bit more at home here, just because I am more used to WDW than Disneyland. It seemed as though DCA was engineered to handle crowds much better than Walt's original park, which proved to be true in every case except the World of Color viewing area – more about that debacle later. Regardless, DCA may have been the punch line of a bad Disney joke for its first decade, but now, it was easy to see, the park had been reborn and was looking forward to a bright future indeed.
At 10:00 AM sharp the rope dropped and we headed off to Soarin'. Sadly, as was the M.O. for this trip, our first planned attraction of the day was 101. So much for those much ballyhooed DLR maintenance and upkeep standards. We moved past Soarin' to Grizzly River Run where the World of Color Fastpass booths are situated. We obtained our Fastpasses for the show (Blue Section) then headed off to the Paradise Pier and California Screamin'.
Screamin' is presented as an antiquated wooden coaster, but is in fact a modern steel looper with a 0–55mph launch, some nice drops, a single elliptical loop, several camelbacks toward the end of the course, and a nice 2.5 minute ride length. We enjoyed this coaster about a half dozen times over the course of our two visits to the park, and while it doesn't set any thrill records, it is a fun ride and something the whole family should be able to experience together. I will note that the cast members here are very efficient at filling each available row and seat, but you can request the front row if you so desire. Just be prepared to wait a few extra minutes for that choice location. We did wait for the front once, and while it provided a great view of the proceedings, pretty much any seat offers a fun ride.
Following Screamin', we headed to Toy Story Midway Mania which already had a 20-minute wait. I noticed very little difference between this version and the version at Hollywood Studios except that the queue in Orlando is vastly superior in every respect. The rides themselves are, as far as I can tell, identical. I still regard this attraction as the most addictive shooter ride I have experienced. I know Men in Black fans would argue against this stance, but I hold fast to my opinion.
Next up we strolled disdainfully past all the midway games and off-the-shelf rides situated along the Pier. Sure, these seaside amusements have been softened with some fancy Victorian-era styling, but underneath all that lipstick, they are still the same tacky carnival attractions found at iron ride parks across the nation. Walt Disney built Disneyland as an alternative to parks with a carnival atmosphere and common midway attractions. He raised the bar and proved that in order to separate from the pack and achieve the greatest success attractions must be unique experiences people will remember for a lifetime. To that end, there are still a few changes required in the Paradise Pier area of DCA if Disney wants it to be something fans like me and mine will fully embrace.
Just for the sake of coaster credit, we visited Goofy's Sky School as we circled the Pier. This coaster is an off the shelf wild mouse, and while it is pleasantly themed and fairly smooth, it is the same old, mediocre, start and stop coaster you've ridden at dozens of parks across the nation. If you like "yay" / "ouch" rides, you'll like this coaster. We got our credit then moved on, never to return.
We then headed back to Soarin' which was working again. Again, I noticed nothing different about this version of the attraction compared to the copycat ride at Epcot. They are, as far as I can tell, identical. Still, Soarin' is perhaps the finest, most accessible, and pleasant flight simulator on the planet, and definitely a must-do at either park.
After Soarin', we headed back to the Carthay Circle hub where I dropped off the family at the Fiddler, Fifer, and Practical Café (named after the three pigs who built their own houses with straw, sticks, and bricks respectively) for lunch, while I ran off to pick up RSR Fastpasses. I had almost waited too long as it was 11:30 by the time I got to the Fastpass booths, but was lucky enough to obtain five of the last passes offered before the booths were taken offline. Our return time: 6:35 to 7:35… perfect! (Note: this same strategy failed miserably when we returned to the park the following Thursday since Fastpasses were gone before 11:15 AM – so be careful if you try something similar – 11:00 is probably the cutoff for trying to time your RSR Fastpasses in this fashion).
Back at FF&P we each had a roast beef sandwich with Provolone cheese on a pretzel roll with lettuce, tomato, onions, and a side of horseradish aioli. They were served with fresh fruit, and while the sandwiches were part of an already prepped box lunch, they made for a nice, quality meal, filling but not heavy. We enjoyed our lunch and we especially appreciated the openness of the dining room where its high-back booths and roomy tables are nicely spread out making this one of the most comfortable and peaceful places we ate the whole week.
After lunch we stepped back out into the Carthay Circle hub to continue our trip. I should note at this point, that DCA is a beautiful park. Standing outside FF&P near the fountain in Carthay Circle, we could see its namesake restaurant looming across the way, the Red Car Trolley making its way down Hollywood Blvd, Cars Land in the distance, Grizzly Peak rising up to our right, and Tower of Terror off to our left. It is a great view from the central hub, and quite remarkable. There is no doubt that even with DCA's remaining warts (too many carnival experiences, too few unique attractions, lousy viewing area for World of Color) the park is now among the best of the Disney parks. I was impressed.
Pressing on, we headed into Hollywood Land and grabbed Fastpasses for the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. There really was no need for these passes, though, since the standby time for the attraction was 13 minutes, which means, as theme park insiders know, there is no wait. Still, we were going to watch a 60-minute Aladdin musical, so having Fastpasses is good insurance against an influx of visitors while we are otherwise occupied.
Fastpasses in hand, we headed into the Hyperion Theater to see Disney's Aladdin – A Musical Spectacular. The theater is large and beautiful, as good as any venue I have visited to see a musical (including the Majestic and Winter Garden Theaters in NYC, and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC). I was suitably impressed. We sat down in the middle of the theater just past the section break. A nice lady sitting next to us, who had seen the show countless times as a long time annual pass holder, assured us these seats were the best in the house. Wearing my "Follow me, I know what I am doing" TPI T-shirt was a great idea that day! At any rate, what ensued was amazing to behold: a Broadway caliber, lavish, 60-minute tour de force of delightful songs, spectacular dancing, amazing props and special effects, sweeping romance, and tremendous fun. A breezy, truncated live version of the Aladdin animated film, this show features all your favorite songs from the film, plus one new ballad, and yes, a "real" flying carpet. What a wonderful show, one of the, if not the most elaborately staged shows at any theme park. Yeah, the genie steals every scene, but the rest of the cast are not chopped liver, they do a wonderful job, too. Honestly, I could have paid $50 a person to see this show and not been disappointed. I am shocked Disney has not expanded the production and moved it to Broadway. Disney's Aladdin – A Musical Spectacular is a stellar attraction and one not to be missed on any visit to DCA.
Bursting forth from the theater with renewed enthusiasm for the possibility of a whole new world we sped quickly to the Tower of Terror as there was only five minutes left on our Fastpasses. With a wait time continuing to read 13 minutes, we still did not need them, but we took the shorter line and walked right into the preshow room to watch Rod Serling describe how we came to be part of the Twilight Zone. Moving past the preshow we headed up some stairs to the dimly lit loading platform, and it was just us, me and my family, waiting for our elevator. Oh, and some totally creepy (in a fun way) cast member who did a delightful job of building up the suspense for our adventure.
As an important side note, the four or five cast members we encountered at the Tower of Terror during our two days of touring at DCA were funny, scary, creepy, and just plain entertaining. I don't have many stories to tell you regarding great cast member experiences during this trip (nothing bad to say about them either) but the gentlemen working the maintenance elevators were amazing. They made the ride even better with their words, deeds, and well-timed humor. Very impressive.
As more people arrived we climbed into our maintenance service elevator, sat in the front row, then embarked on our adventure. Yes, the version of the ride at DCA does not have the extended Fifth Dimension movement of the classic Orlando original, but when Rod Serling says, "One stormy night long ago, five people stepped through the door of an elevator and into a nightmare. That door is opening once again, but this time it's opening for you," and your elevator starts to work its magic, the missing 5th dimension scene doesn't matter because the Tower of Terror flat out rocks in any form. It is still immersive, exciting, and transcendental. It is still the ride that made all other drop rides obsolete. And it is definitely worth a re-ride… so we got back on again immediately!
Coming Tuesday: Part Four, with the rest of California Adventure, including Cars Land.