Epic Southern California Adventure: Part 4 - Disneyland and Disney California Adventure

Edited: September 7, 2019, 10:11 AM

We pulled into our Anaheim hotel shortly after 10 pm, and quickly settled in before what would be 3 straight early mornings and long days at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. We deliberately chose our hotel because of its proximity to the park and wanting to avoid the chaos and annoyance of parking in the garages. On our first two visits to Disneyland before our son was born, we stayed further away from the resort, driving to the parks each day, but during our last trip to Anaheim in 2013, we stayed at a hotel within walking distance of the parks and realized the value of not having to drive into the garages. Not only was our hotel on this visit within a reasonable walking distance to the parks (just over a mile), but it was even closer to the Toy Story surface parking lot. Upon doing a little bit of research in advance of our trip, we learned that guests staying in hotels to the south of the parks could simply walk into the parking lot and hop on one of the busses to the Esplanade. While the time to queue and take the bus was probably pretty close to the time it would have taken to walk the full distance, it saved a little over a mile of walking per day. That may not seem like much, especially since we were clocking well over 10 miles per day in the parks, but shortening our walks by just a mile for 3 consecutive days was helpful, particularly at the end of long, tiring days of touring the parks.

Our 3-day park to park tickets allowed us one Magic Morning, and the only day during our stay where we could use it would be Thursday (Magic Mornings are only available at Disneyland, and only on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday). DCA offers an early entry program as well, but is only available to on-site hotel guests, and is branded as “Extra Magic Hour”. The two programs are a bit confusing, especially if you’re more used to WDW and the Extra Magic Hours afforded to on-site hotel guests. Since we were going to start Thursday in Disneyland to take advantage of our Magic Morning, we would start our visits on Wednesday and Friday in DCA.

This trip would also be our first visits to the Disneyland Resort since MaxPass was installed. On previous visits, my wife and I got really good at optimizing the old paper FP system, and are experts when it comes to FP+ at WDW. I was initially hesitant at paying an additional $15/person per day for MaxPass, and despite my wife’s recommendation to purchase our tickets with MaxPass already loaded, I suggested that we try it out the first day and then see how we liked it before committing to it for the entirety of our trip. As wise men have said countless times throughout history, your wife is always right, and after our first day’s experience with the system, I couldn’t see us visiting Disneyland again without paying for the upcharge.

On the surface, MaxPass is pretty much the same as the paper FP system Disneyland guests have been using for over a decade with the added perk of PhotoPass (more on that later). However, the beauty of MaxPass is being able to access the system without having to aimlessly walk around the park. Instead of rushing to an attraction at the back of the park (say Toy Story Midway Mania) to grab a paper FP when the park opens, you can get it the second you walk through the gate. Also, by using MaxPass, you can see the return times for all of the attractions in the park at the same time and then make your FP selection based on that instead of accepting whatever return time is posted at your first choice attraction. MaxPass allows you to be more spontaneous based on current conditions instead of being beholden to a touring plan that is based on average wait times and attraction popularity. With the paper system, you could sprint to Radiator Spring Racers and find that the return time is not until 2 pm, and either be stuck with that time or sprinting to another attraction that might have an earlier time. With MaxPass, you can see all of return times within the app, and then decide if you want to perhaps grab an earlier FP for Guardians, Soarin’, or Incredicoaster.

MaxPass is really the way I think the entire FP system should work, and how WDW should refine the FP+ system. Also, we weren’t able to confirm this, but our research indicated that guests using MaxPass are allowed back into the system more quickly than those using paper FP. For instance, if you were to select that 2 pm FP return for Radiator Springs Racers in the morning, you were able to select another FP sometimes less than an hour later (the times varied for us throughout our trip, and we didn’t really see any pattern as to when we were allowed back into the system when holding a FP). That means you could be holding multiple FP reservations at a time (like the “old days” when guests were not beholden to use their FPs before the return window expired), and at a few points during our days at DL/DCA we were holding as many as 5 FPs (including anytime FPs due to attraction breakdowns). The one thing that was critical though was to make sure to set a notification/alarm so that you remember to go back into the system when you’re eligible to select another FP. The app will tell you the time when you can book your next FP, but it won’t notify you when that time arrives, so we ended up manually setting alarms on our phones to alert us, which worked out pretty well. Throughout our 3 days, I estimate we rode on average 10-12 attractions per day through the use of FP. Now, we’ve easily topped those numbers at WDW through FP+, but consider at DL/DCA only the top attractions use FP (9 attractions plus Fantasmic! in DL and 7 attractions plus World of Color in DCA).

In addition to mobile access to the FP system, MaxPass allows guests free PhotoPass for each day they purchase the upgrade. We’ve utilized PhotoPass before in WDW, and have politely asked PhotoPass photographers to take pictures with our cameras in DL/DCA on previous trips. Initially, the PhotoPass offered with MaxPass wasn’t that big of a deal for us. However, I found this perk a very convenient addition. There aren’t quite as many PhotoPass photographers in DL/DCA as there are in WDW, but the lines to take photos in California are much shorter. I’m not sure if that’s due to the heavier presence of annual passholders that don’t need a 12th photo in front of the castle, or if fewer guests on the whole utilize PhotoPass, but it was nice to be able to walk up to most locations and be able to get a professional-quality photo in less than 3 minutes. Also, the ability of PhotoPass photographers to perform “Magic Shots” (where additional objects are added to the photo digitally) and their familiarity with the locations and equipment made the pictures we got through PhotoPass some of the best of our entire trip.

a34176c7-0475-46c9-b7d2-0c28e3e1c818

My only complaint would be that not all of the character meet areas (particularly the Marvel characters) were staffed by PhotoPass photographers. I could understand not having PhotoPass photographers at some of the more random meet areas like at the entrances of the parks, but it just seemed like a missed opportunity to not have them at places where there was a fabricated backdrop or character stage like Black Panther, Captain America, Spiderman, and Captain Marvel.

Despite the minor quibbles, I quickly warmed up to MaxPass, and would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to maximize their visits to Disneyland and DCA. The best thing about the system is that you don’t have to buy it up front, and can simply buy it each day (you do have to physically be in the park before adding it to a previously purchased admission). I’m confident that once you’ve tried it, you won’t want to visit the parks again without it. I think it’s especially convenient for those that are comfortable with using FP+ at WDW, as MaxPass allows FP to work more like its east coast sibling, though it’s even better and more efficient in my book than FP+.

Our major driver for planning this vacation was Galaxy’s Edge. Over the course of the 3 days we spent in DL/DCA, I would estimate that we spent 6-8 hours in the new land. As such, I will separate my impressions, review, and details about our experiences inside Galaxy’s Edge in my next installment. However, there were a lot of other attractions, shows, and experiences we had within DL/DCA beyond Star Wars including some that we’ve done countless times before and others that we were seeing for the very first time.

The one new attraction that really knocked my socks off was Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout. I’m a HUGE fan of Tower of Terror and the Twilight Zone series, and it seemed blasphemous to reskin such an iconic attraction just for the sake of selling Marvel souvenirs. Even though the DCA version of ToT was decidedly inferior to the original Florida masterpiece, it was still a great attraction worthy of multiple rides per visit. After our first experience on GotG:MB, I shall never doubt Joe Rohde again. What was an attraction based more on atmosphere and the wisps of a story-driven narrative from a mythical Twilight Zone episode, is now a full-blown story with characters and us, as the audience, willing participants within it. I will say that the exterior finish on the attraction is barftacular, but once you walk into the lobby of Taneleer Tivan’s fortress, you’re so engaged in the story and narrative that it doesn’t matter how ugly the structure is on the outside, because you’re having so much fun on the inside. The transformation of the lobby and library (pre-show rooms) is top notch, and first time guests would never know these spaces had a previous life as an attraction with a completely different aesthetic. The ride system itself is virtually unchanged with a random sequence of ups and downs flinging riders in and out of their seats with glee. The new affects, rotating soundtrack, and alternating video packages are really what sell the ride and place it among Disney’s best. The humor and irreverence of Rocket are perfect for the experience, and each re-ride, I was picking up a little more of the clever dialog and finer details of the videos. I wouldn’t say Disney should immediately start work on converting Florida’s ToT over, but if for some reason they lose the licensing rights to the Twilight Zone, GotG would be a fine back up plan. This might be the best facelift/reimagining of an attraction in theme park history. We liked it so much that we rode it 5 times over the course of our 3 days, and probably would have ridden it even more if it wasn’t buried at a dead end (that problem will be fixed when Avengers CAMPUS opens next year).

SoCal_0681

Incredicoaster is another attraction that received a makeover since our last visit, though I can’t gush about it quite as vociferously as GotG. The remake of California Screamin’ is definitely an improvement, but one that probably wasn’t necessary. I really enjoyed the soundtrack that definitely tops the old carnival/sideshow style music, but the tunnels and props along the course seemed to just be “there”. I think there was a really good idea at some point during the development, but what guests experience as Incredicoaster didn’t really make a huge impression on me. My son enjoyed it, but never had a chance to ride California Screamin’ to make a proper comparison. Where GotG would receive an A+ as an attraction makeover, Incredicoaster for me would get a C.

SoCal_0672

Another attraction makeover that was new for us on this trip was Hyperspace Mountain. I was really impressed with what Disney was able to do with limited space and an existing ride system. Honestly, I would have been happy with Meco playing in the background and handful of laser blasts, but Imagineers here really went all out. The soundtrack integrates perfectly with the coaster, and the video and lighting effects make you feel like you’ve entered an epic Star Wars battle. I wish we could have ridden this a couple of more times, but the overwhelming number of attractions in Disneyland limited us to 2 rides over our 3 days.

Yet another attraction that got a bit of a makeover since our last visit was Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The classic Disney mine train was actually closed for refurbishment the last time we visited in 2013, which is when the upgrades to its “C Lift” and other notable improvements were made. I wouldn’t say the improvements would vault it into any coaster fan’s top 25, but it certainly separates Disneyland’s version from Magic Kingdom’s for the better. I really liked the fuse and explosion effects within the final lift tunnel, but did notice that due to the length of the trains, it makes the timing tricky.

SoCal_0718

Over the course of our time at DL/DCA, we also made sure to see Soarin’ (Over California). We were very happy to find out that the run of the classic film extended to cover when we were visiting the park, and got to see it twice over our 3 days in the parks. It did appear that Disney digitized the film to eliminate the scratches, dust bunnies, and other issues with the original projection system, though the orange scent effect didn’t seem to be working as well as I remember (the forest and seashore smells were good). I do wish that Disney would simply allow this original film to play exclusively at DCA as its “standard” film with an occasional switch to the new “Around the World” film on a limited basis. The “C” in DCA stands for California, and I think the park deserves to have its most iconic celebration of the state as a permanent ride, not a limited time attraction.

We ended up experiencing pretty much every major attraction (and most of the minor ones as well) across both parks. We did get to ride the Matterhorn with all of the newly refurbished animatronics, and my son wondered why if the characters can work on the oldest steel tubular roller coaster in the world why a relatively new attraction like Expedition Everest is relegated to “Disco Yeti”. We never actually got onto Inside Out: Emotional Whirlwind, because I couldn’t bring myself to wait 20+ minutes for a spinning balloon ride no matter how pretty it appeared from the outside.

SoCal_0666

The one truly new ride that we experienced on this visit was Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters.

SoCal_0865

I do miss the flying tires, but understand the frustration that the old ride caused. This replacement ride was adequate and had a pretty exciting finale. I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to ride this again, but if the line were less than 20 minutes on a future visit, I might give it another spin.

We never did make it on Monsters Inc. or Mickey’s Philharmagic, mostly because of wanting multiple rides on GotG, but having experienced both before, I didn’t feel like we missed much. I did want to experience Monsters Inc., but every time we were in that part of DCA, the lines were always over 30 minutes, and without FP as an option, we kept skipping over it. Some other minor rides/attractions we skipped were Dumbo and the Astro Orbiters, Casey Jr. and the Storybook Land Canal Boats, The Enchanted Tiki Room, and Tom Sawyer Island.

We did see Frozen: Live at the Hyperion, and it was a solid Broadway-style production. I liked the stage design and projection mapping, but I felt that the show as a whole was too long even though it skipped a couple of the songs from the movie. Perhaps Disney will refresh this production once Frozen 2 hits theaters at the end of the year, but compared to Aladdin, this show is vastly inferior.

We made sure to carve out time to see all of the nighttime entertainment. We made reservations for the Fantasmic! dining package at Blue Bayou for our first day in Disneyland. As part of the package, guests receive a 3-course pre-fixe meal along with reserved “seating” for one of the performances and seat cushions (unfortunately, guests are given the seat cushions at the end of the meal, and have to carry them around for the rest of the day – why we couldn’t just pick them up at the reserved seating area is beyond me). Even the lunch pricing is a bit expensive ($59 for adults and $29 for kids), but since we were planning to have a meal at the iconic restaurant at some point, we decided to go ahead and book the meal with reserved Fantasmic! tickets so we wouldn’t have to spend time camping out for a spot to view the show. As for our meal at the Blue Bayou, it was quite good as my wife got the bone-in rib eye, while I got the herb-crusted rack of lamb,

IMG_2334

and my son got the sustainable fish with pasta. For our appetizers, my wife and I both got the gumbo,

IMG_2332

while my son was served crudité in a clever serving container. For dessert, I got the crème brulee,

IMG_2335

my wife got the “Malificient”, while my son got the fondant chocolate cake. Everything was great, enhanced by the ambiance of eating adjacent to Pirates of the Caribbean. My son really got a kick at waving to guests on the boats as they floated by. Under normal circumstances, I would have ordered the Monte Cristo sandwich here, but since we were paying a pre-fixe price, the lamb was a much better value, and was very well prepared.

Fantasmic! itself is still an incredible show, made all the better by being staged in the middle of the Rivers of America. I despise DHS’s version that forces guests to file in and out of a massive arena, and while it’s nice to have bleachers to sit on, it’s a huge chunk of wasted space in a park that’s already one of Disney’s smallest by area. We were perfectly happy pulling up our seat cushions, and grabbing some open space in the front and center section reserved for dining package guests.

SoCal_0794

The reserved seating location also afforded a perfect spot to view the nightly Fantasy in the Sky fireworks show, which is enhanced with water screen projections on the Rivers of America (similar projections are performed on the Small World façade and along Main Street). Even though we paid a bit more than I would have liked for the pre-fixe lunch at Blue Bayou, we were able to walk up 10 minutes before Fantasmic! started and ended up with prime seating for 2 shows. To top it off, the line for Pirates of the Caribbean, an attraction we had skipped earlier in the day because of long lines, was virtually non-existent after the fireworks and while guests were staking out spots for the second showing of Fantasmic!

The convenience of our viewing location for World of Color on Thursday was not nearly as good despite securing FP reservations earlier in the day. Some of that had to do with the stage for Tale of the Lion King, which has to be disassembled and moved out of the way before the best viewing locations open up. Logistically, it ends up causing a lot of issues and frustration, because guests wanting to view World of Color from that space end up standing around in other adjacent viewing areas. When we showed up to the designated FP entrance 15 minutes before the show, the line was extended out of the roped area. We eventually snaked our way into a slightly better viewing location as the Lion King stage area was made available, but it was a very inefficient process. Even when we saw this show on our last visit with the Carthay Circle Dining Package, the viewing location was not prime, so aside from carving out an hour or more to stake out one of the best spots up front, I’m not sure of any other way (aside from perhaps purchasing a dessert party) to get a better view of this show. I really like World of Color and the numerous scenes and music from Fantasia 2000 (one of the most underrated Disney movies IMHO), but I wonder if all of the jockeying for decent viewing positions is really worth it. FastPass doesn’t seem to help things much either because from what I could tell, pretty much everyone watching the show either had a FP, dining package, or a dessert party, so there’s little advantage to any of the upgrades.

Our final day at Disneyland happened to correspond to the re-introduction of the Main Street Electrical Parade. We’ve seen this parade many time before, but oddly it’s the first time we have viewed it at its original Disneyland location. Because this was opening night for the parade’s return, we decided to allow for some extra time to find a good viewing location. I am pretty adamant about not wasting more than 15-20 minutes waiting for a parade (or show) I’ve seen before, but I was willing to stretch this rule on this occasion. We ended up finding a great spot on the elevated walkway across the parade route from It’s a Small World. This spot not only allows guests to see the parade right as it appears from backstage, meaning you’re done watching it before the rest of the park, but it also allows great views since you’re about 3 feet above street level and are not obscured by guests viewing along the sidewalk in front of you. The parade itself is a classic with one of the best soundtracks Disney has ever created (though it was a bit annoying that we were between two different blocking zones, meaning that we could hear the soundtrack repeating as it moved down the street). There were a few technical glitches along the way, which I guess you could expect with such an old production that’s been in mothballs for almost 2 years, but the one thing I definitely noticed is that it was moving very slowly. The entire parade took over 20 minutes to pass, and the nightly fireworks had to be delayed from its usual 9:30 start to allow the parade to finish.

SoCal_1001

One other show we made time to see was Mickey and the Magical Map. It seems that every time we’ve visited Disneyland, the Fantasyland Theater has been dark. It was similarly dark the first two days we were in the park, but on Friday, we finally got a chance to see a production in the theater. Mickey and the Magical Map is a pretty decent Broadway style production with singing, dancing, and special effects, but pales in comparison to what Disney shows in the Hyperion. I enjoyed trying to identify the female cast as they went through an array of costumes and wigs, while my son sulked at the notion of watching a singing and dancing show when he’d rather be riding something (not that we had ridden virtually everything in both DL and DCA at this point). I do wonder why Disney has not done something more productive with this space if they’re not going to run a show in the theater every single day. It’s a big chunk of real estate smack dab in the middle of the park that could probably be of better use than a part-time show space.

In addition to our Fantasmic! lunch at Blue Bayou, we also made sure to try some of the other food in the parks. I really wanted to eat at the Lamplight Lounge, but there weren’t any reservations available for any of the days we were planning to be in DCA. However, we discovered that this restaurant does occasionally allow for walk-up reservations, and decided to see if we could eat dinner here the night we saw World of Color. As luck would have it, they had availability if we were willing to wait 20-30 minutes, and after a shorter than expected wait, we were led to an exterior table along the lagoon. Looking around at all of the empty tables, I wondered why reservations were not available here. It seemed odd that reservations would be gone days in advance, but so many table were available even at prime dinner time. Nonetheless, we weren’t super hungry for dinner, so we chose to order from the diverse array of appetizers. My wife read some good reviews about the nachos, which are shown as Lobster Nachos on the menu, but carne asada can be substituted for the crustacean, and for 3 dollars less at that. The plate was overflowing with ingredients, so much so that all three of us took turns devouring this dish.

SoCal_0854

I ordered the Crispy Piggy Wings, which were decent but not something I would go out of my way for again. I thought they were a bit overpriced at $17 for the amount of meat on the hefty bones, and the sauce was far too sweet which clashed with the chili spice.

SoCal_0855

My son ordered the Tuna Poke, a dish he eyed on the menu before we even decided we wanted to eat here. Poke bowl restaurants have been popping up all over the country, and Zach has eaten the dish at many different places and has a fondness for the raw tuna. However, this version at the Lamplight Lounge was a HUGE miss.

SoCal_0853

The first problem was that the portion size was pretty small, even for an appetizer, particularly one costing $18 (almost double the price of a poke bowl at most fast-casual restaurants). Perhaps the price could have been justified if the dish was mostly tuna, but instead, pieces of raw tuna were mixed in with “magic” watermelon cut in the same size and shape as the tuna. When topped with overly sweet spiced nectar and mushy avocado, the pieces of watermelon were visually indistinguishable from the tuna. I assume that’s the point here, but my son didn’t appreciate the joke when expecting to bite into a chunk of rich, savory tuna and instead getting a cube of sweet watermelon. In my estimation, there wasn’t more than 2-3 ounces of tuna on this dish. I ended up finishing the poke, and concur with his assessment that it was the worst interpretation of this dish of all time. If my son hadn’t already picked through and eaten a majority of the tuna pieces before our server checked with us after receiving our dishes, I probably would have sent it back, but I felt guilty sending something back where the most expensive component on the plate was mostly consumed. I will say that the beer I had here (Basilisk by the Beach by Bottle Logic) was very good, and at $10 was a steal compared to the beers in Galaxy’s Edge.

We also had a sit down meal at Café Orleans so I could get a Monte Cristo that I had passed on at Blue Bayou.

IMG_2344

As always, the deep fried ham, turkey, and cheese sandwich never disappoints, but my wife’s Burbon Street Chicken was a bit of a letdown. My son’s shrimp and grits kids meal must have been good, because it was gone before I had a chance to take a photo.

We also made sure to have lunch at the Little Red Wagon. Disney’s crowning achievement of deep fried food on a stick is what every State Fair staple strives to be. The freshly dipped corn dogs are served right out of the fryer with a crispy outer shell and soft inner lining wrapping around a warm beef frank. It’s easy to mess up these delicacies, and I’ve tasted a number of corn dog fails over my travels, but the ones served at Disneyland here and at Corn Dog Castle at DCA are the pinnacle of the category. I would say that the location of the Little Red Wagon at the top of Main Street (if tables are available) is a much more picturesque spot to enjoy these deep fried delights.

Over the course of our 3 days at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, we thoroughly scoured both parks, experienced pretty much everything they have to offer. We quickly adapted to MaxPass and appreciated the free PhotoPass that comes with the upcharge. We experienced every new, modified, and refurbished show and attraction since our last visit in 2013, and only skipped a handful of older attractions in favor of re-rides on our favorites like GotG: MB, Radiator Springs Racers, Toy Story Midway Mania, Incredicoaster, Hyperspace Mountain, Splash Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. We even found time to meet up with Robert Niles, who spotted us and took a photo of my son and me on Splash Mountain.

image1

But that’s not all we did while we were at the Disneyland Resort…

Next time – Galaxy’s Edge

Replies (1)

September 7, 2019, 12:36 AM

Another excellent report! It's always fun to read Disneyland trip reports from a non-local to get a fresh take on the place that isn't hyper critical of everything. I definitely agree with you on Mission: Breakout...I was not a fan of the project before, but after my first ride on it my opinion completely reversed and it is now possibly my favorite ride at DCA (I go back and forth between that and RSR). Pixar Pier is mostly a disappointment, but the other enhancements that have happened in that park are great, as are the various minor enhancements of Disneyland's classic attractions.

Regarding MaxPass, you're not wrong. With regular Fastpass, there is a minimum 30 minute wait before getting your next pass, and it will extend to either the start of your return window or two hours later. MaxPass does not have the minimum waiting time restriction and the maximum wait is capped at 90 minutes. I personally don't use the system myself when visiting alone, but if I'm with out of town friends I always recommend it. For an infrequent visitor, it significantly enhances the experience for a fairly minimal investment, and I really hope WDW does away with FP+ for a similar system.

I'm looking forward to hear your take on Galaxy's Edge, especially since I'm considering going to check it out in the next month or so rather than holding off until next year (more because of the low crowds at the park than because I'm dying to see it). Most of my friends have given it mixed reviews, but given how long you spent there I'm guessing your impression was a bit more positive.




Find Discount Tickets

Links go to Theme Park Insider's officially authorized ticket partner.