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Rediscovering Disneyland: Despite pricey parks, Magic Kingdom retains plenty of wonderment

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 5 2015 12:46 a.m. MDT

Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland is the centerpiece of Fantasyland. (MCT) Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland is the centerpiece of Fantasyland. (MCT)

ANAHEIM, Calif. (MCT) — As we walked across the broad, brick-paved plaza, a burst of music swelled, the strings rising to cinematic heights amid a pounding of kettle drums. A man in a crisp white shirt waved and beamed. Perfectly manicured flowers swayed in the breeze.

It felt, for a moment, that we had accomplished something greater than simply walking out the gates at Disneyland in Southern California.

But that is the trick of Disneyland, I learned after a recent trip to the "Happiest Place on Earth" with my family — to make even the mundane seem worthy of a personal parade.

The perpetual earnestness can seem cloying for travelers like me who usually prefer to see little or no concrete on vacations. But with children of optimal age — 10 and 6 — and faint but fond Disneyland memories from my childhood, I set aside pretension and joined the masses, including at Disney's recently reopened California Adventure theme park.

Three of the most popular attractions at Disneyland, the Disneyland Monorail, Matterhorn Bobsleds and Submarine Voyage, all debuted on the same day, June 14, 1959. (Paul Hiffmeyer/Courtesy Disneyland/MCT) Three of the most popular attractions at Disneyland, the Disneyland Monorail, Matterhorn Bobsleds and Submarine Voyage, all debuted on the same day, June 14, 1959. (Paul Hiffmeyer/Courtesy Disneyland/MCT)

Disney completed an ambitious five-year, $1 billion expansion in June at California Adventure, next to Disneyland in Anaheim. However, California Adventure's big new attraction, the 12-acre Cars Land that's based on Pixar's animated blockbuster movie "Cars," was so jammed that we never rode its main attraction, a thrill ride called Radiator Springs Racers.

But as it turned out, we didn't need new toys. The standards of Disneyland — from Space Mountain to Cinderella — hold up more than 50 years after the park first opened. And it turned out to be a great time to hit Disneyland itself: The crowds were over in California Adventure.

Before the trip, I'd viewed the Mouse kingdom with a jaded eye. But I found it is possible to experience Disneyland without cynicism — it was a blast.

While visiting Frontierland, Disneyland park guests can cruise back in time on a 14-minute sightseeing voyage aboard a recreation of the glorious 19th-century steam-powered paddlewheel riverboats that carried people and cargo up and down the mighty Mississippi. (Paul Hiffmeyer/Courtesy Disneyland/MCT) While visiting Frontierland, Disneyland park guests can cruise back in time on a 14-minute sightseeing voyage aboard a recreation of the glorious 19th-century steam-powered paddlewheel riverboats that carried people and cargo up and down the mighty Mississippi. (Paul Hiffmeyer/Courtesy Disneyland/MCT)

The travel pipeline to Disneyland is broad and loaded with options.

Staying at Disney-run hotels complete with wandering Disney characters is more expensive but offers convenience and the full immersion. Near the parks, many of the hotels within walking distance are cheaper, and some offer free third- or fourth-night packages or complimentary kids' meals.

My wife and I sprung the trip on our two children as an end-of-school surprise, just hours before takeoff for our flight. I tried to freeze the moment we told them with a photograph, but Noah, 10, was a blur leaping off the couch.

Disneyland experts recommended multiday tickets, allowing for separate days at Disneyland and California Adventure. Theme-park tickets are slightly cheaper with packages, or bought online from approved third-party vendors (but beware of ticket scams on Craigslist). A three-day pass for our family of four purchased through arestravel.com cost — gulp — nearly $1,000.

The Disneyland attraction that redefined the 'E-ticket' experience, the 'Indiana Jones Adventure - Temple of the Forbidden Eye' continues to thrill guests daily more than 95 million of them since its opening in 1995. (Disney/LucasFilm Ltd./MCT) The Disneyland attraction that redefined the 'E-ticket' experience, the 'Indiana Jones Adventure - Temple of the Forbidden Eye' continues to thrill guests daily more than 95 million of them since its opening in 1995. (Disney/LucasFilm Ltd./MCT)

Soon we found ourselves at the Disneyland gate at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Not a fan of theme parks, there I was, in short socks, carrying a backpack full of fruit leather, two cameras and three kinds of sunscreen, next to two very bouncy children.

Some multiday tickets come with a "Magic Morning" one-hour-early admission pass, which we used to get a jump on Disneyland's famously long lines on weekends.

Speed-walking through a nearly empty Disneyland, we consumed the park's thrill premiere rides — Space Mountain, Star Tours, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder and Indiana Jones Adventure — in gulps. It was a buffet of adrenaline.

Disneyland is a luxury for most visitors, given its steep admission prices, and appears to know it. No detail seemed too small. The sidewalk buskers were skilled ensembles. The actresses playing princess are as elegant and beautiful as princesses on screen, and an actor conducting a Star Wars Jedi training for kids executed a one-handed cartwheel, lightsaber in hand. We even saw a worker polishing the inside of a trash-can lid.

Disneyland rides are also stories, connecting children to characters and narrative.

As a child, I was terrified of the Pirates of the Caribbean, a dimly lit, floating ride into the marauders' den. But my son Noah shrugged it off. He'd just seen "The Avengers" movie. How scary, really, are animated dummies?

Midway through our ride blitz, my 6-year-old daughter, Anna, stopped at the park's huge lagoon and pointed to the water. "We just passed real baby ducks!" she said indignantly.

She'd had enough adrenaline. She wanted to slow-walk the narrative stories, to meet princesses.

As we waited to see Belle, from "Beauty and Beast," at the princess hangout, called Fantasy Faire, Anna described the secrets to being a princess: beauty, of course. A trusty companion. And a good song.

Next door to Disneyland, the California Adventure theme park, which opened in 2001, is the edgier little brother, and well worth a whole day.

Its Soarin' Over California ride, which simulates the feeling of flying over the state's iconic landscapes, is like diving into an IMAX screen. The California Screamin' roller coaster goes from zero to 55 mph in four seconds. At dusk, the Mad T Party band jams on covers.

The park's ride-reservation system, called FastPass, is a backdoor for the ride and other popular attractions. I secured FastPass reservations after an hour in line, but when our set time arrived, Radiator Springs Racers had broken down. We tried twice more but left, unwilling to squander an afternoon sweating in line.

"Modifications are often made to new attractions," said Disneyland spokesman John McClintock, with apologies for the breakdown. He couldn't provide attendance figures, but Cars Land boosted California Adventure attendance over Disneyland. "It's enormously popular."

Wandering through the park, visitors encounter surreal scenes. Life-size Phineas and Ferb characters suddenly appeared, doing a robot dance to a techno beat while surrounding a mysterious posse of women in orange berets.

It seemed a fever dream to me, and yet another advertising hook into my son for these Disney Channel cartoon characters. Disneyland and California Adventure take cross-promotion to Olympian heights, I grumbled to myself.

But then I saw my son Noah, who loves Phineas and Ferb like cousins, mimicking the robot, California sunshine glinting off his hair.

The Disney parks were a safe, fastidious yet thrilling walled garden for my kids, well worth shelving my cynicism.

If you go

Lodging and airfare: The best deals for dozens of hotels inside and just outside the park are often found with package deals that include airfare and multiday park tickets. Comparison shop at travel services such as Expedia, Costco (hotel/ticket packages) and Alaska Airlines.

Restaurants: There are plenty of restaurants inside the park, varying widely in price. Mousesavers.com offers hints on lower-priced spots, including Rancho del Zocalo, a Mexican cafeteria in Disneyland with large portions for about $10.

Disneyland bans outside food and drink, and staff search backpacks, but people take in light snacks with little hassle.

Traveler's tip: If you stay in a nearby hotel, the Anaheim Resort Transit (ART) buses save time and blisters; a family pass costs $10 per day. In the parks, use the FastPass system to get a designated time for popular rides, or use the single-rider line.

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