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Paul Hiffmeyer, Disneyland Resort
Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland is the centerpiece of Fantasyland.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan once joked, “My favorite ride (at Disney World) was the air-conditioned bus back to the airport.” The audience erupted in laughter. When asked why he paid so much money to wait in long lines for underwhelming rides, he replied, “Because I love my children.”

I love my children, too. But unlike Gaffigan, I’ve been unwilling to visit Disney theme parks until recently because I viewed them as a rip-off — an unneeded parental sacrifice — and not nearly as rewarding as natural wonder. Although I have fond memories of visiting Disneyland with my family as an 8-year-old boy, I have fonder memories of visiting the nearby Laguna Beach that same week. “So I’ll take my kids to more majestic, less expensive places instead,” I’ve told myself ever since.

Deep down, however, I wanted to know: Could so many people be wrong? Why do millions of folks visit Disney’s templated parks each year? Can it really be an overpriced tourist trap?

To find out, I caved and booked my family for two-day passes to Disneyland. Tickets cost $100 each per day; children were $5 off (that’s it?!). In fact, admittance to the park totaled more than we paid for the airfare and four-day stay at a well-rated hotel across the street, not to mention the expensive dining we were sure to encounter inside the park.

Upon realizing that, I had buyer’s remorse. Had I make a mistake? Was I turning into a sheep? Maybe. But I was determined to find out for myself, if not for humanity’s sake.

For the young at heart

Turns out, my inner critic was wrong. Disneyland is enchanted — a captivating delight. During my visit, I wasn’t the only one who thought so.

I saw several bearded, grizzled men in full Mickey garb. A pair of Gothic-looking girls were sporting oversized Minnie Mouse T-shirts under layers of black. A senior couple was euphorically boarding Peter Pan’s Flight, and grown adults were rising and falling on King Arthur’s Carousel with nary a concern of looking foolish. And I saw a modelesque, exotic-looking blonde inching closer and closer to a passing parade just to catch a glimpse of, if not touch, her favorite princess as she went past.

At Disneyland, the stoic and cool are nowhere in sight. I’ve never seen so many smiles and cheery dispositions in public. At one point, I bumped into a lady in her 40s. We both smiled, apologized, and heigh-hoed our separate ways into Tomorrowland. Had the encounter happened in the real world, I would have expected a lot more grunts, grumbles and annoyed looks.

I certainly didn’t expect so much wonderment. When my wife and oldest two children exited from Indiana Jones — their first ride of the day — they did so with bright eyes and full faces. While whipping through Big Thunder Mountain or dropping from the Tower of Terror, we screamed a whole lot more than we do at our local theme park.

Upon approaching Space Mountain for the first time in 27 years and encountering those hypnotizing blue lights and launch tunnel, I thought to myself: Let’s see if this still has it after all these years. I’m here to report, it does. I retired giddy with laughter.

All three times.

But Disneyland and the adjoining California Adventure capture more than just thrill rides. The 15 themed areas arrest the imagination. Sure, the robotics of Pirates of the Caribbean, Ariel’s Underwater Adventure or Nemo’s Submarine Voyage won’t suspend your disbelief. But Cars Land will. Star Tours will. Midway Mania will. Fantasyland will. So should Animation Academy and several others.

Upon retiring the first night, my wife (who entered the park more jaded than I) turned to me and said, “That was a blast!” Lying next to us in the queen-size bed, two of our daughters were sleeping in each other’s arms. I’m romanticizing, but I'm not making that up. No, Disneyland didn’t mend the sibling rivalry between them. Maybe they were just tired, but I believe there’s more to it.

We entered the park that day as a family that prides itself on avoiding tourist traps and the beaten path, and on frequenting the most awe-inspiring landscapes the world has to offer. We left a little younger, a little happier, and fully converted to the gospel of Walt Disney.

The final word

I’m convinced Disneyland is one of the last places on Earth where masses of people aren’t consumed by their phones. That alone has merit. On top of all the other positives, the park left an indelible impression on me and elated my spirits. I’m confident it can do the same for the young at heart, anyone seeking creative escape and bewitching thrills, or anyone wishing to see the world with younger eyes again.

There I go getting romantic again.

Is Disney the “happiest place on Earth,” as advertised? I don’t know about that, but there’s virtue in the slogan. It is indeed a happy, happy place. That’s not the stars in my eyes talking. For any still in doubt — or was I the last one? — I can positively say Disneyland is anything but a tourist trap, a rip-off or a somehow inferior synthetic “apple” to the authentic “oranges” of nature.

In short, Disneyland exceeded all of my skeptical expectations. I don’t plan on visiting it for 13 consecutive years like my enthusiastic neighbor has, but I can finally identify with him and others like him. And I plan on returning within the next few years, instead of the two and a half decades it took me to visit it for a second time.

Over the last decade, Blake Snow, at blakesnow.com, has contributed to half of the top 20 U.S. media, dozens of other recognized publications and various Fortune 500 companies as a content producer, brand journalist and bodacious writer-for-hire.