The Wonderful World of Disney, 32 Years Later

AK Kid checks out original artwork in the Disneyland Hotel lobby.

I know a small but emphatic group of people who refuse to even consider indulging their children with a family vacation to Disneyland. “It’s too expensive and too commercial,” they say, and I respect their fortitude in this era of “buy-me-this-get-me-that”. Especially since we all live in Alaska, a place where Mother Nature provides her own Magic Kingdom of sorts.

AK Grandma and Grandpa took my brother, sister, and I to Disneyland in 1979, when Space Mountain was the hottest ride ever and amenities like FastPass were but a futuristic thought cloud in the Disney Corporation’s R&D department. We stayed at the  Disneyland Hotel, rode the monorail every day, stood in a lot of lines, shook a lot of Disney characters’ hands, and navigated enormous crowds. It was great.

Now parent to a jumpy-yet-cautious 6 year-old AK Kid, it was important to return to the Magic Kingdom, if for no other reason than to either refute my friends’ assertion that Disneyland had morphed into a commercially-produced shopping mall with rides thrown in to appease children while their parents slapped down the VISA card. Indeed, was it still the “Happiest Place on Earth”, really?

Yes. And here’s why:

FAST PASS: One of the most brilliant maneuvers by Disney, the Fast Pass all but eliminates the long waits I remember (no kidding, we waited in line three hours for “It’s a Small World” in 1979). Each member of a fam receives their own Disney Park ticket upon arrival. At the most popular rides, a handy display will announce the current wait time for the ride (“Hmph, in my day we just stood in line,” said AK  Grandpa) and the Fast Pass procedure. If one decides 20 minutes is too long to stand in line with wiggly kiddos, those wishing to go on the ride slide their ticket into the lovely machine, that reads it and spits out a return time for said attraction. A marvel. Disclaimer: We did make AK Kid stand in line for a few rides, just to show him how long 20 minutes really was (not so much), and to explain thatsometimes, good things do come to those who wait.

Disneyland Hotel does it right.

DISNEYLAND HOTELS: While the entire community around the Disney complex is surrounded by hotels and motels, most of which are just fine for family head-resting at a great price, yours truly wanted to stay in the hotel that started it all. The Disneyland Hotel sometimes gets a bad rap for being non-flashy in the way most grand lodgings are, and, indeed things are a little crazy around there right now as Disney completely refurbishes and refurnishes the towers. Construction elevators, hammers, and cement trucks rumbled and pounded out a tattoo of sorts as we wandered the otherwise peaceful grounds around the hotel (everything should be finished by next year, btw).

Our room, on the already-completed 9th floor of the Wonder Tower (three towers in all exist on the property), was a modern, sleek example of how simple can be stupendous. Everything is Disney, from the mouse ears hidden in the carpet to the bathroom lights held by Mickey’s white-gloved hands. As guests of a Disney property, one receives such bonuses as turn-down service and chocolate, a phone call from Mickey himself to wake up tired kiddos each morning, and Magic Mornings, an early-entry program into Fantasyland and Tomorrowland on T/Th/Sat mornings, whereby guests can enter Disneyland one hour before the park opens.

The Disney Parks hotels offer specials throughout the year in conjunction with Alaska Airlines, so it’s worth checking out.

CALIFORNIA ADVENTURE: Built on what I remember to be a parking lot, California Adventure is a welcome addition to the Disney Parks duo. Providing a little California history education along with some way-cool attractions, this park is adjacent to Disneyland and visitors with a Park Hopper Pass (a must) can freely come and go between to two.

A nice place to begin a visit, California Adventure has some kid-friendly ways to stretch legs in a free-range sort of way in the Golden State area along the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, where the whole family can climb, crawl, swing, and sway their way around the attraction. Interpretive signs explain about California animals, and the whole place has an aura of Mother Nature about it. AK Kid, oddly enough, bugged us multiple times to return to the Redwood Trail. Must be an Alaska thing.

What draws visitors in the evening to California Adventure, though, is the spectacular World of Color show, a light/water/music spectacular that wows audiences again and again nearly every night. A bonus of staying at a Disney property; guests can see it from their windows. If kids can manage to stay awake and fairly cooperative until the 9 p.m. show, it is worth scooping up some tickets at the Grizzly River Rafting Company first thing in the morning on the day of the show.

Downtown Disney District's Main Stage, where thumping drums drew kids like magnets.

DOWNTOWN DISNEY: Those who have walked the 1/4 mile of shops and restaurants may be calling me crazy, but I liked D.D. Connecting Disneyland Hotel and the Grand California Lodge to the Park entrance, Downtown Disney  District is a gauntlet of potential purchasing disaster, to be sure, but it also provides some entertainment of its own. Each morning AK Fam would stroll leisurely to one of the fine eating establishments for a little coffee and simple breakfast while AK Kid would dive into his child-sized plate of goodies. La Brea Bakery was a favorite, and afforded outdoor seating in a delightful patio area where we could spy the crowds beginning to arrive for a day of Disney.

Each evening, Downtown Disney turns into a big street carnival, with music vendors carefully placed every 100 yards or so for the entire promenade back to hotels. We heard drumming, hammered dulcimer, blues, and some super salsa. It’s a relaxed atmosphere we found rather pleasant after a day charging through turnstiles and climbing in and out of rides.

FOOD: Speaking of, I was amazed and impressed at the wide variety of food choices at both Disneyland and California Adventure. Packing a picnic and drinks is of course the best way to go, but if a family wants to nosh on some theme park food, options are plentiful and, get this, healthy. My goodness, we found vendors with fruit juice, apples and bananas, and salads throughout both parks and AK Kid was more than willing to eat such healthy snacks since they came from “Disney” rather than “Mom”. I had a particularly yummy Eggplant, basil, and tomato sandwich in Tomorrowland while waiting for the Jedi Academy to begin, and AK Dad and Kid enjoyed their chicken nuggets with apple slices. Oh, the french fries and burgers are still there for those who want them, but I was pleasantly surprised at the number of families choosing healthier options.

Pluto kept wanting to eat AK Kid's dessert. He settled for a hug, instead.

MAGIC: If ever there was doubt in a parent’s mind about whether or not kids really and truly relished the opportunity to meet Disney characters, or go on a ride shaped like Dumbo, all skepticism will be erased within five minutes of walking through the door. While the princesses predominated the parkscape, AK Kid found Goofy, Pluto, and Chip and Dale to be All That. Eyes lit up as my speechless son accepted a hug from the Big Goof, and right then and there I realized we had, indeed, made a good choice.

AK Kid fell asleep every single night of our stay wearing his Mickey Mouse pirate ears and clutching a Mickey Mouse doll. His dreams included boats and roller coasters and reflections of Disney movies he’d seen from my own childhood. AK Dad and I, too, took this walk down memory lane to heart, realizing, yes, 32 years later, it’s still the Wonderful World of Disney.

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