Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Reluctant Mom's Review of Disneyland


Keep calm, have a (strong!) martini, plan Disneyland.

As someone that didn't grow up with Disney nostalgia pumped into my veins, the idea of planning the quintessential "Disney vacation" made me race for my migraine medication. "The Happiest Place on Earth", you say? "The longest lines on earth" is what my cynical mind replied. Especially in July. On a weekend. This was the Hunger Games of vacation planning and all of the blogs and websites I read, with cutesy names like "MouseSavers" and "Allears" (get it?), and lots of pixie dust floating in the background, made me sweat.

I like to think I know pressure and stress. Our family has moved four times in the past three years, I have applied to and completed a graduate degree, I've even walked countless families through the FAFSA process, but planning this vacation made me nervous. I asked a "harmless" question about Disneyland back in February on my Facebook page. It rendered something along the lines of 1,462 responses (not really, but close) with paragraphs in almost every reply. The only question that has ever gotten more responses on my FB page was one asking about "everyday red wines" at Trader Joes. Thankfully my friends know that wine>Disneyland.

Anyway, the message I was receiving was that a Disney "Vacation" is really a Disney "Battle". A battle for positioning (where you stay), strategy (arrival time, fastpasses, shows, characters), and spending ($$$$). It truly is crazy how much you can over plan one of these trips. We only stayed for two nights and went to the parks for two days, but we had maps and folders and pins (happy birthday! first visit!), checklists, and an archived set of FB messages and emails I had received with friends so that we could win experience Disney.

So, now that I sit with a large glass of wine pondering my most recent 72 hours, I am reliving all of the moments and misses in my head. Here was our reality:

The planning? Yep, you have to do it. Especially if you plan on going during high season or when the crowds are going to be particularly heavy. I'm so happy that we learned to get Fastpasses for "World of Color" (California Adventure's evening show) early in the morning, and even happier that we learned that Fastpasses for that don't make it impossible to retain passes for other rides. It is confusing for a Disney newb to traverse the Fastpass gauntlet (they aren't always near the rides they are for, the times you are eligible for them aren't totally clear, and the fact that you can have two at a time only sometimes makes it dizzying). Plus, at least for World of Color, if you don't have a Fastpass you will be sitting in a ditch somewhere with a view of a hedge. It will likely be a well maintained hedge, but not the amazingly beautiful show that is World of Color.

And so here is where my heart grows soft for Disney. Their showmanship? Breathtaking. I truly believe you get your money's worth inside Disney parks. We saw World of Color on the first night and Fantasmic the second and my jaw was practically on the ground both times. Well done, Disney. You could win over even the most frigid Disney skeptic with those performances. The parks are incredibly well maintained and the rides and shows are cutting edge. Even the throwback rides like Dumbo and Peter Pan's Flight have been spruced up over the years without ruining their nostalgia. There is a silent army that is constantly cleaning and crowd managing and fixing minor issues and it truly does appear to be effortless and seamless and "magic". My daughter, who's 5th birthday was the reason we went to Disneyland, felt truly special. She was probably wished a happy birthday 500 times this weekend by various staffers and ride loaders and characters.

At the advice of so many friends we decided to splurge and stay within the Disney Resort. We chose the Grand Californian Hotel which actually has a private entrance to California Adventure and is technically on property.  Both mornings we were right at the gate at 0700 sharp when they opened for the "extra magic hour" (an extra hour in the park for those staying in one of the three resort hotels) and at about 1pm after lunch we would go back to our room for a nap and to rest before heading out for the evening. The flexibility to come and go from our room easily and as we pleased made the vacation much more pleasant for everyone. With the park opening so early and the shows not ending until close to 11 PM, I believe that the "nap factor" was worth the cost of staying at GCA.

The highlights for us:

Kate seeing the princesses for the first time.

The face John caught on camera of Connor "enjoying" the Radiator Springs Racers ride. (I swear he loved it, but oh my, that face!)

subliminal marketing where the speakers look like Mickey Mouse ears?

Other highlights were the shows mentioned above, the healthy food options around the park (try the kid's "Power Pack" for an inexpensive yet healthy and filling meal), the quick loading of rides that kept lines down to reasonable levels during the busy season, and the friendly and accommodating staff. It was glaringly apparent than customer satisfaction is an "at all costs" effort. I learned this the hard way when I accidently "lost" (it slid off the jeep) my backpack on the Indiana Jones ride. It was my fault, but the manager of the ride was ready to give me meal comps to cover the money I didn't have access to for the 60 minutes it would take them to retrieve it. I got my backpack back pretty quickly; the biggest price I paid was my pride due to my husband's heckling.

Bottom line: It was pricey, but it was a blast!

Would I want to get married there or honeymoon there or spend every.single.vacation there? Hell no. Nope nope nope. Give me Hawaii of the Greek Islands or Rome. But I do see the value in planning a trip to Disneyland and am happy that I made the effort for my daughter's 5th birthday. John and I joked the whole time that "they better be making memories, dammit!" Seriously, it isn't a simple day trip unless you are nearby and going on a Wednesday in February (but not President's Day!). It was magical for my kids, and honestly I don't think any parent would begrudge another for wanting their children to have a wonderful trip once in awhile.

Other items we did and how we liked it:

Character Dining: We had lunch at Ariel's Grotto on Saturday and breakfast at Goofy's Kitchen on Sunday. The food at Ariel's grotto reminded me of wedding food (you know, fancy on the menu, but nothing spectacular in reality). HOWEVER (and this is a BIG however), getting to see most of the Princesses in an hour without standing in a single line was ahhh-mazing. Kate got photos and autographs from Ariel, Cinderella, Princess Aurora, Snow White, and Belle while we ate lunch. She did miss Ana and Elsa (we didn't even tell her about the Frozen reception and it's 3 hour wait), but was happy with the classics. We probably saved three hours of time by doing this so I'll forgive the "meh" mahi mahi and the "dry" tri-tip that John had.

As for Goofy's kitchen, it was a pretty amazing buffet breakfast. At 9:30 AM they had breakfast and lunch set up. Tons of options and their coffee was mercifully good. The food was much better than Ariel's Grotto and we got to spend some time with Goofy, Donald Duck, Pluto, Dale (of Chip 'n Dale), and (randomly, in my opinion) Princess Jasmine.

Grand Californian: Beautiful hotel, great service, comfortable beds (thank God!). The "turndown" service was extra fun because they would arrange the kids' toys while we were away. It made us all smile when returning to our room late at night.

We didn't try the restaurants or the pool (no time!) but everything looked beautiful.

I bought the book The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland 2014 by Bob Sehlinger and I appreciated the maps and lists and checklists. He is a bit too gung ho for me (note, I am a reluctant and cynical Disney goer), but I appreciated his ability to critique rides and restaurants with some non sugary sweet standards.

Special thanks also to my BOB Duallie stroller. John wanted to sell you earlier this year because our kids were "too big". HA! Have you heard of the "Disney sleep"? I hadn't, but my friend clued me in and it is absolutely true. We have had this stroller for almost 4 years now and it was absolutely worth it's price tag in this weekend alone. If you have kids under 7, bring a stroller!

An extra special thanks to my "Magic Maker" Tara Radulski ( at Off to Neverland Travel for helping me war-plan this crazy whirlwind weekend. She made all of my reservations (with military discounts in mind!), gave me advice, and ultimately saved my Fastpass soul because without her advice sheets I would have been toast. She even sent us autograph books which my daughter has filled to the brim and I would have never known to purchase those. Her services are free-to-you and I highly recommend her for your planning needs!


Karen @ And Then We Laughed said...

Thank you SO much for this post. We're currently debating when we should do Disney because like you, we have no desire for it to be an every year pilgrimage. And as an outsider (I did Disney World once as a teenager and Disneyland multiple times in the 80s before the craziness of now), I am completely overwhelmed by the idea of spending multiple days at Disney World. We are waiting to see where the Army will send us next (Orlando is a strong possibility) before committing to anything but it is nice to know that while expensive, you found the experience worth the money. I am glad that Kate (and you guys!) had such a magical time. :)

David Ward said...

Another outstanding post, Jill. Connor's stark terror pix is a real keeper. Hope to see you folks while I'm in Camarillo through August

Hi, I'm Jill!

Hi, I'm Jill!
Extrovert. Mom of two. Wife of a cute Naval Aviator. Lover of wine. When I'm not chasing my two kids around town you will find me writing, taking too many photos, and researching the ten future areas the Navy could potentially (but probably won't) PCS us. We are fish out of water, landlocked at 7,000 feet. For now.

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