I Never Expected to Love Disneyland - The Expedition
minnie mouse ears framing disneyland castle

I Never Expected to Love Disneyland

I’m a Disney snob. 

Not a Disney adult. Not someone who looks down on people whose fandom isn’t hard-core enough. I saw Disney theme parks as overcrowded, overpriced, over-commercialized destinations. A few years ago, when we moved two hours away from Disneyland, I prayed my kids would never ask to visit.

Then the pandemic came. Disneyland closed; its parking lot became a Covid vaccination site. When the California parks reopened at the start of April, they had strict masking rules and capacity caps. Only California residents could make reservations. 

Maybe a year-plus of isolating and homeschooling had made me delirious, but I started thinking that it might be the perfect time to check out Disneyland. Crowds would be minimized. At 6 and 8, the kids were at a great age for it. And we were ready to dip our toes into traveling again. 

We visited Disney Adventure Park in mid-June, after a lot of  fumbling with reservations. The weather forecast was grim, with temperatures predicted to be over 100 degrees. I expected it to be a sweaty, stressful trip, with lots of begging for souvenirs.

I didn’t expect it to be a blast—but it was! The trip wasn’t cheap; we paid about $600 for tickets alone. Still, we had so much fun, we’re planning to return in the fall. Here’s what surprised me—and why you might want to consider a visit, too.

Hotels Can Be Half the Fun

We decided not to stay in a Disney hotel. Instead, we opted to stay at the Courtyard Anaheim Theme Park Entrance, which even on a weeknight cost about $500. You pay a premium for being within walking distance of Disney’s gates and, presumably, the hotel’s water park. Our room had two queen beds and a set of bunks, which our kids were very excited about.

The Courtyard’s water park has two large slides, a pool, a splash area, one of those barrels that periodically dumps a hundred gallons of water on whoever happens to be standing below, and lots of other fun features. My kids actually squealed when we entered. An hour into our visit, I realized that my kids thought the water park was Disneyland. I could have saved some money and just taken them home the next day, none the wiser.

The Rides Are Actually Amazing 

I thought we’d spend the day riding classic amusement-park rides with themes slapped on them or chugging through animatronic mini-worlds. (My mom still hates It’s a Small World, which I insisted on riding a half-dozen times during a childhood visit to Walt Disney World.) Those rides still exist—the Mad Tea Party is basically a spinning ride and the Little Mermaid is a tour through scenes of the movie. But I didn’t realize how much Disney has upped its rides game in recent years. 

“Apparently we have to do Cars,” my husband said, as we made our way into the park. He meant Radiator Springs Racers, an immersive ride that opened about nine years ago but still kind of blew my mind. You ride a convertible through mechanized scenes from “Cars,” then race through a faux Arizona desert landscape that’s both cartoonish and convincing. 

The brand-new 3-D Spider-Man themed ride, Web Slingers, is immersive and interactive. You make your way through a lab complex that’s been taken over by Spider Bots run amok, using hand gestures to sling virtual webs over them. All four of us emerged adrenaline-fueled and cracking up.  

The Food is Great

I’d heard that Disney had great food, but…really? Our family is big on local fare, farm-to-table dinners, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. I didn’t want to be eating curly fries all day. Disney fans will roll their eyes at my ignorance, but I was pleasantly surprised. We lunched on QuesaBirria, flavorful braised-beef tacos, from a food truck. Later in the afternoon, we stopped at the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain for sundaes. While I’d prepared myself for wildly overpriced food, the tacos cost under $12 and the (huge) ice creams about the same. 

The App is a Huge Help

Everyone said to download the Disneyland app before entering the park, and they were right. It not only provides detailed maps of the parks, it lets you order food and—crucially—provides up-to-the-minute estimates of waiting times at different rides. You can also make reservations for the rides that require them (see: Web Slingers). 

We used the app to get a quick win as soon as we entered the park: The line for the Little Mermaid was almost nonexistent, so we hustled over. For the rest of the day, we moved around the park based on lulls at different rides, and managed to hit all the rides we wanted to. The longest wait was about 40 minutes for Radiator Springs Racers, but it was the exception that day. 

Someone Always Wins at the Arcade

When our 8-year-old son said he wanted to visit the game booths at Pixar Pier, I inwardly groaned. I might have also outwardly groaned. I imagined us endlessly feeding money into no-win shooting, rolling, and throwing games, just like at other amusement parks. 

But Disney has cleverly designed its carnival games—which include a Wall-E space race and a throwing game based on A Bug’s Life—so they don’t feel like a rip-off. As long as there are at least two players competing, someone wins a prize. Our son claimed three stuffed animals and was gunning for a fourth when we dragged him away. 

Reservations Are Keeping Crowds Down

To limit the number of visitors during the pandemic, Disney implemented a reservation system —even if you’ve purchased a ticket, you can’t visit any of the parks without a reservation for that day. It’s one of the policies that encouraged us to visit. While the park felt busy in June, it was far from overrun.  

Disney will undoubtedly increase capacity, but the company has said that it’s going to keep the reservation system for the parks, as well as for some rides. That’s a good thing. We’ll still try to come back on a weekday during the off-season, but we’ll definitely be coming back. 

Sara Clemence is a freelance journalist, formerly travel editor for The Wall Street Journal and news director for Travel + Leisure. She's the author of Away & Aware, a guide to mindful travel.

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