ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Disney empire has struggled recently with attacks on CEO Michael Eisner, an unsolicited takeover bid, sour ratings at ABC and complaints that the theme parks are falling into disrepair. But none of that matters to my children or to me when we step into the Magic Kingdom. Indeed, all reality is suspended during those few days we visit Anaheim's Disneyland Resort each summer.
As a Disneyland regular for 30 of its 49 years both as a child and a parent, I have always been impressed with the way the park constantly reinvents itself while retaining that comfortable familiarity that elicits my own pleasant memories.
I know every detail in the Haunted House, and would be horrified if Disney changed any of it. Same with the Pirates of the Caribbean, recently updated not with renovations but with a Johnny Depp movie instead. And how could the charming innocence of It's a Small World possibly improve? Or the iconic Matterhorn, a pedestrian roller coaster by modern standards, and the glittery Electric Light Parade? Disneyland knows what to keep.
When California Adventure Park was first completed about three years ago, I stared skeptically at the giant letters and Golden Gate Bridge replica. While the adjacent Disneyland revolves around a fantasy world of stories and characters, California Adventure Park depicts Monterey's Cannery Row, a Hollywood studio back lot and California's old-time seaside amusement parks and beach boardwalks. Too eager to share with my children what I had enjoyed at their age, we spent all of our time in Disneyland, until last summer.
My son finally convinced me to explore the 55-acre addition, where we discovered one of our favorite rides: Soarin' Over California. Exhilarating enough to inspire a firm grip on the seat, Soarin' brings to life the most exciting parts of the Golden State visually and viscerally. A large apparatus lifts you off the ground, tilting and swaying in front of an 80-foot bowl-shaped screen that fills the theater with images of skiing, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, surfing. And when jets fly by, for instance, a blast of wind hits you in the face.
The latest new feature is a massive attraction called the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Slated to open May 5, the supernatural thrill ride is set in an abandoned Hollywood luxury hotel with a perilous 13-story elevator drop (modeled after the most popular attraction at Walt Disney World). Also undergoing a facelift is perennial favorite Space Mountain. It is scheduled for completion in fall 2005. New shops and restaurants, most recently Jamba Juice and Tortilla Jos, are constantly emerging in the spotless and inviting Downtown Disney, an entire town within the resort.
California Adventure Park also boasts a roller coaster that blasts from zero to 55 miles per hour in four seconds. But there is plenty for young kids to enjoy as well, such as Heimlich's Chew Chew Train in A Bugs Land, an area with oversized decor to make guests feel, well, like the size of a bug. The Magic of Brother Bear, an interactive storytelling show, themed after the animated feature film, began last fall. In Disneyland's Critter Country, "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" also opened last year, replacing the Country Bear Jamboree.
Other highlights in California Adventure Park include "Disney's Aladdin: A Musical Spectacular," a near-Broadway-quality production of the Disney movie in abbreviated form. Five or six impressive sets were rolled out during the 45-minute show, and actors even appeared over the balcony area on a flying carpet. The comedian playing the blue genie obviously had freedom to ad lib, and spouted amusing references to current events (at the time, it was the gubernatorial recall election in California) to the delight of the adults in the crowd.
There is one classic attraction Disneyland did tamper with and enhance. "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" features the former president rumpled and more authentic than ever delivering the Gettysburg Address. Though my children whined about entering the vacant and refreshingly air-conditioned theater, they couldn't stop talking about it after we left. A new 3D sound system delivered through individual headphones combined with tactile effects, such as the feeling of hair falling on your neck when a soldier gets his hair cut before going off to war at Gettysburg, bring the experience to life.
Like most parents, I'm a slave to school vacations. But I don't recommend visiting Disneyland in August unless you have no other choice. Those who work in the park recommend February to avoid heat and long lines. The first two weeks in December are also fairly quiet.
One way to minimize the sting of traveling when everyone else does is with the FastPass system. Though FastPass has been around for several years, many people still don't use it. The vouchers listing a computer-assigned boarding time are distributed at kiosks next to most attractions. They do not cost extra, and dictate a one-hour window when you may return to the ride. When you come back between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., for example (you will not be allowed in a minute before or after the time printed on your ticket), you enter through a different line entitled "FastPass Return." While everyone waited 80 minutes for Indiana Jones, our FastPass line zipped by in about 10 minutes. The caveat: kiosks keep track of how many vouchers you've obtained, and limit your take to one or two attractions at a time.
In my youth, I drove with friends from San Diego and spent the day at Disneyland before returning home the same night, a feat that should not be attempted by anyone over the age of 25. Instead, plan to stay for two or three days. Those on a budget (beware: even money takes on an ethereal, unreal quality inside the park) can investigate Walt Disney Travel Co. vacation packages that include lodging at Disneyland's "good neighbor" motels. As I've aged, however, I find it worth the extra money to stay in the resort, where you can walk or take the Monorail back and forth. The difference between enjoyment and enduring exhaustion is that mid-afternoon rest, easily accomplished at any one of Disney's three hotels.
Paradise Pier, the cheapest of the three, is undergoing renovations in its 502 rooms, lobby and pool area, with a new roller coaster-themed water slide that should be complete by June. Special touches include palm-tree lined bedspreads, Mickey Mouse lifeguard lamps and Paradise pier sun wheel mirrors. Disneyland Hotel retains its classic status and remains a favorite with kids despite the 990 vaguely tired rooms. At the high end is Disney's Grand Californian Hotel, a sprawling 751-room luxury hotel modeled after the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the 20th century, with muted colors and wood furnishings in enormous and elegant accommodations.
The benefits of staying in a hotel that welcomes children are endless. Dining is simple. You can choose from Italian cuisine with wine or take everybody to the Storytellers Cafe, where it's perfectly acceptable for your children to run around the buffet asking for autographs from Chip and Dale, or chat with Snow White in Goofy's Kitchen as they make their own ice cream sundaes. And what if your kids fall into a screaming match because they don't want to share the pullout couch at bedtime? The staff will send up a camping mat, sleeping bag and extra pillows. Problem solved.
Even when I enter the next phase of park-hopping as a grandparent, I know I can count on Disneyland to keep my old favorites just as I remember them, yet excite me with fresh ideas that invite me to leave behind real life for a few precious days each summer.
If You Go...
DISNEYLAND: Two-day park hopper passes allow unlimited access to both Disneyland and California Adventure Park: $98 ages 10 and up; $78 ages 3-9. Hotel rates vary seasonally: Disney's Grand Californian Hotel $235-$330; Disneyland Hotel $190-$265; Paradise Pier $160-$235. Information and vacation packages available at www.disneyland.com; (877) 700-DISNEY.