Trout Hatchery Tour
Southern California isn’t around the corner, but it doesn’t take a second mortgage to visit Disneyland.
Minus the cost of food and “add-ons” like guided tours, here’s what it set me back.
• Round-trip airfare, Los Angeles International: $306
• Round-trip shuttle between airport and hotel: $30
• Seven nights lodging, Super 8: $341 (Local shuttles are available for a small fee, but I just hoofed it the 20 minutes to Disneyland.)
• Five-day Disney park tickets: $149 (cost of a three-day ticket under current promotion)
Where does a single guy in his 20s who makes a living out of watching sports head for vacation?
Maybe a trip to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame, or a sampling of the night life in South Beach? How about a taste of the great outdoors in Appalachia? Or how about Disneyland?
That last choice might seem unlikely, but for me, seeing Disneyland has been a goal akin to a religious pilgrimage.
I’ve made more than my share of trips to Walt Disney World just south of Orlando, starting in early childhood and culminating in a five-month internship with Disney during my junior year of college.
Most everyone knows the sprawling resort in Florida is the crown jewel of the Disney empire. It’s like a mini-fiefdom unto itself, segregated from the surrounding tourist traps in a space nearly twice the size of Manhattan. It even has its own municipal government.
By comparison, California’s Disneyland Resort is a dwarf, squatting on about 2 percent of the real estate (including undeveloped land) of its Florida counterpart. It’s also largely undefended, a pig with almost no barriers against the wolf of greater Los Angeles prowling right on its doorstep.
Still, the pull of the original Disney park on my imagination has been a strong one. To see the birthplace of the modern theme park, the spot where Walt Disney himself worked and played, seemed imperative to me.
Disneyland has been around a while, at least by American standards. The original park opened in July 1955, a time when millions of Americans liked Ike, a gallon of gas cost a quarter, and Alaska and Hawaii were four years from statehood.
Since then, more than 500 million visitors have crossed its turnstiles. In 2001, what had been a single park was re-branded the Disneyland Resort, with the opening of a second park, Disney’s California Adventure, and the adjacent Downtown Disney shopping and dining district. (Most references to “Disneyland” here are to the original theme park, and I try to make references to the overall resort of the same name clear.)
I land at Los Angeles International on May 26, the day before my birthday, for a weeklong stay predominantly, though not exclusively, planned around the Disney parks.
From the airport, I catch a shuttle bus over to my hotel, a 20-minute stroll from Disneyland. The Orange County airport is closer, but my online deal-shopping shows LAX to be a much cheaper arrival, even throwing in the price of a shuttle to Anaheim.
One of the first things I notice is that the signs pointing out Disneyland from the freeway are just that — road signs, the same white-on-green you’d see over any exit lane.
It’s a trivial observation, but it’s already a contrast to the Florida resort, where road signs on Disney property are covered in a jaunty shade of purple with mouse ears protruding from the top. (Not just telling you what awaits, but providing some visceral hints as well.)
Minor detail though it is, it’s a reminder that Anaheim was a real community (albeit a rural one) before Disney came along. The same can’t be said for the area south of Orlando, which was essentially drained of swampwater and built from scratch by Disney’s “Imagineers,” giving the company a remarkable degree of autonomy.
I decide the conformist Disneyland signs bestow an aura of authenticity, which helps make up for any loss of whimsy.
Beyond signage, other differences are immediately discernible. I’ve heard that the “real world” (to the extent a tourist district featuring hotels shaped like castles qualifies) beats right up against Disneyland’s walls, and it’s true.
On my first trek to the resort, I pass a Denny’s, an IHOP, and the back of Space Mountain, all within less than a five-minute walk.
But none of that matters. The ridiculously wide grin plastered across my jaw as I stand in the middle of the resort’s entrance plaza tells the tale: IHOP or no IHOP, this place is the real deal.
Déjà vu ... sort of
A sense of new meeting familiar is probably the most enduring detail of my visit. For the first few hours, I feel like I’ve accidentally ended up in Florida somehow, with a few renovations and relocations.
Some of the differences are inconsequential. Disneyland’s central icon, Sleeping Beauty Castle, would almost certainly lose a fight to Florida’s towering Cinderella Castle. But knowing that the squat structure in Anaheim has seen guests file beneath it for over half a century wins some extra points on my scorecard.
Also unlike in Florida, Disneyland’s monorail doubles as an in-park attraction as well as a mode of transportation. Its entertainment value is limited, though, making it essentially a means of getting to the resort’s shopping district in a hurry.
Other contrasts are more substantive, and a good number of them favor the West Coast kingdom.
Pirates of the Caribbean features a longer, spookier buildup to the swashbuckling encounters. Kids (of any age) have more options in Fantasyland, with multiple rides that have no counterparts in Florida.
Mickey’s Toontown exudes the genuine feel of a municipality where rubbery ink-and-paint characters could live and work, while the half-hearted Florida version is essentially a giant playground for the very young.
Disneyland’s Space Mountain is a superior ride in nearly every respect, although an ongoing renovation to the Florida version could shift that dynamic in the near future.
I also found Disneyland’s castle fireworks show a more entertaining production than its Florida equivalent, with more narrative tie-ins to park attractions and a wider variety of interesting pyrotechnic wizardry.
Then there’s Disneyland’s deference to the past. You won’t find Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride or the original Enchanted Tiki Room in Florida anymore, but both long-running classics are intact in Anaheim.
The park also recently revived its long-dormant submarine lagoon ride with a Finding Nemo character overlay, showing that older attractions can be salvaged with the right blend of nostalgia and modernity.
Leading the way among attractions unique to Disneyland (among the American parks, anyway) is the Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye, which I found a strong contender for the most enjoyable ride in the resort.
This doesn’t mean Disneyland has always gotten it right. The cornball classic Country Bear Jamboree is still playing in Florida, while the West Coast version was paved over and replaced with a pleasantly bland Winnie-the-Pooh ride.
Disneyland’s PeopleMover tracks form a barren arch over Tomorrowland, although no ride has used them since 2000. A park tour guide tells me the tracks play a key role in the area’s structural integrity, preventing their removal.
Disneyland also gets demerits for removing the Skyway gondolas in the 1990s, but this is a wash, since the ride was stripped from Florida’s Magic Kingdom as well.
Finally, any comparison/contrast has to include the weather, which was almost obscenely gorgeous during my week in southern California, with temperatures in the 70s and just the right mix of sunshine, breeze and cloud cover nearly every day.
Whatever virtues central Florida might boast, mid-year climate isn’t among them.
As a complete vacation spot, Disneyland Resort can’t compete with Walt Disney World. Not only is it trapped on all sides by bustling Orange County, but its efforts at slight expansion haven’t set the world on fire.
California Adventure has some fun highlights and more quiet spots to recharge, but the park is sparse compared to Disneyland, and the theming is an offbeat mishmash that doesn’t always hold together comfortably.
A film studio backlot, a retro boardwalk carnival and a rustic wilderness section are all linked solely through their relation to the culture and heritage of California, which seems a thin connection to build a park around.
But while Florida might win the resort crown, it’s a comfortable assertion that no individual theme park at Walt Disney’s “Florida Project” can compare with his original plot of land.
Disneyland is absolutely packed to the brim with attractions, including a fair few you won’t find in the Sunshine State.
Rides and themed lands rub shoulders in a way that prevents you from walking more than a few feet without coming across something new. There’s nothing comparable in the leisurely spacing of the Florida parks.
What makes this more impressive is that Disneyland has done it without size (its sister park in Florida covers 22 more acres), meaning that while there’s plenty to see, there’s little space to traverse. I was consistently impressed at how quickly I could navigate the park.
The result of all this compression is understandably cramped and chaotic at times, but nobody comes to theme parks expecting seclusion and solitude.
The fact is that Disneyland has embraced its status as one part of a thriving vacation scene in southern California, rather than going over its head in an attempt to dominate the area.
The resort even teams with other area entertainment providers to serve up combined discounts, an approach that’s 180 degrees from Walt Disney World.
So how long does it take to experience Disneyland? It depends on the person.
My appreciation for the level of detail in the Disney parks allowed me to spend the better part of five days there without boredom setting in. But I’d say only the most ardent Disney devotees, or those determined to soak in every detail, should plan a vacation around California’s Disney parks.
However, a leisurely-paced visitor looking to take in more than just the highlights could easily spend the better part of three days on Disney property without repeating many experiences.
So if you’re a theme park buff interested in seeing the “granddaddy of them all” or if you’re just in southern California with a day or two to kill, do yourself a favor and join the half-billion who have made the pilgrimage to Disneyland.
E-mail BJ Corbitt at email@example.com.