TRAVEL: Disneyland is a magical kingdom, even for grownupsIt happens every time we set our eyes on the iconic visage of Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle: Swelling up inside us is a fierce urge to plunge through the crowd and make a mad dash toward Space Mountain. At least that’s the way it goes when we have children in tow. A parent’s gut says pick up the pace and get to as many rides as possible. All the better to keep the little tykes happy and stimulated and make every precious dollar count.
By: Chuck Barney and Tony Hicks, Contra Costa Times
ANAHEIM, Calif. — It happens every time we set our eyes on the iconic visage of Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle: Swelling up inside us is a fierce urge to plunge through the crowd and make a mad dash toward Space Mountain.
At least that’s the way it goes when we have children in tow. A parent’s gut says pick up the pace and get to as many rides as possible. All the better to keep the little tykes happy and stimulated and make every precious dollar count.
But this time would be different. Two longtime Disneyland veterans had come to Uncle Walt’s utopia, sans kids and wives. Our goal? To enjoy a guy’s weekend. To see what it’s like to experience the resort as grown-ups.
In other words, to avoid Toontown like it’s a hotbed of swine flu.
It wasn’t such a far-out concept. After all, the inspiration for Disneyland grew out of its creator’s powerful desire for something beyond the typical kiddie park. As legend has it, Walt used to take his two small daughters to such places and sit on a bench, bored out of his skull. “Why can’t there be a place where I could have fun, too?” he wondered.
And why can’t a couple of dads in their 40s have a blast at the so-called Happiest Place on Earth?
An alien sensation that came over us as we made our way down Main Street USA was the first sign that we, indeed, could.
“This is weird. I’m actually not freaking out,” said Tony, noticing he wasn’t nervously waiting for the first child to take off at a dead sprint through a throng of strangers. “I’m totally relaxed. Weird.”
Still, we were torn. On one hand, the absence of kids presented an opportunity to shift into ultra chill-out mode. On the other, the absence of kids enabled us to streamline our operation and move about the park unencumbered. So it was difficult to suppress a kids-at-heart urge to put the pedal to the metal. At one point we found ourselves plowing through the masses like a pair of football players — Tony serving as pulling guard to Chuck’s running back.
“Cut left, Chuck! Cut left!” he blurted, sealing off a surprised family from Chuck’s path as we raced across Town Square, only pausing to reverently salute a bronze statue of Walt and Mickey Mouse.
Along the way, we made good use of our FastPasses — the good-as-gold tickets that allow you to drastically cut down on wait time in lines. With warp speed, we tackled bone-jarring “big-boy” thrill rides like Space Mountain, Indiana Jones Adventure and the Matterhorn Bobsleds before moving on to “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which we both happen to regard as only the greatest ride in the history of the planet.
Even though this classic has been around since 1967 and we’ve taken the voyage countless times, we still duck imaginary cannonballs and watch in slack-jawed awe as those audio-animatronic swashbucklers ransack towns and hunt for treasure. The recent addition of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow character only enhances the fun.
The road less traveled
But the typical freneticism eventually faded into an unhurried exploration of things not typically on the agenda of a family vacation. For lunch we settled in at the French Market cafe in New Orleans Square and over bowls of clam chowder, took in the soothing sounds of a jazz band.
Unlike when we’re towing kids along, meals proved to be wind-down time. With kids, meals are functional: get in line, fill stomachs, get out and back to attacking rides. Not having to order for three tired, indecisive kids — one of whom always changes her mind just as you order — then juggling multiple trays while trying to find a vacant table not smeared with someone’s else’s ketchup, was one of the most incredible aspects of the trip. Seriously — “incredible” may be an understatement.
There was also a noticeable lack of tension that usually accompanies mealtime chaos when realizing you’re paying more for 15 minutes of lunch drama than you spent on your last refrigerator. Then the kids don’t even finish the meal for which you spent 13 bucks, yet insist on you getting in line for a churro 30 minutes later.
Without kids, we actually could sit down and breathe without worrying about who got diet soda instead of regular. We were free to pick places that specialized in more than chicken nuggets and mac ‘n’ cheese. Our stops included the Blue Bayou, where the relaxing Southern-night ambience was offset by inflated prices and an excruciating lengthy wait for a table. But at least we didn’t endure the wait with tired and hungry children who might throw themselves on the ground in protest at any second.
We breathed even deeper at Wine Country Trattoria, a laid-back eatery in California Adventure that has the look and feel of a Napa Valley cafe (It served beer and wine, and we spotted only one child in the place upon our arrival), and the ESPN Zone Z — or Guy Heaven — in Downtown Disney, where we imbibed in spirits while viewing an NBA playoff game on an eye-boggling 16-foot-by-12-foot television screen.
And again, much of our enjoyment was rooted in the fact that we had no antsy kids tugging at us to move on.
“We could go ride more rides, or sit here for another half-hour,” Chuck said. “The point is: We have choices.”
A surprising high point was something no sane person would ever attempt with kids: A 3 ½-hour walking tour through the Magic Kingdom called “In Walt’s Footsteps.” Guided by a young woman named Mirna, a self-described “Disney nerd” with a perma-smile and all the perkiness of Snow White, the tour was chock full of fun facts and trivia about the park.
But while we loved it that Mirna seemed to be on a pixie-dust high, she was a bit of a tease — telling us how Walt maintained an apartment on Main Street above the firehouse, but refusing to let us have a peek. She also ushered us into the lobby of Club 33, a private and highly exclusive enclave in New Orleans Square, but didn’t allow us to proceed up into the main dining room. She wouldn’t say who were members, how they became members, or what exactly they did up there. Frankly, we expected a little more from dear, sweet Mirna.
She did tell us, however, that Club 33 is the only spot in Disneyland that serves alcohol. Happily, there are no such restrictions at California Adventure, which offers beer and wine at several sites and is hosting a food and wine festival through June 7 — complete with cooking demonstrations and seminars (without a cartoon character in sight). Starkly illustrating the two sides of Disney, on the other side of the Grizzly River Run and all its screaming rafters, we ran into a small, well-tilled hillside vineyard.
Since its opening in 2001, California Adventure has had its share of detractors who view it as a poor stepsister to Disneyland. But, as adults, we’re fans of the less congested park, its slower pace and more “mature” attractions such as the California Screamin’ roller coaster, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Soarin’ Over California.
The latter ride is a five-star attraction that uses giant-screen cinematic technology to simulate a hang-gliding experience. Throughout the ride you find yourself dangling your feet over spectacular scenery of Yosemite, Monterey, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco and Napa Valley (the designers of California Adventure seem to have an affinity for Wine Country) among other sites. It not only leaves you breathless, but feeling proud to live in the Golden State, perhaps because it didn’t include scenes of Fresno.
Big, potentially attendance-boosting changes are coming to California Adventure; hopefully ones that don’t take away any of it’s more mature charm. Most notably is Cars Land, a 12-acre expansion re-creating Radiator Springs from the film “Cars,” complete with three new rides. Paradise Pier will get a makeover, complete with a fantastic looking water show called “Disney’s World of Color.” The entrance also will be renovated, aiming to look more like Southern California in the 1920s and 30s, when Walt Disney first came to the state.
It’ll be just more for the kids to enjoy. But the weekend proved Uncle Walt completed his mission: Adults don’t have to live vicariously through their kids at Disneyland. We can have a great time all by ourselves, experiencing enough of the breathless magic seemingly designed for the young with a nice balance of activities geared more for “adults.”
In the end, though, you find yourself missing the kids more often than not. And after the fuss they made when we got home, it’s pretty obvious we won’t get away with leaving them behind any time soon.
If you go
The parks: Disneyland is open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. most weekdays and until midnight on weekends. Disney’s California Adventure is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. most weekdays and until 10 p.m. on most weekends.
Tickets: A 1-day park hopper (with access to both parks) is $69 general and $59 for children ages 3-9. A 2-day park hopper is $143 general and $123 children. Purchase at Resort Main Entrance ticket booths or by calling 714-781-4400. Additional day park hoppers and hotel packages with tickets are available.
Where to stay: For reservations at any of the Disneyland hotels, call 714-956-6425.
Disneyland Hotel, 1150 Magic Way, Anaheim — the original Disney hotel has 969 rooms in three high-rise towers. It includes 19 new rooms with Mickey Mouse or Disney Princesses themes. Rates start at $250.
Disney’s Grand California Hotel & Spa, 1600 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim — the full-service resort hotel has an early 20th century Arts & Craft style with 745 rooms. Rates start at $350.
Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel, 1717 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim. — the hotel has 481 spacious rooms or suites, a rooftop pool and a health club. Rates start at $230.
MORE INFO: http://disneyland.disney.go.com.