Disneyland Resort 11/17-11/19 Trip Report (Day 1)
***For the few of you that dare endure my extended trip reports, enjoy!***
You’d have to make pretty frequent visits to Disneyland before you fail to encounter something new or different. While I’ve always wondered what the experience is like for season pass holders making monthly visits, we don’t get to the resort nearly enough to even approach a sensation of a visit being just like last time. Still, with this being our seventh visit in less than six years, we’ve gotten to know the place rather well. But what we were looking at this time around was a whole new ballgame.
Without a doubt, the biggest difference was an entirely new dynamic for the resort, thanks entirely to a great revamped and expanded California Adventure park. For most of its ten years, this second gate was maligned, and rightfully so, as an inferior complement to the sacred ground that is Walt Disney’s personally realized dream. Granted, any park would have found hard footing to attempt to be Disneyland’s equal, but there was little question California Adventure was an especially poor effort.
The lack of custom rides, weak and cheesy thematic elements, no signature nighttime entertainment, and little charm left the park completely devoid of character. Being a peripheral park in Florida or Paris might go unnoticed, but when you’re across an esplanade from the only Disney park Walk himself walked in, all shortcomings are under a microscope.
I never personally had any overwhelming vehemence towards the park, though my first visits were after it had been open for five years. What may have been a sore spot for some was still a novelty to me. I certainly wasn’t blown away during my early visits, but between Soarin’, Tower of Terror, and California Screamin’, it was always worth a hop for a couple hours in the afternoon.
The only problem was, this isn’t what Disney wanted. They didn’t want a “stop-by” park, a half-day park, or a supplementary park to take on some of the crowds when Disneyland got packed. The forces that be wanted a true complement, and even those painting the rosiest picture of California Adventure knew there was a ways to go.
Fortunately for them, they started down this road some four years ago, and have used that time and an absurd amount of money to revitalize the park. Now your average park will throw in rides left and right to help fill the void, but the Imagineers did that one better here. Sure, adding Toy Story Mania, World of Color, and Little Mermaid went a long way in beefing up the attraction lineup, but a much more understated transformation all over the park added the depth and character that was just as sorely lacking as activities were.
Getting rid of some cringe-worthy ride treatments (e.g., Orange Stinger, Mullholland Madness) and some off-the shelf rides (Maliboomer) helped lessen some of the Southern California tourist vibe, and Victorian theming added to Paradise Pier as well as two nicer counter service restaurants went a long way in classing the place up.
The most drastic changes were entirely new to us since our last visit over 18 months ago. The biggest alteration and addition were mere construction zones when we scouted them out last from Mickey’s Fun Wheel. The front of the park was being wiped clean, and gone was the tacky postcard-esque theme. In its place would be Buena Vista Street, a vision of Walt’s California - Los Angeles in the 1920s. And of course, the headliner, a brand new land themed after the Pixar Cars movies, with its very own E-ticket attraction, Radiator Springs Racers.
So even though we had seen a good chunk of the reinvestment first-hand over the years, these capstones were drawing us like this park never had. All these prior changes had gone a long way in making this a park you wanted to be in, and the Imagineers seemed to have saved the best for last. A park that was once considered at best a disappointment and at worst an embarrassment had a whole new thing going, and we were eager to see it firsthand.
Of course we’d want to wait until the summer madness, which was compounded by unveiling madness, died down. You're wise to avoid Halloween, so outside of immediately post-Labor Day, you’re looking at November, before Thanksgiving. I’d recommend more before Thanksgiving than we picked, but I’ll get to that. We settled on the weekend immediately prior, thanks in large part to coordinating another visit with our friends David and Katie.
Additionally along for the ride was another good friend, Steve. While David and Katie would be traveling and enjoying the resort with their family, Steve was stuck with us and would be dragged through the Disneyland wringer. As a native Californian, he certainly wasn’t a first-timer and had even been to the resort just a handful of years ago. He just hasn’t done Disney the way we do (not many people do, after all), and was in for three intense days. Fortunately, he seemed quite eager to soak up the resort with more appreciation, and was glad to take advantage of our little tricks considering the expected crowds.
Despite our usual accommodations ratcheting up the rates in observance the holiday week, we still weren’t dissuaded from the exact same itinerary we’ve gone with for years. We’d fly from the Bay Area to Orange County in the evening after work, give ourselves three full days in the park while staying across the street at the Fairfield Inn Anaheim, and fly home early the following morning to salvage a half day of work.
We were flying separately from Steve, but we coordinated well enough to share our airport transfers. Our respective flights each encountered modest delays, but there was an empty queue at the taxi stand and an uninterrupted cab ride from the airport in Santa Ana to the hotel, arriving a bit after 11pm.
Before turning in, I dragged Steve up to the top floor and we gazed on still active parks. It’s become a tradition to point out the landmarks across the two parks, from the spires of Space Mountain directly in front of us, to the flash of Splash Mountain and flickering candlelight of the Haunted Mansion. California Adventure was aglow as well, with Soarin’s hangar, Mickey’s Wheel, and California Screamin’s lift easily visible. Of course Tower of Terror sits in the corner bathed in spooky purple light. But there was one new landmark, the peak of the Carthay Circle Theater, reminding us that we’d an entirely new game plan to see this resort efficiently.
We’d be fighting the crowds all weekend, but time was definitely on our side-- park time, that is. The hours of operation ebb and flow to match the busy season, and we’d be looking at a series of long days, with mornings starting around 8am and nights ending around midnight. Add on to that a bonus Magic Morning hour to boot with our three-day park-hopper passes, and we had some 49 hours to divvy up among two parks. Surely we wouldn’t be in the parks for every possible second, but we definitely wanted to make the most of the time.
To do that, we’d want to plan our mornings wisely. The number one key to any park visit is to be there at or before opening, and we wouldn’t waste that opportunity. The real question was how to use that extra hour. Looking at the options, it looked like Disneyland had theirs Saturday, and California Adventure had it Sunday and Monday. Seemed like an easy call to use it Sunday, and start the morning on even footing tomorrow at California Adventure.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t read the fine print. I hadn’t read closely enough to pick up on the distinction between Magic Mornings, which was what we had, and was only good at Disneyland and only good a few days a week - and Extra Magic Hour, which was also good at California Adventure on the days Disneyland wasn’t open early for Magic Mornings, and was only available to resort guests. This would be instance number one of the game being changed, and it wasn’t for the better-- for us, anyway.
So as it worked out, our only chance to use the extra hour would be our first morning. Typically, it would be an easy call to use, but with the crowds and the popularity of Cars Land, there was an opportunity cost to everything we did. Basically every minute that went by when we weren’t in line for California Adventure, Cars Land, or a Radiator Springs Racers Fastpass, the crowd was mounting ahead of us.
Still, it seemed silly to blow the whole hour just to vie for positioning, and a good chunk of Disneyland is doable from 7am-8am, so that’s where we would head first. Of course we’d be making the hop sooner than any hop to California Adventure we’ve ever made, but that was the new world we lived in. For now, it was time to turn in, and as Steve stayed up finishing work, I was glad to have the sleeping pill kicking in with full force.
The wake up call came barely six hours later, and we were up and out not too long after 6:30am. We’ve been lucky to have 7am extra hours before, and we knew that there wouldn’t be much of a crowd to contend with. Still, the walk down Harbor to the pedestrian entrance was far from empty, and we had plenty of company as we went through the bag check. The queues outside the gates were still shy of the Monorail track, but if anything I was more wary about the handful of groups waiting outside California Adventure.
But we were here to enjoy the parks, so there wasn’t a second thought and just a couple minutes after the countdown at the top of the hour, we were in the park and the fun could begin. First, though, we had to swap our printed paper tickets for official tickets and sign them, and with that we were square and in the entry with the railroad station looming above.
Never quite getting a clear sense, or perhaps being confused by inconsistencies between Disney World and Disneyland, I wasn’t sure if we could get some Fastpasses for Space Mountain right out of the gate. I was happy to go ahead and check, and the plan was to meet back at Peter Pan, successful or not. I grabbed everyone’s tickets and went ahead, on my own for that wonderfully surreal first trip up Main Street. The sun was low and shadows were long, and for a second it can feel like you’re the only one in the park.
I passed just a couple groups as I hustled into Tomorrowland to Space Mountain, and found the Fastpass machines offline even though the lighted marquee was active. A cast member confirmed, and I paused a second to shrug, but was quickly off again to get things started for real in Fantasyland.
Not that we needed all the reminders, but the side-trip provided enough time for the Peter Pan queue to get nice and busy. Even a perfectly reasonable 10 minute wait feels like forever this early in the morning, when you’ve got so much you want to get to. We gave Steve a quick primer on the New Fantasyland project of the 90s, and the wonderful facades only this park sports. We whipped around the queue and were soon up the ramp, and even managed to squeeze 3-abreast into one pirate ship. Our trip over London, through the stars, and into Neverland was a flurry of nostalgia all around.
One notch down on the nostalgia factor was next door at Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I’m not one to begrudge a one-of-a-kind attraction (thanks to Disney World removing theirs some 15 years ago), and we were happy the crowds seemed to be back at Peter Pan. This time Steve was on his own and seemed to manage just fine as we were whipped around England and survived the trip to Hell.
Skipping the west side of the area for now, we went for the British trifecta and wrapped around the corner to hit Alice in Wonderland. Finding another quiet queue, we put Steve in the front of our caterpillar and went down the rabbit hole. I look forward to the day they address the unsightly platform and tarps that adorn the outside of the ride, but the inside is pure Disney dark ride mastery and Alice remains my favorite in Fantasyland.
Our hour was dwindling, but still had some time, so we headed for the front of the park with a side trip to Space Mountain. Despite the Fastpasses being offline until the top of the hour, the ride itself was fully operational, and considering the early morning traffic, it had no trouble leaving the line as all but walk-on. Around the terrace and into the heart of the mountain, we spiraled back down into the loading station and were assigned our rows with hardly a pause. This is why you get up at the crack of dawn, and I could see that even Steve was convinced.
Half for the terrific execution and half for the ridiculous posing ritual for the on-ride photos, this ride is never short of a great time. Awesome theming, a terrific score, and just enough thrill keep this as the king of the Disney mountains. I may prefer a certain southern-themed one at other parks, but here at Disneyland, Space Mountain is tops.
Just a few minutes shy of the top of the hour, I sent Steve and Megan ahead and found a small crowd waiting for 8am and the first Fastpasses of the day. We were all able to find a machine, and the second they were in my hand, all thoughts turned to Cars Land. As we’d see in just a few minutes, we were far from alone.
I had to fight through what was clearly the opening surge, but as I made my way back out of Tomorrowland and down Main Street, there was a steady but manageable stream headed into the park. For second I thought to myself that maybe things wouldn’t be so awful.
Meeting up with Megan and Steve just inside Disneyland’s gates, they said they needed their passes to exit, which seemed odd to me, but was no real trouble as we exited with handstamps and made the first hop of the long weekend. Fortunately things didn’t seem too awful approaching California Adventure either, but we were definitely behind the initial thrust. We’d see how much 5 minutes had cost us.
There was a short delay getting in the park, as not only were they insistent about seeing our I.D.s, but it seems we had signed the wrong passes earlier in the morning. A supervisor came over and noted the correction on Megan’s pass (apparently I had signed hers and she mine, though there was no way to tell which was which when we handed over our printouts). It only cost us another minute or two, but everyone was eager to get into the action. I looked up to see Steve wrapping up a guest survey, and I collected the passes and shot towards the Fastpass line.
There was really no time to take in the changes to the entrance, but the new turnstiles and Buena Vista Street looked completely different, and seemed a terrific effort at a glance. We'd be back to soak it up later, but there were places to be. I knew where Cars Land was - it’s hard to miss being in the center of the park - but all I knew about the Radiator Springs Fastpass was that it wasn’t next to the ride. The area is complete chaos without all that to worry about.
As it turns out, machines were set up in an old character spot next to It’s Tough to be a Bug, but as I darted in that direction, I could see a line coming back towards the entrance and starting down Hollywood Boulevard. A cast member with a sign indicated that this was indeed the line I wanted to be in, and it was hard not to consider the irony of having to wait in line now to avoid having to wait in line later. A less experienced Disney visitor may have scoffed at such a notion, but I knew better. Yes, Fastpass lines are a little absurd, but waiting a few minutes now was genius compared to what was on track to be a two hour plus wait later.
It certainly moved along, and about halfway through I got a message from Megan saying the standby line was already up to an hour, but that apparently the ride had broken down. I still had to get through the rest of the line, so we didn’t need to worry just yet. Plan B was probably to head to Paradise Pier and hit Toy Story Mania (along with everyone else, most likely), but for now I inched along.
After about 10 minutes in total, I came to the front of the queue and got our passes, mostly glad to see a return time of 10:30am. I had no delusions that we’d be eligible for another set, but at least it was nice to see the entire day’s worth would last the better part of the park’s first hour. Maybe it was also another small indication that things weren’t so bad today.
Making my way into Cars Land, I tried to give things a good once over while keeping an eye out for Megan and Steve. The entire land had already been given its Christmas treatment, so it was hard to tell how it would normally look, but everything seemed thoughtfully put together. Keep in mind, I’m not the biggest fan of the Cars series. I think the characters are one-sided, and I think the setting of a rundown tourist trap doesn’t really carry the potential for an amazing environment. Even so, it’s hard to complain about how it ended up, and there is a subtle cartoonish realism to the canyons and cliffs. The whole thing is an interesting mix between Frontierland and Toon Town.
I caught up with them just outside the entrance, and despite the wait time indicator being down (a typical sign of a breakdown), they were still letting folks join the queue as it tested. It was last seen at around an hour, and with only a few of the exterior queue sections being used, we figured there was no reason not to hop in line. I’m always a little wary of blindly joining the queue of a ride when I had no way to gauge it, but it was a fairly safe bet that this would be the quietest we’d see it all weekend.
The ride soon came back online, and an announcement confirmed the wait we were anticipating. A big surge joined the queue, and things ahead of us started rolling along. We were under the bridge in just a bit, enjoying the snacks we had lugged with us from San Jose, and could finally spy what we were in for in the interior queue area. Not surprisingly, all of the queue was in use, but we made our way from one building to the next as it moved nicely. There’s a lot to be said for hitting the standby queue before the ride is eligible for Fastpass redemption.
About 45 minutes in, we were just shy of the Fastpass merge point, and with little fanfare, there was another breakdown. We were too far to get any good guess of what the issue was, and the phrase “indefinitely” was used more than “temporarily”. Every several minutes, the same announcement was made, and plenty of people bailed, though mostly behind us, and it was pretty excruciating trying to decide what to do. If nothing else, it was a good sign that we were invited to keep our place in line, and with absolutely no indication one way or another, we ended up staying.
It was easily 30 minutes or so before we could hear the cars leave the station, and soon empty ones zipped along the track. Just moments later, a cheer went up from the station, guests were loaded, and we were back in business. From where we were, there was hardly another 15 minutes to go, and we were grateful to board right on schedule. Even with the breakdown, it was 90 minutes in total, and that’s still