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Disneyland Resort 11/17-11/19 Trip Report (Day 1)

Posted: 12/5/12 at 2:06:22 PM
Views: 4425

***For the few of you that dare endure my extended trip reports, enjoy!***

Trip Report
Disneyland Resort
Anaheim, CA
Saturday, Nov 17th - Monday, Nov 19th, 2012
Weather: 60s, mix of clouds and sun
Crowds: Heavy

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.

Day 1

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 a good bit below what the ride averages, even sans technical difficulties.

Four cars are loaded at a time, and the main queue meets the single rider queue right as groups are assigned to individual cars. With two rows of three, single riders get used quickly, and would be a smart option if only all guests didn’t already know about it. As a threesome, we filled an entire row and were sent to our boarding gate.

Climbing into the vehicle, it’s hard not to feel some serious Test Track deja vu. We were just at Disney World in January, and got some rides in right before its big makeover, all the while wondering how the ride system would be utilized at California Adventure. The setup is completely different, but the execution is remarkably similar - starting with an indoor dark ride portion before shooting outside for a pretty gratuitous show of speed. Still, cars are known to go fast from time to time, so it works fine.

Before hitting the main show building, you meander a bit outside, zipping by some of the queue section you’ve either just slogged through or avoided entirely. The setting gets instantly more scenic as the cars go from desert scrub, under a rock bridge, and comes to the base of a waterfall as the music crescendos. From there, it’s inside (which is still themed as outside, just at night) to Radiator Springs.

A couple close calls with an 18-wheeler, some tourists, and even a train indicate that we may be a little too eager to race. The sheriff, a full size car animatronic, pops out from behind the requisite billboard and tells us to keep our cool. He points us to Mater, who’s to get us ready for the race, but first we get to do some tractor tipping. We escape a bull-themed wheat thresher and see Mater thrown over the moon (keep your eyes peeled for that around the corner), and we’re back in Radiator Springs proper. It’s strange that the ride replicates the very land we just walked through, but we quickly encounter Sarge and Fillmore (i.e., Cheech) and then come to the pre-race split.

Apparently we’ve got some modest preening to do, and your options are new rims or a fresh paint job. We got the latter this time around, slowly slipping through a fine mist in what seems to be a paint shop. We get one last pep talk from Doc Hudson before we inch up to the starting line, greeted by Luigi and Guido, and meet our racing foe. With a simulated rev and screech, we’re off the blocks and back out into the wilderness.

With a couple extended turns and series of camelback hills, it’s a fun sprint, though nothing approaching an intense thrill. It seems to get a good head of momentum, but nothing compared to the real speed run Test Track unabashedly goes after. Still, it’s a rare treat to mix in some physical excitement with the customary animatronic interaction (e.g., Splash Mountain, and few others). The climax is a quick dive underground beneath the on-ride photos, and a nice final hill dropping into the finish line.

You’ll get one more taste of dark ride as you pull back into a taillight-strewn cavern, cheered on by Lightning McQueen and Mater, win or lose (friendship, after all, is the ultimate victory, right?) Back into the loading area, you’ve just put the Disneyland Resort’s most popular ride under your belt.

As for my assessment, well-- it’s really fun. There’s a good level of immersion into the dark ride portion, and there’s no question racing through the canyons is exciting for the whole family. I can’t say I was entirely blown away by either half, and my lukewarm sentiments towards the characters probably have a lot to do with it landing short of a new personal favorite. At the same time, it’s hard to argue that Disney has not done a masterful job bringing this world to life, and for fans of it, and those aiming for a more modest thrill, the ride hits it out of the park. I may never have a desire to wait two hours plus for it, but it’s not remotely surprising to me that seemingly everyone else at the resort does.

Time and time again, we would see how much of a game changer it is for the park, and the resort as a whole, but for now we had the rest of the California Adventure we were already familair with to get to. It was now 10am, and the crowds kept pouring it, so I thought it smart to think about some Fastpasses. Our ultimate destination was the now #2 attraction in the park, Toy Story Mania, so I sent Megan and Steve there, and I swung around the front to catch passes for Soarin’. It was a good sign to see the redemption window not even an hour away, though the standby already looked pretty unpleasant at 40 minutes.

Trying to be efficient, I swung by Grizzly River Run, where the Fastpass machines there still give out tickets for World of Color. With the customary dinner at Blue Bayou already scheduled, we were aiming for the later 9pm showing. Passes were still being distributed for 8pm, so I checked with the cast member and she suggested coming back after lunch. There was almost no threat of passes running out. Either the park was less crowded than I realized, or the nighttime spectacular had lost its novelty. We would have to wait and see.

Putting into practice a tip I recently came across, I picked up a set of California Screamin’ Fastpasses after making my way into Paradise Pier. The secret here is that this ride is not hooked into the rest of the Fastpass system for the park (nor is Radiator Springs Racers, apparently), meaning so long as you don’t currently have one for this ride, you can get it at any time. We were beginning to pile up a pretty decent collection.

It wasn’t a shock to see things busy at Toy Story, though without the queue spilling along the midway, it wasn’t anything we weren’t used to. Posted wait time was 40 minutes, and for the part of it where we weren’t getting Steve up to speed with a strategy guide on YouTube, we were longing for the absurdly more intricate queue that the Orlando version offers.

The wait was just under the estimate, and we split our group up for one of the lamest rides to take an odd-numbered group on. (Surely the only reason there’s no single rider queue is because they don’t have the space to handle it). We figured we’d hit it multiple times, so for this first run, I went with Steve and Megan was on her own. Despite being harder to hit the Easter eggs alone, she had all the targets to herself, and came out on top, by all of 100 points. Even if there can only be one winner, it was a fun and tiring spin for all.

Having caught up to the consistently close redemption window on California Screamin’, we cashed in our first set of Fastpasses, and bypassed a pretty modest standby wait. Still, we were saving time, and using Fastpasses that cost us absolutely nothing. We got the usual exciting ride; it’s nice to be able to get some yelling out on a true roller coaster. Seeing no reason not to, I got some more Fastpasses even with no reason to think we’d get around to using them.

Not too intrigued by any of the peripheral Paradise Pier attractions at the moment, instead we were eager for lunch. In an effort to expand our Disneyland experiences, I had made a list of both new and existing eateries we’d yet to try. Atop the list were the new dining options at the far end of the lagoon. Replacing some pretty generic and lazily-themed eateries, Pizza Ooh-Mow-Mow and Burger Invasion have been replaced by Boardwalk Pizza and Pasta, and Paradise Garden Grill - and the entire section of the park has been made over, now akin to a turn-of-the-century bandstand.

Steve and I went for the grill, which serves Mediterranean, and Megan hit the pasta place. All the meals were big portions of tasty, if not cheap, food. The setting was particularly pleasant underneath terrific shade trees in this noticeably quieter area of the park. A live quartet playing period-perfect jazz was the icing on the cake of one of the better counter service lunch experiences we’ve ever had at a Disney park. It was easily on par with Yak and Yeti at Animal Kingdom and the Kringla Bakeri at Norway in Epcot.

Having enjoyed the first real respite of the already action-packed day, we were back at it to finish up with some of the highlights before heading back to Disneyland. We completed the trip around the lagoon and came upon yet another new-to-us experience, Little Mermaid. I know anticipation was high for years waiting for this to be implemented, but the mediocre reception it’s received since opening had cooled my interest.

Still, any new ride is worth a visit and given an opportunity to impress, and impress the exterior facade certainly does. Akin to a seaside ballroom newly electrified, the likes of which Luna Park was famous for, even in the daylight it’s a pleasing sight and one more of the untouted touches that have transformed this park. Given the tolerable crowds and the ride’s crowd-churning omni-mover ride system, it was predictably a walk-on, though we still savored finally getting a chance to ride.

The clam shells easily fit the three of us, with noticeably more room than our Peter Pan pirate ship. We were greeted by Scuttle and soon under the sea with a moderately clever submersion projection effect. There we heard Ariel serenading and were soon upon her, Flounder, and Sebastian in her treasure trove. The floating and swaying of the entire scene was nice, but embarrassingly short of the all-but-convincing wet-for-dry effect found on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at Tokyo DisneySea.

The “Under the Sea” scene is supposed to be the show-stopper here, and the music and plethora of characters were nice, but never really provided anything awe-inspiringly dynamic. Most notable is Ariel’s hair, which has been swapped from a frozen yogurt swirl to something far more understated. The real highlight is the Ursula animatronic character, with its massive foam and expressive face moving like the animation had jumped off the screen.

It’s pretty much downhill from there, as the “Kiss the Girl” scene fails to evoke much of anything, and the penultimate scene showing Ariel and Eric’s reunion and Ursula’s assumed defeat is as abrupt and under-explained as any ride story I’ve seen. The wedding scene is a nice reunion of all the characters, but it’s likely viewed with a raised eyebrow questioning how we got here so quickly.

Stepping back onto land, I was glad to have my expectations lowered prior to riding, and with those I tried to take away some positives. Really, it’s a nice enough ride. The highlights of the classic film are hit, and the beloved characters make plenty of appearances. Still, there was little we haven’t seen from other dark rides, and overall it seemed like a more middling effort on the part of the Imagineers. Not to say that isn’t worth a minimal wait, but I was walking away not impressed by much beyond the Ursula character.

Thinking ahead once again, we took the path towards the Grand Californian and went to check on the World of Color Fastpass situation. Seeing the 8pm showing still giving its passes away was good to see to gauge the crowds, but inconvenient since we weren’t too eager to hang around here waiting. I went up to a cast member asking if there was any way we could get a pass for 9pm, and she said she had some magic for that. She took our tickets, scanned them, and swapped the 8pm passes the machine spit out for handwritten Fastpasses for the 9pm show. Apparently we weren’t the first guests to be in this situation, and they had already set up a way to handle it.

Finishing our way down the path, and not even remotely interested in a soaking on Grizzly River Run, we decided to re-up our Soarin Fastpasses (we’d be back for World of Color) before turning in the ones we already had. It was a slight gamble because we didn’t have a clear picture of how things were over at Tower of Terror, though my mobile wait-time app said things were bearable via standby there. Alternatively, I can’t remember the last time we didn’t use a Fastpass to visit Soarin’.

We kept that streak going and bypassed a busy, but not absurdly so, standby line. We timed it well, getting sent to one of the theater hallways almost immediately, paused for a single show there, and were then loaded into our boarding gate. The only down side was getting placed in the lowest level and in one of the side sections, but the safety video featuring Patrick Warburton distracted us from dwelling. Despite the less than ideal viewing angle, the score and the expansive screen kept us rapt for a terrific viewing.

Thinking our backup would be Monsters and Bug’s Life if we needed a Fastpass for Tower of Terror, we saw a posted 15 minute wait as we walked via standby directly into the lobby and were into the library pre-show room almost immediately. We camped out near the exit to the basement as Rod Serling and his spot voice double set the scene, and we wound to the front of the loading area right as it ended.

On the ride hardly 10 minutes after joining the queue (it’s not entirely clear if the posted wait time includes both the pre-library and the basement waiting areas), we were taken up the tower and given the ride’s trademark butterflies by the short but dynamic freefalls. It remains a little bummer not having the dark ride scenes the original in Florida offers, but no doubt it’s still a top-notch Disney attraction even without.

Now reunited with Steve (he’s not a fan of freefall rides, no matter how awesomely themed), we tried to continue our good fortune and walk-on Monsters, but we found it offline. Without much else we felt we needed to get to with this visit, we saw no reason not to cash in our Racers Fastpasses. We were beyond the redemption window, but any rumors of that being enforced had yet to surface in practice.

Back into the madness of Cars Land, it was an absolute dream to dive right into the Fastpass queue and effortlessly slip past the standby and the single rider queues that flanked the empty path ahead of us. There was a small pause before we were merged with the standby line, and from there it took the expected 10 minutes to wind up the last few ramps to board.

This time I tried to soak up and notice more of the ride, instead of being overwhelmed with relief at finally getting to ride last time. I really like the flow: the nice warm up outside, the character interaction on the inside, and the satisfying finale speeding across the landscape. We even got to try the alternate race prep, getting new wheels are Luigi’s Tires. The pop of the lifts and the new rims visible with the mirror effect are way more interesting than the fake spray next door.

It was almost hard to believe, but we had spent nearly seven hours in the park and really just scratched the surface. We’d be back later, but we were excited to get back to Disneyland. It wasn’t looking like we’d be taking a break back at the hotel, instead we went for a caffeine stop at the new Fiddler, Fifer & Practical Café just inside the entrance. The newly overhauled setting was another nice upgrade, though the double espresso had the same effect.

As much as we had done, it was hard to believe that we were still shy of the day’s halfway point. With that in mind, there were no regrets having spent such a large chunk of the day here, and we made the quick trip out of California Adventure and into Disneyland. Our drivers licenses were in hand this time, and as a result there was almost no delay getting in.

We had left pretty much the entire park to cover from this morning, but we saw no reason not to get right back into things with a ride on Space Mountain. Half the trip over was just to get a new set of Fastpasses, and we turned in the ones I had gotten at exactly 8:00am for our second spin here. The enjoyment of the ride was only magnified by the fact that we again had the smallest of waits. That, and the ridiculous on-ride photos we never miss a chance to immortalize ourselves with.

Buzz and Star Wars didn’t seem worth their respective waits of 20 and 40 minutes, so we headed into Fantasyland to finish up what we missed in the morning. It was simple enough to take care of Snow White, enduring a reasonably quick wait, touching the brass apple while entering the queue, of course. The scary adventure has a lot to offer, and we relived this classic while partially distracted at having been crammed into a single row. We’d have hit Pinocchio next, but even it was sporting a crowd, so we skipped it, and headed for a dark ride we knew could handle the crowds - Small World.

It was easy enough to work our way back there, mostly in part to droves already lined up for the imminent first pass of the Christmas parade. We got a peek at is as we jumped into the Small World queue, and smartly chose the inside one as the outside was being used as an impromptu viewing area. Once past that, we were able to walk right onto a waiting boat.

We skipped the parade but the Christmas extravaganza was in full force here thanks to its seasonal overlay. Decorations both generic and culturally appropriate were strewn about, seeming to add some variety, if not making the scenery especially more interesting. If nothing else, the Christmas carols mercifully provided occasional relief from the venerable Small World theme song. Either way, there is a lot of Christmas crap everywhere, so if you're after holiday overload, this is the place to go.

What was great timing on the way in could not have worked out worse as we exited. The last float had just past by, heading down towards Matterhorn, but parade watchers seemed to be dumbstruck as those with some intent of getting somewhere (us) were all but blocked by those who apparently never considered the notion that at some point in the future, the parade may end (everyone else). It was wall-to-wall people and we found a particularly nasty bottleneck on the sidewalk in front of the Storybook Canal Boats.

In a world’s first, we were grateful to find some breathing room in Fantasyland proper, and somewhat traumatized we just kept on the way and followed the path into Frontierland. We were empty-handed here in terms of Fastpasses, but we knew even a full standby queue was easy to contend with. Winding underneath the ride’s finale and within earshot of the townsfolk of Rainbow Ridge, there are few queues I’d rather be stuck in.

But as we expected, we were never really stuck, and the line moved smoothly, getting us into the station and aboard the wildest ride in the wilderness in hardly 20 minutes. We pointed out each animal encounter and the remnants of and references to the Nature’s Wonderland train throughout the circuit, and enjoyed our first of what was likely many rides to come.

Still with some time before we needed to worry about our 6pm dinner reservation, we continued along the Rivers of America. Thinking we could hit Pirates right before the meal, we kept along the way, and had absolutely no interest in joining the 40 minute standby wait for Haunted Mansion Holiday. We’d be able to use our next Fastpass window here, but thanks to a busy Space Mountain, it would be several more minutes.

Knowing a great place to kill some time, we made our way into Critter Country, eyed the situation at Splash Mountain (Megan would skip like usual, but I finally had a riding partner in Steve), and walked on Winnie the Pooh. There we gave him the Critter Country history, explaining that the Country Bears he remembers from his childhood now exist only in Tokyo and Orlando. I think he was a little disappointed it was replaced by Pooh, but at least we didn’t have to give up Mr. Toad for it.

I always think this is worth a visit; it is a worthy dark ride after all, and at least on par with the lesser Fantasyland ones. If anything, it’s hard to make a case that Little Mermaid is significantly better than this. Megan and I still long for the amazingly upgraded version Tokyo Disneyland has, but there’s nothing really wrong here, even though we forgot to point out the hidden referential heads of Max, Buff and Melvin .

With our Fastpass window now open, it was an easy call to have Megan to get some for Haunted Mansion while she avoided the run on Splash Mountain. The worst case scenario would have been Steve and I going as single riders, but with darkness and a cool evening beginning to settle in, the standby wait time predictably plummeted, and posted at just 10 minutes, we joined it.

First we stowed our socks and I shared the rest of my wet clothes avoidance techniques as we found the end of the line at the beginning of the hallway that runs down to the station. There were almost no Fastpass redeemers slowing us down, and the short wait was even less than advertised. We got our spots in the log, and I couldn’t ignore that even the best preparations were useless if you get a crummy seat. Typically, the front half gets the brunt of it, as much from splashes over the side from warm-up drops as the final drop.

We were in the last two seats, and save for a little wave at the back of the boat after the big plunge, there wasn’t too much to worry about. Still, I took off my shoes, putting them soles-up on my lap, rolled up my jeans above my knees and put on Megan’s light anorak. It’s times like this that I miss the virtually water-free versions in Florida and Tokyo - not to mention their more comfortable boats and longer, more elaborate scenes and drops, but I still love this ride so very much.

Zipping through all the Song of the South mania, we enjoyed the expressive characters, catchy songs, and exciting drops. Really, the threat of getting wet adds to the excitement, and that literally ratchets up as you climb the deliriously ominous final drop. No Disney ride does a better job of building the anticipation of certain doom.

Of course we survived the plummet, both physically and in terms of wetness. We saw the folks head of us in our log get nailed a few times, but we came out unscathed, and were able to enjoy the show scene finale without having to worry about a soggy evening. Out the exit we put our socks back on and headed back into the heart of the park no worse for wear.

Megan had successfully acquired the Fastpasses for Haunted Mansion, and we caught up with her nearby and made our first stop of the weekend into Adventureland. With Indiana Jones down for a major multi-month overhaul and upgrade, we were certainly missing a headliner and one of our favorites, but it made this part of the park much easier to contend with.

Instead we had to settle for its immediate neighbor, and as we encountered a busy 20 minute wait, we hoped for the best from the nighttime visit to the Jungle Cruise. The queue even took us upstairs, and while I was surprised by having the take the trip up there for the first time, I was even more blown away by exactly how much extra queuing there is.

A ride here can be hit or miss, thanks mostly to how self-loathing your guide is, and how much they’re willing to part from the usual spiel. Even the typical groaners can get stale, so it’s nice to hear at least one or two new ones each trip. This time around our guide enjoyed shaming the natives as they turned downwards resetting for the next group. Not exactly hysterical, but new to us.

It looked like we’d timed things well, with 30 minutes before dinner we had time to get on Pirates, even brave a small wait to do it, and catch our reservation just in time. I’d learned during our last crowded visit that when things are busy here, stick to the righthand queue. It winds much less into the nooks and crannies of New Orleans Square. Unfortunately they were reconfiguring the queue right as we joined, and we weren’t given the choice. Instead of obstinately jumping sides after the fact, we suffered the extra few minutes and savored our situation compared to the parents in line behind us dealing with a child meltdown. It was about that time.

Thanks to the detour, the 20 minute wait was almost spot on, but it was gladly endured for this classic. I let Steve know this is that last attraction Walt himself personally oversaw, and it’s generally considered his crowning achievement even though he never got to ride it himself. Steve had his own nostalgia, and was excited to ride even just as a preview to finally having a meal at the Blue Bayou.

From the fireflies to the banjo, no dark ride sets a mood nearly like Pirates of the Caribbean, and it somehow softens the abrupt transition from the excitement of the Big Easy to the somber and macabre skeleton caverns. This ride is all about iconic scenes, from bones on the beach to a smile in a magnifying glass, and of course the pirate ship, the mayor-dunking, and the bride auction. Not many visions are more likely to pop into your head when you think about Disneyland.

Out the exit and into the side streets of New Orleans Square, it was just a few steps to check in next door at the Blue Bayou. I couldn’t help chuckle at the couple ahead of me at the host stand who asked how long it would be for a table for two. Of course the hostess was nice about being booked for the night, but I’m sure she wanted to say “try tomorrow.” Maybe it was their first time at Disneyland.

Our reservation was easily found, and Steve and Megan joined the crowded lobby, and I took a quick trip to Frontierland to snag some Thunder Mountain Fastpasses. There really wasn’t much else to go after, especially considering we already had a set for Space Mountain. I was there and back in a few minutes, and shockingly soon after that we were called to our table. It was easily the shortest wait we’ve ever encountered there, especially surprising considering how busy the waiting area was.

Pleased with our good fortune, we hoped it would continue with a nice table. We were off towards the left, underneath the tree and its lanterns, and several rows back from the water. It wasn’t the best seat in the house, but at least we weren’t stuck in a corner or just outside the kitchen. This restaurant is all about the ambiance and it’s nice to have a good spot to soak it up.

The visit on our first night has really caught on as a wonderful tradition, and it gives us a great chance to reflect on a day well spent while savoring the excitement of a lot more time ahead. Up to this point, our first days are always such a whirlwind, this often ends up as the first real opportunity to pause, savor the moment, and let it hit you that you’re at the alleged happiest place on earth.

The food is almost an afterthought, but still enjoyable. I’ve become a real fan of the gumbo to start, and I enjoyed my roasted steak, and Megan had the crab cakes. Steve was open to suggestion, and I recommend the signature short ribs. He seemed pleased enough with the entree, and more than happy to finally be dining at that restaurant in Pirates of the Caribbean.

We skipped coffee and dessert, having each gotten another caffeine fix with multiple rounds of Cokes, and were reminded how much money is saved when you’re not ordering drinks with dinner. I’m not sure that the price of the meal is entirely worth it on the quality of food alone, but it’s easily worth it for the wonderful setting and to keep the tradition alive.

Once we left our table and were back out into the park, there wasn’t much time to dwell. We didn’t need to camp out for World of Color hours in advance, so we tried to squeeze in a couple attractions here at Disneyland before making another hop back to California Adventure. Since we were pretty much right there, we finally took our turn on Haunted Mansion Holiday, via Fastpass of course.

Not that the regular version of this attraction isn’t a consistent favorite, but the crowds seem to go crazy for the Nightmare Before Christmas takeover of the classic spook house. I have generally mixed feelings about it, as I enjoy the Tim Burton creation, and the overlay is certainly well-executed - but its theme and music and props aren’t what is etched into my brain when it comes to the Haunted Mansion.

It’s still enjoyable, and worth a visit a couple times over, but I just think there’s something wrong with waiting upwards of 30 minutes for it. Instead we were able to hit it with our Fastpasses, and that sent us on a direct shot from the front gates to the front doors. It was, of course, absolutely mobbed, but we squeezed in and tried to position ourselves well for the stretching room. Inside this iconic pre-show, the change is fun, but it’s hard not to miss the traditional paintings and our friend the Ghost Host.

We met a massive crowd filling the loading area right back to our elevator (remember, yes, the room here at Disneyland-- and nowhere else--serves as an elevator), but soon squeezed down and made our way onto the moving loading platform. We also squeezed the three of us into a single doom buggy, which could have been a little more spacious for our tastes. Passing by all sorts of black-light glowing tricks and treats, I appreciated what is a commendable effort, but still itched for the original.

It was still short of 8pm, so we had time for a couple more attractions. Seeing as darkness had properly fallen, it was a good chance to visit a few of our favorite nighttime experiences. Atop that list is Thunder Mountain, where we conveniently held Fastpasses, and were sure to get some more before joining the queue. It was a straight shot to essentially the front of the line, and we whipped and whisked through the wilderness with a cooling breeze.

Around the back of the mountain, we were right into Fantasyland, and aimed for a spin on the ever-glowing Tea Cups. Alas we found it closed, and when we spotted Alice down as well, we guessed that they were clearing the area for the nightly fireworks. Instead we took the hint and made the trek out of the park and to California Adventure. In the gates and around the corner to Monster’s, Inc. we felt a little snakebitten as it was again closed, and no fireworks could be blamed here.

Knowing we could come back here pretty much any time over the next couple days, we substituted it with cashing in those Soarin’ Fastpasses I somewhat speculatively got earlier in the day. There wasn’t much of a standby line to cut, but better safe than sorry. Once again we were saddled with a crummy row, but even a bad spot on this is better than the best seats on pretty much any other simulator.

We were right on schedule to join the waiting area for the second show. If you’re seeing the first showing, you’re free to stake out a spot pretty much an hour or so in advance. If you’re seeing the second (or, in some cases, third), you’re sent to a holding area where the entire group moves as a line into the assigned spot once it’s cleared from the previous show.

As we rounded the corner approaching Little Mermaid, the finale of the 8pm showing came into full view. It definitely amped us up, and hopefully didn’t ruin the surprise too much for Steve, who was making his first viewing. As the frenzy came to a head, we were rather close to our meeting area right next to Jumping Jellyfish, and we joined the wonderfully tiny group just after the lights came up.

We spent half the 30 minutes in this spot, with the line only modestly growing behind us. The upside to this setup is that you don’t have to stake out a spot over an hour in advance. The downside is that once the group is let loose, it’s a free-for-all to stake your claim. We’re not super familiar with what are and aren’t prime spots, and it’s tricky to get oriented amid the confusion. Our general guiding principle was to aim for the middle, go at least one section up from the water, and if nothing else, get to a railing at the front of a tier. The pitch of the viewing area is far too flat, and that last goal is easily the most important.

With 15 minutes to showtime, the line moved as one and we were guided by crowd control cast members on both sides. There was an unceremonious, “Ok, go.” when we arrived, and the spot we first aimed for seemed to have a speaker tower in the center of the view. Fortunately the crowd wasn’t so bad, and we slipped down the railing a bit more and put what we guessed was the center between two towers. As we’ve come to assume, there’s no such thing as a perfect view, and it’s probably best to try different areas to get a different perspective. This is probably the closest we’ve ever gotten to the water, so we would see how that worked.

It was a quick wait till showtime, and soon it was underway. As it began, we started getting a good mist on us, and it was hard to tell if they sky had finally opened up, or if it was the result of the closer position. It was easy to ignore, and the show did its thing. New were the Prep and Landing preview at the beginning, using all of the show’s capabilities and sporting a few familiar voices, as well as the Brave segment. The thumping Gaelic music and rhythmic show effects were entirely hypnotizing.

It was as astounding as we remembered, if not more so. You’re really close to the action here, and what you lose in a wide perspective you get back in proximity. We walked away completely satisfied, and once again impressed with what Disney can do when they go all in on something remarkable.

Being stubborn, we aimed for Monsters, Inc. on the way out. There we found it momentarily closed and paused for a bit as we took in the Mad T Party shaking the entire courtyard. It seemed an odd place for it, but this section of the park is nothing if not awkward already. Monsters came back online shortly, and we were happy to escape the rattling bass once in the ride building.

Able to walk right on, we took our trip to Monstropolis, glad to finally get it after trying multiple times throughout the day. The ride isn’t especially heralded, but it’s a favorite of ours and probably a little underrated in our eyes. We enjoyed the engaging story and the plethora of small touches, and after avoiding Roz’s judgement at the finale, we agreed that it remains ahead of Little Mermaid as the best dark ride in the park.

Having let the post-World of Color surge pass us, things were relatively calm making this, our fourth and final hop of the day. There’s no question that was a bit excessive, and all the walking was beginning to catch up to us. At the same time, we kept in mind how light these last two hours promised to be, and entered Disneyland against the grain for one final loop.

Working clockwise from Frontierland seemed the most efficient, so we used those Thunder Mountain Fastpasses, passing a shrinking standby line, and logged our third circuit of the day. It woke us up enough to spend some energy back on the Teacups, filling in what we had missed just a couple hours prior. Steve was fading fast, and sat this one out, so we got back into the coaster action with our first run on Matterhorn.

It was our chance to check out the new trains and station configuration, and it was a nice switch not to have to specify two singles, as now everyone gets their own seat. The end of the line started just inside each of the stations, and we were testing the new setup in just a couple minutes.

It was shades of the trains that run on Space Mountain in Florida, but these lacked what is some pretty critical padding. Unfortunately the rides also share a similar level of jostling, and being stuck in the second car more than cancelled out the fact that we had opted for the less intense Fantasyland side. It’s a classic ride that’s surely nostalgic for so many, but until they smooth this thing out, it’s not going to be something I crave to ride.

For Steve’s last hurrah, we spent our last Fastpasses and rode Space Mountain. The end of the night wait was still somehow posted at an hour, but the crowd on the terrace looked barely half that. Either way, we didn’t have to worry about it, and we were down into the mountain and off into space for a third and final time. Our rather fitting pose of “The Sleeper”, where everyone feigns naptime was lost thanks to malfunctioning cameras. We had no energy left to lament it.

That was it for Steve, and we pointed him in the general direction of the hotel. We took the last hour as an opportunity to fill in the rest of Tomorrowland, first with Finding Nemo. It would have literally been walk-on if a woman and her kid didn’t cut past us and the cast member as we were being assigned the spots they ended up usurping. The cast member did little more than shrug at our misfortune when we rightfully complained, and we were stuck waiting for the next set of subs. It may have only cost us five minutes, but after the long day, the brazen rule-breaking was really irksome.

We settled into our submersible and the calming undersea adventure helped wash the ire away. Catching this at the end of the night seems the smart move, as without the kid-fed frenzy, it’s mostly quite enjoyable. Take or leave the Nemo universe, but it’s nostalgic to be in the subs and the theme does remind us of our time in Australia. Sadly the climactic volcano scene was not functioning, but having ridden plenty of times, we knew what we were missing. As the ship docked, the lovely instrumental version of Beyond the Sea played and we were soon back up on the surface.

It was now quarter till, and we slipped in a quick round on Buzz Lightyear, filing without interruption from the queue entrance to the loading platform. The scenery is nice and we do enjoy the Toy Story characters, but it’s hard to consider this ride especially re-rideable after what Toy Story Mania as done for on-ride shooting. We did amass respectable scores, but failed to immortalize them because of the crowded photo email area. So that’s where everyone was.

Lastly, in what felt strange to end things on, was Star Tours. We’d managed to experience the upgrade in Orlando earlier in the year, so we weren’t entirely clamoring to get on. Still, it was now way more intriguing than it had been for several years now, and its resurgent popularity made this the perfect time to ride.

We found a tolerable crowd that kept it from being walk on, but we were through the nicely detailed queue, given our 3D glasses, and lined up for a Star Speeder in less than 10 minutes. The whole passenger travel theme gone awry still holds strong, and the sharp new video and plotline alternatives have done a nice job at making this worth riding again. I wouldn’t say it’s worth the wait at its peak, but at this time of night, we wouldn’t turn it down.

Exiting through the Star Trader store, it was now officially morning, and we were scheduled to be back in action and in the parks in less than eight hours. There was no way we would be skipping the break next day, and we also had yet to catch up with our friends David and Katie. We might have been able to do so this evening if my cell phone hadn’t died, but we had another day full of fun to coordinate tomorrow.

All things considered, it ended up being a pretty bearable day, crowd-wise. Our suspicion was that with most of the season passes blocked out on this pre-holiday Saturday, things were not as bad as they could have been. Unfortunately the blackouts would end over the next two days, and we’d have to be just as shrewd as we were today to handle what could be some absurd crowds, at least compared to what we were used to.

At the moment though, that was the last thing on our mind, and we were so happy to be able to make such an easy trek out of the park and to our hotel, without needing a bus shuttle or a train ride to get back to where we were staying. Say what you want at Disneyland being small, but it is mercifully easier to navigate. The alarm was set for 7am, and we all slept right up until it went off.

Coaster Count: 331 (268/63)
Favorite Steel, Wood: Montu, Thunderhead ← Go there! It's good!