Friday, September 2, 2011

Disneyland 2011

My wife and I are huge Disney fans.  We especially love to visit Disneyland in California.  Since we've been married, we've been there four times, twice without the children.  All four times have been wonderful, memorable experiences.  We recently returned home from Disneyland, where we celebrated our wedding anniversary.  I'd like to share a few thoughts about the trip without turning it into a huge travelog. The travelog would be fun for me to put together as I reminisce about the trip.  But I don't suppose it would offer much enjoyment to others.  Instead, I'll try to share a few reviews, tips, and tidbits.

In the past we had always driven from Salt Lake to Anaheim to visit Disneyland.  The trip is somewhat long, but doable in what I consider a full day's worth of travel.  The problem with the drive is that it is so tiring, even for the passengers.  We've been able to make it down to Anaheim just fine.  But the return trip almost always required at least one lengthy stop, usually around St. George, to get some rest in order to continue safely home.
This time around, since it was just the two of us, we decided to fly to California.  Fortunately, I had been doing some travel for work lately, so I had some frequent flier miles to help pay for the tickets.  The total cost ended up being just a little bit more than what we would have paid for gasoline.  We probably ended up saving money, since we didn't need to buy snacks and meals along the way.  And we definitely saved a ton of time: the flight itself is only about 90 minutes or so.
We flew through the closest airport to Disneyland.  It has quite a few names: John Wayne, Orange County, Santa Ana, and SNA.  I think that's kind of confusing, since no two people seem to use the same name for it.  But it was a nice, smallish airport, and only about a half hour from the resort.
We planned on only visiting the Disneyland Resort.  So we didn't need a car while we were there.
This is the bus we took between the resort and the airport:
We used the Disneyland Resort Express to travel to and from the airport.  This is a "motorcoach" service (just a big bus) run by Gray Lines with Disneyland Resort-themed buses to ride it.  It was a fun, and somewhat affordable way to travel.   With just the two of us, it cost far less than what a taxi would have cost.  If we were to do it again, I think we'd travel with them again.  However, the cost for the  whole family would have been quite a bit more, since they charge per seat rather than per group like a taxi would.

This time around we stayed at Disney's Paradise Pier Hotel.  This is the least expensive of the three hotels at the resort.  We've now stayed at all three of the resort's hotels, as well as off the resort.  For affordability, definitely steer clear of the resort hotels.  But for extra fun and convenience, as well as a few extra perks, it's tough to beat the resort hotels.  The Grand Californian is definitely the nicest and most convenient.  But the Paradise Pier is quite a bit less expensive, and really not that much less convenient.  When we save up enough pennies to go back, I think we'll be returning to the Paradise Pier.
Here's a picture from the Paradise Pier Hotel lobby:
Guests at the resort hotels get to use the exclusive entrance to the Disney California Adventure park.  That is a somewhat nice benefit, and allows you to enter the park an hour early to go on the one or two rides they have open early. Ariel's Undersea Adventure and Soarin' Over California were open, but Soarin' had technical problems and closed right as we were about to board. You can also use that time to get a FastPass ticket for "preferred seating" for the World of Color show at DCA.  But frankly, this benefit isn't all that it's made out to be.  DCA really isn't where it's at.  In my opinion, Disneyland is still the better park.  And this entrance doesn't get you into Disneyland.  Also, since the hours at DCA are much shorter, it isn't even a good shortcut between Disneyland and the hotels at the end of the day.
Guests at the resort hotels also get early admission to Disneyland.  While DCA only has one or two attractions open, Disneyland has several attractions open in Fantasyland and Tomorrowland.  We took advantage of our early admission to get on Star Tours with virtually no line, and then we rode on Space Mountain several times in a row without any line.  Now that was cool!
This summer, the resort also gave guests at the resort hotel some extra FastPasses.  That was a convenient way to get on some of our favorite rides even quicker.

As selfish as it may sound, we loved visiting the parks without any children. We would love to take the children back there.  But we have decided that we will wait at least until our youngest is tall enough to ride on Splash Mountain, our favorite attraction.  Without the little ones in tow, we were able to ride on all of the "big kid" rides we wanted.  We especially enjoyed Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and California Screamin'.  I also really liked Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters and Toy Story Midway Mania.  Those are fun interactive attractions with a neat competitive element to them.
Riding Splash Mountain:

The new attractions this year were an upgraded Star Tours in Tomorrowland, and Ariel's Undersea Adventure in DCA's Paradise Pier.  Star Tours is still mostly the same familiar simulation ride as before. But they have updated the story line to include C3PO and R2D2, as well as elements from some of the new and old movies.  It is also randomized, so the experience changes from one ride to the next, and it is now in 3D.  I'd say it is quite improved from before.  But to me, it is still not worth the long times that most people spend waiting to ride it.  It's one of those rides that is best enjoyed with a FastPass to avoid waiting in line.  But it is still so popular, that even the FastPasses run out pretty quickly in the day.  I didn't even realize that was possible!
The Ariel's Undersea Adventure is a ride somewhat similar to the various indoor rides in Fantasyland.  You sit in your own clam shell vehicle and travel through the story of The Little Mermaid movie.  It is really cute.  And compared to the similar style of attractions in Fantasyland, I think it is more nicely done.  However, unless you really like that genre of attraction, or The Little Mermaid in particular, I don't think it is really worth the long waits that it might still be demanding.

I think one of the trickiest parts about planning for a visit to Disneyland is the choice of footwear.  We both chose comfortable sneakers to wear.  But we still ended up with sore feat after all that walking!  Also, we got wetter than ever before on Splash Mountain this trip.  Soggy sneakers are not pleasant to walk in at all! :( For that ride in particular, my wife thought it would have been better to have been wearing a very comfortable pair of flip-flops.  Oh well, lesson learned!

This time around we went to the resort at the end of August.  It was still the busy summer season.  But it appeared as though the crowds were waning for the summer as many schools likely has already started their new school year.  So we really didn't have extremely long waits in line. The worst was definitely Star Tours, which usually had 45-60 minute wait times.
In years past, we have found that the best time for us to visit was during November, but still well before Thanksgiving.  That's a fun time to visit to see the park while it's decorated for Christmas.  But the crowds are really low. We enjoyed going on many of our favorite rides with very little wait time.  Too bad our elementary school is no longer on a year-round calendar. :(

Since this was a special anniversary trip, I decided to recruit the help of Mickey and Minnie to provide a special surprise gift for my wife.  I requested the "From Mickey and Minnie, With Love" gift package.  This is available only to resort hotel guests.  It includes special room decorations, including fresh rose petals and castle- and pumpkin coach-shaped confetti.  It comes with a nice box of chocolates, two chocolate roses, two custom-embroidered bath robes, and a spa gift basket.  Oh boy, was it nice!  And it was a very pleasant surprise for my gorgeous wife!  Yes, it cost a pretty penny.  But I really thought it was wonderfully done and a very fun way to add to our celebration.  I think I would recommend it to others.  When I was researching it, sadly I was unable to come across any pictures or detailed descriptions of it online.  That was frustrating and made me nervous about whether or not it would be worth the extra expense.  I'm so glad it all turned out so well in the end.
For the benefit of others that may be considering this gift package, here are some photographs. The "beach ball" is actually a pillow that is a normal part of the room decor at the Paradise Pier Hotel, and not a part of the extra decorations.

While we were there without the kids, I noticed all the other children around us with the expensive light-up toys that the park sells in the evening.  One family caught my attention in particular.  Instead of buying the expensive electronic toys to appease whiny kids, they came prepared with their own snap, shake and light-up bracelets.  They connected them together for bracelets and necklaces for their kids.  I thought that was a very clever way to avoid the cost of the in-park gifts, but still let the kids have some shiny night-time fun.
Gifts at the park can be quite a lot of money.  This time around, to save us a little bit of money, we purchased some of our "souvenirs" weeks beforehand at a more affordable store.  They were cute Disney-themed items that were still appropriate gifts to take back home.  These types of things may not be the same as the sometimes unique things that might only be available at the parks.  But the significantly smaller prices still makes it a nice way to afford something special to share with loved ones back home.  I've even read about others who will buy all of their souvenirs beforehand to give to their children there at the park instead visiting the shops.  One post I read online even described sneaking up to their hotel room before the rest of the family to plant gifts and decorations as a surprise.  Those sound like really clever cost-saving tricks to me.

Unfortunately, we all need to take a break from the good times and nourish our bodies once in a while.  This trip we breakfasted at Jamba Juice one day, and at the hotel the next.  For lunch, we shared a gigantic turkey leg.  Yummy!  And since it was plenty big enough to share, it was somewhat affordable.
For dinner our first night, we ate at the Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue. Boy that was yummy.  It was all-you-care-to-eat barbecue ribs, chicken and sausage, along with as much corn on the cob, corn bread, cole slaw, and baked beans as you can eat.  It's served family-style and accompanied by live entertainment.  That was a surprisingly delicious meal and one that I would recommend.
Here's our Mickey-shaped flour-less chocolate cake we shared for dessert:

The next night, we enjoyed a romantic candlelit dinner at the water's edge of the Blue Bayou restaurant.  The Blue Bayou is one of my favorite restaurants anywhere.  I love the Cajun-style menu items and the intimate atmosphere in the same large open space where Pirates of the Caribbean boats go floating quietly by.  One of the new things I tried this time was a virgin Mint Julep drink.  It was really delicious and quite refreshing. But the strong minty flavor probably wasn't the best complement to the spices of the Cajun food we were eating.  We didn't order dessert. But since our server knew we were there celebrating our anniversary, she surprised us with a complimentary chocolate mousse treat, complete with a lit candle.  How sweet!
Dinner at the Blue Bayou:

Later we did take a moment to get another sweet treat.  This time is was a Dole Whip Float from the Dole snack bar at the Tiki Room.  Apparently this is a famous and popular treat, one that we hadn't paid much attention to before.  It was quite good and refreshing.  But the lines for it are often longer than I think is worth.

I think the shows at Disneyland are just as entertaining as the ride attractions.  But not all their shows are as interesting to me as some.  For example, I do like the fireworks, but I don't care for the parades.  The shows are a good chance to take a break and relax. But without the kids, this trip we favored going on the attractions more than stopping to watch shows.  Se we watched the fireworks from Splash Mountain instead of Main Street. We did watch Fantasmic at the Rivers of America.  That has been one of my favorite shows since I first watched it when I went to Disneyland with three of my great friends as seniors in high school.  But lately, the rage as been all about "World of Color" in Disney's California Adventure park.  We went to that show last time with all our family.  Frankly, I thought it wasn't worth it at all.  Even though we had "preferred seating," viewing the show over everyone's heads was a horrible inconvenience.  It was late, and the kids were all tired out.  The only way they could see was by getting on our shoulders.  That didn't work very well for two tired parents to take turns holding up four tired children.  And that show is far too long in my opinion.  Frankly, if you want to see a great a show at Disneyland, watch Fantasmic.  It contains some of the same types of water visual effects as World of Color.  But it also has a better story line and includes live actors and pyrotechnics that you don't get in World of Color.
Here's a shot I took of the Fantasmic show:

The End
One last thing: does anyone know how to get a legitimate copy of the apparently banned movie Song of the South? I understand it has some elements that may be offensive to some people.  That's too bad, because it still seems to be a cultural treasure that I would really like to view.  And Brer Rabbit is my wife's favorite!

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