Disneyland family holiday: Still the happiest place on earth

Some statements are guaranteed to make you feel old, such a when colleague chuckles and declares, “Hey, that’s something my Mum would say,” or “You went to university in the 80s? I wasn’t even born!” But that’s all Mickey Mouse stuff.

This is the real deal: Disneyland, the original one in Anaheim, California, is turning 60 in a few weeks. Yep, she’s officially a sexagenarian.

This statute of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse statue outside Disneyland. The theme park’s founder died in 1966. Photo: Alamy

Yet for years, we scowled at the “Happiest Place on Earth”, dismissing it more as “Merchandiseland”. Our own family’s boycott broke five years ago, after intense lobbying by a certain pair of small humans. I’m equal parts ashamed and elated that we’ve been there three times in as many years – and love it. Even the most cynical soul is swept up in the magic.

The 60th anniversary celebrations for Disneyland, which opened on July 17, 1955, will run for 18 months, having started with a 24-hour party on May 22, followed by a new parade, Paint the Night, using 1.5 million LED lights. There’s also a new fireworks show, Disneyland Forever, projecting scenes from the movies onto storefronts and Matterhorn Mountain.

Some folks have faces of horror; others are roaring with laughter; at least one has passed out.

Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and the Carthay Circle Theatre have “diamond” exteriors, while the World of Color – Celebration! Tells the Walt Disney story.

Snow White with her little helpers in Main Street. Photo: Disney

Perhaps Pablo Picasso was right: “One starts to get young at the age of 60.” So, is this diamond tarnished, after decades of wear, tear and happiness?

We road tested its facets: the original, Disneyland Park, the newcomer, Disney California Adventure, and Disneyland Resort Hotel.

Disneyland Park

There are already hundreds of people queued at the front gates when we arrive for Extra Magic Hour, the aptly-named early opening for guests at Disneyland hotels.

Old-timers Mickey and Minnie Mouse still have pulling power with the under-10s. 

It’s a tradition to count down the seconds until the gates open, adding to the party atmosphere. We have four-day Park Hopper tickets; the attendant takes our photos so we don’t hand them on. That makes us feel like criminals, but I understand the necessity.

The crowd surges down Main Street USA, a recreation of a Midwest town, to Sleeping Beauty Castle. Pram-pushers scurry through its arches, to Fantasyland and Mickey’s Toontown.  As its name suggests, this is a 1930s cartoon brought to life – quirky for adults, magical for children. Check the guide for when Mickey, Minnie and Goofy make their appearances. When Grace was three, this was the highlight of her visit.

While most of the rides in Fantasyland appeal to kids aged three to eight, some are scary. Pinnochio’s Daring Journey even gave me nightmares. Lighter fare is found on the Mad Tea Party ride, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, and the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, with the latter being a bit lame, if you’ve taken the kids snorkelling.

Rides at Paradise pier at Disneyland. Photo: Disney

Grab a FASTPASS for the popular Peter Pan’s Flight through Neverland, a galaxy of fiber-optics. Once again, the It’s a Small World boat ride makes me cry (“Why can’t we all just get along?”). Fantasyland is also home to Matterhorn Bobsleds, a thrilling rollercoaster in an icy mountain. Fortunately this ride was under repair, so I didn’t have to relive the terror of last time, when I swear I dislocated a shoulder…

Next door is Tomorrowland, terrific for tweens and teens. Star Tours – The Adventure Continues is still sensational, with a life-sized C3PO welcoming you to a 3D, motion-simulated space battle.  The standout, though, remains the busiest ride in the park, Space Mountain. After much cajoling, I strap in for a flight through space, seemingly at warp speed.

You walk (or in my case, stagger) out at the end to see a series of photos taken at the scariest part of the ride. Some folks have faces of horror; others are roaring with laughter; at least one has passed out. Buying the high-resolution photos is expensive, so take a picture of the display on your smart-phone. For younger kids, the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters is fun, firing lasers to defeat the evil Zurg.

Aside from Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, the rest of Cars Land is a tourist trap, selling overpriced food and junky souvenirs. Photo: Disney

On the other side of Central Plaza, Frontierland is somewhat sleepy, as you ride the Mark Twain Riverboat around Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island. For a heart-starter, head to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a medium-speed rollercoaster which wends through an old gold mine. Then get wet on Splash Mountain: the five-metre drop doesn’t disappoint. According to the kids; I was too scared.

The least impressive rides are in New Orleans Square and Adventureland. Pirates of the Caribbean is a slow boat trip through a tale that wouldn’t shiver anybody’s timbers. You’re better off visiting the Haunted Mansion, with its spooky theatrical effects and audio-animatronics.

The Indiana Jones Adventure is as eye-popping as ever, but the queues are huge. Get a FASTPASS, or go while the nighttime show is on. Don’t get me wrong: Fantasmic!, a live stage show featuring pyrotechnics, film projected on fountains, and a 45-foot fire-breathing dragon, is a must-see. The prime position is in front of Pirates of the Caribbean. The following night, sneak onto the rides when the queues are shorter.

Snow White welcomes visitors on Main Street, Disneyland. 

Living the dream: A short history of Disneyland

1955 

After more than 20 years of dreaming and planning, Disneyland Park opened to the world on July 17, 1955. Total attendance on the first day was 28,154. Built at a cost of $17 million, Disneyland offered 18 attractions, ranging from King Arthur Carrousel to Mr Toad’s Wild Ride. After just seven weeks of operation, the park welcomes its one millionth guest.

1959

Disneyland Castle is the enduring image of the theme park for millions of children. Photo: Disney

Four years after opening, Disneyland adds the Matterhorn, a 45-metre-high mountain bobsled adventure, to Fantasyland, and the eight-vessel Submarine Voyage attraction to Tomorrowland. Also in Tomorrowland, the monorail became the western hemisphere’s first complete, daily operating system of its kind.

1966

Disneyland founder Walt Disney dies aged 65, in Burbank, California. His resting place is not in Disneyland itself, but in Glendale, a city in Los Angeles County, California.

1967

Pirates of the Caribbean, an attraction featuring dozens of audio-animatronics characters, is launched in New Orleans Square, evolving into one of the most popular Disney attractions

1977

After two years of construction, Space Mountain opens in Tomorrowland. The high-speed interstellar adventure was relaunched in 2005.

1983

The new Fantasyland is unveiled, featuring a new attraction, Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, as well as enhanced versions of Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Peter Pan’s Flight and Mr Toad’s Wild Ride. Other attractions – Dumbo the Flying Elephant, King Arthur Carrousel and the Mad Tea Party – are spruced up and moved to new locations.

1989

In the park’s newly dubbed Critter Country, the 26.5-metre-tall Splash Mountain opens. The flume attraction takes riders on a journey through swamps and bayous, culminating in a five-storey drop over a waterfall into a briar patch.

1993

As the newest “land” in Disneyland, Mickey’s Toontown features the wacky adventures of Roger Rabbit’s Car-toon Spin and plenty of other adventures for visitors of all ages.

1995

Based on the popular action adventure films created by George Lucas, the Indiana Jones Adventures opens with jungle transports taking visitors on an exciting archeological journey.

2008

Toy Story Mania! is launched at Disney California Adventure park, which opened in 2001 on the same site at the original Disneyland. The ride-through, interactive adventure allows visitors to enter into a high-energy 4D carnival midway hosted by Toy Storycharacters.

2010

World of Color, a night-time spectacular featuring nearly 1200 colourful fountains dancing to animation projected on a water screen the size of a football field, opens at Disney California Adventure Park.

2011

At Disneyland Park, the original Star Tours attraction that opened in 1987 is “reimagined” as Star Tours – The Adventures Continue, featuring more than 50 3D adventures that send voyagers for the first time to Coruscant, Tatooine and other destinations in the Stars Wars galaxy.

2013

At Disneyland Park, Fantasy Faire, a picturesque village square, welcomes visitors to meet Disney’s fairy tale heroes and heroines. Mickey and the Magical Map is a new live stage show in the Fantasyland Theatre, featuring Mickey Mouse in his timeless role as the sorcerer’s apprentice.

2015

Disneyland, now officially known as Disneyland Park and the only one designed and built under the direct supervision of Walt Disney, turns 60 on Friday, July 17, with year-long celebrations throughout 2015 to mark the anniversary.

SOURCE: DISNEY PARKS

California screamin’ and other Disney adventures

Exactly 45 years, six months and 22 days after Walt opened his original theme park, at 8am, Disney California Adventure park opened to the public. The 2001 opening came 10 years after The Walt Disney Company announced that it would develop the Disneyland Resort, a multi-day destination that would include two parks, three hotels and the Downtown Disney entertainment district

If you have kids who are tweens or teens, this is a better experience.  The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror lives up to its name, the haunted lift lurching gut-wrenchingly up and down 13 stories. California Screamin’, one of the park’s original rides, is equally heart-stopping and stomach-dropping, with a high-speed loop-the-loop.

Instead, Grace and I settle for Mickey’s Fun Wheel, expecting it to be sedentary. There are two queues: one for a moving gondola, the other a stable one. Fortunately we choose the latter, as we overhear a Disneyland veteran say, “Better grab the sick bags if you’re in a moving one!”

It’s a lovely view from the top, but avoid this ride if you suffer from vertigo, or are afraid of heights. For young kids, choose The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, the Golden Zephyr, or Jumpin’ Jellyfish. The most popular ride in the park, Radiator Springs Racers, is superbly conceived and executed: at $261 million, it’s the most expensive ride ever built.

After a leisurely drive through the mountains, you finish with a fast-paced duel, where – if you’re Australian – you holler “Bring it on!” to unsuspecting tourists in the other vehicle. Aside from Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, a teacup-like ride, the rest of Cars Land is a tourist trap, selling overpriced food and junky souvenirs.

If you have toddlers, head to A Bug’s Land, where they can go on Flik’s Flyers, Heimlich’s Chew Chew Train, or Tuck & Roll’s Drive ’em Buggies.

On a hot day, you’ll have fun on the Grizzly River Run. There are a few steep drops, but you’re guaranteed to get wet. After consuming their body weight in sugary treats, kids can burn it off on the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail: a junior Survivor without the bug-eating.

Back in Hollywood Land, you’ll find live performances, including For the First Time in Forever – a Frozen Sing-Along Celebration.  As a dedicated journalist, I suffer through the stage show, accompanied by snippets from the movie, amongst the squealing tots.  (Taj says he’d rather “rip his face off” than come with me, which I thought rather cruel.)

It’s pitched perfectly at toddlers, but I could only cope with 15 minutes before I almost ripped my own face off. Believe it or not, you’ll need a FASTPASS for this one. That evening, the water, music and light show World of Color is having problems, stopping halfway through. Regardless, it’s a magnificent spectacle, guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

DISNEYLAND HOTEL

As you would expect, this is one of the best hotels in the world for kids. It ticks all the boxes: a five-minute walk to theme parks; pools with waterslides manned by lifeguards; bedheads which play Disney tunes; floor-to-ceiling windows to see the nightly fireworks. The rooms are large, with two queen beds and one daybed.

But the best bit is the concierge level , which serves breakfast, light lunch and cocktail food, such as veggie sticks, salsa, beef skewers and chicken quesadillas, and dinner. Cast members do magic tricks for the kids, while sharing stories about the Disney legend.

You can pick their brains for insider information on which rides have the longest queues, how to manage your FASTPASSes, and where to get the best view for the shows. Oh, and all drinks are free.  Yes, it costs a little more, but it’s worth every cent. And you don’t have to buy any food in Downtown Disney.  In fact, a room at this resort is extremely good value. The Character Breakfasts – in which Minnie, Goofy, or the Chipmunks are waiters – are pricey, but worth it.

The kids’ buffet has healthy and treaty options, including Dirt and Worms: lolly snakes on a bed of crushed Oreos.  So it seems the grande dame of theme parks is ageing elegantly. The vast majority of shows and rides are running smoothly. The queues aren’t too long, if you use FASTPASS correctly. And there are enough new attractions to keep you coming back.

Five tips for surviving Disneyland

STAY RIGHT THERE

Do book a stay at the Disney hotel for the Extra Magic Hour. Or, buy tickets that include one Magic Morning. Remember: not all rides are open during this time. If you can’t do the magic hour, arrive half an hour before general opening to be near the front of the lines.

BEAT THE QUEUES

Go on your top three rides before the queues become too long. It usually becomes crowded from 11am – and grab your first FASTPASS early, because they can sell out. You can’t get a second FASTPASS on any ride until your first one runs out.

HARD ASK

Ask staff which rides are the hardest to get on. At the time of our visit, it was Radiator Springs Racers and Space Mountain. Be brave! I said “no” to every rollercoaster, until the kids persuaded me to take a chance. It was the best fun I’d had with clothes on.

It may pay to avoid the more extreme rides, such as the Tower of Terror and Splash Mountain, if you have an aversion to that dropping stomach feeling.

PACK MENTALITY

Don’t overpack. All you need is your phone, for calls and photos. There are plenty of water bubblers, and well-priced food outlets. Wear running shoes, as you will cover many kilometres. If you have a hat, pop it in the pouch at the back of the seat on each ride.

The ride stuff

TAJ’S VERDICTS 

California Screamin’: 10/10. This is very, VERY fast. But the loop is not as frightening as I thought.

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror: 7/10. When I went here when I was five, you dropped from 13 storeys. Now the drops are shorter. But still it’s the scariest ride I’ve ever been on, because of the ghostly videos.

Space Mountain: 8/10. Super-fast rollercoaster through space, but not as freaky as it sounds.

Radiator Spring Racers: 9/10. Excellent fun, loud ride where you race someone else. It’s really cool to say, “Suckers!” to the people in the opposite car, heh heh.

Indiana Jones: 5/10. This was suckish. (“Can I say that, Mum?”) It was medium-speed, and a bit scary.

Grizzly River Run: 9/10. I thought this was going to be rubbish, because Mum suggested it. But it was fast and fun. Notice: you WILL get wet.

Star Tours: 4/10. Zero speed. Not scary, but good robots and props.

Jedi Training Academy: 10/10. This is a really fun thing to dress up and do. I did it when I was a little boy. There’s a dark surprise!

Tea Cups: 9/10. You can control the speed of the spin. It’s really gentle.

Dumbo: 7/10. Slow, but kinda fun to fly up and down.

Trip Notes

More information disneyland.disney.go.com

GETTING THERE

Hawaiian Airlines operates regular services to Los Angeles, via Honolulu, from Sydney and Brisbane. Phone 1300 669 106 or seehawaiianairlines.com.au

STAYING THERE

Rooms at Disneyland Hotel start from $429, excluding taxes. The 990-room hotel is a short stroll to both Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park. 1150 West Magic Way, Anaheim. Phone +1 714-778-6600, see disneyland.disney.go.com

The writer was a guest of Disneyland.