A Winter Getaway to Disneyland

Feb 15, 2019

When I was a little girl, my family started a Disneyland savings jar. We taped a picture of Mickey Mouse to the front, and each time we received our allowances, we had the option of contributing a portion of it to the Disneyland fund.

But the nickels and dimes added up very slowly, and after a few months, we realized that while we were still far away from the amount it would take for Disneyland, we had enough saved to go to our favorite little amusement park just a few hours from our house, Santa's Workshop. (Plus, my parents convinced us that we would have a lot more fun at Santa's Workshop because we could ride all of the rides as many times as we wanted to whereas at Disneyland we would spend half our time in lines.) We raided the jar, had a grand time at Santa's Workshop, and, as I recall, never mentioned Disneyland again.

When Mike and I started our tradition of traveling to a warm destination each January, we always knew one of those trips would be to Disneyland. Unlike me, Mike had been to Disneyland as a kid, but just once for a day when he was ten years old. Although neither of us had a nostalgic history with the park, we still wanted to experience it with our kids. It has become something of a childhood rite of passage in America.

With Aaron approaching adolescence, it felt a little like our time was running out. Not that he couldn't enjoy it when he was older, but at ten years old, there was no question that he was still very much a kid, and we wanted him to be able to experience the magic of Disneyland with that childlike wonder still intact.

So we started planning. (Clarification: Mike planned; I offered feedback.) We booked a condo just west of the park back in June and then sat on the secret for months, never telling our kids about our January plans until we surprised them with it on Christmas morning. (We sent them on a treasure hunt which ended outside at an inflatable Mickey Mouse, and Aaron was more incredulous that we would buy an inflatable than that we would go to Disneyland.) (Fact: We didn't buy an inflatable, but borrowed it for this purpose.)

As the trip loomed closer, Mike's excitement grew at the same rate as my anxiety. He walked me through the map, showing me all of the things we would do, but all I could see were the long lines, the whiny children, and the crowds. I resigned myself to this being something I would grit my teeth through and endure for my kids, but it was not going to be the relaxing vacation of my dreams. Still, it would be a chance to get out of cold, smoggy Utah, so I was grateful for that.

Fast forward to our fifth and final day in the park. One by one, each member of the family said, "That was fun, but I'm ready to go" until Aaron and I were the only ones left standing.

The short version? I loved Disneyland.

I loved it when I did not expect to. It worked its magic on me, and I was under its spell before I knew what was happening. At the beginning of the trip, I told myself we would go now and then maybe again in eight years when Ian is Aaron's age. At the end of the trip, I was looking up the price for annual passes. That's how complete my revolution was.

The long version? Keep reading for some of the highlights, surprises, and memories.

Main Street USA
When I was a little girl, my family had a collection of Disney singalongs--short videos featuring the songs (and words) of some of Disney's most popular movies. One of them was themed around Disneyland with each song showcasing a different part of the park. I can remember watching the song with the parade down Main Street and imagining about what it would be like to be there. So maybe that is why walking under the archway and onto Main Street was like taking a page right out of my dreams. I was there! And it looked just like it did in 1992: The brick laid street and the charming storefronts with Sleeping Beauty's castle sparkling at the end. I think that was maybe my first inclination that I might actually like Disneyland. And now that we're home, the memory of stepping out onto that well-known street is one of my most beloved of the entire trip.

A third adult
A few weeks before our trip, Mike had the genius idea to invite my little sister, Angela, to go with us. She is probably my kids' favorite aunt (and they have a lot) because she's just so fun and knows just the right things to do to keep them entertained and happy. I don't think there's anyway to measure the help she gave us, but we had some indication of how truly vast it was after we dropped her off at the end of our trip. Bradley and Clark immediately started fighting, and Mike and I turned to each other and said, "This could have been going on our entire trip." Instead, I don't remember hearing those two fight even one time in the car because Angela was sandwiched right in the middle of them (probably the worst seat in the van!) and provided a (fun, entertaining) buffer. I thought she might get sick of us by the end; she probably was, but she never showed it. She was sweet and patient and wonderful for all nine days, and our trip would have been a lot less fun and a lot more miserable without her.

Being brave
Before our trip, I decided I was going to ride ALL of the rides at Disneyland, or rather, I wasn't going to turn down riding something because it scared me. I wasn't going to finally get to go to Disneyland and not ride Space Mountain or Splash Mountain or any of the other rides I'd heard people talk about my entire life. I was going to grit my teeth, hold on tight, and scream my way through all of them. (P.S. I know Disneyland's "big" rides aren't that crazy compared to other theme parks, but I am not very adventurous, so this was a big deal for me.) Overall, it was so fun to prove myself a fun mom to my kids, and they loved seeing my nervousness and telling me there was nothing to worry about. I  rode Guardians of the Galaxy (aka, Tower of Terror) with Mike (thanks, Angela!), and before we got on the ride, I said something like, "I don't understand what's taking so long. Don't you just go to the top and then drop down?" And Mike said, "Sure, let's go with that." That was the only ride where my scream was cut off mid-drop, snuffed out like a candle. I don't know if we were plummeting so fast it was left behind or if I was just too scared to let it out. Either way, I was glad when that one was over and I could check it off my list and not go back. (But our worst ride experience was probably the Haunted Mansion. We got stuck on it for ten minutes, and Ian literally went psycho and screamed his head off (not because he was scared, but he was extremely tired and did not want to go on the ride in the first place, let alone get stuck on it). I wondered, At what point does an employee come and rescue you? Because I think we were almost to that point.)

The rain
Out of our five days at Disneyland, four of them were rainy. And it was maybe the best thing that could have happened to us. The first day was a little rough because we actually thought it wasn't going to rain, and then it did, so we were a bit unprepared. (And then we lost half of our tickets and had to wait in a long line in the steady rain at City Hall to get them reprinted. That was a low point.) But we went back to our condo in the middle of the day to dry off and get warm, and from that point on, we totally embraced the rain. We all wore big blue ponchos and called ourselves the "Blue Crew." I would take rain over crowds any day, so it was an acceptable trade.

Short lines
Some people had told us that Disneyland in January is a "ghost town," and while I think we might have different definitions of "ghost town," it is true that we weren't being crushed by people, and I didn't worry about my kids being trampled by the masses. There were many rides we could just walk onto, no waiting at all. We did utilize fast passes, but sometimes,  it wasn't even worth it to get one because the standby line was so short. Bradley was able to ride the IncrediCoaster three times in less than forty minutes because of the short lines, and on our last morning there, Mike took the big kids on Space Mountain, the Matterhorn, and Star Tours in a half hour time span. That's not to say we never waited in a line. For example, Radiator Springs Racers kept closing because of the rain, so the kids and I just stood our ground in the standby line, hoping to get in, and 75 minutes later, we did. But overall, we didn't spend the majority of our time standing in 90-minute lines for two-minute rides, and that is what I was envisioning before we got there, so I was grateful to be wrong. In fact, I don't know that I could ever go to Disneyland at another time of year because we were so spoiled in the middle of January in the rain.

One of the best decisions we made was to make a restaurant reservation each day we were at the park. It was so nice to have a place that was waiting just for us, especially when it was raining and we needed a little dry reprieve. The restaurants we went to got progressively fancier and more delicious (and more expensive) as the week went on. We went to Carnation Cafe (nothing special, similar to a Denny's), Wine Country Trattoria (standard Italian fare), Cafe Orleans (the best fries and beignets I've ever eaten, plus I actually loved the divisive Monte Cristo sandwich), and Carthay Circle (I'm still dreaming about the fried biscuits). Although we definitely took the more expensive route, I loved it because it gave our kids a refined experience with food they couldn't have anywhere else. We could never walk into a restaurant as nice as Carthay Circle with five kids without getting met with cold stares. But there, we were greeted warmly. They expected kids and didn't frown at the noise or the mess that comes with them. But at the same time, our kids recognized that we were in a nice place and that better manners than usual were required. They learned how to order from a menu and try new foods and wait patiently until everyone was done. It was something I never even thought of before we went to Disneyland, but I'm glad we made the decision we did and gave this experience to our kids (and ate a lot of yummy food in the process). On our last day, we didn't make a reservation anywhere because we wanted to hop around and try all of the classic Disney foods: churros, Dole Whips, mint juleps, raspberry Mickey macarons, the gray stuff, beignets (but the ones from Cafe Orleans were so much better), and grilled cheese and tomato soup from Jolly Holiday.  I know we didn't try everything (that's why we have to go back), but we made a good effort. Food will always be a big deal to us when we travel, and Disneyland did not disappoint.

Animation Studio
One of our pro-Disneyland friends recommended the animation studio at California Adventure. On a rainy afternoon, in need of a dry place, we decided to give it a try. And then we went back two more times. And honestly, if we'd had another day at California Adventure, we would have done it again. An actual animator walks you through the steps, and we learned how to draw Daisy Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Tigger. It was probably my kids' favorite non-ride thing we did. (Side note: This photo makes it look like no one else was there, but I took this at the end of the class, after everyone else had left.) (Second side note: Turtle Talk with Crush, which was in the same building, was also really fun.)

We took full advantage of the wide array of shows because they were somewhere to dry off in the middle of the day (are you noticing a theme here?). The morning we saw Frozen was especially needed because we were all feeling pretty soggy, and it literally poured while we were in the theater. It felt so good to take off our wet ponchos and shoes, munch on some warm popcorn, and watch a spectacular re-creation of the movie. And by the time it was over, the rain had slowed down, and we were ready to tackle the rides again. We also enjoyed the storytelling versions of Tangled and Beauty and the Beast and also Mickey and the Magical Map and Fantasmic.

Cars Land
If Main Street was the place where I felt transported to another time and place at Disneyland, Cars Land was the equivalent at California Adventure. We crossed the threshold and all of a sudden, it was as if we were in the movie: the Cozy Cone Motel, the one blinking traffic light, the statue of Stanley outside the fire station--it was all there, vibrant and life-size. The Radiator Springs Racers ride continued with that feeling because we didn't just feel like we were spectators (like we did on so many of the other themed rides that took us through scenes from the movies), but it seemed like we were actually a character in the plot.

When people go to Disneyland, they always post a million pictures of themselves with various Disney characters, and I always thought it was so silly because I could have cared less about seeing them posing with a person in a mask. But that was before I saw Ian with the characters, and then I totally succumbed to its charm. He was so cute! Even though he didn't have any idea who Pluto or Eeyore was, he still ran over and gave them giant hugs and big high fives. So here are a few pictures of Clark and Ian with some characters, and I'm sorry for all of the times I've made fun of you for posting similar ones. I get it now.

Tour rides
My kids called them tour rides--you know the ones where you sit in a little vehicle of some sort and take a "tour" through the scenes of a movie? My big kids turned up their noses at them (although they were still good sports and rode a bunch of them), but I  was so grateful for them because Ian was able to ride almost all of them, he and Clark loved them, and we usually didn't have to wait in any lines.

A night out
We were hardcore on our first day at Disneyland and stayed until 10:00pm because we wanted to see the fireworks. But on the other nights, I went back to our condo with my sister and most of the boys, and Mike stayed with one of them for a special night out where they got to do whatever they wanted without having to coordinate with the whole group. For Bradley, that meant riding Star Tours over and over again until he was chosen as the rebel spy. I even got my own night out on our day off from Disneyland. Our friends, the Gardners, were in California the same week as us, and so we hung out with them on Thursday. That evening, we left eight of the kids with Angela, and Mike and I took Ian and went out to eat with James and Kathy.

Beach time
In addition to our time at Disneyland, we also went to three different beaches during the course of our vacation: Laguna Beach, where the boys jumped over waves and got soaking wet; Little Corona del Mar, where we explored tide pools and watched the sun set; and Balboa Bay, where the boys biked down the boardwalk with the Gardners and ate Balboa bars (and that place literally was a ghost town). Each place was different, and the laid back pace perfectly countered our high energy on the other days.

After it was all said and done, we all had our favorite rides and favorite foods and favorite activities. Part of the luxury of going for five days was that we could identify what those favorites were for each of us and do them again, locking them into our memory forever.

One of the things that felt most important for me to do was ride the teacups. That's because I associate that ride with Mike's sister, Alisa, who passed away in 2015. She loved Disneyland. Following a particular blow in her cancer journey, her family left on a spontaneous trip and were able to forget, or at least ignore, the diagnosis for a few happy days. Our first day at Disneyland, the teacups were closed due to rain, and I'll admit, I felt a little heartbroken. But on our next day, they were open again, and as the colorful lanterns spun above our heads, I thought about Alisa. She was such an example of making memories and going on adventures as a family and truly living in the moment.

That's what I hope to do with these family vacations. They're a lot of work and money and usually have at least a couple of very unpleasant moments. But exploring a new place together creates family bonds in a unique and special way. We'll remember this trip forever and might have to go back sooner rather than later.


  1. I love this! You perfectly described many of the things that we love about Disneyland. When reading this post I almost felt like I was there. I'm so glad that you had a magical time and took the time to enjoy some of the more hidden gems of the parks.

  2. This sounds like such a great trip! Growing up we'd go to Disneyland about once a year - my uncle worked there so we'd get in free, - and I can say, as magical as it is as a kid, I think it's even more fun as an adult. (Sadly my uncle has retired so it's been over a decade since I've been to Disneyland). It looks like they've definitely upped their food game; I now want to go just to eat all day long!

  3. So glad you got to experience this! :)

  4. I was also a surprise convert to Disneyland, and treasure all three of the trips my family took (as well as the one my sister lured me on that converted me -- the two of us had a great time).

    But what your story really reminded me of was the trip my parents took to Disneyworld about forty years ago -- those memories are still strong! I remember my sister humoring me in my quest to go on every single ride, even the dorky ones. I remember going on Mr Toad's Wild Ride with my little brother, and us deciding to scream as if it were scarier than a roller coaster and having a great time, while my sister was stuck sitting sedately with a stranger in the car behind us wondering how we were having such an exciting ride... I remember going with my older brother on Space Mountain because I didn't want him to know I was scared, and finding the lights and stars enchanting.

    Anyway, I completely get what you are saying about the memories and the family bonding, and I hope my boys remember some of our trips as well as I do that one when I was ten.


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