I’ve been visiting Walt Disney World since I was about 6 months old. Sure, I don’t remember anything from that visit, or the next one at around 6 either, but when I was 9, my family drove down from Massachusetts, we stayed at the Lake Buena Vista Vacation Villas (now long extinct and where Saratoga Springs stands) and I fell completely head-over-heels in love with EPCOT Center. That was 1983 and I’ve been a die-hard Walt Disney World fan and loyalist ever since. In contrast, California, and with it Disneyland, seemed like such an out-of-reach destination that I’d never seriously thought about visiting. I’m not sure why. I guess I was just overwhelmed by the thought of the entire state of California, maybe? Earthquakes? I can’t pinpoint it, but suddenly time had passed and I was married with three children, and the thought of flying or driving there to see Disneyland seemed like a punishment (both mentally and financially) rather than a possible vacation.
Then I found out friends were going to the 2011 D23 Expo. I had watched the 2009 Expo online and dreamed of being able to be there in person. I did some calculations and discovered I could actually make it work. My husband gave me his blessing to go have fun, and my mother watched the kids, since I’d added days on to the trip before and after the Expo. I was beyond excited to finally get to visit the “Motherland” for all Disney fans.
I will admit, I was preparing myself to be underwhelmed. Everyone I spoke to had to warn me about the tiny size of the park, the even tinier Sleeping Beauty Castle, and how it was surrounded by commercial properties. As a result, I really didn’t do much research before hand. I was a little overwhelmed by the unknown, but I also felt confident that, being a WDW expert, I’d be able to handle whatever Disneyland threw my way. I knew I’d have fun, but I headed out there with the mindset of “Walt Disney World RULES!”, expecting this dinky little ‘first attempt’ at a Disney park. To say I was proven wrong is a gigantic understatement of epic proportion.
Driving by the Disneyland Resort property, it was odd to see green fences with landscaping, keeping in the magical parks that were within walking distance of most off-property hotels. It was also odd to park in an immense parking structure on our first visit, where walking from our car to the exit seemed like walking from Future World to the American pavilion at the time. And to then be dropped off in the middle of their Downtown Disney Area, bordered by the Grand Californian Resort, it was a recipe for confusion to WDW visitors. (Especially ones that had done zero planning before-hand!)
The moment we walked through the gates of Disneyland, all of that confusion melted away. It was a beautiful, intimate little jewel box of a park that captured my heart in an instant. I wish I could put into words or even photos what that experience was like, but I’ve been in a daze of Disneyland withdrawals for the past few weeks now, trying to figure out just what made that place so special.
I’m not sure if it’s the history, the beautiful details of the park itself, or perhaps even the people we were with that made this first visit so magical, but what I do know is that Disneyland is now my favorite park of all-time and I’m doing everything I can to get back there as soon as possible. What I’ll do now to try and help out Disneyland newbies with a Top 5 Tips for First-Timers at Disneyland:
5. Slow. Down. Many of us WDW veterans go into Magic Kingdom or any other Walt Disney World Park and run to the attraction we know will have the longest wait, or grab FASTPASSes before we know they’ll be gone for the day. That is simply not needed at Disneyland Resort. FASTPASS tickets are available for some rides; I think while there we got one FASTPASS for Splash Mountain and that was it, but it’s not a necessity to experience everything like it is here on the East Coast. Especially if you plan to visit the parks for more than one day, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see everything you want, multiple times. [An exception to this is the World of Color show, for which you'll want to be sure to secure a FASTPASS or a dining reservation that includes preferred seating.] I am always saying WDW is all about the details, but that fact is amplified about 20-fold in Disneyland. Make sure you slow down, take the time to look up, look down, look all around you at all the details which make up this amazing place. There are surprises waiting around every corner!
4. Don’t fret about dining. Again, coming from a Walt Disney World perspective, where you are used to calling 180 days in advance to try to get a reservation at Le Cellier or Cinderella’s Royal Table, this can be a hard bit of planning to relinquish control of. On our trip, I knew I wanted to go to Blue Bayou, and that was the only plan as well as the only sit-down place we ended up going to. We also had a reservation for Ariel’s Grotto, but there was just so much else to do, we didn’t even make it. That’s not to say you don’t need to plan out your dining at all: it’s just not as much of a necessity as it is in Florida, and as first-time visitors, my friend and I were much more interested in getting to experience all of the parks than the dining, this time around anyway. Besides, with amazing snacks like Disneyland corn dogs, you’ll be hard pressed to want anything else while you’re there. Or maybe that was just us? In any event, we actually forgot about our Blue Bayou reservation and walked in 2 hours late and were seated within minutes. I’m not saying that’ll happen for everyone, it’s just a lot more laid back and easier to walk-in than it is here in the World. If you are traveling solo or without kids, you may find you just don’t need to plan as much and can still enjoy all Disneyland and California Adventure have to offer.
3. Experience both parks in the day and night time. When we first arrived in California, the sun was just getting ready to set, so we were able to walk down Main Street, U.S.A. for the first time with all the lights on and the little pink castle waiting for us at the end of the street. Over in California Adventure, we were able to see Mickey’s Fun Wheel all lit up. I think this made it even more magical for our first visit, but some parts of California Adventure and even Disneyland were pretty dark, so we were glad to be able to see it all in the daylight the next day, to really take in the details and see everything from a new perspective. The Storybook Land Canal Boats are a perfect example of this. We rode this for the first time in the morning, and we could see all of the tiny houses and landscaping. When we went back at night, we realized some details were only visible then, like the lights in the Seven Dwarfs mine and even King Triton’s palace at the end. The same holds true for many areas of both parks.
2. Don’t worry about staying in a Disneyland hotel. While the resorts on property are wonderful, and the Disneyland Hotel and the Grand Californian are gorgeous, you can stay within walking distance of the parks and still enjoy everything while saving a bit of money. Especially if you are a first-time visitor and you are really going to experience the parks at their fullest, you really only need a clean and comfortable place to lay your head at the end of the night. We stayed at the Best Western Stovall’s Inn and had absolutely no problems with it. The beds were comfy, it was well within walking distance, and we still had a peek-a-boo view of Mickey’s Fun Wheel from California Adventure. If you are trying to be frugal, don’t be afraid to stay off property. There are plenty of “Good Neighbor” hotels to choose from.
1. Plan to return. Along with all my other misconceptions and preconceived notions about Disneyland, I really thought, “Okay, I’ll go once and then I can cross that off my list.” So, so wrong. After the first night, I started planning in my head when I could get back for a longer visit. Disneyland totally won me over, hook, line and canal boat, and I have been longing to return ever since I said my tearful goodbye to the beautiful resort. There are so many things yet to discover that I know I’ll be coming back for years just to take it all in. We were lucky enough to be traveling with locals and friends who grew up going to Disneyland and could tell us all sorts of wonderful backstories about the park’s rich history. What that left me with was wanting to know more, and as much as possible, about Disneyland. Also, unlike Walt Disney World, which keeps parades and fireworks shows for years to ensure visitors from across the country and world are able to experience them, Disneyland frequently switches up its shows every six months or so. Because the resort is dominated by local guests, Disneyland is able to do that and keep things fresh and new. The result for those of us a coast away is wanting to go more often in order to see things before they disappear.
So those are my little tips. I’m not a huge planner to begin with, but I think these things are important to note going into a first visit, since it is so completely different from a Walt Disney World Resort experience. I’m glad I didn’t go into my first time with too much knowledge about the park because I loved that feeling of discovery and newness at every turn. I think my next few visits will keep that feeling going, as I become more and more at home at the Happiest Place on Earth.