How do you keep people coming back to a theme park that opened in the 1950's and, even today, bears a striking resemblance to the original park? Well it helps to call it Disneyland, but it's also important to keep re-inventing yourself. Whether it's new rides, new events, entirely new “lands” or an entirely new theme park such as Disney California Adventure, the Disneyland Resort parks just keep packing them in.
It is amazing, though, that a big part of Disneyland feels today just as it did in 1959 when this author got his first kids-eye view of Walt Disney's innovative new way to cash in on his movie success and keep Disney not far from the top of every kid's mind. Baby boomers will remember the fascination with all things Disney – from movies like the Shaggy Dog and the Absent Minded Professor to a daily diet of TV shows like the Mickey Mouse Club and Spin and Marty. And you know what? It's all just gotten bigger and better to the point that you'd have to have Houdini like powers to escape from today's onslaught of Disney movies, cable TV, internet sites, games and toys.
So it is that California's original Disneyland continues to thrive and, as any local can attest, still attract a sea of humanity that only lets up on rainy or really cold days. On any normal Southern California day, let's just say you won't exactly have Disneyland to yourself.
Before we discuss just how to beat the crowds, you should know that October is going to be a very busy month at Disneyland. The resort is getting all dressed up for Halloween a few weeks early and putting on what they call their “Halloween Time” celebration. The theme will be evident from the time you enter Disneyland as you'll notice that the famous Mickey Planter is now a canvas of pumpkins and that Mickey already has his Halloween mask in place. There will be oversize pumpkin versions of many of the Disney characters such as Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto and Goofy.
You'll see a 12-foot-high Mickey jack-o-lantern in Main Street USA, where more than 300 pumpkins will be displayed in the shop windows. And, as you might expect, the Haunted Mansion has a few changes just for the Halloween season – during this time of the year it's a “Nightmare Before Christmas” theme. There's even a Halloween fireworks show, and for several evenings in October the park will host Mickey's Halloween Park with costumes, candy, entertainment and special attractions.
In addition to the special events, the parks continue to add or improve attractions. For example, in 2011 Star Tours was converted to 3D and there's a new twice-daily event called Mickey's Soundsational Parade that is a very rollicking, uplifting and elaborate combination of floats, bands, lots of dancing and, of course hundreds of Disney characters. (Keep an eye out for parade times and plan your visit accordingly; during our recent visit we had planned to cross the park during the parade and found that foot traffic was pretty much at a standstill).
There's a new ride at California Adventure called Ariel's Undersea Adventure that is a Pirates of the Caribbean type of excursion except with underwater characters and displays. Just the previous year a World of Color nighttime water show was added to California Adventure and many renovations and updates occur in both parks annually.
The one thing that never changes at Disneyland, however, is that you do have to stand in line for the more popular attractions. Here are a few tips that we've found helpful:
- Arrive early. It's best to buy tickets online or get Disney vacation packages. Package holders can enter an hour earlier through the Main Street gate. On our recent visit we noticed that, between the hours of 8 and 10, the park had much fewer people and lines were almost non-existent.
- Once in the park, get a guide map and have a general idea of what attractions you want to visit - then plan a route. Make your way around the park, and avoid jumping from one side of the park to the other.
- If there's an especially popular attraction, try visiting that attraction during traditional meal times when the lines drop off somewhat. This works to a degree - but during peak season, the lines are still relatively long during mealtimes.
- *Find out what time the parades and fireworks shows are and visit the busy attractions then. Guests line up for those shows at least 30 minutes in advance.
- The most popular attractions at the park are the Indiana Jones Adventure, Pirates of the Caribbean, Matterhorn bobsleds and Big Thunder Railroad, and Space Mountain so plan carefully when visiting any of these attractions.
- Take advantage of FastPass. Certain attractions have a FastPass kiosk where you can insert your bar-coded ticket to print out a boarding pass. The pass will have a one-hour window of time for you to come back and join the line which generally reduces waits from upward of a half hour down to just a few minutes. We can testify to this time savings although you can only have two FastPasses out at one time. Some FastPass tickets - especially those issued mid-afternoon, required as long as six hours before we could return, although our first of the day let us come back in less than two hours.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Disneyland California is located in Anaheim, about a half hour's freeway drive southeast of downtown Los Angeles.
WHAT: Disneyland California is the original theme park, conceived by Walt Disney and opened in 1955. The park offers rides and attraction for visitors of all ages and has been steadily adding new attractions since it began. A Disney vacation is at the top of the list for many youngsters.
WHEN: Any time of year. There's no question that visiting during the school year is going to result in fewer crowds and less time in line, especially if you visit during a weekday. But in summer, weekdays are nearly as busy as weekends, as this is one of the most popular California theme parks.
WHY: There is nothing quite like a Disney vacation and Disneyland California has withstood the test of time to become an all-time favorite vacation destination for families and kids of all ages.
HOW: For more information on Disneyland California, go to disneyland.disney.go.com/parks.