The holy grail of theme parks. The place where at least one super bowl champion has gone to celebrate. A space where the castle turrets are a perfectly maintained shade of bubble gum pink and robin's egg blue. The ambient air smells like warm butter and vanilla.
The fabled land that promises the possibility of a day that will fall into place like a 1990's music video montage... Your family will emerge from the Matterhorn with windswept jubilation and Cinderella will smile at you while Mickey lovingly puts ear-hats on your children's heads. It is all possible. This is, after all, the place where dreams come true.
It turns out you can buy happiness. Or at least the potential for it. Magic. Measles. Happiness. Legionnaire's Disease. Vanilla. It is all possible.
We went a few months ago for Christmas. The timing went against our better judgement as pretty much every travel guide ever says that December is the most crowded time to visit the theme park. This wasn't our first time visiting as a family. We had braved the park in October of last year. That experience was all but a total bust due to the insane crowds that flocked in for Halloween-town, a heatwave, I was recovering from a recent knee surgery, and the assumption that Disneyland would be managed the same way it had been 10 years ago. Halfway through our one-day park hopper all I really wanted was a wheelchair and a ziplock full of ice for my troubles. We were bewildered and overwhelmed at the crowds - truly, it took all the fun out of Disneyland. Thankfully, my cousin (who is the Queen of Disneyland Hacks) swooped in and saved the day with her FastPass strategies and amazing attitude. The trip was redeemed. Afterwards Scott said he wanted a do-over. I agreed. After some quick internet searching we realized that long-gone are the days of spontaneous trips to the Disney parks. Due to changes in management and annual pass holders the parks are bursting with guests. Forget about the occasions of running up the vacant turn styles to ride Indiana Jones for the 4th time or the staff letting you "go again" on Pirates of the Caribbean. Adjust your expectations now- because a 20 minute wait is considered a bargain.
Here is how we survived Disneyland as a family of 4 in December.
Work through your 5 stages of grief and finally accept that those warm fuzzy memories of the Disneyland of your youth are gone. Corporate greed has taken over and ticket sales are never capped and the park is bordering on health code violations with the amount of people it lets in.
Get the Ride Max app on your phone with Max Pass. It is an extra $10 per person, per day, which truly feels insulting considering that you just spent roughly $1200 on entry tickets alone. For us it came out to $80 for both days. Both of these apps can be controlled via your smartphone. Basically, you make a wish list of the rides you want to do and the apps then help you to coordinate your family's Fast Pass allotments and wait times making efficient use of your time. Since Scott is very disciplined and tech savvy, we had our entire day scheduled and planned and we never waited more than 30 minutes for any ride- ever. We managed to meet everyone's expectations for the "high value rides" like Radiator Spring's Racers and Splash Mountain. Whenever the kids would get "the gimmies" about rides, we would always defer to The Schedule and remind them that we aren't waiting for 2 hours because we have Ride Max.
Speaking of gimmies, it turns out Disneyland loves to peddle it's crappy overpriced sundries at every street corner. To ward off the barrage of requests for Mickey themed balloons and bubble machine wands we gave each of the kids $10 to spend on any sort of useless Disney junk their hearts desired. This worked like a charm. Both boys were very careful with their budget and thoughtful about what they purchased, which was actually very surprising.
If you have kids under the age of 6 I will strongly recommend that you rent a stroller. We learned this the hard way on our last visit. With my two kids being over the age of 3 I felt that getting a stroller just seemed excessive bordering on silly. Our cellphone pedometers clocked us at 12 miles a day and that is not including the cumulative hours spent standing in line, it is enough to tire out even the most energetic of 7 year olds. Just swallow your pride and get one. Bonus: it also doubles as your mission control -The place you store jackets, water bottles, diaper/essentials (ibuprofen, wipes, sunscreen, water bottles, trail mix, cell phone battery charger) bag, instead of carrying it around for 12 hours.
Acquiring food in the park turned out to be incredibly challenging. The trail mix and water bottles we packed in (and refilled at fountains) were a lifesaver. Disney needs to get its act together in terms of dining options that are both nutritious and family friendly. We ate bread-bowls full of soup in the French Quarter standing on throbbing feet dodging throngs of people. When we tried to find a sit-down place we were informed by the smug hostess that they were "reservation only". It was maddening. We found decent options at Galactic Grill in Tomorrowland and a Starbucks cafe in California Adventure. Even still the lack of availability of food at a park, that markets primarily to families with young children, should have more options (with better hours) for its guests. I'm not the only one to complain about this- I met another park-goer who was experiencing similar frustrations. If I could do it all over again I would take a page out of my mother's book when she took my sister and I to Disney World, bring a whole stack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cheese-its to get us through the day. It was seriously not worth it to seek out the eateries with weird hours and pay through the nose for a crappy burger.
Managing everyone's expectations for Disneyland seems to be the key to success. As much as I missed the spontaneity of Disney trips of yesteryear- having the Ride Max schedule not only kept us from waiting in line for an inconvenient amount of time, it really helped keep the meltdowns at bay. The natural boundaries of "No, we can't ride Mater's Trailer Park Trucks* more than two times in a row. We have a date with the much more fun and culturally advantageous Mat Hatter's Tea Party. Ride Max makes the rules and we follow them." It truly is better for everyone that way. With both boys being tall for their age there were only a few rides that we couldn't all go on. For the few that Oliver was too small for we got the Rider Swap- which worked out perfectly for Charlie to do the California Screamin' multiple times. Whenever we underestimated the intensity of a ride we were always quick to praise the kids for giving it a try and telling them we don't have to do that ride again. The Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, Indiana Jones, and Guardians of the Galaxy (RIP Tower of Terror and your beautiful art-deco) were the ones that were a bit "much". We actually felt so bad about how Guardians of the Galaxy went that we splurged and let the boys get cotton candy as a means of distraction and recovery.
All things considered it was a successful trip. We were able to get everything done on our to-do list and the kids said they had a good time. If we were to ever do this again I would say that we go on an obscure weekday in February. The crowds really took the fun out of our visit. The throngs of people setting up camp to watch the fireworks really had me wondering about the efficacy of any sort of emergency park evacuation. We all caught the flu and 2 of us got pink-eye following our visit. I'll say it again, the crowds really are starting to border on health code violations. Be that as it may, if you ever find yourself ponying up for a peak-season trip to the happiest place on earth wear your most squishy running shoes and bring your Costco sized jar of ibuprofen and lower those expectations about a thousand notches before you go.
* I realize the ride is most likely not called "Mater's Trailer Park Trucks", but I can't remember the name and honestly the spirit of that entire Cars franchise is so off-putting that I don't want to dignify it by looking up the actual ride's name and referring to it as such.