Disneyland is NOT the happiest place on earth. I know I’m going to get some backlash for saying, but I just have to share our story. Before you start throwing Mickey ears at me, I don’t share to complain or to knock Disneyland because much of our experience isn’t really their fault. They have a fabulous operation and put a lot of care into the details. I want to communicate about our trip to set some up for more realistic experience. Our family is probably in the minority, so I wouldn’t expect our trip to mimic yours. All I offer is one peek into a Disneyland experience that wasn’t quite as magical as anticipated.
You see, I’m the type of person that doesn’t want someone to give an outstanding movie or book review. My expectations get set too high, and I anticipate outstanding. When it’s a good book or movie but not outstanding, I feel a bit of a let down. Inevitably, if you are headed to Disneyland you will have everyone around you enthusiastically saying, “You guys are going to have so much fun.” I want to present a different Disneyland experience – our Disneyland experience – to balance out all of the people who really do think Disneyland is the happiest place on earth.
I also want to add that this is not simply the case of our kids being young. I know vacation never feels like vacation when you have small kids because you are still trying to make sure they stay alive, change poopy diapers, feed them snacks, deal with tantrums and help them avoid putting everything in their mouth. The last few trips we took felt like vacation. It wasn’t flawless, but they were very self-entertained – swimming in the pool, getting along, playing games and reading books. For the first time in years, vacation felt like vacation. I was also able to read, lay by the pool or swim as desired, relax and enjoy the family. Ahh…I felt like we had arrived in a sense, so I didn’t anticipate the struggles we were to face in Disneyland.
It wasn’t all bad, and I will tell you about some of the great things too. I’ll be sharing later this week my “Disneyland for Dummies” post because I do think I have some advice to share that could have made it a better experience for us and also what contributed to some of our successes. Today I want to share what didn’t work for us.
Disneyland is NOT the Happiest Place on Earth
It all started like an amazing Disneyland experience should – with a fabulous surprise announcement. My kids would not be going to school. Rather they would be boarding a plane in a couple hours to head to “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Just watch:
The news was out. We were all excited. I had been eagerly anticipating this trip for a while, and I felt like a child again, giddy with excitement.
We started out the first morning in true Disney style – with a character breakfast. I’ll speak more to this in my “Disneyland for Dummies” post, but I’ll say that it was a hit. I love that the kids were able to see and interact with a number of different characters. This experience, I believe, helped get a little bit of character visits out of their system. This leads me to one component of Disneyland that you should anticipate:
Character Lines Can Get Super Long
We all know waiting for rides can be long, but it is good to keep in mind that the character lines get super long also. When we went back to Toon Town, where we knew we could find Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Goofy, we found that each character line had a warning that it could last 40-50 minutes? 50 minutes to see Mickey? Ugh. I’m super glad that my kids weren’t interested in visiting characters. A whole day could easily be spent just doing that. I was glad that they were satisfied with photo bomb character pictures like this:
That said, I do have to say is that we did have casual, close-up encounters with characters without the line. I don’t know if we were just lucky or if this is just part of the Disney experience, but we did get to have some run-ins (see below) with only a couple kids in line in front of us. If character visits are important to you, know that you will most likely experience quite a wait to see all of your favorites.
Crowd Predictors Are Not Always Accurate
We intentionally chose a time where the park would be a “ghost town” according to the Disneyland crowd forecaster sites. When it is a “ghost town” the predicted wait time for rides is 10-20 minutes. Pulling kids out of school rather than traveling during spring break weeks was a priority, and we made it happen. We anticipated shorter waits and more room to move.
Ghost town was not even close to what we experienced. Average wait times were 30-50 minutes, with most at the longer end of that spectrum. Moving around was slow going. As newbies, unfamiliar with the park layout and without much of a strategy, we spent the first 3/4 of the first day just trying to get around people and make a plan. Trying to figure it all out combined with wait times meant that by 1:30 we had only been on two rides, and only one of them the children enjoyed – Star Tours. They were begging to go back to the hotel to swim by that time, and in retrospect perhaps we should have gone back and had a break. However, I felt like we really hadn’t experienced anything yet and had paid an awful lot of money to get into the park. Surely if they just had more exposure to the park and rides they’d never want to leave.
It Overwhelms the Senses
We are one of many families who has a child who can become a little overwhelmed and slip into behavior problems if her senses are overloaded. This may not describe any of your children, so it might be a non-issue. However, Disneyland is a sensory overload for people who don’t struggle in this arena.
In retrospect, “Duh!” Of course it would be hard for our sensory kid. However, in visiting local fairs, parks and parades we really haven’t had much of a problem. The excitement and fun has trumped the overwhelming sensory experience in the past.
Our occupational therapist said she wasn’t surprised that this hasn’t happened locally but happened in Disneyland. The sights, smells, sounds, crowds, tastes and body experiences are amplified in a place like Disneyland. Disney works hard to think of everything. From the joyous music playing over the speakers to the smells of churros sweeping through the air to the amazing visual experiences to the whirling of the rides, there are many pieces of “happiness” to intake. For many, this can be delightful, but to the sensory child, this is not a pleasant experience.
The ear plugs I brought didn’t seem to help. I spent time holding my hands over her ears while standing in line. The stroller umbrella was pulled down over her head to shield her from all the input.
Each day ended better than it started. The third day actually went pretty well. It took some adaptation once we learned what to expect and how to do it better. However, in the end my daughter says she has no desire to go back. I absolutely know she is growing and changing, and this might not always be how she feels. However, this was her experience, and it did impact the trip.
Finding Seating at the Light the Night Parade and Disney’s Color of Wonder at California Adventures
We had been told to try and find seating 2 hours early for the Light the Night Parade. I showed up around our spot 3 hours early and already saw people claiming spots. I realized it was time to sit down on the curb and grab a place for 5 to sit and see the parade.
My husband and I took turns reserving the spot. He went off with two of the kids. When he returned, I ran and got dinners for everyone. After dinner, I took the kids on one more ride (40 minute wait for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – a really uninteresting ride in all of our opinions), and we sat and waited for the festivities.
The parade and fireworks experience is magical. Disney sure knows how to put on a show. It is worth the wait, but you need to know that reserving a spot will claim much of your valuable park time. There are ways around this, which I will discuss in my “Disneyland for Dummies” post. You should also know that the fireworks were cancelled 2 of the days we were there due to winds at high elevations. It’s helpful knowing this going in so there isn’t disappointment if this happens on the night you plan to attend.
Different Kids Like Different Rides
One thing I didn’t quite anticipate would be the discrepancy between what kind of rides were enjoyed by my kids. Again, this is a specific problem with our family that does not translate to all families. Our last local fair experience showed that my kids were starting to get more adventurous in rides. They all went on a ride that spun and took their bodies high up in the air and defied gravity. Therefore, I thought they were ready for the ride experiences at Disneyland.
We had one child who wanted to do all the biggest and scariest rides. California Screamin’? Yes, please. Hyperspace Mountain? Can we do it again? Indiana Jones? Of course! The littler rides weren’t interesting.
Another one of our children was somewhere in the middle – enjoying some of the rides but not wanting to do others. This one was fairly content experiencing most of the park.
Our other child didn’t like the rides AT ALL. Star Tours made the list but the others were either too scary or too lame. In the eyes of that child, there didn’t seem to be many middle-of-the-road experiences for those that don’t want Roller Coasters or things that go too fast but think that the Dumbo Flying Ride is boring.
This is not Disney’s fault. I think there were some great “middle-of-the-road” options between the two parks. Radiator Springs Racers is one (AMAZING!) but our child that didn’t like rides thought it was too fast the stomach drop. The Golden Zephyr, Toy Story Midway Mania, Thunder Mountain Railroad, Gadget’s Go Coaster, and Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters are a few that come to mind. Soarin’ Over California was another super cool ride that almost satisfied everyone. It was one of the cooler ride experiences I’ve had in a while. I highly recommend it.
When your children like (or dislike) a variety of experiences, it is hard to stay together as a family. Therefore, we had to break up a lot. It’s hard to know, as a parent, whether to make a child wait in a 40 minutes ride for a ride they don’t want to go on because you don’t want to accommodate an attitude that is less than flexible or to just try and give everyone the best experience possible. We did a little of both.
One anticipated disappointment was that we had some closed rides that we think would have been fun or brought back our own nostalgic childhood experience. Some of the rides that were closed while we were there were Matterhorn Bobsleds, Grizzly River Run, Disneyland Railroad, Disneyland Monorail, Fantasmic, Silly Symphony Swings and Autopia, just to name a few. If certain rides are important to you, I’d definitely stay on top of what is closed for refurbishment. I think we are all glad that Disneyland stays on top of maintenance to make sure everything is running and optimal performance levels for safety and experience.
The prices also have to work against why it is the happiest place on earth. Hey – I get it. To put out amazing shows and experiences, it takes money. I cannot even fathom the cost of maintaining that park. The clean-up crew alone is amazing. I read the fireworks cost $18.25 million annually. They put out an amazing product, so it makes sense that it costs. However, to spend $1400 for 3 days at the park and to have two of the days where our kids were begging to go back to the hotel to go swimming…it all was a little disappointing. Part of me honestly wondered if they should up the prices to keep the crowds smaller. It might be worth it. I’d pay more to have less people.
Our food experience was just OK. The corn dog featured above had to be the best corn dog on the face of the planet, and I don’t even like corn dogs. I love churros. That said, many of the food choices left me wanting. You are paying a lot of money for a mediocre food experience.
The cajun food I had at the Blue Bayou was just OK. The pizza I had at California Adventures wasn’t great. The place I found with the best food options was at the Jolly Holiday Bakery where we had Roast Beef and Blue Cheese on Traditional Baguette, which was really good. The cheddar pretzel twist pictured below is a must try.
Is Disneyland Magical?
It is absolutely a magical place, but for our family, Disneyland is NOT the happiest place on earth. I know there are many families that would adamantly disagree. To be honest, I’m a little jealous of the blitz you feel while visiting this place. However, I heard enough whining, crying and complaining kids while there that I know I’m not alone.
I am definitely not anti-Disney. I would go back. However, I’m not sure what that will look like. Perhaps it takes some years of maturing and changing. Maybe it will be a special one-on-one birthday trip to mark a significant birthday for our child that really did enjoy it.
As mentioned, we did have some great memories and experiences. You see many smiling faces in the pictures above. I will share many of these experiences and tips soon. However, the featured picture (first picture in the post) was not posed. At that moment, that’s how they felt about the whole Disneyland experience.
You will have many voices saying that you are going to have the most amazing trip of your life. I don’t want to be a downer, but I do want to give you a glimpse into our trip just so that you have a different perspective that might create a little more balance. If you experience the whining, break downs, crowds and challenges that might come with the trip, you will know you are not alone.