Happiest Place on Earth

This year was Leigh’s first spring break from school. And we set the bar pretty high with a Disneyland vacation in California, thanks to my very generous in-laws. When they surprised Leigh with the news, I’m not sure he showed the excited reaction we all hoped for. But once we started talking about the airplane ride and hotel with a swimming pool, he was on board.

Spring is such a beautiful time to escape the sketchy midwest weather. Purple blooms filled the trees and we enjoyed long hours of daylight.

It’s been two years since we traveled by air thanks to the pandemic, so we were eager to enjoy the excitement that comes with flying in the air versus “are we there yet?” car rides. Although I distinctly remember Leigh still asking how much longer on our ride there. He had some difficulty with his ears popping when we descended but only on the trip to California. No problems on the way back home when he was so distracted he didn’t even notice we landed.

Paradise Pier Hotel

We stayed in adjoining rooms at the Disneyland Resort Paradise Pier Hotel. This made it easy to get ready in our own bathrooms and extra space for Leigh to jump around between beds. One memory I’ll never forget is playing “just one more” game of Uno together at night.

Our family really gets into Uno.

Leigh set up a self-declared art table in our room, covered in all his toys and mementos. He pulled out his notepad and made drawings every night of something new he saw: fireworks, the hotel, Mickey Mouse and more.

While a lot of the perks of staying on property aren’t reinstated yet, like the bonus “Magic Hour” before the park opens, it was very convenient to be so close to the park entrance and Downtown Disney. One little surprise I discovered in search of postage to mail postcards, Disney will supply the stamp when you mail them from the hotel. Yay! This was the only cost-saving I can remember. Everything else charged you an arm and a leg to do. But that’s the price you pay for magic.

One other pleasant surprise was discovering a new series of Mickey Mouse Shorts on the Bedtime channel of the hotel television. There are several silly seasons of Mickey and his friends resembling the classic old cartoon. The best part: they are only four to five minutes long. Super easy to say yes to “Just one more!” before lights out.

The pool at our hotel was closed for renovations, so we were granted access to the other hotel pools — fondly called “pool-hopping” and they were lots of fun. We were shuttled on an exciting golf cart ride to and from the pool by some of the most delightful cast members. Even though it was cooler out, Leigh had a blast in the heated pools. There were waterslides with short lines, shallow spots to hang and water no deeper than four feet. We spent three days poolside on our trip and Leigh said these were his favorite moments. Goes to show he doesn’t need a lot to make him happy. It only helped that the artwork in our hotel room featured a “How to Swim” Goofy movie poster he loved.

Poolside service kept cold drinks in our hands and “power packs” of kid-friendly food. I don’t know what it is, but sipping a fruity cocktail in the sun makes me feel like I’m on vacation, even if they cost nearly $20 a drink. It’s a price I’m willing to pay for a carefree moment.

Tropical cocktails are a sure sign of vacation.
It wasn’t easy getting Leigh out of the pool long enough to eat.
The pool was surprisingly empty. Lots of space to swim around and plenty of loungers.

TIPS: The hotel pools had really nice complimentary life jackets on a first-come, first-served basis. Since we chose to visit the pools on the weekends, when most guests were enjoying the park, there were plenty available. This would have been good to know before we packed Leigh’s life jacket in our suitcase! We also found plenty of poolside lounge chairs with umbrellas. Lifeguards took their jobs very seriously and there was plenty to be found surveying every area. We felt super safe with Leigh at the pool. Our biggest concern was remembering to reapply sunscreen every few hours.

Disneyland Favs

While Disneyland Park has loads of nostalgia, many of the rides are original and dark. Leigh is not a fan of 1955 amusement park entertainment. He was uncomfortable riding Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and Peter Pan’s Flight, two really old-school dark rides — and we still waited in long lines for both. Leigh preferred outdoor rides, like King Arthur’s Carrousel, Sailing Ship Colombia and Jungle Cruise. It didn’t help that it rained during our visit so being outdoors wasn’t always ideal. The rain did enhance the Jungle Cruise experience!

Because I remembered enjoying it when I went as a kid, we took Leigh on Indiana Jones Adventure. Little did I know it would end in tears, Leigh exclaiming between sobs, “I will never make my kids go on this ride!” I felt so guilty that I didn’t even force him to ride the teacups with me.

I should first admit we are not big Star Wars fans, but the themed area, Galaxy’s Edge, was impressive. The experience was like entering a different world – far, far away. It was worth the 60+ minute wait to co-pilot the Millenium Falcon with Eric on Smuggler’s Run. Leigh was a gunner with grandma and grandpa was our sole engineer. We didn’t even need prior experience flying a starship! The other Star Wars ride, Rise of the Resistance, was constantly breaking down and had consistent wait times of around 85 minutes, so we didn’t get a chance to ride it.

Looking stylish in our matching rain ponchos. Not everyone gets to say they wore these bad boys at Disneyland!
You experience really cool views of the Millenium Falcon as you wait for the ride.
It’s worth sticking around until night to see Galaxy’s Edge all lit up.

Everyone who did it said it was worth investing in Savi’s handbuild lightsaber workshop. We came home with not one, not two, not three, but FOUR lightsabers. By the way, you can travel with a lightsaber in your carry-on according to TSA: “Sadly, the technology doesn’t currently exist to create a real lightsaber. However, you can pack a toy lightsaber in your carry-on or checked bag. May the force be with you.

While he is tall enough, we did not make Leigh ride any of the mountain rollercoasters – neither Space or Splash (not even the Matterhorn Bobsleds). I imagine he’d hold his breath the entire ride and pass out if he had been coerced into going. Eric and my father-in-law enjoyed them much more by themselves. And they were able to skate by long wait lines quickly as single riders.

Riding Jungle Crusie in the rain was fun. We didn’t have to worry about getting wet!

California Adventure

The newer Disney California Adventure is adjacent to Disneyland and by far our favorite! Built on a Disneyland parking lot, this park opened in 2001 and has much newer rides in an open-air feel — to Leigh’s delight.

Eric thought this was a funny shirt to wear at the “happiest place on earth.”

The coolest part was Cars Land, a complete recreation of Radiator Springs from the Pixar film. On the last night, we caught the sunset tradition of turning on all the neon lights and dancing in the street to The Chords song, “Life could be a dream, Life could be a dream, Do-roo-do-do, sh-boom.” Leigh even met Lightning McQueen in person! He drove right down the street and parked at the Cozy Cone Motel.

After waiting longer than an hour to ride Radiator Springs Racers the first day, we invested in Disney Genie+ the second day at California Adventure park to get Lightening Lane access. This means we could reserve entry arrival windows for popular rides and avoid standing in line for too long. One thing we didn’t realize about Genie+ before purchasing the upgrade: you can only use it once on a ride. 😦

Leigh did a surprisingly great job at standing in line as long as the folks around us didn’t mind him absentmindedly bumping into them. We adults had a harder time standing in one place for so long without feeling like our feet were going to break off.

The adults used the Lightening Lane passes to ride the Incredicoaster (the only traditional rollercoaster at the park), Soarin’ Over California, Guardians of the Galaxy Mission: Breakout and Goofy’s Sky School. We (and by we, I mean, my generous in-laws) paid even more extra to skip the long line at Spiderman’s WEB Slingers. Leigh really loved shooting virtual webs with his arm gestures. This ride had super cool technology and is worth checking out when you visit!

Leigh rode Jessie’s Critter Carousel more than once, picking a different critter to ride each time. Jumpin’ Jellyfish was just his pace. Inside Out is one of our favorite movies so the Emotional Whirlwind was fun to experience. But if you asked Leigh what was his favorite ride, he would tell you Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree. I couldn’t help but laugh every time the music played while whipping us around on little tractor tow trucks. Luigi’s Rollickin’ Roadsters is also a really fun dancing car ride to do at night under the lights. The Italian music had us repeating lines from the Disney movie Luca to each other, laughing nonstop. “Whatsa wrong wit you!?”

Looking for a low-key activity for Leigh, we discovered the Disney Animation Building and listened to Turtle Talk with Crush and sat for several drawing classes with the Animation Academy. Leigh loved learning how to sketch Disney characters like Olaf, Lightning McQueen, Scully and Tigger with their professional artists. He would stay there all day if he could. It’s a great rainy day activity.

Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.

-Walt Disney

Feed me

We ate all the iconic Disney foods on our trip: giant churros, Dole Whip, Mickey-shaped pretzels, popcorn and Mickey waffles. My bucket list was checked off! None of these things came cheap, but they made us smile.

Churros got a thumbs up.

While you are welcome to bring food into the park, we didn’t rent a car, so getting food from the store was not possible. We did get our very nice driver to stop at a CVS so we could pick up a case of water before dropping us off at the hotel. Our family drinks A LOT of water, so this was crucial for us to have. Disneyland Hotels do not provide complimentary water and nor did we find many water bottle refill stations.

My father-in-law and I were self-elected co-chairs of the vacay food committee, so we made all the decisions about where we were eating. Ordering ahead on the Disney Genie app allowed us to each decide what we wanted to eat while standing in line for rides. With the click of a button, we could walk right up to a restaurant during a window of time to get our hot food without waiting. Disney has all the foods kids like to eat: chicken fingers and french fries, Babybel Mickey Mouse cheese wheels, goldfish, pineapple spears and clementine Cuties.

Breakfast wasn’t easy to find. We were lucky to discover Coco’s Bakery within walking distance for a reasonable breakfast and we grabbed breakfast sandwiches and coffee from Starbucks.

In order to spend time with Disney characters, we reserved all the character meals we could two months before our visit. Due to pandemic precautions, you’re not able to get up close and personal with characters. The days of autograph books are not back yet. You can still spot them throughout the park, waving at a distance, but these meals made it much easier to interact with them. Much to Leigh’s delight, Minnie Mouse played rock, paper, scissors with him!

Our first experience was at Goofy’s Kitchen. It was a little like throwing Leigh into the deep end of the pool of singing and dancing life-sized characters. It took a bit of time for him to get used to the loud music and frequent dancing throughout the restaurant as guests waved their napkins around above their heads. Leigh ate more sweets here than anywhere else. The food was good, but you clearly are not paying for the breakfast buffet. It’s all about seeing Goofy and his pals.

Cast members took this adorable photo of us before we sat down to eat.
They brought Leigh a birthday cupcake after his meal. I loved the little Mickey sprinkles!

Another meal was breakfast inside the park at the beautifully historic Plaza Inn with Minnie and her friends. I loved learning designer Lillian Disney, Walt’s wife, handpicked many of the restaurant’s authentic 19th-century interior furnishings. It has a Victorian stained-glass ceiling, marble foyer and ornate gingerbread woodwork and drapery. This character experience was more subdued and Leigh was much more excited to wave to Minnie, Daisy, Chip and Dale as they pranced by every 20 minutes. Plus, it was easy to walk around to the rides after eating since we were already in the park!

On our last Disney day, we ventured over to the Disney Grand Californian Hotel to Mickey’s Tales of Adventure Brunch Buffet. Beautiful craftsman decor tells the story of California folklore. I enjoyed this buffet the most. Besides the only spot where Mickey makes the rounds, you can also order certain foods from the kitchen, in addition to the buffet. Leigh downed three chocolate muffins before we could even sit at our table. Eric and I both enjoyed trying the chile chilaquiles with queso fresco, scallions and radishes. The warm beignets were a delicious dessert with a cup of coffee.

TIP: I recommend booking character dining experiences on days when you don’t have park tickets. This is a nice experience to make it seem like you’re doing “Disneyland” without going on all the rides. It also allows your group to leisurely enjoy their buffet meal without the rush of knowing you’re missing ride time. I imagine we might go back to enjoy a character meal if we visit Southern California in the future, even if we don’t want to buy park tickets.

“I suppose it’s like the ticking crocodile, isn’t it? Time is chasing after all of us.”

– Peter Pan

The view from our room overlooked California Adventure Park.

I snapped more than 1,000 photos from beginning to end. I don’t do this to post each and every picture on social media but so that I never forget how magical our trip was. My memory escapes me sometimes. This narrative is a personal recap so I can look back and recollect each detail.

Let’s be real. Not every moment was sunshine and rainbows. We spent an entire day at Disneyland in the rain. It was cold, wet and uncomfortable. We blow-dried our shoes back in the hotel room. We missed seeing fireworks at the castle because of the rain and wind both nights. There was lots of complaining, whining and yelling “GET OVER HERE.” Not a day went by when there weren’t tears at some point. But honestly, those aren’t the memories I’m going to take with me. They can stay in California.

I hope those friends who travel to Disneyland in California can pick up one or two tips to make their trip better. This spring break vacation was full of magical memories surrounded by never-ending bubbles coming from expensive bubble wands (luckily not in the hands of Leigh). I am forever grateful for Leigh’s loving grandparents. They gave him an experiential gift of nine days at Disneyland. He will always remember spending time together.


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