When my Dad announced to my sisters and I that he had inadvertently become a member of the Disney Vacation Club and we were all welcome to use the points anytime, I rolled my eyes. Come on, Dad, please, I’m a dignified world wanderer who reads Paul Theroux while sighing over the romance of traversing developing continents overland and prides herself on the ability to properly use squat toilets, obviously I wouldn’t enjoy something as pedestrian as prancing through an artificially created cartoon land where people are just unapologetically having a great time!
Except, it turns out, I really really would.
When a friend’s Palm Springs wedding prompted my first trip to California in over a decade, my dad’s offer echoed in the back of my mind. I hadn’t seen my Los Angeles-based friend Lindsay since we partied it up in Thailand last year — suddenly a free weekend in Anaheim didn’t seem like such a bad idea. I proposed the idea to her almost apologetically, but was buoyed by her enthusiastic response. Two twenty-something girlfriends going on a getaway to Disneyland — were we nuts? According to a story on this very subject in the New York Times, no — nearly one-third of Disney-goers are adults sans children.
Disney Vacation Club works much the way any timeshare scheme does, I assume, as someone who has never participated in any kind of timeshare scheme whatsoever. While our “home hotel” is actually in Florida it was easy to look up the various point values and call and book the hotel of our choice (though considering I was traveling in South America at the time we were planning this, and calling involved conning a Danish guy into pretending to be my dad via Skype, I would have preferred to be able to book online). There are three Disney hotels in the area — Grand Californian, Disneyland Hotel, and Paradise Pier — and while the Grand Californian is regarded as the most upscale, after much debate I settled on the classic Disneyland Hotel, which was much more my style.
We arrived on Friday night, with me fresh off a flight into LAX. Collapsing with exhaustion in our room, I tipped my hat to the old mouse. The hotel was filled with Disney charm and details, from the cleverly-shaped faucets to the light up castle headboard we didn’t know lit up until after checkout.
Though staying in the Disney hotels grants you access to the “Magic Hour,” sixty minutes in the park before the doors open to the general public, at this stage in our lives the magic hour is the extra one that you get to sleep in a dreamy hotel bed with blackout curtains. We strolled towards the parks mid-morning, with Lindsay taking the lead as our resident Disneyland expert.
Compared to Disney World, where I’ve been about a dozen times thanks to our annual trips to visit my Florida-based family, Disneyland is a very manageable size. The two parks, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, were a short walk from our hotel through the lively Downtown Disney area and with our Park Hopper day passes we could pop between them as we wished.
I have to admit that the only research I really did for this trip was memorizing the Disneyland Bar Crawl Guide, so I pretty much trotted behind Lindsay while she led us through the Disney California Adventure highlights, starting at Paradise Pier. We didn’t even attempt to do all the rides, but instead focused on hitting some of the big popular ones with Fast Pass lines (Soarin’ Over California theater, California Screamin’ roller coaster, and Radiator Springs Racer), some of the classics (Mickey’s Fun Wheel and the Silly Symphony Swings), and some personal Disney classic favorites (It’s Tough to Be a Bug 3D Theater and The Little Mermaid’s Underwater Adventure were my faves).
Otherwise we just strolled through the park and enjoyed the scenery unfold. The designer in me couldn’t stop marveling at the attention to detail, the omnipresent branding and the whimsical atmosphere the magic-makers had created. Certainly different things than my younger self admired while romping through a Disney park, but one thing hasn’t changed — I’m impressed.
After a late lunch in Disney California Adventure (they serve booze!) we strolled over to Disneyland. It was a Saturday afternoon and the crowds were pouring in. There was a noticeable difference in the feels of the parks, with this one obviously being the more traditional and classic Disney-feel.
I admit it — after an obligatory shot in front the of the castle, a spin on the Mad Tea Party teacups and a ride on the Matterhorn, we were wiped. The combination of crowds, heat and general frenzy inspired us to seek refuge in a nap back in our hotel room. But with Disney California Adventure closing at 10:00pm and Disneyland closing at midnight, we had a whole second shot to run rampant through the parks.
And so we did. We arrived back at Disneyland after dark and marveled at how the park had changed under the glow of a billion tiny bulbs. The lines were still pretty crazy for all the rides we were considering so we picked just one to brave: Alice in Wonderland, of course. It was worth the wait.
But we soon popped back to Disney California Adventure and the lure of mouse-approved nightlife. I was intrigued by the promise of the Mad T Party which a brochure described as a “hip, high-energy nighttime experience.” Upon arrival, I described it as a Disney rave. A high energy band rocked out to great covers onstage, a bar served creative cocktails with fanciful presentation (a neon light up ice cube? yes please!), and the crowd, including us, loved it. Who knew?!
But we didn’t stay long — we had a Fast Pass reservation to World Of Color. This was another event I was skeptical of, perhaps again because of that brochure description — an “immersive water spectacular combining water, color, fire, music and animation in a kaleidoscope of fantasy and imagination.” Um, right. So we scooted our way in to the massive crowd that had gathered in front of Paradise Pier and waited to be wowed.
Guys, WE WERE WOWED. I don’t know if it was that Mad T Party cocktail or what, but I was moved. The show is basically an aquatic nostalgia bomb, and I apologize for the proliferation of this adjective throughout this post, but here it is again — it was magic. When I heard Ariel’s voice piping through I think I might have teared slightly.
Laughing at ourselves for how thoroughly we had converted, we made our way to House of Blues in Downtown Disney, which I’m noting because you need to know it has the best happy hour hours ever — 10pm to close! Only in Disney do you get a bar actively trying to get patrons to stay later. The cocktails and appetizers were great and there was a fairly lively atmosphere kicking off.
We capped off our night with a final cocktail at Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar, our favorite find of the trip. There are no generic sugary drink mixes here — these were creative and fun, beautifully presented cocktails. And the atmosphere was pretty unbeatable as well. My obsession was validated when I later recommended the place to two friends in town who just happen to be New York bartenders and self-professed cocktail snobs, and they reported back that they loved it too. Kudos, Disney.
And then it was Sunday Funday! We immediately made our way back to Trader Sam’s to order up some poolside cocktails and nab some daybeds. While I expected the place to be mobbed by kids, we were pretty pleasantly surprised — turns out, most families hit the parks early and then make it to the pool in late afternoon, right around the time we’d be driving back to LA. Score!
It turns out I can love Disney as an adult. Sure, the lines were sometimes long and the crowds sometimes tedious, and we spent a lot of time slapping our hands over our mouths after accidentally cursing in the presence of toddlers. But Disney was a part of big part of my life growing up. I thought that phase was over. But through a captivating blend of nostalgia, creativity, decadence, and damn good cocktails, Disney won this eye-roller back over.
Would you do Disney as an adult?
Note: I received two media Park Hopper passes courtesy of Disney. As always, you receive my honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill (and no, Disney does not endorse the use of curse words in this post.)