A Walt Disney World Family Finds Magic in California

by Laura Schmitt
AllEars® Guest Columnist

Feature Article

This article appeared in the January 10, 2012 Issue #642 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Being among those who find ultimate family vacation magic within the parks of Walt Disney World, our family of four sticks to the Orlando destination with dedication year after year. While we make time for other ventures, our main trips always land us in Florida, where we melt away into our happiest place. This fall, however, we tried something new. With a work trip in Anaheim and a four-day weekend from school, the family flew off to California to check out Walt's original theme park and to see what the excitement was all about.

You may recall reading about my family in the past. We have two members with food allergies, so when we found out how inclusive a Walt Disney World vacation is for our family, we were hooked! When I say "We" I should probably clarify that by saying "I". You see, for the past five years, our Walt Disney World vacations have given me a delightful break from all the cooking that is required on a gluten-free, dairy-free diet. In addition, we are treated to everything and never left wanting when we visit those wonderful Orlando parks. So, you can see that we have a high bar set for Disneyland in California.

Our trip started with research. Upon reading a bit, I learned that if you have the option to stay in a Disneyland park hotel, you can walk to the parks AND you can enjoy the extra magic mornings each day. Even though the Disney hotels were more expensive than the others in the area, we were only going to be there for three days, and I didn't want to waste any time. I booked the least expensive of the three hotels, the Paradise Pier. My expectation was that it would be a "value" caliber hotel, along the line of Pop Century in Orlando.

We were delighted to find that the hotel room was roomy, and despite our lack of balcony, it seemed as roomy as the standard Yacht Club room. The additional couch and roll-out table were welcome. The theme was bright and fun, and the hotel was smaller than what we are used to in Disney World. This made it even easier to get around. The hotel had two restaurants and room service, so we were always able to find dining options in-house. In addition, the pool outside was plenty warm and there was a fun waterslide.

To the severe disappointment of my 8-year-old daughter, the waterslide was closed during our trip. As we swam in the pool, an employee came to offer us pool keys to the Grand Californian nearby, so that the children could use the water slide. You see, this is JUST the kind of magic we love at Disney. The girls were very happy to use the waterslide and we all enjoyed lounging by the pool next door.

The mornings in California started with 7 a.m. park openings. This may seem ridiculously early, but those first two or three hours in the parks were a breeze. We walked onto any and every ride with no wait to speak of. By noon, the park was filling in with shoulder-to-shoulder crowds and lines for one hour plus on main rides. We were happy to duck out around lunchtime each day and enjoy other offerings, such as the pool, a nice meal and more. I would recommend doing the early entry if you are visiting during busy time, or on a weekend. If you are going during the weekday, however, you may not feel the need to arrive early. When we showed up on a Friday afternoon, we had no problem securing Soarin' FastPasses and jumping onto many rides with no wait.

Is the magic the same? Well, yes and no. In Walt Disney World, you turn the corner on Main Street and see Cinderella Castle, and your heart just skips a beat. When we turned the corner and saw Sleeping Beauty Castle, however, we all giggled a bit and said, "Oh well." For us, it really lacks the majesty when compared to Cinderella's castle. This is not to say the park isn't beautiful and magical, because it is. Let me explain.

As we sat for a break in a nook off Main Street, the kids were greeted by the sound of someone showering in the overhead window and a child practicing piano. As we explored the shops, the girls stopped for a game of checkers and listened in on an 1800 party line. Characters were everywhere we went, and lines to see them were short. There are so many little details that have not been left unattended, that there is truly magic everywhere you turn. We so enjoyed taking in all the decor that is above eye level throughout the parks and in downtown Disney.

Our short list of must-do attractions for the Walt Disney World traveler in California:

1. Soarin' Over California. I know, it's the same Soarin', but you're actually IN California, so let's just call that a must-do!

2. Star Tours — The Adventures Continue in 3D. This ride is exceptionally popular, so if you have that early park entry, use it to go here first and enjoy the new 3D effects! They are truly amazing. We all laughed and whooped our way through this insane new take on Star Tours. Well done, Disney!

3. Indiana Jones. Wow. This was great. The kids refused to try it, so we took turns riding it, and it was well worth it. So fun, and I don't want to spoil it. If you are prone to neck/back pain, you may benefit from getting the sneak peek of the ride so you know what to expect, as there is one area where you may brace yourself a bit differently to support your neck/back. Great ride!

4. Haunted Mansion – Nightmare Before Christmas style. This was so much fun. I wish we would have gone on it more than once! I didn't realize that they redid the entire ride and narration to go along with the Tim Burton movie. We really enjoyed this.

5. Alice's Ride, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, Pinocchio, Monsters, Inc. ride, Ariel ride, Small World. These Fantasyland-type rides are great for the early morning entry, before they get too busy. These particular choices are either not available in Orlando, or are quite different than their Orlando counterparts, so make sure you try them out!

6. The Gift Shop at Park Opening next to Lincoln's attraction. Inside you'll find miniatures to the scale of the parks, the White House, and more. There is a presentation by Steve Martin and beautiful artwork throughout. I highly recommend stopping here before you leave!

7. Candy Palace. OK, I had to see the candy makers at work, and this was really a fun place to stop. Granted, I can't eat any of the candy available (all that chocolate has dairy!), but had I been there during the holidays, I may have been lucky enough to snag a freshly made candy cane!

8. Aladdin. We had preferred seating to this show, and it was worth the wait. The production was Broadway caliber, but the Genie truly steals the show. It was a relevant twist of current humor mixed in with the Disney classic.

9. All other shows. I am certain World of Color is not to be missed. We missed it, however, because our children just couldn't stay awake. They were falling asleep at the table at 8 p.m., and they just couldn't make it for the fireworks and shows that took place in the evening. I have been told how amazing these shows are, however, so I would recommend them! The parks do come alive at night and I can see where evenings are more adult audience-based than what I am used to the Florida parks. They have so many fun things to do and see that there truly is something for everyone.

10. The Challenge Trail area of California Adventure. This was a surprise gem for our children and I highly recommend it if you have children 12 and under. The area is full of wonderfully fun physical activities for children, as well as beautiful landscaping, peaceful music, and that ultimate attention to detail that Disney captures so well. I felt as though I had left the park and joined a wilderness camp retreat. We all loved this area and we chose to go back again the next day.

Dining was plentiful and much easier to attain seating for than in Orlando. We did character meals, fine dining, and counter service meals throughout the area and there was never a problem getting seating (even without more than half-day notice for reservations). While the chefs were great, we did find they are way behind the chefs in Orlando when it comes to serving their guests with food allergies. It is not that they lack the attention to detail or safety, but they lack the options. We didn't have the gluten-free, dairy-free brownies, cookies, or ice cream options anywhere we went. There was a brownie at Goofy's Kitchen, but it was rather gross in texture and flavor. While this little extra wouldn't matter to many guests, being a part of the immersed dining experience is a big plus for us, and we did miss a few of the perks we are used to when traveling in Walt Disney World.

Wrapping up our journey, our family found that three days in Disneyland was enough. It wasn't going to take the top ranking away from Walt Disney World, and we may not even feel the need to go back anytime soon, BUT we did have a great vacation and we all enjoyed exploring the magic of Disneyland California. As an avid Disney fan, there was something special about being in the first Disney park. The lower crowds and smaller park size were both a nice surprise, and I can see why locals would stop in regularly for quick visits year-round.

We are freshly returned from our California visit, but we are still counting the days for our adventures in Disney World this winter. Our little family embraces all of the magic we find at Disney and the time we get to enjoy in our favorite place when we are on vacations together. No work, no school, no distractions, just family and magic and full immersion in both. I will never get tired of that.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Laura Schmitt and her family of four travel to Disney each year for the fun, food, and memories. You can view photos of the gluten-free, dairy-free meals the Schmitts enjoy throughout Disney property on Laura's blog, http://www.lauraschmittne.com/2011/01/gluten-free-and-dairy-free-walt-disney.html.

Laura previously wrote for the September 23, 2008 issue of AllEars®, in the feature, "We Were Not Disney People… But We Are Now!":

She has also written about Gluten-Free Dining at Walt Disney World for AllEars.Net:


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.