Taking the kids to Mount Rainier National Park for their first hike is tradition for many families. It seems just as much of a tradition to pack the kids in the family vehicle, or hop on a plane, and make the trek to Disneyland.
With two children of our own, my wife and I knew the trip would come one day. So we waited until our son and daughter got older, we saved up the money, then took the plunge earlier this spring.
But we weren’t going to be satisfied with just Disneyland. You don’t travel that far and just go to “the happiest place on Earth.” Like many other families, we hit the adjacent Disney California Adventure. But we also made the trek farther south and visited SeaWorld in San Diego and Legoland in Carlsbad, California.
Our trip was a whirlwind of rides, standing in line for rides, people-watching and loads of fun.
This was a trip we won’t soon forget. Here are some of my observations from each of the four parks, in hopes of helping your family plan for its own adventure.
The crown jewel of all the Southern California parks, Disneyland draws the crowds. In fact, the park can get really crowded, even in mid-February. We thought we had timed it well, hitting the park the three days after Presidents Day. Well, turns out many Southern California school districts had that entire week off. By mid-afternoon, the lines were long and getting longer.
• Study a park map ahead of time and talk as a family about who wants to go on what rides. By our second day, we realized there were areas of the park we could skip – a been-there, done-that attitude. Also, by the first day, the kids had picked some favorite rides we knew were going to be a must-do each visit. Knowing that helped even at California Adventure, which we did between two days at Disneyland.
• Getting a FastPass makes life easier. It helps you avoid some of the agonizingly long lines at the most popular rides like Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean and Space Mountain. When you get your pass, you are assigned a time window to return and skip much of the line. As soon as we got one set, we decided which ride we wanted passes for next because you have to wait a set amount of time before getting another pass. We found having one parent being willing to grab the next FastPass while the others went on rides kept the kids entertained.
• Parents, don’t judge a ride before you take it. We rode Ariel’s Undersea Adventure ride four times, in part because of the short line, but also because we all enjoyed it. Who knew?
• Be nice to staffers, called cast members. We found that simply asking for something nicely opened some extra doors. Or, when one of our children was feeling less than 100 percent, a staffer cleared the way — like Moses parting the Red Sea — through the post-parade throng to the nearest restroom.
• Take a slow ride every once in a while. After having a treat in New Orleans Square, we took the Mark Twain paddleboat ride on a hot afternoon. We found a nice place to sit near the bow. We had about 45 minutes of low-key time that gave us all an energy boost to make it through the rest of the afternoon. We also found taking the train that circles the park was a good way to get from section to section, but was a good means of resting weary feet.
• Bring your own food. Whether dining at a restaurant or grabbing something at a stand, food at Disneyland is expensive. We kept our in-park food purchases to one or two treats a day, and brought our own sandwiches and snacks. For families with young children, keeping them hydrated and nourished will keep them from bonking like an ill-prepared runner halfway through a marathon. The cast member even offered a change of clothes if that was necessary.
• Don’t be afraid to leave the park for a while in the afternoon and then come back for the evening. Our friends did this and it paid off for their 6-year-old. The time away from the park gave him a chance to decompress from all the lights, sounds and noises, recharge his batteries and prepare for a fun night. We found some people will come early and leave late in the afternoon, while others will arrive after lunch and stay until the park closes. If you need to, heading back to your hotel or wherever, during the mid-day allows you to avoid the peak crowds when both groups overlap.
• There are a lot of lodging options around the park, with some close enough to walk to Disneyland. Be sure your room has a refrigerator. It’s nice to come back to the room, knowing you have cold drinks and other food already at the room. In fact, the area Von’s grocery store will deliver, saving you a trip.
Tickets: One-day tickets online are $96 for people ages 10 and older, and $90 for ages 3-9. There are a host of multi-day, multi-park options. Parking is $16 a vehicle.
DISNEY CALIFORNIA ADVENTURE
This park was a huge hit with our kids, and my wife and I. It had the right mix of faster rides for our thrill-seeking son, and rides that best suited our daughter. That is not to say this park is bereft of rides that will appeal to younger children. There were certainly enough of those, especially in A Bug’s Land area.
• The atmosphere here seems less stressful and anxious compared to Disneyland. It also is less crowded. If folks have only a day to spend here, most are going to choose the far more iconic Disneyland. That means fewer people, shorter lines in California Adventure.
• The first thing to do is get FastPass for the Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land. Our friends opted to head there right away, without a FastPass, and wound up waiting more than two hours (including time when the ride was not running). We opted to split up, my wife and kids doing some rides in Cars Land, while I stood in the FastPass line. Granted, that line still was a 30-minute wait. Whichever option you choose, do it first.
• A good idea is to split the family when you arrive. One group gets the Races FastPass, while the other gets the FastPass for Soarin’ Over California, which simulates flying over California landmarks with 4-D effects. In addition to being a great ride, Soarin’ is one where they let you get a FastPass regardless of when you obtained one for another ride.
• Our favorite area was Cars Land. It felt like you were transported into a real-life version of the animated movie. It was fun walking down the main street looking at all the businesses from the movie.
• The Bugs Life 4-D show is a good option to get your family off their feet. It is entertaining for the whole clan, but gives everyone a chance to relax, especially on a warm afternoon.
• We had heard that if you yelled “Andy’s coming,” the Toy Story characters would fall to the ground. Well, apparently too many people were in on that secret. If you do it now, a cast member will respond, “Andy’s at college, silly.”
• Some parents will note this park serves beer and wine. Don’t fret that your kids will be sharing rides with some drunk adult. As one park insider noted, a glass of wine or a cold beer usually helps calm a stressed out parent. Plus, at $6-$7 for a beer and more for a glass of wine, no one is going to be sitting there getting hammered.
Tickets: One-day tickets online are $96 for people ages 10 and older, and $90 for ages 3-9.
This park is really geared to the 12-and-under set. The rides are slower and, in some cases, simpler than those found at the Disney parks. While that might be a detriment to some, especially those who like their rides fast and loopy, it is an attraction to younger children. The park was exceptionally clean, the staff very friendly and helpful, and there were plenty of rides to keep us all entertained.
• This park is all about Legos, and Mini Land is where you appreciate the versatility of the building blocks and the talent of Lego builders. The scenes they replicate, or create on their own, are remarkable. From busy New York City street scenes to the Las Vegas strip to the Star Wars planet of Tatooine, they are detailed, whimsical and amazing.
For children who want to take home a Lego set as a souvenir, we found Lego set prices were not too high compared to local retail prices. Small sets could be purchased for about $13-$15.
• One fun aspect of Legoland is there are plenty of places to trade your Lego minifigures. There are three designated trading spots, but many booths also have a small display case of figures to trade. A number of employees also have figures they might trade. Be aware, however: Not all the figures you trade for are complete or come with an accessory.
• We did the park a week after the Presidents Day weekend and it was remarkably empty. That made it easy to enjoy some of the extras the park offers, like the robotics class and a 4D movie, without having to battle crowds. Without long lines, the friendly staff at a number of rides let us just stay on to go around one more time. I can’t imagine that happens on California Screamin’.
• Following a website tip, we opted to do the park counterclockwise because our kids are older. If you have younger kids, the site said, go clockwise. Afterwards, we agreed with that assessment.
• The park is on the outskirts of the beach town of Carlsbad. We spent several nights here, rather than trying to find lodging in San Diego for our SeaWorld visit. We spent one evening playing at Tamarack State Beach. We also found a nice locally owned Italian restaurant for dinner one night, an In-N-Out Burger for a lunch and a local doughnut shop that made it easy to skip our motel’s continental breakfast. The city is also big enough to offer plenty of chain-dining options.
Tickets: Online single-day prices are $76 for people 13 and older, $66 for ages 3-12. One-day walk-up prices are $83 and $73. Parking is $15 per car, or $25 for preferred (closer) parking. We got there early enough we were closer to the gate than some preferred-parking vehicles.
Growing up in suburban Cleveland, we lived near SeaWorld’s Midwest outpost, which has since closed. What I found in San Diego is a much larger park, filled with more to see and do. But after spending a day there, we all agreed this was a park seeking to find its identity. It was an odd mix of animal shows, laced with lots of human entertainment, sprinkled with some exhibits, rides, games and eateries.
• The shows were good, but the human element produced mixed results. The do-not-miss show was Sea Lions Live. Online tipsters were correct when they said be there 30 minutes before show time. “Biff,” presumably part of the stage crew, put on a comedy performance that had kids and adults laughing throughout his preshow routine. “Biff” even served as the emcee for the sea lion performance.
At the dolphin show, a guitarist played some slow-paced songs that failed to build any enthusiasm during his warm-up act. His best choices were the original tunes tied to the show and park.
I’m still trying to figure out the orca show. The orcas were impressive, but the Ariel-like backstory seemed unnecessary at times and confusing at others. The aerial dancers were intended to mimic the birds who took part in the show, but the actual birds made only one fly-over, and both seemed more of a distraction.
• We expected more educational elements to the shows and exhibits. The animals seem to play second fiddle to the rides and “show” elements. We wanted to hear about efforts to save animals – especially those that are endangered – but overall were disappointed.
• The few rides they have wouldn’t warrant a visit from a thrill-seeker, but they provide a bit a diversion from the rest of the park.
• Of the parks we visited, SeaWorld had the most reasonable prices — kind of State Fair level. We got a huge chocolate funnel cake for $6 that the four of us could not finish.
Tickets: Online one-day tickets are $64. The park charges $15 for parking.