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West Coast wonderlands: Disneyland and California Adventure provide a treasure trove of family fun.


I'M LOOKING AT the blueprint--well, I guess it would be more accurate to call it a drawing; no, perhaps you better make that a rough sketch--for a proposed new roller coaster (called The Sonic) that was designed for either Disneyland or its sister park California Adventure. The coaster's architect refuses to be specific as to venue, maintaining that this high-speed, loopty-loop ride of a lifetime would be at home on either Disney property. Having drawn his inspiration from our visit to both parks, it's no wonder he's hesitant to be pinned down. Then again, with our seven-year-old son Trevor, you never can be sure what his motivation is. It was Trevor, for instance, who pointed out an obvious difference in topography between our native East Coast and the area we were visiting on our drive from Los Angeles International Airport to our hotel in Anaheim. "Look at all the palm trees growing fight along the street--and in people's yards!" He'd never seen a palm tree "in person" before. In fact, this was to be a vacation of firsts for all four of our kids--Trevor, his sister Julie (11), and brothers Alex (nine) and Jesse (two). First time on an airplane, first trip to California, and first visit to what has become America's promised land--Disney.


My wife Margaret, who thankfully plans all of our adventures, understands my penchant for nostalgia and the retro scene, so she wisely decided that our first Disney experience as a family would be at the original hallowed grounds. Disneyland offers a variety of advantages--at least from my perspective. For one, it's walkable. You don't need a tram to go from one end to the other. Hey, don't kid yourself. Old Walt's place is super-spacious and designed brilliantly. Lots of shade; lot of benches; lots of pretty flowers. Second, all those L.A.-Southern California jokes aside, you can't beat the weather here--this from a person who and would rather see snowflakes than $100 bills fall from the sky. That stuff about "dry heat" is true. The sun--minus the humidity--feels good, real good. It has a sort of embracing effect and, come afternoon, it cools off beautifully. Each evening--and yes, since we're not the most efficient early birds, we've become pretty adept at closing down theme parks; after all, why leave early, especially since, the later you stay, the shorter the lines become--I almost didn't want to go back to the hotel; the weather was that perfect. In fact, I almost was tempted to turn off the A/C and open the windows.


"Mom was screaming, bad her eyes shut practically the whole time and, when she did open them, she screamed even louder," laughed Alex. "That ride was cool." Our observant son could have been talking about any number of Disney's dizzying array of thrilling attractions, such as Space Mountain, the Mattahorn, or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland. In this case, though, it was California Screamin' at California Adventure. The coaster, one of the fastest steel models in the U.S., is modeled after those traditional boardwalk wooden coasters. From a flat standstill, it takes off like a shot, makes several severe dips and hairpin turns, does the requisite upside down loop, and returns its occupants to the finish line breathless and hungry for another go-round. Ironically, it was to be the last ride of the trip on our final night in California. Normally, Margaret hangs with the baby--smart woman, my wife--while I have my stomach mined upside down and my heart rate doubled on these rides. I had hit Screamin' twice earlier in the day, and was looking forward to making it my grand finale, but the kids insisted that Morn had to take her turn, so Jesse and I went on the carousel while our "California Adventure" came to a conclusion.

While California Screamin' is the headline attraction, there are lot of thrills to be had throughout the park. Although much smaller, the Mulholland Madness mini-coaster, modeled after Los Angeles' famous Drive, was loads of fun. The Sun Wheel, which is by no means small in any sense of the word, has stationary and swinging gondolas. We tried both on this gigantic Ferris wheel; the kids loved the swinging--part Dad not so much, as the stationary cars were thrilling enough, especially considering how high we were.

The Hollywood Pictures Backlot proved interesting--and scary--as well. The 3-D Muppet movie, replete with various substances showering the audience, proved a howl. Meanwhile, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a fantastic "drop" ride, was a blast. The Rod Serling introduction brought back lots of TV memories, which quickly were replaced by ... well ... terror, even though we were prepared for the attraction's dating vertical drops and lifts, having earlier gone on the Maliboomer, wherein you are strapped into a seat before being launched 180 feet in four seconds. Terror took a holiday, however, during the Pixar Play Parade, a rollicking musical event featuring all of our favorite characters, including those from "Toy Story," "A Bug's Life," and "Monsters, Inc." Traveling around the park throughout the day on a massive movable stage was High School Musical 2: School's Out! The mega-hit sequel movie had just opened the week before, and Julie already had memorized the lyrics to all of the songs.


One song everyone knows the words to can be heard during a serene boat ride at Disneyland's It's a Small World. A pleasant and cooling experience on a warm day, the attraction, by necessity, is being revamped this year. It seems that, when the park opened in 1955, the boats floated "around the world" just free, but present-day society has produced a much heavier populace, and some of the watercrafts now are scraping bottom. (Hey, it's not my fault; I'd just had a big breakfast.) Jesse loves music, so It's a Small World was perfect for him, but his favorite ride during our stay was The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh in the park's Critter Country section.


Music also was front and center in Downtown Disney, a lovely stretch a shops and restaurants. There are, of course, the many Disney-inspired tunes during the spectacular fireworks display--an absolute must-see--that closes the premises each night, as well as much melody during the (don't dare miss it) daily parade, but street musicians proliferate during the evening, too. While waiting to eat at the Rainforest Care--where the intermittent "thunderstorms" produce a forest full of animals coming to life; what an interesting sight--we encountered the superb violinist Drew Tretick. Honestly, we'd never heard of him, but his expressive performance and warm stage presence really moved us and, apparently, others, as he is world famous and has performed all around the globe, including at Carnegie Hall. Turns out the Jessica Rabbit T-shirt I purchased that night said it all--Disneyland: Entertainment Nightly.


Now, if you like pirate music (and Johnny Depp), then you must experience Pirates of the Caribbean--simply superb. The characters look so real; we constantly were ducking when those scalawags were shooting at each other--and, as you passed by boat through each scene, you never knew when or where old Johnny was going to pop up. Really, we simply could not get enough of this ride, which brings us to another brilliant bit of Margaret's planning.

While Disneyland's Fastpass system to avoid long lines on favorite attractions works quite well, we, with a few exceptions, found little need to use it, as it seems that West Coast children go back to school in late August. (We New Yorkers don't return to class until after Labor Day.) Speaking to a woman at the ice cream concession (she said she'd worked at the park for seven years), she maintained that this particular day had the shortest lines she could remember. So, we obviously picked a good time to hit old standards like Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Mattahorn Bobsleds, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the Haunted Mansion, and Pirates of the Caribbean several times, although Trevor wondered aloud why it was called the Haunted Mansion, since, to him, it was more funny than scary.

The lack of wait-time just made the entire experience so much more enjoyable, so much so that it now is Dad, more so than the children, who is clamoring for a return cross-country flight to undertake, once again, the best that Mr. Disney has to offer.

Wayne M. Barrett is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of USA Today.
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Title Annotation:Going Places
Author:Barrett, Wayne M.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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