One of my first memories as a toddler was feeling annoyed as I stood in front of the Main Street railroad at the entrance to Disneyland.
There I was, with my oversized Mickey Mouse ears on my head, being forced to stand still for a photo. All I wanted to do was have fun. But it was what my parents said they wanted me to do, and it was torture.
When you grow up in Southern California, there are many things you take for granted — the 70-degree days, the proximity to beaches and mountains, the diversity of people and cultures and, most of all, the endless forms of entertainment, including the amusement parks.
By the time the ’80s rolled around, I had friends working at Disneyland who could get me admission tickets for free. Even if you couldn’t get a free pass, the cost of a one-day ticket, $21.50, wasn’t insurmountable.
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Today, a single-day, single-park adult ticket is $92. Add a husband and a couple of kids to that, and you’re looking at paying more than $350 to admit a family of four.
Is it worth it?
For the first time in years, I went home for Thanksgiving week with my family of four to tackle that question. I also had another goal in mind. Could I recreate that magical moment I remembered from my own tot years with my 3-year-old at the iconic Disney entrance, but this time, without all the tears?
Four days. Four parks. What price, fun?
Day 1: Would you like some fries with that?
It’s fitting to know that the word “LEGO” is a contraction of the Danish words “leg godt,” and means “play well.”
That’s the experience you get when you visit Legoland California. The 128-acre theme park, based on the popular blocks your children love to play with, offers hours and hours of playtime.
We met up with my sister, brother-in-law, 6-year-old niece and my high school BFF and her 3-year-old son in Carlsbad, about an hour’s drive from Anaheim.
First stop, “Fun Town,” where the mission was to get my 3-year-old to experience Junior Driving School with his 6-year-old California cousin. We waited patiently in line until it was our turn. At the front of the line, the Legoland police informed us that my niece was too old for the junior ride and she got relegated to the adjacent Driving School for older kids, ages 6 to 13. Strike one for the photo op.
This presented another dilemma. Would my 3-year-old go on a ride by himself? “Yes,” he whispered. Game on.
He chose a yellow-brick roadster and climbed aboard. I secured his seat belt then scurried to find a spot to capture his adventure on film. When the attendant said “Go,” I excitedly watched … nothing. He wasn’t moving. Strike two.
Apparently, pressing the pedal to make the car move was a skill I’d failed to teach my preschooler. He did not master it by the time the ride ended. Strike three. We were out.
Fortunately, everything in the park seems to be made out of Legos, which means one failed ride was happily erased by a stationary Lego car where he could just sit and pretend to win the race. The toddlers frolicked in the Duplo play area and maneuvered their pint-size helicopters on the Sky Patrol ride.
The sprawling park is much bigger than the map suggests. At every turn, there’s an interesting Lego statue (Is that Elvis?) or an interactive feature like the water cannons, so plenty of stopping and playing ensued. While I was busy entertaining the 3-year-old, I worried about the 12-year-old and anticipated the inevitable “I’m bored.”
That didn’t happen. My older son and his cousin rode the Sky Cruiser, a people-powered pedal car that gives you quite a workout. It’s also one of many attractions that have pit stops for children to play with Legos while parents navigate the lines. Families reunite near the ride’s entrance.
The older children also enjoyed a steel roller coaster called The Dragon and explored the Lego Star Wars Miniland, which features seven of the most famous scenes from the six live-action “Star Wars” movies — all built out of Legos, of course.
As the long day was drawing to a close, my niece went to get a snack and my toddler followed her. He came back asking me if he could get a banana. I replied, “You still have fries from lunch.” My sister didn’t miss a beat. She bought him the banana.
Day 2: Meet the queen of denial
We met up with my brother at Universal Studios Hollywood for Day 2 of our theme-park fest.
As we walked up to the entrance, I noticed that the entertainment news TV show Extra! was filming in front of us, and alerted my crew. All of a sudden, I heard my brother say, “There’s Maria Menounos!” Three of the guys — my husband, brother and 12-year-old — bolted toward the TV truck, leaving me standing there with the toddler.
Nothing says “La La Land” like a glimpse of a celebrity, and Universal Studios Hollywood offers a nice slice-of-life look into the movie industry. After all, the Studio Tram Tour, one of my favorite experiences from childhood, is still there. This is mainly because it is constantly changing. What was once the Leave It to Beaver set was transformed into Wisteria Lane when Desperate Housewives was popular. The newest addition to the tour is the King Kong 360 3-D experience.
We knew that our 3-year-old probably wasn’t suited for some of the rides, so our first priority was to give him a taste of movie magic at the Shrek 4-D attraction. Featuring the original vocal cast of the DreamWorks film, the adventure starts in Lord Farquaad’s “dungeon,” where you are introduced to a new storyline in the series. You then enter a movie theater with seats equipped to make you feel like you’re right in the middle of the action. Not going to lie: Some of the scenes were a little dark and spooky for a toddler, but overall, he seemed captivated.
After the film, we headed down several levels of escalators to one of the newest attractions — Transformers: The Ride-3D. We were hoping the little one would make the height requirement, but he was below the 40-inch mark. Fortunately, the park offers a “child switch” room where one parent can wait with the child while the other parent boards the ride, then they easily switch, allowing both parents to ride.
I took first watch. The child switch room was impressive. It looked like command central with lots of buttons to push and video screens and a big window where you could watch folks leaving at the end of the ride, so you won’t miss your party. The young gentleman who escorted us to the room even gave my son a consolation prize, a small Transformers figure to play with while he waited.
Once my husband returned for the switch, my brother, older son and I got front-of-line access with my child-switch pass. Not only was I able to experience the ride, they were able to ride a second time with me.
The motion-simulator vehicle takes riders into the middle of the battle between the Autobots (the good guys) and the Decepticons (the bad guys). It’s a loud, fast-paced and intense ride that takes the film to the next level.
After we saved the human race from those mean Decepticons, we headed toward the Revenge of the Mummy ride, where a crowd was gathering. Standing on stilts were “ancient Egyptians” who took pleasure in giving permission to those who wanted pictures taken with them.
The beautiful goddess attracted my guys, of course. They tried to win her affection and were denied, again and again.
After they left to go on the ride, I stood in line and asked my tot to wave at the pretty girl. She chose him right away. Note: A cute child will always get you to the front of the line.
Day 3: Soapy is here
Truth be told, Knott’s Berry Farm, which began as a family farm in the 1920s, is one of my family’s favorite destinations. It’s affordable and has rides to fit any age. Plus, I crave Mrs. Knott’s famous fried chicken.
I was so excited that my toddler would be able to experience the park for the first time. I tried to prepare him for the trip by introducing him to one of the most beloved comic strip characters of all time, Snoopy.
He nodded in acknowledgment and said, “Oh, we’re going to see Soapy.” OK, we’ll work on that.
We met up with my brother again and headed straight for Camp Snoopy, which was designed for those among us who fall short of most height requirements on rides.
On the way to Camp Snoopy, the older guys decided to try out the Sierra Sidewinder coaster. So, I took the little one to Woodstock’s Airmail, the mini-version of the Supreme Scream, which propels riders 254 feet, then suddenly drops.
The Woodstock ride doesn’t drop. It’s a slow, bouncy descent. When our 12-year-old was our toddler’s age, he loved this ride, so I was sure this would be a success, too.
Once we got to the front of line, we had a problem. I wanted to go on the ride with him, but I needed another adult to join me to balance out the weight on the ride. After pleading and being rejected by several parents (such chickens!), I decided to try to place him by himself on the ride. The tantrum ensued. End of ride.
Next, I attempted to put him on the Red Baron plane. No success. Then we tried Joe Cool’s GR8 SK8, a giant skateboard that’s basically the biggest teeter-totter you’ll ever see. He didn’t make the height requirement.
It was turning into a disaster until we found Charlie Brown’s Speedway, where tiny race cars go around an oval track. It seems tame until you get to the end of the track and get whipped around the corner.
As we strapped into the car, I spotted the older guys, who had just finished their coaster ride. I was so happy that they were able to witness the sheer joy and squeals coming from our car, and the toddler had fun, too. After the ride ended, he said the words every parent wants to hear: “Again, Mommy, again!”
He took several turns on the car with Mommy and Daddy. After that first ride, he had no problem with single-rider amusements such as the Log Peeler, a fun-size swing, or the Huff and Puff, a pint-sized train car that moves on pre-K power.
The highlight of the day was watching him go on a roller coaster for the first time with his big brother. Although their ride lasted less than two minutes, the memories will stay with me forever.
Day 4: Many happy returns
Entering Cars Land at Disney’s California Adventure is a surreal experience. Once you get past the Radiator Springs billboard and turn left onto the main thoroughfare, you’re instantly transported into the movie.
There are only three rides in this area of the park, but it doesn’t matter because the whole place is a ride. To the right is Fillmore’s Taste-In, a groovy-looking fresh fruit and beverage stand. Next is Flo’s V8 Cafe, where you can eat homemade pies. And on the left is the Cozy Cone Motel, where we snacked on chili “cone” queso — a concoction of chili, cheese and corn chips in a bread cone.
The boys were excited to try Radiator Springs Rescue, which involves taking a road trip through a life-sized Ornament Valley. It starts as a leisurely cruise but soon becomes a fast-paced race with other cars through the valley. Next up was The Little Mermaid ride, one of the newest attractions, a sing-along-worthy trip through the story of the popular Disney film.
The little one wanted to roam after that, so we headed to Grizzly Park, where the kids participated in the Wilderness Explorer badge ceremony. Under the scout leader’s instructions, the children lined up and marched, and when Russell from the movie Up appeared, they chanted the Wilderness Explorer motto: “An explorer is a friend to all. Be it plants or fish or tiny mole.”
The Redwood Creek Challenge Trail has rope bridges, slides and rock walls to wear out children and adults. This is where I witnessed my 3-year-old practice his animal magnetism on unsuspecting girls. He would say: “Hello, I’m 3, and I’m going to chase you.” Charming.
There was so much to do at California Adventure that by the time we headed out to Disneyland, it was nighttime. We entered the park and stood in front of the Main Street railroad, ready to snap that iconic photo. I looked into the stroller and saw that my son was fast asleep. Fail.
Or was it?
My overly ambitious attempt to create the perfect family portrait didn’t look anything like I thought it would be. Instead, our trip was a string of lasting stories that will get repeated — and embellished — over time: The fries. The queen. The chili cone queso.
Two weeks after our trip, I was putting the toddler to bed. Wearing his Mickey pajamas, he looked up at me and in a sleepy voice asked, “So, will we see Mickey or Soapy tomorrow?”