Californian Family Holiday

Sarah Tennant packs up the family and heads to Disneyland to experience first-hand the Happiest Place on Earth.

On January 8th 2014 I stepped into a plane with my husband, teenage sister, five-year-old girl (Rowan) and two-year-old boy (Miles). We were going to Disneyland.

Among my peers, a common opinion was that we were nuts. A 14-hour plane trip with two kids? Disneyland, that gaudy tourist trap filled with whining children in long hot queues? Horrific. But then, other friends – friends who'd grown up near Disneyland, or visited it thirty years ago – would light up when I said the magic word. “You'll love it,” they said.

And we did. Which is not to say the trip went according to plan. There were problems – one being we all shared a tummy bug. Two, the airline lost my suitcase. Neither of these I recommend, but neither could be helped either. So we got on with it.

First stop, Hollywood. Hollywood was awesome. It was dingy and dirty and smoggy, with row after row of souvenir shops selling identical plastic Oscar statuettes –“Best Mom”, “Best Bridesmaid”, even, I kid you not, “Best Barber.” Rowan's pocket money was burning a hole in her pocket.

Outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre – the place with the handprints – posed a bunch of characters for photo ops. We met a rather long-in-the-tooth Superman, some Power Rangers and an enormous tank-topped African-American guy calling himself Mr Muscles who may, in retrospect, have simply been crazy. It was hard to tell in Hollywood.

We didn't spot any celebrities – they wouldn't have been seen dead there – but Rowan's homemade Wonder Woman outfit did get complimented in a burger joint by the guy who did Lynda Carter's hair on the TV series. Such fame!

Then on to Disneyland. Now, I know there are people who feel Disneyland is a soulless, canned place to go on holiday: crass, commercial and more stress than it's worth. To them I say: you are good people, but you are wrong. Disneyland is gorgeous.

Thanks to the generosity of lady with a timeshare who I met on the internet, we spent our seven nights in the Grand Californian Hotel. This is the fanciest of the three on-site Disney hotels, and it is stunning; hot pools, Arts and Crafts décor, grand piano in the lobby, the works. Given that the hotel we had stayed in in Hollywood featured an air conditioner that fell off the wall every time you walked past and a free continental breakfast that meant 'coffee and doughnuts at reception if you get there in time', we were thrilled.

The Grand Californian is technically inside Disney's California Adventure (DCA, the second Disney park directly opposite Disneyland) and is also right by Downtown Disney.         

When we were able, we'd stagger into the parks for a few hours and bask. Have I mentioned they're gorgeous? Even the ebola-flu-leprosy-plague we were suffering couldn’t destroy the magic. Main Street, Fantasyland, Frontierland, Carsland – they were entrancing, even when we weren't up to doing more than wandering about. Miles was transfixed for ages by a wooden perfume stand in New Orleans Square. Rowan was thrilled when Snow White's wishing well emitted a faint echoing song.

And having chosen to go off-season, the crowds were minimal and the lines fairly short. I didn't see a whining child anywhere. Well, there was Rowan after she rode Space Mountain. That was a mistake. Not so adventurous, our girl.

Miles, on the other hand, was game for any ride involving a vehicle. We rode the Disneyland Railroad three times. In another dubious parenting moment, we took him on Pirates of the Caribbean. Worried he'd be as freaked out as I was by the black caverns and grinning skeletons, I whispered “Are you OK?” As Davy Jones' menacing hologram loomed before us, Miles whispered back, awed, “Yeah... I'm in a boat!” Alrighty then.

One evening we ventured out beyond the land of Disney, as I'd long cherished a whim to visit Medieval Times, an enthusiastically tacky dinner theatre place. Basically, you sit around a sawdust-covered ampitheatre on tiered seating, watching gallant knights fight to the death while you eat fried chicken with your hands (Forks, in keeping with the times, are not allowed. Coke is. Don't question it.)

We were also treated to a falcon flight, and “our” knight threw roses at the ladies. We liked the place so much we even forked out $20 for a terrible family photo.

Eventually we had to tear ourselves away from the Grand Californian and found ourselves once more in the real world. I was strongly tempted to stay, preferably forever. That being outside both the budget and our Protestant work ethic, we instead caught a train and headed for San Diego.

San Diego
Fortunately, San Diego was lovely. We stayed right by Little Italy, a haven of fantastic delis and the only good coffee my husband had on the trip. A farmers’ market was equal parts gourmet food and people walking gourmet dogs; sunlight glinted temptingly off a beach we didn't have time to explore.

Balboa Park is bristling with museums – we went to the model train museum. Miles was in his element, especially when it transpired you could make some of the trains go back and forth with buttons. It wasn't quite the Museum of Man, which I'd been hoping to get to, but we liked it.

Then to the world-renowned San Diego Zoo. Yup. It's good. Also impressive was the gondola, which carried us far above the zoo. We stared down at gorillas, wandering herds of impala-like creatures and what Rowan excitedly assured me were dinosaurs. World-renowned indeed.

Universal Studios
Too soon again, we were back in Hollywood. This was our dodgiest hotel yet – the Nite Inn, chosen for its proximity to Universal Studios – not recommended!

My lasting memory of Universal Studios is... spit. The fourth dimension of the many 4-D rides involves a well-timed spray of warm water. King-Kong ride? T-rex spit. Jurassic Park ride? Animatronic dino spit. Shrek 4-D? Don't even ask.

Unfortunately, most of the good rides were unsuitable for kids. The Studio Tour left them fairly cold, the Bates Hotel and the Desperate Housewives neighborhood having little to offer the preschool demographic. There were Despicable Me posters and plushies everywhere, but the ride hadn't been built yet.

And then we found the Animal Actors show. You know the “No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of This Picture” performers? Them. Dogs, cats, guinea pigs, mice, birds, a raccoon, a pig... you name it. There was even a bunch of ducks, whose sole talent was waddling from one end of the stage to the other – but hey, ducks! The kids were agog. It was brilliant.

We headed back to the airport, weary but happy. Then Miles threw up in a fancy airport handbag shop. Then again on take off, then again... well, I'll spare you the details.

Do I wish our holiday of a lifetime had gone differently? Well, yeah. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Several months on, whenever Miles sees a picture of a steam train, he beams and says “I go on dat at Disneyland!” Whenever Rowan shows off the $4 necklace Daddy bought her in America, I remember the delights of shopping at a true American discount shopping mall.

Yep, I'd do it again. But with my suitcase and without the sickness.


Sarah Tennant lives outside Hamilton with her husband and two children. She may never be able to talk her husband into another holiday.

See also Disneyland Travel Tips from award winning travel writer Megan Singleton




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