SHOW ME THE MONEY
Single-park and Park Hopper passes, three-day tickets and one-day tickets, season passes and seasonal deals—deciphering the welter of admission tickets can be as bewildering as trying to unlock the human genome. Whichever you choose, Disneyland is not cheap: plan to shell out $60 to $80 per day per person for admission, parking, and snacks. If you live in southern California, you also have access to twofers, restricted yearly passes, off-season discounts for locals, and, occasionally, bargain tickets, sold next to the Tic Tacs in the checkout line at supermarkets. If there is even a slight chance you're going to be returning to the area within a year, get the cheapest annual pass available—it runs $229 per person—or, if you have a bit of chicanery in your heart, get a local friend or relative to buy it for you, which will make it $119 with a lot of restricted dates.
Disneyland may attract visitors from everywhere, but it is also the de facto playground for the O.C. (In some parts of Orange County, it would be hard to find a teen who didn't have an annual pass to the resort.) The locals are the ones with sun-kissed spiky hair, tribal tattoos, and T-shirts celebrating Jack Skellington instead of Mickey Mouse—which is okay with Disney, because they own Nightmare Before Christmas too. My favorite day at Disneyland is the last Sunday of August, which is informally known as Bats Day in the Fun Park, a convocation of teen Ursulas and Cruella De Vils and Wicked Stepsisters, the magnitude of which the place sees but once a year.
DISNEY WITH KNIFE AND FORK
The Disney resort is less than a 20-minute drive from the splendid Vietnamese restaurants of Orange County's Little Saigon district and a straight shot to the grills and cafés of Anaheim's large Arab neighborhood. Directly south are Santa Ana's wonderful Mexican restaurants. Too bad you're not going to taste any of it. Because once you are finally in the park, there is no way you're going to leave for something so inconsequential as a chicharrones taco. Fortunately, there are a few decent options right here.
In Disneyland: the Blue Bayou (lunch for four $100), a vast dining room that opens onto the swamp at the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, is the destination restaurant here. Although the Creole-inflected cooking is strictly institutional, generations of California kids swear by the Monte Cristo, which is a sweet, deep-fried club sandwich. Better to pick up a hot churro or a roasted turkey leg from one of the carts scattered around the park, the decent fried chicken at the Plaza Inn, or the massive, hand-dipped corn dogs on Main Street, as good as the ones you had at the state fair.
In Downtown Disney: A quick monorail ride from Tomorrowland takes you to composed salads, pressed sandwiches, and cappuccinos at a branch of Nancy Silverton's renowned La Brea Bakery (lunch for four $35). Other good bets: jambalaya and hot beignets at Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen (lunch for four $80), the only California outpost from the family that owns Commander's Palace in New Orleans, and Tortilla Jo's (lunch for four $60), a margarita-fueled Mexican restaurant from Patina chef Joachim Splichal. My top pick: Catal (lunch for four $100), Splichal's relaxed French-Mediterranean bistro, which has a nice wine list and a kids' menu of steak frites and chocolate mousse that you will covet for yourself.
If you have the money and the time, Napa Rose (dinner for four $200), the restaurant in Disney's Grand Californian Hotel, is one of the highest-rated dining rooms in Orange County. The menu of grill-intensive California cuisine is supplemented by a stunning list of California vintages and the first kids' tasting menu I've seen varied enough to keep even preschoolers in their chairs.