There comes a time in every family's life when you have to ride the rides and don the mouse ears. Fear not: Walt's very first park is a retro fantasia—both more endearing and more intimate than its brash Orlando sibling. Los Angeles native Jonathan Gold, who could find his way blindfolded from Main Street to the Matterhorn, leads us on a slightly cranky, but loving, insider's tour

By Jonathan Gold
March 19, 2013
Credit: Getty Images

Most families go to Disneyland because it's fun for the kids. My parents went to Disneyland to patch up their marriage. When they fought, which was often, they stopped talking to each other for weeks at a time, mounting pitched battles of passive aggression that left me and my brothers huddled in the demilitarized zone in front of the living room TV.

My father's idea of a truce was to take us to Disneyland, where the geography became as familiar to us as our own Los Angeles neighborhood. He would keep us out of school—preferably on a rainy Tuesday, when there wouldn't be crowds—and drive to Anaheim with my mother sitting mutely beside him, reluctant to make up on enemy terms but unable to deprive her children of a treat. The two worked things out over coffee at Carnation Café while my brothers and I rode the Teacups, Small World, the submarines, and Autopia. By the time we stopped for fried clams at the Anaheim Howard Johnson's on the way home, my parents were usually nuzzling again. I don't remember them ever going on a ride. And we may never have bought a pair of mouse ears with our names sewn on the back. But on those afternoons, Disneyland was, as advertised, the Happiest Place on Earth.

I am considerably older now, and my wife and I are not exactly people of the Mouse. Sometimes, Disney seems determined to become to childhood what Microsoft is to computing: the default operating system for the juvenile imagination. When a nephew told our 12-year-old, Isabel, that he wasn't allowed to watch The Simpsons, I told her to tell him she wasn't allowed to watch the Disney Channel. But do we take her and Leon, our three-year-old, to Disneyland anyway?Every chance we get.


The approach to Disneyland used to be romantic: a souk of space-age lodges and topiary gardens, a glimpse of the Matterhorn. When Disneyland expanded in recent years, a freeway ramp was built, shunting visitors straight into the nation's biggest parking structure. A brisk walk leads to a spaghetti-snarl of escalators, which run toward a seething, stroller-clogged tableau—the line for the Disneyland trams. I hope you remember where you parked your car.


Watching any children's DVD 75 times is enough to bring out the inner Pauline Kael in all of us—you can hardly help noticing the Shakespearean underpinnings of The Lion King for example. It is the subtext that keeps us parents sane. And what I have grown to appreciate about Disneyland is that it is still the single-minded creation of Walt Disney, a man who was cheerfully bat-shit insane. A backyard hobbyist who managed to harness major corporate resources to build himself a better train set, Disney translated his back-of-the-envelope scrawlings into millions of tons of concrete and steel. The guy liked railroads?You can still see his private car, the Victorian Lilly Belle, tacked to the rear of the choo-choo that circles the park. He had a nifty trip to the French Quarter?The beautifully detailed New Orleans Square has wrought-iron balconies, Mardi Gras beads, and an army of Preservation Hall–grade Dixieland bands—all realistic enough to have passed as the background for a campaign ad in last spring's New Orleans mayoral race. Like a Frank O'Hara poem or a Norman Rockwell painting—and unlike anything in Orlando—Disneyland is both completely of its time and ageless.


Since its opening in 1955, Disneyland has been famous for intricate foot-traffic control, for tricks of forced perspective that would have Palladio scratching his head, and for its hermetic, self-contained feeling (at almost no point can you see anything of the world outside). Like Gaul, the Disney resort is divided into three parts: the historic Disneyland, piped straight out of Walt's skull; Disney's California Adventure, which is more or less an old-fashioned amusement park built on a portion of the former parking lot; and Downtown Disney, an outdoor mall that is, ironically, less Disneyfied than several other Los Angeles malls but has dozens of restaurants and a Disney store the size of Anaheim Stadium. If you plan to spend only one day at Disney, you can safely skip California Adventure, although its signature attraction, Soarin' Over California, may be my favorite Disney ride ever.


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.


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.


Theoretically, at least, Disneyland is one of the most democratic places in America. Julia Roberts stands in the same line for Pirates of the Caribbean that you do. Bill Gates does not get a better ride on the Matterhorn. But guests at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa (714/635-2300;; doubles from $320)—the hulking Craftsman-style lodge that looms over Downtown Disney—do enjoy certain advantages. The hotel's back entrance opens directly into California Adventure, and the monorail to Disneyland is only steps away. The proximity makes it easy to take a break from the action. The concierge level—where rooms start at $500—has a simple free breakfast, and peanut butter sandwiches in the afternoon. The desk is happy to arrange breakfast with Disney characters and the dinner reservation at Napa Rose that you probably forgot to make three weeks in advance. And the redwood-shaped waterslide is nice, too.

Disneyland Hotel (714/778-6600;; doubles from $165) and Disney's Paradise Pier Hotel (714/999-0990;; doubles from $215) are nearly as close to the park proper as the Grand Californian, and both have big pools, but they offer fewer frills.

In addition to the Disney properties, there are outposts of every American hotel chain within a mile or so of the park; most have shuttles.


Having inspired as much devotion as any place this side of the Vatican, Disneyland offers virtually infinite online resources. The official Disney site is the best place to take a virtual park tour and find out about hotel packages and ticket prices. A massive site devoted to all things Disney, it includes discussion boards, news reports, and reviews of rides and even bathrooms. Another site for Disneyland obsessives, it offers excruciatingly detailed park updates and exhaustive chat boards, often frequented by pseudonymous Disneyland employees—a recent thread covered Fastpass strategy in the kind of detail usually reserved for the Talmud and Fantasy Football.

Jonathan Gold is the dining critic for L.A. Weekly and the author of Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles. He recently won his fourth James Beard Award for restaurant reviewing.

Disneyland Resort vs. Walt Disney World

Disneyland Resort 1955
Walt Disney World 1971
Disneyland Resort 430 acres
Walt Disney World 30,000 acres
Disneyland Resort $79 adult/$69 child
Walt Disney World $103 adult/$92 child
Disneyland Resort 20.3 million
Walt Disney World 42.8 million
Disneyland Resort Sleeping Beauty
Walt Disney World Cinderella
Disneyland Resort Churro
Walt Disney World Mickey Mouse Ice Cream bar

1. Soarin' Over California (in Disney's California Adventure)
This ride—the most compelling reason to shell out an extra $20 for a Park Hopper ticket—is a simulated hang-glider trip around the state. Inhale the piped-in orange-grove scent! Feel the vertigo! It's what an IMAX movie might be like if your local science museum invested several million dollars in mechanical seats that thrust you into the screen. Your eyes will convince you that there is nothing but air between you and Yosemite Valley, or Napa Valley, or the Golden Gate Bridge, hundreds of feet below. You will scream.

2. Indiana Jones Adventure
The line, an endless queue that snakes through a near-replica of the Bayon temple in Angkor Wat, may be more innovative than the ride itself, which at times resembles a trip down Broadway with a newly licensed cabbie at the wheel. And although the computer-controlled, bouncing, Humvee-like vehicles are supposedly capable of providing tens of thousands of distinct journeys through Indy Land, you'll need the sensibility of an Xbox pro to tell the difference between one trip and the next. But still, given the swarming spiders, abrupt drops, and profusion of Audio-Animatronic Harrison Fords, this is the most successful marriage of Disney style and thrill-ride jollies.

3. Splash Mountain
The first few times you climb into the floating logs on this flume ride, your attention may be rather too grimly focused on the singing and dancing reprise of 1 Fireworks inside the mountain—because you are dreading the almost vertical 57-foot drop that comes at the climax. The Theatre of Cruelty has nothing on this baby.

4. Space Mountain
Not just a speedy medium-size steel coaster—this is a speedy medium-size steel coaster in the dark and thus utterly terrifying, in spite of its relative mildness.

5. Matterhorn Bobsleds
Disneyland's 1959 replica of the famous Swiss peak is a support structure for the bobsled ride, the first steel coaster ever built. It's conquered at least once a day by Mickey, Minnie, and a mountaineer who looks like a lederhosen-wearing Godzilla on the 1:100-scale Alp.

1. Fireworks
As she has for decades, Tinkerbell swoops down toward Sleeping Beauty's castle every night about 9:15 p.m.; the crowds, who have been waiting for hours on Main Street, ooh and ahh, and the modern science of pyrotechnics—now enhanced by lasers and computers—turns the park around you into a fiery night in the kingdom.

2. Fantasmic!
You may not be much for parades. And as a four-year veteran of the UCLA marching band, I'm right there with you. But Fantasmic!—a presentation that involves lasers, pirate ships, projections onto sheets of mist, and rivers exploding into flame—is the equivalent of every Super Bowl halftime show in history spun into a single spectacular. Inquire about times (they change), and aim to catch the more sparsely attended second show.

When you are just three feet tall, as my son is, Disneyland is a very different place. You're too short to be allowed on most of the spectacular rides (as if you would want to hurtle down the side of an Alp), and your view of the festivities begins and ends with a lot of tourists' knees. If your parents take advantage of the pass-off system on the wilder attractions—the whole family stands in line, but one parent stays behind with the child and then gets to ride when the other parent returns—you experience the latest in queue technology without much to show for it. Still, there's plenty of G-rated excitement:

1. It's a Small World
Don't think of it as 11 minutes of the most cloying song ever written. Think of the ride, designed by Disney's Imagineers for the 1964 New York World's Fair, as a masterpiece of early-sixties graphic design and utopian one-worldism.

2. Enchanted Tiki Room
The ethnic-dialect banter between the parrots may have been dated even in 1963, but this first Disney essay in Audio-Animatronics is the only show with singing birds, angry tiki gods, and a faux rainstorm.

3. Jungle Cruise
If you get the right skipper, the journey can take on a warped, Dave Chappelle–like dimension. Plus, the new piranha-churn at the end is proof that a simple idea can sometimes trump $10 million worth of engineering.

4. Dumbo the Flying Elephant
The elephants go up. The elephants come down. Your toddler is at the controls. Somehow, this is soothing.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean
Freshly tweaked from a ride based on every Errol Flynn movie ever made to a ride based on a movie based on a ride based on every Errol Flynn movie ever made, the new Pirates is a triumph of postmodernism with a cool theme song. Yo ho, yo ho, indeed.

Some Disneyland guides would have you believe that your excursion needs to be mapped out with the precision of a military campaign, with scarcely a minute allotted to picture-taking or churro consumption. Ignore that advice, but get going early. You can whip through more rides between 8 a.m., when the gates open, and 10 a.m. than you will in the next eight hours combined.

Take advantage of the Fastpass system, which allows you to slide your admission ticket into a machine at popular rides and receive a voucher entitling you to board at a specified time. Fastpasses are especially useful for the Indiana Jones ride and the peaks of the Disneyland mountain range—Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain, and Splash Mountain.

If your Mouseketeers are still in diapers, relax. A battalion of smartly uniformed "nannies" oversees the free Baby Care Center near the end of Main Street, where regiments of clean high chairs stand at attention and rows of clean changing tables stretch into the distance. Awesome.