Once again, I was an invited guest to Disneyland's annual Family Media Day, celebrating Halloween. And once again, I was there.
You may recall last year, when my husband was not able to attend with me and my teen ditched me so she could hang out with her friends. I was left wandering the park alone for several hours and came to the conclusion that without peeps, Disneyland is the Loneliest Place on Earth.
So last week, when I learned that my husband would be unable to go with me, I got wise: I invited my sister and her family to join me.
I've invited her before, but there has always been a reason why they weren't able to make the trip down from Northern California. This year, I was in luck: they were available. And instead of going solo, I was part of a party of seven.
What's New This Halloween
|Photos: Carly Starr|
All my Halloween favorites are back: Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy and the Haunted Mansion Holiday. And the Park is festooned with pumpkins and other seasonal decorations.
Star Tours has reopened as Star Tours 3D -- which had me afraid that all the Park did was clean up the ride and re-do the video in 3D.
Thankfully, I was wrong.
The Star Tours 3D experience is all new, with an updated story that reflects all SIX Star Wars films and features appearances by some of your favorite characters: Darth Vader, Chewbacca, Ewoks, Princess Leia (who tells the audience we are her only hope!)... and Jar Jar Binks. (I guess it can't ALL be good). And yes, the droids have been cleaned up and are positively gleaming now.
Doing the Math: Should California Adventure Be Part of the Equation?
There was one little wrinkle in making the trip with the entire family: The Park was hosting just four of us, so my sister had to purchase tickets for the rest.
"Do I really need to spend the extra money for Park Hopper passes?" she asked.
She had never been to California Adventure, and there were attractions there that Disney would want me to see. And since she was adamant about all of us sticking together, that meant that yes, she did have to buy the Park Hoppers. Besides, we have grown to really love California Adventure, and I wanted her to see it.
"We'd better be there longer than ten minutes," she groused. I assured her we would.
But I had my doubts when we entered the park, which has been undergoing some major upgrades in anticipation of the new Cars Land area that is set to debut next summer. I knew that the large letters spelling out C A L I F O R N I A had been taken down. But I was dismayed to see that the entrance no longer included a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge or the Union Station motif dining cars that used to greet you just inside.
|photos of California Adventure before latest renovation|
Now, you enter the Park through turnstiles framed by a facade that resembles the old Pan Pacific Auditorium that stood near today's LA Grove shopping center... and then, you're faced with temporary walls screening you from the new construction -- creating a kind of maze that spits you out at the far end of "Condor Flats."
The new Park entrance will recreate Los Angeles as Walt Disney experienced it when he migrated here in the 1920's (just as the original Park's Main Street harkens back to the Kansas City of his youth. The new area will be called Buena Vista Street and will feature replicas of L.A.'s old red cars (the rail system that was dismantled with the advent of our freeways). There were tantalizing drawings along the temporary wooden maze depicting the Red Cars and a replica of the old Carthay Circle Theater.
Carthay Circle was where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in 1937, which accounts for its new incarnation at a Disney park.
A great deal of the Park is being converted to the news Cars Land, which will debut in the summer. In the meantime, all that construction has messed up foot traffic flow.
I had already noted that the beloved California Screamin' roller coaster was closed for maintenance, which was a disappointment, as that's a ride my daughter and I tend to take two or three times per visit. I was beginning to regret my assurances that we'd spend a lot of time there.
But then I remembered Soarin' Over California, and I figured my sister and her family would enjoy it. After all, as many times as I've experienced the ride, it always ends with me wanting more.
We followed Soarin' with Grizzly River Run, a simulated white water rafting experience which I enjoy, but tend to avoid because I worry about getting too soaked. (The first time we rode this, my husband's cell phone got ruined from all the water).
But it was a hot day, and I didn't want to be left out -- so I went along. It helped that my brother-in-law (who must have been a Boy Scout in his youth) just happened to have a plastic trash bag with him. I don't know why and I didn't ask -- but thanks to him, all of our group's belongings remained dry.
As we disembarked from the ride, I noticed some short term lockers just behind the entrance, where you can stash your stuff for free. Something I'll remember on my next visit!
One ride I was eager to check out was The Little Mermaid - Ariel's Undersea Adventure, which is located within the replica of San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts. Over the last few years, I'd seen models and drawings of the new attraction displayed at Blue Sky Cellar, so I'd been anticipating this traditional "dark ride" with thorougly modern animatronics and special effects. Besides, I've always loved the Caribbean-inflected score, which played through different scenes recreated from the movie. It was as charming as I'd hoped.
We spent a couple of hours at California Adventure, including lunch. I had planned to take my sister to the Golden Vine Winery. After all, wine tasting is one of the things we like to do when we visit her in Northern California -- and she had not yet experienced the novelty of drinking wine inside a Disney park. But by noon, we were all feeling very peckish and the maze of walls shielding all that new construction made it hard to find the Winery.
So we ended up at the Pacific Wharf section of the park, which looks a lot like Monterey's Cannery Row.
Each time I visit the Disney parks, I am struck by how many more options there are than when I was a kid (when it seemed like all you could get was burgers, hot dogs and some tuna sandwiches at the Chicken of the Sea sponsored outlet in Fantasyland). There's still a lot of junk food on the menu -- but you'll also find a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables on the menus. With a little planning, you can eat rather healthily.
However, what seems like it will be healthy doesn't always turn out that way. Several of us got rice bowls at Pacific Wharf's Lucky Fortune Asian food stand, where you can select the kind of protein and sauce that gets thrown over your bowl of rice. I was delighted with my order of tofu smothered in a spicier than expected Korean sauce.
My sister was less than pleased with a similar order of beef, which was fatty and nearly inedible (and cost about $10).
Lunch was a dim memory by 6:00 PM, when we headed over to Downtown Disney for a nice, quiet meal in the very posh Catal restaurant (part of super chef Joachim Splichal's Patina group). With a party of seven, we got smart and made a reservation a few days before our visit (the Disney Parks website has all a list of all the places that take reservations with one call to 714-781-DINE).
The Catal menu is super-sophisticated -- which means my 15-year-old ended up requesting a dish from the kids' menu. Fortunately, there was a lot more on offer than your usual collection of fried foods and junk: she had a perfectly balanced meal, with a serving of steak, potatoes and fresh, green vegetables. Plus, the portion was just right -- I eyeballed it at about 6 ounces. If you are trying to do Disney on a diet, I recommend ordering the same (just note that the restaurant charges $5 extra to adults who are ordering from the kids' menu. I understand why they do that, but it would be really nice if they offered right-size portions to adults, too).
Another strategy is to do what my sister and I did, and stick with the tapas menu. We ordered three items there, and left the table feeling satisfied (but not uncomfortably full).
The restaurant was very elegant and the other diners did not look like people who had spent a very hot day at the park. This is obviously a dining destination for locals as well as tourists.
It Wouldn't Be a Disney Holiday Without a Fireworks Show
The final thing the folks at Disney wanted us to see on our visit was the fireworks show. This is always a showcase of the park's pyrotechnical prowess (could not resist a bit of alliteration here). This year's show was no exception, with echoes of past Disney attractions, movies and television shows (not to mention recorded narration by Julie Andrews herself). I especially loved seeing Tinkerbell back in the sky, which took me back to the Disney fireworks displays of my youth.
It was another great Halloween visit to the park -- and this year, for me, it truly was the Happiest Place on Earth.
DISCLOSURE: I was comped four park hopper tickets to attend the Media Family Halloween event at the Disneyland Resort. I received no other compensation to write this post. All opinions are my own (with a few thrown in from my sister).