A WDW Expert goes to Disneyland

I’ve been going to Walt Disney World for two decades now. Many have been going longer, but I was a “late bloomer” as I’ve probably mentioned before. And being the technical, analytical person I am, I learned a great deal by studying – we bought books, joined the DISboards, etc. Because the Fastpass system was so important for being able to enjoy more and wait list, I made a point of studying it, how it work, WHY it worked, and knowing how best to use it. I was dubbed the “Fastpass Jedi Master” over at the DISboards. In general, I consider myself an expert on most everything WDW.

This time I was out of my element. THIS time, I was going to Disneyland. I was going to where it all began. And I wanted a first-timers view. So much so, we went to the parks without even a touring plan. We had our must-dos, our would-like-to-dos, and even some don’t-really-need-to-dos – we knew we wouldn’t be able to do everything, and some attractions are carbon copies of those in WDW. We wanted to do the different things most – even those that were only slightly different in a way.

It looks familiar so far…
My passion for nostalgia is pretty high, so seeing the things I’ve only seen on TV, via re-runs of the old “Disneyland/World of Color”, and walking where Walt once walked, was going to be the excitement for me. So obviously, our first day would be spent in Disneyland Park.

To someone very familiar with the Magic Kingdom, which was based on the original Disneyland park, everything feels comfortably familiar as you approach. In fact, there is a lot of “same but different”, if you know what I mean. The entrance is very similar – but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Magic Kingdom less crowded at opening! Getting photos in front of the big floral Mickey was easy. Walking into the interior to Main Street USA is also remarkably similar…City Hall on the left, the courtyard – but where the Town Square Theater would be in the Magic Kingdom, there is “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln”, one of the classic attractions from the 1964 World’s Fair.

The sameness holds true up Main Street, except some of the stores are in different positions and names are a bit different, such as instead of Casey’s Corner at the end on the left it is the Refreshment Corner. But the most striking difference looking up the road is the castle – whereas Cinderella’s Castle towers ahead, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle is much smaller, and that gets emphasized the closer you get – but the sense of awe still grows.

We took a right towards Tomorrowland first. First thing to notice, other than the overall size of Tomorrowland being smaller, is that Astro Orbitor is right up front, at ground level. 21 years ago, it was located similarly to the Magic Kingdom version, atop the Peoplemover platform and guests used an elevator to reach it – back then it was called “Rocket Jets”. When it was rebuilt in 1997 it would have been too heavy for the structure so it was moved to the front, in a new steampunk-ish brass attire. The old location still exists, with a sculpture that – occasionally, when it is functional – spins, but guests are not permitted up there any longer.

Speaking of the Peoplemover, the track still encircles the section of the park, although it hasn’t been used in years. The Peoplemover itself was closed in 1997, and then was re-used for “Rocket Rods” for a couple of years, during which it became famous for breaking down, and closed permanently in 2000. The track is still intact, but despite some hopeful statements around 2010 that it may get used again, shows no signs of being prepared still, with debris in sections and structures holding heavy signs being built across the tracks.

Star Wars dominates Tomorrowland these days, with Star Tours, Star Wars: Launch Bay (a meet-and-greet/props area in the old Carousel Theater/Innoventions building) and Star Wars: Path of the Jedi (a film on the making of the movies) all there. Star Tours is essentially the same as at Magic Kingdom – even the entrance queue is near identical. Currently, although they can have an extensive mix of scenes, with the recent movie releases the two primary action sequences are of Jakku and Crait, with the opening and interstitial scenes being the variances…and finally landing on Batuu, the new planet that will be the focus of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the new land under construction both here and at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Curiously, Galaxy’s Edge will be clear on the opposite side of the park in Disneyland, where Big Thunder Ranch used to be.

Space Mountain is different, with only one track and side-by-side seating. It actually seems like a much smoother ride than the Magic Kingdom version, with different music and sound effects. I like it much better. It also gave us our first ever Disney ride evacuation – after we loaded and moved forward, the train in front of us turned towards the maintenance track instead of the ride track – and the cast members had to push it forward and have them evacuate around the corner, while we were evacuated from the staging area – but we were immediately reloaded and the attraction ran without issue so I’m not sure why we had to get out at all. I remember anything happening to the Magic Kingdom version was a long wait while they did testing. Alas, it wasn’t a cool evacuation like when you can see the actual track inside…we also had our second Disney evacuation ever, but considerably less cool – in the middle of the night, when the fire alarm at the Grand Californian went off…

We also were finally able to take our first Disney submarine ride…we were never able to ride 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea at the Magic Kingdom, as it closed before our first trip. But this was the original, which seemed as if it would meet the same fate when it closed in 1998, but re-opened in 2010 although with a new Finding Nemo theme. So it was neat to finally ride an attraction I had seen so many old videos of…riding through the lagoon was neat, but lacked the live mermaids, etc. that used to appear in the past. The Nemo-themed “show” part was pretty similar to the clamshell ride at The Seas With Nemo and Friends at Epcot, except you’re looking through a porthole. It’s a little cramped, with bench seating, and I had to lean down to look out the porthole, which did cause my back to ache for a bit but not too badly. But we’ve done it…

My grin may have widened a bit when I saw the Tomorrowland Terrace stage – I’ve always been fascinated by the stage that rises out of the ground, and it still functions as is used for Jedi Training Academy and concerts. I didn’t see it move, but I did see it both up and down.

And of course there is the Monorail – in Walt Disney World, it is actually a transportation option, whereas in Disneyland it is more of an attraction, circling around Tomorrowland and parts of the park, then heading over to the resorts and back again – although you board at Downtown Disney to get into the park. And, unlike Walt Disney World, you can still ride in the front! We did the complete loop in the front, which was cool as you could see everything.

It doesn’t rain much, after all…
Moving towards Fantasyland, there is of course the towering Matterhorn. This was actually one of our first rides, and it it being the most unique attraction. It is two intertwined steel coasters like Space Mountain in Magic Kingdom (which was based on the design), but running both in and out of the mountain. We got to ride both sides while we were there, and it was an exciting while somewhat tame coaster with a little splash at the end. But THEY have working abominable snowmen in the ride! Why can’t we have that in Florida?!?

It’s a small world doesn’t differ significantly aside from the loading area being completely outside and the occasional Disney character appearing.

Perhaps disappointing was the combination of what were essentially the same ride but with different theming. We never got to ride Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at the Magic Kingdom, so we were definitely riding it here. But is is much the same ride as Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Pinnochio’s Daring Journey, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and even Roger Rabbit’s Cartoon Spin over in Mickey’s Toontown and Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue! in the California Adventure Park, with the exception that Cartoon Spin allows the riders to spin the cars, like with Alice’s Mad Tea Party. We did all but Snow White – and no real desire to do them again.

Frontierland and Critter Country cover the significant attractions at Magic Kingdom’s Frontierland/Liberty Square, namely Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain – but the layout of the areas were very different from Florida and I found it a bit tough navigating getting from there to elsewhere. We did not get to do Splash at all, as it was down anytime we had a Fastpass. Big Thunder is similar enough, although I think the theming around it differs slightly – like I didn’t see the miner in the tub like in Florida. Given the time they take, we didn’t do the riverboats. I would have like to see a show at the Golden Horseshoe, but there didn’t seem to be any while we were near there.

Perhaps the most striking difference between Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom is New Orleans Square, which is home to Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. The area feels unlike any other area in either location – it gives a sense of a 19th century New Orleans with small shops, doorways (including the fabled Club 33 entrance), and outdoor dining. Even the attractions are well disguised in the theme. The Haunted Mansion is in fact a mansion in the style of New Orleans, and from the outside isn’t mysterious or scary at all. The attraction itself is similar, although some of the early ride parts of the Magic Kingdom version are part of the queue area here, including the busts that turn to stare at you – which I think actually gives away how they work. A bit of trivia – the stretching rooms at the start work differently between Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom – do you know the difference?

The entrance to Pirates of the Caribbean is also slightly hidden – we saw a few people having trouble figuring out how to actually enter the attraction. The attraction here is also different, and dare I say, better. It is slightly longer, and is most noticeably different in the beginning stretch – whereas in Magic Kingdom, with the skeleton scenes you are still obviously in a small tunnel area, here it is more open, as if you are actually traveling through caves. It really changes the atmosphere of those early scenes.

And last but not least for our clockwise tour of Disneyland is Adventureland. Here we have Tarzan’s Treehouse (skipped, a rethemed Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, which wouldn’t be good for my feet), the Enchanted Tiki Room (family are not fans, and it isn’t significantly different than Florida), Jungle Cruise (rode, but not significantly different) and the Indiana Jones Adventure. The latter is unique although the ride system and layout would later be used for Animal Kingdom’s Countdown to Extinction, now known as Dinosaur. The queue here was themed well to give the impression of walking into an temple excavation that may have a few traps still left over, but at the same time it seemed plastic, with nothing much beyond the walls and railings. The ride itself was great – we did it a few times.

Now is probably a good time to talk about the Fastpass system in Disneyland. It was a bit like going back in time to the old system at Walt Disney World – scan your ticket at a Fastpass kiosk for the particular attraction you want, and get a Fastpass for that attraction for later. You’d have to crisscross the park to get Fastpasses for later, and you can only get them one at a time until the return time or a varying amount of time had passed. But Disneyland now has “MaxPass” – it isn’t Fastpass+, but more like an electronic version of the existing system. Guests can use the Disneyland app on their mobile device to “grab” Fastpasses for an attraction without having to go to the attraction to get them, saving a LOT of walking time. It currently costs $10 per person per day, and also includes Photopass downloads. On a busy park day it seems more than worth it, and I don’t particularly like upcharges like this. We only used it on two of our three days, as the third day was more finishing things we wanted to do and re-riding what we could, without a pressing need to maximize things. Another neat feature is that if the attraction becomes unavailable, you get a notification, and the Fastpass turns into a “use anywhere” Fastpass!

We did have Park Hopper passes, which I think at Disneyland is more likely to be used than at Walt Disney World. In WDW, the parks are some distance apart and time needs to be taken to get from one to the other, which is likely a minimum of 20 minutes (Epcot – Hollywood Studios, at a brisk walk) and often longer. Here, you have two parts right across from each other – California Adventure is right opposite the entrance of Disneyland Park, a short walk, which is pretty cool. California Adventure for the most part was all new to us – with the exception of a few, most of the attractions did not have equivalents in Florida.

360 degrees of pure Cars Land
Speaking of Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout, this was our favorite attraction – it’s an excellent re-use of Tower of Terror, and I’m kind of sad we won’t get this in Florida. The story is that you’ve been invited to see Tivan the Collector’s facility, including his collection, on display in the queue and his office – which now includes the Guardians of the Galaxy. Rocket manages to break out, and enlists the guests for help in breaking out the rest and helping them all escape. The elevators take you up and down several times, stopping for scenes which are different for each run with different songs playing. Think a bit like the varying scenes in Star Tours, but with music as well. They did an excellent job all around.

Cars Land was overall cool…a totally immersive version of Radiator Springs, just as seen in the movie. And it is even better at night, with all the neon and the rocks lit up. There is even a series of street signs themed to Cars’ Rust-eze brand which mimic the old Burma Shave signs, as would have been seen along Route 66 (and other parts of the country.) Most of the rides here are more kid-oriented, with the big exception being Radiator Springs Racers. This attraction uses the ride mechanism from Test Track, but with a more interesting theme and run, plus cars run side-by-side in a mock race through Radiator Springs – another awesome job.

360 degrees of pure Cars Land
Unfortunately for us, there weren’t a lot more attractions that were interesting to us that were open. A lot of Paradise Pier was closed for the conversion to Pixar Pier, and World of Color was down as well. We did several of the Marvel meet-and-greets – Black Panther (who also gets a street show and you can meet his Dora Milaje guards while waiting in line), Spider-Man and Captain America. I was impressed with the amount of in-character interaction each had with their guests. And we did love the overall theming of the park itself. Plus it was right next to the Grand Californian resort, where we were staying, with its own private entrance which was cool as well. We skipped Grizzly River Run as it was getting cool out. The Paint The Night parade was awesome, although a bit long as the night got chilly and windy and I couldn’t wait to get back to the resort…

Speaking of the resort, we loved the Grand Californian. We are Disney Vacation Club members, so we stayed in the villas, which was probably as far from the park entrances as you can get, but not too far to be an issue for us. The style reminded me of the Wilderness and Animal Kingdom lodges. We wish some sort of quick service/snack offerings were closer for us instead of the extreme end of the resort as well. The only real problem we had was with security heading from the resort to Downtown Disney – my daughter had a GoPro camera with a combo handle/table tripod in her bag, which because it could extend an extra two inches they deemed a “selfie stick” and wouldn’t let her in with it, which meant trudging all the way back to the room to drop it off and back again. But I’d stay there in a heartbeat again.

We did venture over to the other resorts briefly as we wandered around, and tried to stop at Trader Sam’s, but it was full at the time. We just grabbed a couple of quick drinks, and sought out food back at Downtown Disney. For table service-level meals, at Downtown Disney we ate at ESPN Zone (soon to close to be torn down for a new resort, but good burgers) and Splitsville (not significantly different than anywhere else – by the way, Splitsville corporate, if you are reading – stop serving cafeteria-quality burgers, they are not worthy of the price or the rest of the menu. You have great sliders – just make those but bigger!), in the resort we had the breakfast buffet at Storyteller’s Cafe and some drinks and appetizers at Hearthstone Lounge, and otherwise we just did counter services. One daughter was on a “churro quest”, trying as many of the different flavors they had during Pixar Fest as she could find. We also liked the “design your own” ice cream options at Clarabelle’s in California Adventure.

Well, that’s about it for this rambling report…we left early in the morning to head to Burbank to check out Universal Studios Hollywood and do some of the touristy things around there…but that’s for another report.