Our guide to visiting the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’

“Wake up Jo, you’re at Disneyland!” Lamenting that I have the only child on the planet who will sleep through a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth, I try a different tactic: “Come on. We’re having breakfast in Goofy’s Kitchen!”

Mission accomplished. Her eyes ping open as it suddenly dawns on her that her wildest four-year-old dreams — to meet Mickey, Minnie and the rest of the Disney gang — are about to be realised. But that was then and this is now.

That magical moment occurred almost 30 years ago; my daughter, Jo, is now 32, with two children of her own.

She’s more than a little miffed that I’m heading back to Disneyland, sans family. “What, without me?” she wails, channelling her inner four-year-old diva. “Or the kids? That’s not fair.”

Sorry, my love but this is work and someone has to make sure the Disney magic still has its potency. Right?

Seriously, that’s the indescribable genius of Disney — the ability to render almost everyone a shiny-eyed toddler once again. Whatever your tolerance of theme parks, no-one speaks to the child within quite like Disney.

Once we venture into those enchanted, concrete kingdoms, we are rolled in glitter, sprout rainbow unicorn wings and soar on a flying carpet deep into the firework-sparked memory bank.

Despite my reticence that I’m far too old for Mickey-shaped waffles for breakfast, all cynicism crumbles when I spy a little girl in a princess dress trembling with excitement as she hugs Minnie Mouse, memories of my own daughter’s unbridled joy flooding back to me.

Yes, hugs with oversized rodents are back with a vengeance at Disney, along with rides, parades and the beloved Nighttime Spectaculars as the negative energy of the pandemic is meticulously swept under the proverbial rug along with every piece of trash dropped on Main Street USA.

After being shuttered for 14 months, California’s Disneyland began a phased reopening in April 2021 — complete with physical distancing and a ban on character hugs.

All restrictions have since been dropped with numbers almost returning to pre-pandemic levels. With a new reservation system in place, attendances are now “managed”, presumably to prevent overcrowding.

This time round, all these years later, I’m visiting both Disneyland in California as well as its bigger and bolder counterpart in Orlando, Florida, during some major milestones in the Disney annals.

Walt Disney World Resort is celebrating its 50th anniversary, with 18-month celebrations continuing until March, 2023; while in Disneyland, the iconic Main Street Electrical Parade is also turning a sprightly half-century.

To attempt both Disney destinations in one trip is daunting, to say the least. But after six intense days of screaming on roller coasters, immersing myself into new attractions, watching reimagined shows and walking 25,000 steps a day in blister-inducing runners, I feel reasonably qualified in sharing my Disney experience with you, dear reader.

My three biggest tips? Lock away your inhibitions, throw away your judgment, and wear comfortable shoes. You’ll need them. Hang on for the wild rides ahead.

DISNEYLAND RESORT, CALIFORNIA

There was only one Disneyland park in California back in 1994 when I first took my daughter to meet Minnie Mouse; the second, Disney California Adventure (DCA), opened in 2001, originally more adult-oriented and themed around Californian history and culture.

Today, the two adjacent parks complement each other perfectly. Families with young children will still probably make a beeline for Fantasyland in the original Disneyland, with its Cinderella castle, spinning tea cups and the evergreen but incessant, “It’s a Small World”.

Yet there are plenty of thrills to keep older teens and adults on their toes in Adventureland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Critter County and the latest addition, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Meanwhile, across the plaza, alcoholic beverages are available in the waterside restaurants of Disney California Adventure Park.

Although there’s cuteness overload in children’s attractions such as Ariel’s Undersea Adventure and Toy Story Midway Mania, there’s generally a more mature ambience in DCA with roller coasters such as the Incredicoaster and the highly visual and entertaining Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land providing plenty of screams and panic attacks for thrillseekers.

There’s also considerably more “male energy” – particularly in Disney California Adventure’s newest ‘world’, Avengers Campus. “New recruits” can train alongside their favourite superheroes; while stunt shows, Spider-Man encounters and a Dr Strange show in his Magic Sanctum immerse visitors into the confounding multiverse of Marvel.

Meanwhile, in the Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout! — located in the daunting former Tower of Terror — I join a join a bunch of whooping and hollering post-teens on a mission to rescue captive Guardians from electrified glass cases hanging over the abyss.

Fuelled by a pumping classic rock soundtrack, the gantry lift doors open to reveal popular characters consumed by spectacular effects, with six different drop sequences synched to unique visuals to keep the experience fresh.

As a Marvel ignoramus, I have no idea what’s going on — but it’s ridiculous and terrifying fun, made all the more hilarious by the ear-piercing shrieks of the man-children around me.

The newest attraction in this relatively small themed “world” is Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure, where brilliant technology immerses riders of all ages into a frantic dark adventure alongside Peter Parker as he attempts to wrangle rogue spider-bots that have replicated and are running amok through the Avengers Campus.

Using my own latent superpowers (who knew?), my arms flail wildly as I sling webs from my own wrists as mutant bots catapult towards the Web Slinger vehicle, my surprisingly high score from exploding green arachnids (shudder) proving I have what it takes to save the world. If only I wasn’t so traumatised by the experience, that is.

From a technological perspective, the new Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ride is perhaps the most complex and advanced offering ever from Disney’s Imagineers.

There’s a drama and scale that is mind blowing, with real-life characters, advanced CGI, a trackless dark ride, motion simulator and walk-through practical sets all combining to immerse riders into the heart of the battle between the First Order and the Resistance.

Not surprisingly, the wait time for the latest and most exciting rides can be hideously long – up to two hours in the Standby line; and while the Genie+ service (see below) allows Lightning Lane entrance to most attractions, some (such as Ride of the Resistance) require an individual “a la carte” purchase, capped at two experiences a day.

The price for Lightning Lane entry depends on the ride, day and availability, but expect to pay up to $US20 ($28.50) extra for the privilege of not standing in a sweltering, shoulder-to-shoulder line for hours on end.

While the new ticketing system – and the added costs involved – may be a little contentious, it’s the “freebies” thrown into a full day spent in the parks that give that warm and fuzzy Disney glow-up.

After a long COVID-19-induced hiatus, the “Nighttime Spectaculars” are back. There’s the gorgeous World of Color, a Bellagio on steroids water, laser and projection show featuring 1200 synchronised fountains that takes you on an emotional journey through the Disney film canon.

Then there’s Fantasmic! It erupts over the Rivers of America in Disneyland with recreations of memorable scenes from Disney classics; and of course, the evergreen Main Street Electrical Parade.

The parade is a joy with half a million twinkling lights decorating more than 20 film-themed floats, including a new Grand Finale float featuring characters from contemporary favourites Coco and Encanto, a new addition to celebrate the parade’s half-century.

“Main Street Electrical Parade debuted in 1972, but it’s still gorgeous, still a crowd-pleaser,” says Jennifer Magill, producer of Disneyland Resort’s Nighttime Spectaculars.

“You hear that little bit of Baroque Hoedown, and you know exactly where you are in your memories, it just sucks you back in.

“I like to say we like to move forward, but we like to remember where we came from and honour those classics.”

WALT DISNEY WORLD RESORT, ORLANDO, FLORIDA

Across the country in steamy Florida, Walt Disney World is a multi-park behemoth covering an exhausting 101 square kilometres, the largest theme park in the world.

There are four individual Parks — Magic Kingdom Park, EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom — as well as several water parks and golf courses, Disney Springs shopping and entertainment precinct, and 34 hotels and resorts, all slapped down on a reclaimed wetland where — I’m told by my Uber driver — alligators still lurk in residual waterways.

Despite its enormity, the four parks in Walt Disney World are more contained thematically than their smaller counterparts in California, so it may be easier to prioritise one or more in your itinerary, depending on your timeframe and interests.

The Magic Kingdom, for instance, celebrates the Disney classics, a land of enchantment and pixie dust guaranteed to please the under-10s and mouse-ear-wearing Disney tragics.

Animal Kingdom and its nature theme is elevated beyond a recreated captive animal safari experience by the recent addition of Pandora — the World of Avatar, where the Flight of Passage 3D flight simulator sees you soaring on the back of a Mountain Banshee through an otherworldly landscape so realistic, it gives you goosebumps.

Disney’s incredible film legacy is celebrated at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, from the earliest animated classics to the inevitable marriage between Disney and the Star Wars franchise.

And at last, Mickey and Minnie Mouse get their very first starring role in any Disney theme park ride around the world on the new Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, a fun, trackless dark ride through a retro cartoon universe enhanced by high-tech visuals and unexpected twists.

In Star Wars Galaxy Edge, I find myself — much to my co-riders’ chagrin — in the role of co-pilot on the Millennium Falcon on an interactive smuggling mission.

My pathetic joy-stick skills resulting in smashing into barriers and space debris before crash-landing on planet Batuu — or at least, I think that’s how the narrative goes, as I was too busy laughing to absorb the storyline that most Star Wars fans know by heart.

I also get a second shot at Rise of the Resistance (which made its debut at Walt Disney World in December 2019), this time taking in the incredible details that passed me by on my first intergalactic adventure in California.

My favourite of the Walt Disney World parks, however, is EPCOT which has managed to transcend its rather cheesy, World Fair-esque genesis as a futuristic utopian city exploring exotic lands and cultures to become a more rounded celebration of the Disney-verse, loosely themed into four ‘”neighbourhoods”.

I stroll along the World Showcase lagoon, its 11 national pavilions harbouring unexpected delights such as the Frozen Ever After flume ride (in Norway, naturally) and the new 3D Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure (in France).

It’s there that I’m shrunk to the size of a rat, scattering through Gusteau’s kitchen avoiding stomping feet, sloshing mops (drips and all) and flying champagne corks.

But the window to my imagination is flung open in the most unexpected universe of all — on EPCOT’s newest and most thrilling ride, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.

Disney’s first 360-degree swivelling OmniCoaster, this heartstopper launches you (backwards as well as forwards) through a vortex into outer space, past spinning planets and alien craft, with visuals so shimmering and vibrant.

I forget to be scared and instead can’t help gushing, “It’s soooooo beautiful!” It couldn’t have been more wondrous than if I’d been looking down on Earth from SpaceX, and at a fraction of the price.

Each Cosmic Rewind journey is accompanied by one of six thumping classic ’80s tunes, from September by Earth Wind and Fire to Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fear, which help shape the experience and turn the ride into a veritable boogie wonderland.

This is definitely a contender for the “best ride” award and one I can’t wait to share with my all-grown-up daughter and her own little super-heroes while they are still young enough to appreciate that all-encompassing Disney magic on a proposed family trip in the next 18 months.

Oh, and yes, I did make it back to Goofy’s Kitchen, the character restaurant attached to the original Disneyland Hotel. With memories flooding back, it did feel as if I’d stepped into the time-warp of what remains a vital part of the Disney experience.

Julie Miller travelled to California and Florida as a guest of the Walt Disney Company. See thewaltdisneycompany.com

DISNEY: A SURVIVAL GUIDE

THE TICKETS

Visitors aged three and over must now not only pre-book tickets but make reservations for the parks they wish to visit on any given day, subject to availability. One to five-day tickets are available – the longer you stay, the less you pay. Guests with multi-day tickets must make reservations for each date of the visit. However, guests with a Park Hopper ticket can cross between parks on one day, but only after 1pm and with a reservation at the first theme park they wish to visit. Make reservations well in advance.

THE PASSES

To spend less time waiting in line for popular rides, buy the Genie+ service, available online for $US20 per ticket a day. This allows you to select the next available window for Lightning Lane access (replacing the old Fast Pass lane), with two-hour windows between selections. Some of the most popular rides, however, require an “a la carte” Lightning Lane purchase, an extra cost from $US7 to $US20 depending on demand, capped at two purchases a park per day.

THE APPS

To help navigate the Genie+ service and maximise your day with less confusion or disappointment, download the appropriate Disney Resorts app (Disneyland or My Disney Experience). A digital Tip Board not only shows wait times for standby queues, it allows you to join virtual queues for Lightning Lanes, make dining reservations and even pre-order food at restaurants. You can also download a selection of photos from rides and character meetings.

THE STRATEGY

Arrive at your chosen park at least 45 minutes before the gates open – then dash to your favourite ride to avoid long queues. Tackle one park a day; or if you divide your day between parks, decide which one you want to experience by night and head there mid-afternoon. For best vantage points for fireworks, spectaculars and parades, get in position early; better still, target rides with high vantage points as the Night-time Spectaculars began, such as the swinging ferris wheel, Goofy’s Sky School and the Incredicoaster.

THE RESPITE

While the temptation may be to cram as much as possible into your Disney visit, allow yourself time to breathe, regroup and rest your weary feet. Take a midday break and enjoy a leisurely meal or some down-time by the pool at your Disney hotel; or take in some retail therapy at Downtown Disney or Disney Springs. Ride lines tend to peak early to mid-afternoon, so this is a great time to check out and get your second wind for the long night ahead.

THE DETAILS

FLY

United Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles, with domestic connections to Orlando, Florida. See united.com

STAY

Disneyland Resort features three on-site hotels, two boasting their own private entrances to Disney California Adventure Park. Disney hotel guests also benefit from early access to the parks. Walt Disney World Resort has 34 on-site hotels. It costs from $US463 ($650) for a room sleeping up to five adults at Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel in California.

HEALTH

While park guests are recommended to be fully vaccinated or receive a negative COVID-19 test before entering, it’s up to the individual to protect themselves, particularly in indoor settings where a mask is recommended. Be particularly vigilant in the indoor and outdoor ride queues.

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