We (Still) Love Disneyland

It’s true, we do! Disneyland is our favorite theme park in the US, and it was so good to be back. In this park report, we’ll share more photos and thoughts from California, including character encounters, food, attraction maintenance, atmosphere & vibes, and why you should take a summer or early fall trip to Disneyland if you’re still debating between the two coasts.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. A few years ago, I wrote “Why Every Disney Fan Should Visit Disneyland.” However, we nevertheless felt the need to reiterate it here. While we shared a Disneyland Reopening Report during our trip, I wanted to do a post-trip park report that elaborated upon some of those thoughts and shared more photos.

In the couple of weeks since we’ve returned to Florida, I’ve been working nonstop on Disneyland post updates and new content in between visits to Walt Disney World for new meals, fireworks, and to check out how things are changing. In looking back at our recent and draft California posts, most are relatively informative and fail to convey the emotion we experienced returning to Disneyland. Accordingly, I wanted to offer some color commentary here, along with random tidbits and photos that don’t fit elsewhere…

Several of the attractions we did most are pretty obvious: Indiana Jones Adventure, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Alice in Wonderland, Snow White’s Enchanted Wish, and it’s a small world.

A couple that might surprise you–or that warrant further discussion–are Disneyland Railroad and Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin. With regard to the former, we forgot how much we missed riding the rails in the last year. It still bugs me that Magic Kingdoms trains have been out of commission for such an unnecessarily long amount of time.

I’ve described Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin as criminally underrated, but I’ll continue repeating myself until it receives appropriate appreciation among fans.

From the elaborate queue to the gags to clever scene constructs, this attraction is a masterclass in frenetic fun. There are dozens of smart ideas crammed into only a few minutes, and it manages to do a lot with a ton of heart while using mostly “old” tech.

Here’s hoping it finally gets the love it deserves when Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway opens. That feels like a spiritual successor to Car Toon Spin, but with modern technology (and not quite as good).

Speaking of which, I had seen plenty of photos, but I was still surprised by the size of the Runaway Railway show building. The “What Big Building?” gag is fine during construction, but I really hope that’s all concealed with hills.

Most attractions are looking great right now.

Maintenance is always one of Disneyland’s strong suits, but we were surprised by just how some of the dark ride show scenes really popped and came to life. Everything is extra clean and crisp.

The only exceptions to this were Indiana Jones Adventure and Splash Mountain, which isn’t a big surprise.

With Indiana Jones Adventure, I was also disappointed that my favorite queue gag was disabled, the pre-show video was condensed, and some effects weren’t working. (That last one is not uncommon.)

Back when Pirates of the Caribbean received its big, controversial refurbishment a few years ago, I don’t think we discussed the one unequivocally good addition. Perhaps because I didn’t capture a good photo of it until now.

Anyway, to ensure that the ride didn’t lose the voice of Paul Frees, long “lost” audio tracks were restored, and new figures of an octopus and pirate have been added as a transition between the past and the present. The new character transforms from a skeleton into a living pirate as riders pass, using a simple mirror trick a la the butterfly cage from Journey into Imagination.

We also like the additions to Haunted Mansion.

Even more than that, I like how good the graveyard scene is looking. The ghosts are really popping–reminds me of Tokyo Disneyland’s version.

I’m glad Haunted Mansion didn’t reopen with more changes. I’m not privy to any inside information, but interviews with Imagineers have made it sound like more potential changes are being contemplated down the road.

When it comes to attractions, some of changes being made at Disneyland and Walt Disney World are pragmatic and overdue.

However, two important questions should be asked before making other, more borderline changes. First, is the existing scene or visual memorable? Second, is the replacement as or more effective at evoking an emotion?

In many other scenarios, Imagineering’s modifications pass both tests. However, it’s doubtful you could answer “no” to the first question when it comes to just about anything in Haunted Mansion. It’s even more difficult to imagine answering “yes” to potential replacement scenes or visuals. Hopefully we do not find out.

Switching gears, the more I experience Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT, the more I like it. The more I think about its creation, the more impressed I am by the quick turnaround time and tight budget for this project. This is just a flat out fun attraction, with great humor, music, and use of those characters.

If I’m being honest, my initial assessment missed the mark. It replacing the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror clouded my judgment and made my biased against Mission Breakout. With the benefit of hindsight, I think it was a good move and solid addition to the DCA lineup. It’s not without faults and could’ve used some budgetary “polish” of Avengers Campus, but it’s undeniably enjoyable.

Conversely, the more I experience Incredicoaster, the more I dislike it. Fundamentally, this is still the best roller coaster you’ll experience in a United States Disney theme park. The track did not change one way or the other with the reimagining and that’s the key to its success.

However, the vibe has definitely taken a hit. California Screamin’ epitomized the mood and laid back spirit of the Golden State. The smooth coaster felt chill and relaxed–or at least as much as those terms can apply to a thrill ride. Now, the parents from Incredibles are yelling at you about who knows what and there are a bunch of pointless characters scattered around, including dozens of the baby. To quote The Californians, “what’re YOU doin’ here?!”

We’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but it bears reiterating: the characters are exceptional at Disneyland right now. Since last summer, it’s been the case that some of the distanced character encounters at Walt Disney World have been better than the normal ones.

Disneyland has taken that to the next level. All of the characters are either on ground level or in elevated locations that work organically. In all locations, they’re interacting with guests and posing for photos.

It has always been the case that Disneyland does character encounters better than Walt Disney World. There are plenty of theories for this, but it’s indisputably true.

The big plusses with characters are two-fold.

First, they’re in spots that are conducive to photos with guests.

This is the case in some spots at Walt Disney World, but not nearly enough. There, it’s like most character greeting locations were thought up with last summer’s circumstances in mind and have not been revisited since. In California, all of these were made within the last couple months, which obviously meant dramatically different real-world experiences.

Second, there are actual interactions with all of the characters rather than them performing a routine or simply engaging with one another. And these encounters are improvised and amusing. Even if you’re not the one with whom the characters are interacting, they’re still engaging to see.

Again, this is something that happens in a handful of locations at Walt Disney World, but not nearly as many. This shouldn’t be a huge shock, though. Spontaneous and captivating character encounters have long been a Disneyland staple.

This style of experience made it way easier for more guests to see and connect with the characters. I know a ton of Disney fans–particularly parents with small children–want traditional meet & greets to return.

I think there will always be a place for those due to guest demand, but I personally cannot see how those are superior to this.

These are more organic, allow for fluid interactions and photos, and don’t simply treat characters as glorified photo backgrounds.

They also make it feel like the park is inhabited by characters, giving a sense of energy to areas. I could go on and on, but chances are that you either agree or disagree with this perspective–I’m not changing any minds by rambling on here.

Regardless, we ended up taking more photos of ourselves than we had in a long time. I swear it’s not a matter of vanity.

More a matter of no face masks plus weather that wasn’t oppressively humid plus the fact that we were dressed nicely (and by “we” I mean that I wasn’t wearing my standard issue quick dry polo–Sarah always looks nice). Although my facial expression might suggest otherwise in some of these photos, we were also having an absolute blast.

Whenever I see old timey photos of people, I’m envious of the solemn expressions. These days, there’s the expectation that you don’t just smile in photos, but laugh and feign exuberance. Also, that you do so in a way that appears casual, spontaneous, and authentic.

This is a lot to ask of someone like me, who can barely figure out what to do with my hands and muster a fake smile in posed photos. It’s not that I’m unhappy, it’s that I don’t see the need to force a goofy grin if it’s not happening naturally due to genuine joy.

Sarah once taught me a “trick” for more natural smiles in photos, which has something to do with pressing your tongue against the back of your teeth or roof of your mouth. Whatever you’re supposed to do, I clearly did it wrong.

We got home from one of the parks and I had a whole batch of photos that looked like I was biting the tip of my tongue. Not in a cool way (if there is such a thing), but more like I was having a muscle spasm. Suffice to say, we did not use any of those photos. “We” did have a good laugh at my expense, though.

Speaking of awkward photos, we went on whatever they’re calling the Sun Wheel these days and Sarah was terrified. Here she is putting on her brave face, but I assure you, there are some hilarious outtakes. (Note that this was the non-swinging side, too.)

I would share them here, but I’m not quite that stupid and/or brave!

Neither of us ever look as cool as Mater.

Cars Land continues to be the most fun modern Disney land in the United States. As much as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge impresses me and I appreciate what it’s doing, I never have as good of a time there as in Cars Land.

We also saw our homies, Big Al and Guy Selga of TouringPlans.com.

Now that Captain Kidd’s has permanently closed, that plastic fish is the most questionable seafood you can eat in Anaheim.

Speaking of questionable food, our dining experiences at Disneyland were mostly good. There was one notable and unfortunate exception: Carthay Circle Lounge Alfresco.

This has almost nothing from the regular restaurant’s menu, which is truly unfortunate. Everything here is pretty forgettable, and doesn’t live up to the Carthay Circle name.

Speaking of Alfresco dining, the Tasting Terrace for Legacy Annual Passholders was fantastic. Everything we had was delicious and fairly priced. Additionally, the menu names are excellent and hearing the Sunshine Plaza BGM was a nice blast from the past.

Not sure I’ll do a full review since the audience is limited, but Alfresco Tasting Terrace is highly recommended if you’re eligible. My favorite item was the Condor Flats-Bread (what a name!), which is pictured above.

Getting off the Disneyland Railroad in Tomorrowland, I stepped off to the side and stopped dead in my tracks. Amidst a sea of shadows, I was hit by a burst of sunlight.

It took me a second to realize that the sun was perfectly aligned with the opening in the Matterhorn. I’ve never seen this before, so I’m going to assume it’s a natural phenomenon that only occurs a few days per year when the angle of the sun is just right (it reminded me of the Keyhole Arch “Light Show”).

Disneyland Railroad wasn’t our only train experience.

Casey Jr. is one of those attractions that is brilliant in its simplicity. It would never be built today for numerous reasons, which is a shame. The existence of several little, atmospheric rides like this in Fantasyland at Disneyland is what sets it apart–and far above–Magic Kingdom’s version of the same.

There are similar examples of this all over Disneyland, from the canoes to the more varied Main Street vehicles. However, the point of this post is not to dunk on Magic Kingdom or make the case for why Disneyland is better.

And in fairness, Magic Kingdom’s PeopleMover actually returned. Meanwhile at Disneyland… 😉

Joking aside, one thing that’s impossible to convey via text or photos is how Disneyland feels differently. 

It’s more charming, intimate, laid back, and endearing. This is reinforced in countless ways, and the cumulative impact is that the park has a better vibe than Walt Disney World. Don’t get me wrong–I love the Florida parks, but I enjoy the experience of simply “being there” more at Disneyland.

I know many others feel the same way, and this is often attributed to Disneyland being Walt Disney’s original magic kingdom. The only park he ever set foot in, and the one where his legacy best endures to this day.

I think that is part of it, as Disneyland undeniably oozes history and still has a certain quaintness that you’d never expect of the second-most attended theme park in the world. However, some of this vibe spills over into Disney California Adventure, and there’s no such history there. It’s hard to fully articulate this atmospheric difference, but if you know, you know.

Anyway, that’s my pitch for Disneyland, the best theme park in the United States.

If it hasn’t convinced you before, this probably doesn’t change anything. Just thought I’d point out that the side-by-side “checkbox” style comparisons don’t tell the full story. When it comes to the “magic” or je ne sais quoi qualities, Disneyland has the edge.

On a related concluding note, if I were in a position to choose between a trip to Disneyland and Walt Disney World in the next couple months, I’d pick the California parks. I’m guessing there aren’t many people still on the fence about their summer vacations, but this advice extends out through the end of September (including 2021 Halloween Time at Disneyland), so it’s potentially helpful to at least some of you.

As we’ve been saying for months, Walt Disney World’s internal target for restoring normalcy is October 1, 2021. Obviously, there are things happening before then, but it’s all occurring with an eye on that date. If you’re visiting Florida before then, you’ll benefit from lower crowds, which is certainly a plus. However, you also might feel slighted by just how much is being held off for the start of the 50th Anniversary celebration.

In addition to normalcy returning to the California parks at a faster pace than in Florida, there’s also the matter of no Annual Passholders at Disneyland right now. This is something that, I suspect, will be remedied pretty quickly once California’s organic off-season hits in September and the supply of locals and tourists starts drying up. As such, the next few months might be your only chance to enjoy Disneyland devoid of APs, and it’s worth taking advantage of that alone.

Planning a Southern California vacation? For park admission deals, read Tips for Saving Money on Disneyland Tickets. Learn about on-site and off-site hotels in our Anaheim Hotel Reviews & Rankings. For where to eat, check out our Disneyland Restaurant Reviews. For unique ideas of things that’ll improve your trip, check out What to Pack for Disney. For comprehensive advice, consult our Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide. Finally, for guides beyond Disney, check out our Southern California Itineraries for day trips to Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, and tons of other places!

YOUR THOUGHTS

Thoughts on anything covered in this Disneyland report? Do you agree or disagree that Disneyland has a different vibe than Walt Disney World? Have you visited Disneyland or Disney California Adventure since the parks reopened? Feedback on your experience with characters, attraction maintenance, wait times, crowds, or anything else? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Any questions? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

44 Responses to “We (Still) Love Disneyland”
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