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10 Surprises (Both Good and Bad) from My First Trip to Disneyland

By: Kendall Foreman

A photograph showing the upper portion of Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland

I have been visiting Walt Disney World for over 30 years. The question of where I would like to vacation each year was not multiple choice; it only ever had one answer. That is until I watched the Disney live-action film Saving Mr. Banks. For those who have not seen the movie, there is a scene where Tom Hanks as Walt Disney takes Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers to Disneyland in 1961. It beautifully captures a moment in time, and it gave me a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out).

I began to think far into the future to a time when my husband, myself, and the to-be-determined offspring of our family would visit the world’s first theme park. I knew that we would likely only be making the trip once, so I wanted to wait until our future child would be old enough to not only enjoy, but remember the experience well.

Fast forward almost 10 years to when that moment finally came, and I discovered that Disneyland was all I had hoped and much more than I expected. During that long period of waiting, I tried my best to avoid videos of walk-throughs and attractions – only breaking that rule when research for blogs or podcasts necessitated it. I sought out only as much planning information as was absolutely necessary to ensure a successful trip. I wanted to truly experience Disneyland for the first time AT Disneyland. Because of this, surprises abounded.

What follows is just this one person’s opinion on what I found most unexpected at the “Happiest Place on Earth,” both good and not-so-good. But let me be honest, even a not-so-good experience in a Disney Park is usually still better than your average day anywhere else.

THE LEVELS

A photograph showing the lower canal for the Storybook Land Canal Boats and the upper train tracks for the Casey Jr. Circus Train with the train just pulling out of the station

Often, when a comparison between Walt Disney World and Disneyland is being made, the quote from Walt Disney discussing “the blessing of size” will come up. Undoubtedly, Walt Disney World is a grand resort, but it was not until I visited Disneyland that I thought, perhaps Magic Kingdom’s size was a bit of a detriment. Disneyland’s compact nature necessitated attractions, pathways, and lands to be interconnected and overlapping in a way that is not present in Walt Disney World’s parks. For example, when walking into Disneyland’s Fantasyland, there is the main pathway, below it are the Storybook Land Canal Boats, and above it, woven throughout the canal, is the Casey Jr. Circus Train. This creates a sense of simultaneous coziness and discovery. Other great examples of this occur throughout the park such as the intertwining of the queue for Indiana Jones Adventure and the Jungle Cruise itself; the pathways surrounding the queue to Pirates of the Caribbean; and the way in which the Disneyland Railroad travels over, under, around and through several attractions.

WHAT HAPPENED TO TOMORROWLAND?

I entered Disneyland’s Tomorrowland for the first time not from the hub but the Fantasyland side, where – much like the Magic Kingdom – the delineation between the two lands is a little blurry. However, once in Tomorrowland proper, I was shocked. For years, I have heard guests lament the state of Walt Disney World’s land of the future, but it was clear that the original was in need of even more love. Sadly, those “levels,” which are employed so artfully in the rest of the park, have been abandoned, leaving only remnants of the long-lost Rocket Rods /WEDWay PeopleMover and Observatron /Rocket Jets. I found myself thinking more of the past (including those incredible Mary Blair murals that once graced the walls) than the future.

ANAHEIM DISAPPEARS

When people say Disneyland is surrounded, they are not kidding. Across the street from the entrance is a Denny’s! This is so drastically different from the situation in Florida that I was worried I would have trouble letting go of the real world. I expected the “Disney bubble” to be nonexistent. To my surprise, I found a whole new type of bubble. It is true that when you arrive in the morning or leave at night, you have to venture into the “real world,” but it is almost a misnomer to call it the “real world.” There are so many guests traveling to and from the Disneyland Esplanade each morning and night that it feels like a caravan.

Also, there may be a Target down the street or a CVS on the corner, but even those have whispers of Disney that cannot be found in your hometown. Besides these facts, once inside the entrance plaza, the city disappears. There are very few places within either park where guests are able to see Anaheim at all, and the ease of traveling between the parks, resorts, and Downtown Disney creates a fantastically walkable bubble that Walt Disney World only comes close to achieving around Crescent Lake.

A photo showing the open esplanade connecting the entrances to Disney's California Adventure, Downtown Disney, and Disneyland Park
The esplanade connects Disneyland Park, Disney’s California Adventure, and Downtown Disney.

SURPRISE… WE DON’T HAVE THAT

Disneyland Resort loves to change up its menus with special offerings and seasonal items. This is clearly a plus since there are constantly new things to try. However, there is a downside that I have not typically experienced in Walt Disney World. When considering where to eat a meal or on which snack to indulge, I would first check the menus in the Disneyland App where I would undoubtedly find something that sounded delicious and head in the direction of the dining location or kiosk…only to find that said item was not actually being offered. This was frustrating on several occasions, but hopefully, this is just a kink in the system that can be rectified in the future. Also disappointing, but more understandable, there are times when food items just sell out or carts have to wait to receive a restock. Just like the early bird who gets the worm, the early guest gets the Halloween-themed Matterhorn Macaroon!

THE SAME, BUT BETTER

A photograph showing the fountain outside the El Capitoon Theater in Toontown at Disneyland

Many people think there is no reason to make a trip to Disneyland because it has so much in common with Walt Disney World, and I have heard those same people question why anyone would purposefully choose the smaller resort. If I am being honest, I had those same thoughts. Could I ever give up a trip to my home away from home in order to travel West? Would it possibly compare? I can now wholeheartedly say, “Yes, it absolutely compares,” and in cases where the two overlap in content, Disneyland excels. Whether it’s Pirates of the Caribbean, “it’s a small world”, Peter Pan’s Flight, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Space Mountain, or even Main Street, U.S.A, the Disneyland versions are all longer, more detailed, more extravagant, or to put it simply…better. In the areas where Disneyland is unique from Magic Kingdom – yeah, it kills it there too: New Orleans Square, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland, Casey Jr. Circus Train, Storybook Land Canal Boats, Toontown, I could go on. If only the West Coast had an Epcot, a Westcot, that has a good ring to it (wink, wink).

NOT QUITE SO HOT, HOT, HOT

I am a Midwest girl who typically struggles to deal with the Florida heat and humidity, so when I found out that most of the queues at Disneyland Resort are outdoors, I panicked. I was concerned I would be spending a considerable amount of time feeling ill and needing to take breaks because of it, especially since the weather forecast during my family’s trip included some of the hottest days Anaheim had seen in 2023. However, upon arrival, I quickly learned that the heat of Southern California is very different from that of Central Florida. While the sun is undeniably scorching in the afternoon, as soon as you step into the shade, you begin to cool off in a way that is just not possible in Florida with its heavy humidity. As the old Walt quote says, “…the trees will keep growing; the thing will get more beautiful every year,” and he was right, the trees in Disneyland have grown. You are almost never more than a few steps away from considerable shade from either large foliage, umbrellas, or buildings.

A photograph of showing a crowd of people under a shade tree watching the afternoon parade at Disneyland
Large trees offer a shady respite while waiting for and watching the afternoon parade.

It is also important to note that morning to afternoon to evening temperatures can regularly swing 25-30 degrees, so the outdoor queues with less shade (Autopia, I’m looking at you) can easily be targeted at times of the day when the sun is low and the heat is mild. Another important note: If you struggle with heat, avoid California Adventure’s Pixar Pier during the afternoon at all costs. This is the one area of both parks where shade is limited, and it equals or exceeds the “Animal Kingdom hot” feelings of Walt Disney World.

YOUR WAIT TIME IS SUBJECT TO CHANGE

The heat in queue lines may have turned out to be a much smaller issue than expected, but a few other unexpected truths about Disneyland’s wait times turned out to be a bit more of an inconvenience. First, I need to make clear that my family elected not to purchase Genie+ for any of our five park days. (An explanation as to why is too long for this post and not the point of why you are here, but suffice it to say that the marginal benefit was not going to outweigh the cost for us.) Whether you love or hate Lightening Lanes and Genie+ at Walt Disney World, you have to admit that they have some issues and most certainly make stand-by waits longer. I accept that by not choosing to purchase Genie+, I am opting in for spending more time in line. However, it is much more common at Disneyland to have the stand-by wait times increase WHILE IN LINE. This was most definitely not the exception as we frequently heard Cast Members come over the PA system to announce that “your posted wait-time was X, but has now increased to Y,” and then later “your wait-time of Y, has now increased to Z.”

To make matters more difficult, several (and I mean several) Disneyland attractions go down frequently throughout the day. If you check the Disneyland app very often, it is easy to see which ones are repeat offenders. While these facts are discouraging, it would absolutely not keep me or my family from returning, but my best suggestion would be to pack your patience and always treat Cast Members with respect. Long lines and downtimes are not their fault.

SATISFACTION

Remember the old days at Walt Disney World, when the crowds were smaller, the parks were smaller, and there were only 1, or 2, or 3 of them? It was a simpler time. A time when you laid in your beach chair by the pool and did not worry about losing valuable hours in the parks. A time when you did not hit the ground running at 6 AM every day of your VACATION. A time when you could ride Splash Mountain twelve times in one trip (yes, my family did this). A time when your Walt Disney World visit ended and you could look back and say, “I did everything I wanted to do.” Can you tell I long for this simpler time?

At Disneyland, I felt like I grasped a bit of the old days. Smaller crowds, smaller parks, only two of them. My family may not have ridden any ride twelve times, but we did ride a few of our favorites five times. We did every single thing we wanted to do, and most things more than once. We left completely satisfied with what we were able to do on our vacation, and I will admit that that was a bit of a surprise.

DIFFERING HABITS

Disneyland is known for being a locals park. In contrast, Walt Disney World is a destination families save and plan years in advance to visit. I expected this to have an impact on crowd patterns, but I had no idea the extent to which guest habits vary between these two resort complexes. The somewhat obvious conjecture I had heard was that wait-times are shorter overall in Disneyland because there is not the same urgency to ride attractions as there is in Florida. On the whole, I found this to be true, but the divergence in crowd levels did not stop there.

Rope drop still draws a decent number of people, but not nearly to the same degree as at the Magic Kingdom. As the saying goes “make hay while the sun shines,” or at Disneyland “make hay” while the locals sleep-in. Early risers are afforded mostly empty parks for the first three hours of the day which allows for entire lands to be knocked out with no waits at all. Crowds begin to pick up just before lunch, then gradually increase until they peak in the evening hours. During the twilight of the day it was very interesting to see young teenagers out on dates, groups of girlfriends, or others who were just popping in to catch the last ride of the night on Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.

A photograph showing a the main walkway in Adventureland during the morning hours.  There are very few people on the pathway.
What is a mostly empty Adventureland in the morning becomes wall to wall bodies late in the day.

Another interesting dissimilarity came about when observing dining locations and meal choices. I started to notice that there must be a much larger percentage of guests choosing to dine on full meals in Walt Disney World parks than at Disneyland or Disney’s California Adventure. It was far more common to see families bringing in meals and making use of the picnic areas or snacking on items they packed than what is typically seen at Walt Disney World. Because of this, most quick service dining locations were less busy during meal times, comparatively (with the obvious exception of the newly opened Tiana’s Palace). There were also several table service locations with walk-up availability during lunch and dinner, which my family took advantage of to enjoy a delightful meal at Carnation Café.

On the other hand, snack locations were far busier, and mobile orders for snacks would run out or be scheduled far into the day. For example, a Dole Whip could only be obtained by waiting in the, at times, hour+ line at Tropical Hideaway or by scheduling a mobile order at Tiki Juice Bar that was routinely pushed out by an hour. Clearly, Dole Whip is a delicious treat that should be enjoyed by all, but I could not help but wonder if these long waits were due in large part to the vast number of locals who stop in and want a treat but not a whole meal.

A PART OF OUR HISTORY

A photograph of the facade of it's a small world and the plaque in front of it

I am known for being a realist with little imagination, but I would be lying if I did not admit that there were a few times I expected to turn around and see Walt Disney driving the Fire Engine down Main Street, U.S.A. So much about Disneyland feels as if you have stepped back in time. Our first morning in the park was spent on Main Street, U.S.A. and in Fantasyland. I remember looking at my husband while aboard the Storybook Land Canal Boats and telling him that I felt like I was living in the Dateline Disneyland opening day television special. I had similar emotions as we boarded our boat for “The Happiest Cruise that Ever Sailed.” Sitting in the canal, in front of Mary Blair’s gorgeous façade, you can grasp a small part of what it was like to visit the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Disneyland is not only a part of the history of the Walt Disney Company, it is a part of American history, and while walking through its many lands, you experience the mid century in the best of ways, both as it was and as we all wish it would have been. For just a few moments in this, the 21st Century, you can grasp the joy, simplicity, and magic of both the reality and fantasy of the past. And that was the best surprise of all.

Photos from the author’s personal collection.

Kendall has been a member of the WDW Radio Team since 2013. Today, you can read her work on the WDW Radio Blog or hear her join Lou for a number of WDW Radio podcast episodes. Kendall’s affection for Walt Disney World began with her very first family visit in the 1990s and has continued with each magical vacation since. Follow her on Twitter @kl_foreman.