The New Disneyland Resort - Not Your Parents' Disneyland

Author: Kyle McCarthy

Tags : Anaheim, Autism Spectrum, Baby, California, Disabled, Disney Vacation, Golf, Kids, Kids Club, Multigen, North America, Resort, Spa & Wellness, Teens, Tennis, USA, Water & Themeparks, Watersports

There's back to the basics Disney magic at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, where Cars Land has been added to an expanded Disney California Adventure theme park and a refreshed Disneyland to create a wonder-ful family vacation destination.

After five years and an estimated $1.1 billion investment, the new and improved Disneyland Resort is once again the "take-me-there-pleeeeze" amusement park it was in my youth. Since today's children know the Disney brand more for Pixar hits such as "Toy Story" and “Monsters Inc” than Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the themepark complex offers a blend of both in a richly themed setting that anyone of any age will enjoy.

Our family has always liked Disneyland because it is a smaller, compact and more manageable family destination than its Orlando sibling, Walt Disney World. You don't need a car or a shuttle to navigate between the attractions or the restaurants of Downtown Disney. There are frequent snack stands and shops for kids to cool off and parents to rest their feet. Several rides and stage shows cater to everyone ranging from toddlers and grandparents with their gentle coasters, familiar stories and popular music.

What Disney's five-year upgrade has done is make the Disneyland Resort an ideal weekend getaway -- not because it's bigger -- because the fun is richer and deeper than ever. And families who stay at the Disney on-site hotels will benefit most.

Disneyland’s Evolution as a Family Playground

Walt Disney himself initiated the construction of Disneyland in 1955 on 160 acres of land. Like the young animator’s famed books and movies, the amusement park was to incorporate Disney’s imaginative world of magic and wonder with coasters and midway rides. It was an immediate success, with 50 million guests in the first 10 years of operation. Walt, however, was always dreaming, testing new attractions and adding hotels.

In 2001, Disneyland experienced its first major expansion, the addition of the adjacent California Adventure theme park and Grand Californian luxury hotel inspired by California's cultural and scenic attractions. The 510-acre resort was not the success that the company hoped.

But Disney himself had famously said, "Disneyland will never be completed as long as there is imagination left in the world." The recent Five Year Plan and fantastic interpretation of Cars Land (from the film "Cars") prove there's plenty of imagination left.

How Disneyland & California Adventure are Different

The original of the two separate theme parks is Disneyland Park, which is home to well-known Disney “neighborhoods” such as Main Street U.S.A., Fantasy Land, Frontier Land, Mickey's Toontown and Tomorrowland.

Disneyland is the place for autographs and teacup rides, the land where Dumbo rules and Donald and Goofey appear over breakfast. The Downtown Disney commercial strip, built in the 2001 expansion, separates it from the long-standing Disneyland Hotel (totally remodeled with much more Disney theming in 2009), the fun Paradise Pier Hotel, and Disney California Adventure.

Disney California Adventure was themed after attractions within the state, with neighborhoods such as Paradise Pier (modeled on Santa Monica's Pacific Ocean Park amusement park), Hollywood (where movie themed attractions and shows are featured) and the Wine Country (there are planted vines and wine bars throughout the park). Its approach favored school-age children, and rides like Soarin’ Over California, an IMAX style movie over the heights of California, and seen from simulated hang gliders; and California Screamin', the popular coaster at Paradise Pier; became instant favorites. Younger children enjoy Goofy's Sky School, the Grizzly River Run water ride, the very gentle Muppet Vision 3D and Monsters Inc Mike & Sulley to the Rescue, plus the several stage shows that are great for all ages. In fact, the demands made on the talented Disney cast members are greater than ever, promising guests even more Broadway style entertainment than ever before.

Disneyland's Expansion & Upgrades Over the Past Five Years

Over the years, Disneyland has refreshed favorite themes and character rides, such as the classic It’s a Small World. Pirates of the Caribbean adopted an animatronic Jack Sparrow among the gnarly little pirates of old; the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride again features live mountain climbers scaling its "snowy" slopes. New characters and interactive experiences have been hwere added, too. The heroine from "Brave" appears for autographs and young guests can be transformed into princesses and princes in the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.

More behind-the-scenes exhibits have opened, such as the Innoventions Dream Home and the Sleeping Beauty Castle interior, a walkthrough following the Sleeping Beauty story in window displays. Star Tours - The Adventures Continue is the latest hit in Tomorrowland. Opened in June 2011, the 3D mashup connects the two movie trilogies, welcomings guests aboard a Starspeeder 1000 for a thrilling journey through George Lucas’ Star Wars universe, with introductions to RD-D2 and Chewbacca.

The Disneyland Fireworks display "Magical" was redone in 2009, as was Space Mountain Ghost Galaxy. On hot summer days, families can head to Pixie Hollow in Fantasyland to meet Tinker Bell. She also appears, somewhat miraculously, in the palm of your hand if you pose for a professional photo in front of the Disneyland railroad. (We love this PhotoPass service that makes capturing family memories so easy.)

Long time favorites are not forgotten: Winnie the Pooh still stars at the Hundred-Acre Wood. Big Thunder Ranch BarBQ still serves ribs in the midst of Frontierland. Little thrill seekers can still board the Jungle Cruise, while bigger siblings take a ride on the Indiana Jones Adventure, following Indy on his journey through the iconic Temple of the Forbidden Eye.

This video montage filmed during the opening of Cars Land introduces some of the Disneyland changes.

California Adventure's Expansion & Upgrades Over the Past Five Years

The 2012 opening of Cars Land is the best and biggest change to this park, but many other attractions opened during the five year upgrade which began in 2007.

Previous additions to the park include Toy Story Mania!, a moving video game in 3D and the Silly Symphone Swings. The Grand Californian Hotel was expanded and a few hundred apartments were added to create a Disney Vacation Club timeshare complex. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, which towers over what used to be part of a bug's land (yes, bug's fans there is some left), now overlooks the wonderful Cars Land.

The unmistakable Mickey's Fun Wheel is more fun your average Ferris Wheel because its cars are constantly swinging. It achieved true stardom in 2010 as the focal point for the extraordinary World of Color, a fantastic waterplay show, where wild fountains and special lighting create a screen of water on which favorite Disney characters are projected. The half-hour nightly show combines nearly more than a thousand versatile water jets, dazzling colors, Disney music and an all-new kaleidoscope of audio and visual effects -- quite stunning. Those who arrive early can pick up Mouse Ear hats whose battery-powered "ears" are synched to add color and flashing lights to the display, making every viewer part of the action.

The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure has outdone the popular Nemo ride at Disneyland. It wows its tiniest guests by taking them "underwater" for a first-hand glimpse into Ariel’s colorful world under the sea. This fun ride was designed in the “Omnimover” style reminiscent of the classic Haunted Mansion, with new music and effects to update it for the next generation.

The Pixar Play Parade is back, and in fact, Pixar and their hit films will be the subject of a themed cruise offered by Disney Cruise Line from their port in Los Angeles. Teens visiting California Adventure will find that ElecTRONica, the popular after-school dance party themed after the robot film has been shelved in favor of the fun MadTParty, a raucous rock n'roll event with "Alice in Wonderland" themed costumes and props from the Tim Burton film. The wacky Tea Room set is transformed with mist and lantern lighting to become a dance hall with DJ at night, becoming equally popular with local teens and visitors.

California Adventure Reverts to Walt's Dream for Inspiration

Citing the addition of "Disney DNA" to the park, Disney CEO Bob Iger inaugurated the new Buena Vista Street and its statue of Walt Disney, suitcase in hand, arriving at the land of opportunity, in June 2012. The building facades, inspired by historical photographs and Disney lore, recall the 1920s Los Angeles that greeted him, with fun Red Car Trolleys inspired by the transportation system that once served the region. The Art Deco Carthay Circle Theatre is modeled after the site of the 1937 world premiere of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." and includes a gourmet snack lounge serving family-friendly tapas, and the upscale, date-night-worthy Carthay Circle Restaurant for adults who book ahead.

A throwback to an even older era, the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain and Chocolate Shop opened on the San Francisco-inspired Pacific Wharf, where it joins most of the park's dining areas.

Cars Land is the Most Californian Part of California Adventure Park

Learning a lesson from the extraordinary theming (and extraordinary success) of Universal Orlando's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the Disney team of Pixar animators and Imagineers dove down into the details that bring Cars Land to life. Whether you're a fan of the film or haven't seen it, this 12-acre section of the park is thrilling. Using more than magic and wonder, the imagineers have physically immersed guests in Ornament Valley by leading them down a fanciful, 525-foot stretch of Route 66 bounded by a 125-foot-tall rock wall resembling a southwest mesa. As if straight from the animator's palette, Radiator Springs is the setting for three new rides, tons of merchandise, and great decor such as flowers made from spark plugs and snack stands made of traffic cones.

One of the largest and most elaborate attractions ever created for a Disney park, Radiator Springs Racersis a mild-mannered coaster that twists, turns and races against other cars through the open skies of Ornament Valley and, inside, the mechanic stations and body shops of film fame. Instant success has created long lines so be sure to arrange for a FastPass for timed entry to this attraction.

"Cars" fans will have more themed fun at Luigi's Flying Tires, an inflated bumper car ride where guests glide on special tires, whirling around and steering by leaning side to side. It's fast, safe, athletic and made more fun by enormous beach balls the color of the Italian flag that bounce around the rink. Even more gentle is the whirling teacup style ride called Mater's Junkyard Jamboree, with its baby tractor and upbeat music.

Among the many dining venues run by costumed gas jockeys and drive-up diner gals, Flo's V8 Diner is the most successful, with art work and menu items that recall many of the film's characters and subplots.

Disneyland Resort Trip Planning Details

With so many new attractions within walking or monorail distance, it pays to stay at one of the on-site Disneyland Resort hotels, Disneyland Hotel, Paradise Pier or the Grand Californian. Each of the hotels has a restaurant featuring a character breakfast, a large pool area, and family amenities including a self-serve laundry and mini-fridges in the room. The hotels have many exclusive entertainment options such as evening storytellers and shop discounts, with supervised childcare ($13/hour for ages 5-12) at the Grand Californian for all three. Best yet, guests at the hotels are allowed to enter one of the parks early each day so it's easier to get on the most popular rides. Please read the FTF reviews of the on-site Disneyland Resort Hotels to learn more about what each one offers.

Throughout both theme parks, there are plenty of fast food and fine dining options for lunch and dinner. Fortunately, there are more fruit stands and healthful snacks as well, in keeping with the Disney company's many initiatives to combat childhood obesity.

There are also many, many shops and restaurants in Downtown Disney. If we have any complaints about the Five Year Plan, it's that the whole resort has become more clogged with Disney merchandise and commercial venues cleverly disguised as attractions. Parents who don't want to be nagged to death will have to be careful about establishing an allowance and even more mindful of wandering kids.

Our best advice: Plan ahead with Disney's online guides to determine which rides are your family's "must-dos," then stick to that plan as long as you can. Waits at the new attractions mean you may only get to three to five rides or shows each day, so plan on staying at least a few days. If you cannot afford an on-site hotel, the many family-friendly Anaheim Hotels we review offer lower cost alternatives with options to purchase reduced price multi-day Park Hopper tickets. A travel agent or the Disney reservations team can help you create the best plan to suit your needs.

For information on new attractions, hotel rates, and vacations at Disneyland Resort visit Disneyland Online, call 866/60-DISNEY or contact your local travel agent.