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For today’s Destination of the Week, TPG contributor Kathy McDonald takes us around the happiest place on earth: the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California.
WHAT TO DO
There’s no getting around the Disney legend in Anaheim, California. Here you’ll find the happiest place on earth – Disneyland – opened by Walt Disney 58 years ago and conceived as a place where parents and children could play together as families. Today, the 500-acre resort encompasses two theme parks, three hotels (totaling 2,398 rooms and 50 vacation villas), dining and entertainment choices in Downtown Disney and acres of parking lots.
Disneyland now attracts a third generation of visitors who come for the ersatz charms of Main Street, the thrill rides of Tomorrowland’s Space Mountain and Adventureland’s Indiana Jones Adventure and cheeky classics like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted House in New Orleans Square. Dining choices range from the new Jolly Holiday bakery on Main Street (cappuccinos and pastries à la Starbucks at breakfast) to the gumbo at the Blue Bayou and all manner of sugary snacks in-between. Although, in a nod to healthier choices, there are fresh fruit, juice and water stands to complement the tempting popcorn, candy and ice cream vendors.
Kids (and a fair share of adults) love the Disney characters that can be seen posing for photos throughout the park or ensconced in their own set pieces. Opened in March 2013, the Fantasy Faire brings the supremely popular princesses and the heroine of Pixar’s Brave, Merida, to a permanent, pastel-colored, medieval themed Royal Hall where the rotating cast of Disney princesses greets visitors. Mickey Mouse can be found at the entrance to Main Street in the City Hall – he is the mayor after all.
In 2012, Disney California Adventure Park, adjacent to Disneyland, got a significant re-imagining. There’s a new art deco-styled entrance that leads to the 1920s-themed Buena Vista Street and a new mega-hit ride, Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land. On crowded days, waits can be more than two hours for Radiator Springs, which features zippy sports car-like vehicles that whisk six passengers on a tour of the Ornament Valley Mountain Range, through scenes from the Cars films and in a dashing finale, a thrilling speed race against a rival racer.
Due to the popularity of Cars Land, and other attractions like the gut-wrenching Twilight Tower of Terror and the nighttime World of Color water, light and music show, California Adventure is often just as jammed as Disneyland and requires an equal amount of strategizing for a visit. Many attractions, like Star Tours or Captain Nemo Submarine Adventure at Disneyland and Radiator Springs Racers and Twilight Tower of Terror at California Adventure, have a Fast Pass option. Visitors insert their tickets into self-serve kiosks that give them a time to return to the ride via a shorter and hopefully speedier Fast Pass line. The catch? One can only access one Fast Pass at a time, so no putting your name in at multiple rides.
The optimal strategy for a resort visit is to arrive early and be at the park gates as close to the opening hour of 8 a.m. as possible. On some days, resort hotel guests and/or annual passholders can enter the park an hour early at 7 a.m. It is definitely worth the effort to get up and hit the favored rides first before the lines start to build. Not every ride has a line all the time – but weekends and holidays are busiest – so be prepared. There are also several apps (WalkeeWait for instance) that give ride wait times, download them before a visit. And of course, comfortable shoes are a must for any visit as there is a lot of (hard concrete) ground to cover.
For those that like a potent, mixologist-made cocktail with their theme park visit, California Adventure opened the Carthay Circle Restaurant and Lounge in 2012. Nearby is the Wine Country Trattoria that serves 25 wines by the glass and offers a prix-fixe dinner (reservations required) to pair with the view of the extravagant World of Color light show. Fast food options are on the menu too: at the Cozy Cone Motel grab pretzel bites, churros and frozen apple slushies.
Tickets can be purchased for the parks singly or dually via the two-park hopper tickets; multi-day tickets (up to five days) are available too as are the annual passes (an estimated one million were sold to date in 2013). Single park ticket prices begin at $87 per adult; $81 for kids 3-9. Kids under 3 are free, and as the legions of strollers parked throughout the park attest, few are left at home. One-day park hopper tickets begin at $125 per adult; $119 for ages 3-9.
Frequent visitors to the Disney theme parks might want to consider an annual passport. Pricing begins at $649 for a premium passport that entitles the passholder to 365 days of visits with no blackout days, free parking ($15 is the going rate) and discounts on hotel stays and merchandise. One Orange County couple made the news in 2012 when they visited the park 366 days (including Feb. 29) in a row, bringing their average visit price down to $1.77 per the Orange County Register. Additional passport levels are sold, including categories available only to Southern California residents – the select SoCal pass costs $269 for 170 days of admission with numerous blackout days and weekends not included.
Adjacent to the theme parks is the Downtown Disney District, an outdoor pedestrian-only dining and shopping area of 50 shops, restaurants, movie theaters and entertainment spots, such as the House of the Blues music club. Parking here is free for three hours; five hours are free with validation for those that want to drop in for dinner and a movie or watch a game at the ESPN sports zone. Among the dining choices are the La Brea Bakery and Café (close to the park entrance, ideal for caffeine or carbo-loading in the morning) and delicious Spanish and Mediterranean bites at Catal Restaurant & Uva bar. Uva bar can’t be missed: it’s outdoors in the center of the action at Downtown Disney and is fun for people watching. Run by chef Joachim Splichal’s Patina Group, Catal and Uva’s cocktails, craft beers, wine selections and food are excellent, in fact surprisingly so for theme park-adjacent eateries. The outdoor second floor terrace has an ideal view of Disneyland’s nightly fireworks.
Orange County’s John Wayne Airport (SNA) is 14 miles from Anaheim and the Disneyland Resort. Major airlines serving the airport include: AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest, United and US Airways. There is a Disneyland Resort Express bus service available from John Wayne as well as LAX – the major airport hub that services Southern California. Suburban airports in Long Beach, Burbank and Ontario are also relatively convenient to the resort.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
WHERE TO STAY
Note that hotels within the Disney Resort district add 17% in taxes to every hotel stay. There is a shuttle service connecting area hotels to the park: the ART (Anaheim Resort Transportation) has several routes and fees are $5 per day per adult and $2 per child. A less expensive alternative is Buena Park home to Knott’s Berry Farm, a short freeway hop away.
The Radisson Suite Buena Park Hotel, is located in Buena Park near Knott’s Berry Farm but offers scheduled shuttle service to Disneyland. The hotel provides a complimentary cooked to order breakfast. 28,000 Club Carlson gold points are needed for a free one-night stay. Rates start at $149 per night.
Hilton Anaheim Hotel: The second largest hotel in SoCal, you can walk to the Disneyland Resort or the Anaheim Convention center from this massive 1,572-room and 93-suite property that has everything from a Starbucks to both an indoor and outdoor pool. Disney visitors will appreciate the Disney desk inside the lobby where guests can buy tickets, arrange dining reservations and obtain other information. Rooms work for business and pleasure and have ample workspaces, floor-to-ceiling windows (book one with a resort view to catch the fireworks) and 32” flat-screen HD TVs. Rates in April start begin at $129 or 30,000 to 50,000 points per night as this is a Category 6 property.
Three miles from the resort is the Hilton Suites Anaheim/Orange Suites, which has 230 extra-large suites each with microwave and refrigerator. Rates in April start at $189. This is a category 4 HHonors property requiring 20,000 to 30,000 points for one free night.
Hyatt Regency Orange County: About a mile-and-a-half from Disneyland, this busy 653-room Hyatt has shuttle service to the resort. Some rooms overlook the glass-walled atrium and lobby below. Rooms are done in browns and beiges; the in-room coffeemaker is a plus. Families should appreciate the rooms with bunk beds. There are special deals for kids meals at dinner (they eat free with a paying adult) and two outdoor pools provide diversion. There is a Disney desk on site here as well: buy tickets here and make dining reservations for the resort. Rates in April start at $179. 12,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points are required for one free night.
Anaheim Fairfield Inn by Marriott: Walk to Disneyland and California Adventure Park from the Anaheim Fairfield, a family friendly 467-room hotel. Themed rooms mean that little princesses can rest their heads under photos and prints of Ariel and friends; Buzz Lightyear decorates the Toy Story-themed suite. 80% of standard rooms connect. A grab-n-go food court and game room add to the kiddie-casual vibe.Room rates start at $149 ($229 during peak periods). A Marriott Rewards Category 5 property, 25,000 points are needed for a free one night stay.
Other Marriott hotels in the area include the pet friendly, 200-suite Residence Inn Anaheim – Maingate (A category 6 Marriott Rewards property that requires 30,000 points for a free night; room rates start at $229 in April) and the 997-room, 33-suite, convention center-adjacent Anaheim Marriott (A Category 5 property, 25,000 points are required for a free one night stay. Rates in April start at $209).
Sheraton Anaheim Hotel: You can’t miss the Sheraton Anaheim: it’s the faux Tudor-style castle you’ll pass by on the way into the Disney resort parking entrance – it’s that close! The 489-guestrooms and suites are centered around 13 acres of gardens, swimming pools and a well-stocked koi pond. Rooms are a generously sized and come with the comfortable Sheraton Sweet Sleeper bed (a pet version is available upon request). A game room and fast casual restaurant appeal to families; hop the free shuttle or walk across the boulevard to the theme parks. The hotel is a Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) Category 3 property; a free room night requires 7,000 points. Rates in April start at $179.
Nearby is the 490-room Sheraton Park Hotel at the Anaheim Resort. A category 4 property, 10,000 Starpoints are necessary for a free night. Rates begin at $219 per night but can jump to $480 or more due to occupancy.
Disneyland Resort Hotels
The Disney folks know how to work it. Experts at marketing and promotion, the Disneyland Resort site offers ever-changing deals and packages for overnight stays combined with theme park tickets. Book now through April 27, for 20% off a two-night, weeknight resort hotel stay on arrivals through May 22. There are many advantages to staying at the recently remodeled Disneyland Hotel, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa or Paradise Pier hotels, chiefly, the ease of access to the theme parks.
The Arts & Crafts-style Grand Californian (a cross between the Alwahnee Lodge in Yosemite and a Greene and Greene-designed craftsman home), backs up on California Adventure and all Disney resort hotel guests can use a separate hotel guests-only entrance and exit. Character dining – see the Chipmunks at breakfast – at the Storytellers café is memorable and another hallmark of the Disney hotels.
The mouse-shaped pool at the three-tower, 973-room Disneyland Hotel is the centerpiece of the hotel’s pool and water park with slides. Added in 2011, there’s an indoor/outdoor Trader Sam’s tiki-themed lounge. Rooms are comfortable and have Disney touches in décor such as mouse-eared carpet patterns, vintage black-and-white photos of Walt Disney visiting Disneyland and a bed headboard that is backlit and sparkles in the shape of Cinderella’s castle.
Penthouse suites at the Disneyland Hotel demonstrate the Disney imagineers’ keen skills at art direction and theming. From the Fantasy Suite (a corner room that overlooks the park and has a bird’s eye view of the fireworks) has a Tinkerbell-doorbell, soaking tub with ornate tiling and luxurious bedding fit for a princess (it’s often booked by honeymooners). The Adventureland suite is like stepping into a high-end African safari camp with leather trunks as dressers and mosquito netted canopy beds. And Mickey Mouse’s Penthouse is outfitted with Disney memorabilia and Mickey Mouse cartoons – the kid’s bed is in the shape of — you guessed it — mouse ears!