by Hank Leukart
March 21, 2008

No, seriously, there’s something magical about Disneyland

Disneyland is more romantic than you think.

Disneyland at night as seen from behind the statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse near Main Street

Disneyland at night as seen from behind the statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse near Main Street (view all Disneyland photos)

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NAHEIM, Ca. — When I was ten years old, I discovered that every student in my fourth grade class was going to Disney World for spring break, except for me. Horrified (though in retrospect it probably wasn’t even true), I quickly informed my parents of their unforgivable neglectful, and soon enough, they were (presumably reluctantly) dragging me and my brother onto a flight to Orlando. According to the Disney web site, our trip took us to “a place where storybook fantasy comes to life” full of “magical memories,” but sadly, I barely remember the trip.

I vaguely remember me and my brother wearing ridiculous Donald Duck caps and an older kid trying to steal quarters from me at an arcade until my mom intervened, but I don’t remember the hotel at which we stayed, the rides we rode, or which Disney characters we met at our Character Breakfast. Yet cementing at a young age my tremendous love for breakfast food, the magical Mickey Mouse-shaped waffles proved to be my most vivid memory of Disney World. I still restlessly wish for their appearance every time I have brunch in my adult life. I am consistently disappointed.

Many years later, I was dating a girl during college who had grown up in Southern California, and she desperately wanted to bring me to Disneyland when I visited Los Angeles. As an adult, I wasn’t sure I was excited — in the abstract, Disneyland sounded like the kind of place I would normally hate. After all, the park at first glance appears to be an overcrowded asphalt jungle filled with screaming children, heart-clogging fast food, and multi-hour lines. Nevertheless, I agreed, and we had a spectacular time.

Most amusement parks seem to have one major goal — to use roller coasters to shake and propel guests as violently and quickly as possible. Disneyland is different. Instead of all that shaking and propelling, Disneyland focuses on story, mood, and overall experience. The park uses mostly dark rides — indoor rides that use gorgeous art and stunning lighting to replace the thrills of a typical amusement park ride.

“Peter Pan’s Flight” doesn’t move more than two miles per hour, but the feeling of sailing over moonlit London and flying through the starry night sky has been burned in my mind since the first time I rode it. The highest flume drop in “Pirates of the Caribbean” isn’t more than fifteen feet, but the experience of riding through a Louisiana plantation bayou party with quiet banjo strumming is thrilling enough. I’ll never forget the first time my “Indiana Jones Adventure” jungle transport Jeep (incidentally, the best-designed ride vehicles ever!) arrived above the flames in the Cavern of the Bubbling Death and escaped the ride’s terrifying crushing boulder. Even the line for the “Indiana Jones Adventure,” feels like a ride itself as it snakes through eerie caves with spiky ceilings that fall on unsuspecting guests. (To make this happen, make sure to push on the bamboo pole labeled, “Do not touch this pole,” and make sure there are small children around so you can scare the bejesus out of them. While you’re at it, pull on the water well’s rope multiple times later in the line.)

Rides aside, performers introduce guests to movie characters they’ve never seen in person and provide spontaneous entertainment throughout the park. Watching Alice and the Mad Hatter play games of musical chairs with children on Main Street is delightful enough to fill an afternoon. Even walking through the elaborately decorated areas of the park that act as set pieces (Frontierland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, etc.) is a rich experience. It’s the park’s exquisite attention to detail that makes it work so well.

Of course, I can’t give all of the credit to Disney Imagineers — my then-girlfriend’s bubbling enthusiasm made me fall not only in love with her, but with Disneyland as well. She’s the one who taught me to push on the bamboo pole in the Indy line, perform ridiculous poses for the “Splash Mountain” camera, and always make “It’s a Small World” my last ride before leaving the park. It’s important to go to Disneyland with someone who can appreciate the experience — someone who can act like a kid even as an adult.

Years later, I took another girlfriend to Disneyland and had the wonderful experience in reverse. With great enthusiasm, I showed her all the things I loved to do in park: see magic tricks at the Main Street magic shop, drink mint juleps in New Orleans Square, take photos with Mickey at Mickey Mouse’s House in Toontown, play mental word games while waiting in line, and watch people as they take photos in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. I’m sure there were a few moments when she thought me completely ridiculous (I love pushing all those crazy buttons on the buildings in Toontown). But when we finally left the park, exhausted, we were more in love with each other — and Disneyland — than ever.

Last week, I visited Disneyland with an old co-worker, who brought his girlfriend and a date for me along. I worried that I’d be disappointed being at Disneyland without the girl I had taught to play word games and drink mint juleps. I was, a little.

I had to spend time teaching word games to my date, and there wasn’t a Mickey Mouse waffle in sight. But, when we both jumped into one seat on the “Matterhorn” and hugged each other tight during the ride, it was clear — there’s something magical about Disneyland.

It’s clear that Disneyland is magical with the right cohorts. In the second article in this two-part series, find out whether Disneyland is any fun alone.

(Updated April 22, 2013: In June 2012, Disney replaced the Matterhorn Bobsleds with new sleds that don’t allow riders to share a seat.)

Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle is based on Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle, built by King Ludwig II.

Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle is based on Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle, built by King Ludwig II.

Jungle Cruise travelers return to the dock.

Jungle Cruise travelers return to the dock.

Disneyland’s Mark Twain Riverboat is built at a 5/8 scale.

Disneyland’s Mark Twain Riverboat is built at a 5/8 scale.

Romantic Things to Do on a Disneyland Date

  • Eat Mickey Mouse Waffles for breakfast at Carnation Café under the candy cane-striped umbrellas on Main Street, or eat Mickey Mouse Pancakes at the River Belle Terrace while watching the Mark Twain Riverboat paddle by on the Rivers of America.
  • Ask a caricature artist to draw a picture of you together in New Orleans Square.
  • Share a Dole Whip from outside the “Enchanted Tiki Room.”
  • Cuddle in the dark while riding a private, ghost-filled Doom Buggy in the “Haunted Mansion.”
  • Kiss while flying above the city of London on “Peter Pan’s Flight.”
  • Make a wish at Snow White’s Wishing Well (just to the right of Sleeping Beauty Castle).
  • Find out your future as predicted by Esmeralda, the coin-operated fortune teller in the Penny Arcade on Main Street.
  • Take a night sail on the Sailing Ship Columbia or the Mark Twain Riverboat.
  • Eat dinner at the Blue Bayou restaurant in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride. Reservations can be made by calling (714) 781-3463
  • Watch the fireworks show from Main Street, looking toward Sleeping Beauty Castle.
  • Watch Fantasmic, Disneyland’s laser light and water show, from the shore of the Rivers of America. For an extra charge ($59 per person), you can reserve riverside seats and enjoy a catered dessert box while watching the show by calling (714) 781-4400.
  • Ride the Disneyland Railroad around the entire park, right before the park’s closing. You may end up with your own car.
  • Wear Mickey Mouse ears.

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