Disneyland…The Most Commercialized Place On Earth?

The Holiday Season. A time for family, merriment and bringing out your inner child. All three came together this past Christmas as Jie and I drove down to LA to spend a long weekend with my family, meeting my baby nephew, Max, for the first time.

We also had a roller coaster ride of an experience at Disneyland that, for me, shined a very different light on the Happiest Place on Earth.

Before Our Visit

One of Jie’s family traditions has been to visit Disneyland over Christmas — she has been over a dozen of times. Since we would already be in LA, it would be a great chance for us to go together for the first time.

A weekend during the Holidays was sure to be a busy time for the park. I had gone online to research tickets; a single day ticket to one of the Disneyland parks (Disneyland or California Adventure) costs $96. A single day ticket that allows you entry to both parks (“Park Hopper”) costs $150. It was a good thing I was already sitting down because I couldn’t believe how expensive these tickets were. In fact, the ticket prices have nearly doubled in the last ten years.

After an hour of searching for discounts online, the best that I could find was $10 off the Park Hopper, which we wanted so that we could see as much as possible in our lone day at Disney. I booked two tickets through an Anaheim tour operator. To physically get our tickets, we had to pick them up from their office, a tiny hole in the wall in a small office park across the freeway from Disneyland. Even though it seemed kind of shady, their tickets worked, and their staff was friendly and responsible.

What We Brought To The Park

Since we planned to spend all day and night at Disney (it stays open until midnight), we needed to come prepared. I was not about to fork over significant money during the course of the day for greasy park food every time that we wanted to eat.

Instead, we loaded up on supplies at a local grocery store and stuffed them into a gym bag that we had brought. Also in the bag: sunscreen, a camera, a water bottle, and extra clothes and a towel should we get wet on any of the water rides.

In retrospect, I should have brought  a backpack that I could easily carry on both shoulders. The gym bag only went over one shoulder and carrying it all day took a toll on me.

Arriving At The Park

When we drove through the entrance to Disneyland, my sense of anticipation was high. The last time I had been to Disneyland was over 13 years earlier so I was excited to see it again with fresh eyes.

As we looked to park our car, anticipation soon turned to confusion as signs pointed us away from the parking lot and eventually led us, through snarling traffic, out of the park entirely. We were haphazardly funneled towards the Anaheim Convention Center’s parking lot, a winding five story structure, where it took us over 30 minutes to find a parking space amidst a single file line of irritated drivers looking to park.

Since this was Disney’s busiest time of the year, in their infinite wisdom, they decided that it would make more sense to send early park-goers to the convention center lot. When that filled up, then they would let visitors park in their lot. But of course they were still nice enough to charge us $15 for our troubles.

To make matters worse, after enduring this traffic jam/parking fiasco, when we did finally park our car, we were more than a mile from the park entrance. While there were shuttles from the convention center, there was a 30 minute wait, so Jie and I decided to just walk.

In short, from the time we initially drove through Disney to the time we walked up to present our tickets, it took us over an hour.

We arrived to a sea of people. Tens of thousands if not more. As you prepare to enter the park you are overwhelmed by a combination of fast food restaurants and shopping, a very early signal that the magic of Disney is equally matched by the magic of separating you from your money.

Disneyland train station

Disneyland train station

 

Our Day At The Park

Our first stop was California Adventure, which was slightly less crowded than Disneyland. Jie, the wily veteran, knew to take advantage of their Fast Pass system, which allows you reserve attractions at a certain time rather than wait in line. She guided us toward the ticketing booth for that evening’s light show, which quickly runs out of tickets.

Even still, you are only entitle to one Fast Pass every two hours and popular attractions typically sell out of Fast Passes early in the day (e.g., Indiana Jones sold out by 3pm). That meant that from our arrival through the early evening we were frequently waiting in standby lines for upwards of an hour plus. More popular attractions (which we Fast Passed) had standby lines closer to two hours.

I am generally not a patient person so all the waiting left me a bit irritated — I know, what was I expecting going to Disneyland over Christmastime. What made it worse was finding half the bathroom stalls in the park not operating and several of their bigger rides (California Screamin’, Thunder Mountain) out of service for much of the day. Advice to Disney: if a ride is out of service please display this throughout the park so guests don’t waste their time trekking over only to find out they are out of luck. I would have thought that given the steep price of admission Disney could at least make sure that maintenance was top notch.

However, by early evening, the lines started to ease up and our wait time for rides shortened. We had to push ourselves all out until closing at midnight and we still could not ride everything. But I would much rather be racing from ride to ride than waiting.

A benefit of Disney versus other amusement parks is the overall experience. Each “land” within the park has a distinct look and feel. One moment you are in a typical Main Street, the next 1930’s LA, New Orleans and even a 1960’s version of the future. It is an aesthetic that does provide a wonderful experience for kids and that’s what makes it such a great family destination.

Cinderella's castle

Cinderella’s castle

 

The light shows and parades they put on every day show solid production value as well. They are using characters from popular Disney films and clearly invest a lot of resources to make these look fantastical.

I would also commend the service at the park. Each “cast member” (Disney lingo for their staff) that we spoke with was friendly and helpful. To run such a large park is no small feat, so having top notch service makes you feel more welcome, and more willing to buy more stuff.

Overall, it ended up being a very fun day that left me exhausted. We were on our feet for over 13 hours. We walked over 14 miles and stood for many hours on the hard concrete. I fell asleep the moment we got back to our hotel room. Word of advice: if you can afford to take an extra day to see both parks, I would strongly recommend it. This way you have the time to go on all the rides and enjoy the experience at a more leisurely pace.

If anything, my biggest takeaway is how financially successful this park is. Considering that it is visited by over 16 million visitors from all over the world, ready to spend time and money, the park cleans up. It’s no wonder that Disney made over $15 billion from their Parks & Resorts division this past year.

Ride Awards

Favorite ride: Space Mountain (who doesn’t like a roller coast in the dark?)

Most “maniacal” ride: Splash Mountain (according to Jie)

Ride most akin to an acid trip: It’s A Small World

California Adventure at night

California Adventure at night

 

Impressions Of The Disney Lifestyle

Beyond my impressions of the park itself were the tens of thousands of guests there on the day of our visit. It was sad to see so many people, and so many families, who are in such poor physical condition. Disney is a quintessential slice of Americana, so I guess it should not be surprising that visiting it you would find the same health problems that plague Americans. Disney feeds into this by offering up a plethora of unhealthy fast-food options. Turkey legs anyone? We struggled to find healthy items on their menu apart from the occasional bland salad.

enjoying Disney

enjoying Disney

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