ANAHEIM, Calif. —Don't miss the Toontown roller coaster, somebody said. Don't bother with Toontown, somebody else said. Don't risk the Matterhorn with a first-grader, somebody said. Don't miss the Matterhorn with a first-grader, somebody else said.
"Absolutely," I said.
When you tell a Southern Californian that your 6-year-old is about to visit Disneyland for the first time — and that you haven't been there since Captain EO was fresh from the academy — the advice comes flowing like the whitewater that I imagine courses down Splash Mountain.
Unlike that whitewater, however, the advice runs in contradictory directions. It depends on which parents are talking and what wonders and horrors they've witnessed. Those 160 Anaheim acres might be some of the most familiar territory in all American pop culture, but Disneyland is a different place for every family.
And now that our family has made its acquaintance on a warm autumn Saturday, I can say that our Disneyland is, at present, a thoroughly satisfying territory: loud, bright, sugary and squeaky-clean, with no line longer than a 15-minute wait. Also (because we agreed to deny the existence of anything with a wait longer than 15 minutes) it features no sit-down restaurants, no Haunted Mansion and no Matterhorn bobsleds. This Disneyland — shaped further by dumb luck, my wife's minimalist wisdom and my own inattention — also has no Frontierland, no Tomorrowland, no parades, a 15-second fireworks show and an intermission in its middle.
I highly recommend it.
7 a.m.: We vowed to leave Los Angeles at this hour in order to arrive at the gate for Disneyland's 8 a.m. opening. Didn't happen.
7:45 a.m.: We leave at last. There are four of us in the car: me, my wife, Mary Frances; our daughter, Grace; and Grace's Aunt Barbara.
8:45 a.m.: We park free at the Ramada Maingate (where we've reserved a $170 room for the night ahead), use bathrooms, then walk past Tony Roma's, Denny's and IHOP, cross the street and queue up for the Magic Kingdom. We've bypassed California Adventure and its popular "World of Color" show next door, because surely, at $76 for an adult and $68 for a kid younger than age 10, the original Disney park is enough this time. As Mary Frances says, why try to do too much?
9:01 a.m.: Through the turnstiles. "I can't believe this is really happening," a boy in line behind us whispers. Grace is quiet, eyes wide.
9:03 a.m.: Separated in crowd.
9:04 a.m.: Reunited. Meeting location established in case of future separations.
9:05 a.m.: Up Main Street. Into Sleeping Beauty Castle. Onto King Arthur Carrousel. Then Grace and I disappear into Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, a dark, slightly jarring experience (oncoming train, the bowels of a volcano) that dates to the park's opening in 1955. G emerges exhilarated. "We went into a volcano, but it wasn't scary," she reports. In the merriment, I forget to get a Fastpass (to ease entry into the most popular attractions) and fail to make restaurant reservations (because the next meal is hours away, right?).
By 10:30 a.m., we've whirled in the teacups of the Mad Tea Party, flown with Dumbo, glided through It's a Small World and decided the Matterhorn doesn't exist. (The wait line is 30 minutes, maybe more.) But it's smooth sailing on Gadget's Go Coaster in Toontown (which thrills Grace exactly the right amount). Inside Mickey's House, the screening room is wonderfully air-conditioned. To keep up our energy, we grab churros from a cart near the meet-and-greet zone where Grace gets hugs from Disney villains. The witch from "Snow White" seems very nice.
"Hey," I say, spotting a familiar canine in the crowd. "There's Goofy!"
"Pluto," whispers a passing dad, correcting me.
Next we head toward Adventureland and New Orleans Square, swilling smoothies. We're not bothering with Space or Splash mountains (the fear factor), and we figure the rest of Frontierland and Tomorrowland can wait until later in the day. (We already know Grace is a few inches too short for the Indiana Jones Adventure, so there will be no dwelling on that.)
By 1:30 p.m., we're famished, Grace is fading and New Orleans Square is swarming with people. The Blue Bayou is booked; the French Market restaurant is packed. On Main Street, there's a line for tables at the Carnation Cafe. This is where we jettison plans. Farewell, lunch in the park. Hello, Denny's, just outside the gate. Mac and cheese, with nap and swim to come.
By 6:30 p.m., Grace has slept two hours, swum and donned a little devil outfit (in honor of the park's Halloween festivities). And we've scrapped another piece of the original plan: Instead of a nice dinner inside the park (which, without reservations, now strikes us as an idea straight out of Fantasyland), we dig into some perfectly acceptable pizza, salad and pasta at the hotel snack bar. Dinner for four: $30. Now we've saved a ton of time and money ... and missed both parades. Which only the grown-ups know.
7 p.m.: Back in the park with an inky sky above, we head for the Jungle Cruise (critters and one-liners aplenty; no waiting) and the Enchanted Tiki Room, where Grace sings along with the birds, flowers and totem faces. Along the way we pause long enough for me to do a double-take at the dwelling now known as Tarzan's Treehouse. (When did Tarzan buy the Swiss Family Robinson's old place? What's the foreclosure risk?)
About 9 p.m.: The crowds are still thick, but we spot a blank space where a line should be. Pirates of the Caribbean! Less than 10 minutes!
Marveling at our luck, we make for the embarkation area. And just as we duck inside, we hear a loud pop and see a flash. Fireworks. Behind us. Which everyone but us was waiting for.
Fortunately, the girls are already singing the "Yo ho, yo ho" song. We plunge into the damp darkness, and Grace is won over by Jack Sparrow and company. She likes Pirates so much, in fact, that when we emerge and the light show in the sky is winding down — and let me say, this is no standard light show — she gives it no more than a vaguely approving glance. She's ready for the next thing.
But now it's too late for Frontierland or Tomorrowland. Time for ... cotton candy. And then, because I've been deflecting shopping hints for about 10 hours, souvenir-shopping on Main Street.
10:40 p.m.: We straggle out of the park with a paper silhouette of Grace's face, a Mickey sorcerer toy, assorted shiny jewelry and a few dozen Silly Bandz (which, as most first-grade parents know, are rubber bracelets in various shapes) —all told, $120 in souvenirs and gifts. Add that to the meals, the hotel and the cost of admission, and the four of us are $696 poorer than when we began.
I'll take it. We're as happy as we are tired. No tears have been shed. I ask Grace her favorites of the day.
"Swimming," she says.
Should have seen that one coming.
"And Small World. And Pirates of the Caribbean."
Now, if some families did experience parades and extensive fireworks at Disneyland, if some families did actually see Splash Mountain, if some did visit the Haunted Mansion in the weeks before Halloween — nobody in my house needs to hear that, OK? We're all just fine. And next time, we'll have plenty left to discover.