Disneyland: The most hellish place on earth

Filed under: Preschoolers, Big Kids

I grew up in Southern California. In the '60s and '70s, I went to Disneyland dozens of times. At least once a year and usually more. It was part of my childhood. And yes, I have many fond memories, including being three years old and crying so hard I threw up on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Today, I live about a half-hour's drive away (or two hours, depending on traffic) from the Magic Kingdom. I took my daughter on her first visit when she was four and her baby brother was still in the stroller.

It was a highly successful first visit, I thought, because A) we only hit a few rides and got out before the crowds hit and B) my dad paid for all of it. I left feeling quite pleased with myself.

The next three trips, however, were less successful, however. And I began to see Disneyland for what it was: A ruse to part parents from their money.

After my final trip, in which the then-seven-year-old proclaimed the day "the worst birthday party in the world," I can't say that I'm inclined to give Disneyland another chance. But I feel that as a Southern Californian by birth, and as a parent otherwise inclined to do things I have no interest in for the benefit of my offspring, I feel I can offer you, gentle readers, a service.

So take it from me. Avoid the Happiest Place on Earth.

I understand you have all been brainwashed into thinking a trip to Disneyland will be magical fun for the whole family. I have been, too. And indeed I remember when it was sort of a fun, wholesome place. I remember crowds, sure, but I also remember getting on rides, often times twice or thrice in one day! I remember the thrill in getting my name sewed onto some mouse ears, and eating those long twirly lollipops. I remember running all over Tom Sawyer's Island -- for hours! -- in unsupervised bliss. Disneyland was a kids' paradise. But somewhere between my High School Grad Nite and the time I had kids old enough to go to Disneyland, the scene had changed. Today Disneyland is a temple to the Bottom Line. Visitors come second. Profits come first.

Here are a few reasons why the Happiest Place on Earth, just ain't.

First: You have to drive through Anaheim, once a rural town filled with strawberry fields, now a flat, smoggy wasteland of strip-malls and garish motels catering to Disney tourists.

Second: The cost. It will cost a family of four around $200 just to enter the grounds. If you arrive anytime after the park opens, you will get to wait in a long, long line for the pleasure of paying your $200. Ever wait in line with a three-year-old? Nothing happy about that.

Third: The crowds. Disneyland has taken crowds and made them an art form that Francis Bacon would admire. Throngs. Teeming hoardes. Thrumming legions of unwashed, sweating, scowling tourists from the far corners of the planet, shuffling forward in the hopes of finding a ride that they won't have to stand in line for an hour to get onto. Crowds so big you can't move independently. Paralyzing crowds. You can't get on rides. You can't wander. You can't eat. You can't shop. Small children see these crowds and instantly shut themselves down. Soul-killing crowds.

Fourth: The cost again. There is lots to buy at Disneyland and everything is for sale, from the standard tourist tchotkies in the many shops to the premium you must pay in order to get a good photo with a Disney character.

Fifth: The value. What's your time and money worth? Is it worth hundreds of dollars to fight crowds for everything from getting on rides to getting a drink of water? Where's the value in standing in line for 40 minutes with two starving, over-heated kids to pay $6 for a 4-inch burrito that won't even sate a 7-year-old girl? (Go back and get a second one? Don't even think about it, pal). It's not hard to blow a total of $600 on a day-trip to Disneyland, and that's if you drive here. Triple that if you're planning on staying in Anaheim. Whew. $600. I bet if I looked hard enough on Expedia.com, I could find a package deal to Hawaii for me and my two kids.

If I sound like a killjoy, it's only because the experience I've had as a mom here has been so nauseatingly horrific. It's made all the more frustrating because millions of tourists show up in Southern California to visit Disneyland, which as a theme park seems to have tossed aside their enjoyment for the sake of profit.

I'd like to see the folks at Disneyland consider limiting the number of visitors in the park at any one time. Make it possible for people to actually get on rides without waiting in line for an hour each. Maybe have two shifts, one in the morning, one in the afternoon and evening, and let folks make a reservation.

But that would crimp profits, wouldn't it? Bad shareholder value. Bad idea. Bad Julie for even thinking such a thing!

Well I'm not going back there with my kids anyway. Who cares what they do.

Now. Allow me to hip you to the many fantastic values for families in Southern California.

Like the Beach. The beach is free. Southern California has many. May I suggest Laguna? Seal Beach? Hermosa? Go online and pick one near where you're staying. Kids can play all day in the sand and the waves, gobble down the hamburger and fries you buy them at the beachside stand for $6, and can be carried home, sandy and asleep on your shoulder. For free. Your babies will love the beach. Your toddlers will play until they drop. Even your sullen teens will love the beach. You'll love the beach. And did I mention? It's free! And if you come off-season, there's a very good chance you'll come on that one weekend in February when it's beach weather. The $200 (at least) you save on NOT going to Disneyland will buy you a new bathing suit, a beach novel and a lot of new sand toys for the kids. Not to mention a very nice dinner at a M exican restaurant for the four of you. Including strawberry margaritas.

What's the conundrum again?

Or if you have to go to an amusement park, try LegoLand, just down the freeway in scenic Carlsbad, Calif. It's actually quaint and sweet, with a variety of rides and interactive play (including a fantastic water play area that no kid can resist. Bring a towel and a change of clothes!)

Here are some more kid-friendly destinations for families coming to vacation in Southern California:

The La Brea Tar Pits - A large open park with a hands-on museum and good food nearby. The statues of the mammoth drowning in tar have been thrilling six-year-olds for 30 years.

The Griffith Observatory - They finally reopened it! A sprawling art deco palace up on a hill overlooking L.A. This is where they filmed the famous scene of Rebel Without a Cause. Visit the LA Zoo and the pony rides in Griffith Park, too.

The San Diego Zoo - The Big One. Bring a lot of water and a hat. Your kids will be all over this option.

The Getty - what looks to you like a beautiful art museum set in the Santa Monica Hills is really a totally cool park to your kids. You might not get to see much of the vaunted collection while here with your children, but you'll have a great time anyway. The grounds and views and stunning. And the Getty is family friendly, featuring PB&J's in its cafeteria and grassy hills you can roll down with the management's blessing.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.