The grand daddy of amusement parks, Disneyland in California, is 60 and still setting the standards, writes Christian Sylt
The experience is quite surreal. There’s tinsel and candy canes hanging from the ornate shop fronts lining the street ahead of me, wintry scenes fill the window displays, snow lies on the ground and a three storey Christmas tree stands in the square. A brass band wrapped in bright red winter woollies plays classic Christmas tunes from the bandstand. It couldn’t be more festive if it wasn’t for the 25 degree sun.
The tell-tale sign of where I am is the saccharine sweet smell of popcorn wafting through the air. It’s a scent which is only found in theme parks and this one is the grand daddy of them all: Disneyland in California.
Disneyland was the first park of its kind and was opened by Walt Disney himself as a place to promote his cartoons and give his family somewhere safe and clean to visit. Other amusement parks of his day were sleazy and rickety but Disneyland changed all that.
Disney didn’t settle for roller coasters being bare steel structures. Instead, one of its flagships, Big Thunder Mountain, is hidden inside a mock up of a canyon and themed to a runaway mine train. Disneyland’s log flume, Splash Mountain, doesn’t just rise and fall, it does so inside a man-made mountain and launches into a fake briar patch following the story of Brer Rabbit. Disneyland was so successful it spawned sister parks in Hong Kong, Japan, Orlando and Paris and the rest is history.
Its California complex was 60 this year and has been celebrating in style. Winter may seem like a strange time to visit, but it’s a must for anyone who has ever wished for all the frills and trimmings of Christmas without the cold weather and flu.
Disney even lays on a nightly dusting of fake snow (it’s actually foam) on its early 1900s America-themed Main Street. It runs from the entrance of the fairytale-inspired Disneyland Park right up to Sleeping Beauty castle in the middle.
Disneyland is home to Splash Mountain and other classic rides themed to Disney stories such as Snow White and Peter Pan. Most of them are kiddie-friendly slow moving tours in mini cars past brightly-coloured indoor sets. However, it’s always worth checking the free park maps if you’re with kids as some rides are far from toddler fare.
The Indiana Jones Adventure is one which will give you a workout of which Harrison Ford himself would be proud. At first it seems no different to the other indoor rides as you board a jeep which sets off on an exploration of a mock temple. But the similarities soon fade when the ride fires up and is revealed to be a roving simulator which tilts and twists on its base.
It’s not for the faint-hearted, nor is it one to ride at the end of a long day. Even if you grab on to the lap bar for dear life you will still find your leg muscles get a good workout as they strain to keep you sitting straight.
Walking through the neighbouring wild west-themed Frontierland you don’t just find rides like Big Thunder Mountain, but songs from famous cowboy movies also play from hidden speakers. It’s hard to resist tapping the rock-work and artefacts hanging from the walls in the queues to see if they are real. Anything in touching distance tends to be genuine to keep up the illusion. Even the floor is themed as it has horseshoe imprints in the Tarmac. You will get to know it well.
With around 100 attractions across two sprawling theme parks the most important tip is to wear a well worn pair of shoes.
Ironically, even though Walt himself opened Disneyland in 1955, his influence shows through even more in its neighbour, the California Adventure. Rather than being based on fairytales, this park is themed to different areas of California from replicas of an old-fashioned seaside and wharf to the Rocky mountains.
A mockup of 1930s Hollywood greets guests at the entrance and immediately sets a different tone to Disneyland. Brightly-coloured cartoon-like buildings are replaced with a realistic-looking Art Deco-style street.
Instead of having a castle as its centrepiece there’s the Carthay Circle, a replica of the Los Angeles cinema where Walt hosted the 1937 première of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There isn’t a ride inside but a swanky restaurant serving local specialities such as heirloom tomato salad and salmon caught in the nearby bay. With teak panelled walls and golden chandeliers it has an elegant atmosphere and it isn’t uncommon to see smartly-dressed elderly couples dining there.
The adult tone continues in the rides with the highlight being Soarin’, a simulated hang glider ride over some of California’s most well-known landmarks. Guests strap themselves into seats which rise in front of a huge domed screen and then sway and pitch in time to the on-screen movie. A sweeping orchestral score complements the experience and smells of pine and orange are even piped in as the glider swoops over forests and groves. You will be left slack-jawed wondering how Disney does it.
That feeling runs through to the end of the day when the lake in the middle of California Adventure is home to World of Color, a son et lumière like no other. The show doesn’t just use the lake to tell Walt Disney’s life story, but it uses the buildings around it too. Footage of Disney and his classic characters is projected onto the rides lining the lake and huge mist screens formed from fountains fanning out on the water. More than 1,000 other fountains and lasers dance to the catchy tunes from Disney’s films whilst flame-throwers hurl huge fireballs into the sky at the most memorable moments.
After all this excitement you won’t want to walk far to fall into bed. The roads around Disneyland are lined with hotels and restaurants but the most convenient of them all sits right inside California Adventure itself. The Grand Californian is styled as a giant hunting lodge and cleverly acts as a backdrop to the Rocky Mountain area of the park. Being that close to the action has its perks and the hotel has a private entrance into the park so you can beat the crowds.
At least a day in each park is the best way to take it all in and it’s easy to fill a week with tours around local movie studios and window shopping in chic Beverly Hills. You will want to make the most of it because the only downside to all this escapism is that when it’s finally time to leave, you’re brought back to reality with an even bigger bump.
• British Airways flies from Edinburgh to Heathrow and then on to Los Angeles. A return flight, including seven nights at Disney’s Grand Californian hotel is £1,733.04 per adult and £1,582.04 per child aged between 12 and 15. Package prices are based on departures on 13 February 2016 and can be booked with KenwoodTravel (www.kenwoodtravel.co.uk or 020 7749 9282) with the internal flights available on britishairways.com. The Disneyland Resort Express (dre.coachusa.com) bus transfer runs between Los Angeles International Airport and Disneyland and costs £32 per adult with children travelling for free. Three-day tickets valid in both Disneyland and California Adventure can be booked with Attraction Tickets Direct (www.attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk or 0808 271 4453) and cost from £175 per adult and £168 per child.