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Disneyland, USA for Grown-ups

Vicki Arkoff finds the bar at Disneyland in Los Angeles – don’t tell the kids!

Don’t have kids or a kidlike obsession with all things Disney? Have no fear. The original Disneyland and the newer California Adventure theme park in Anaheim, California can still thrill adults, too, even if they don’t have a crush on Mickey Mouse or at least one Jonas Brother. If you know when to go, what to do and what to steer clear of, even the most difficult-to-please grownups can gleefully avoid experiencing hell on earth at “the happiest place on earth.”

Crowd Control: If summer, Easter or Thanksgiving vacation is on, call your Disneyland trip off.  That’s when crowds are at their peak and temperatures soar. Instead go midweek when school’s in session and you’ll often feel like you own the parks. Historically the least crowded periods are the second week in January to Presidents’ week; two weeks after Easter Sunday to Memorial Day week; and end of Thanksgiving weekend to mid-December. If summer’s your only option, plan your visit carefully and don’t expect to see everything. At every opportunity, grab Fast Pass tickets for the most popular rides (including Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Indiana Jones Adventure and Splash Mountain) – this free service allows you to return at a scheduled time and zip to the head of the lines, many of which might otherwise be 45 minutes to an hour long.

Skip the Silly Kid Stuff: After an early start at Disneyland, children are often throwing tantrums when they should be napping, so avoid Fantasyland and Toontown at all costs mid-afternoon. Instead, wait until the kiddies go to bed before taking a spin on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin, or Dumbo. The best rides for grown-ups? Disneyland’s Matterhorn, Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad for roller coaster fans; and the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and Indiana Jones for visual excitement. And here’s one that’s definitely not for the kiddies: the strange return of Captain Eo, the 3-D show starring Michael Jackson and his chimp Bubbles (RIP). The attraction was closed as a result of Jackson’s scandal and subsequent trial, but reopened in February, 2010, a few months following his death. California Adventures’ stand-out attractions with grown-up appeal are Soarin’ Over California, an interactive simulator ride, the Aladdin stage musical spectacular, and the not-for-chickens Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. And to put it all in proper perspective, don’t miss the downright fascinating look at how Disney magic is made in the Disney Animation Building.

Nostalgic Bliss: Middle-aged baby-boomers get misty-eyed experiencing classic ‘60s attractions like It’s A Small World (yes, the one with the never-ending refrain), Jungle Cruise (featuring the same corny jokes you remember) and The Tiki Room (“where the birdies sing and the flowers croon”) – gentle reminders of a simpler, more naive era. But the old-fashioned charm of these classic attractions is largely lost on younger generations weaned on high-tech special-effects …which is good news for grownups because that means the wait to get in is regularly far shorter than the typical ride. Bonus: The Tiki Room show is 20-minutes of air-conditioned, seat-cushioned bliss, and is one of the only attractions that allows you to bring in drinks.

Water, Water, Everywhere: Disney Resorts’ World of Color water show is the newest and biggest attraction here, drawing thousands of people from Disneyland into California Adventure each afternoon to snag a viewing spot hours ahead of the two nightly show times. Happy grownups, however, never, ever join the lemmings to fight for a standing-room-only spot.  Instead, avoid the crowds one of four ways:  (1) Book reservations at Wine Country Trattoria up to 60 days in advance (714 781-3463) for a superior prix fixe menu and an unparalleled  VIP viewing spot.  (2) A less expensive option is to call the same reservation number to pre-book a picnic meal in a VIP viewing spot. (3) Stand with the masses but without waiting in line by arriving at California Adventure when it opens to get a Fast Pass which guarantees you a reserved spot in a prime viewing area. (4) Or better yet, take a short peek at the show from a distance before taking advantage of the rest of the empty park. Just before a World of Color show we waited 45 long minutes to get onto the Toy Story Midway Mania, but during the show we zipped inside in just five minutes, then walked straight into five other attractions with no wait at all.

Happy Hour: Competing theme parks in Southern California have long served overpriced beer, but not family-friendly Disney Resorts. Until lately. At California Adventure you can find beer and an impressive wine selection. Paradise Pier features a draft beer bar in the food court, and The Mendocino Terrace, Sonoma Terrace, and Wine Country Trattoria at the Golden Vine Winery feature more than 25 Californian wines by the glass along with the most sophisticated (and expensive) menus in the Disney parks. Tip: Call ahead up to 30 days to make a reservation to skip a long wait. (714) 781-3463. In Disneyland the only place that serves alcohol is the very private Club 33 (located near Pirates of the Caribbean) open only to a select number of members and their guests. But barflies know that all you have to do is get on the Monorail ride and get off at the Disneyland Hotel where you’ll find the Lounge at Steakhouse 55 with a wine cellar and full bar. Hop back on the Monorail after a couple martinis and enjoy Disneyland in a way the kiddies can only imagine (but in a way I suspect Roger Rabbit and Mr. Toad are quite familiar). Other nearby bar options: Hearthstone Lounge and Napa Rose at Disney’s Grand California Hotel, and several theme bars and restaurants at Downtown Disney; it’s next door but a long walk and a world unto itself.

Stay Up Past Your Bedtime: Chances are you’ll enjoy Disney theme parks best at night when the little kids are in bed and the parks are at their most charming, thanks to twinkling lights, nightly fireworks, live music, parades, and the new Glow Fest dance parties. Since the parks close as late as midnight (depending on the season) you’ll be up late so better book at a grown-up hotel nearby where you can actually snooze. Although the low prices are tempting, you’re better off avoiding the dozen-plus motels within walking distance of the Disneyland main entrance. Our top recommendation is the Anaheim Marriott for sophistication, comfort, top-notch service, and invaluable peace and quiet. If you’ve recently won the lottery, however, and have money to burn, go for the very-pricey four-star Disney Grand Californian Hotel & Spa which mimics craftsman style of classic National Park Lodges and offers the shortest distance from your bed to the park entrance.

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