Paradise Pier at Disney California Adventure Park. Photo: Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland
It's D-Day for Daniel Fallon as he fulfils a lifelong dream, his three children in tow.
Disneyland. This single word can evoke so many images. As a child I would dream about Mickey Mouse clowning about with his famous cartoon friends behind the walls of Sleeping Beauty's castle, as fireworks exploded above and visitors enjoyed fabulous rides.
Now, as a father of three, Disneyland evokes different images - I dread the thought of navigating my family around masses of people, spending interminable periods in lines and doling out for expensive junk food and souvenirs.
Today is finally D-Day. The kids are brimming with excitement and I with trepidation as we step off the hotel shuttle and stand at the gates of the magic kingdom. This moment has been building up for my nine-year-old boy Joey (sports fanatic), seven-year-old Julia (fairy) and two-year-old Annie (Amazonian) for three months. I've been waiting for more than three decades for my first Disneyland experience and now have to wait a bit longer for special entry passes.
Walt's epic operation is split into two theme parks that face each other - Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park. Disney has closed California Adventure Park to the public to show off Cars Land, its $US1 billion addition dedicated to the popular animated franchise Cars, to media. It's the perfect start to our experience, with short lines and few people to bump into.
Walking through the gates we find something like a quaint town, but without regular vehicle traffic. At the first corner there is a life-sized bronze statue of Walt Disney standing with Mickey and a suitcase labelled "Animated Motion Picture Cartoonist". A tram rounds the corner with a posse of young and talented performers. They are dressed in 1930s attire and sing about the arrival of Disney in Los Angeles from Kansas City. At the end of the well-choreographed number, Mickey steps out of the carriage to much applause.
Minnie Mouse is on the next corner and we pose for a photo next to her biplane before jumping on the Grizzly River Run - a giant inflatable tyre-like raft that is carried to the top of Grizzly Peak by conveyor belt before being dropped in the rapids. Both Joe and Julia are thrilled with the wet and wild ride. Next we turn onto the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail and cross many rope bridges until we find Russell the wilderness explorer, a character from the animated film Up, talking about nature.
That is the thing about Disney's theme parks that I had not anticipated - instead of simply being filled with the cartoon characters of my childhood, they are continually being updated to include characters from all the latest Disney films and Pixar animations. From the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage through to Monsters Inc's Monstropolis City Cab ride and Toy Story Mania with Buzz and Woody helping you shoot 3D targets, it seems the movies turn into rides shortly after their DVD release.
Cars Land, California Adventure Park's new extension, features three rides that have attracted the longest lines of the day. There is understandable interest - media from around the world have converged to report on the upgrade. Mater's Junkyard Jamboree spins us around in tractors until we are dizzy, Luigi's Flying Tyres has us barely floating on a tyre that is being pushed up by air as we launch giant beach balls at each other, and Radiator Spring Racers takes you through Cars memorabilia before a gripping race begins (it's over too quickly considering the 90-minute wait). I'm not sure the thrills are worth $US1 billion.
We throw ourselves onto a string of age-appropriate rides: Joe, mum and dad go for the captivating California Screamin' roller coaster (my favourite), which does loops, and the heart-stopping Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (the elevator ride from hell), while Julia and Annie enjoy The Little Mermaid (reliving Ariel's magical adventure) and MuppetVision 3D.
Later that night we don special Mickey ears for the visual spectacular dubbed "World of Colour". Jets of water create a fine mist, onto which lasers can project animation - it is a mystical effect and we are entertained by a medley of musical numbers from hit animations, including Snow White, Cinderella and The Princess and the Frog. Somehow the Mickey ears glow and flash in time to the music. We are still buzzing when we hop on our shuttle and head back to our hotel. "Julia was right," Joe says. "This is the best day ever."
After consuming huge helpings of pancakes, eggs and bacon and coffee at our Holiday Inn restaurant, we are fully fuelled for day two.
We enter Disneyland Park and I brace myself as a wave of humanity hits us on the cobblestone Main Street. It is sensory overload - the sounds of rides, music, screaming babies in passing strollers, the clip-clop of pack horses pulling trams behind them. Everything is moving. Or vibrating. Or spinning.
There are thousands of people moving in various directions as I push the stroller with one current of people. As the lines for rides are already building up quickly, we pick up a Fast Pass to Star Tours in Tomorrowland, an epic 3D Star Wars simulator, before moving to a ride with a shorter line. The Fastpass secures a time for us to come back and have a much shorter wait for the ride.
We also learn that, once one parent takes a child on the ride, a Rider Switch Pass lets the other parent beat the long queue (and take one child with them as well). But it is impossible to escape the lines altogether.
"It's 'Disney-line'," I overhear a man say to his son as we go to the back of a particularly long queue for the Matterhorn Bobsled. "This is what Disneyland is all about - lines."
The line wraps right around the fake mountain - the "alpine climber" who is blowing a Swiss horn near its peak isn't making me feel any better. It takes an hour to get near the entry. "Why are those people just walking straight through to the front and on the ride with a green ticket?" my wife asks an official in disbelief. "They are going on the singles line," he replies. "Some rides will do it; you just ask the attendant."
We are flabbergasted. Another lesson is learnt: if you are prepared to go by yourself on rides, you'll save hours. It's time for our next thrill.
"Hands up who wants to go around again?" the Space Mountain ride operator announces some time later as our roller coaster carriage slows to a halt, allowing me to take my first breath since G-forces robbed me of air.
Joey shakes his head next to me, his white knuckles still gripping the bar in front. But this silent protest goes unnoticed as a rousing cheer goes up from our fellow astronauts. The collective "wooohooooo" is all that is left at the disembarking point as our space ship blasts off again into the darkness of the solar system. The famous Space Mountain roller coaster is almost entirely in the dark.
"That was incredible," Joey says as we hop off a little woozy and look at an image of us captured during the ride on a screen. "But I don't need to do it again."
By 4.30pm we have marked off all the roller coasters and main attractions, the girls having especially loved Fantasyland's gentle rides and meeting Mickey in Toontown. I feel a deep sense of satisfaction. Something that has been sitting silently on my bucket list since I was six has been marked off - I have survived Disney and the kids have had a blast.
The truth is that, despite the crowds, Disneyland is a wildly fun place to visit and not too far away from what I had imagined as a child.
Getting there United Airlines has a fare to Los Angeles (13hr 30min) for about $1450 low-season return from Sydney, including tax. Melbourne passengers pay about the same and transit in Sydney; see united.com. Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure; see https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov. It is a 1hr shuttle ride to Anaheim, from $US16 ($15.50) one way, which can be included with an accommodation package when booked ahead.
Staying there Holiday Inn Anaheim is a 10-minute bus ride from Disneyland. It is quiet and comfortable, has a pool and spa open until 11pm and an affordable restaurant with a menu stacked with tasty meals (breakfast is included and kids eat free at other times). A two-room suite, with one queen and two single beds, costs $US112 a night. See hianaheimresort.com.
Disney tickets A two-day park-hopper pass to Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park costs $US188 (ages three to nine) and $US200 (ages 10 and up).
Five best rides for kids over seven
1. California Screamin', Paradise Pier (122 centimetres minimum height). This roller-coaster has a super-fast takeoff and awesome loops and turns.
2. Space Mountain, Tomorrowland (102 centimetres). Blast off on a wild roller-coaster ride almost entirely in the dark.
3. Star Tours, Tomorrowland (102 centimetres, pictured). The force is strong with this ride as you strap yourself into a flight simulator, pop on some 3D glasses and fly through the Star Wars galaxies.
4. Radiator Springs Racers, Cars Land (102 centimetres). The jewel of the recent billion-dollar expansion is half movie memorabilia and half super-cool race.
5. Grizzly River Run, Grizzly Peak (107 centimetres). Get wet as you ride a giant inflatable raft down rapids.
Five best rides for kids under seven
1. Gadget's Go Coaster, Mickey's Toontown (89 centimetres). Junior's very first roller-coaster is a thriller. The tears of terror will be replaced with pride for being brave.
2. Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, Tomorrowland. Become a Space Ranger and blast targets with a laser gun to thwart Evil Emperor Zurg. Your score is tallied on the ride.
3. MuppetVision 3D, Hollywood Land. Enjoy a Muppet movie as the two old Muppets, Statler and Waldorf, have a go at the show.
4. Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough, Fantasyland. Stroll through the corridors of the iconic Disney castle and see the story of Princess Aurora come to life.
5. The Little Mermaid, Paradise Pier. Relive Ariel's magical adventure and songs thanks to smart robotics.