Disneyland is 50, but still so young, Rosemarie Milsom
TEENAGERS Sam and Savannah have travelled to Disneyland from Ione, a small town about half an hour south-east of Sacramento. They're buzzing as we wait in the snake-like queue for our seat in Space Mountain's revamped rocket. The wholesome pair chat happily about the family's annual three-day pilgrimage to the "mouse house", as the theme park is playfully known. "Most people we know have come here," says Sam, who wouldn't be out of place in a teen soap. "It's part of growing up."
Twenty-five minutes pass before we get to clamber into the sleek carriage, but within seconds of zooming into space we are squealing like hyperactive three-year-olds. It's a heady combination of adrenaline and lack of inhibition. The result is pure joy.
As we dodge a meteor shower and race around sharp corners at breakneck speed, our laughter tears fly from our faces like raindrops on a windscreen.
When it's all over, we head to the row of screens near the exit and within minutes digital photos appear. There's me, hair suspended, face contorted into an Edvard Munch-like expression. Laughter all round. Next is Sam and Savannah, thumbs up, cheesy grins directed at the camera. It's one of the benefits of being a regular - you know where all the lenses are placed.
They share a knowing look as they head off to join the end of the queue for one more ride. It's 10pm and they've been at it for 12 hours. Except for some time off for shopping and dinner, so have I.
At 34, I've discovered the 50-year-old charm of Disneyland and I'm hooked.
Since its launch, Disney has exported its unique brand to Japan (Tokyo Disney opened in 1983), Europe (Disneyland Paris opened in 1992) and last October, to Hong Kong. But this is Anaheim's year and freshened up for its half-century milestone, the park sparkles during the day. A newlywed Japanese couple pose near the bronze statue of Walt Disney amid the flowering cherry blossoms, garden beds are filled with colour and, despite the queues, everyone seems so damn happy.
Wide-eyed preschool girls skip about in an array of costumes - Snow White is a favourite - and mask-clad boys carry plastic swords.
The "happiest place on earth" is also the only place on earth where entire families - picture grandma, grandpa, mum and dad, plus the three kids - can get away with wearing matching Mickey Mouse T-shirts and mouse ears (gold instead of black for the anniversary year).
Everywhere you look there is excess; fairy floss, caramel-coated apples, oversized ice-creams with chocolate and sprinkle-dipped waffle cones, lollies and five-layer mud cake.
The park's 6000 trees are neatly trimmed, the manicured lawns are just the right shade of green and even the garbage bins in each of the park's eight theme areas are specially designed. For example, the bins in Frontierland look as though they are made from timber palings and in Adventureland they are covered in faux bamboo. It's the attention to detail that sets Disneyland apart from any other theme park I've visited.
But the jewel in the crown is the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle, with its juniper-lined moat (one of the few plants swans won't eat). Etched in my memory from childhood, thanks to the opening credits of The Wonderful World Of Disney, the castle has been glammed up for the 50th celebrations. The five spires are adorned with a turret crown featuring imagery from each Disneyland decade. Gold leaf has been repainted on the spires and blue and crimson banners flutter in the breeze.
In my mind I'd pictured a towering structure and I'm surprised by its small scale. It's like sitting down at the family dinner table as an adult and being surprised at how small it seems compared to your childhood memory.
Each night at 9.25, the paved area on Main Street in front of the castle overflows with orderly crowds eagerly awaiting the fireworks, which have also been given a boost and a Julie Andrews voice-over for the birthday celebrations. Everyone ooohhs and aaaahs as a shimmery green Tinkerbell flits about, suspended above the castle on a hard-to-detect wire.
While the majority of visitors stop for the 20-minute display, seasoned park-goers such as Sam and Savannah rush to the most popular rides because the queues are shorter. I'd also suggest embracing the Fastpass. All you do is enter your day pass in the red vending machines outside the ride and you will be issued a ticket for an allotted time - anywhere from the next hour to five hours later, depending on demand. You return to the ride at the allotted time and race through an express queue.
Despite the thousands of people who wait in endless queues the only sign of aggro is that of children who, by the end of a long day, are simply exhausted by their excitement. You see them in prams, clutching a Little Mermaid doll or a Goofy drink bottle, fighting sleep till the very last moment.
It's the look of satisfaction and you know that they'll be back - just like me.
The writer travelled to Los Angeles courtesy of Air Tahiti Nui and was a guest of Disneyland Resort.
* Getting there: Disneyland is in Anaheim, about 80 minutes south-east of Los Angeles off Interstate 5 (Santa Ana Freeway). Most Anaheim hotels operate a shuttle service to and from Disneyland.
* Tips: Stay two days so you can visit Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure Park next door. Take bottled water and fruit to save on costs and avoid a junk food overload. Many families return to their hotels in the afternoon for some rest and come back at night for dinner and fireworks. No need to tip in the park.
* Cost: A one-day parkhopper ticket is $US69 ($92) for ages three to nine and $US79 for 10+. A three-day ticket, with a discount for an advance booking, is $US119 and $US149. See http://disneyland.disney.go.com for bookings and specials.
* Packages: Newmans Holidays offers a range of Disneyland deals, including: return economy air fares to Los Angeles, flying Air Tahiti Nui, including taxes, return transfers, five nights' accommodation and two-day parkhopper ticket.
* Cost: Price, per adult, twin share, starts at $1875 ex Sydney. Valid from November 1 to December 9, 2006. Air Tahiti Nui flies three times weekly from Sydney to Los Angeles, via Tahiti, with connections from other Australian cities. Phone Newman Holidays on 1300 130 524 or see your travel agent.
Four rides not to miss
* Mad Tea Party, Fantasyland
This is a 1955 original and, like many popular features, has been freshened up for the 50th anniversary. The pretty lanterns hanging overhead and the colourful tea cups make it a hit with the littlies, but don't be fooled. Once inside and in control of the wheel, you'll find yourself spinning around at a dizzying speed.
* Space Mountain, Tomorrowland
Rated by Americans as their favourite attraction in a 2005 survey, the 30-year-old, high-speed ride was reopened last July by astronaut Neil Armstrong after a revamp. After boarding your rocket (a rollercoaster cabin) you race through a launch tunnel towards a large meteorite. The special effects are so convincing you feel as though you're tearing through space. Definitely get a Fastpass and kids have to be more than a metre tall.
* Indiana Jones Adventure, Adventureland
By the time you've wound your way through the queue set amid a rainforest, walked underground through a mine shaft littered with props from the movies, watched a humorous safety film and strapped yourself in to the jeep, you'll be wondering if it's worth it. And it is. You'll race through a cave above steaming lava and flames, encounter spiders, cobras and Indiana Jones himself. There are 160,000 journey combinations and this is my pick.
* Splash Mountain, Critter Country
When the couple who shared our raft pulled on large garbage bags we knew we were in trouble. Half way through the ride my companion's bottom half became drenched - shoes included - after we plunged down a steep drop and hit the water. Plastic ponchos would be ideal, but make do any way you can.