California Adventure in a more golden state

Times Staff Writer

Two nights at Disney's Paradise Pier Hotel: $441.60

Three tickets to Disney's California Adventure: $139.25.

Dinner at Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen: $117.12.

A three-day weekend at the Disneyland Resort with your wife and two young sons: pricey.

It felt wrong to be spending so much money on a vacation only 20 miles from home. But considering the rising price of gas or the cost of airline tickets for four, a family getaway farther away wouldn't have been much more affordable. And, love it or hate it, Walt Disney Co. usually knows how to show young and old a good time.

When it opened three years ago, though, Disney's California Adventure was a much-maligned theme park, with critics complaining that there were too few rides and attractions. Roy Disney, the nephew of Walt, accused the company of building the park "on the cheap" when he resigned in November from the Disney board of directors.

But attractions have been added in recent years. One of the biggest is set to open May 5: the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror thrill ride, which cost about $60 million to build and is popular at Walt Disney World in Florida.

One benefit of going on this trip before summer — at least for Southern California residents — is that you can visit California Adventure and neighboring Disneyland for the price of one admission. Though the dates for such promotions are subject to change, Disney has offered "resident salutes" for the last 13 years. As of the Travel section's deadline Tuesday, a two-for-one promotion was still available.

Because we were going to both parks in one weekend, my wife, Leslie, and I thought we would make a vacation out of it and stay at the most affordable of Disney's three hotels, the Paradise Pier, which has access into California Adventure.

With our sons, Riley, 7, and Casey, 19 months, we arrived at the hotel in the late afternoon one Friday a few weeks ago. The accommodations were adequate but not extravagant. Our fourth-floor room cost $184 a night plus tax and a $9.20 daily resort fee that included parking. It had a partial view of the theme park, a portable crib for Casey and a couch that converted into a bed for Riley. There was a small refrigerator for drinks and snacks. Though we didn't use it, a heated swimming pool is open year-round. The biggest disappointment for me was finding a balloon and wadded-up papers left over from the previous guests in our room, very un-Disney-like.

Disney built its Grand Californian Hotel here and acquired two other existing lodgings — the Disneyland Hotel in 1998 and Paradise Pier, formerly the Pan Pacific, in 1995. The Paradise Pier's best feature is its location: next to California Adventure and Downtown Disney, an open-air shopping and dining district.

We spent our first evening walking around Downtown Disney, window shopping and listening to the talented street performers, such as bluesman Brother Yusef, who plays a mean acoustic guitar. When Casey stopped dancing to Yusef's riffs, he was drawn to the district's water fountains. He would have jumped in if he weren't grabbed in the nick of time.

For dinner, we ate at Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen, a New Orleans-influenced restaurant with a festive atmosphere. But the food was expensive, lukewarm and just not that good. I had the pasta jambalaya, and Leslie had beef fillets with gulf shrimp. We both were underwhelmed. Riley, however, had the children's spaghetti plate and declared it the best he'd ever had. Clearly, he was in some sort of Disney euphoria, anticipating the next day's trek into California Adventure.

Coming into its own Despite its bad rap, California Adventure is every bit as good, if not better, than Disneyland. Although the park has fewer rides than the Magic Kingdom, it did create A Bug's Land, which opened about 18 months ago with four new rides and a water play area, all largely geared for young children. There are new shows such as "Playhouse Disney — Live on Stage," the interactive "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — Play It" and a musical production based on the story of Aladdin. In the evening, the Main Street Electrical Parade — once a mainstay at Disneyland — makes the rounds at California Adventure. The soon-to-be-unveiled Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride is expected to be one of the park's main attractions.

The additions complement the park's marquee rides, such as the California Screamin' roller coaster and Soarin' Over California, which simulates a hang-glider ride across the state. The scents of saltwater, oranges and pine trees waft past as you float over the Golden State's beaches, groves and forests.

There are two things I like the most about California Adventure: the lack of crowds and the booze.

California Adventure is less stressful to visit than Disneyland. The wide walkways rarely seem congested, and the lines are relatively short. According to industry analysts, attendance last year at California Adventure was 5.3 million guests compared with Disneyland's 12.7 million.

I'm glad the place is less popular. More space for me.

And there's nothing like an ice-cold beer or frosty margarita to take the edge off the running around. A pint of a Karl Strauss microbrew runs a little more than $5 — cheaper and better than what you'd find at Dodger Stadium. In summer, water attractions such as Grizzly River Run also help cool you off.

Because we were staying next to the park, we were able to go to breakfast and still arrive before the gates opened. We ate in Downtown Disney at the Rainforest Cafe, an elaborate jungle-themed restaurant with animatronic beasts that came to life every 15 minutes or so as thunder boomed and lightning flashed. Although Riley enjoyed the tropical ambience, Casey was more than slightly concerned when the stuffed gorilla suddenly began roaring and pounding its chest. Casey had cereal, Riley had scrambled eggs and potatoes, and Leslie and I ordered the Mexican egg quesadilla — filling but not all that tasty. Like everything else surrounding the parks, the restaurant was expensive.

After breakfast our plan was to hit the popular rides at California Adventure early, when there were no lines. I must confess, I tend to plot a course with military efficiency. By day's end, we had managed to do nearly everything except tour the sourdough bread and tortilla factories. Riley was particularly happy because he was finally — and barely — tall enough (4 feet, 4 inches) to go on the Maliboomer, which shoots you 180 feet up in the air in four seconds.

We snacked on junk food throughout the day and ate dinner at the Golden Vine Winery inside the park. It has an upscale dining area as well as a more casual space, where we had sandwiches and wine. It was the best meal of the trip.

That night we all slept well.

On to the Magic Kingdom Bright and somewhat early the next morning, we were ready for round two. We checked out of the hotel, loaded our bags in the car and walked back to Downtown Disney, where we had a breakfast of bagels, muffins and fruit at the La Brea Bakery Cafe.

Disneyland, unlike California Adventure, was crowded, and by noon the lines were getting long. We took advantage of the park's Fastpass program, which allows you to reserve a spot at the front of the line during a specific time frame later in the day. The line for Pirates of the Caribbean was about 45 minutes long around 11 a.m. We received a Fastpass to ride an hour and a half later. But during that time, we were able to enjoy other attractions. The catch is you can only have a Fastpass for one attraction at a time.

Disneyland also has opened new attractions recently: a petting zoo and a theatrical production of Disney's classic "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

After another full day, it was nice to travel only half an hour to get home. It beat an extended road trip or a wait at an airport. In the end, our family vacation was, as those sappy credit-card commercials say, priceless.

Matt Lait is a reporter on The Times' Metro staff.

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