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A California Experience

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Donna Wares is an editor on The Times' national desk

This was all so strangely civilized, it hardly seemed like a trip to the Magic Kingdom. There were no lines, no crush of families and strollers, no gargantuan parking structure to swallow us whole, not a peep of whining.

Just after 7:30 a.m., after breakfasting with Chip and Dale at the Storytellers Cafe, we simply strolled a few yards past the 86-degree pool and headed into Disney’s new California Adventure.

The park wouldn’t open for 20 minutes or so, but as guests at the Grand Californian Hotel, we were allowed to enter early. The hotel’s private entry landed us in the heart of Condor Flats, a woodsy section a short distance from Soarin’ Over California--the park’s signature attraction, a hang-glider ride over the California landscape that had opened to rave reviews and two-hour lines on preview days. This was at the top of our list, and we walked on without a wait.

I had come with my husband, Ed, and our two children to stay at the Grand Californian on the first weekend after the new park and resort hotel officially opened earlier this month. Convenience is one of the best perks at the Grand Californian, the first resort built inside a Disney theme park. The 750-room hotel also is steps from Disneyland and the new Downtown Disney, a promenade of restaurants, shops and movie theaters that has infused new life into a tired area of Anaheim.

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But the stunning Grand Californian has far more to offer than its choice location. The hotel has the charm of an old California inn, all wood and warmth and light, with an inviting grand hall that soars four stories high. There’s nothing cookie-cutter about this resort, Disney’s first in the Arts and Crafts style, and there’s precious little sign of Mickey anywhere. This is a hotel that caters to adults even as it delights children.

The focus is on California in all its natural splendor, with a design intended to bring the forest indoors. The attention to detail was obvious one Friday afternoon when we stepped through the expansive stained-glass sliding doors at the entrance. Elaborate stonework scenes, tapestries and handmade Art Nouveau-style lamps, each one embellished with a different native creature, adorned the front desk. As we checked in, a bellman escorted 8-year-old Gabrielle and 2-year-old Eben to an adjacent video alcove. They happily joined children sitting in mini Morris chairs and engrossed in a “Mary Poppins” DVD, all supervised by a hotel baby-sitter.

A few minutes later we were on our way to our third-floor room, a compact but comfortable space with the same tasteful Mission-style furniture and cranberry, cream and forest-green decor found throughout the resort. The only disappointment was the elevator-size bathroom with cramped tub and toilet, skimpy for the $300-a-night price tag.

Back downstairs, we made our way to the 5 p.m. story time around the lobby’s fireplace. Gaby and Eben enjoyed listening to Glynis and her tales of the California wilderness. And it was relaxing sitting in the lobby, which bustled with people but never felt crowded because it is such a wide-open, appealing space.

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Our dinner destination in Downtown Disney was Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen, created by the owners of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. The Jazz Kitchen seems right out of the French Quarter, with its wrought iron railings, gas lamps and live music. The upstairs dining room is formal, with white linen tablecloths and a team of attentive waiters, but it’s welcoming to families too, offering a children’s menu and crayons for coloring. Ed and I tried a barbecue shrimp dish and the molasses-roasted duck with dirty rice, and both were tasty. Though the tab was pricey (like everything in the mega complex), the Jazz Kitchen was a worthwhile treat.

We stopped for lattes, apple juice and apple pastries at the La Brea Bakery Cafe, near the entrance to both theme parks, and arrived back in our hotel room just as the Disneyland fireworks show exploded outside our window.

On Saturday we were up and out before 7 a.m. in anticipation of opening-weekend crowds at the new park. Breakfast at the charming Storytellers Cafe was a country-style buffet, with Chip and Dale working the room, and Pluto popping in for a visit.

Perhaps it was the morning rain or the nonstop media hype in previous days, but the big crowds we expected never materialized. We had purchased our tickets at the hotel’s front desk as we checked in--guests are guaranteed park admission--and breezed through California Adventure all day with little more than 10-minute waits even for the top attractions.

Soarin’ Over California more than lived up to its billing. We walked right onto this Imax flight simulation, with its banked curves, sudden drops and the scent of pine treetops that seemed to brush our feet.

Despite the rain, Ed and Gaby were eager to try Grizzly River Run, a white-water rafting ride with another short line. They returned freezing and drenched by the waves and rainwater.

On any other visit, the soaking might have ruined the day. But with our hotel so close, we simply returned to the room for dry clothes and were back in the park in about 20 minutes.

Gaby had back-to-back spins on her favorite ride, California Screamin’, the high-speed, upside-down roller coaster. Eben was more impressed with King Triton’s Carousel of sea creatures--one of the new park’s few toddler offerings--and went on it four times.

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Perhaps the highlight of the weekend--for Ed and me, at least--was dinner that night at the Napa Rose, the hotel’s ambitious main restaurant, featuring California wine country cuisine. The restaurant has an exhibition kitchen, a selection of 40 wines by the glass and its own herb garden outside.

Each dish--from the rock scallop appetizer to the sculpted salads to my grilled Pacific yellowtail with basil tangerine vinaigrette--was a gorgeous, delicious work of art. Although the Napa Rose is comfortably elegant, it also welcomes children with toys as they are seated and has a kids’ menu.

After dinner, we returned to California Adventure for another ride on Soarin’ Over California, a visit to the Hollywood Backlot and one more spin on the carousel.

Sunday morning was a bit more relaxed. After eating breakfast and arranging a late checkout, we browsed in Downtown Disney and then went to the monorail station, where we used our annual Disneyland passports to get on board.

Eben had been clamoring to ride the train, and the monorail was a great way to get an overview of the transformed resort complex. We stepped off in Tomorrowland and took a quick ride on the Autopia raceway before getting back on the monorail, which passes right through the Grand Californian.

The food, the service and the pampering had been truly first class, a welcome departure from the usual mass-produced, mouse-eared fare. In crafting the Grand Californian, Disney has come up with a new, if expensive, bit of magic for its kingdom.

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Budget for Four

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Grand Californian Hotel, two nights: $663.56

California Adventure, two adults, one child (one child free): 119.00

Dinner, Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen: 97.24

Breakfast, Storytellers Cafe: 56.99

Dinner, Napa Rose: 155.04

Other meals, snacks: 86.58

Parking: 12.00

FINAL TAB: $1,190.41

Grand Californian Hotel, 1600 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim, CA 92803; telephone (714) 635-2300, fax (714) 300-7300, Internet https://www.disney.com.


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