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Now more than ever, a day at Disneyland feels like a journey to another world

Ally Carrasco poses for a photo at the scenic entrance to Cars Land
Ally Carrasco, 5, dressed as Anna from “Frozen,” at the scenic entrance to Cars Land, one of several places to linger in a post-pandemic Disneyland.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Life in Southern California is finally getting back to normal and I have the Disneyland hangover to prove it.

Never before have I been so grateful to wake up with that particular set of symptoms — a dehydration headache, a mouth irritated by the ingestion of too much salt and sugar (often in combination), the feeling that somehow my hipbones have been dislodged from their sockets.

Also an empty wallet and the singular satisfaction of having mastered the obstacle course that is the Disneyland Resort, this time without benefit of a MaxPass though with ample use of the Disney app. (If you are going to the resort, you really need to download the app.)

Two days earlier, the prospect had filled me with trepidation. A Disney veteran, I have always loved the challenge of navigating those 500 acres, which I know probably too well. But after this pandemic year, my enthusiasm had been dampened and the parks were not the parks I knew. How do you even go to Disneyland with no FastPasses, which have not been reinstituted since the parks reopened?

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My feelings turned to dread when a friend who had made a recent visit revealed that there were many lines, that procuring food was still tricky even when ordering on the app (order early!) and that getting on the two new rides — Rise of the Resistance in Galaxy’s Edge and Web Slingers in the new Avengers Campus — was close to impossible.

Disneyland and Disney California Adventure have lifted rules about crowds and distancing. Fireworks are coming back. But some changes will stick.

Indeed, his advice, which included the phrase “use two phones simultaneously,” made it seem like we would be parachuting into German-occupied France rather than trying to get on a theme park attraction and order a few Dole Whips.

He was right, of course, and we missed the first virtual queues for either ride because they opened — and pretty much closed — at 7 a.m. and my brain was not functioning well enough to use one phone quickly, never mind two, at 6:59. But by pre-ordering dinner as we drove down the 5 at 8 a.m. and later staring at a single phone for 10 solid minutes so we could hit “join queue” at the precise moment 11:59 became 12:00, my friends Suzann, Kris and I managed to keep our group of seven fed and get on Rise of the Resistance.

Even after more than a year in pandemic-restricted isolation, the moms still had it! Honestly it was the third-best shot in the arm I have gotten this year.

And one I definitely did not expect to get this summer.

A robot Spider-Man does a backflip
A robot Spider-Man does a backflip at Avengers Campus, newly opened at California Adventure just in time for the lifting of all pandemic restrictions.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

A year ago, a Disneyland hangover was an impossibility (and even one of the above-mentioned symptoms would have sent me, panic-stricken, in search of my overused thermometer.) Last spring, the closure of the Disney resorts in Anaheim brought the realities of COVID-19 home in a way little else could: Love it or hate it, Disney is, in the American imagination, an unassailable, unstoppable force. Or it was, until last March.

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Even when the vaccines rolled out and Disney reopened, I did not expect to tread those familiar paths any time soon. The reservation and ticketing system seemed too daunting, and after more than a year of shutdowns, purple tiers and social distance, a trip to a theme park felt very extreme, like being catapulted to normalcy.

With COVID-19 abating in California, Disneyland reopened on April 30. After 13 months away, how did it feel?

But in April, two of my friends, with whom I have shared many happy Disney memories, persuaded me to take advantage of the parks’ limited capacity. More important, one of them, Suzann, offered to face down the reservation system for us.

Our chosen dates in mid-June seemed impossibly far away. Then, as Southern California threw off its final restrictions for the vaccinated citizenry, kind of stupid. Having spent years refusing to step foot in a Disney park during the weeks between Memorial and Labor Days, would our hard-won and very expensive reservations/tickets land us in a nightmare scenario — a normal summer day at Disney?

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It certainly did not look good as we battled traffic in hopes of arriving a half hour before the park’s 9 a.m. opening, only to then sit in a very slow-moving line for the parking garage. As we got out of the car, the sight of hundreds of families, some masked and some not, swarming down the escalator and into the security lines only increased the anxiety. There were still no trams, so as we speed-walked to the parks, the three moms breathed deeply and pledged to surrender ourselves to the joy of whatever experience awaited. (Well, Suzann and I pledged; our friend Kris is more Zen-like by nature.)

There were certainly plenty of lines at the gates of both parks. The new reservation system requires park hoppers to choose a first park; then there is a set time (with no wiggle room) at which you can enter the second via separate “hopper” gates. We chose Disneyland and could switch to California Adventure at 1.

Pixar Pier at Disney California Adventure Park, 2018.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

But when we got in, the park was not nearly as crowded as we had feared. There were definitely more people than I have seen together in many months, and social distancing was impossible, but after adjusting for pandemic-shock, it was all very reasonable. The longest wait time we had all day was 60 minutes and the average was 30. Having grown accustomed to using MaxPasses (which, for an additional $12.99 per person, allowed visitors to grab digital FastPasses all day), we were slightly unmoored. But the kids were already on their way to their collective favorite ride, Indiana Jones, so we just followed them.

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Using the app, we spent the day following a course directed by line times: An hour for Haunted Mansion and only 20 minutes for Splash Mountain?!? Easy choice. And then Haunted Mansion was down to 20? Off we go.

As with any day at the parks, certain rides were closed and others occasionally stopped, and while we didn’t get on every ride we desired — I will have to check out the newly refurbished Snow White another time — that was more a function of shortened park hours (9 to 9) than wait times.

Avengers Campus will open Friday at Disney California Adventure Park. It includes the new Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure interactive ride.

Also, after more than a year away, we took our time. Rather than racing from one ride to another, we allowed ourselves to experience the park in all its glorious detail. None of us had seen the new Avengers Campus (which, despite earlier reports, we had no trouble entering, though we did not get on the ride or into the restaurant); some of us had never been to Galaxy’s Edge; and one of us had never seen Cars Land.

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The cost of the tickets — currently $200 for a park-hopper— spurs visitors to get the most out of their money, and for us “most” has historically meant the most rides. This time was different. This time, we were just as happy to hang out on a bench marveling at the characters who waved to us from windows and balconies, all the kids in their costumes and the inevitable ducklings that bring a real-world touch of fantasy.

Though all of us are fully vaccinated, we wore masks most of the time, particularly when on rides or standing in line. Other guests did not, and while some may question their wisdom given the variants, no one said anything about either choice and, frankly, it was lovely to be in a place where there wasn’t a “my way or the highway” discussion at every turn.

The best thing about the Disney parks may be their ability to take you physically and spiritually out of the everyday world. Whether you are overwhelmed by excitement, beauty or the work of keeping kids fed, watered and whine-free while navigating them through more than 500 acres of high-volume stimulus, when you are at Disney, you are at Disney. Whatever bits of the outside world flash across your phone in the form of text or Slack messages seem to come from another galaxy, and another life. You are here now; you can deal with the rest of whatever is happening later.

And after more than a year of nonstop real-life intrusions, that 12-hour window of freedom seemed nothing short of miraculous.

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And lastly, Rise of the Resistance is unbelievably great and absolutely worth the trouble.

Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is too long for California health rules limiting indoor rides. Here’s how Disneyland is approaching the problem.


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