Holidays at Disneyland – Trip Report (Part 1)

Last week I headed down to Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure for about a day and a half to take in Disney’s holiday transformation.  This was actually my first trip to Disney during the December holiday season, and, as you might expect, Disney does an amazing job with their holiday decorations and attractions.  The plan was to spend the first day at Disneyland itself, and most the second day at California Adventure.


Despite a flight cancellation on the way down, we were able to get to the park early in the afternoon.  One of the great things about Disneyland is that it’s open late pretty much every day, so despite the relatively late start there was a full day ahead of us.  As soon as you approach the entrance to the parks, you can pretty easily tell it’s Christmas time, with decorations covering pretty much all of the park, from the entrance gates and then all the way down main street.  It’s really quite pleasant, and it gives the park and even more “cheery” atmosphere than Disneyland normally has (which is pretty dang cheery).


First stop was to grab Fast Passes for Indiana Jones Adventure (aka Temple of the Forbidden Eye), figuring it would probably have the biggest line of any ride at the park.  Lucky for us, with the park relatively empty our passes were for only about an hour after we picked them up, so with passes in hand we strolled over to kill the time with a ride on Pirates of the Caribbean.  Pirates is still one of my favorite dark rides; the mechanical pieces still look great, and the newer digital effects add a modern feel.

We returned to Indy a little before our Fastpass time, but the attendants let us through (we actually later discovered that the time clock for Indiana Jones is six minutes ahead, which one of the ride attendants referred to as “Indy Time.”  I have yet to figure out why Indy time is six minutes ahead, so if anyone out there knows please enlighten me!).  While I think Disney’s Fastpass is genius, Indiana Jones is a ride that I’m actually a little sad I don’t get to stand in line.  One of the things that Disneyland does really well is theming the lines and boarding areas in such a way that it’s actually pretty fun to look at all the details or listen to the things going on around you.  I have pictures from some of the queue below, it really is amazing how they make it feel like the inside of a temple/archaeological site.  Sadly, even without fastpasses, because of how they split up the two lines you miss a lot of the details inside the temple.  Luckily, it wasn’t too crowded, so I didn’t feel bad stopping to check out the various artifacts and artworks.  I still haven’t gotten around to decoding all of the script on the walls, I’ll need to save that for next time.

IMG_20141209_144044740 IMG_20141209_144211199

The ride itself is also fantastic, it might be my favorite ride at Disneyland.  Even having been on it many times, it always feels a little unexpected.  The details of the inside of the temples are so amazing that this is probably the ride I most wish I could walk through to just look at everything that makes it feel so real.  Refurbs in 2012 and 2013 have helped make sure the ride looks as good as it did when it first opened, and new projection mapping on the giant face of “Mara” have added more detail to the angry deity (although I think I actually preferred the old statue that looked more like a carving coming to life).  If I had to ride one thing at Disneyland over and over it would definitely be Indy.  Sadly, I still haven’t been in a car where no one looked into the idol’s eyes and we got to keep the riches/eternal life/knowledge of the future.

My favorite decoration at Indiana Jones, because it's the real truck used in Last Crusade!!!!

My favorite prop at Indiana Jones, because it’s the real truck used in Raiders of the Lost Ark!!!!

After Indiana Jones we went back through New Orleans square.  We grabbed fast passes for the Haunted Mansion and then went forward to Splash Mountain (while it was still sunny).  Splash is another ride that I love just looking at all the little details as you go around in the flume (OK, there’s not ride at Disneyland I don’t like doing that, it’s all so good!).  Combining the detailed storybook dark ride with a really good flume (with multiple unexpected drops) makes it a pretty brilliant ride.  And lucky me, I got the least wet of my whole group!


It wasn’t quite as foreboding as this lighting makes Splash Mountain appear.


Brer Rabit, enjoying his victory. Or whatever it is that happens in the story inside Splash, I don’t think I’ve ever really followed it…

Once again timing worked out well and we headed back to the Haunted Mansion Holiday.  I think I mentioned this in the Halloween post a few months ago, but this is BY FAR my favorite seasonal ride, and it’s extra awesome because it lasts through both Halloween and Christmas season!  The Haunted Mansion is completely redecorated to blend the original attractions elements with the characters and story from Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas.”  This is a ride that I normally enjoy (again because Disney does all dark rides well), and combining it with theming from on of my favorite movies makes it easily a hit.  Everything from the yard out front to the indoor rooms you walk through to get to the little cars to the final ending of the ride is redone.  Even better, it changes every year, so it’s never exactly the same.  For regular vistors it becomes a treat to see what the centerpieces of the ride will be each season.  The Disney experts in my group were discussing whether they liked this years “gingerbread house” more or less than last years.


Holiday Mansion! Or Mansion Holiday!




Haunted Mansion

One of the cool visuals in the line for Haunted Mansion, the snowman “painting” changes back-and-forth into the jack-o-lantern version. There were several of these, it was pretty fun to watch while walking to the cars.

Sadly because the ride is so dark I didn’t get any good pictures from the ride itself, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s fantastic, especially if you love the movie as much as I do!

At this point in the day we decided that because lines were relatively short everywhere, it wasn’t worth chasing fast passes and we could just stick with stand-by lines for most rides.  We headed to Big Thunder  Mountain to finish off the rides we wanted to hit for sure on that side of the park (I like to refer to it as the “loosely based on real places” half of the park).  Thunder Mountain officially reopened earlier this year after long refurbishment.  The biggest change is completely new special effects in the last climax of the ride, and the effects are amazing.  In general the ride felt faster and smoother than I remembered, likely due to a retracking during the refurbishment (along with a bunch of reworks and cleaning up of the theming), and the new effects make the end of the ride way more exciting than it used to be.  It also remains one of my favorite Disneyland rides, even better than before.


Fun fact, the town along the track, now renamed Rainbow Ridge (it was Big Thunder before the rehab), was the town in the ride originally in the spot, the “Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland.” The town facades are refurbished from that ride.

Following Big Thunder we headed over to take on the Tomorrowland side of the park, with an ice cream break in the middle.  First stop was the head to Space Mountain.  We grabbed fast passes which were good a couple hours from pick-up, and then got in the standby line when we saw the wait was only 20 minutes or so (one of the best things about Disneyland is the accurate and constantly updated wait time clocks).  It’s actually been awhile since I’ve been on the non-Halloween version of Space Mountain, and the biggest take away is that it was much darker than I remembered, with really only points of light from the stars visible.  This, of course, makes for an awesome ride that feels much faster and wild than it would in the light.  It also makes it almost impossible to get tired of the ride, because you never remember exactly what path it takes.  One thought I had while riding Space Mountain though, how cool would it be with an LSM launch up the hill instead of a chain lift?


Welcome to the World of Tomorrow!

Following Space Mountain we hopped on Star Tours.  Like Indiana Jones, this is a ride that I kind of wish still made me stand in the full line instead of the fastpass/no-fastpass split at the start.  The queuing area for Star Tours is filled with awesome animatronics and a bunch of interactions.  R2 and C3PO talk with each other while working on the star tours ship in the first room, partly setting up the story of the ride, while the second room has the original Star Tours pilot (Captain Rex) and amusing baggage and security scanner robots.  Sadly going through these areas quickly means I miss a bunch of the jokes and gags, as well as a lot of the visuals on the big screens.  Some day I’ll have to just hang out in line to listen to it all.


Still need to hear their full conversation…

The ride itself is great, and even better it’s rare that you get the exact same ride twice, with 4 segments that each have multiple variations (in total there are 11 different sections, 2 for the initial segment, three for each of the other segments).  This time my first location was one I’ve had before, but the final segment was new to me, and on a ride the next day we had a completely different set of segments (including two I hadn’t seen before).  It definitely gives motivation to re-ride it knowing it’ll probably be a different experience (and a different story).


Matterhorn as the sun starts to set.  The south side is noticeably less snowy than the north, just like in real life (I think).

With the short lines we were easily powering through rides, so it was now time to hit the last Disneyland rollercoaster, the Matterhorn bobsleds.  One of my favorite rides as a kid, the ride was refurbished in 2012.  The refurb completely redid the paint on the mountain, which looks gorgeous (and more realistic) now, and also included replacing the trains.  The new trains went from shared lap seats to each car having three individual spots.  Unfortunately, I feel like the new cars are actually rougher and less comfortable than the originals.  I still think the ride is beautiful and I still enjoy it, but it definitely is the most painful ride at Disneyland.  It was fun at night, where the caves were even darker and the track barely visible.  We also had the benefit of getting a great view of the ongoing parade while riding.  Luckily, Matterhorn is scheduled to close for the first few months of 2015 for a rehab, so we’ll have to see if they do any work on the track to try to smooth things out.

Matterhorn after dark!

Matterhorn after dark!

We planned to go back to Space Mountain with our fastpasses, but sadly it was down.  Instead, we took a quick stop for dinner, which is surprisingly affordable at Disneyland (my go to is the fried chicken meal at the Plaza Inn; it’s better than snack food, but still quick and well located), then headed to Fantasyland.  The first ride was Alice in Wonderland which reopened this past summer after a six month refurbishment (I’ve gotta say, it’s impressive how much effort Disneyland is putting into keeping rides up-to-date).  The ride now includes lots of new digital effects and some new animatronics.  It’s really well done, and makes me look forward to the refurbishments of other dark rides expected to be coming up (Peter Pan is the next scheduled, it’ll be closed from early January through early May).  Another ride that I wish moved a little bit slower so I could actually take in all the things going on.  Someday I’ll go for a week and just ride each dark ride over and over to get all the little details…

It's a very bright world.

It’s a very bright world.

Following Alice in Wonderland, we finally made our way to It’s a Small World.  I should say that I haven’t been on Small World since I was a little kid, mostly because I remember it being annoying and boring.  But as you can tell in the picture above, it’s kind of the centerpiece for the holidays at Disneyland,so we felt we had to ride.  Honestly, it actually was better than I remembered.  During the holidays they mix in the traditional small world song with some Christmas songs, which makes it a little less unbearable, and it was pretty fun spotting Disney characters throughout the ride (in their native lands), an addition that I think was made in a 2008 redesign (my real dream is that someday there will be Guybrush Threepwood character showing up in the “South Seas” section).  One complaint I had is that the ceiling isn’t decorated in the rooms, so if you look up it sort of takes you out of the atmosphere. I’m not sure I would go on it every time I was at Disneyland, but it probably is worth going at least once if you’re ever at the park during the Holidays.

World Famous Jingle Cruise!

World Famous Jingle Cruise!


I was really amused by the “backstory” of the Jingle Cruise transformation.

Following Small World, we took in the Disneyland fireworks show, sort of from an odd angle.  If you’re not on Main Street you don’t really get the show and story that go with the fireworks, but fireworks are still great.  Following the show, with only about half an hour left in the park, we hustled over to hop on the Jingle Cruise, the one holiday themed ride at the park remaining for us to ride.  The Jingle Cruise was a new holiday overlay in 2013, and apparently this years is much better than last years!  I certainly enjoyed it, the jungle was amazingly decorated with lots of little sight gags.  I can’t imagine how long it will take to undecorate it, I sort of keep thinking you’ll spot the odd ornament out there in June.  The guide’s normal script of corny jokes is replaced with all new holiday corny jokes, which could be a good or bad thing depending on how much fun you like to have.  I’m always amused by them, and it was fun to hear some different things.  I do wish I had gone during the day, because I imagine there were lots gags among the decorations that I missed.

Finally, we closed the night with one last ride on Big Thunder, enjoying the added element of the darkness to the twisty mine train.

Every time I go down to Disneyland I’m reminded how amazing it is, and that it probably is the best theme park out there.  The attention to detail throughout the attractions and the park that is just brilliant, I’ve never been anywhere else that so completely creates an atmosphere.  The holiday season just adds even more of the little details that make it great.  As my brother said during the trip, if you only came to Disneyland once (or once a year), the holiday season is the best time to come.  I don’t think there’s anything that’s less fun in it’s holiday form, and the park itself is even more atmospheric than normal.  So, basically, if you only get to go to Disneyland once, go during the holidays and take at least two days so you can fully enjoy all the park has to offer (note that we basically skipped all the shows and some of the dark rides)!  Any other Disney regulars agree with that?

If you can’t get enough, stay tuned for a part 2 from California Adventure later this week (with another Southern California post in between).  Happy holidays everyone!