Growing up in Southern California, one learns Orange County's amusement parks the way the children of Bordeaux learn every Grand Cru vineyard: lovingly, opinionatedly. Those French kids know terroir; I knew the Tiki Room.
I knew when to get to Disneyland ― crack of dawn. I knew what and where to eat, starting with English toffee on Main Street, U.S.A., and culminating, many sugar-filled hours later, with a frozen banana in New Orleans Square. I knew to hoard my most valuable tickets for my favorite attractions. When astronaut Sally Ride commented that her first space voyage was an E Ticket ride, I smiled knowingly and felt that Sally and I shared a special bond.
But years pass ― decades pass ― and the cosmos changes. I left Southern California, but from Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland there came rumors of new rides, entire new parks, of the demise of the E Ticket and the rise of Disney's Fastpass. When the time came for my wife and me to escort our 6-year-old son on his first amusement park weekend, I was a little daunted, like an aging quarterback returning after arthroscopic surgery. Did I still have the moves?
Disneyland isn't the original Orange County theme park. That honor belongs to Knott's Berry Farm ($43, $22 for adults after 4 p.m., $13 ages 3-11 all day; 8039 Beach Blvd., Buena Park; www.knotts.com or 714/220-5200). In the 1920s, Walter Knott and his wife, Cordelia, began selling chicken dinners and delicious pies made from a new variety of fruit that Knott helped popularize: the boysenberry. From those rustic beginnings grew the current 160-acre extravaganza.
Much of the modern Knott's Berry Farm is geared toward those lovers of extreme rides not available at Disneyland. As for us, my wife and I took one shuddering look at Xcelerator and Supreme Scream and escorted our son to the more placid confines of Camp Snoopy. Then it was time for lunch at the park's Chicken Dinner Restaurant ($; 714/220-5080). The drumsticks and boysenberry pie were as good as I remembered; Walter and Cordelia would be proud.
Fastballs and fine art. You just might want to do something in Orange County other than visit a theme park. Baseball is one good bet, if the Anaheim Angels are in town (from $9, $8 students, from $5 ages 2-12; at the Angel Stadium of Anaheim, 2000 Gene Autry Way, Anaheim; http://anaheim.angels.mlb.com or 714/634-2000). If you're in an aesthetic mood, venture to the Bowers Museum (closed Mon; $14, $6 ages 5-11; 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana; www.bowers.org or 714/567-3600) for a soothing, intellectually elevated atmosphere you may be longing for at points during the rest of the weekend.
Getting medieval. Or ― if you have a 6-year-old who likes anything involving swords―you could plunge into Medieval Times ($46, $32 ages 12 and under, meal included; reservations required; 7662 Beach, Buena Park; www.medievaltimes.com or 714/521-4740). To envision Medieval Times, imagine Windsor Castle crossed with a roller rink. We got our tickets and grabbed our color-coded banners ($1) to wave in support of our appointed Yellow Knight. As we watched, Yellow and his fellow cavaliers appeared on their mighty steeds, amid such swirling clouds of fog and so many tosses of perfectly conditioned hair that we were transported to Camelot ― or maybe a Bon Jovi video.
"Forsooth, milady," I said to my wife as our serving wench filled pewter plates with roast beef and garlic bread. "Wilt thou past me that flagon of nondairy creamer? For I hear it is the finest in all the realm."
Meanwhile, with each knightly joust, the 6-year-old bounced higher in his seat until I worried he was going to catapult completely out of the stands. And then ― what luck ― Yellow Knight won the tournament, and our son was so filled with vicarious triumph that he performed an impromptu boogaloo on Medieval Times' dance floor, to rounds of applause.
How do you successfully navigate Disneyland ($50, $40 ages 3-9; 1313 S. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim; www.disneyland.com or 714/781-4565)? You need a plan, advises Bob Sehlinger, author of the compulsively readable Unofficial Guide to Disneyland 2004.
We had a plan, an imperfect plan. Thanks to work and school schedules, we were visiting on a crowded summer Saturday. That was bad. What was good was that we had opted to spend the extra money and stay in the park at Disney's Paradise Pier Hotel, which made it easy to be at the entrance gate right as the park opened.
Even on Saturdays, early-morning hours are less crowded. We hopped from one highlight to the next: the Haunted Mansion, the Jungle Cruise. As crowds built up, we used the new-to-me Fastpass system, which allows you to book appointments on favorite rides. Fastpass got us easily into Splash Mountain, but not, alas, onto Space Mountain, which is closed until 2005, and not onto Indiana Jones Adventure, which on the day we visited seemed booked until 2006.
Downtown Disney. Around noon, as lines for food and rides grew truly long, we did something once unthinkable. We left the park. Disney opened the Downtown Disney District (1500 S. Disneyland Dr.; www.downtowndisney.com or 714/300-7800) just outside the park's gates in 2001, offering shops and restaurants that wouldn't be out of place in the hipper neighborhoods of L.A. We had lunch at La Brea Bakery ($; 714/490-0233): no churning crowds, no costumed characters, just striking women in dark glasses, all with boyfriends named Philippe. Were we in the Happiest Place on Earth or on Melrose Avenue? Whatever. We were happy. After a short walk back to the hotel and a jump into the swimming pool, we were happier still.
Night in the Happiest Place on Earth. The reward for our afternoon breather was a perfect evening at Disneyland. The crowds had thinned; when we did stand in line, it was pleasant chatting in the jasmine-scented night. Waiting for Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, I struck up a conversation with a woman from India. From Mr. Toad's we made an ascent up the Matterhorn Bobsleds, then watched, suitably awestruck, as fireworks lit up the sky. "Disneyland," my son said ― and this is one of those things you think kids don't ever say, but in fact they do ― "is paradise."
Oh, how quickly paradise can be lost.
I had been warned this would happen. I did not listen. Sunday morning, after I insisted that my wife and son get up early again, we found ourselves trudging toward California Adventure. My wife and I trudged together. My son trudged 20 paces behind us, sobbing. Why? Too much excitement the night before? Too little sleep? Who knew? All around us, smiling families streamed toward the Happiest Place on Earth. As for us, if we'd been in Snow White, we would have been named Grumpy, Grumpy, and Grumpy.
Once again, Downtown Disney came to the rescue. It turned out that all we needed was another cup of coffee (wife), a hot chocolate (son), and for me, a few quiet minutes with the Los Angeles Times.
California, here we come. Disney's California Adventure ($50, $40 ages 3-9; location and phone number same as for Disneyland) has received mixed press ― even The Simpsons made fun of it. But I flat-out loved the place. I loved its witty takes on classic California architecture, from Condor Flats to the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood Boulevard. (Alas, the boulevard's newest attraction, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, hadn't opened yet.) When, on a simulated hang glider in Soarin' Over California, we drifted over the corner of the state I call home, I was ready to cheer.
The 6-year-old was smitten too. He liked Soarin', but he loved Grizzly River Run, which we went on twice, and It's Tough to Be a Bug. Our last stop was the Hyperion Theater's production of Disney's Aladdin ― A Musical Spectacular; it was my son's first stage musical, and a good one.
Deluxe dinner. We saved the best for last: dinner at the Napa Rose ($$$$; dinner daily; 1600 S. Disneyland Dr.; 714/300-7170), in Disney's Grand Californian Hotel, adjacent to California Adventure. The Grand Californian is Arts and Crafts on a vast scale: A cynic might call it Greene and Greene meets Barnum & Bailey. But it's impossible to be cynical in a place so lovely. The 6-year-old, who can be strikingly well behaved when the occasion calls for it, recognized that this dinner was one such occasion. We ate well, we drank well. "A dream is a wish your heart makes," sang Disney's Cinderella. Our hearts' dreams for this trip had been more than granted.