Go West Young Manby Brian Bennett, contributing writer
It has been almost six years since I had visited Disneyland, and almost seven for my wife, Barbara. So when we found ourselves with plans for a business trip to Anaheim recently, a short extension was clearly in order so we could enjoy Walt's original park while we were in the neighborhood.
A few weeks back, Barbara and I attended the annual Winter Craft and Hobbies Association (CHA) trade show at the Anaheim Convention Center. The Winter CHA show is the largest gathering of craft and hobby products manufacturers in the world. As owners of MouseMemories, a scrapbooking store in Kissimmee, Florida, and operators of MouseMemories.com, our store's Web site, the annual trade show lets us stay abreast of new products that are on the market and order those new items from our suppliers that we wish to introduce over the upcoming months.
The key phrase to the previous paragraph was "Anaheim Convention Center." It's not a secret that the Anaheim Convention Center is located on Katella Avenue just a stone's throw from the Disneyland Resort on the opposite side of the street. This article will not give you a blow-by-blow account of our trip, as this piece is not intended to be a trip report. Instead, let me cover some basic trip planning issues that came up as we prepared for our visit, then offer a few comments on the two California Disney parks as they were viewed through my East Coast glasses.
As I mentioned, the purpose of this trip was primarily for business. As a result, and since all expenses were to be borne by our own small company, all costs had to be carefully considered as we made our plans. Barbara handled the airfare using our Northwest Airlines frequent flyer accounts. She ended up making the reservations with a live Northwest agent rather than simply doing so on the Web site, so that we were assured that both of us would be able to be booked on the same flights. When booking via the Northwest Web site, you are limited to handling one reservation at a time. Unfortunately, it's happened to us before that after getting one of us booked the other was unable to get on the same flightswhich required changing the original itinerary at additional cost.
Using the airlines' agent required paying a small fee, but the agent had the flexiblity of handling both reservations simultaneously. The agent fee was, for us, a worthwhile additional expense. Barbara also got a pretty good deal on an Alamo rental car while she was working with the agent, so she was able to button up all of our transportation requirements at one time.
If it is an option for you, John Way Airport is closest to Disneyland. Photo by Lani Teshima.
I'll share two other lessons-learned about dealing with our airline during the course of the trip. First, when it was time to print our boarding passes, Barb and I learned to both log into the Web site at the same time on two different computers. Then we were able to work together to make our seat selections and ensure that we were seated together. Perhaps we were a bit paranoid that other flyers would sweep in and take a choice seat assignment while we were handling these chores, but working together did let us accomplish our goal with minimal agravation. The second lesson-learned is that we were able to use a pair of Internet-connected computers provided by our hotel in Anaheim to print our boarding passes for the return flights home. I had my laptop in town so we could deal with e-mail and so on... but I would have had no way of printing boarding passes. The hotel's complimentary PCs were a big help.
[Editor's note: Some airline Web sites allow multiple travelers on a single reservation (some even with the redemption of frequent flyer credits), which can handle multiple frequent flyer numbers, advanced seating requests and assignments, and advanced special (meal) requests at the time the reservation is made, as well as advanced day-of-flight check-ins and boarding pass print-outs for everyone tied to the same "PNR" confirmation number online. Check your own preferred airline for details.]
Anaheim Area Hotel Reservations
My first attempts to book a hotel for our trip was handled through the CHA's selected hotel reservation service handled by Par Avion. Unfortunately, we were booking our hotel fairly late because of the scheduling requirements on the frequent flyer miles. As a result, all of the CHA "recommended" hotels were booked solid by the time I'd called. I resigned myself to driving to and from the convention center, since we already knew we would have a rental car to drive to and from Los Angeles International Airport (yep, all Northwest flights into and out of Orange County and Ontario Airports were unavailable to us on our frequent flyer miles. Even so, flying in and out of LAX and renting the car was still the least expensive way to handle the trip) so my next inclination was to select a hotel that would be conveniently located for our few days at Disneyland. At the same time, I did want to stay in a nice room even knowing it wouldn't be a suite in a five-star resort. I went to the AAA Web site and booked a room at the Holiday Inn Anaheim at the Park. The hotel is located at the corner of Harbor and Ball Roads, just North and East of Disneyland. In my previous experience, this was a nice hotel with a great shuttle service to the park. It would fit the bill nicely, I thought.
Then, after sharing some of these plans with some other MousePlanet staff members, Andrew Rich strongly recommended to me that I cancel those hotel reservations and go elsewhere. It seems that the Holiday Inn Anaheim at the Park is no longer a Holiday Inn (contrary to the information on the AAA site). Worse, the property is apparently undergoing extensive remodelling work. I took that advice and started looking for an alternative again.
It was then that I had a conversation with a friend that reminded me of MousePlanet sponsor MouseSavers.com, a Web site dedicated to finding good travel and other deals for Disney-bound travelers. Although most of MouseSavers is focused on Walt Disney World, they did have a hotel deal at the Howard Johnson's on Harbor Boulevard, at least a half mile closer to the Disney parks than the other hotel and at a substantially better room rate. It turned out that I had scheduled the room at the former Holiday Inn for about $93 per night (plus tax). The Howard Johnson average rate was about $79 per night (plus tax) and included Internet service (which would have cost me an additional $10 per night at the former Holiday Inn).
All in all, I ended up saving about $24 per night or $168 (not including the tax savings due to the lower room rate) for our seven-night visit just for accepting Andrew's advice and taking advantage of MouseSavers! During our trip we spent some time with a family friend, who told us that using his Entertainment Book savings card, he booked a room at the same Howard Johnson's for only $58 per night. I guess I didn't shop as sharply as I'd thought and the lesson here is to check out all of your options before settling on your room rates.
We arrived at LAX, got the rental car, and made it to Anaheim with few problems. I did get turned around in the LAX area a bit before finding Interstate 105 to drive east toward Orange County, but once on the interstate we were fine.
Before leaving for Anaheim we knew that we would not need anything more than two- or three-day passes to the parks. We hesitated to purchase any tickets up front because we didn't know if we would have that third day available to us because of the trade show, so we couldn't plan ahead. So when I was told that the very best deal for Disney tickets would be to purchase them online, not being able to order them before the trip just about killed me. However, when we checked into the Howard Johnson's, we found that the Good Neighbor Hotel ticket deals far surpassed the online deals at Disney.com!
On Wednesday morning, when we left our room to walk over to the parks for the first time, we simply stopped at the front desk and purchased a pair of three-day park hopper passes at a very good price versus the normal gate price (at least that's what we were told). We paid $134 plus tax for each ticket, which was only $12 per ticket more than the two-day passes sold there at the hotel. The best price I could get for a three-day pass on Disney.com was $159 (since I'm not a Southern California resident). The bottom line? I'm pleased with the three-day park hoppers that we purchased. I feel that we got good value and a reasonable price.
We only ate a handful of meals at the Disney parks and hotels. On the advice of MousePlanet staff member Adrienne Krock, I made priority seatings at the Blue Bayou, Carnation Cafe, and Storyteller's Cafe as soon as our travel dates were finalized. We enjoyed lunch at the Blue Bayou on Wednesday, lunch at Carnation Cafe on Thursday, and buffet dinner at Storyteller's Cafe on Friday night. We had dinner on Thursday at the Plaza Inn and lunch on Friday at Taste Pilots Grill without priority seating arrangements. We also ate one night at the Naples Italian restaurant in Downtown Disney. All of our "Disney" meals were OK, but none were spectacular. Even the much-anticipated meals at Blue Bayou and Storyteller's Cafe were just OK. The Blue Bayou meal was incredibly expensive. The only redeeming factor was the absolutely fabulous atmosphere. Storyteller's buffet was disappointing when compared to the Walt Disney World buffets at Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge, 1900 Park Fare at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary Resort, and Cape May Cafe at the Beach Club Resort.
Brian and Barb found that the in park dining just doesn't compare well with Walt Disney World options. Photo by Alex Stroup.
Frankly, I'm certain that we enjoyed our off-site meals much more than the Disney ones (even before considering the difference in price.) We had a great breakfast at Mimi's Cafe (right across the street from our hotel), a passable dinner (great service with OK food) at Millie's Restaurant (on the way to the Disney crosswalk), and very good meals at Baker's Square, Buca di Beppo (an Italian family restaurant located on Harbor several blocks south of Katella), and Red Robin.
The food highlight of the week, though, was dinner over at Mrs. Knott's Chicken Restaurant. I know that the food at Knott's isn't fancy cuisine, but we enjoy it very much (Barbara loves their creamy chicken soup, if anyone has figured out the recipe) and a visit to Knott's when in California is a tradition that goes back three generations in my family.
Nothing at either Disneyland nor Disney's California Adventure was a surprise to me. There have been no significant changes to Disneyland in the last six years. DCA now has the Monster's Inc. and Tower of Terror attractions and the Aladdin show at the Hyperion Theater, all of which are new since I was last in California. Several of the "A Bug's Land" attractions are new since then, too, but we never even ventured into that park of the park since we didn't have kids with us this time around.
Monster's Inc. is a huge improvement over Superstar Limo. Barbara just laughed when I described that opening day attraction. California Screamin' was as spectacular as I ever recall it being. Grizzly River Run had just opened from a rehab, but it was so cold during our visit that we never ventured over there, either. We enjoyed Golden Dreams and rode several other Paradise Pier rides such as Jumpin' Jellyfish, the Golden Zephyr, and the Sun Wheel (moving cars). The Stinger was closed and none of the other attractions really appealed to us. I figured, why ride the Maliboomer when the Tower of Terror is just a few yards away? Also, the one time that we were near Mulholland Madness we just didn't do it.
Monsters, Inc., is a good replacement for SuperStar Limo. Photo by David Michael.
We thoroughly enjoyed the Aladdin Show at the Hyperion Theater. In fact, we liked it so much when we saw it on Thursday that we returned on Friday to see it again. I am of the opinion that this is the best Disney park stage show in the United States. Beauty and the Beast, at the Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World, runs a poor second.
Our greatest disappointment at Disneyland is that we missed the Fantasmic! show, which I still consider the best nighttime spectacular put on by Disney anywhere in the world, since it was dark on the days we were in town. We also missed Innoventions, which Barbara was curious to see to compare to the incarnation at Epcot. Alas, the one time we were at that end of Tomorrowland the attraction had just closed for the night.
My top attraction experiences have to be Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye (no better Disney attraction in the United States, in my opinion), the Haunted Mansion (great newfor me, anywayeffects in the attic... that bride is just dripping with evil!), and Pirates of the Caribbean. Pirates is better at Disneyland than at Walt Disney World because of the extra detail in the treasure rooms... but I was disappointed that the Captain Jack Sparrow movie overlay wasn't more extensive. Frankly, I don't think that Disneyland's attraction has any better new stuff than the Magic Kingdom's version. Both have three Captain Jack animatronics, a Barbossa animatronic, improved cannon effects, and the fabulous Davey Jones effect. Maybe I'm missing something, but I expected more when I first rode the Disneyland version.
I remain convinced that staying at an on-site hotel is a crucial part of a great Walt Disney World vacation. I am also convinced that staying at a Disneyland hotel is not as necessary. The full use of Disney transportation and the all-encompassing environment at WDW just can't be duplicated at Disneyland. That's OK, it just makes visiting the Disneyland Resort different.
I remain of the opinion that for a two- or three- day visit Disneyland blows Walt Disney World out of the water. I also remain of the opinion that for longer trips Disneyland fails miserably to the Florida resort. At the end of three days I was ready to be done at the Disneyland resort. At the end of three days at WDW, one has just scratched the surface. The scope of the two resorts is just so different. I love them both and will continue to enjoy both as long as I can visit them.
We did well with Northwest, Alamo, and Howard Johnsons for our travel arragenemtns. If we can duplicate those plans next February, I'll be pleased.
Regarding meals, I will certainly be planning to enjoy the off-site restaurants more so than the much-anticipated, but disappointing Disneyland Resort restaurants. The new Anaheim Ruth's Chris Steakhouse will be open by next year, so maybe I'll make a point of taking Barbara there for dinner one night.
I hope that we can make our schedule cross over a weekend next year; it was disappointing to not be able to meet up with any of the MousePlanet staffers during this trip. We also missed seeing Fantasmic! and spending at least one weekend night in the park would have allowed for that.
I am thrilled because the Craft and Hobby Association has already announced that the next four Winter CHA shows will be in Anaheim. That gives me an guaranteed annual visit to Disneyland and I'll thoroughly enjoy each and every one of them.