As we waited to see Belle, from "Beauty and Beast," at the princess hangout, called Fantasy Faire, Anna described the secrets to being a princess: Beauty, of course. A trusty companion. And a good song.
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Its Soarin' Over California ride, which simulates the feeling of flying over the state's iconic landscapes, is like diving into an IMAX screen. The California Screamin' roller coaster goes from zero to 55 mph in four seconds. At dusk, the Mad T Party band jams out covers as guests drink cocktails.
That park's new addition, Cars Land, opened to acclaim after five years of construction. It lovingly replicates the dusty Route 66 ambience of the "Cars" movies, right down to the rust on Sarge's Surplus Quonset hut.
When we arrived the day after Cars Land opened earlier this summer, a seven-hour wait time turned the Radiator Springs Racers ride into a parking lot of people. Beyond the lines, the ride's spectacular replica of the Southwest's Monument Valley and a 100-foot waterfall loomed. A full-sized version of the protagonist in "Cars" - a talking racing car called Lightening McQueen - snaked through the crowded roads, honking and yakking.
The park's ride-reservation system, called FastPass, is a backdoor for the ride and other popular attractions. I secured FastPass reservations after an hour in line, but when our set time arrived, Radiator Springs Racers had broken down. We tried twice more but left, unwilling to squander an afternoon sweating in line.
"Modifications are often made to new attractions," said Disneyland spokesman John McClintock, with apologies for the breakdown. He couldn't provide attendance figures, but Cars Land boosted California Adventure attendance over Disneyland. "It's enormously popular."
Wandering through the park, visitors encounter surreal scenes. Life-size Phineas and Ferb characters suddenly appeared, doing a robot dance to a techno-beat while surrounding a mysterious posse of buxom women in orange berets.
It seemed a fever dream to me, and yet another advertising hook into my son for these Disney Channel cartoon characters. Disneyland and California Adventure take cross-promotion to Olympian heights, I grumbled to myself.
But then I saw my son Noah, who loves Phineas and Ferb like cousins, mimicking the robot, California sunshine glinting off his hair.
The Disney parks were a safe, fastidious yet thrilling walled garden for my kids, well worth shelving my cynicism.
IF YOU GO:
LODGING AND AIRFARE: The best deals for dozens of hotels inside and just outside the park are often found with package deals that include airfare and multiday park tickets. Comparison shop at travel services such as Expedia, Costco (hotel/ticket packages) and Alaska Airlines.
RESTAURANTS: There are plenty of restaurants inside the park, varying widely in price. Mousesavers.com offers hints on lower-priced spots, including Rancho del Zocalo, a Mexican cafeteria in Disneyland with large portions for about $10.
Disneyland bans outside food and drink, and staff search backpacks, but people take in light snacks with little hassle. Alcohol is available only at restaurants in California Adventure and Downtown Disney outside of Disneyland.
TRAVELER'S TIP: If you stay in a nearby hotel, the Anaheim Resort Transit (ART) buses save time and blisters; a family pass costs $10 per day. In the parks, use the FastPass system to get a designated time for popular rides, or use the single-rider line.