Today’s Disneyland Resort caters to your inner child and your grown-up wishes.
It’s 9 o’clock on a Friday morning, and my husband, Mark, and I are standing at the gates of Disney California Adventure Park, map in hands. Four hundred miles to the north, our children are at school. It feels wrong to be here without them, but we’re investigating a trend: Some analysts estimate that in recent years one-third of the visitors to Disneyland Resort—the 500-acre complex that includes Disneyland Park, California Adventure, three hotels, and the strip known as Downtown Disney—are adults without children. We’re here to find out just how fun that can be.
We meet Franci and JC Agajanian of Hermosa Beach, Calif., who visited the park 30 times last year. The Agajanians are grandparents who drop by the resort’s Wine Country Trattoria for a drink or Bengal Barbecue for a favorite meal, such as bacon-wrapped asparagus skewers. Sometimes they hop on a ride. Sometimes they don’t. “We come to escape reality,” Franci says. “You walk in and your to-do lists disappear.”
A few decades ago, adults didn’t visit theme parks sans kids, at least not in the numbers they do today. Are people simply becoming less mature? “It’s possible,” says Robb Alvey, owner of Theme Park Review. “Or maybe society is just more OK with adults liking things that are kid related.” Another explanation: nostalgia. “Our parents might have grown up going to a circus, but we grew up going to theme parks,” says Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider.
Disney started quietly courting adults with the opening of California Adventure in 2001. Not only does the park sell alcohol, unlike Disneyland, but many of its attractions are geared toward older visitors. Take Radiator Springs Racers, the centerpiece of the 4-year-old Cars Land. This fast-paced thrill ride doubles as an intricate and immersive theatrical experience, in which elaborate animatronics re-create 3-D characters from the movie Cars. It’s like being dropped inside a cartoon while tearing around a track at 55 miles per hour.
We try California Screamin’, the fastest roller coaster in the park and its only inversion ride. That’s plenty scary enough for Mark and me. As we wobble off, I begin to see the real upside to coming here without kids: No fearless 10-year-old is going to beg me to do California Screamin’ 50 more times. There will be no tense intergenerational negotiations. Mark and I can try every ride. We can loll in the Jacuzzi at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, or kick back with hurricanes at Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen while the pianist bangs out Earl Hines. We can do whatever we want to do.
Near the top of my agenda: tasting the exciting new food options. The hottest place to eat is the 4-year-old Carthay Circle Restaurant inside California Adventure. Modeled on the Los Angeles theater where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in 1937, it features a hushed dining room with gold velvet drapes and private booths. Cute Disney touches abound, such as images of the Wicked Queen worked into the woodgrain of the tables and the fact that the addictive little fried biscuits I order for lunch come in sevens, like the fairy tale’s dwarfs. Although children are welcome, the place seems very adult. I would need one of its stiff Scotch Mist cocktails (Walt Disney’s favorite drink) to get through a meal here with a toddler. Child free, I can relish the ceviche of blue cobia.
The afternoon includes a rest, a swim, and a Matterhorn macaroon from Jolly Holiday Bakery Café. Then we’re off to Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar, where Mark and I sip rum drinks as Hawaiian guitarists perform by torchlight. Thoroughly relaxed now, we wander over to the ESPN Zone and play Super Shot, hurling basketballs down a narrow chute. “You’d never do this with me anywhere else,” Mark says. He knows me well.
For dinner, we weigh our options: pheasant at Napa Rose in the Grand Californian or rib eye at Steakhouse 55? Oddly enough, now that we’re in a position to enjoy another serious adult dinner at Disney, we opt instead for bright cherry malts and Walt’s chili at Carnation Café.
The next morning there are no children on our horticultural walking tour, Cultivating the Magic (scheduled to return in early May). Since Disneyland opened in 1955, the landscaping, with its 800 species of plants, has been integral to visitors’ experience. Our guide points out the 3,600 purple and white violas that form a likeness of Mickey’s head, as well as the Canary Island date palms and the bromeliads that create the tropical mood of the Jungle Cruise. A short distance away, sycamores and oaks bring to life the arid Old West.
When the tour ends, we have one more pressing item on our list before going home: lobster nachos. We race over to the alfresco Cove Bar in California Adventure and order a mountain of hot chips topped with melted cheese and rosy nuggets of lobster. All around us people are scarfing down nachos and sipping wonderfully tacky Glow-tinis, blue drinks the color of a heavily chlorinated swimming pool. There are no kids in the restaurant. Not one. You can hear them on the nearby rides, though, voices joyful and high-pitched, happily doing their Disney thing while we do ours.
Photography courtesy of Disney (statue, Trader Sam’s, banana split); Joel Zatz/Alamy (Pluto); Michael Defreitas North America/Alamy (Mad Tea Party)
This article was first published in Summer 2015 and updated in April 2016. Some facts my have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
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