Travel

Robin Esrock swore he would never take his kids to Disneyland — and then he did

How to make the most out of your visit to Disneyland, plus all the tips and tricks needed to ensure you and your family have a positive experience

  • Jul 20, 2023
  • 1,749 words
  • 7 minutes
The "Magic Happens" Parade. (Photo: Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort)
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Growing up in Africa, Disneyland was both a continent and culture away, and kids don’t crave or miss something they’ve never had. But as I grew older and travelled, I came to regard Disney’s immersive theme park concept as the antithesis of authentic travel. It presented a sanitized and industrial-scale corn-dog replica of the world (and beyond), involving cultural encounters with characters you could only meet in a cartoon anyway. The rides are fun, but why go Soarin’ Around the World (a popular ride that inspired the Flyover Canada attraction in Vancouver ) when you can visit actual places to see the real thing? It’s a Small World may be an iconic ride in Disneyland, but exploring the real world has been my life’s mission. I’ve visited seven continents and taken my kids to places from Thailand and Tahiti to Bali and Brazil. If I didn’t need the Magic Kingdom growing up, why would they?

The Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse statue. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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For most parents, the idea of what we think will happen and the reality of how it turns out can span a canyon. Fact is: my kids watch the Disney Channel, they’ve heard about the theme parks, and they’re at the right age to appreciate the experience like I never could. Is it not the fate of all parents to want to give their children the opportunities they never had? This year is Disney’s 100th Anniversary, and the stars were aligning. At the hint of the possibility of a visit, my kids got excited, my resolve loosened, and I felt an intense curiosity to find out if I’d got it wrong all these years. Booking our trip over the Fourth of July weekend, I suddenly became more anxious about visiting a theme park than swimming with stingrays in Bora Bora. 

There’s no wrong or right way to travel, there’s just a style that suits your personality. I personally love an experience that unfolds itself in real-time, allowing me to tune into the spontaneity and relish the unexpected. Disneyland, I quickly learned, demands a far more coordinated approach. The Disneyland app is essential to planning your day, finding your way around, reserving your meals, and booking attractions in advance. Friends who have braved this trail before me insisted that I go for the Genie Plus – a $25 USD per person daily add-on that allows visitors to use fast lanes and avoid monster line-ups. They were right. Within the first couple of hours in the park, the Genie Plus felt like we had Nexus airport privileges, flying throughout the day, skipping huge queues while muttering, “that’s the best money I’ve ever spent!” Still, nothing quite prepared me for the scale, organization, efficiency and pixie dust of the Disneyland dream machine.

On the famous "It's a Small World" ride. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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The word fan comes from fanatic, and we had entered an entire galaxy of Disney fanatics. The vast majority of park visitors proudly wear their branded merchandise: T-shirts, pins, costumes, bags, bubble blowers, hats, mist sprayers, etc. It’s clearly a point of pride to show off your Disney kit. Each themed section of the park – covering the future, the Wild West, superheroes, pirates, Star Wars, New Orleans and more – offers a staggering variety of products that range from custom-built jedis to retro hoodies for the urban hipster. All along the bustling boulevards, fans mobbed roaming characters for photos and autographs.  

“Why are people lining up to meet a stranger dressed in a costume?” asks my seven-year-old, rather astutely. A day later, he insists on joining a queue to meet Loki, convinced he’s meeting the real God of Mischief. I play along and take the obligatory photos. All I see are costumed performers, and I wonder how they’re staying hydrated in the burning summer heat. 

The thrilling Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland Park features an action packed expedition filled with ancient secrets, hidden gems and suspense around every corner. (Photo: Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland Resort)
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“It’s important for you to realize,” advises my wife, “that this is not for you, it’s for them.” She’s reacting to the look of exasperation on my face when my daughter takes her place in line to meet Chip and Dale (surely sweating buckets in their furry garb). It’s a look I see on many parents in the park, no doubt buoyed by the same justification. It’s not about the adults.   Disneyland is all about putting smiles on our over-sugared youth, kids who have yet to slip on the banana skins of modern cynicism. Kids still believe in the power of Fairy Godmothers, that lamps can grant wishes, that superpowers are real, and dreams do come true. This, after all, is the cornerstone of the Disney brand. Of course, kids don’t think about the extravagant cost of getting here: the flights, the park fees, the hotel, the 25-dollar grilled cheese sandwich and the futility of lining up for an hour to have a six-minute ride. Kids naturally live in the moment and can just go with the flow. In Disneyland, that flow washes them from one mind-blowing attraction to the next, immersing them in Star Wars, Mickey Mouse, Pixar, and Marvel legends.  Move over Avengers: parents who bring their kids to Disneyland are the real heroes here.

The “World of Color – ONE” presentation.(Photo: Christian Thompson/Disneyland Resort)
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We budgeted three days, which is plenty of time to explore Disneyland and the more thrilling rides inside the adjacent Disney California Adventure Park. Here, the Incredicoaster had my daughter and I screaming our hearts out in harmony. Her favourite ride was Guardians of the Galaxies: Mission Breakout, a plummeting elevator experience which took any screams we had left. Such thrills terrified my son, but he found his happy place with Toy Story Midway Mania, Autopia and Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. My favourite ride was the Indiana Jones Adventure, a wild and exhilarating creative vision. When it comes to attractions, there is definitely something for everyone. 

Much as Las Vegas hosts A-list music acts, Cirque de Soleil, Michelin-starred chefs and major sporting events, I got the impression that each incredible ride serves as irresistible honey to draw hungry Pooh bears into the theme park. Once inside, we’ll eat in the restaurants, buy concessions, and, most of all, shop in the gift shops. The commerce here is truly staggering: Disney theme parks employ over 70,000 people, attract over 150 million people each year, and generated $28 billion USD in revenue in 2022 alone. The ‘Happiest Place on Earth™’ is a big business, and Disney knows how to maximize their intellectual property to generate maximum profits.  

Waving at Anna and Elsa, the stars of "Frozen", in a parade. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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We tick off more than a dozen iconic rides on our first busy day inside Disneyland and another eight the following day in the Adventure Park. There are limitations on the Genie Plus privileges, which don’t apply to some rides, only apply once per ride per day, and have time windows. By our third day, we got an efficient system together and could double back and redo our favourite rides (Indiana Jones was somehow more enjoyable the second time around). Having more time allowed us to ride both the pirate ship and Mark Twain steamboat and enjoy some of the second-tier rides that have delighted visitors since 1955. Walt Disney personally oversaw Pirates of the Caribbean, which cost a staggering $15 million dollars at the time and continues to transport us into a dark, watery tale. Extra fireworks lit up the sky for the extra Fourth of July crowds, and as the fireballs exploded over the castle, here was an unabashed celebration of the boldness and bravura – the excess and anything-can-happen ethos – of the United States. Only Canadians apologized when they bumped into us as we flowed with the surging river of visitors.  This is our way.  

By the end, my exhausted kids were satiated with joy, and I had lost track of the times my daughter had called me the best dad ever. My wife, who shared some, if not all, of my personal reservations about visiting Disneyland, was saddened to return to her very real world of meetings, office politics and KPIs. I remained somewhat bewildered by it all, but this was never about me, and neither is this column. If Disneyland is on your bucket list, you will not be disappointed. On our way to the airport, my daughter gives me another squeeze of gratitude and says, “Dad, can you also swear to never take us to Disney World?”

Meeting Loki. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Meeting Chip and Dale. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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