To Disney and beyond

Car themed park at Disneyland

Even after all these years, Disneyland still holds court as a ‘kids’ dream holiday’, and if you’re heading to California, then prepare yourself for theme park heaven, because you’re definitely in for a thrill. It brings out the child in everyone, so we were very please to have three kids to bring along as decoys!

Anaheim and Orange County


I am still a big sucker for Disneyland, I love it. We headed straight for the popular rides like Indiana Jones, Star Tours, Splash Mountain and Space Mountain, which have smaller queues first thing. Make sure you head to Mickey’s house for a photo, and of course Fantasyland is a must with younger children.

TIP: Remember your ticket allows you back at night and you can see the Parade every evening at 7pm, and the fireworks at 9.30pm on Friday to Sunday nights.

Disney California Adventure

You’re in for a few real treats here, best of all, Cars Land from the movie ‘Cars’. Head to Radiator Springs first and either get in while the queues are short or get your fast pass. We also loved Paradise Pier for the rollercoasters and traditional circus feel, and if you don’t mind getting splashed, then the Grizzly River Run in Grizzly Peak is a squealingly good family ride. The Tower of Terror in Hollywood Land left me traumatised, and the boys in a state of delight. Plummeting elevators are not for the faint-hearted!

TIP: On Soaring Over California, make sure you get in the front row (even worth standing back to wait until that row is available). Also, the World of Colour show on at 9pm is quite beautiful – grab your tickets (free) by the Grizzly River Run early in the day.

Knott’s Berry Farm

Rollercoaster lovers, this is your place. Kids who love a bit more of a thrill and don’t mind  going from 0 to 85mph in 2.3 seconds  straight up 205 feet, a little tip over the edge and then straight down (and I mean no gradient) will love this place. Roller coaster after roller coaster, this is the place where theme park mania all started. For families with mixed ages, they do have Camp Snoopy for your littlies.

TIP: If you want to sample a bit of history here, pop out of the park and sample the Mrs Knott’s Famous Fried Chicken. Still in the same spot, and still serving her same recipe for fried chicken, biscuits and gravy with berry punch. They’re open all day, so it’s even an early dinner option.

Universal Studios

What a great day – this place makes you wanna be in the movies. A mix of rides, a studio tour and shows, you need to plan well to get around in one day because you don’t want to miss anything. I really recommend the ‘Star Passes’ if your budget allows, as you get ‘front of the queue’ benefits.

TIP:  Shave a couple of hours off your queuing time by following this Insider’s Route around Universal: Get your photo taken on the red carpet at the beginning and grab your map and Show Times pamphlet. Start with the Simpsons ride, then head down the elevator and do the three big rides at the bottom of the park (Transformers, Jurassic and The Mummy). Head back up and do the Studio Tour, then finish with the shows in the afternoon. Our picks: start with WaterWorld so you don’t miss it, then do Animal Actors, Shrek and The House of Horrors, then lastly Special Effects and the Blues Brothers music show.

San Diego

San Diego Zoo

This zoo has a truly amazing variety of animals for your children to see, including unknowns like the Okapi (featured in the movie ‘After Earth’). Polar Bears and Panda Bears were our favourite because they were something new, and in the case of the Panda Bear cub, a delightful time-waster. Other highlights were the aerial tram ride across the zoo and the Ice Age 4D movie (including water spray and leg ticklers).

TIP: When you arrive, jump on the Guided Bus Tour, and get your bearings while you highlight where you want to go on the zoo map.


All the shows are very slick: Shamu is still the big drawcard and has plenty of splashing; the Dolphin show is beautiful and full of dazzling colour and trapeze artists; while the Sea Lion show has plenty of humour and storylines. The rides are worth allowing time for too – the Shipwreck Rapids provides another major dousing for water lovers. Tourists covered in plastic bags were a humorous sight to see.

TIP: For chill-out time, head to the stingray and dolphin pools and let the kids get up close and touch these lovely creatures


This place was made for us … with two boys under 11 who love Lego. The rides are very cute, most are fairly tame although there are a couple of scary ones. But really, we were there for the Lego, and the displays are amazing. Statues, famous buildings, mini-cities and movie characters built out of millions of bricks, and plenty of opportunity for the kids to interact with Lego (Lego is about 30% cheaper to buy here). Take your togs because the water park is a lot of fun and the Bucaneer boat race at the Pirate Reef will surprise you every time (imagine bucket loads of water flying).

… while you’re in Orange County

Science Discovery Center

This was a real surprise package – for a couple of hours (or more) the kids can touch, poke, feel, experiment and wonder. All sorts of clever scientific displays are set up for enquiring minds. The dinosaur area outside is really clever, with a giant diplodocus in the centre, and all around there are cretaceous artefacts and fossils set up with electronic devices for the Paleontologist’s challenge. Take an electronic wand and go hunting!

Medieval times

This starts out with a bit of a corny feel, but is really quite fantastic. In a large indoor amphitheatre, teams cheer for their knights, food is abundant from pewter plates and mugs, maidens catch flowers and then the sword fighting and jousting begin. Feels like you’ve been transported back in time and of course the kids loved that eating with your hands was compulsory. Take care with the Torture museum though, as it’s really not for younger viewers!

dealing with queues

  • Get savvy with Fast Passes at Disneyland and California Adventure. These are free and will fast track you nearer the front of the queue.
  • Start early and enjoy the parks while others are sleeping in (often quieter before 11am).
  • Prepare your kids for queues, because it is an inevitable part of theme parks. Make a queue plan that could include time to plan, refuel, and play games on your smart phone (download Facebomb and make funny photos).
  • Plan to be at the parks at off-peak times. Avoid Easter, American school holidays and Thanksgiving.
  • If your budget allows, check out what ‘priority passes’ you can purchase at the various Parks.
  • Check out Ride Max if you’re keen to download a queue wise itinerary.

planning know-how

  • Book Gray Line coaches to get from Anaheim to Universal Studios, or to book special tours.
  • Buy tickets for the theme parks online before you go, you’ll secure better deals and multi park passes.
  • To plan your holiday, check out the Anaheim tourism website, and search ‘coupons’ for discounts on transport, food and fun or for cost-free days, check out ‘free and almost free’ ideas.

getting there

We flew Hawaiian Airlines into San Diego and out of Los Angeles. We found Hawaiian Airlines have great prices, great baggage allowance, are very family-friendly and the flight times work well. They have great Hawaiian Island stop-over options and they fly from Honolulu direct into 11 US Mainland cities.


We found the food to be really good and lot cheaper than in New Zealand, particularly as the exchange rate is in our favour. If you like healthy and organic meals, then there are some fantastic organic supermarkets (check out Wholefoods in the Town of Tustin) and the salads on offer in restaurants are amazing. The meals are supersized so it’s not a bad idea to share two or three meals between the family. The wastage just feels wrong otherwise.

TIP: The parks all open around 10am, so you have time to take the kids out for a huge breakfast later than usual in the morning. This should quell any whinging for mid-morning snacks, and means you can have a later lunch.

kids’ favourites

Downtown Disney had two restaurants our kids want to recommend:

Rainforest Cafe

Good, family-friendly food served in a rainforest setting. Tables are snuggled under a heavy canopy of rainforest vines and tropical fish tanks, with jungle animals lurking all around. This is very touristy, but a memorable experience.

Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen

A great live music and food combo. Delicious Creole fare, with a few classic southern dishes like grits (think delicious cheesy polenta) and BBQ shrimp. Best of all is the live Jazz music. I recommend you head here on a Thursday for the duelling pianos, which is a very lively and exciting way to introduce your children to live music.

HOW MUCH TO TIP? A good rule of thumb is to double the tax.

where to stay

Holiday Inn, San Diego Bayside (close to SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo)

Central and very handy to both parks, with an easy family vibe and a nice posi overlooking the Marina. Kids stay and eat free, and will enjoy the pool, whirlpool, a 9-hole putting course and beach cruisers.

Carlsbad Inn, Beach Resort (close to Legoland)

Supercute and friendly, with a Nantucket feel, this boutique hotel is well set up for a beach holiday. Carlsbad is a cool little town and we could have happily stayed at this hotel on the beach for longer.  Head to Swamis in town for an uber-healthy breakfast.

The Howard Johnson Hotel (in Anaheim)

The rooms are very spacious with a great layout for families, making life easy with loud and boisterous children in tow. We spent four days here, and really enjoyed being able to spread out and relax. Make sure to check out their pirate themed rooms and amazing waterplay area. Walking distance to Disneyland, bus stops and plenty of restaurants.

The Anabella (in Anaheim)

Spacious rooms and with separate bedrooms for the kids – luxury! We’re a family of five, so a three bedroom hotel room is a bit of a novelty. The kids had their own TV space as well, and plenty of room around the hotel, a pool and gardens to wander and burn off energy. Keep watch because we were delighted to see a few hummingbirds. Also within walking distance to Disneyland, bus stops and restaurants.

I recommend you come back to Cars Land at night, because the neon lights on the street and on the rides are spectacular … exactly like the movie.

More family travel from Tots to Teens:

A Glorious Gold Coast Holiday

A Bay Of Islands Adventure

Sydney For Families

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