Tips from a Summer 2017 Disneyland trip

It wasn’t until I was in my late 20’s and had been working as a web designer for a few years that I started to appreciate the design of…

Tips from a Summer 2017 Disneyland trip

It wasn’t until I was in my late 20’s and had been working as a web designer for a few years that I started to appreciate the design of experiences at Disneyland. Though Disney’s engineers pioneered a lot of ride designs, if you blur your eyes, the basis for most of their dark rides are similar to what you’d get in a regional amusement park decades ago. These days, there are certainly parks with bigger, faster thrill rides as well. The thing that sets Disney parks apart is their relentless pursuit of going the extra mile, doing the things they do better than any other place on earth.

Here are some quick examples:

The first photo from the “exit through the gift shop” area for the new Guardians of the Galaxy ride. They not only brought together the obvious bunch of t-shirts and trinkets from the movie, they also had a wall of 1970s toys you could buy. There was Simon, Spirograph, Lite-Brite, and Mattel handheld games. They not only sourced stuff reminiscent of the movie’s own nostalgia, but they appear in boxes that looked period correct graphically. I don’t know if the California Adventure staff sourced them as-is or commissioned custom boxes, but they were pitch-perfect.

The second photo is what the accessible ride vehicle looks like in the Little Mermaid ride. It’s got a flat floor and wide entry to accommodate a variety of different wheelchairs, but instead of appearing as a simple utilitarian vehicle, they made it look even better and more embellished than the regular shell-shaped ride “doom buggies”.

The last photo is a sign I caught near the Big Thunder Railroad in Frontierland. All around the park you’ll see subtle doors and paths marked for employee access and they always say “Authorized Cast Members Only.” But in Frontierland, they made a subtle pun that fit the area.

This is a company that created hundreds of custom trashcans, each decorated for a specific area. Now that’s attention to detail.

The new Guardians of the Galaxy ride

I loved the actual ride mechanics of the old Tower of Terror ride in Disney’s California Adventure park, but I never liked the story. First, it was based on a TV show that debuted nearly 60 years ago. The story was muddled as well. You were in a grand old hotel that fell into disrepair. You entered an elevator that got struck by lightning and the previous guests all became ghosts, which causes the elevator to do crazy things? It didn’t really have an ending either, the elevator just stopped moving eventually.

The Guardians redo has a much more straightforward story. You’re visiting The Collector, and helping Rocket and the team escape, similar to the first film’s prison breakout sequence. You jump on a ride vehicle, Rocket does his thing and the ride is you flying around catching glimpses of the team’s escape in progress, and it’s over when everyone goes free.

The ride is still exhilarating and it’s good they tied it to an obvious story. If anything, the ride’s story might be too simple, since it follows a really straightforward plot with little surprise and a cheap audience participation gag where you have to raise your hand to be “scanned” several times.

I rode it half a dozen times over three days and never saw the same cut scenes twice. The ride itself also had great variability with some trips having longer or more drops than others. I assume there are hundreds of possible combinations which keeps the ride refreshing.

Holy fucking shit, the MaxPass is a game-changer

A friend recently visited Disneyland and told me about an addition to Disneyland’s mobile app feature called the MaxPass, and he urged me to spend the extra $10/person/day to buy it. I followed his advice and I’m here to say it was the best $10 I ever spent in the parks.

There were two parts to it. First, they revamped the FastPass system, letting you pick from any ride in Disneyland or California Adventure and get FastPasses for them right inside the app. The best part was, every half hour to an hour, you could select another, which frankly felt like cheating. If you used one of your FastPasses you could immediately get another for your whole group.

In the past, I’d normally only go through the effort to get a FastPass maybe two or three times a day, since it required you to visit a ride entrance and hold an exclusive ticket until your time (without being able to get one for another ride). With MaxPass, I could hold multiple passes and get more without having to go anywhere or keep track of paper tickets. Each day in the parks we used a FastPass at least ten times. We visited during a heat wave, and this added feature meant we spent a minimal time out in the sun standing in line, and more time inside rides.

The second half of the MaxPass was opening up the park’s photo system. You could give a QR code to photographers around the park and get your photos on your phone, but I never used it since I take all my own photos. The photos from rides could be downloaded for free in full resolution, instead of having to take a mobile photo of a photo being shown on a screen, or pay some ransom to get the actual file from Disney through their website later on.

The (very slight) downsides to MaxPass

The setup of a MaxPass is tedious. You have to pay ten bucks on top of your ~$100 daily ticket, but it also takes 9 steps to enter all the serial numbers of your park tickets in your party, and you have to physically be inside the park to buy one. Then, you have to go through a multi-step process to pick a park, then a ride, then a time. It’s about 15 minutes of work the first time you set it up and a few minutes each morning to buy another pass each day, but very few people are using it so you will get the advantage of being able to grab Fastpasses in nearly real-time (there were times we got a fastpass for a ride that had a ~15min line because we could get a pass redeemable for right that moment).

Getting post-ride photos on your phone was also a bit tedious. You had to enter a code from your ride photo manually. On your mobile device, this meant I had to take a photo of the ride shot, then swap between the two apps to transcribe the long code. After that process, you still had to wait about 20 minutes to get the photos. It feels like the ride photo process could be greatly automated with QR codes or something. Several times I entered a code and never got the photo, and once on the Guardians ride, the flash didn’t fire on the ride, so we got a blacked-out shot.

Grand Californian renovations

We had to endure some construction noise and dust at the Grand Californian where we stayed, but we got a brand new room that was well appointed. It had spacious new bathrooms with great showers. But the best feature was this hotel might possibly have the highest USB ports-to-square-footage ratio ever. Our room had something like ten or twelve USB ports all around the walls, which came in quite handy each night recharging devices.

The new Soarin’

Soarin’ Over California, one of the great rides at California Adventure (cue the orange blossom smell) was recently revamped to become Soarin’ Over the World. It was basically a new ride film but with the same ride mechanics as the previous one. In this new age of $900 drones that can shoot 4K video, the old ride movie was getting tired, but it was quaint and fun and showed everything the state had to offer. The new one takes you on a trip around the world, and though the camera work is more impressive, it’s a bit disjointed going from Antarctic glaciers to Saharan Deserts to Paris to Mount Everest. The ride is still fun, they still use scents of things you fly over, but overall the story feels weird making huge leaps from scene to scene.

Shows, etc

On this trip, I tried out the big World of Color and Fantasmic dinner/show ticket reservations out. Each night we got a fairly nice (but higher priced) prix fixe meal with tickets to get choice reserved seats for the shows. Both times, we had great central spots down low and the World of Color was spectacular. I haven’t seen Fantasmic in about ten years and it too was enjoyable.

The final tip I’d share is go ahead and pay for a TouringPlans membership if you’re flying to the parks for a trip. They give accurate future predictions of crowd levels, and we used those to plan the trip months in advance. The crowds closely matched the predictions the entire time we were there. Totally worth the $15 a year.

Overall it was a fun trip with the family and I’ll likely return in a couple years when the Star Wars Land gets completed. You can already see the two entrances for it, but it’ll be interesting to see how they manage the transition between two fictional worlds multiple centuries apart.