Disneyland's Hidden Treasures
As die-hard Disney-goers, my family and I are masters of the speed tour, powering through with a plan in hand so we can conquer all our favorite rides at least once. But over the years we've also learned it's just as important to slow down and savor some of the off-the-beaten path thrills—especially in Disneyland, Walt's original park. We've discovered that some of the most magical attractions don't even involve a line or a Fast Pass. Here are our favorite hidden treasures in "The Happiest Place on Earth," many tied directly to the man behind the dream:
After entering Disneyland, look up at the window in the firehouse. This was Walt Disney's private residence, used when entertaining celebrities, dignitaries and grandchildren. Though it's closed to the public, notice the lamp in the window. It stays lit 365 days a year to symbolize that Walt's spirit lives on in the park.
The Lilly Belle train
Walt Disney loved trains so much he built a miniature railroad in his yard and named the locomotive Lilly Belle for wife, Lillian. Later, he incorporated a railroad into his plans for Disneyland, including a beautifully furnished car for VIPs. Originally called the Grand Canyon observation car, it was subsequently renamed Lilly Belle, and still runs on random days throughout the year. If you see the Lilly Belle on the train, ask the Main Street Station conductor if you can ride in it. Lucky passengers are escorted by a conductor who boards with you and shares insider secrets (revealing hidden Mickeys, where Walt sat, and the meaning behind some of the antiques). According to Disneyland blog comments, some visitors have even proposed on the Lilly Belle, by first making arrangements through Disney Guest Services.
Snow White's Grotto
Just to the right of the drawbridge to Sleeping Beauty's Castle, this serene garden has a waterfall and sculptures of the seven dwarves and their beloved princess. But the highlight is the wishing well. Throw in a coin and listen for Snow White singing "I'm Wishing," recorded by the very same actress who voiced the character in the movie.
Discover the Magic Tour
More like a scavenger hunt than a formal tour, your guide gives you a treasure map and the challenge to follow clues throughout the park. Along the way you'll meet characters, get on select rides without waiting, and encounter fun and silly surprises. The high-energy 3-hour excursion is best for families with elementary school kids, and has a two-guest minimum. Cost: $59 for first two guests; $49, each additional guest. Reserve up to one month in advance by calling 714-781-TOUR.
Disney Art of Animation Building
Located on Hollywood Boulevard in the Disney California Adventure Park, it's home to Turtle Talk with Crush—a super-fun, interactive encounter with the surfer dude from Finding Nemo. But don't miss the other imaginative hands-on experiences you can have in here. In Animation Academy, a Disney artist teaches you how to draw a classic character, and you get to take home your masterpiece. (Check out the mesmerizing Toy Story Zoetrope, too.) At the Sorcerer's Workshop you can try your hand at animation, take a quiz to find out which Disney character you're most like, and voice famous film scenes.
VIP Seating at Fantasmic and World of Color
These wildly popular nighttime shows fill up fast, but special dining plans guarantee you seats in a reserved area. With the Fantasmic Premium Viewing with Dessert package, enjoy a sweets sampler and non-alcoholic beverages while viewing the show from an elevated section near Café Orleans and the French Market; $60, adults; $50, ages 3-10; reserve up to 30 days in advance by calling 714-781-8687. Secure a spot for World of Color in Disney's California Adventure Park by pre-ordering picnic meals online up to 30 days in advance; pick them up from Sonoma Terrace an hour before show time and eat in the private viewing area; $15.99 each; order at World of Color Picnics at Sonoma Terrace. Three-course World of Color Dining Packages are also available at these sit-down restaurants: Ariel's Grotto (dinner, $39.99, adults; $20.99, ages 3-9); Wine Country Trattoria (lunch, $29.99, adults; $18.99, ages 3-9; dinner, $39.99, adults; $20.99, ages 3-9). To reserve, call 714-781-DINE, up to 30 days in advance.
For a peek inside another of Disneyland's secret treasures, check out my recent post on Club 33, the park's most exclusive and expensive restaurant, at City Traveler.