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My husband’s company sends our whole family to a trade convention once a year. It’s always in the United States, usually in a resort town on one of the coasts. This year it was in Anaheim, California.

So I asked my Californian girlfriend what people with small children do in Anaheim, like an idiot.

“Uh, Disneyland?!”

“But what else do they do there?” I asked.

“Nothing. Disneyland is in Anaheim. That’s it.”

Last year, when this same conference took us to Orlando I asked around about Disney World, not because I wanted to go there but because I wanted confirmation of my suspicion that I shouldn’t. At two-and-a-half, our son was too young, anyway. This year I found myself out of excuses. Having already spent the previous holiday alone with a toddler in a large hotel, I knew the joys of elevator rides and trips to the pool could only go so far.

So I sucked it up and called my Disney fanatic friend, Sharon.

Sharon hadn’t been to Disneyland but she has been to Disney World more times as an adult than I had ever heard of anyone going in their whole life. She is not shy about the fact that Disney World is her happy place. She spent an hour patiently giving me the inside scoop on ‘The Happiest Place On Earth’ and I am going to share that wisdom with you, as long as you give me the benefit of the doubt when I tell you Disneyland changed my mind about itself.

I went from a Disney cynic to someone who will tell you with not an ounce of shame that the two days I spent at Disneyland were two of the happiest days I’ve ever had. We’ve been home for over a month but I still think about Disneyland at least once a day, and it even pops up in my dreams.

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Do Your Prep

Sharon’s advice was to buy the latest Unofficial Guide to Disneyland. You can get it free as an ebook from the library, which means you can download it to your laptop and take it with you. I bought the latest edition for about $14 so I could have it on my phone; the app turns your phone into a Disney-taming computer. Another upside is that you can become a member of the touringplans.com site at a great discount. Having access to their information is crucial to discovering that even those of us who loathe crowds and lineups can still have the time of our lives at Disney. Those who made the site are such die-hard fans of the experience that they have calculated when is the best time of day for each ride, what days will be the most congested and, most importantly, how long the line-ups are. You can also have an itinerary designed for your visit so that each minute inside the gates is optimized for maximum fun.

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Now, let me now jump in with a brief PSA why you should bear with me. I do not make plans. I believe wholeheartedly in spontaneity, and I can’t stand doing the things I don’t feel like doing. The intense pre-travel planning before Disney turned an experience that could have been my worst nightmare into one of my favourite memories of time spent with my son.

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If You’re Going To A Magic Kingdom, You’ll Need a Map

I convinced a friend — another parent who goes to the same conference each year — to put her faith in my process. Together with her daughters we hit the road for Disneyland one hour before the gates opened on a Sunday.

An aside: Do not drive to Disney. Stay in a hotel nearby. There is most certainly a shuttle bus headed from any direction imaginable within the city of Anaheim and it will cost you next to nothing. A day pass is less than $10 and children ‘under three’ are free.

We dressed like we were going hiking, which was the right move. It is a physical undertaking, to say the least. It’s called a park for a reason: there are trails and trees and rivers and you will walk and walk and walk. And walk. I had briefly considered leaving my stroller at the hotel — which would have been a nightmare. Take your stroller, your umbrella, your water and your ugly but still springy running shoes. You are going on an adventure and you will need all of your powers.

We arrived at the entrance to the park and got into one of the long lines in front of the gates. At 20 minutes before opening time — which changes from day to day, by the way — we were whisked into the town square, just outside the Magic Kingdom. Goofy and Minnie and Mickey Mouse were all waiting to interact with the children. This is not my scene. I do not care about the characters and my son Henry found them scary.

disney-strollerBut the faux ‘Small Town America’ is where fun and adventure start: Everyone lines up on the main drag waiting for the gates to open. A joyous roar erupts and soon you are inside! Our plan told us to head immediately to a Royal Hall; we did. We met so many princesses — not my bag — but we didn’t wait in line, so it wasn’t a hassle.

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After shaking hands politely with Ariel, Cinderella and Aurora we headed to ‘New Orleans’ to see Mr. Winnie the Pooh.

Walter Elias Disney built Disneyland himself, when he was relatively young and oh, so optimistic. It opened in 1955, and this first Disney theme park is the only one where he actually assisted with the gardening and installation. He was obsessed with innovation; the park’s best rides are the oldest ones.

Animatronics are everywhere, and kitsch reigns supreme! The Tiki Bar, the Jungle Ride, and the Raft to the Pirate’s Lair all took my breath away and my son’s face was lit from within. I’m not going to tell you anything more, except to say that every little thing is part of a ride. There is not a single place inside where the script is broken, where the act is dropped, or where the curtain lifts to reveal what’s behind the facade.

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We rode a riverboat, a steam train, a monorail, a raft to a pirate’s island, a ferris wheel, a honeycomb and a boat into the belly of a whale. We saw the history of America from the dinosaurs to Abraham Lincoln. Parades come and go as you linger; everyone from Mary Poppins to the sisters of Frozen. No two paths lead to the same place. Having spent a few seasons at Burning Man I was delighted to notice that the layout was essentially the same.

Between two moms and three kids we negotiated schedule changes, bathroom trips and snack times. We packed our own food, water and all. DO that.

I spent a total of $3 inside Disneyland, and even that didn’t NEED to happen. I just felt like having an ice cream made of pineapple at the Tiki House. Honestly, the exorbitant ticket price is reasonable when you consider that you can bring your own food and drink (they will check your bag, but not for food). And besides, kids under three get in free.

Do Not Spend All Day In the Park

We spent two days, with big breaks in the afternoon. During breaks, we left the park altogether and went back to our hotel, to have a nap (and a beer). And then back we went full of steam and verve while we watched the families who had stayed in the park all day just crash and burn.

We had the time of our lives. Two days, maybe three. Not a day more. It’s like Vegas or heaven; it just gets to be too much after a while. If you get the chance, go! Don’t think that just because you eat kale chips and are punk that you won’t love it there.

Carla Mundwiler is a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. Here are her thoughts about Mother’s Day.

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